Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community

Cross-posted on Muslim Matters

(Audio removed by request, but may be back at later date)

A few weeks ago, I attended the “Curbing Violent Extremism”  hosted by the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia. Zaid Shakir, an Islamic activist and teacher at Zaytuna College spoke alongside Mohamed Magid, the imam of the ADAMS Center and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I found the discussion invigorating and refreshingly frank. Below is a recap of some of the major points and the Q&A that followed.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Zaid Shakir opened the discussion by recognizing that the issue of violent extremism is “a very complex, sensitive, and emotive topic and one that stirs up a lot of emotions” so he mentioned by way of reminder the hadith in which the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) advised a man three times to not become angry meaning to “not act out of your anger.”

The most “dangerous manifestation” of violent extremism here in the U.S. in Shakir’s view comes from those who seek to gain positions of prominence in the government to advance an agenda that will prove detrimental to Muslims. However, Shakir stated that his primary focus is on how the American Muslim community can “empower or diffuse” the agenda of those who seek to inflict ever greater levels of harm upon innocent Muslims around the world. He posits that the real targets in this climate of increased attention and hostility towards Muslims are not Muslims themselves but rather the “disappearing white middle class.” The fear of Muslims and Islam is conveniently used to distract attention away from the difficult economic climate.

According to Shakir, we should also be concerned with what Muslims do because “we are a people of personal and individual responsibility. We are not a people who play the victim card or blame others for our actions.” Muslims must learn the lessons of history and look internally to remember that “we are the responsible actors for effecting change and not anyone else.”

Shakir then noted that, “we have some Muslims who are just as wedded to violence as this cabal of neo-cons, extreme Zionists, and [some] Christian fundamentalists in this country.”  However, there is a significant difference between the two groups as the latter group has access to the instruments of mass destruction while the Muslims do not. Shakir then noted the example of General Ken Waller during the first Gulf War who responded to Saddam Hussein’s boast to “fight the Americans until the last Iraqi” by saying that “we’ll grant them their every dying wish.”

Imam Zaid counseled the audience to not be so naïve as to think that the claims of those including candidates for public office who say we need to wipe Islam off the face of the earth or bomb Mecca or intern Muslims are so far-fetched if the political reality changes, for “what human beings have done, humans can do” and the examples from history are numerous. In the face of such a concerted effort, the Muslims promoting a violent ideology would not be able to effective counter measures.

Shakir answered critics who say that the violent extremists are only following a literal reading of the Quran with the verse, “Allah does not forbid you concerning a people that have not fought you over your religion nor expelled you from your homes that you have amicable and just relations with them and Allah loves those who are just.” Some may respond by saying that “the Americans are driving people out of their homes” but Shakir countered this by saying “most Americans I know haven’t driven anyone out of their homes.” Rather, he advised Muslims, especially frustrated and angry young Muslims that want to do something to join forces with those Americans like Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges that have dedicated their careers to shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison and oppose the invasion of Iraq.

“Michael Ratner has dedicated the last 8 years of his career with others in trying to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. What have you done to help him in this effort, did you go to law school or learn about the political mechanisms of this country and add your voice, organize your community, educate your neighbors, use the media…Where were you when Chris Hedges and Veterans for Peace chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested while trying to draw attention to those veterans protesting the war? Had Shakir, a military veteran been here, he says he would have a joined them.

Out of frustration, Shakir said that some Muslims claim “the only thing they can do is to blow something up and kill their neighbors who never did anything to them” all the while strengthening the forces that are salivating to go to war against Muslims. He then reminded the audience of the hadith where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Don’t any one of you insult your father.” The companions replied, “How could any of us insult our father?”  To which, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “You insult another man’s father and in return he insults your father, you’re the cause of your father being insulted.” Similarly, “if you were to go and blow up a bunch of people and these people become filled with rage, vengeance and retaliation and they kill thousands of times the number of people you killed, do you think that none of that blood would be on your hands?” Shakir probed the audience, “There are millions of able-bodied Muslim men that can bear arms and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, why do they need an American to go over there to pick up an AK-47? Is that why Allah put all of these Muslims here in America? Allah has given us so many opportunities here, access to education, the ability to organize and mobilize politically, to critique and stand against our government and its vicious war machine.”

Shakir closed his opening remarks with a final reminder, cautioning Muslims not to be used as unwitting “pawns” in a geo-political game and exhorting Muslims to stand up for justice and to recognize that if the community does stand up, that many other Americans will also stand with them.

Imam Mohamed Magid

Imam Magid opened his remarks by acknowledging the unfortunate reality that despite the many condemnations of terrorism by Muslims, the wider American public will still say that they have not heard this message from the Muslim community. Violent extremism, in Magid’s view has three components – ideological, political, and social.

Ideologically, verses and hadith are taken out of context. Politically, many Muslims do not believe they have an effective platform or may be afraid to speak about foreign policy grievances for fear of being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Zaid Shakir offered that “if you are against American foreign policy, its brutality and its excesses and you are called a sympathizer, then you should know that is nothing new in American history…you should understand that you are part of a proud tradition” of groups that were labeled for standing up for what’s right. And socially, Muslims may become frustrated and angry by the public attacks on Islam and/or by the personal bullying they have experienced for being identifiably Muslim, the last two factors, which Magid believes if taken together may lead to “social isolation.”

In Magid’s view, the Muslim community must respond by engaging in various means of dialogue to deconstruct the arguments used to justify violent extremism. Imam Magid advised the audience that “no Muslim should be intimidated, scared, or afraid to engage in political discourse or to stand up and say that I disagree with the American government on a specific issue because you have the right to free speech.” Commenting on the fears some Muslims have expressed about having their phones tapped or receiving undue scrutiny, Magid responded by saying, “even if that is the case, we have to fight the fight of civil rights and civil liberties as that’s how each people gain respect in this country.”

He also emphasized that “on a political issue if you disagree, you have to use a political platform to make that disagreement known. Trying to take up arms in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq does not solve the real underlying issues.” In addition, Magid believes there is a need for Muslims to work to combat the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and to offer young people an opportunity to learn “authentic and true Islam” to minimize the reliance on sometimes dubious internet sources.

Questions and Answers, for more complete and thorough answers, please listen to the mp3 audio above. Zaid Shakir has also written an extensive set of responses to questions received after the publication of his Letter to a Would-Be Mujahid article, which can be found here: Answers to “Would-Be Mujahids.”

1. What is violent extremism? Why is that we seem to be adopting the language the corporate media assigns to people struggling for self-determination in their own countries? Continue reading

Please, Just Call Me Ify

I have a confession to make.

I really do not like to be called “Sister Ify.” There, I said it. It was only after my conversion to Islam that I began to enter the world of using the “Sister” or “Brother” honorific before the first name of other Muslims.

I would locate my culture as being primarily American, as I was born and raised in a small college town in upstate NY. Most of the color in our town was provided by the children of immigrant professors and black kids bussed in from the city to diversify the middle and high schools. However, in my house and among my relatives and the friends of my parents, the culture was distinctly Igbo Nigerian.

For the most part, in both cultures, there is no honorific or commonly used title/name for people within the same peer group. Although, Igbos love titles and frequently use them to show honor and distinction. Even if one does not have a title, they are prone to using their professional title Dr., Engineer, Esq. or they’ll just make one up. My dad is a professor so some people call him Prof, he has a Ph.D so many call him Dr. Okoye, and he has an Igbo honorific title, which roughly translates into “the one who sits astride the elephant.” Titles can also be purchased but that’s another post.

Among my siblings, if we ever call each other names like “brother” or “sister” or “lil’ sis” it’s always in a mocking and highly affected tone and manner. I know using “brother” or “sister” is more common among African Americans especially in the South, perhaps, influenced by the culture of the black church. I know a sister (this generic usage of the term is okay with me) that will also refer to her children as “brother” or “sister” as in “Sister, is your homework done, yet?” And some of my West African friends will refer to other older African women as “Sis so-and-so.” Older African men are referred as Mr. [insert first name].

For people considerably older than me, it depends on our relationship and the situation, only now more complicated by the addition of Islam and coming into contact with even more diverse cultural habits. For the African friends of my parents that I grew up with, I’ll may refer to them as Aunt or Uncle so-and-so because that’s how they were introduced to me as a child. As I got older and I learned that there may not have been any real familial relationship, I often switched to calling them Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. This also goes for the parents of my friends as I’ve never felt comfortable calling them by their first names. Even if they ask me to call them by their first name, I try to avoid using their name but if pressed will probably revert to Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. Only more recently, since I’ve officially moved to the South (Maryland), did I pick up from some African Americans, the usage of Mr. or Ms. (always Ms. never Mrs.)[insert first name] as in Ms. Pat or Mr. Al, generally only used for other older African Americans.

Now, when it comes to Muslims, it becomes a bit more complicated. For those I consider within my peer group, I see no reason to use the terms  “brother” or “sister” in front of their first names. Some see it as an additional layer of modesty, I think for the most it’s simply pretentious and a symptom of the difficulty our community has with effectively coming to terms with the realities of gender interaction. Notice, that the same people offering the modesty excuse do not use the same terminology with their non-Muslim peers.

If I specifically know someone would prefer to be called “sister” or “brother” I’ll use that out of respect for them when writing or speaking to them. For older Muslims, those who I would consider to be in my parents peer group, I may refer them using the “brother” or “sister” or “aunty” or “uncle” title because I’m somewhat uncomfortable calling them by their first name. Generally, at work or school, I will not use any honorific. However, I once worked with a Liberian woman close to my grandmother’s age, so I called her Aunty [insert first name].

I feel the use of  the terms “brother” or “sister” and kunyas (Abu or Umm) are simply not part of my cultural upbringing and it’s not really a cultural habit I’d like to assume. I’m Ify and I don’t mind if people, younger or older than me, call me that. Continue reading

Use Your Mind – You Don’t Need a Fatwa for Everything

There’s a problem with the way Islam is taught in orthodox conservative circles in the East and West. While laudably trying to inculcate a respect for the textual sources of Quran and hadith and what are seen as the more authentic or authoritative interpretations, there also tends to be an enormous emphasis placed on rote memorization and repetition of other people’s actual ingenuity and critical thinking.

There’s a certain predominant ideology among many newly practicing Muslims including converts that seeks to emulate the Islam as espoused by a few scholars in Arabia in the 20th century. No doubt, they were knowledgeable in the religion and deserving of respect and now most of them are dead, so I’ll just say may Allah have mercy on them.

It’s okay to want to follow a certain interpretation of the religion that one feels is most authentic, however, it’s not okay to try to force those interpretations on others. On MuslimMatters, a few posts here and here this past week discussed the overthrow of the Tunisian dictator and here come the Salafi orthy conservatives, many living in the west, of course, with their copy-paste fatawa from men long dead (may Allah have mercy on them) revered as though their words are like the revelation given to the Prophets and hadith devoid of the richness of context to say it’s always impermissible to rise up against any ruler, no matter how unjust, despotic, and tyrannical.

Is that what Islam asks of us? For them and their selected copy-paste quotes, yes. But thankfully for others, no. Tariq Ramadan and the scholars at Al-Azhar have stood in support of the actions of the Tunisian people noting that the obedience to the ruler is not absolute but predicated on a number of conditions.

I know sisters previously strong-willed and independent (and I include myself, although I’ve been actively fighting to regain my voice and my personality these last several years) who become almost unable to cross the street without first asking imam so-and-so or going to this or that online fatwa site to see what the “real scholars” those often long dead or perhaps still living in certain parts of Arabia and it’s always certain parts of Arabia have to say on the issue.

It’s never let’s see what the scholars of Nigeria or Malaysia or Indonesia or Sudan or even America have to say. Perhaps, only more recently some of us have begun listening more carefully to those scholars, imams, and activists that were primarily born and raised here in the U.S.

The struggle of Islam in the western countries in the 21st century will be to imbue Muslims in these lands with an authentic and uniquely western vision of Islam. It must be organic – rising from these lands and not cheap copy-pastes or immigrant culture-based Islam. It must flexible and able to adapt to and respond coherently and effectively to the realities on the ground. Continue reading

Post a Week in 2011? Who’s In?

I’m in.

WordPress has issued this challenge to its users to post either once a day or once a week in 2011 and I’d like to accept the post a week challenge. It’s already three weeks into January so I have some catching up to do this week. I think the more I write the easier it becomes and it helps me process my thoughts. People sometimes email and ask me why I’m not writing more often so if you see I haven’t posted in over a week, make sure you let me know about here in the comments.

A few things in my head that may turn into posts:

You don’t need a fatwa for everything because Allah gave you and intellect, which must be exercised through critical thinking. People are still arguing with all due respect about the fatawa of dead men and trying to with great earnestness and sincerity to apply these fatawa, which are often limited by the person answering, the one asking, and the realities of world and culture at that time and place to the modern context without due reflection or critical thought, which is a recipe destined for failure.

I’ve been updating my oursides blog, the Facebook Pray-In Fan Page, and created a PrayinProtest YouTube page.

We live in a culture and society that mocks others, which is quite detrimental to the development of sincerity. We put on these masks that we can use to hide behind out of fear of others seeing us as we are and mocking or attacking us.

Watched a panel discussion hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) at their 2010 annual convention. Very enjoyable and quite a bit of the discussion focused on an issue dear to my heart i.e. the poor treatment and exclusion of women from mosque space and in our communities. Heartened by watching the Me and the Mosque documentary by Zarqa Nawaz about these same issues from 6 years ago.