Monday, August 21, 2006

What's Right With Islam by Imam Rauf - A Critical Commentary

In What's Right With Islam Imam Rauf says “There is little doubt today that the rise of religious fundamentalism represented the reaction of religion against the antireligious secular modernism that peaked in the mid-twentieth century.” (page xx of Preface)

I'm not so sure this is correct. Fundamentalism, in its essence, is not an expression of spirituality but, rather, constitutes a desire for power that appears in the guise of a religious form. The power in question has to do with a desire to impose one's perspective on others quite irrespective of the presence of secular modernism – although secular modernism can assume the role of a stage prop which can be used to incite the emotions of a target audience that fundamentalists seek to control in order to bring about the agenda of the latter.

This tendency to seek power and control over the lives of others existed within the Muslim community from a very early period … just like it exists, as a potential, within all communities -- both religious and non-religious. Historically, Muslim theologians were often motivated by the desire for such power – that is, a desire to expand their sphere of influence by establishing and imposing the religious norms to which the theologians believed everyone should be subject. Similarly, Muslim jurists frequently were inclined toward such an agenda and, thereby sought to enforce a certain conception of life upon everyone within the community, and, as well, many Muslim politicians were operating out of a similar sort of framework in which the ultimate goal was to rule over people rather than serve God even as the idea of the latter was used to hide a program of authoritarian control.

Whatever the actual sins of modernism, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism may be – and these sins are many – the fact of the matter is that those in the Muslim community (theologians, jurists, political rulers) who were either jockeying for power or who were attempting to hold on to power used the very real sins of colonialism et al as a means of misdirecting attention away from their own sins (that is, would-be Muslim “leaders”) of wishing to control, exploit, and abuse Muslim peoples. Among fundamentalists, the issue was never – except superficially -- about defending Muslims from the Western hordes but was, rather, an attempt to make sure that the reins of oppression were held by so-called 'Muslims' rather than Westerners.

If one takes a look at the long list of fundamentalists from: the karijis [a sect that came into being during the Caliphacy of Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) and who – that is, the kharijis – considered all Muslims who did not accept their interpretation of Islam to be infidels], down through: ibn Taymiyyah [1268-1328 who, among other things glorified the idea of jihad – which he construed in terms of armed conflict – to be superior to Islamic pillars such as fasting and the hajj or pilgrimage], Muhammad al Wahhab [1703 – 1792 who was a founder of a radical, puritanical, dogmatic theology which calls for a return to medieval Islam], Muhammad Abdus Salam Faraj [1952- 1982 who argued that all of the problems existing in the Muslim world were the result of a failure by Muslims to consider jihad, in the sense of armed, violent conflict, to be a mandatory duty of every Muslim in relation to combating all non-Muslims as well as those who were 'insufficiently' Muslim], and such groups as the Taliban, al-Qaidah, Hamas, and Hezbollah (along with many other individuals and groups who have not been noted above), all of these groups and individuals have one thing in common – the desire to recreate the world in their own image – using force and compulsion wherever necessary. The common thread among the foregoing fundamentalists is very resonant with the motivation running through modernism, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism – namely, a desire to impose one's 'will to power' upon innocent people, along with the presumption accompanying this 'will to power' – namely, that one has the right to manipulate and oppress the lives of others.

Rallying cries revolve around this or that cause (whether this be the panicked hysteria in the West concerning religious fundamentalism, or the frenzied mobs in the East focused on the evils of capitalism and imperialism), but these rallying cries are just techniques of manipulation used by both sides for purposes of creating and managing the fear of various communities. People who are afraid constitute a formidable resource which has been mined for centuries by those who wish to exploit that resource to the advantage of the 'leaders' and to the disadvantage of the people who are sacrificed while fear is stoked to a burning rage all around the world.

To be sure, there are people in the Muslim world who are quite prepared to kill anyone who do not think as the former do. However, there also are people in the West who are quite prepared to kill anyone who stands in the way of capitalistic or 'democratic' hegemony – whether of an economical, political, and/or militaristic sort. The existence of such real threats is just a pretext that can serve to generate undue influence upon populations – both East and West – in order to induce those respective populations to act out of fear rather than insight, understanding, compassion, or wisdom.

Like actors in a gangster movie, the players on whatever side (West or East) were, and are, interested only in being able to impose their own will on other human beings. The conflict was not and is not a clash of cultures as Huntington tries to argue but, instead, a clash of mobsters and tyrants who were, and are, seeking to slice up the worldly pie in a manner that was, and is, advantageous to any given mobster organization – whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

Imam Rauf indicates that being “told that Islam is a religion of peace doesn't jive with images of Muslims” advocating violence against America, Christians, or Jews. On the other hand, being told that the West stands for democracy, freedom, and justice doesn't jive with images of Western corporations, governments, and militaries destroying lives, communities, and countries all over the world while they plunder resources of various peoples that have been usurped by oppressive tyrants in such communities and countries which (that is, the tyrants) are often created, funded, supported and protected by the West.

All too many people in the West and East seem to forget that Jesus (peace be upon him) is reported to have raised a question about those who would find fault with the mote in the eye of one's neighbor while ignoring the beam in one's own eye. Framing the issues becomes very important in the war to control how people think and feel about any given situation.

Acting in inhuman ways becomes so much easier when people – with the help of the media, government officials, and religious figures -- can define a problem in terms of the barbaric and uncivilized acts of 'the Other' while completely ignoring the etiological role played by the many atrocities perpetrated against the Other prior to the onset of the Other's treacherous acts – atrocities which are largely or totally ignored by a given side's way of framing things in a self-serving, distorted, and self-righteous manner. The other side is always the causal agent for the existence of evil in the world, when, in truth, events are almost always due to a more complicated dynamic in which forces and factors from all sides converge and synergistically interact with one another to generate crisis, escalation, and tragedy.

Early in What's Right With Islam Imam Rauf speaks a little about the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, referring to that aspect of the amendment which addresses the issue of the relationship between church and state. He indicates how the founding fathers wished to ensure that religion would not be able to gain access to the corridors of power and, in the process, be imposed upon people. However, Imam Rauf indicates that later on, during the twentieth century, a more militant, anti-religious form of secularism began to hold sway within the institutions of governance, thereby violating what he believed to be the actual intent of the First Amendment authors which, according to Imam Rauf, was never meant to create an atheistic or agnostic society.

Trying to figure out the intent of the founding fathers is a tricky business. Legislatures, courts, jurists, educators, and commentators have been trying to do this for more than two hundred years.

There are, at least, several components to this hermeneutical task. First, there is the intent of the people who actually drafted the amendment, and, secondly, there is the intent of those who voted on the amendment.

Even if there are written records to document, to a degree, what the drafters of an amendment were thinking when a given amendment was proposed, there may not be a great deal of information which details the thinking process of those who voted for or against such an amendment. Did the thinking of the latter coincide precisely with that of the drafters of an amendment, or did it differ, and, if so, in what way? How did they envision the amendment playing out in the actual course of events? What did they believe the constraints and degrees of freedom of such an amendment to be? What did they believe they were signing on to or rejecting?

Were all the people who voted on the amendment inclined toward religion, and, if so, in what way were they religious? Were they orthodox something or other? What did orthodoxy mean to them? Did they have a formal affiliation with religious institutions, or were they independent thinkers and doers when it came to religious observance? What role did they believe government should play in supporting and helping people to seek and, possibly, secure the purpose of life? What did they believe the purpose of life to be?

In order for someone, such as Imam Rauf, to make a statement about what the intention of the founding fathers was, or was not, with respect to the First Amendment, one would have to be able to answer all of the foregoing questions and quite a few more. Imam Rauf may, or may not, be correct in his opinion concerning the intent of the founding fathers, but this is an empirical question which requires evidence not just unsupported supposition.

More importantly, perhaps, there is an issue concerning the First Amendment which Imam Rauf – along with many others – does not seem to consider. If I understand his position, he feels there should be some sort of balance between the aspirations of the state and the aspirations of religion such that while the latter should never be permitted to dominate activities of state, nonetheless, the state should not oppose or undermine the attempts of religious people to give active expression to their individual faith.

One question which I have with respect to the foregoing is this: Why should the state be permitted to have any aspirations at all? Another question I have is the following: Why should the aspirations of the state be permitted to dominate people's lives and be imposed on them if one prevents religion from doing this very same thing?

If the First Amendment is intended, in part, as a safeguard against the unwarranted intrusion of any given religious framework into the lives of the people, then, why should one permit the intrusion of any given political framework into the lives of people? If the purpose of this aspect of the First Amendment is to ensure that people do not become unwilling victims of the imposed religious aspirations of others, then, why is there not a reciprocal protection against the imposed political, economic, and philosophical aspirations of others? Why are political and economic philosophies being given a free pass with respect to retaining the right to be imposed on unwilling recipients? If the idea of this facet of the First Amendment is to protect the people against being oppressed by a religion not of their own choosing, then, why are the people not being protected against being oppressed by political philosophies, economic programs, and public policies not of their own choosing? Why is the presumption of governance being given to philosophy – whether this is political, economic, and/or social in nature?

Oppression is oppression whether it comes from religion or politics. If the majority were of a given religious denomination, we do not say: 'Well, the will of the majority should be enforced but, rather, point to the First Amendment and indicate that no religion – irrespective of its majority status – may dominate state policy'.

In a sense, this portion of the First Amendment is directed toward protecting the rights of minorities against the imposition of religious beliefs. No such protections are afforded minorities against the imposition of unwanted political and philosophical beliefs.

I find this to be a curious asymmetry. Is one to suppose that politics and philosophy are somehow more objective or more neutral or less biased than religion is? Is one to assume that politics and philosophy are inherently more humane, just, and compassionate than any religion could be? Is one to automatically presume that politics and philosophy are better equipped to be less arbitrary, oppressive and authoritarian than religions are?

What and where is the evidence to support such presumption? Why is it okay to rule over people in the name of politics, economics, or philosophy, but not okay to rule over people in the name of religion?

Irrespective of what the founding fathers may, or may not, have thought about such matters, I agree with the idea that religion ought not to become entangled in the principles of governance in such a way that religion is imposed on the community being governed. At the same time, I also believe that politics, economics, and philosophy ought not to become entangled in the principles of governance in such a way that they are imposed on the community being governed.

If one agrees that the principles inherent in protecting people from having religion imposed on them are valuable safeguards against tyranny and oppression, then, consistency requires that the same principles be applied to safeguard the public against the tyranny and oppression inherent in any political, philosophical, or economic system that is imposed on others without their consent. Moreover, if people do not wish to be consistent in the manner in which they seek to protect the community against tyranny and oppression, then, one needs to inquire into the nature of the motivation underlying this inconsistency and preferential asymmetry.

Imam Rauf claims that: “Muslims believe that America needs to reestablish the original understanding of the First Amendment, which balances the separation of church and state with freedom of religion by allowing all religions equal standing and by honoring the role of religion in building a good society. This balance is enormously important to Muslims.”

Aside from the fact that I find it somewhat disconcerting to be told that Muslims believe 'such and such' when I am a Muslim, and I don't necessarily believe what Imam Rauf says I believe, and aside from the already mentioned idea that I'm not sure that what he claims the original intention or understanding of the First Amendment to be actually constitutes the original understanding of all parties who voted on that amendment, I also wonder about the meaning of the idea of 'balance' to which he alludes in his foregoing claim.

How does one maintain a separation of church and state in a balanced way? What are the criteria by which one evaluates the conditions of balance? What methodologies are to be used in analyzing the idea of balance? What assumptions underlie such criteria and methodologies? How does one define the “good society”? What justifies such a definition?

For example, suppose a person's spiritual perspective holds that killing is wrong, as well as maintains that most wars are not about protecting the homeland but advancing the special interests of various corporations, power blocs, and ideological agendas, then, 'collateral damage' is really a euphemism for cold-blooded murder and not just an 'unfortunate' side effect of that which is necessary (and necessity here is always framed by those who are seeking to advance their economic, political, material, and/or financial interests). How does one 'balance' such a perspective with the perspective of those who have no problem with taking innocent human lives if this will further their worldly goals? Why should the former be required to support (e.g., through taxes) the perpetration of that (i.e., murder and oppression) to which they do not subscribe, and why should they have to be subjected to the possibility of being charged with 'treasonous' behavior simply because they do not want to lend the kind of support that violates their sense of right and wrong?

There is no balance here. An almost automatic preference tends to be given to the war-mongers, as well as to those with vested material/financial interests and to those who have an ideological agenda which they wish to oppressively impose on people, both domestic and foreign, and the question is why are there no protections against such political, philosophical, and economic tyranny if a central purpose of the 1st amendment is to ensure that oppressive elements do not control governance and if one of the central purposes of the Bill of Rights is to protect, among other things, disempowered minorities against the tyranny of majority rule?

Religion is about meaning, purpose, identity, values, and potential. Philosophy and politics are about meaning, purpose, identity, values, and potential. How does one balance conflicting and sometimes diametrically opposed ways of setting about to answer questions concerning such themes?

If the founding fathers believed in such a balance, then, what, precisely, did they mean by this? Did they really understand what they were advocating or voting on? Did they have it all worked out, or was it something of a rough idea whose structural character and horizons were lost in shadows of unasked questions and unknown contingencies?

If one were to bring the founding fathers together today and ask them about whether they truly believed in the idea of allowing all religions equal standing and whether, or not, the founding fathers wanted to honor the role of all religion in building a good society, how would they respond? Would they maintain that, for example, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, as well as the spiritual ways of various Native peoples constituted authentic religious traditions and ought to be accorded equal standing and honored for the way in which they contributed to the building of a good society? And, if they truly believed all these things, then, why – to raise but one issue -- were Native peoples treated in such abysmal, destructive, inhumane ways from the very beginning?

Imam Rauf goes on to say that: “Muslims have yet to fully incorporate the institutional expressions of democratic capitalism … into their various essential institutions: the rule of law (an independent judiciary), human rights, a stable currency, equal opportunity, free markets, social safety nets, and so forth. These principles, in my view, are among the most important institutional expressions of the second commandment that humanity has invented.” Aside from the problems I might have with Imam Rauf's tendency, from time to time, to make sweeping generalizations about what Muslims have, or have not, done across all geographical areas and historical periods, and aside from any questions which I might have about what it would mean to “fully incorporate” such institutional expressions of democratic capitalism or whether even the West has yet to accomplish this, I have a lot of difficulty with the mythology being spewed forth with respect to the alleged accomplishments of 'democratic capitalism'.

For instance, one could talk about the manner in which the judiciary has often been anything but independent as they (across all levels – from municipal, to county, state, and federal) frequently served the interests of power, capital and corporations against the interests of the poor and unempowered. As far as human rights are concerned, one might want to speak with Native peoples, Blacks, women and other minority groups who subsist along the margins of enjoying the full protections of human rights. Moreover, we don't have a stable currency, we have a floating value currency which has been set loose from any meaningful backing by actual material value (e.g., gold or silver), and the jury is still out as to how long the whole financial house of cards will survive before it falls apart, as has occurred on so many occasions throughout U.S. history. In the matter of 'equal opportunity', there are tens of millions of people in the United States who do not have equal opportunity with respect to education, jobs, housing, legal representation, medical care, or government access. In addition, the markets are not free but are distorted by such forces as: government subsidies, corporate welfare, a judiciary which lacks sufficient intelligence to understand that a corporation is not a person, an inequitable system of taxation, regulatory agencies which dance to the beat of lobbyists, and corrupt politicians who serve vested interests against the interests of the people they supposedly represent and against the interests of a truly free system of enterprise. Finally, it is difficult to get excited about a social safety net which has so many rips and tears that millions upon millions of people have fallen through the holes in that safety net.

Imam Rauf maintains that what America has done right is to create institutions which have perfected democratic capitalism. At any moment I expect Rod Serling to step out of the shadows and begin to talk about a man (namely Imam Rauf) who does not yet seem to understand that he has become trapped in the Twilight Zone as this inhabitant of a surreal realm addresses people as if his perceptions and beliefs defined the true nature of things even though what is being discussed by Imam Rauf is not perfected, is not really democratic, and constitutes a perverted, re-framed notion of what capitalism might have been if it had been guided by qualities of justice, morality, and spirituality rather than qualities of greed, inhumanity, and oppression.

[If you would like to read the remaining five parts of this essay, please go to:

What's Right With Islam by Imam Rauf - A Critical Commentary - Part Two

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