Religion

An Empire in Decline

In their book, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco take us to the streets of America where they explore the gruesome realities of an empire in decline. Poverty and its concomitant perverse friends—criminality, drugs, violence, and death—run rampant in places like Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Camden, New Jersey. These are some of the nation’s “sacrifice zones” where human life and the environment have been offered up as fodder for the corporate marketplace.

Like a genuine belief in divinity, precious democratic values are becoming hallmarks of a bygone golden age. Corporate forces rule without precedent, wielding a disproportionate amount of power, wealth, and influence over how society is run and culture is shaped. The objective of the corporate state is self-serving: make as much profit as you can as fast as you can. Everything and everyone is commodified for the maximization of profit. The result is lives of meaninglessness, despair, and destruction. This will continue, Hedges argues, until systemic collapse. Our only option as a people is to mobilize and exercise our sacred right of dissent.

But is civil disobedience the only solution to corporate corruption or can we work within the system?

The trite argument I hear from American Muslims is: if you’re not at the dinner table, then you’re on the menu. In other words, if you’re not actively participating in shaping public policy, then you risk falling prey to the dominant political agenda. But what if the dinner guests—with their fancy tailored suits and politically correct pleasantries—make for fruitless conversation? What if due to my dietary restrictions I can’t consume what’s on the menu? What if I’d rather eat with my hands than use eating utensils? What if—you guessed it—the entire dinner party is a farce?

If the dinner party is ultimately futile, then we must assume that the system we had hoped to work within is dead. In fact, the system perished a long time ago when our political leaders succumbed to the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex and the security and surveillance state. Signs of rigor mortis continue to emerge as with the recent ruling in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This Supreme Court decision effectively allows for corporate powers to make vast campaign contributions to federal candidates and political parties. Now a wealthy few (.000042 percent to be exact) dictate policy to the detriment of the American citizenry.

American Muslims would do well to question the powers that be. This starts with questioning more than just the corporate state, itself a symptom of a greater pathology: the onslaught of secular-modernity. Liberal secular forces that have relegated moral religious values to “a recognisable ghetto for traditional religion” prop up the oligarchic structures we see today. American Muslims seeking to cultivate an indigenous Islam in America need to seriously question the health of this country because, whether we like it or not, our future is inextricably wrapped up in the future of the West. Thus, the larger and most apt question we need to be asking ourselves is the Qur’anic one:

فأين تذهبون؟

Where then are you going?

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Is Yasmin Mogahed a Sexist?

In a recent article, a blogger by the pseudonym “Muslim Feminist” takes Yasmin Mogahed to task by exposing the subtle “sexism” in her online personality. “Muslim Feminist” claims that Mogahed deliberately reposted a “sexist” joke and wrote an article with a hidden “sexist” agenda — all of which provides ample ammunition to pierce the religious leader’s moral credibility.

“Muslim Feminist” is not off the mark in suggesting that a Muslim woman can promote gender inequality. Any person, regardless of sexual and religious orientation, can be a sexist. I would hesitate, however, to accuse Yasmin Mogahed of willfully propagating underlying sexist messages and religious beliefs. Labelling her work as “sexist” fails to comprehend Mogahed’s complex sensibilities and attachments that make up her worldview.

Mogahed would be regarded by many in the Muslim community as a da`iya or religious teacher who is either self-taught or has received some formal training. She instructs both women and men on proper Islamic conduct and urges them to greater piety. Her “self-help” book and articles are laced throughout with exhortations to developing a primary relationship with God.

The internal critique by “Muslim Feminist” is necessary. Religious public figures are not exempt from criticism as they engage the public discourse. In fact, they may be subjected to an even higher standard of scrutiny given their claim to religious authority. Constructive and meaningful criticism however, does not overshadow a person’s good works. Popular academic critique tends to entirely obliterate a person by exposing errors in a way that permanently taints the bulk of his or her work. This genre of critique dangerously impels us to forget the truth and good in another’s labor. What I mean to say is: Mogahed may have posted an indiscreet joke but by no means should this color her integrity as a Muslim woman role model and mentor.

In Mogahed’s view, traditional gender roles do not indicate inequality. Women and men are celebrated for their uniqueness. She criticizes women who emulate men in superficial ways like physical appearance and behavior. Notice she never says that women shouldn’t participate in the public sphere and pursue careers in politics, education, finance, and healthcare, etc. I highly doubt whether Mogahed, who spends much of her time empowering and uplifting Muslim women, would advocate less rights for her own sex. Moreover, some Muslim men are uncomfortable with Mogahed’s emergence in the public spotlight. Their particular religious view maintains that women should remain within the confines and seclusion of their own home. Mogahed disregards these religious gender boundaries, contradicting her supposed sexist ideology.

My point however, is not to ascertain Mogahed’s level of feminism. Mogahed appears to derive her gender notions from a deep sense of religious belief wherein women are equal, but not similar to men. Her rhetoric might appear outwardly inimical to our own ideals and values but a closer look reveals a similar desire for liberation and empowerment. This demands we show reluctance in labeling her with incisive antifeminist terms, lest we run the risk of projecting our own ideas and misinterpreting her intentions and sensibilities. In other words, this warrants an act of humility on our part.

Saba Mahmood, while researching the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, arrived at a similar conclusion. She eloquently writes:

“Rather what I mean to gesture at is a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty about how the world should process can remain stable. This attitude requires the virtue of humility: a sense that one does not always know what one opposes…”

After immersing herself within the rich and multilayered lives of Egyptian women, Mahmood was able to dismantle her own subjectivities. She recognized a religious force incapable of being translated into limiting definitions. There is a strong reflex in feminist discourses to mock a worldview like Mogahed’s. We consider it backwards and outmoded. We project our own assumptions which prevent us from critically engaging a work on its own merit.

I believe as Muslims first and foremost, we should exercise a degree of caution in deconstructing another’s worldview. We should critique with the hefty realization that we are not always experts in what we purport to know. This requires that we objectively interrogate our own assumptions and then proceed with circumspect and nuanced arguments. Our goal is not to obliterate a person nor is it to tiptoe nicely around his or her obvious errors in judgment. Rather, it is to modestly impart a balanced critique, always mindful of the sacred trope, “And Allah knows best.”

A Beautiful Chaos

I wanted to keep a blog since the beginning of summer to record my travel experiences which I knew would be a nice way to look back on my year-long study abroad in post-revolutionary Egypt. But between Arabic classes, language partners, internship hours, and the new cultural whirlpool that is Egypt, I could never find the time. Then I came across Shaykh Hamza’s quote, “‎The biggest lie that anyone can ever tell is ‘I don’t have any time’. The real answer should be ‘I don’t use my time wisely enough to have time.’” This was true. Sometimes it was easy for my roommate and I to fall into a spiraling decadence of re-watching O.C. episodes until our eyes hurt. But we only did this in order to save ourselves from the external chaotic world. If I had to describe Egypt in one word, it would be chaos. A chaos that warrants confusion and annoyance, yes, but also an organized chaos where every citizen understands that traffic is merely an inevitable facet to their daily lives, and also a beautiful chaos where the man selling his fruit attached to a donkey wagon somehow fits in with the scenery of tall peeling buildings lined with cafes and pharmacies on every corner.

I didn’t have nearly such a hard time coming to terms with the quality of life here as I did understanding the qualitative fabric of “Egyptian Islam” and I call it “Egyptian Islam” because the religion seems to have amalgamated so much so with the current culture and customs, that it is hard to discern its true nature.

I assumed Egypt in part, would be a spiritual reawakening for me like Jordan was two and half years ago. But when men harassed me on the streets, cab drivers wrangled over more money, and nameless people gaped fixedly at my appearance, my spiritual journey seemed to hit a roadblock before it had even begun. Where was Islam among a country of majority Muslims? This reminded me of Muhammad Abduh’s predicament, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” I remember telling my roommate, on many a days where we would walk along the corniche, gazing out into the waves, “It’s so hard to find God here.”

At some point, I came to a realization that although God seemed less apparent to me in Egypt, where socio-economic problems were not only visible but in your face at all times, He was still present, but I’d have to work harder to develop an intimate connection with Him. Surely, with His infinite wisdom, He had a plan for me, and of all the places in the world I could be at the time, Egypt was where I belonged.

I remember one late afternoon, when I lived in the University of Alexandria Women’s dorms; I climbed the stairs to the eleventh floor and looked down at the world below me. I saw masses and masses of bustling people, coming back from work, buying food, smoking cigarettes, visiting friends, living their lives, unaware of my observing them. Then I saw him. A solitary old man praying the afternoon prayer on a green mat by the side of the road. He looked so focused and intent on his prayer, undisturbed by the multitude of people and cars around him making noise. In that moment, he had managed to forget the chaos and find God.

I realized something else then. Although culture and religion appeared synonymous in the Arab world, there was something almost simple and sincere about the way Muslims practiced their faith here. Egyptian Muslims publically displayed their faith with such strong conviction, it made me wonder if I could do the same without apprehension. One of the foremost Muslim theologians, Shaykh Nuh Keller, who converted to Islam here in 1977, experienced a similar incident in his personal account, Becoming Muslim. He saw a man on the side of the Nile, praying on a piece of cardboard and wondered how a man could be so absorbed in his connection to God. He said, “To my mind, there was something magnificently detached about this, altogether strange for someone coming from the West, where praying in public was virtually the only thing that remained obscene.”

Perhaps Egyptian Muslims were closer to their “fitrah” or natural state where pure belief in monotheism is inherent and perhaps I, as an American Muslim, had gone farther from my “fitrah,” clouded by the advanced technological world and thoughts of secularism. Regardless, I’ve developed a profound appreciation for Egyptian Muslims, and despite the per diem chaos that permeates the religion as well, I’ve learned how to tune it out, and find God.

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