Writing in Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, Naseem Mahdi, the National Vice President of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, introduces the attempted bombing of Times Square bombing as a “familiar” incident “when a Pakistani Muslim man allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb in the middle of Times Square” to kill Americans. He then immediately reduces a political act of violence to religious identities, setting up a false binary of Americans victims (as if “Americans” don’t include Muslims and as if the perpetrator cares about the religion of the people at the receiving end of his violence), and the aggression by the “so-called Muslims.” It is the specifics, implications, and ramifications of that caveat, “so-called,” I wish to explore.
The disbelief that a co-religionist could attempt a heinous crime that would have killed multitudes of innocents, may evoke a righteous outrage that could lead one to proclaim that the perpetrator must not be one of “us” – something that could be seen in the denial of many Muslims, that 9/11 attacks were carried out by their co-religionists. The need to distance oneself or one’s faith community from such a crime is understandable, but such an act of drawing boundaries warrants some reflection as far as the underlying assumptions and potential ramifications are concerned.
“A true Muslim is one who remains completely loyal to the country in which he or she resides,” declares Naseem Mahdi. Even if a diverse religious tradition spanning well over a millennia, and a lived experience of a wide swathe of humanity can be reduced to some essentialist formulation, the act of pronouncing what “true” Islam is and who “real Muslim” is, raises the issue of who speaks for Islam, and who has the authority to do so. Such proclamations from religious leaders, supposedly speaking for all Muslims or at least all American Muslims, give an observer the impression that they are the gatekeepers of the Muslim community. As if anyone needs a religious leader’s permission to be or remain a Muslim. As if any religious leader has the authority to proclaim who is a “real Muslim” and who is a “so-called Muslim.”
Having appropriated that authority for himself, Mr. Mahdi’s definition of true Muslim, an eerie echo of the McCarthyite “loyalty oath,” seems to be a rehash of President Bush’s binary vision – “You are either with us or against us.” The problem with such proclamations is the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” approach to analysis of the contemporary world. In Mahmood Mamdani’s fluid prose:
Even the political leadership of the antiterrorism alliance, notably Tony Blair and George Bush, speak of the need to distinguish “good Muslims” from “bad Muslims,” The implication is undisguised: Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims. […] Certainly, we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims, Mind you, not between good and bad persons, nor between criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims. We are told that there is a fault line running through Islam, a line that separates moderate Islam, called “genuine Islam, from extremist political Islam.
What further complicates Mr. Mahdi’s (borderline) excommunicatory simplification is the constantly changing and passionately contested notion of loyalty to a country. What does it mean to be loyal to a country? What does it entail? Does it mean an uncritical endorsement of every governmental decree, every domestic or foreign policy decision? If so, what would become of that famed American tradition of dissent? Does such an apolitical and sycophantic stance make one a contributing citizen? What of a perennially distrusted minority community? Should it constantly be under the gun to prove that it is not a fifth column? Should every member that self-identify with that community, be made to feel the collective burden of guilt one moment, and the next be accused of harboring a siege mindset?
Mr Mahdi’s proclamations are akin to Joe Lieberman’s “Tea Act” –a proposal to automatically strip American citizens of their citizenship if they “choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorists organizations.” The difference is that not only does Mr. Mahdi tells “Those Muslims who benefit from the freedoms this country provides but are not loyal to this country” that they should leave, it also tells them they are not “true Muslims,” while inconspicuously claiming the title of “true Muslim” for himself. While Mr. Mahdi’s stance is not to define who is not Muslim and who is, it isn’t that far from it – as evident from the use of “real” “true” for Muslims loyal to their country and “so-called” for the Muslims that wreak havoc. At the heart of Mr. Mahdi’s analysis of the attempted bombing of Times Square is what kind of Muslim the perpetrator is, and not what kind of citizen or human being he is.
That Mahdi’s piece is defensive apologetics is self-evident. What it does nothing to refute, and indeed re-enforces, is the blatant lie that Muslims have not and do not condemn acts of terrorism perpetrated by their co-religionists. The catch phrase, “where are the moderate Muslims,” remains ubiquitous as ever, and rears its ugly head every time a Muslim is implicated in an act of terrorism. The underlying assumption of the supposed rhetorical question, “where are the Muslim moderates?” is that Muslims are extremists unless proven otherwise. In such a “climate of suspicion” in Rafia Zakaria’s words, “the emerging picture of American Muslims is a negative one, a picture defined by what they are not rather than what they are.”
To counter the misinformation about and polemical attacks on Islam and Muslims, a cottage industry of Muslim organizations and spokesmen has sprung up in Europe and United States, pledging their uncritical and quietist allegiance to countries they reside in and claiming to be speaking for Muslims in the West as well as the worldwide Muslim community. Genieve Abdo underlined the problem with the defensive politics of “Islam experts” (whatever that means) as: “Adopting the tactics of their adversaries on the far right, they, too, oversimplify the picture: Violence has nothing to do with Islam, they say, because Islam is a religion of peace.” Yet another problem is that such a stance is based on a monolithic view that “there is a universal interpretation of Islam, which is practiced by most Muslims” and leads to the simplistic and foolhardy prescription that “if Muslim Americans unite under the banner of American pluralism, they can defeat the so-called enemy, presumably the one that exits abroad among a minority of Muslims.” However, such posturing by the “Islam Industry” is self defeating, as pointed out by Abdul-Rehman Malik:
The closer this nascent Islam industry appears to government, the more they are held suspect by “ordinary Muslims”. Proposals to tinker with Islam itself, as made by the Rand Corporation and others, have made the Muslim street even more nervous.
Such defensive polemics by Muslims belong to the same style of politics that perceives Muslim Terrorism as a “Clash of Civilizations,“ or the war on terror as a “War on Islam,“ and deflects questions of US Imperialism and, one could argue, issues that oft-repeated call for Islamic Reformation on the lines of Western Christianity. Edward Said’s prophetic warning, issued thirty years ago rings true to this day:
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we are probably going to have an even more dramatic cleavage separating good Moslems from bad. We will undoubtedly be seeing ever more news hailing the achievements of good Moslems like Sadat, Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq and the Afghan Moslem insurgents–more equating of good Islam with anti-Communism and, if possible, with modernization. As for Moslems who do not serve our purpose, they will, as always, be portrayed as backward fanatics.
Perhaps fittingly, Mr. Mahdi’s article ends on an evangelizing note, calling those “Muslims who have strayed away to come back to the true teachings of Islam.” The true Islam being Mr. Mahdi’s Islam: Apologetic, docile, and politically neutered.