My First Year as a Muslim, Ten Years Later:
The failure of Muslim-American leadership
Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D.
About ten years ago, a year after my conversion to Islam, I wrote an open letter to the Muslim community regarding my first year as a Muslim. It was not a positive letter-- addressing issues of sexism, gross expressions of hatred towards “the People of the Book”, and the general absence of responsibility and accountability in our community. The letter was published in the community newsletter I was attempting to establish, and it was ignored. A few years later, yet again attempting to establish a community newsletter, I wrote that we had a legacy of producing hurt, alienated people who leave the community and do not return to the mosques. This too was ignored.
Ten years ago was also the beginning of the internet. I opened the Islamic discussion forum on America Online (twice—there were so few people on AOL at that time the forum closed at first due to lack of traffic), and established my own web site where I placed “My First Year as a Muslim” for all to read. It never elicited very much response. But then, a couple of years ago, I began regularly receiving e-mails from Muslim-Americans, and others, who validated and affirmed my comments and observations as true to their experience. The letter made the rounds of web sites and mailing lists, even attracting the attention of some journalists. I could tell when the letter was on a new mailing list because at times my own mailbox would be flooded with responses affirming the presence of major problems within the Muslim-American community and leadership. Those who have responded don’t realize it was written so long ago. Many are no longer involved with their local communities—a legacy of hurt, frustration, alienation and resentment that is not uncommon, nor unusual, and has been going on for at least a decade, if not two.
So, my experiences and concerns do not appear to be uncommon, and they point to a dismal and seemingly across-the-board failure of Muslim-American leadership on both the local and national levels, and a failure of the general community to hold the leadership accountable. This failure is particularly detrimental to the Muslim-American community post 9-11, and thus detrimental to all Americans, as well as to all who are within the Qur’anic religious traditions.
I place the blame for this failure squarely upon the shoulders of the “Wahabi” version of Islam and its generalized negative effect upon the development of the greater Muslim-American community.
The Wahabi Version of Islam: But We Do Nothing But Good!
A label tells you what is in the box.
When I entered the Qur’anic religious traditions I did not know there was a Wahabi version of Islam. My first real encounter was soon after I declared my belief that there was only one God and that Muhammad was a messenger from God. A study circle had been set up for converts. People were very friendly until a certain someone made the mistake of saying he had problems with the way women were being treated. (You can guess who that was.) Lesson learned... sort of. The next big mistake was calling Jews our cousins—our cousins in faith. Bad move.
First, a couple dirty little secrets that are completely true.
1. Both Muslims and non-Muslims speak of Islam as if it is some huge, monolithic, one-size-for-all religion. It isn’t. There isn’t even anything resembling an official teaching center. There is nothing like a pope. No teaching magisterium. No central office of official and correct dogma and belief. There is no such thing as a “Muslim cleric” in spite of what one reads in the newspapers all the time, or the way Muslims may act towards people who have read some books. The fact is Muslims beg the question of authority in their religious traditions. Muslim-American Khaled Abou El Fadl discusses this extensively in his academic writings.
2. Muslims often drone on and on about “Shari’ah”—Muslim Law. But the fact is, there is no Shari’ah. You will find no book, no tome, no historical text called “Shari’ah.” Rather, you will find shari’ahs—plural—because what Muslims call Muslim Law is nothing more than one type of interpretation of the Qur’an, and there are a lot of different types, and vast possibilities for even more. Its not just Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam, and it most certainly is not just “Islam.” This is true in spite of the fact that Muslims themselves, out of a misunderstanding of “unity” (and a bit of self-delusion), often seem to pretend otherwise, and often give that impression to non-Muslims. A result of that misunderstanding and bit of delusion is that Muslims tend to “close ranks” in a manner that can make them complicit with evil-- our own version of the clearly unethical statement “my country: right or wrong.”
Obviously, I’m breaking ranks. I’ve never ascribed to the idea of “my country... or ummah... right or wrong.”
Given these secret truths, and based on my experience, what are some of the identifying characteristics of the Wahabi version of Islam? Well first, let’s be clear. There is no Muslim who admits to being a “Wahabi” Muslim. There is no one who is going to say they follow the Wahabi version of Islam. It is probably more accurate, and helpful, to understand Wahabism as a continuum of beliefs and attitudes that may be present to a greater or lesser degree in any one individual. On one end of the continuum is someone we would call a full-blown Wahabi, at the other end, someone who is Wahabiesque.
Here are eight attitudes or beliefs or behaviors that seem to me to be symptomatic of the Wahabi version of Islam:
1. A willingness to practice compulsion in matters of religion. Islam simply cannot be imposed upon people, nor can they feel pressured to accept Islam, nor punished for not accepting Islam. This is very, very clear in the Qur’an. Almost all Americans are actually more in line with the Qur’an on this point than are Wahabi or Wahabiesque Muslims. Basically, we are talking about tolerance and intolerance. A Wahabi or Wahabiesque Muslim simply cannot, will not accept other versions of Islam as having any possible validity (much less anything non-Muslim). It is the expression of closed minds that cannot or will not entertain the possibility of possibilities, nor tolerate those who explore possibilities.
2. An inability, or unwillingness to distinguish an idol from an archeological treasure, or from a work of art, or from just a plain old statue. These are not difficult distinctions to make, and so one must question the intelligence—or honesty—of those who are unable or unwilling to do so.
3. A willingness to engage in religious fratricide needs no additional explanation. However, I assume that anyone and everyone who publicly declares belief in one God, and that Muhammad was a messenger from God, is in that religious fraternity. That includes people who continue to practice within other religious traditions. They exist, and have for a while. Indeed, they may be growing.
4. Denial of, or ignorance of, or dismissal of what are called “sunnat Allah”—the patterns God has put in creation, often called “laws of nature.” In other words: science. The Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims ignore, or are unaware, or do not acknowledge the importance of advances in the specifically human sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. that may illuminate or effect theology, communications with others, gender relationships, politics, social activism, da’wah, etc. This results in a theology—an understanding of the Qur’an-- that is woefully out of date, unable to effectively communicate with vast populations of contemporary humanity, and ill-equipped to address contemporary issues in a healthy and appropriate manner. Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims are often ignorant of the breadth of their own intellectual history—centuries of commentary, thought and reflection on the meaning of the Qur’an. What is worse, they deny the relevance of much of that history. In addition, this ignorance of the human sciences prevents them from recognizing the role of culture in religious thought such that, for instance, men and women shaking hands cannot, will not, be understood as an expression of social courtesy, but only as an expression of potentially illicit sexuality.
5. Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims, both male and female, display an egregious sexism and advocate the use of compulsion to restrict women’s choices in life. They cannot comprehend—cannot even imagine-- a platonic friendship between members of the opposite sex. Gender relations are viewed primarily in terms of genital behaviors and myths about human sexuality, thereby dehumanizing both men and women.
6. Black and white, simplistic, reductionistic and literal thinking-- Wahabi and Wahabiesque Muslims seem unable to see shades of gray. People are divided into us and them, good and bad, friend and foe. There is a conspicuous lack of symbolic abstraction in their thinking. There does not seem to be an awareness of belonging to the family of humanity. There is a tendency to reduce complex human issues down to a simple slogan or down to one arena of human expression such as the political. It is, at heart, a mechanistic (not tawheedian) world-view combined with a lack of imagination. A rather banal bumper-sticker approach to the challenges of the times.
7. Wahabi and Wahabiesque moral thought is that of a child. That is, what is right and wrong is determined not by moral-ethical principles that are right and good in and of themselves, but by the possibility of reward and the threat of punishment for particular behaviors. They often like to count how many rewards God will give them for this or that behavior, as if storing up pieces of candy.
8. They have perfected the use of the “hadith bomb.” A McCarthyistic technique used to shut down all discussion or exploration of possibility and cast aspersion on the person with whom they are discussing. All Muslims know perfectly well what I’m talking about.
Even non-Muslims can be Wahabiesque, albeit in their own unique way.
Full-blown Wahabi Muslims may be a minority, but the influence and spread of their beliefs and attitudes and obnoxious behaviors is wide-ranging, prevalent, and has been a negative influence on the establishment and development of healthy Islamic communities in the United States.
Our Community Leaders Before 9-11: Think Globally, Act Locally Sounds Wonderful
Even before the horror of September 11 major problems in our communities and leadership were glaringly obvious, but rarely addressed. Perhaps writer Yahya Emerick, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam expressed the problems best in his essay Demanding Professionalism in our Masjid.
Even if the Masjid has a few pitiful programs to enhance the life of its members... ...they are not professional in their manner according to Western standards- they may not even show up on time to anything- and they are not equipped to deal with the issues confronting the Muslim minority experience.... ...in all my time as a frequenter of Masajid, I've only met about nine or ten truly competent people.
Contrast the above scenario with the average church or synagogue. The institution is built to serve as a community center right from the start. Youth programs are a priority and are well-planned and fun. Women are represented on the board and on all committees. Volunteers are chosen for their trustworthiness and reliability. They are made to feel that their job means something and they are well-coordinated and friendly. The minister or rabbi speaks English fluently, even if they are an immigrant, and knows Greek, Hebrew or Latin on the side. In order to be the leader of the community, the minister or rabbi had to undergo extensive training [emphasis mine] which included, besides the religious subjects, counseling, administration, management, music and singing, public speaking, research, etc.... culminating in the award of a D.D. (Doctorate of Divinity).
There is absolutely no American convert, who was involved in some type of worship community before his or her conversion, who doesn’t see the glaring inadequacies of our Muslim communities when compared with their previous experiences. But what happens? As Emerick points out, people leave. They go elsewhere to have their needs met.
Think of your own local community. In spite of how we love to trumpet that Islam is growing and growing try and remember how many American converts you have seen come in, stay for a while, and then disappear. Try and remember how many people you have seen walk in, curious about Islam, never to return. In my locale I have seen this regularly for years. Indeed, I’m the odd bird to have stuck around so long, most are gone within a year or two.
Why is this? Why do they leave? And if they have experience of functioning worship communities why are they unable to exert a positive influence on the development of their new dysfunctional worship communities?
It is entirely too facile to say “they weren’t really Muslims to begin with.” These are people who are often relatively well-read in religions and religious thought. They are often people who have been searching, researching, questioning, and looking for The Truth. They’ve often read more, and more widely about Islam than have many who were born into the religion. It is a cliché (but clichés are based in realities) that “there is no one so convinced as a convert.” How could any organization lose such people and alienate them to such a degree and with such regularity? One would almost have to make an effort to do that.
This problem is not particular to converts, but holds true for many of those born into the religion as well. One only needs to take a look at the disparity in numbers between any daily salat (masjid empty) and an ‘Eid dinner (masjid jammed) to know that many—many? most!—of those born into the Qur’anic religious traditions are, for all intents and purposes, just as absent, lost, and “disappeared” as so many of the converts and people interested in Islam.
So, what’s the problem?
Our leadership is the problem. The people in positions of authority are the problem.
First of all, the simple fact is, as Emerick points out, our leaders are incompetent. They do not have the education, skills, training or experience to guide and develop a healthy, life-enhancing worship community. He writes:
Some wealthy patron, pretending he knows how to be a Masjid director, is almost always the real power in the Baitullah. And it's real hard to tell such a director that his local Muslim community is drifting away from the faith when he lives in a mansion and drives a Mercedes. He'll say to himself, "I made a fortune, therefore, I know what's best for the local Muslim community.” ...Just because someone can make a million dollars living off medical insurance billings doesn't mean he can run a spiritual and communal project!
Who in their right mind hires people, or places people into positions for which they are not trained, and are thus most likely destined to fail? Isn’t that just a little bit wacky? Its a lose-lose proposition that doesn’t even take above-average intelligence to figure out and doesn’t allow for any debate.
Ah! But here is the key: who hires or chooses Muslim-American leaders and places them into positions of authority? In my experience the answer is they put themselves there, and keep themselves there.
When I wrote “My First Year as a Muslim” I was unseasoned. I did not know the ways of today’s Muslim communities, or my local community. And so, I was not quite correct when I wrote: “The administrative structure of the masjid needs to be changed... ...perhaps people need to serve in these positions for two years...” I assumed active members of the community rotated positions of authority each year. Now, I know what they say about assuming things. But it seems a reasonable assumption. After all, we’re talking about a volunteer effort—there is no paid minister, nor secretary, nor caretaker. In such an organization everyone needs to chip in and help. Many of the jobs though, are unpleasant (who wants to clean a public bathroom?) and many might be very time-consuming, taking time from family or other pursuits.
Now, I might volunteer my time to regularly clean bathrooms for six months to a year, but I sure don’t want to be locked into doing it for an indefinite period of time that could last forever. Near the end of my service period I would expect to find or meet my replacement and show the routine to him or her so they could pick right up and keep the bathrooms clean. That would be the process of “institutionalization” whereby necessary jobs are not dependent upon one individual, but are within a system that recruits and trains and places appropriate people into appropriate positions so there is a continuity, and all necessary jobs are filled.
When I suggested people should remain in a position for a two-year commitment it was intended as an aid to proper activities planning, community development and institutionalization. I thought the obvious dysfunction I observed my first year was due to the fact that positions of authority rotated personnel too often!
What I did not realize was that there was no substantive rotation of personnel at all. Rather, the same group of individuals were always in the positions of authority. They played a game of musical chairs—one year director, the next president, the next secretary, the next chair of some council, etc. It has been this way for ten years or more. My guess is, it is pretty much the same in your community too.
So, we have people in positions of authority who are entrenched and incompetent. This situation continues not because of apathy or inactivity on the part of the general people. In my locale there have been attempts to “clean up” our organizations, but these entrenched people hold onto their positions for dear life, and will stoop very low to do so.
I’ll not regale you with stories the “old timers” in my locale tell of incidents fifteen and twenty years ago. I’ll not tell you how passion over sighting or calculating the moon’s position (but not, say, world hunger, or domestic violence) has led to fist fights and threats with a gun. I’ll not tell you about an embezzler protected by his religio-ethnic friends from the criminal consequences of his actions while employees lost jobs—and walked away with a very bad impression of Muslims. I’ll not tell you how similar people give khutbas or are placed in positions such as that of director of religious education for their masjid though they have no formal education or training at all in theology or religious studies, nor in adolescent or adult education. I’ll not tell you of rumors of beatings and physical threats, economic threats, professional threats, liens placed on homes, harassing phone calls late at night, the absence of open financial records, the rumors of Ikhwan being present and in charge. There are just so many stories like these, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty too. These stories do not seem exceptional—they appear to represent standard operating procedure in my experience, confirmed by many in other locales as their experience too. As the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is fire.
What I will tell you about is the story of when a group of us tried to do the simplest, most normal, most sane thing one could think of: implement and follow the organizational Bylaws of our masjid. I don’t know of any other story that so clearly illustrates my personal experience and direct observation of the incompetence, bad faith, and flat-out corruption of Muslim-American leadership at the local level, and the dismal failure of the people to hold them accountable.
I want you to think again of your own locale. Does your masjid have organizational rules or Bylaws that spell out “how things are done” and the positions of responsibility and chain of accountability? Are those rules followed to the letter? They should be, because those rules are an agreement among all the members of that organization. Are not people commanded by God in the Qur’an to honor their agreements? What is the status of a person who willfully refuses to honor his or her agreement freely made with others? What is the label you would use to describe such a person?
It was 1995 and “Ali” (not his real name) was elected president of the executive committee. Ali, born into the religion and an immigrant to the US, had an epiphany of sorts, unbeknownst to anyone. He had realized that those entrenched in the positions of authority had failed to develop the community in a healthy manner and had failed to respond to the actual needs of the community.
Ali formed his executive committee and the first thing they did was to issue a memo to the other two oversight committees that the masjid had not been following its own Bylaws, and they intended to begin implementation of the Bylaws. To that end, two things needed to be changed. There was a bank account that was not allowed for in the Bylaws that required only one signature to withdraw money. It needed to be closed and merged with the regular masjid account which (of course!) required two signatures for withdrawals and was allowed for in the Bylaws. The other change needed was that the masjid had an employment contract for a salaried position with someone who was not legal to work here. We needed to formally void that contract. The person could still do his job (he wasn’t actually even being paid, and he clearly was not qualified for the job in the first place) but the organization simply could not have a written contract with him as a salaried employee.
The resistance from those people, entrenched for years in those positions of authority, and their friends, was truly amazing to behold and continued for months. The very fact that anyone in any organization would resist—much less strenuously resist—honoring their agreement to abide by the rules is mind-boggling in it implications. The fact is, it is corrupt. Only the morally-ethically perverted could argue otherwise. Indeed, one of these people (who mostly functioned “behind the scenes”) brought the whole issue into the US court system over the closing of that “extra” bank account that required only one signature to withdraw funds—the signature of that person with whom we had the illegal employment contract. Interesting, eh?
The masjid could not fight that. It could not afford the attorney fees. We had to settle. The “extra” account remained, but at least it would require an additional signature. We were all stunned at the lengths these people would go to in order to maintain power and control. The “old timers” say that every time they tried to clean up the organization it was as if “an invisible hand” came down to keep the entrenched incompetents well-entrenched.
Once the situation was brought into the court system I wrote an article about it for the community newsletter. For this article I solicited quotes and comments from all involved. Only those asking for the members to honor their agreements offered comment. One I included was: “The problem is that two to three individuals in the administration think they are exempt from the Bylaws. My advice to them is to abrogate the Bylaws and declare themselves Kings for life. This would be more honest.”
I expected outrage from the community members once this hit the streets. The Board of Trustees now stood accused of eight direct violations of their own Bylaws. Some of the members of the Board claimed they had never even been given the various memos by their Chair! I certainly expected outrage from them too. But like my first open letter, the article was ignored. And the status quo remained. One Board member resigned. And those would-be do-good reformers all drifted away, their only involvement was to attend Friday prayers out of a sense of obligation—the same effect as having left completely. Indeed, this was the beginning of the end for my own personal involvement with the local community, finally culminating in a refusal to attend Friday prayers or set foot in a masjid.... like so many others I had seen before me, and you most likely have seen for yourself, and as I have been told in so many e-mails.
How to explain the complicity of the community members with leadership that is so corrupt they brazenly flaunt their dismissal of organizational Bylaws, and engage in highly questionable financial practices, and will even drag an intra-masjid issue into the US court system? (And this wasn’t the first time for that.) It is pretty easy to figure out. Community members are either afraid of them, personally benefiting from it in some way, or are simply the same type of people, having no difficulty at all breaking their agreements freely made with others. Everyone else eventually leaves or gives up.
What is most sad and distressing is that I later learned some of the “old timers” were indeed present and knew what was going on. As I was told, they did not stand up for what was right out of fear, and though they thought we could “be hurt” they did not even warn us about that.
This is a dismal and depressing moral-ethical lapse on the part of my entire local Muslim community as a whole, and is representative of its history.
Now, before you jump on me with some version of “But we do nothing but good!” What is the situation in your local community? Really?
Are your khutbas and halaqas even remotely relevant to your actual lived daily experience? Or are they often a version of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” How much attention is given in your community to international issues and how much attention given to local issues—where you stand a chance of actually effecting real change for The Good? What are the qualifications of those in positions of authority? Do they show up for meetings on time, and organized? Are the phones answered, and calls returned in a timely manner? Are they holding meetings required by your Bylaws? Are there responsible minutes kept of these meetings? If not, why not? Are you concerned about Muslim youth? Well then, do your youth leaders have any education or training or employment experience in areas of child or adolescent behavior, psychology and education? If not, why not? Does your local community follow its own rules? If not, why not? Is your Muslim-American organization run as professionally as your place of employment-- with just as much planning, and research, and training, and accountability, and evaluation procedures? If not, why not? Which of these do you claim is more important to you as a Muslim-American? Your place of employment, or your masjid?
And then there are our national organizations, a parade of alphabet letters: ISNA, ICNA, CAIR, IANA, AMC, ISCA, MPAC, MSA, WAMY, NAIT, etc. each clamoring and asserting they somehow represent Muslim-Americans and sometimes even “true Islam” whatever that is. My guess is, all of you have, or have heard, valid complaints about how these organizations are run. Most of us have attended those banal orgies of Muslim self-stroking they call a “conference” from which we may have left with a buzz and some consumer items, but no new skills or practical information or programming ideas for community development. (If you didn’t go home from a conference with a new set of practical, do-able ideas or skills or programs to try in your own locale then that conference was most likely pretty much a waste of time and money.)
Let’s be clear before I continue: I am not a member of any Muslim organization, and give only guarded emotional support to one or two of them. I have not contributed money to any of them for many years, though I have in the past. They do not speak for me, nor do they represent me as a Muslim-American.
So, with that disclaimer, two words, one name, sums it all up: Hisham Kabbani.
I first encountered the name online before there was a World Wide Web. It was obvious this guy Kabbani was not at all liked by a very vocal group of people who did like some guys named bin Bazz and Albani. I didn’t pay all that much attention to what seemed to me at the time to be “us and them” games, detached from the real world, so to speak. The Kabbani people did seem the more thoughtful and reasonable, the bin Bazz and Albani people seemed strangely frenetic and woefully ignorant of important issues related to theologizing. Of course, I soon learned who the various personalities were, and what they represented.
A few years later suddenly this Kabbani guy almost explodes onto the scene and is obviously well-funded. He presents himself as an actual, bona fide leader of the Sufi version of Islam from a long-established, classic school of thought. Cool. Kind of exotic. I was excited and hopeful about this new personality on the Muslim-American scene, and could not help but be impressed with the production values and attitude of his The Muslim Magazine, to which I subscribed. Battle lines were drawn. Kabbani came out swinging against the Wahabi version of Islam with his magazines and books and a new Muslim presence in the States. I cheered.
And then, the infamous address to the US State Department on January 7, 1999.
From the transcript at his web site:
...[we show how] many extremist groups have formed a coalition among themselves... ...according to our sources... ...bin Laden has asked Hezbollah, Hamas, and Jihad al-Islami, and Ga'amat al Islamiyyi, to form a coalition and he was able to bring them together under one network in order to work together...
We want to tell people to be careful, that something major might hit quickly because they were able to buy more than 20 atomic nuclear heads from some of the mafia in the ex-Soviet Union... ...[This] is a danger for all humanity...
I’d like to say that there have been many non-profit organizations established in the United States whose job is only to collect money and to send it... ...to extremists outside the United States. This is a big dilemma that is facing us here, because you don't know where the money is going [emphasis mine]
...the problem with our communities is the extremist ideology... ...the methodology or ideology of [extremism] has been spread to 80% of the Muslim population, but not all of them agree with it.
Strong words from Shaykh Kabbani! While I certainly don’t know anything about nukes, or international terrorism networks, or the Russian Mob, I do know that if you substitute “the Wahabi version of Islam” for each instance of “extremist” in those quotes we do indeed get an accurate snapshot of the dynamics in today’s Muslim-American communities.
Does your local masjid have open financial records so you actually know where the money is going? If not, why not? And, frankly, I think his 80% figure is too low—all of us know of the Wahabi version of Islam. We’ve been being bludgeoned with it and by it for at least a decade. As Kabbani says elsewhere in that address they have grabbed the microphone.
Be that as it may, what is of interest to us here is not so much his statements, but the response to it from many Muslim-American national organizations.
A statement was released on February 26, 1999 by seven of our national organizations: American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC), American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslim Council (AMC), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), & Muslim Students Association of USA & Canada (MSA). Later, it was reported that the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed added their endorsement to the statement as did Hamza Yusuf, Director of the Zaytuna Institute, and the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. On March 3rd American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (AMILA) signed on.
Their statement was so strong it elicited many threats against Kabbani from Muslims. Unfortunately, their statement was also clearly misleading in how it represented the content of Kabbani’s speech—one need only read the transcript of the speech to realize that.
These organizations put out this statement without having spoken to Kabbani, and without having asked for clarification of his speech and meaning. They just immediately attacked, and clearly misrepresented him. They accused him of strengthening the “impression that the Muslim community as a whole is extremist.” They say Kabbani “has put the entire American Muslim community under unjustified suspicion” and engaged in “the irresponsible act of providing false information to government officials.”
They write at one point:
Mr. Kabbani raised the bizarre specter [emphasis mine] that the Bin Laden organization was "able to buy more than 20 atomic weapons, atomic nuclear heads, from some Mafias in the ex-Soviet Union...and now they are hiring thousands of scientists from the ex-Soviet in order to make these atomic warheads into smaller partitions, smaller particles, in order to be, like small chips to be put in any suit case, even in a handbag, and be shipped anyplace, anywhere in the world...If these small nuclear atomic warheads reach these (U.S.) universities, you don't know, these students, what they are going to do, because their way of thinking is brainwashed and limited."
Of course, we know now that this was not a “bizarre specter” but a very real, and very terrifying possibility that endangers the entire planet.
Kabbani was correct. What eleven of our national organizations called a “bizarre specter” was actually the very real nightmare of 9-11 carried out by flight students. Kabbani clearly stated bin Laden’s group would initiate a major attack, and of course, “dirty bomb” has entered the American public discourse and consciousness since that attack. We all know that WAMY, MYNA and the MSA are a bit Wahabiesque in their outlook.
Not only did these organizations “jump the gun” and violate very basic precepts of the Qur’an and Sunnah in attacking Kabbani without thought or consultation, but they clearly did not know what was going on around them in the world. Or perhaps some are indeed involved with and actively supportive of Wahabiesque extremism as they have been accused of being.
Regardless, what this illustrates is failure on a number of levels. None of these organizations engaged in thoughtful reflection or private discussion with Kabbani before issuing a major public statement capable of enflaming the types of people who issue threats. They did not follow standard “adab.” And they were just simply wrong. Very dangerously wrong.
There is more to this story, of course. I myself had personal interaction with Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR regarding this issue. All that did was confirm my suspicions: our leadership is, at best, incompetent. That story is actually available at Kabbani’s ISCA web site.
Now please, do not assume I’m necessarily a blanket supporter of Kabbani’s group. I’m not. They obviously have problems too. The magazine has disappeared and I think they owe me money for an unfulfilled subscription. And Kabbani disappeared from the scene after this incident. The Islamic Supreme Council of America often seems much more interested in affairs overseas, belying their ill-considered name.
In other words: none of these organizations actually inspire confidence or provide quality leadership, and in my opinion are simply not worthy of support. And I didn't even tell you of ISNA’s sham of an investigation into the local dispute over following Bylaws, nor did I tell you the story of.... etc., etc.
Our Community Leaders After 9-11: "Yes, but..."
The big American flag suddenly flew from the masjid and the chant “Islam means peace, Islam means peace” droned on like a masturbatory mantra we hoped would magically chase away the demons in our midst.
It didn’t and it won’t. And once again, our leadership has failed us.
Sure, nicey-nice (though slightly panicked) statements were released to the press. Our Jewish and Christian cousins of good will stood to protect us against possible attacks by bigots. (Could they rely on us for the same? I wouldn’t count on it.) And lo and behold! Here is Hisham Kabbani on TV! He’s back and looking good. I cheer, again. But then, oops! He’s gone again as we collectively stumble, fumble and drop the ball-- again.
“Islam is against terrorism, but.....”
Who wrote these types of statements and who approved them? They need to be fired.
There are two main reasons our collective response to 9-11 seemed so weak and conditional to so many, and continues to appear that way. One is the great big “but” interjected into or implied within so many press releases and by so many talking heads. (Of course, the fact that our brothers and sisters overseas are cheering isn’t helping matters much.) Another is we’ve never, as a community, stood firmly against the Wahabiesque extremism before, so we’re a little bit late to the party and need to play catch-up.
In fact, we’ve been complicit through our silence, or as in the Kabbani-State Department case, complicit by means of our misplaced, slightly rabid, and certainly inaccurate condemnations of someone who, it turns out, gives every appearance of having been correct. Frankly, that attack elicited suspicions in some people at that time regarding the agendas of those signatory organizations. Now, of course, it all looks even more questionable, doesn’t it? Of course it does.
In my locale—compare it with yours—we bumbled and fumbled along as usual. We have one individual with education and experience in matters of public relations, press relations and so on. When I learned of her existence a few years ago I could not help but wonder why her skills and experience were not being used. It was puzzling. (I’m sure it had nothing to do with gender issues.) Local Muslims sent out a terrific press release. So excellent, it was picked up for ridicule on an out-of-state radio station. That “We condemn, but...” issue. We also hosted a disasterous (and ridiculed) "Media Dinner." Ruined by those infected with the Wahabi version of Islam, of course, as usual, as would be expected.
And what can we say about our national organizations post-9-11? Not much. After the initial press releases (“Yes, but....”) they all kind of vanished except for MPAC. (Ok. You get an A for effort, but check out PLO legal advisor Diana Butto. She’s good.) Of course, most of them are now operating under a cloud of justified suspicion and many seem to be under outright investigation. Its kind of hard to get accurate information these days.
Do you know where the money goes?
Too bad our various organizations didn’t keep a clean and orderly house—with a qualified, honest accountant. But then, that would entail behaving in an honest, responsible and accountable manner, and Muslim-American leadership does not appear to do that and the people do not demand it—they just keep handing the money over “for the sake of Allah” without ever requiring accountability for what is actually being done with the money.
At best, things look like business as usual in our national advocacy groups post-9-11. A stress on foreign issues, and issues pertaining to particular ethnic groups—not American-Muslims per se. (I mean, I’m of Irish descent but I’ve never seen any concern on the part of Muslim organizations for Irish issues. Arab issues are certainly popular though.) There is an ongoing whine of how victimized we are now, and so many people hate us, and we’re so misunderstood, and we do nothing but good, and boo hoo hoo.
Well, excuse me, but where were you when the Wahabis were saying kill all Americans and Jews? Did you ever speak up and clearly condemn anti-Jewish rhetoric and hatred as distinguished from criticism of Israel? Where were you as the Palestinians descended into self-defeating, immoral kamikaze acts for the sake of a nation-state—not God? Did you just always say “yes, but....”? Or were you intimidated and frightened into silence by “hadith bombs” and other manipulative techniques used by the Wahabiesque? ("Don't fear them. Fear Me!") Or, are you one of them?
AMPCC, consisting of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslim Council (AMC), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) put out a release July 23, 2002: “U.S. MUSLIMS CALL FOR 9/11/02 DAY OF UNITY AND PRAYER. All faiths urged to open houses of worship for interfaith activities.”
Excuse me? U.S. Muslims? No. Only your membership.You simply do not speak for Muslim-Americans. You speak only on behalf of your members. And the fact is, we Muslim-Americans are not currently occupying the high moral position required to legitimately urge other faith traditions to do anything.
We need to clean up our house first.
In God’s Name! Where is our self-criticism post-9-11? This event should have elicited a long over-due soul-searching throughout the entire Muslim-American community, but it did not. What it did elicit was a long, low, moaning whine of pseudo-victimhood.
Yes, Americans are closing down one of the most open countries to have ever existed in the name of security. Yes, Americans are restricting their previously unheard of civil rights in the name of security. And yes, Muslims are being searched, detained and under suspicion in the name of security. But that is our own fault. Remember, 9-11 was done in the name of Islam, with plenty of emotional support from Muslims and ongoing threats from Muslims—our people, our community, not someone else’s. There is no getting around or denying that.
Its all our own fault.
If a Muslim-American is now detained unjustly we don’t have the structures needed to help, nor do many of us have the knowledge of our rights and how to protect them in this country. Our leadership has failed us by not building those structures nor addressing the obvious need for that type of knowledge in a community with a large immigrant demographic. (CAIR started wonderfully, but soon lost their focus with international and ethnic concerns. The “action alerts” have dried up and the organization remains under a cloud of suspicion.)
And if that Muslim-American is being held justly for some kind of involvement with the Wahabi extremists, it is still symptomatic of a failed leadership that did not firmly address and respond to the unhealthy attitudes and beliefs that nurture the Wahabi and Wahabiesque version of Islam, but instead allowed it to flourish without firm confrontation and condemnation. More often than not, it has been supported by the default silence. A silence that is the result of a general Muslim misunderstanding of what healthy communal unity looks like, seasoned with a bit of collective self-delusion regarding our imagined superiority to the rest of humanity. This is a recipe for complicity with evil.
It sounds a little weak to be complaining now if your community had no voter registration drive, and if it tolerated those who would consume the benefits of this country while refusing their civic duty to vote, and discouraged others by calling it haram. It is a bit weak when your community offered no appropriate options for political action or training, and made no attempt to actually build an alternative to, say, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, if you were so concerned about U.S. policies. Its a bit weak when we (we?) spent week after week, month after month, year after year, complaining about Kashmir, or Palestine, or some other international issue, but never about issues of justice in our own towns and communities. Its a bit weak if you thought, advocated or tolerated attitudes that call all non-Muslims kuffar, and harbored malicious thought towards them, or towards our Jewish cousins (“Jew” is not the same as “Israel”). You expect help and concern from them now? That isn’t how things work for the most part.
If you thought globally, but failed to act locally, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself for the mess the ummah has become. If you participated in a sham of an election in your masjid that offered no real choice of qualified personnel, and you did not demand qualified personnel, and then hold them accountable to their responsibilities, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. If you simply handed over vast sums of money with no concern for how it was spent, you are largely responsible for the mess the ummah has become.
Those to whom God has given wealth shoulder an astounding responsibility regarding its stewardship and distribution. Money can enable great good, or help nurture astounding depths of evil. It is not enough to simply sign a check saying “for the sake of Allah” and walk away. And it is too much if you only sign the check after you have imposed decisions you were not equipped to make and your feet have been kissed. Islam is a middle way.
We Muslims today are known not for piety and good deeds, but for hatred and violence. We are viewed not as a mercy to all humanity, but as a potential danger. This is the result of the actions and inactions of Muslim-American leadership on both the national and local level. This is the result of the people failing to hold their leaders accountable.
In God’s Name! Will We Clean Our House?
If we do try to clean house here is one sign that will tell us we have succeeded: when an American woman in shorts can walk into your masjid off the street, and be made to feel so welcome, so comfortable, so accepted, so at-ease, so safe, so interested that she comes back, you will know you have cleaned God’s house.
How can we get there?
1. A clear and enforced statement of tolerance and openness that is hammered into the community members until it is lived. (What would you do if someone came in and urinated in the masjid? What did Muhammad do? And you are going to get uptight over hair or a flash of leg? That doesn’t make sense.)
2. Women are free and comfortable participating in community affairs and expressing their opinions. Absolutely NOT shoved into a basement, small room, or closet. Men and women, side by side, partners together for the sake of God.
3. A resource library filled with research-based practical information on all aspects of community development: how to chair a meeting, how to set goals, how to recruit volunteers, how to plan and evaluate activities, how to run a youth group, activities idea books, financial management, legal issues, etc. (Of course, the information needs to be learned and applied.)
4. An organization that requires a commitment of some service each year on the part of each member according to his or her abilities. And no one is “too good” or "too important" to clean a bathroom or pick up some garbage or stuff envelopes.
5. On-going training programs in all aspects of community development either from paid non-Muslim professionals, or from those Muslims who have already gone through such training and successfully served the community and are thus able to train others. Clear curricula for these should be available in the resource library.
6. Elections where people present their qualifications for particular positions (or at least their enthusiasm and willingness to learn or be trained) just as one would when applying for any type of job. That is not “campaigning”, it is being smart and sensible, and it smells of success. You’ll find no change in the patterns God has placed in creation. People who don’t have appropriate education, training, or experience simply do not know how to do certain things. That is clear sunnat Allah.
7. Specific and attainable yearly goals, (i.e. increase daily salat participation by 20%), clear research-based practical steps towards those goals, clear evaluations of the results, an appropriate budget, and adjustment of plans and goals as needed.
8. Open, squeaky-clean financial records and practices. All money is reinvested into the local community, not sent overseas unless by way of special collection, nor to a national organization unless it is for affiliation dues.
9. Professional-level programs that address local needs such as orientation to American culture, inter-cultural communications and understanding, broad study and discussion of the variety of Qur’anic thought (not just one version).
10. Copies of a variety of Qur’anic translations and commentaries, not just row upon row of Yusuf Ali or that horrible travesty by Hilali & Khan.
11. A refusal to “reinvent the wheel”—no duplication of efforts already underway in the general American community, but rather participation with them in those efforts. Be involved in the greater community! An “open house” every so often just doesn’t cut it.
I think all that would be a pretty good start. Very practical, relatively simple and easy to do. Its normal. All of the above points are relevant to both our local and national organizations, but we can add a couple more just for the nationals:
1. No national organization speaks for all Muslim-Americans unless every single individual is a paid-up member in good standing. You speak only for your membership. Any organization that pompously open their declarations and fatwas with “U.S. Muslims think, declare, believe....” rather than “The Membership of Our Organization think, declare, believe....” should not be supported emotionally or financially.
2. Speaking of skewing numbers, please, polls must be scientific and presented accurately and analyzed by professionals or they tell us nothing other than your skills at playing with numbers. So, for instance, if your organization fields 30 discrimination reports in 1998, and 2000 in 1999, it does not mean there was necessarily an increase in discriminatory acts. It may only mean there has been an increase in the reporting of those acts. An organization that does not or will not present statistics in an accurate manner should not be supported either emotionally or financially.
3. National organizations must maintain focus on their mission statement—which they hopefully have in the first place. That is, if your organization is to focus on a thin slice of the domestic scene, say, employment discrimination, then keep your noses out of international affairs, and your opinions on them to yourselves. This includes ethnic concerns as well. If you pretend to advocate for Muslim-Americans, then don’t focus on the particular concerns of a particular ethnic group. You cannot help but disenfranchise others by doing so, and are more often than not duplicating efforts and setting up an unneeded competition with other organizations. If an organization loses its focus, emotional and financial support should be withheld until focus is regained.
These are all very, very practical, sensible, sane, healthy tips.
A Muslim America?
"We have a problem in the Muslim community"-- Hisham Kabbani, July 19, 2002.
Seems a bit of an understatement to me.
A public opinion poll of a little over 500 Muslim-Americans was conducted by Zogby International and Hamilton College of New York. Professor of Sociology Dennis Gilbert said that according to the data, about 60% of those polled reported knowledge of, or personal experience of incidents such as verbal harassment, pushing and shoving, and dirty looks. However, Gilbert said that 70% reported that non-Muslims had personally expressed their support to them in the face of post-9-11 incidents. Let’s assume these are valid, representative numbers. He said; “I think we might be able to look back at this period as kind of a turning point in the lives of American Muslims in which Muslims begin to come to grips with their role as American citizens and feel the support of the majority which I think is really there for them." [emphasis mine]
The introduction of Islam into the United States, where roughly 95% of the population claims belief in the God of Abraham, is an amazingly unique occurrence over the past 20 years. We are witnessing a major world religion move into a whole new land for the first time. But even more significantly, we are watching the third sibling of the Abrahamic religious triangle joining its two older confreres. Abraham's wild man exile son of a slave woman is back. To the people here it is completely new, fresh, unheard of before and unimagined. The possibility of revelation after Jesus or Moses never entered our heads. We are hearing the Qur’an with ears like those of Muhammad’s contemporaries who first heard The Message of The Transcendent Unity and felt the divine force of its truths slam into their souls and open their hearts to the infinite creative possibility of possibilities. We are people who hear The Message without centuries of accumulated crust and accretions and myths and legends about the Qur’an, without “schools of thought” or commentaries or scholars or imams. Muhammad’s contemporaries were people who heard The Message and understood with just who they were, what they were, and when they were. And so are the Americans. To each generation is its own test.
Books fill shelves exploring what it means to be an American, asking what is the quality of our national character, or if we even have a national character at all. Are we a salad bowl? A melting pot? A mosaic? We could argue, or we could simply accept the common meaning communicated by these metaphors: Americans are a mix, a variety. Americans are a collection of groups and tribes and people of different colors who are all getting to know each other, and trying to come to common terms by means of mutual consultation. Americans practice no compulsion in matters of religion. How could we when our highest national value is the freedom of the individual to express him or herself, to choose a path in life, and even to change that path in mid-stride and “remake” themselves? This freedom is not to be restricted because of gender, or race, or religion, or national origin, or political affiliation. People are free to believe or not, to practice their religion or not. Its between them and God. People here live the attitude: you have your religion, and I have my religion. You see, the fact is, the United States is the country most like Medina at the time of the Prophet, and is, in fact, the country whose people most closely follow the Qur’an, even though they don’t know it. No one else even comes close—certainly not the so-called “Muslim” countries. Indeed, it could be argued that many non-Muslim Americans in reality follow the Qur'an more closely than many Muslims. And they've not even read it.
Yes! We as a people were born out of blood, and genocide, and chattel slavery. But we were also born out of yearning for justice, for peace and for freedom. We are born out of the dreams of millions escaping tyranny, or limited opportunities, or war, or hopelessness. We were born out of the perennial human optimism and hope for a better life. Who will dare say these are bad things? Who will dare say they are things to be fought against and attacked?
Yes! Americans are known to be crude, and loud, and vulgar, and arrogant, and know-it-all. But we are also the most generous, charitable people on the planet. Warm, open, friendly, with a real concern and a clearly apparent good will. We are astoundingly inventive and productive. Who will dare say these are bad things? Who will dare say they are things to be fought against and attacked?
And yet, both still reside within us: the blood and savagery as well as the optimism and generosity. We see this in the disparity between the people of the United States and many of the disgusting policies of our government. These policies are carried out in our names, but we have the means to peacefully change them so they reflect to a greater degree the basic decency of the American people. After all, more Muslim-Americans were offered support than a bad word or a dirty look by their fellow Americans post-9-11. And the fact is, the Americans recently forced one of their own presidents to resign in disgrace—no coup, no military takeover, no bombings were needed.
And yet, hear the messages coming from the masajid and national groups post-9-11. Do they reflect this decency? Do they reflect the fact that more Muslim-Americans experienced expressions of support than discrimination? Do they reflect the reaching out to us by non-Muslim Americans of good will? They portray us as nothing more than victims of cruel anti-Muslim Americans and a government that may be turning oppressive in the name of security. But that clearly isn’t the whole picture. Can we rise to the challenge of truly participating in, contributing to, and shaping the national discourse of the most powerful country that has ever existed such that the goodness of the American people, and ourselves, is ascendant, perhaps even triumphant? It is certainly what we claim to be able to offer as Muslims. And not just to the States, but to the whole world.
Unless They Change What is Within Their Hearts
As I write this, a parade of scandal and corruption and bloodshed moves across my TV screen. The leaders of our culture, the most materially rewarded, the admired, those who demonstrate our concept and understanding of success in life, those at the highest levels of influence and power and access, are shown to be cheats, liars, and thieves. An ancient institutionalized moral voice is revealed to be a nest of pedophiles and those who would cover their actions, all the while claiming to represent God. An American citizen or two sit incommunicado in government accommodations with no access to family, friends, or legal representation. A supposed ally encroaches on another people in a clearly colonialist venture (using weapons we supply), and then thumbs their nose at our President when he says "Withdraw!" and our President bows down, continuing policies based upon religio-mythic fantasies, not on what is truly fair and just. And the world sees Black Smoke rising over Bethlehem. A new word enters the discourse-- "blowback"-- taken from a page of the FBI-CIA dictionary of jargon, "When Thugs We Like Go Bad." The government is growing-- establishing the uncomfortably-named "Homeland Security" office (Were the Native Americans asked about that? I'm sorry, but it has very creepy paterland overtones for me.), and perhaps a toll-free hotline for you, your delivery company, and your letter carrier to call and report "suspicions" should your neighbors smell funny. As said, its hard to get accurate information these days. Journalists don't seem to be allowed any where anymore, and they don't seem to be complaining about that. Uber alles anyone? "Those who trade freedom for security deserve neither."
We need a special federal law to protect whistle-blowers. What is a whistle-blower? Someone who enjoins what is right, and forbids what is wrong. It is terrifying that no one else will protect them. Will we Americans call ourselves "good" when this is the reality? For you see, the Kenneth Lays of the world do not just wake up one day and decide to cheat, lie and steal. They practice it for years, decades, and while they practice they pass by hundreds, thousands of people on their way to the top. It is highly probable that many of them realized these future CEOs were corrupted and corrupting, but did nothing. It is also highly probable that at least a few confronted these future leaders and were crushed, losing jobs, perhaps being set-up, slandered and vilified, unsupported by their fellow employees. That's why we need a special whistle-blower law. And that is a very, very sad, scary and dangerous moral-ethical place for a people to be.
In the aftermath of 9-11 I would ask people who claimed to be Christian, "What would Jesus do?" And more specifically, what would Jesus have been doing in these decades since World War II? I've not gotten an answer. Or rather, the answers I've been offered certainly gave every appearance of being anti-Christ.
We've gotten ourselves into a big mess. We are in a crises of global proportions. Americans, as the most powerful and free people ever to have existed, are saddled with a grave responsibility. Perhaps it is more responsibility than an infant nation-- barely born-- can handle. But only we have the power, the influence, the "can do" attitude to truly move all of humanity forward to a better life. Not by force, not by imposition or compulsion, not by military means, not by relationships of convenience with the thuggish and corrupt, but by good example. Principled example. Perhaps we are not up to the challenge of leading humanity, particularly if we, as a nation and as individuals, are unable or unwilling to act according to principles-- not convenience-- at all times. It is particularly true that it is in difficult times and when crises descend upon us that we discover how principled-- or unprincipled--we really are, both as individuals and as a nation.
We were supposed to be a light on a hill.
Jesus said we would know his followers by their love.
God says in the Qur'an that the condition of a people will not be changed until they change what is in their hearts, and that we are to always stand for justice, for what is right, even if that means standing against our own tribe, group, corporation, community, family, self.
And God knows best about all of this.