Is Western Islam inevitable? Until recently we scarcely asked the question. We assumed that the demography of the East, and the expanding economies of the West, made nothing so certain as continued Muslim immigration to Europe, Canada and the United States.
The rise of Al-Qa‘ida has now placed that assurance in doubt. An increasing number of academics and politicians in the West are voicing their doubts about the Muslim presence. Citing the Yale academic Lamin Sanneh, the right-wing English journalist Melanie Phillips suggests that the time has come to think again about Muslim immigration to the West. Sanneh, whose views on Islam’s inherent inability to adjust to the claims of citizenship in non-Muslim states have attracted several right-wing theorists, is here being used to justify the agenda that is increasingly recommended on the far right across Europe, with electrifying effects on the polls.
Cooler heads, such as John Esposito, reject the alarmism of Sanneh and Phillips. Contrary to stereotypes, they insist, Islam has usually been good at accommodating itself to minority status. The story of Islam in traditional China, where it served the emperors so faithfully that it was recognised as one of the semi-official religions of the Chinese state, was the norm rather than the exception. Minority status is nothing new for Islam, and around the boundaries of the Islamic world, Muslims have consistently shown themselves to be good citizens in contexts a good deal less multiculturalist than our own.
The anti-Dreyfusard charge against the Muslim presence, however, goes further than this. It is not enough to behave; you must show that your religion teaches you to behave. And where a hundred years ago the cultivated Western public problematized Jews, it is now Muslims who are feeling the pressure. Anti-semites once baited the Jews as an alien, Oriental intrusion into white, Christian Europe, a Semitic people whose loyalty to its own Law would always render its loyalty to King and Country dubious. Christianity, on this Victorian view, recognised a due division between religion and state; while the Semitic Other could not. There was little wonder in this. The Christian, as heir to the Hellenic vision of St Paul, was free in the spirit. The Semitic Jew was bound to the Law. He could hence never progress or become reconciled to the value of Gentile compatriots. Ultimately, his aim was to subvert, dominate, and possess.
Few in the West seem to have spotted this similarity. One of the great ironies of the present crisis is that many of the most outspoken defenders of the State of Israel are implicitly affirming anti-Semitic categories in the way they deny the value of Islam. In many cases, the transformation has taken place over so few generations that one wonders whether the old prejudice has been entirely supplanted. Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch anti-immigration politician who wanted to close all of Holland’s mosques, published his book, Against the Islamisation of our Culture, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Israel. Yet the book is filled with characterisations of the new Muslim presence that fit perfectly the categories of anti-Semitism. The Muslim Other is driven by the Law, not the Spirit. He therefore is always the same, and cannot reform. His intentions are not to enrich his country of adoption, but to overcome it for the sake of a transnational religious enterprise of domination and contempt.
We are, in a sense, the New Jews. An odd transposition has taken place, with one religious community ducking from beneath a Christian yoke, which then found Muslim shoulders to rest on. We have little time or inclination to contemplate the irony of this strange alteration, however; since we cannot forget the fate of the prejudice’s earlier victims, and its current prospects. The road from Auschwitz to Srebrenica was not such a crooked one; and the new rightist politicians in the West are surely positioned somewhere along that road.
Given that Al-Qa‘ida, or its surrogates, have massively reinforced this new chauvinism, it is depressing that its roots and possible entailments have yet to be assessed by most Muslim advocates in the West. But we need to look it in the eyes. We are hated by very many people; and cannot discount the possibility that this hatred will spill over into immigration filters, mosque closures, the prohibition of hijab in schools, and a generalised demonising of Muslims that makes the risk of rioting, or individual violence against us, uncomfortably great. Liberalism, as the Weimar Republic discovered, can be a fragile ideology.
The question that is increasingly being put to us is this. Was our immigration purely economic? Or did we arrive to take tactical advantage of liberal press laws in order to launch a subversive internationalist agenda that will be profoundly damaging to our hosts? Are we Americans, or Canadians, or Britons, simply by virtue of holding a passport and finding employment? Or is this our home?
Traditional Islam has been expert in adoption and adaptation. The new anti-Semitism makes not the slightest headway against it. Yet many of our community leaders are sceptical of traditional Islam and its historic flexibility. For them, we will always be a kind of diaspora, with roots in an Arab elsewhere.
An inference needs to be squarely faced. If our belongingness to our adopted countries is only about economics, then we cannot blame the host societies for regarding us with dislike and suspicion. For if we are suspicious of non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries who fail to acclimatise themselves to the ambient values and sense of collective purpose of their countries of citizenship, then why should we demand that they behave differently when it is we who are the minority? A country that accepts migrants, however conspicuously economic their primary motives, has the right to expect that they engage in some form of cultural migration as well. No Muslim would deny that multiculturalism must always have some limits.
It is time to realise that if we are here purely to enhance our earning power, then our sojourn may prove short-lived. It is annoying that the new kind of sermonizers who are loudest in their demonising of Western countries are often the slowest to accept that those countries might turn out not to tolerate them after all. The greatest irony of our situation might just be that our radicals end up on the road to the airport, astonished at the discovery that their low opinion of the West turned out to be correct.
So it is time to get moving. This will be hard for the older generation, most of which is embedded either in regional folklorisms which have no clear future here, or in a Movement Islam of various hues. But we need some deep rethinking among the new generation, that minority which has survived assimilation in the schools, and knows enough of the virtues and vices of Western secular society to take stock of where we stand, and decide on the best course of action for our community. It is this new generation that is called upon to demonstrate Islam’s ability to extend its traditional capacities for courteous acculturation to the new context of the West, and to reject the radical Manichean agenda, supported by the extremists on both sides, which presents Muslim minorities as nothing more than resentful, scheming archipelagos of Middle Eastern difference.
The first tough realisation that we face is that the future of Islam in America will be an American future, if it is to happen at all. As the ‘war against terrorism’, with all its clumsy, pixellated violence, and cultural simplifications, gathers momentum, it is likely that there will be further events and atrocities which will render the current social and psychological marginality of the community still more precarious. Unless American Muslims can locate for themselves, and populate, a spiritual and cultural space which can meaningfully be called American, we will be in the firing line. Only a few of the ultras in the mosques would welcome such a showdown; most of us would be appalled.
Regrettably - and this is one of its most telling failures - our community leadership has invested much energy in Islamic education, but has spent little time studying American culture to locate the elements within it which are worthy of Muslim respect. Too many of the activists dismiss their new compatriots as promiscuous drunkards, or as fundamentalist fanatics. Movement Islam, with its vehement dislike of the West on grounds that often in practice seem more tribal than spiritual, and rooted in various utopian projects that seldom seem to work even on their own terms, is, particularly in its harder reaches, little better. Often it provides ammunition to chauvinists allied to the stance of Daniel Pipes, for whom all ‘Islamists’ are a fifth column to be viewed with unblinking, baleful suspicion.
What the new generation must do is therefore threefold. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that confrontational readings of Islam, imported by some leaders from countries where confrontation with local tyrannies is often morally necessary, may not serve Muslims in the dangerous context of the modern West. It is already clear to many that Mawdudi and Qutb were not writing for 21st century Muslim minorities in America, but for a mid-twentieth century struggle against secular repression and corruption in majority Muslim lands. They themselves would, quite possibly, be startled to learn that their books were being pressed on utterly different communities, fifty years on.
Secondly, we need to turn again to the founding story of Islam for guidance on the correct conduct of guests. An insulting guest will not be tolerated indefinitely even by the most religious of hosts; and our communal condemnations of Western culture have to be seen as at best discourteous. A measured, concerned critique of social dissolution, unacceptable beliefs, or destructive foreign policies will always be a required component of Muslim discourse, but wild denunciations of Great Satans or global Crusader Conspiracies are, for Muslims here, not only dangerous, but are also discourteous - scarcely a lesser sin.
Imam al-Ghazali provides us with some precious lessons on the conduct of the courteous guest. He cites the saying that ‘part of humility before God is to be satisfied with an inferior sitting-place.’ The guest should greet those he is sitting beside, even if he should privately be uncomfortable with them. He should not dominate the conversation, or loudly criticise others at the feast, or allow himself to be untidy. Ghazali also tells us that he should not keep looking at the kitchen door, which would imply that he is primarily present for the food. It is hard to avoid thinking of this when one contemplates the loud demands of many Muslims, particularly in Europe, for financial payouts from the state. If we wish to be tolerated and respected, one of our first responsibilities is surely to seek employment, and avoid reliance on the charity of our hosts.
Some hardline scholars of the Hanbali persuasion took a narrow view of the duty of guests. Imam Ahmad himself said that if a guest sees a kohl-stick with a silver handle, he should leave the house at once, on the grounds that it is a place of luxurious indulgence. Yet for Imam al-Ghazali, and for the great majority of scholars, one should always give one’s host the benefit of the doubt. And in the West, our neighbours usually fall into the category of ahl al-kitab, for whom certain things are permissible that we would condemn among Muslims. Resentment, contempt, hypercriticism, all these vices are discourteous and inappropriate, particularly when used to disguise one’s dissatisfaction with oneself, or with one’s own community’s position in the world.
The refugee, or migrant, is therefore subject to the high standards that Islam, with its Arabian roots, demands of the guest. Discourtesy is dishonour. And nowhere in the sira do we find this principle more nobly expressed than in the episode of the First Hijra. Here, the first Muslim asylum-seekers stand before the Emperor of Abyssinia to explain why they should be allowed to stay. Among them were Uthman and Ruqaiyya, and Ja‘far and Asma’, all young people famous for their physical beauty. Umm Salama, another eyewitness, narrates the respect with which the Muslims attended upon the Christian king. They would not compromise their faith, but they were reverent and respectful to the beliefs of an earlier dispensation. Their choice of the annunciation story from the Qur’an was inspired, showing the Christians present that the Muslim scripture itself is not utterly alien, but is beautiful, dignified, and contains much in common with Christian belief. Altogether, they made a hugely favourable impression, and their security in the land was assured.
Today, of course, we do not usually use Surat Maryam as the basis for our self-presentation to the host community. Instead, we create lobby groups that adopt provocatively loud criticisms of American policy, thereby closing the door to any possibility that they might be heard. Our sermons pay little attention to the positive qualities in our neighbours, but instead recite dire warnings of the consequences to our souls of becoming ‘like Americans’. Again, the danger is that the cumulative image given by many American Muslims will result in our being treated as cuckoos in the nest, deprived of rights, and even ejected altogether. In the long term, the choice is between deportment, and deportation.
If we take this seriously, rather than trusting eternally to the patience of our hosts, then we need a new agenda. And it is essential that this not be defined as an Islamic liberalism. Liberalism in religion has a habit of leading to the attenuation of faith. Instead, we need to turn again to our tradition, and quarry it for resources that will enable us to regain the Companions’ capacity for courteous conviviality.
The first step has to be the realisation that Islamic civilisation was a providential success story. Modern and modernist agendas which present medieval Islam either as obscurantism or as deviation from scripture will leave us orphaned from the continuing and magnificent story of Muslim civilisation. If we accept that classical Islam was a deviant reading of our scriptures, we surrender to the claims of Christian evangelical Orientalism, which claims that the glories of Muslim civilisation arose despite, not because of, the Qur’an. We are called to be the continuation of a magnificent story, not a footnote to its first chapter.
A recovery of our sense of pride in Islam’s cultural achievements will allow us to reactivate a principle, the third in my list, that has hardly been touched by most Muslim communities in the West, namely the obligation of da‘wa. It is evident that da‘wa is our primary duty as a Muslim minority; and it is no less evident that da‘wa is impossible if we abandon tradition in order to insist on rigorist and narrow readings of the Shari‘a. Our neighbours will not heed our invitation unless we can show that there is some common ground, that we have something worth having, and, even more significantly, that we are worth joining. Radical and literalist Islamic agendas frequently seem to be advocated by unsmiling zealots, whose tension, arrogance and misery are all too legible on their faces. Few reasonable people will consider the religious claims made by individuals who seem to have been made miserable and desperate by those claims. More usually, they will be repelled, and retreat into negative chauvinism.
The believer’s greatest argument is his face. True religion lights up the face; false religion fills it with insecurity, rage and suspicion. This is perceptible not only to insiders, but to anyone who maintains some connection with the fitra in his heart. The early conversions to Islam often took place among populations that had no access to the language of the Muslims who now lived among them; but they were no less profound in consequence. Religion is ultimately a matter of personal transformation, and no amount of missionary work will persuade people - with the occasional exception of the disturbed and the desperate - unless our own transformation is complete enough to be able to transform others.
So rigorism and narrow-mindedness, the boring recourse of the culturally outgunned, end up reinforcing the negative attitudes that they claim to repudiate. Conversely, a reactivation of the Prophetic virtue of rifq, of gentleness, which the hadith tells us ‘never enters a thing without adorning it’, will make us welcome rather than suspected, loved and admired rather than despised as a community of resentful failures.
Virtues, therefore, need to be cultivated, to replace the self-indulgence of hatred and self-exculpation. And these will not come easily until we reconnect with the Umma’s history of spirituality. No other religious community in history has produced the number and calibre of saints generated by Islam. Jalal al-Din Rumi has now become America’s best-selling poet, an extraordinary victory for Islamic civilisation and the integrity of its spiritual life which our communities are scarcely aware of. Our spirituality is the crowning glory of our civilisation, and the guarantor of the transformative power of our art, literature, and personal conduct. Once we have relearned the traditional Islamic science of the spirit, we can hope to produce, as great Muslim souls did in the past, enduring monuments of architecture which will replace the sterile, ugly cement structures that we currently commission as our places of worship. Beauty is the splendour of the truth, and it is a measure of the decadence of our communities that so few of our leaders seem capable of commissioning buildings which uphold the glorious traditions of Islamic sacred design, traditions which, it often seems, are better-known and more respected among non-Muslims than among most Islamic activists and members of mosque committees.
The task may seem daunting; but the new generation produces more and more Muslims eager to reinvigorate Islam in a way that will make it the great religious success story of modern America, rather than the embarrassing sick man of the religious milieu that it currently seems to be. Increasingly our young people want passionately to be Muslims and to celebrate their uniquely rich heritage, but in a way that does not link them to the desperate radical agendas now being marketed in a minority of the mosques. As those young people assume positions of leadership in their communities, and proclaim a form of Islam that is culturally rich and full of confidence in Allah’s providence, Islam will surely take its place as a respected feature on America’s religious landscape, and begin the process of integration here that it has so successfully accomplished in countless other cultures throughout its history, and which is a condition for its continuing existence in a potentially hostile place.
‘And if you turn aside, He will replace you with another people, and they will not be like you.’ (47:38)