New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Thomas Friedman: Prisoner in a Glass House

Posted in articles by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2009-12-19

Thomas Friedman, in his recent New York Times Op-ed entitled, “,” states that Muslims lack the moral courage to condemn the murderous outrages of “Jihadi” extremists. Part of the reason for this moral failure, in his view, is because the West has not demanded that Muslims take responsibility for their societies, beginning with a strong condemnation of their violent extremists. Without such a condemnation, coupled with concerted action, America’s efforts to rebuild the Muslim world in her image will prove a futile endeavor.

Mr. Friedman posits that very few Muslim political or religious leaders are willing to challenge the violent ideology of Islamic extremists. Mr. Friedman apparently fails to realize is that there is an intense ideological struggle underway in the Muslim world, and at the heart of that struggle is the effort of orthodox scholars to delegitimize the arguments of those who would use Islamic teachings to justify wanton violence and destruction. Furthermore, contrary to his assessment, orthodoxy is gaining the upper hand.

In making his argument, Friedman quotes Mamoun Fandy, an analyst at London’s Institute of Strategic Studies, as saying: “What Muslims were talking about last week were the minarets of Switzerland, not the killings of people in Iraq or Pakistan.” Indeed, there are Muslims who are concerned about the fate of their coreligionists in the West, and are quick to comment on the real or perceived injustices involving Muslims in western lands. However, most of those commentators condemn the violence of the modern-day Khawarij [1] with far more words, passion and fervor.

By way of example, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, one of the preeminent jurists in the Muslim world, has written a brief statement on the Swiss minaret controversy. However, he has recently written an entire book condemning the violence and misinterpretations of the so-called “Jihadis.” That book is currently being translated into English and will be available in this country early next year.

Shaykh bin Bayyah is not alone. Many scholars from al-Azhar University, the most prestigious center of learning in the Muslim world, have been engaging in a deep dialogue with members of al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyya, Jihad Islami and other violent Egyptian groups. This dialogue has led to hundreds if not thousands of members of these groups renouncing violence against civilian and noncombatant forces. It has resulted in thousands of pages of literature and a deep societal debate in Egypt. Dr. Sherman Jackson, an Islamic studies and Arabic professor at the University of Michigan is currently translating some of this literature into English and has lectured extensively about this initiative.

A similar effort by scholars and jurists in Yemen has also met with tremendous success. Even within the Jihad movement, there is a deep debate about the moral sanction and strategic efficacy of violence against civilian and noncombatant targets. An excellent article, The Rebellion Within, examining this debate in great detail appeared in the June 2, 2008 edition of the New Yorker Magazine. Written by Lawrence Wright, the article highlighted one of the most influential theorists of the Jihad movement, Dr. Fadl, born Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, and his rejection of the wanton violence of al-Qaeda. In England, Johann Hari has recently written, in The Independent, about similar ideological debates and their influence on British-born Muslim radicals.

This debate about the moral validity and strategic efficacy of wanton violence is raging in every Muslim society. Even in Palestine, many have questioned the moral, strategic, and tactical efficacy of suicide bombings against Israeli targets. The disappearance of that tactic there indicates that the voices arguing against it have prevailed. One wonders how Mr. Friedman can miss all of these developments as he pontificates to “infantilized” Muslims about what they must do to put their house in order.

Mr. Friedman is free to condemn Muslims for a lack of moral courage. However, the same issue he raises can be posed to American political and religious leaders. Namely, when will they find the moral courage to seriously challenge the American military machine that is currently spending a trillion dollars a year, more than the rest of the world combined, for war? If Mr. Friedman thinks that the wanton violence visited upon Muslims by America is less a factor in stimulating Muslims to contemplate violent actions than the agitation of al-Qaeda or similar movements he is seriously mistaken.

I ask Mr. Friedman, are not Americans just as “objectified” in their passive acquiescence to what President Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the military industrial complex, and the tremendous violence ensuing from it, as are Muslims, according to his view? If, as Mr. Friedman argues, Islam needs a civil war to confront the odious idea of a violent minority that believes it is okay to murder Muslims and non-Muslims who will not accept “the most rigid Muslim lifestyle and submit to rule by a Muslim caliphate,” does not America need another civil war to challenge the foul idea that any country, Muslim or non-Muslim, that will not submit to American strategic designs can be bombed, invaded, occupied, or otherwise systematically destroyed?

Yes, Americans defeated the idea of slavery domestically. However, have we as a society defeated that idea internationally? What is the fate of those weak people and states that will not submit to our political and economic domination? Are they not brutalized in the most horrific fashion like rebellious slaves?

As Mr. Friedman argues, a corrosive mindset has indeed set in since 9/11. That corrosion is not limited to what he mentions. It also states that hapless Muslims are the major cause of violence and instability in the world and to deal with them we can engage in preemptive wars, we can develop a generation of tactical nuclear weapons to use against them, we can bomb, invade and occupy their lands on the flimsiest pretexts, and we can silently sit back as they are demonized and dehumanized in the media –as if we do not know what the ensuing political climate has led to in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.

I will make Mr. Friedman a wager. I bet that Muslims will wage an ideological civil war to address their violent extremists long before Americans will. I bet that long after Muslims have reclaimed their subjectivity in this regard, most “objectified” Americans will still be passively acquiescing to the imperatives of the military, and now, terrorist industrial complexes. Like Mr. Friedman, their failure to meaningfully address America’s militarism, aggression and violence will render them prisoners in a glass house.

[1] The Khawarij were a fanatical group who emerged in the early days of Islam. One of their well-known excesses was removing Muslims who disagreed with them from the fold of Islam, and then making it lawful to kill them.


By Carol191 on December 22, 2009 at 10:04am

I am heartened to hear of this dialogue to renounce violence that you speak of. As a conservative American (& not a Friedman fan) who is in full support of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can say to the Muslim world: You will have no greater friend and champion than America when, as a people, you decide to respect, stop murdering, and co-exist with those of other faiths. There would be nothing finer to me than a newly ascendant Religion of Peace, where the faith that created such beauty and wisdom in the past would be revived to do so again. I support the two American wars for two reasons. The first one is easy: pure self-defense. Jihadists believe in murdering us all! The second reason is that I do believe there is Great Good to be expressed in the Muslim world, but the masses are locked under the entrenched, oppressive, reactionary powers of their kinsmen. Fostering a model of more open governments will empower more Muslims in their own lands. May the efforts toward reason and respect that you describe here succeed.

By Maha Jarad on December 23, 2009 at 8:19am

Dear Friends, Was Imam Zaid's article published in the NYT and what is the link? Thaks, Maha Jarad

By Iesa Washington on January 3, 2010 at 7:02am

As-Salaamu alaikum A great defense put forward by one whose frame of reference is not from the inside of the glass house. The Glass Houses of our age are shatter proof and Bullet proof stones have little effect, but words do. The muslims world does have a problem of conformity which really reminds me of Watts or Compton. The police can easily arrest anyone for anything because everyone is dressed in Chuck's and Khakis = Thobe and Gotrah= shawal khamis and taqiyah. We have lost individuality and live in a state of fear of being branded what we fight against if we chose to fight it in other than the Govt. mandated fashion. Many would love to crush these terrorist or preachers of BAD Faith, but we simply can't do so with the corrupt colonial systems put in charge over us. Our leaders are not those who fought for Islam but those who took the money and turned away. Those who give the money now to those who tow the line. We are ourselves oppressors. Our ummah is not helping itself by building up the power but rather exploiting them for cheap labor. This breeds the wrong sentiment in the young who are taught other than what they see. There is no voice for the poor. There are few champions. We make hijrah to countries of comfort to sunnah not shariah/islam. Why isn't education free? Why don't we of the wealthiest Ummah not have a cirriculum to instill our deen. Why are we blaming the ignorant when the wise have set up the system. Mauritainia is a prime example of a failed state totally under extremist control with a violent regime known for torture and coup after coup. How can one write a book for the West who can't write for his own homeland. Sure we westerners open the doors and get the foreigners into all the good parties, but what do we really benefit from them. We simply become labels for them like CK or D&G. This isn't helping the situation abroad and isn't changing the focus of the immugrants in the west still concerned with back home issues and playing the converts for protection. Nothing is changing because we are not captaining our vessels. History shows us how our servants of the past robbed and stole much of the wealth and property of the muslims and destroyed the trust because we trusted them to handle our affairs. Go on vacation which watch Spain for you and the East coast of that new land. Saying that in brief america or the west is now heading for the same type of governance the muslim world has experienced since WWII will have any effect on the muslim world condition or the Muslim world will challenge what americans cant even with all their rights stand up to is dream. These affairs will not be corrected politically, but personally. You have to be willing to sacrifice. We are not willing, we are suffering too much. We cant stand disruption because we survive day to day and we need to eat, we need the streets open. We are kept poor to be kept in place, but yet look at the wealth we have. It's nobodies fault but our own. Mr. Friedman is right , just because America is wrong doesn't change that. We are just as wrong and losing ground daily. We are suffering the heavy death tolls and other social ills that go with War and a defeated mentality.

By amad on January 5, 2010 at 11:57pm

Imam Zaid, As always, you are on the forefront of these sensitive issues facing Muslims, and as always your articles are pointed and full of food for thought. jazakAllahkhair Amad

By YusefH on February 2, 2010 at 2:31pm

Gordon Brown blathers about there being 5000 Jihadi websites. Who needs a Jihadi website to become enraged when you've got Thomas Friedman?

By Michael on February 8, 2010 at 2:20pm

You state that Islamic scholars are locked in dialogue about the role of violence in Islam. You may much of the deep internal struggle at the very core of Islam regarding this. You mention thousands of pages of scholarly opinions. Has any of all that stopped even one suicide bomber from blowing up women and children in the name of God? Did all that scholarly wisdom prevent any planes from flying into buildings and killing civilians? Has any of this debate changed the mind of even one radical Muslim cleric in such a fashion that less people have died? I'm just wondering...

By darthvaider on February 18, 2010 at 8:00am

Jazak Allah khayr Imam Zaid for this excellent piece.

By Atif C. on April 4, 2010 at 9:01pm

Masha'Allah Imam Shakir this was such a thought-provoking and brilliant article...Insha'Allah we Muslims will complete our triumph in our "ideological civil war" soon and our fellow Americans will have the courage to begin their mass struggle against the military-industrial complex.

By Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk on April 10, 2010 at 11:30pm

Sadly, in some countries, people are so terrified of catching HIV and AIDS that they take their fear out on the victims of these horrendous diseases, (often these demographics include victims of rape and/or those born with the deadly virus), by beating them, whipping them and in some cases even killing them. Also, sadly, the perpetrators claim the locally accepted beliefs that the actions of beating, lashing and killing those afflicted by AIDS are "supported" by the "Holy Books" of the Koran, Bible and Torah. But inspirational men and women within those traditions, such as Imam Baba Matta, are working to change that misconception. They are doing this by working together in an interfaith "caravan" that brings Imams, Catholic Priests, Protestant Ministers, and Jewish Rabbis together in a caravan that travels between small towns in Mauritania and Nigeria, armed with their "Holy Books" to debate the prevailing views of people who would use their religion to support violence and hatred. They introduce the people to the scientific understanding of the disease and use their religions to spread a message of peace, compassion, and use their skills to motivate and organize the communities towards helping those with HIV/AIDS. This is a dangerous endeavor because they are often "theologically fighting" the warped interpretations of extremists wanting to demonize HIV/AIDS victims. In fact, Imam Baba Matta has expressed concern that the interfaith CRRR caravan's efforts will need to grow to include other African countries in the near future in order to curtail the evangelistic style efforts of extremists from various religions (not just Islamic) who champion the violence and hatred towards HIV/AIDS victims based on their interpretation of scripture. They have also added education regarding how the "Holy Books" do NOT support female circumcision to their outreach efforts as well. The beautiful "side-effect" in these efforts has been the increased respect between those of different religions who used to be intolerance of those of different faiths, instead form friendships resulting from the collaborations formed to work together as a community fighting intolernace and HIV/AIDS. It was this inspiring result that made The Memnosyne Foundation find a commonality between the caravan's work and the work of The Memnosyne Interfaith Service Network! The Memnosyne Foundation is therefore proud to support the remarkable efforts of Imam Baba Matta and other participating interfaith Rabbis, Priests, Imams and Ministers as they continue their fight against ignorance. We are also thrilled at Imam Baba Matta's willingness to expand the interfaith CRRR Caravan to include participating representatives from, and outreach to, the Yoruba who live in Nigeria as well! The reason I share this with you is to provide an example of how committed individuals within their communities can make the difference towards reclaiming their faith traditions from extremists. The key to success however, lies in the people themselves creating and thereby "owning" the solutions. Taking the leadership role gives them a feeling of responsibility ad greater commitment.

By Salman Hafeez on August 8, 2010 at 1:34pm

an excellent article but america's injustice must be 'objectified' further :). I want to know how will the author respond to the question of support of Pakistan and other Nations, provided to the US, in this so called war on terror.

By Atif C. on September 29, 2010 at 4:29pm

Also I would just like to add that so much of the violence and strife in the Muslim world (and indeed in the greater developing world) is borne out of local and national socio-economic and political conditions and issues than the result of any ideological philosophies (religious or secular). The unemployment rate in so many Muslim countries is absolutely staggering, as is access to education or even basic social services such as health care and clean water. After all it is no accident that one does not see educated content well-to-do businessmen participating in violent protests against the West...

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