Note: This post today was originally written in February of 2010, but never published on the blog, only at Arab West Report. I was reminded of it by the controversy in recent weeks concerning the proposed Muslim community center / mosque at Ground Zero. The leader of the project visited Egypt several months ago, and I attended his lecture. Imam Faisal Abdul Raouf was not a household name at that time, though the Ground Zero plans were already contemplated, if not underway.
The essay which follows has nothing to do with his Ground Zero plans, but addresses the larger question of the place of Islam in the West. The post is a bit lengthy, but I hope you progress through to the end to read along with my efforts to look inward at the psyche of America, indeed my own misgivings and hope, in order to find the best way forward. I wish that in light of the issues being raised at Ground Zero, my conclusion might help us find that way.
On a lighter note before we begin, I have experimented with placing a survey at two places in the post. I’ll be very interested to see your vote, and will look forward to any comments you have to offer. Thanks.
In recent days I have had the opportunity to encounter a picture of Islam as a message of love and tolerance from two very different Muslim voices, Imam Faisal Abdul Raouf and Sheikh Ahmad al-Sayih. Imam Faisal is head of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent organization seeking to promote international understanding and acceptance between the Western and Islamic worlds. He is the son of Egyptian sheikhs from al-Azhar, but was educated in Great Britain and served many years as an imam in a New York City mosque. He visited Egypt and presented his work at the Sawy Culture Wheel, sponsored by the US Embassy, in which he outlined his vision, distributed an Arabic translation of his book, and sought to recruit support and partners for his international organization. A summary of his presentation can be found here.
Sheikh Ahmad, meanwhile, is an Egyptian sheikh from al-Azhar, now retired. He has taught in Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and currently is concerned to combat the growing Wahhabi influence on Islam, both in Egypt and worldwide. He believes this is a corruption of Islam as it tends to reject the religious other, whereas Islam in its essence is the same message as that which was revealed in the earlier religions. Sheikh Ahmad is from the region near Nag Hamadi, where six Christian young men were recently killed exiting Christmas mass, along with one Muslim police officer, and has spoken out against this crime. I interviewed him in this context, hoping both to better understand the situation and gain counsel on how to assist in peacemaking there. A summary of this interview can be found here.
This essay will be an attempt to compare and contrast these two Muslim voices based on the reactions they produce, first in their Arabic audience, second in me, as a Western Christian. Though I was unable to interview Imam Faisal, the question and answer period of his presentation revealed the controversy his ideas elicited from the predominantly Egyptian audience. Conversely, though I have not personally witnessed the effect of Sheikh Ahmad’s teachings on Egyptian public opinion, he himself highlighted much of the controversy he has engendered. As mentioned above, both men preach a message of Islamic love and tolerance. Why should love and tolerance produce any controversy at all?
This essay will begin from the starting point of Islam as a world religion, and therefore like all its peers it is comprised of vast and flexible source material. Believers in Islam can find ample texts to support a variety of positions, and while each may argue with the other over best interpretations, inasmuch as they work from the same basis and maintain the accepted boundaries of faith—themselves open to dispute at times—they represent a message which is intrinsically Islamic. As a non-Muslim it is not my place to comment on the message of love and tolerance as opposed to extremist thought; it will be the perspective here that Islam, like all religions, can support many emphases, which can be highlighted or downplayed according to the person, movement, culture, or age.
Both Imam Faisal and Sheikh Ahmad highlight Islam as a message of love and tolerance. They differ widely, however, in their presentation and audience. Imam Faisal, though born to Azhari Egyptian parents is thoroughly comfortable in the Western cultural world, to which he speaks primarily. His English pronunciation is perfect and his dress impeccable. He declared that his motivation to help Americans understand Islam grew exponentially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when he and his community were put to the test in defending their faith against the actions of Islamic terrorists. He discovered that America was not necessarily against Islam, but needed to see an Islam which was not a threat, first to its safety, second to its cultural values. In the course of explaining the true message of Islam over and over he saw also the need for Muslims in the West to practice their faith within this culture, so as to win a place of natural being and acceptance. Concerning the controversy in Switzerland over the building of minarets, he urged Swiss Muslims to build Swiss mosques, acceptable to the culture so as to become part of the established and normal landscape. His message was for Islam to become Swiss. He noted, also, that in his presentations he discovered a growing Western hunger for spirituality, which many were finding in Islam.
Sheikh Ahmad, meanwhile, speaks no English whatsoever, dresses like a traditional Azhari scholar, and converses even informally in Arabic diction fit for the Friday pulpit. Through his many years teaching in the Persian Gulf states he became very familiar with Wahhabi teaching, which he grew more and more to find was poisoning the precious Islamic message of love and tolerance. He writes and speaks extensively to expose the false foundations of Wahhabi thought, which he finds grounded in some of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, most of which his scholarly study has found to be baseless. Among these traditions is source material for violent and separatist preaching highlighted by some Muslims today, which in actuality, he believes, were composed when the later Islamic community was growing apart from the Christian milieu of the fading Byzantine Empire which it had largely conquered. His message was to return to the original preaching of Muhammad, which emphasized the community with and respect for other religions, Christianity in particular. He had special praise for the monks of Makarius Monastery in Egypt, in whom he found the real Islamic spirit of love and tolerance.
The controversy of Sheikh Ahmad’s views is found in his calling into question many of the inherited traditions of Islam. In doing so he disturbs the traditional acceptance which many Muslims have given to the traditions in general, potentially prompting a reevaluation of the faith, as so much currently accepted as Islam is built from this source. Sheikh Ahmad declares, actually, that 60% of current Islam stems from faulty traditions, and therefore must be jettisoned. This is not an easy message for ordinary Muslims to hear.
The controversy Imam Faisal’s views produced was different, as he questioned not the religious sources of Islam, but its cultural ones. Though only a quarter of the world’s Muslims are Arabs, its foundations are still largely Arabic, certainly through the language, and also through the culture of Arabia which birthed the faith and established its early patterns, generally accepted as normative. Imam Faisal, however, highlighted that in history Muslims have always adapted their faith to the local culture, and urges Muslims today to do the same in the West. If Islam there remains foreign—Arab, Pakistani, etc.—it will not become accepted. Though not as controversial as the source criticism of Sheikh Ahmad, for the Muslims of Egypt attending the Sawy Culture Wheel presentation, proud of their self-identity as leaders of the Arab world, this is not an easy message to hear.
Therefore, though the vast majority of the Egyptian Muslim audience of both Muslim voices would agree with the message of Islam as love and tolerance, the manner of establishment was discomforting for many. One called into question the accepted cultural basis of the religion, the other the accepted religious basis. The discomfort should not be surprising, for most believers of any religion inherit their values without much thought or questioning. For these, Islam is love and tolerance. Practitioners of religion, however, especially those who are forced to consider their faith outside its comfortable context, must deal with the faith in its entirety and complexity. Imam Faisal has found the fear of Islam in the West to be tied to the foreignness of the culture of its adherents. By removing the cultural component the message of love and tolerance is better received. Sheikh Ahmad, however, has found that Islam is threatened by Wahhabi emphasis on certain traditions. By invalidating this religious component the message of love and tolerance is better established. Yet in explaining why Islam is a message of love and tolerance to those who already believe this, they cause ordinary believers to think about their received faith, and examine it. This is not an easy process to bear, and controversy is the natural result.
Thinking about received traditions is not limited to Egyptian Muslims, and this Western Christian found himself in similar territory. This next section of the essay is meant as exploration of psyche, and not necessarily evaluation of ideas, certainly not confidence of convictions. Yet as I was interacting with both Muslim voices I found myself drawn to and favorable toward one, while I was questioning of and guarded against the other. I wonder which the reader, especially the Muslim reader, might suspect of me before I continue. In which ways have my biases been experienced so far?
It is important to emphasize that the message of Islam as love and tolerance is an easy one for the Western Christian to accept, and the promotion of this message within Islam would certainly call for rejoicing. The Western Christian, inasmuch as he or she knows Islam, either condemns it as a religion of violence or commends it as a religion of peace and tolerance. The more generally educated Western Christian comment on Islam may be seen in that thought with which I began this essay: Islam is composed of vast and flexible source material, from which self-described Muslim voices draw both messages. The Western Christian may or may not be as conscious that both the Western and the Christian traditions are similarly variable, but this fact is true of almost all world systems of thought. It is impossible for worldviews to hold historical and international sway unless they are of this nature.
Therefore, the Western Christian of any ideology would be glad to find love and tolerance promoted within Islam. For the Westerner, this means that adherents of the religion will not threaten us, in either our safety or our cultural values. For the Christian, this means that the dominant expression of faith can find common ground in what is often seen as a rival, and thus oppositional, religion. In theory, though practice is always a different and more difficult matter, joint declarations of love and tolerance presents Islam as an ally of both.
Yet the voice of Sheikh Ahmad is much easier to digest. From this point forward I must state that I am describing my own palpitations of heart; though I believe these to be representative of an average Western (or at least American) Christian, I can speak with no certainty about this matter. Each is invited to speak for himself.
Sheikh Ahmad dares to critique the received traditions of Islam, commenting directly on the sources which promote interpretations of violence. Should the Western Christian crassly rejoice in the long awaited exposure of Islam, he or she does so poorly. Sheikh Ahmad is purifying Islam from what he believes are false accretions from pure religion; yet what remains is still pure Islam. Still, he speaks to the Western Christian fear that violence, though certainly not the only message of Islam, exists truly within the heart of this faith. By stating it does not, he puts his foreign audience at ease. We have no idea if he is or is not correct in his assessment, but we are glad to hear it nonetheless.
Drawing only from the presentation of Imam Faisal, combining with experiences of other Western Muslim preachers, this thorny issue of sources is often left unaddressed. The message of love and tolerance is appreciated, but if background issues of both textual and historical violence remain only in the background, the Western Christian remains wary. Is love and tolerance the message of Islam when it is a minority faith, or in a weakened state, which will give way to sources, emphasized currently by some adherents of Islam, which highlight differences and propose superiority, when its foundations are stronger? Put another way, is Islam about love and tolerance in its essence, or is this a means to attract enough support until power is adequately accumulated? At that point, of course, love and tolerance will not disappear, but other messages may come out from the background. All religions must answer this question; given the complex relationship between the Western Christian and the Islamic worlds throughout history, it is asked contemporarily of Islam. Perhaps Muslims should also ask it of us.
The question I wished to pose to Imam Faisal during his presentation was this: Pope John Paul II had been a leading critic of Western violence, as in the current Iraqi war. He has also strongly condemned and apologized for Christian uses of violence, as in the Crusades, Inquisitions, and Christianization of Latin America. Most Muslims and you today condemn the attacks of September 11; are Muslims in general, and are you in particular, ready to condemn those who have committed violence in the name of Islamic empire, common to all empires, as being against the nature of true Islamic faith? Specifically, were the wars of Islamic expansion (al-futuhat al-Islamiya), in violation of Islam? Middle Age believers of both faiths mixed religion and empire without apology. Many 21st Century Christians now apologize for this; are 21st Century Muslims able to do the same?
I wavered considerably in asking this question. In the end I decided against it, for I felt I would be asking not of sincere inquiry, but of combativeness and challenge. The question may be valid, but I would not have been asking from a proper spirit. Furthermore, my question would rightly be seen as a trap. If he were to answer ‘no’, he would undue his message of love and tolerance in the eyes of the West, authenticating the suspicion of it being the message of Islam as minority or weakened faith alone. Yet if he were to answer ‘yes’, especially given his Egyptian audience, he would likely unleash a torrent of controversy, as Muslims rightly celebrate their golden ages of civilizational superiority. Yet would Islam in essence declare the manner of establishing this civilization as faulty, flawed, and sinful?
Yet there is another, more pernicious question that gets raised in the heart of the Western Christian, one which undermines his own values of love and tolerance. The message of Sheikh Ahmad is more easily digested because Sheikh Ahmad, no matter the symmetry of his values and those of the Western Christian, remains ‘other’. He remains foreign. Imam Faisal, on the other hand, is a Westerner. He is one of us, but he is a Western Muslim. Does being a Westerner overpower his Muslim identity, making it easier to accept him as ‘us’? Or is his Western state simply a garb under which beats a Muslim soul, making his acceptance more difficult, threatening to group him with ‘them’? Yet, regardless of his constitution, why do these questions concern us so?
The values of Western Christian civilization have in recent ages extended a welcome to people of all faiths. Freedom of religion is a cherished and inviolable right, and nations of the West added to their melting pot Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, and allowed all to build their houses of worship, practice their rites, and even spread their religious beliefs. Perhaps America has integrated these communities better than Europe, but all have held that religion should not be a barrier to welcome and participation in society. If the reality falls short of the rhetoric it reveals the sublime ideal for which to aim.
Yet despite the declining significance of religion in Western life the cultural foundation maintains its Christian basis. This is an understated value for Westerners in general, though it is present below the surface, but it is cherished by the Western Christian. The inclusion of foreign faiths has not bothered either group, for until now they have been welcomed as full participants in society—but here is the unspoken reality—as long as their faiths remain foreign. The Muslim in the West is generally free to construct a mosque, conduct his prayers, and fast as he wishes. Yet these values, no matter if the response is of condescension or respect, remain imported, cherished by a welcomed ethnic group, but belonging to them and not to us. This Muslim may play on the work sports team, join in the national day neighborhood celebrations, and attend parent-teacher meetings at school. He is free to be an Arab, or Pakistani, or whatever citizen of the West. His Islam, or his Buddhism, or whatever, is his own, and not ours.
This is a very delicate matter, and it would not be spoken like this publically. The discourse esteems the right of religion, and the Westerner, including the Western Christian, will rejoice that the Muslim is free to have his or her Islam. Imam Faisal, however, has recognized that the natural result of immigration is transformation of culture; his efforts threaten to disturb the balance by making Islam ‘ours’.
This is not an accusation against him; in his focus and words he is very wise. More so, his discourse is inevitable. As long as communities of Muslims exist in the West, no matter their place of origin, there will emerge a Western Islam. This speaks back to the opening premise of religion as being vast and flexible. Western values and Islamic values have been and will increasingly negotiate together to produce a new, and viable, interpretation of the religion, one which will likely express itself in congruity with the greater host culture. Imam Faisal wishes to speed up this process, but it will happen with or without him. All families wish to live in peace with those around them; as Muslim families live in peace with Western culture, they will invariably be shaped by it. Their expression of Islam will likewise bend to this reality. In dominant Islamic cultures the purists, though they be misnamed, may protest, as was seen at the presentation of Imam Faisal, but these cries will be futile, falling on the deaf ears of an emerging Muslim community.
The careful reader, however, will notice that the second half of the familiar couplet has fallen out of the last paragraph. This is what will happen in the West, but what is the effect on the Western Christian? He can only be confronted by his schizophrenia. As a Westerner he is powerless to protest, for the process of assimilation is a cherished part of his being. His own ancestors negotiated this path long ago, between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and of which he or she is a result. Yet as a Western Christian this assimilation of other religious groups undermines the particular Christian nature of the culture. Perhaps with Islam this is felt more deeply because of ingrained historical attitudes between the faiths. If Islam becomes Western then it becomes ‘us’. Yet there is that within Christianity, as with exclusivist tendencies in all religions, to restrict ‘us’ to those likeminded. The Western Christian has no problem inviting the Muslim to become ‘us’ in a Western sense, but this entails leaving Islam as his personal, foreign expression of faith.
This is further complicated by uncertainties about Imam Faisal, here and hereafter used as an expression of Western Islamic preaching. Is he a missionary? He is free to be, of course; Western Christian values demand this. When the odd Westerner converts to Islam and dons a traditional robe, grows a long beard, and changes his name to Muhammad so-and-so, this causes little concern, for every individual is free, and he has clearly left many expressions of his culture to adopt those of the peculiar foreigners. Yet Imam Faisal is urging Western Muslims to become, and presumably to remain in the case of a convert, Western. It is more of a challenge to accept the reality of Jeremy Smithson, Muslim, wearing a three piece suit, or perhaps jeans, t-shirt, and baseball cap.
Therefore Imam Faisal is open to the challenge: Is his bridge building work done in order to make fertile ground for Islam, so that over time Islam becomes part of the Western cultural identity, and more and more Westerners find peace within its fold? Again, it is his right, but is this his message? If it is, is it admitted? The Westerner may feel the suspicion under the surface, whereas the Western Christian may be immediately more defensive. Yet how can one know? It is uncharitable to toss around accusations, and as a Westerner, the Christian cannot protest. He can only lament the declining status of his faith within his own culture, at least inasmuch as Christianity is the primary, or among the leading, informants of the culture.
Of course there are several other options available. The Western Christian can adjust and resign himself to the inevitable social demographic patterns of life. He or she can renew internal Christian energy and seek re-evangelization of the culture and the inhabitants thereof. He or she can become angry and hostile toward these new Muslim interlopers, and seek the defamation of their faith, warning of the hidden agenda behind the slogans of love and tolerance. At least, this can be done within the allowable limits of Western culture. Passing special favor onto a man like Sheikh Ahmad might be seen as a clever passive-aggressive expression of this last option.
I dare not choose between these options listed, but if there is a path to be proclaimed as ideal, it may have to decouple two of the often used expressions of this essay. The first to be dissolved is ‘Western Christian’. In doing so it leaves each identity free to be honest with its own nature, and exposes the unholy alliance between the two. Western Christian culture is the last remaining remnant of Western Christendom, which coupled Christian faith with temporal power. It is not as if there was no good produced from this union; the humanistic values of the West were ultimately formed in negotiation between faith and power. Perhaps the same could be said of the great and tolerant Islamic civilizations of history. Yet in clinging to the desire for Christian culture the Western Christian is longing for superiority, dominance, and control. Though never to be expressed in this way, when spoken in these terms it exposes the distinct unchristian nature of this desire.
This does not mean that Western and Christian should become oppositional; on the contrary they make keen allies. Yet why should not Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism also become allies in this endeavor? Most Western Christians have already transformed the once despised Jews into participants in an acclaimed ‘Judeo-Christian culture’. The questions posed to Islam in this essay are essential for determining if indeed this religion can become an ally in the equation, but is there any reason to suspect that possessors of a vast and flexible religious heritage could not become as such?
The second decoupling involves the epithet ‘love and tolerance’. Tolerance is a negative virtue. It speaks to the right to leave one alone to do as he wishes and to believe what he will, provided respect is granted similarly for the rights of others. As such, it is the perfect, correct, and cherished value of Western culture. The Western Christian, however, needs to evaluate where his truest identity lies. Christianity speaks not of tolerance—though it is not absent from the discourse—but of love. Love extends welcome. Love shares resources. Love forgives faults. Love hopes for the best. Love humbles itself. Love sacrifices for the success of others. Love is willing to perish rather than deny its nature.
It is difficult to translate these sentiments into practical reality, but I believe this is the necessary attitude Western Christians must adopt toward the emerging Muslim communities within their midst, as well as toward Islam worldwide, and all other religious adherents beside. If in the end these prove themselves ungracious recipients then this is the risk associated with love itself. It is poured upon all, worthy and unworthy. Christians should be conscious of their own tradition which declares them to be unworthy recipients of the love of God; how then can they be miserly toward others? If these take such love and trample upon it, undoing the very nature of the societies which welcomed them then this is the risk associated with love itself. Christians should be conscious of their own tradition in which Christ, in obedience to love became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
At this the Western Christian will long again for the Western nature of his identity; after all, from this base of power he or she can find protection. The answer of God, however, is resurrection and redemption. This hope, however, is only in God; it is the attitude of Christ which Christians must hold.
Within this arrangement the Christian, now potentially free of his limiting couplet, must face the question earlier posed to Imam Faisal: Are you a missionary? The Christian is free to be, of course, inasmuch as anyone is free to be a salesman for a preferred commodity. In fact, the commodity is valuable, both for the individual and for the world. It would do well to be marketed. Love, however, seeks not its own. The Christian must consider long and hard his motivations. Is a desire to see one’s faith in the lives of others emerging from the natural and human desire for strength, importance, and triumph, however defined? If so, these are the very attitudes denounced by Christian faith. If not from love nothing is gained, though mountains be moved in the process. Given the vagaries of the human condition, who can confess to a pure heart? God is gracious; he will redeem all which comes from love, and allow all else to be burned as chaff. Where in this equation falls the desire to see ‘love’ proclaimed by the lips of others? May each Christian, may each human, submit this question only to God.
It is imagined, not unreasonably, that Sheikh Ahmad, Imam Faisal, and the author of this essay trust that within ourselves there is the desire to please God; though this be submitted to him, it is only through our actions these desires become of use to people around us. Please judge, but be charitable. May we all extend such charity to one another.