Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Fundamentals of Islam

Following was the last substantive post on this topic on NPM. And well worth reading in full - to give a broad context to the debate.

The debate/conversations continue at various levels, privately and amongst many individuals who find themselves dissapointed, and sad with the turn that the "progressive muslim" movement has taken in North America.

For sure, it was never the idea of so many activists - and non-activists who had found a home in progressive Islam, to see a day when neo-cons, and supporters of a horrible war (with over a 100,000 Iraqis killed) would be offered advisory positions in an organization that we could have called our own.

Farid Esack wrote on NPM:

Salaams everyone

Some of you may recall that I entered this debate quite a well after it started. This is my third or forth posting on the PMUNA issue in a month (This is hardly a “barrage” but I can understand why some people feel like this.

In this period there have been some off-the-list attempts to talk to me about some kind of a “reconciliation”. My difficulty with this is that public decisions (or decisions of public import) have been made and these have to be justified in public. A personal touch to things is always nice. However this progressive Islamic movement is not something that belongs to important well-heeled and well connected people, academic, authors or editors of books. These folks may belong to it; it does not belong to them. And so notions of “if only we (the “big-wigs”) can sort it out among ourselves, reach some sort of an agreement then it will be fine” are really not the best way forward.

I am not sure of the “movement-memory of the PMUNA folks, but this has been a movement of many activist who actually do things in many different parts of the world. While my own work and that of others such as Engineer, Shariati, Wadud etc have inspired people for many years - and in the last year or so the book edited by Professor Safi – this movement does not have any Muftis. There is going to be no deals struck behind the back of “ordinary” activists who have given meaning to progressive Islam.

The questions have been raised in public, they are serious politicalquestions and they impact on who wants to do what to this ummah. Some folks may well be swayed by personal e-mails or by personal phone conversations and this is fine. The PMUNA folks are trying to build a real organization and so it is understandable that there is this flurry of side conversations and attempts at reconciliation or to get people on to ‘our side’.

Of course the public discussions on this list do affect personal relationships and the hope earlier on expressed by Omid Safi that we try to maintain a sense of decorum (Adab and akhlaq) as well as the more recent request by Jeanette to halt the “aggressive tones,” and avoid “too much sarcasm and accusations” are important. This is a requirement of our faith, as Omid Safi has pointed out. (This is a requirement that I have not always been able to fulfill. So, may I take this opportunity to apologize to the list for the intemperate tone of my first posting on this issue?)

This need to maintain a civil or personable tone however is very different from personalizing the debate. The fact that Dick Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian and that he loves her dearly says nothing about the homophobic party that he co-leads. I am quite frankly utterly disinterested in his relationship with his daughter. It is his public
policies that gall me. If he keeps insist on referring to the love for his daughter every time I want to discuss his party’s homophobia than it is quite understandable if I become suspicious of his interminable resort to love as weapon of escapism and digression.

So, many thanks for the personal letters, expressions of love and offers to resolve this at a personal level. In respect to who those who really constitute the progressive Islamic movement I prefer to keep the discussion in the public realm.

Some years ago - I wrote about it somewhere - when I was a rather lonely critical student at madressah in Pakistan, I became really excited in chatting to a new-comer from South Africa. He spoke at length about the
need for us as “the new generation” of `ulama to concentrate on the “fundamentals of our faith”, “stop nitpicking on all the peripherals (furu’iyyat)”, “the need to deal with things that really matter to our people” and so he went on and on. This all sounded to too good to be true and so I said; “Can you give me an example of what you are talking about?” he replied: for example the `ulama never tell people that when they take ghusl (a bath) that the water should go into their navels and that without this, their ghusl is incomplete…

In some ways, this PMUNA story is like this. The words that the PMUNA folks use are familiar to us and very dear to us, all the stuff of anti- imperialism, pluralism, gender justice (not so sure about the “Palestine- Israeli issue”, which sound like reducing apartheid to a “Black-white Issue” or gender violence to ‘domestic issues’) etc. When an example is gleaned of what is meant by all the words by the choice of advisors… what do we get?

Unlike the encounter with this newcomer from South Africa to the madrassah in Pakistan, we the critics of PMUNA have for long thought that we are reading from the same page as these PMUNA folks. In fact, about two three months ago a number of us handed over the domain to them. This awakening from the illusion and what we see as the hijacking of a term is what pains us.

Now we are asking for clarity about the examples that they have offered us of what they mean by progressive Islam and there are only repeated protestations of the need to “concentrate on the fundamentals of our faith”, “stop nitpicking on all the peripherals (furu’iyyat)”, “we need to deal with things that really matter to our people”, “let’s stop arguing and get on with the work”. There seem to have emerged a profound inability to understand each other and the only way that we can do is to see if we mean the same things by our use for words.

We were stumped by their use of word which was particularly vividly manifested in the story of the Hassans – but not confined to them. (This is an important point because we should not confuse George Bush with the
Empire.) And so, we raised our horror at their presence on the Advisory board of – not ordinary Republicans that must be pitied – but a couple that have given two million to the Bush Campaign and who founded Muslims for Bush and ho have their sordid record that they do have on health care (rather the denial thereof) that they have).

We asked pointed questions such as do you make a distinction between comrades and folks that you must reach out to.

What did we get in response? Curses on George Bush from Sarah al-Tantawi, prayers for the gods to deliver Ohio from the Republicans from Professor Safi and accusations of dishonesty and being misleading from Naseef Ahmed when I had failed to make a distinction between advisors and directors.

We had simple question, repeated over and over: Did you or did you not approach the Hassans of under-the-moonlight-with-Bush-fame to serve on the Board of Advisor of PMUNA? If you did, what motivated you to do so?
Instead we are getting questions about we make of Tariq Ramadan latest book.

We asked about Fareed Zakariyya (again no relation of mine!), and we raised questions about a number of others whose public imperialist credentials are impeccable that were invited on the advisory Board and instead we were told about how anti-imperialist Safi, Naseef and Tantawi are.

We asked questions about Nawaal al-Sadawi who has campaigned for the enforcement of the Hijab ban in French public schools and who slapped her domestic worker in public on TV and instead we got confessions of your
own commitment to gender equality. We cannot imagine anyone enforcing hijab being awarded a progressive Muslim badge and we will also deny that anyone who calls for an enforced a ban on hijab can be a progressive Muslim

We asked questions about people invited to serve on the board who deny the right of return to Palestinian exiles and refugees and we told about how your careers were risked to bring pro-Palestinian Israelis to your campusses.

We asked questions about how far broad-tentism and our questions were met with silence or protestations of more broad-tentism or how you preferred the term broad ummah.

When hell was raised about people who have publicly distanced themselves from Islam, who yearned to be the first “Muslim” Henry Kissinger, there were no responses. Instead we were told “I don't know if this is clear, but the purpose of the Board of Advisors is not to set policy, it is only to help in fund raising. It is not a decision making body. The Hasans do not set the policy for PMU. Decision making and setting policy would fall under the rubric of the Board of Directors.<<<>>> You are right--there ARE many important questions, but it's really not up to me to answer them. The answers will depend on the members who become active in the organization.<<

And El-Farouk wrote sounding seemingly very reasonable: “should any organazation have all the answers BEFORE it even takes baby steps. that is asking tooooooooooo much. it is not possible.”

No, my brothers, we are not asking you to answer everything about the future; we are asking you to explain something that you have done in the name of progressive Islam! In the past. And Ahmed Naseef, please do no impose the terrible burden of your choices and justifying them on to the people who are joining later or were not a part of your decision. This, my brother, is escapism and digression at best, dishonesty an deceit at worst.

Your initiative is supposed to have its origins on this and or the PMN list, from these lists you have drawn your support, then you guys went of and did what you did. Word of it leaked out slowly, very slowly and we are simply and sincerely asking questions about what you did in our name and more important, what do your choices say about your ideological agenda.

Gosh, this whole series of questions and your responses are so reminiscent of politicians on TV. Regardless of what is asked, they will say what they want to say in utter disregard to the questioner. That may
work on TV because the audience is not really the interviewer. My brothers and sisters, we hope that you are talking to us who are asking these question and not merely having your eyes on all the silent audience that you may want to attract to PUNA.

Well, in all fairness, we did get a few answers

A question was raised about whether Osama was entitled to get into the tent and a fatwa was issued that Osama was not a Muslim and he would not be welcome. So your tent shrunk. Then it came to Irshad Manji and your
tent shrunk further and you launched into an ad hominem attack on her sincerity. (You had, of course, first agreed to her coming to the conference and then when Tarek Fatah pointed out that she would steal the
show at your conference, you rapidly agreed to disinvite her because she was no not “sincere”, not “really progressive”. Here you have someone who has ‘self-identified’ – your term – as a Muslim and progressive but she
cannot come to your conference as a mere participant? On the other hand you have people who have publicly denied that they are Muslims or would cringe at being described as such being invited to serve on your Board of Advisors.

Safi wrote: “I have listened to Irshad very closely on multiple occasions, and read her book and website closely. When I listen to her address the shortcomings of Muslims, I never get the sense that it is motivated by a love and compassion for the people that she is addressing. Instead, it always come across as condescending and self-righteous.”

Talk to many a Toronto Muslim about this and they will happily substitute Manji’s name for someone on this list that is now emerging as one of PMUNA’s Canadian cheerleaders. Forget about talking to Toronto based Muslims, several of us on this list will not have failed to have noticed the bitterness and venom spat upon other Muslims by some of these reformers. Gosh if those of us who are merely dissenting from PMUNA are now being described as Shari’ah Bolsheviks, you can imagine what is the venom of choice reserved for run-of-the-mill Muslims?

So Torontonians who promise not to steal our show cannot come and those will cheer us can?

When it comes to folks that you have decided to foreground as Advisors to PMUNA and we ask questions about their public lives and public positions we are told “I am not willing to engage in talking about what is in people's hearts--this is up to God, and perhaps those who are closer to God than I.”

For Irshad Manji, who threatens to steal your show, there is a thorough autopsy of her heart and mind and a willingness to eat her dead flesh by Omid Safi and Sarah el-Tantawi?

Until now there has been a trivialization and very selective responses at our horror that you are talking about water getting into the navel whereas ….

Tarek Fatah who can spit venom at the slightest mention of the Jamati Islami can happily make a couple silly jokes about the imperial pay- masters, policy vanguard and military suppliers of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism in the Muslim world. Muslims cannot be given the “benefit of the doubt” but the war-mongers of the empire can? The puppets of the empire – Zia, Musharraf, the Saudis, etc get nothing but curses and venom from us but there sustainers are embraced as comrades and Muslims encouraged to co-operate with their systems of enforcement?

Ahmed Naseef was a bit more helpful in at least one respect in a recent mail wherein he outlined a list of things that PMUNA envisages doing. Cool. That gave us an idea of where you were heading for. There is a space for liberalism in contemporary Islamic discourse and your emphasis on diversity and pluralism rather than justice and liberation shows your ideological lines clearly. Liberalism values space for the sake of space (seemingly as a value in and of itself, but really to creat more choices to serve the market in different ways). That is why you can provide space for murderers on the Muslimwakeup site on your Ramadan Blogs in the name of “space and diversity”. Progressive Islam values diversity as part of a process of liberation – and not part of middle class butterfly dance of escapism and digression away from the cutting issues of justice, occupation and poverty

The problem is that you had supplied a list of people that you wanted to have advising you on all of this and that was the horrific small print which revealed confusion and nothingness. You have refused to discuss your small print and become angry when I and others enlarged it. The devil – and there were several of them – is in the details.

We are bewildered at your logic. Clearly you guys are making this up as you are going along. Trial and error is fine – but only when there is acknowledgement of error.


Farid Esack

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