Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2001, page 82
Islam in America
Muslim Democrats Triumph Over Muslim Isolationists
By Muqtedar Khan
The transition of American Muslims from a fragile group focused on defending its identity to an intrepid community determined to make an impact has not been without contention. There still is no consensus in the community over several issues. To understand the political dynamics of the Muslim community it is essential that one understand its two main factions. I call them “Muslim Democrats” (Muslims who are concerned with American democracy) and “Muslim Isolationists” (those who focus primarily on American foreign policy).
These two groups cooperate fully on practical issues concerning the defense of Islamic identity, such as establishing and maintaining Islamic centers and schools. Seen in this context, the community appears to be seamless. On political issues, however, these two groups break apart and disagree on many issues. It is safe to say that, while the two groups have common ground in preserving Islamic belief and rituals, they represent completely different conceptions of the role of Muslims in America.
Muslim Isolationists and America
Muslim isolationists see the U.S. government as an evil empire dedicated to global domination. They have seen how U.S.-led sanctions have gradually squeezed the life out of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Muslim children. Recently they watched in horror as the Israeli army killed more than 350 protesting Palestinians using a war machine built in part with U.S. aid of some $4 to $6 billion a year, totaling more than $80 billion.
They are amazed that the U.S., the self-proclaimed defender of human rights, does not admonish its ally Israel. Muslim isolationists are incensed with the U.S. for its utter disregard for Muslim lives and Muslim society, and the American media’s demonization of Islam and defamation of Muslims.
Most importantly, Muslim isolationists are unimpressed with America’s democracy or its values of freedom and pluralism. They see American society as immoral, sexually decadent, greedy and exploitative of the weak at home and abroad. For them democracy is an institution that legitimizes the basic instincts of humanity and thus is an affront to divine laws. Describing the American system as “kufr” (a system against the laws of Allah or the Islamic shariah), they reject it totally.
Muslim isolationists reject all that is American and Western.
The frustration and animosity they feel as a result of American foreign policy excesses is translated into a rejection of all that is American and Western, including democracy and religious tolerance.
There is an element of hypocrisy, too, in the manner in which the isolationists conceptualize their own role in America. They maintain that since the American system is not divinely ordained and is not geared toward realizing the Islamic shariah (ignoring the fact that, in theory, both the American constitution and the Islamic state seek justice, protection and the moral and material well-being of their citizens), participation in that system violates Allah’s decree in the Qur’an (5:45) that Muslims shall not rule by anything other than what Allah has decreed. Since participation, they argue, equals endorsement of the system, they are therefore opposed to Muslim participation in American politics.
Even though they reject the entire political system, they have no qualms about participating in the American economy. They take jobs, pay taxes (to support the system), and some of them even start businesses in the system where, like the polity, the economy also is un-Islamic. The isolationists argue that American Muslims must participate only in an effort to revive the institution of Khilafah, which magically will take care of all Muslim problems.
Some of the isolationists have organized themselves under the banner of Hizb-ul-Tahreer, a fringe political movement that advocates a narrow and harsh interpretation of Islam. Tahreer has been shut down in the majority of Muslim countries, most recently in Pakistan. In fact, the only places where Tahreer adherents are free to pursue their activism in the open and without any fear of state reprisal is in the West. Ironically, then, Tahreer condemns the West for its belief in democracy and freedom, yet it is this very belief in freedom that has helped them avoid political extinction.
In the last few years, the isolationists have focused their attention on preventing Muslim democrats from bringing their co-religionists into the American mainstream. Their attempts to create intellectual and political ghettos have failed, however, as more and more Muslims are beginning to participate in the American political process.
Muslim Democrats and the American-Muslim Identity
On the other hand, Muslim democrats not only have transformed American Muslims from a marginal, inward-looking immigrant community to a reasonably well-organized and -coordinated interest group, able not only to fight for its rights but also to begin asserting its interests at the national as well as international level. Their real significance, and the key to the Muslim democrats’ success, has been their understanding of the West and their liberal vision of Islam.
Muslim democrats were quick to grasp the significance of the American Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. They used this initially to organize institutions and movements solely focused on preserving the Islamic identity of Muslims.
As more and more Muslims came to America and answered their rallying call, Muslim democrats began to see a dream: a dream of a “model Muslim community” practicing Islam as well as playing a leadership role, guiding not only other Muslim communities but all Western societies toward a life of goodness and God-consciousness.
Muslim democrats see in America not only the imperialist impulse, but also its respect for law and fellow human beings. They are aware of the West’s double standards in treating its own citizens and others differently. This was not new to them, since they have witnessed their own societies employing similarly separate standards. Of course Muslim democrats are frustrated with the U.S. when it does not fulfill its commitments to democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. They are quick to acknowledge, however, that Muslims are better treated here than in their native countries.
Having seen democracy, pluralism, and cultural and religious tolerance in action, they are fascinated by America’s ability to resolve political differences, as well as the problems of collective actions, peacefully. They admire the U.S. for its commitment to consultation and its desire to rule wisely through deliberation, and wish that Muslim societies, too, could escape the political underdevelopment from which they currently suffer and rise to manifest Islamic virtues.
Muslim democrats have shifted the focus from battling the West to building bridges with it.
Muslim Democrats have had three major successes. First, they were quickly able to assume leadership positions in nearly every avenue of American Muslim activism. Whether in the political arena or in religious affairs, Muslim democrats hold sway. Secondly, they have been able to advance a vision for the American-Muslim community that makes its members proud of themselves and galvanizes them to contribute their money and time in the pursuit of this vision.
Their greatest achievement, however, has been their liberal interpretation of Islam.
Through thousands of seminars, persuasive articles in monthly magazines and Islamic center newsletters, lectures at regional and annual conventions of ICNA, ISNA, AMC, CAIR, MSA and MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America), workshops and leadership retreats over the last 30 years, and Friday prayers across the nation, Muslim democrats have campaigned to alter the way Muslims think about America and about Islam itself. They have fought for the legitimacy of their ideas against traditional scholars and battled against the siege mentality that had prevented Muslims from opening up and taking a fresh look at the world, and at their collective self.
During these three decades, Muslim democrats have shifted the Muslim community’s focus from battling the West to building bridges with it. They have rejuvenated the tradition of ijtihad, or independent thinking among Muslims, and now speak openly about fiqh al-aqliat (Islamic law, or interpretation of the shariah, in places where Muslims are in minority).
They have emphasized Islamic principles of justice, religious tolerance and cultural pluralism. They have Islamized Western values of freedom, human rights, and respect for tolerance by finding Islamic sources and precedents that justify them.
In the runup to Election 2000 the struggle between the two categories of American-Muslim elites intensified. But the isolationists may have succeeded too well—for they have been completely isolated. Muslim democrats, on the other hand, succeeded in mobilizing Muslims to register to vote, and American Muslims voted in large numbers, making a difference in the crucial state of Florida. Today American Muslims are not only eager to participate and make an impact—they have made an impact already.
The isolationists have no program or vision that would attract Muslims. They themselves spend their resources attacking Muslim democrats for “inventing an American Islam.” Their activism now is limited to harassing Muslim activists and trying to place hurdles in their paths.
As a new generation of Muslims joins the community, the influence of Muslim democrats is consolidated. While the new generation is familiar with the problems of the Muslim world and its bill of complaints against the West, life as they know it is in the West, with all its pluralities and inconsistencies. They are strongly in the corner of the democrats and are proud to be Muslim and American.
For they are American Muslims. They believe in Islam, they are democratic, they respect human rights and animal rights and share the concern for the environment. They are economic and political liberals and social conservatives. They believe in freedom of religion and the right of all peoples, ethnic as well as religious, to be treated equally. They are aware of their economic and political privileges and grateful to Allah for them. They dream of making changes in Muslim attitudes as well as Muslim conditions, so that their fellow Muslims also can experience the bliss of practicing Islam by choice, and without fear of the state or a dominant group.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is assistant professor of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. A member of the boards of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, his articles are archived at https://www.themestream.com/authors/68815.html