Yes, you do owe them an explanation (Muslims, race, politics and adab)

A woman facing left in the picture, with her hand facing the camera, as if to say "talk to the hand". She has a wide silver ring on her finger.

Sister Noor from the blog Fig & Olive recently did a post about the issue of ‘adab’ or good manners as it relates to activism, and whether people are responsible for their own behaviour despite being oppressed. Noor has recently done a podcast about the issue of Muslims in activism and “woke culture” which you can find on SoundCloud (you can also subscribe to the podcast, called In the Days of Noor, through Apple’s podcast app); it features an interview with the imam Dawud Walid, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a well-known Muslim civil rights and anti-defamation campaign group. I commented that there was a tendency to assume that when an ‘oppressed’ person is talking to an ‘oppressor’, there is an ideology that dictates that they do not owe it to that person to show them any politeness or courtesy, and that if they demand it they are guilty of “tone policing”. This ideology does not differentiate between actual victims of oppression and members of generally oppressed groups, nor between actual oppressors and people who share common characteristics with them or who are not the victims of the discrimination at hand, and this doctrine is commonly used as an excuse for bad behaviour and has crept into Muslim circles.

In age where a lot of people, including Muslims, are connected through social media who rarely if ever meet in real life, some of us rather too easily use the block button to cut off contact with people who cause us minor annoyances, who disagree with us, or who criticise a group we belong to. Indeed social media makes it too easy to do this and for the most trivial of reasons. This is not always related to race or gender but often is. In the last year or so I’ve had two friendships cut off and been blocked by two others — all Muslims — for disagreeing with their views on matters to do with race or politics. Most recently, someone I had known for years (on and off since the early 2000s) blocked me without explanation; I suspect, in reaction to my last post about the attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on social media. The earlier incident, although again there was no explanation, was probably because of my criticism of some Muslim race activists here. Similar things happened ten years ago (when a lot of friendships formed during the mid-2000s Muslim blogging era were breaking down for various reasons) with people I had known for years but stopped talking to me because of things I had said that they misinterpreted, and I was told “it’s nothing personal” and “I don’t owe you an explanation”. Sorry, but it is, and this is Islam and you do. Shunning someone — specifically refusing to return their salaam or otherwise communicate with them — without good reason (such as the communication being threats or harassment) is forbidden in Islam.

There are a number of beliefs which are in vogue in social activist circles to do with manners that have no place in Islam or in Muslim discourse. These include the idea, already mentioned, that members of an “oppressed class” do not owe an ‘oppressor’ courtesy or politeness; it is rather oppression itself to expect it. Another is that “the oppressed” are less responsible for their actions than “the oppressors” because they have less power; their behaviour, if it is offensive or harmful, is commonly put down to conditioning or things like “internalised misogyny”. Besides there being no basis in Islam for either of these doctrines, the second in particular is harmful to Muslims: it is what enables western feminists to justify bans on the hijab by claiming that nobody would wear it of their own accord but only because “their brothers force them” or “they are brainwashed/conditioned”. There are numerous Qur’anic ayaat and ahadith about the importance of good etiquette and behaviour and while there is praise for showing honour in the face of an arrogant person, there is no exemption for situations where there is a disagreement with a member of a more powerful class or tribe (these existed at the time of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) who has caused you petty annoyance and appeared presumptuous but not caused you any actual harm. Using foul speech in disagreements is noted in a hadith as a characteristic of a hypocrite.

We must not adopt ideological beliefs just because they are in fashion elsewhere. When confronted with such a belief, when we are told we must do this or not do that, or must accept this, or must or must not use this language or that, we must ask not only “why?” but also “is this from Allah and His Messenger, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam?”. If it tells you that you can show open disrespect to someone you were taught to respect (such as, for example, lecturing someone twice your age about a matter of opinion or a theory that not everyone accepts, in the manner of students during the Chinese Cultural Revolution), it is a trick of the Devil and an appeal to the ego.

As a Muslim community we must understand that we are under grave threat right now. We are going to need each other and we need to have each other’s backs. This does not mean we should not criticise racist attitudes among Muslims or organisations (such as schools) which tolerate them, but it does mean that we should not be expecting people who are not directly responsible to tolerate abuse and we should be aware of people who try to make a name for themselves by sowing or exaggerating racial divides. Likewise with Brexit: we know there are Muslims on both sides of the debate, Muslims who support Jeremy Corbyn and those who are critical of him, but there’s no reason to just junk a long-standing friendship because your friend was critical of Corbyn supporters. We need to keep ourselves calm and rational and not throw our toys out of the pram, so to speak, in response to a perceived insult that was not even aimed at us personally.

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