On Friday, January 30th, 2015 the Women’s Mosque of America hosted its first Friday Prayer at its location in Los Angeles. Founders and co-Presidents, M. Hasna Maznavi and Sana Muttalib welcomed the group of worshipers, journalists, and curious guests stating that at this new mosque, “we will not be policing any bodies.” According to Maznavi, the “policing” of bodies was one of the primary reasons that led her to creating a mosque for women.
The mosque itself is symbolic of the struggle of young American Muslims to create their own identities that are not only compatible with Islam but also reflective of the social progress that they are a part of. Young Muslims are pushing back against rigid social and gender norms brought to the country by their parents and grandparents that are only tangentially related to Islam. Maznavi notes that although they respect the orthodox beliefs, they also want to stretch them to be more inclusive.
A recent Pew Study revealed that Muslims in America fare better than Muslims in Europe. The results of the study illustrate American Islam as diverse, integrated, well-educated and economically successful. Additionally, American Muslims are more tolerant of other sects within Islam. Their experience and situation in America is in stark contrast to the experiences of Muslims in Europe like the Turks in Germany and North African immigrants in France. As a community, they overwhelmingly reject terrorism and identify as first as Americans and then as Muslims.
August 14, 2014
On Sunday, August 10th, 2014, renowned and notable scholar and professor Dr. Tariq Ramadan posted on his webpage a piece titled Why I Will Not Attend The ISNA And RIS Conferences. The post stirred much heated debate over social media, with notable scholars also responding and urging him to reconsider his position in light of points they raised. The President of ISNA also issued a formal statement.
Dr. Ramadan agreed to be interviewed, stating for now this will be his one response to his post.
The following is an edited conversation between Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Amina Chaudary of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) on August 11, 2014.
TIM: In your essay, you argue that Muslims should speak out against certain U.S. policies by basing their arguments in American values, not Islamic ones. Why did you choose this frame of reference?
Ramadan: As Western Muslims and American Muslims, we need to understand that the values and principles we promote are not only Muslim values. American Muslims live in a country where justice, dignity, freedom and equality are essential values. The Muslim contribution to the future of America is to not only speak out as Muslims, but to also speak out as citizens in the name of our common values. Our main contribution is to reconcile the American society with its own values, those that are not in contradiction to Islam. We have a duty of consistency.
TIM: ISNA wears many hats for Muslims in America, and its annual convention provides a venue for everything from family reunions to panel sessions on halal certifications to addressing many of the political issues you identified in your essay. Is it fair to place the burden on this one institution to articulate a position on all American policies both foreign and domestic? Are you asking specific individuals within ISNA’s leadership to articulate their position vis-a-vis these issues? Does this boycott extend to other groups guilty of the same silence, or is it specific to ISNA as the largest of them all?
Ramadan: As I wrote in the beginning of my post, I have a great deal of respect for the people who have been working and serving the community in America and Canada, and, among them, the two institutions I mentioned. I am not attacking the institution. Some have misunderstood my point or not read my paper carefully and they are saying “Tariq Ramadan is calling for a boycott and is creating divisions.” What I was trying to do is exactly the opposite. The divisions are already there and it is not by hiding the tensions that we are solving the problems. My position is clearly about the leadership. I can understand and respect the fact that you want to keep the channel open with American authority. But at the same time, you need to know your goals to serve your fellow citizens and the Muslim community in the name of your principles. Some people are responding by saying, “You are not an American, you do not understand. The priorities in Europe are not the same as in the U.S. or in Canada. You are obsessed with international issues!” Is that even a response? So why do they invite me in the first place if I do not understand the respective situations in the U.S. and in Canada? Am I suitable only when I am not critical? I have been visiting and studying the North American continent for almost 30 years and I am sad to hear such arguments. I do not deal with “international affairs” only; half of my work has been on Western Muslims. My point is straightforward: anyone who tries to separate or divorce domestic politics from international politics does not get it, and that might be dangerous for the future of Western Muslims. Shouldn’t the American leadership be addressing what is happening in America, with its domestic policies on racism, discrimination, illegal monitoring, solitary confinement, torture, Guantanamo Bay and any other social and political issues related to the American society not directly connected to Islam? American Muslims must speak out and be involved as well in international policies and, through their institutions, they should raise their voice. This is the way you serve the community. I understand the need to serve the community by talking about marriage or halal food. But you should also lead with vision, wisdom and courage. Islam is a religion of justice and dignity, and we are taught to never keep silent when facing injustice, discrimination and double standards. This is our contribution. I am expecting institutions to be able to open up and break the silence. They should write with assertiveness about some of the critical issues. But this is not what is done now. I have great respect for the way they serve, but question their silence on critical issues.
TIM: Some scholars have asked you to reconsider your attendance of ISNA, not necessarily because they disagree with your critique, but because they fear your absence could irrevocably diminish an institution they consider an important cornerstone of Muslim America. How do you respond to them? Assuming this analysis is true and your actions would diminish the organization in an irretrievable way, would you still not attend ISNA?
Ramadan: It is not a question of boycotting. I am not calling for a boycott. I am sending a message and asking a question in a respectful, critical and constructive way. I received many e-mails from people saying, “Professor, please come, don’t do that.” Just ten minutes ago, I received a very moving e-mail from somebody telling me, “Sheikh, in the name of your knowledge, your contribution and what you have been teaching us, don’t boycott.” Once again, I am not calling for a boycott. My absence would certainly be the most powerful speech I have ever given at ISNA. And for the attendees, it is important to note that my intention was not to create division, but exactly the opposite. They must ask their institutions, what are your priorities? How are you going to deal with this? I have given talks to many people for years, at ISNA or RIS. And now what I am trying to say is that although I am not going, the people who will attend should make their voices heard in a constructive way.
August 1, 2014
For many Muslims born to immigrant parents in this country, our first encounters with an indigenous American Muslim tradition allowed us to see pieces of ourselves in the cultural life and history of the United States. Whether it was watching slaves carry their religion to Southern plantations in the TV series “Roots,” poring over the prison conversion story in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” sifting through old footage of Muhammad Ali citing his religious beliefs as his rationale for refusing his Vietnam draft notice, or deciphering Islamic references in the lyrics of hip-hop artists such as Lauryn Hill or A Tribe Called Quest, each moment illuminated a rich archive of American Muslim history that we had never been exposed to in our homes, schools, or even in our mosques.
The New Africa Center on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia is a small museum dedicated to preserving what Abdul Rahim Muhammad, the Center’s director, calls the “lost and found history of American Islam.” The Center features items donated largely from Abdul Rahim’s own personal journey as a convert to the Nation of Islam during the 1950s when it was under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad to the Nation’s transformation and transition under Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah’s son.
“A lot of people, even Muslims themselves, don’t know about the Muslim experience in America, particularly the African-American Muslim experience,” said Abdul Rahim. “When I grew up, we were the voice of the community. Now we’re barely heard.”
Rahim claims that Warith Deen Muhammad continued to face criticism from Muslim leaders who had recently immigrated to the United States for speaking too much about racial issues and not enough about the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.
“They thought he was trying to create a new Islamic movement. But he was really trying to help black people solve an identity crisis and help us reconnect with our roots as African Muslims and the sunnah of the Prophet and the story of his companion Bilal. But people would tell Warith Deen that he needed to talk more about Abu Bakr and the other main companions. No, he stuck with Bilal because Bilal spoke to us.”
August 10, 2014
In recent years I have been a faithful participant in two major events of the North American Muslim calendar. As a regular attendee at these annual gatherings, I wish to express my warmest thanks to the institutions, and to the women and men who made them the success they undoubtedly were.
This year, however, I have decided not to attend or participate in the conferences organized by ISNA from August 29 to September 1 in Detroit, and by RIS, from December 26-28 2014, in Toronto. The reasons are different, but point to similar causes.
The leaders of ISNA can boast a proud record of service to American Muslims, for which they must be thanked and congratulated. The annual ISNA convention is an important gathering, featuring a multiplicity of participants and a broad cross-section of activities. In recent years, however, the political positions taken by the organization’s leadership have not always been clear-cut. Though it is essential, I believe, to remain open to dialogue with the authorities, it is likewise essential that positions of principle must be maintained, re-affirmed and defended. Not simply for the good of the Muslims, but in the name of the contribution of American Muslims to their society. Criticism of the domestic policy of the current administration, like those that preceded it, is a moral obligation. Summary arrests, arbitrary prison terms, inhuman psychological torture and solitary confinement, the shadowy role of informers and the deeply troubling and unacceptable methods used by the FBI, which has provoked young people to engage in extremist actions, must be unconditionally condemned. Not in the name of Islam, but in the name of the values proclaimed by the United States. However, the ISNA leadership is too often silent, as if paralyzed by fear. It fares no better with respect to American foreign policy. Its silence over American support for the outlaw and inhuman policies of Israel cannot be justified, even less so after attending an iftar organized by the White House during which President Obama defended Israel while the Israeli ambassador tweeted his delight! We cannot be forever silent: what kind of active and responsible citizenship does the ISNA leadership offer young American Muslims? What kind of example? That of silent, fearful sycophants–or of free, public-spirited citizens who, while defending the values of human dignity and justice, serve their country in the most sincere and critical way? That of the unconditional loyalty of the timorous, or the critical loyalty of free individuals? To attend the ISNA convention would be to endorse their silence.
Nor will I be attending RIS this year. The reasons are different, the causes similar. The organizers have long demonstrated their effectiveness; they wish to convey the impression of favoring a plurality of voices. But in fact, it is the so-called “Sufi” and “apolitical” trend that lies at the core of the RIS convention. I do not have the slightest problem with this trend (on the contrary), or its underlying structures and aims. The problem is that some of the participants, scholars or preachers, under the guise of Sufism or in the name of avoiding partisan politics, defend highly politicized positions of support for states and dictatorships. Their silence and their inferences in the heart of the West, in Toronto or elsewhere, constitute visible support for the Gulf petro-monarchies or for despots such as al-Sissi in Egypt. This while dictators from Syria to Iraq by way of Egypt are imprisoning, torturing and killing innocents by the thousands. They cast themselves as above the conflict, while the “Sufism” they offer is highly politicized and too well adjusted to the boots of the State. But I will have none of this. When some speakers boast in public of their openness but refuse to participate in panel discussions to avoid being exposed, openness goes by the board. When the same people support dictatorial governments, coherence flies out the window. I cannot, by my presence, lend implicit approval to such positions.
Spare me please any talk of my family background: I have sufficiently criticized the Islamist movements—all of them, without exception–and their choices that my approach cannot be reduced to anything resembling even implicit support. My position is that all dictators must be confronted, all injustices must be fought; we cannot be silent, or feign silence while supporting the worst regimes.
I have said it once and I will say it again: Western Muslims will in the future assume a critical role. Educated and living in free societies, they must acquire greater knowledge of their religion and become free, active and outspoken citizens, fully aware of their duties and dedicated to the defense of their rights. In the United States, just as in Canada and in Europe, they must defend everyone’s human dignity, and refuse to keep silent in the face of intimidation by the state. Drawing on their spirituality and their values, their commitment will be their finest contribution, the best possible example of the contribution of Muslim citizens to the future of the West. The leaders of the previous generation are too cautious, too fearful; they dare not speak freely.
I am also a member of a generation that is passing on. It is up to the new generation to produce leaders who have understood that in bending over backwards, in saying “Yes sir!” they sacrifice not only their dignity, but forget and betray their duty. I dream of a new feminine and masculine leadership, educated, free and bold, a leadership that does not confuse the concept of dialogue with the authorities with unacceptable compromise and intellectual surrender, a leadership that does not transform Sufism, the historical underpinning of so many liberation movements, into a school of silence and cowardly calculation. As I look around me, I see the first premises of a dream come true, alhamdulLilah.
I am well aware that the position I am taking will sound off sharp criticism; others may simply decide not to invite me. For years I have dealt with criticisms of my person, my training, my credibility. I have no time to waste with these low blows and refer readers to my résumé, which can be found on my website (http://tariqramadan.com/english/biography/). These are the same individuals who attack my character to avoid responding to the content of my critical thought. I know their methods all too well, but I refuse to waste my time by answering their attacks, which are nothing but a manoeuvre to sidestep the true subject. It is impossible for me to attend such events when my presence alone would imply support for positions that stand in total contradiction to my vision of the role of Western Muslims in their society, now and in the future. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. It is imperative that we educate ourselves, and that we display good judgement and fortitude. If those around us are silent in the face of the unacceptable, the conscience of Muslims must not remain silent, neither in the name of wisdom betrayed, nor of Sufism perverted.
July 21, 2014
Investigations, Trials of American Muslims Rife with Abuse
(Washington, DC) –The US Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have targeted American Muslims in abusive counterterrorism “sting operations” based on religious and ethnic identity, Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute said in a report released today. Many of the more than 500 terrorism-related cases prosecuted in US federal courts since September 11, 2001, have alienated the very communities that can help prevent terrorist crimes.
The 214-page report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,”examines 27 federal terrorism cases from initiation of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. It documents the significant human cost of certain counterterrorism practices, such as overly aggressive sting operations and unnecessarily restrictive conditions of confinement.
“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”
The report is based on more than 215 interviews with people charged with or convicted of terrorism-related crimes, members of their families and their communities, criminal defense attorneys, judges, current and former federal prosecutors, government officials, academics, and other experts.
In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act. Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases. Almost 30 percent were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.
“The US government should stop treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting,” Prasow said. “The bar on entrapment in US law is so high that it’s almost impossible for a terrorism suspect to prove. Add that to law enforcement preying on the particularly vulnerable, such as those with mental or intellectual disabilities, and the very poor, and you have a recipe for rampant human rights abuses.”
These abuses have had an adverse impact on American Muslim communities. The government’s tactics to seek out terrorism suspects, at times before the target has demonstrated any intention to use violence, has undercut parallel efforts to build relationships with American Muslim community leaders and groups that may be critical sources of information to prevent terrorist attacks.
In some communities, these practices have deterred interaction with law enforcement. Some Muslim community members said that fears of government surveillance and informant infiltration have meant they must watch what they say, to whom, and how often they attend services.
“Far from protecting Americans, including American Muslims, from the threat of terrorism, the policies documented in this report have diverted law enforcement from pursuing real threats,” Prasow said. “It is possible to protect people’s rights and also prosecute terrorists, which increases the chances of catching genuine criminals.”
July 19, 2014
A revival of the Nation of Islam connection—if it avoids repeating some of the errors of the past—could signal a new era of consciousness in commercial hip-hop.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a wave of commercial hip-hop artists, like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Eric B. & Rakim, Paris, Gang Starr, Ice Cube and MC Ren, used their platform to promote political awareness, community uplift and cultural self-determination. They drew their inspiration in part from Islam—as culture, ideology and religion—influenced primarily by the Nation of Islam and its offshoot the Nation of Gods and Earths, or Five Percenters.
As movements, both the NOI and NGE actively engaged hip-hop artists and the communities in which the artists and their audiences lived. The NOI organized anti-crime patrols, established drug-prevention programs and negotiated gang truces. The NGE’s cipher gatherings rewarded those most skilled in wordplay. The theologies of the NOI, and the NGE in particular, proclaimed the black man “God,” and while contested by other Muslim traditions, this fit perfectly within the hip-hop tradition of the superlative boast (who, after all, could top God) and placed black men at the center of hip-hop’s universe.
For Electronica, the NOI is much more than stage props or costumes: He has sampled Elijah Muhammad on his tracks; and in his freestyle remix of Drake’s “We Made It” with Jay Z, he declares the Muslim “shahada”—the testimony of faith that “there is no god but Allah”—in Arabic and proclaims himself “the Farrakhan of rap.” In the days since his performance, Electronica has tweeted and Facebooked even more references to the NOI and its leadership. He’s clearly committed to asserting the presence of the NOI and NGE more broadly in hip-hop music and culture.
And he’s not alone in this NOI revival in hip-hop, and in black culture more broadly. Earlier this year, R&B artist Raheem DeVaughn collaborated with Chicago rapper Rhymefest to release “Final Call (Saviours’ Day).” The song’s title references both the NOI’s annual Saviours’ Day convention and itsFinal Call newspaper, sold by the FOI, who are also featured prominently in the music video.
The Fruit of Islam seem well suited for this role. When Jay Elect stepped to the stage with FOI in tow, he seemed to be channeling a moment from 25 years ago when Public Enemy took to the streets of Brooklyn, also with FOI, to film the Spike Lee-directed video for their anthem, “Fight the Power.” More than an entourage, the FOI’s military like presence conveys a charismatic power onto whomever they secure, a level of real-world seriousness: “They treated him like he was Barack Obama,” remarked one observer of the FOI guarding Jay Z at the festival.
July 17, 2014
To appreciate the relevance of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s work, you need look no further than two eerie coincidences that shadowed his debut drama, “Disgraced.” The play, which portrays the downfall of a Muslim American lawyer, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013. The day the award was announced, two Muslims deposited pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston marathon. A second grisly coincidence came a few weeks later. On the day “Disgraced” opened in London two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier on a busy street in what one said was revenge for the British army’s killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody linked these attacks to Akhtar’s play, but they were nonetheless chilling reminders of the violence that hovers at the edges of the territory he explores. “The work I’m doing is in direct dialogue with what’s happening in the Muslim world,” he said recently over dinner in New York.
‘A process of coming out’
By some measures, Akhtar is thoroughly American: born on Staten Island and raised in the Midwest. Both his parents are doctors who emigrated from Pakistan in the late 1960s. A Muslim identity pervaded his family to varying degrees — his father abstained from practice while his grandmother was so devout she lowered her eyes every time the prophet was mentioned. Young Ayad was drawn to his faith and went through a period of intense religious commitment. As he got older, he wanted to fit into American life but often felt invisible among the white kids in his suburban Brookfield, Wis., neighborhood. “I didn’t have a place in the culture in the same way that my white friends did,” he recalls.
Akhtar turns an introspective eye on Islam’s tough questions. Like the daughter Zarina in “The Who & the What,” he has long wondered about the true nature of the prophet Muhammad. In the play, Zarina has written a novel portraying the seventh-century founder of Islam as a real man; her aim, as she puts it, is to consider “who he really was” — to view him not just as a figure of worship but as a human. In considering the prophet, Zarina raises questions about the treatment of women under Islam. “I hate what the faith does to women,” she says. “For every story about [the prophet’s] generosity or his goodness, there’s another that’s used as an excuse to hide us, erase us.” Her father, Afzal, is outraged not only because of her blasphemy but because of the dangerous implications for a daughter he loves beyond measure. “In Pakistan, she would be killed for this,” he cries. Then, trembling at such a prospect, he adds: “If anything happened to her . . . .” But in the end, his ire gets the best of him and he wants to erase Zarina from his mind, telling her: “You make me regret the day you were born.” Akhtar has been obsessed with the prophet since he dreamed about him at age 8. He fully understands Afzal’s frenzy, but he also is in sympathy with Zarina. “I’m still trying to understand what the Prophet means not only to me but to our community,” he says.
July 10, 2014
WASHINGTON — A new report based on documents provided by Edward J. Snowden has identified five American Muslims, including the leader of a civil rights group, as having been subjected to surveillance by the federal government.
The disclosure of what were described as specific domestic surveillance targets by The Intercept online magazine was a rare glimpse into some of the most closely held secrets of counterespionage and terrorism investigators. The article raised questions about the basis for the domestic spying, even as it was condemned by the government as irresponsible and damaging to national security.
The report was based on what The Intercept described as a spreadsheet of 7,485 email addresses said to have been monitored from 2002 to 2008, and one of its writers was Glenn Greenwald, a primary recipient of the trove of documents leaked by Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
The documents did not say what the suspicions or the evidence were against the men that prompted the apparent surveillance.
In interviews on Wednesday, several of the men denied wrongdoing, and Mr. Ghafoor said he believed his Muslim faith was a factor in his being monitored. “I try not to play the race card,” he said. “But there’s really no other explanation.”
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues about 1,800 orders annually for domestic surveillance. To obtain a court order to wiretap an American, the government must convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe the target is engaged in a crime on behalf of a foreign power; non-Americans need only be suspected of being foreign agents.
None of the five have been charged with a crime in connection with the apparent monitoring.
The government refused to confirm whether or why any of the five had been monitored. Several dozen rights organizations sent a letter to President Obama on Wednesday expressing concerns about the potential for “discriminatory and abusive surveillance,” but also acknowledged that “we do not know all of the facts,” and asked for “the information necessary to meaningfully assess” the report.