A Response to Ali Al-Arian


August 25, 2019 at 6:25 pm

In his recent article, “The political impotence of the Muslim American community,” Ali Al-Arian, among other things, laments the lack of moral integrity and political courage in those leading the American Muslim community. An illustration of this is his blanket condemnation of American Muslim leaders and organizations for not more forcefully denouncing the imperialistic violence of the United States in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East.

As we know, that violence does not emerge from a vacuum. It is coordinated and orchestrated from Centcom headquarters, America’s military command for the region. Centcom’s forward operating headquarters are located in Qatar, a country which since 2001 has purchased over 20 billion dollars of arms from the United States with several billion more in the pipeline. It is curious that Al-Arian himself has not found the moral integrity or political courage to condemn the government of Qatar for the role it directly plays in facilitating the policies he condemns others for indirectly supporting.

In Al-Arian’s view, the political impotence of the community is due, in part, to what he calls a “colonized reading” of the Islamic tradition. Based on the language, cliches and ideas informing Al-Arian’s critique, his reading of the Islamic tradition is just as colonized. His intellectual frame of reference is simply informed by a different set of “dead white men” than that of those he condemns. The ideas of Marx, Lenin, Habermas, Horkheimer, Adorno, Gramsci, Sartre, Marcuse, Foucault, etc. undergird his analysis while any reference to the Qur’an, Sunna or the interpretations of Muslim scholars is tellingly absent.

There is one major difference between the type of colonized thinking he displays as opposed to that of his adversaries. Theirs, in his view, leads to a politically-neutered reading of the Islamic tradition, while his leads to its total rejection.

An example of this is his accusation that I support “Blue Lives Matter,” because I declared that police officers such as Rafael Ramos or Wenjian Liu who are gunned down in cold blood have been senselessly murdered. In that the statement he links to from my Facebook page is fairly brief, which I am reposting here in its entirety:

“The recent killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are inexcusable outrages and the police officers involved in those shootings should be duly tried for their crimes. These and similar police killings, however, cannot be used as a blanket indictment against all police officers, the overwhelming majority of whom carry out a very difficult job with great professionalism and discipline. Furthermore, we must never, ever allow any justification or rationalization for the type of dastardly ambush and murder that took the lives of five unsuspecting police officers last night in Dallas, Texas. Murder is murder and it is condemnable regardless of who the victim or the perpetrator might be.

This recent spate of killings will further stoke the fire of racial tension simmering in this country. We must not allow demagogues to exploit these tragic events to advance vile agendas that seek to bring out the worst in us. We must empathize with each other and understand that whenever an innocent life is taken, black or white, civilian or police, rich or poor, communities are traumatized and families are destroyed. May God help us all to be better people than what the sad and painful aspects of our history sometimes urges us to be. We need each other in order to begin to heal each other.”

I cannot see how this statement violates or misrepresents any Islamic teachings, nor can I see how it is an endorsement of the “Blue Lives Matter” platform. On the other hand, Al-Arian’s implicit endorsement of the coldblooded murder of unsuspecting police officers is condemnable in the light of every Islamic teaching upholding the sanctity of life.

It also illustrates the leftist tendency to reduce individuals to anonymous members of superficially analyzed categories whose actions are predetermined by the nature of the group they are assigned and not by conscious individual choices. According to the view Al-Arian appears to endorse, the police are a racist institution whose individual members as guardians of the privileged capitalist class are deserving of death.

This sort of ideological thinking allows for the dismissal of inconvenient facts that challenge the narrative one is trying to construct. For example, Al-Arian advances the following narrative concerning what it meant in the past to be an American Muslim:

“Being Muslim meant standing up against white supremacy and global empire, whether in Alabama or Vietnam; it meant standing in solidarity with the struggles of black and brown people everywhere.”

That is not what “being Muslim” meant in 2000 when the American Muslim community was encouraged to support the post-Southern Strategy Republican Party, discarding its racism, because its family values were consistent with those of Muslims. The “family values,” advanced by the Republican Party were so cherished then that 60,000 Muslims in Florida and 70% of Muslims nation-wide were willing to vote Republican.

The Florida Muslim voting bloc, after Bush’s narrow victory, boasted that they were the “kingmakers.” It is strange that those family values, which included anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stances, are the same ones that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is being condemned today for trying to defend. What has changed? Certainly not Islamic teachings around those values.

Al-Arian rightfully demands that leaders be held accountable to the community. That accountability, however, should transcend debatable political positions. I would ask, who is to be held accountable for the crisis of faith in our community? This crisis has spawned an unprecedented wave of atheism among our youth. Who is to be held accountable for the soaring rates of suicide among Muslims? Who is to be held accountable for the glaring absence of African American, Latino and poor Muslims at our major conferences and confabs? Who is to be held accountable for the legions of converts complaining of being ostracized and excluded by established communities? Findings answers to these and related questions are of far more import for the future of the American Muslim community than resolving the latest political controversy.

Al-Arian asks:

“What moral integrity, what political courage remains in a community whose every pillar - the intellectuals, the spiritual leaders, the political organisers, the schools, the mosques, the civil service organisations, nearly everything - is compromised?”

I would counter I see moral integrity and courage on full display every day in my community. I see them at the Midtown Mosque in Memphis, Tennessee where a young Imam who grew up in my community went into one of the most blighted neighborhoods in this country and starting with nothing established a masjid, madrasa, food pantry, grocery store, vegetable garden fruit orchard, and is converting hardcore gangbangers to Islam.

I see it in the white “country boy” converts who set up feeding stations and information booths at rural, right-wing retreats, forcing some of the most hardened anti-Muslim elements in this country to question their political, religious and racial positions.

I see it in the courageous instructors and students at Zaytuna College, an institution Al-Arian chose to malign, who have sacrificed the security and safety of established institutions to help build an institution that will outlive its aging, flawed cofounders and hopefully provide future generations of Muslims in this country guidance and direction.

I see it in the courage of the college’s administrative head who gave up a senior position in a major US city, as well as her chance for a pension, to help build something for our community’s future. I, for one, could not be prouder that my name would be associated with those courageous individuals and the visionary cofounders of the college, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Hatem Bazian.

Just as Al-Arian says there are far more cases of problematic practices than can be mentioned in his article, there are far too many instances of moral integrity and courage in my community than I could ever mention here. Maybe Al-Arian cannot see any of them because he is looking in the wrong places or through the wrong lenses.

I concede to Al-Arian that there is indeed much more that we as individuals and as a community can and must do. Considering where we started, however, we have come a long, long way. And, yes, we still have a long way to go. I would ask Al-Arian that each and every time he rightly or wrongly condemns us that he please remembers to pray that we are given the wherewithal to make further progress.

In conclusion, I would suggest that Al-Arian reflect on the following words of the Prophet (peace be upon him):

من قال هلك الناس فهو أهلكَُهم

“Whoever says, “The people are ruined it is he who has ruined them.” This Hadith can also be read, “Whoever says the people are ruined, he is the most wretched of them.” May Allah help us all.

PS: The UAE’s honoring of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a time the government he heads is planning a final solution for the Muslims of Kashmir, after a long and brutal occupation, is an unspeakable crime. As head of the BJP Modi has similar dark designs to ensure that India’s Muslims will receive the type of brutal pogroms and systematic disenfranchisement he helped to visit upon the Muslims as well as other minorities in Gujarat during his tenure as governor there. May Allah protect the Muslims of Kashmir and India. We pray that the government of the UAE can make at least a symbolic display of solidarity with the Muslims of Kashmir by rescinding the award.