Muslims, shaikhs and the oppositional mentality

Looking at the discussion which has ensued from Umar Lee’s original “Rand Institute Muslims” post two weeks ago, something which has stuck out is the oppositional attitude of some of the major contributors. It seems that as long as a public speaker, whether it be a shaikh as such or someone else, feeds the desire of some (mostly young) people for rebellion, he is all right by them; as soon as he or she ceases to do so, they become a sell-out and are written off as if everything they said before had counted for nothing.

Among the most usual targets of this kind of attitude is Hamza Yusuf, who is widely accused of changing after 9/11 from a fiery orator into some sort of Bush government stooge. The claim that he was still a fiery orator on the evening of 10th September 2001 is a moot point, actually. As I wrote in reply to Stephen Schwartz’s claims to the same effect, I read books by him in 2000 which insisted that Muslims should obey the law and not remain in the USA on a tourist visa forever, as was common at that time and became much more difficult after 9/11. Among the supposedly worst things he said before 9/11 was that America had some sort of big tribulation coming and, well, you can’t say that he was lying.

But after 9/11, he didn’t gloat and say “I told you so”, and some might say his immediate behaviour after the event was extreme and that some of the statements he made to the media (under pressure, I suspect) were incorrect, but to be honest, I can understand why someone might have an about-turn in their stance, namely the realisation that someone who has planned or carried out a terrorist attack which claimed many innocent victims might have been partly inspired by something he had said or written. This is unlikely to be the case with the Arab perpetrators of 9/11 itself, but as for those who have carried out attacks elsewhere, this is a distinct possibility.

The most frustrating thing is trying to argue with brothers (and it does seem to be mostly brothers) who leap at any chance to dismiss a prominent Muslim as a sell-out, who see any connection with politicians or the establishment (in the west or the east) as proof that someone is a sell-out, and who refuse to tell the difference between a genuine moderate and an Uncle Tom. The most common victim of the last of those is Abdul-Hakim Murad, who appeared (momentarily) in at least one BBC documentary which attacked Wahhabis; he alleged that mainstream Islamic bookshops cannot compete with people who distribute Wahhabi pamphlets for free with Saudi money. Nobody bothered to try refuting what he actually said; they just attacked him for appearing at all, and insisted that, because what he said strengthened the general argument of the documentary, he must be on their side. They saw no real difference between him and the likes of the egregious Taj Hargey.

These same people would not take claims in the media about people they actually support at anything like face value, of course. The claims the media used to make about the Taliban were routinely dismissed, unless they agreed with them, of course; they were accused of being biased, of making things up, of paying farmers to claim that the Taliban were trying to get them to grow drug crops, and so on. While the media did sometimes translate things inaccurately (for example, by translating haraam as “unclean” in a quote from a Taliban leader about women), people would believe the most fantastic theory about how the media could fake a quote from someone they admired. Many Muslims believed “no-plane” conspiracy theories about 9/11 for years, and some still do.

Other examples abound: most commonly, those who participated in the Radical Middle Way talks automatically ceased to be the “cool” shaikhs among the online rebels. The idea of why the British government should want to spend money on lecture tours by moderate Muslim teachers did not occur to them: some Muslims had let off bombs on the London Underground and on a bus, killing more than fifty people, and there was another attempt two weeks later. While I do not dispute that these attacks happened in large part because of British participation in the Iraq war, the problem of the lack of moderate scholars in some parts of the country who spoke English and could appeal to the youth was known of long before 2001, let alone 2005.

Another example is an attempt to promote suspicion against Shaikh Hamza with a picture of him at a Tony Blair Faith Foundation event, with him seated next to Blair (someone posted this as a comment on my blog, but I didn’t let it through). “A picture speaks a thousand words,” said the comment, except that it didn’t speak the truth, which was that the event was promoting an effort to eliminate malaria, a disease which affects large tracts of the Muslim world, particularly in central Africa, and that Shaikh Hamza did not even know that the TBFF was involved. Of course, a cropped picture can spread a lie very easily (as with the notorious “babies overboard” picture which was instrumental in bringing John Howard to power in Australia in the 1990s), but that picture did not say what Shaikh Hamza actually said. Zaid Shakir wrote (in a blog post that was taken down, but has been reproduced elsewhere, as here):

Since he was there, Shaykh Hamza condemned Tony Blair to his face and warned him of the sad fate he would have when he met his Lord, precisely because of the role he played in the war. He does not endorse in any way the work of Tony Blairs organization … His only intention was to help eradicate malaria, a disease he was personally afflicted with during his years of study in Mauritania, and a disease whose devastating effect he has witnessed first hand during his years of traveling and studying in West Africa.

I have even come across Muslims trying to distort historical facts about “their imams”. For example, one commenter alleged that Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah were at war with the rulers of their time, while Imam al-Ghazali was patronised by them. Besides the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah’s pronouncements on the status of the Mongol sultans are not universally accpeted, the fact about Imam Ahmad is that, while he was imprisoned and tortured for refusing to accept the false doctrine they were propagating, he was never at war with them as such. To present it as war is essentially to rewrite history to present Sufis as the sultans’ and politicians’ favourite Muslims and “salafis”, and their supposed antecedents, as the “fighters” - the “armchair jihadi” agenda - which is a travesty of history.

Through large parts of Muslim history, Muslim scholars have had to tread a fine line between keeping themselves out of trouble and becoming “government scholars”, and many young Muslims in the west do not realise how difficult this can be, never having lived for any long period in any state less democratic and with less free speech than the UK or USA. They also do not realise that, in the time when there was a caliphate, the sort of rabble-rousers some of them listen to in the west (or did before some of them were arrested) would have been put in jail, and they would not have had to dig up an obscure century-old statute; a straightforward order would have done. In fact, the ruler might have been justified in imprisoning someone like Abdullah Faisal because of his habit of calling certain Muslims unbelievers and making it permissible for those he considered believers to kill them (e.g. Bareilawis). When I put this to a brother in London who objected to the imprisonment of Faisal, he replied that this was the khalifa’s business, not the non-Muslim and un-Islamic British government’s.

It is next to impossible to tell some of these youths that the “government scholars” they so despise are sometimes (not always) actually great scholars, not lackeys, who are doing their best under difficult conditions, and that even if someone is taking money from the Syrian or Egyptian state (let alone if he gives the occasional guest speech), what he says about certain political issues might be correct, even if it goes against one’s rebellious instinct or sense of justice, or requires one to accept that a bad situation cannot be corrected as easily as one thinks.

Quite apart from the eagerness to show disrespect for authority, these brothers are too quick to think ill of people - as with the backbiting against Yahya Birt I attacked in December 2007, they assume guilt whenever they see association. If we reject anyone who we perceive as not living up to standards influenced by our egos and preconceived notions, we deprive ourselves of the benefit we might gain through them.

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