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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

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Islam’s Role in the Political Marketplace of Ideas: Three Questions for Islamists

by Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman, special contributor

More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)

As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.

In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.

At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.

In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.

The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?

The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).

Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.

The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?

The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.

Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?

The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.

Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.

Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.


Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Talking about Islamism

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

We’ve just completed our program in which Krista interviews British activist Ed Husain. Ed Husain spent several years in the 1990s in ideologically radical Islamist groups in the UK, where he was born and grew up. He wrote a book about these experiences, The Islamist, which has generated some fierce debate in Britain. (Check out our Particulars page to find links to some of that criticism.)

In his book, he makes a case for banning radical groups that he was part of, and makes causal links between those ideological groups and other, more violent groups that encourage terror tactics and violence. All of this has come in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London that, like the terror attacks here in 2001, have been emblemized by two numbers: 7/7.

(Photo by Jan van der Crabben/Flickr)

Much of the debate has spun around whether or not such causal links do in fact exist, and whether or not his own experiences can speak to any sort of trend responsible for radicalizing youth in Britain’s Muslim communities.

It’s a sensitive topic, one that is difficult to remain objective about one way or the other. One thing I’ve experienced in reading the bubbling blogosphere is the cynicism the Muslim community feels toward the media. We’ve seen all sorts of talking heads and policy experts on the airwaves, telling us why terrorism has become a tactic used by Islamist revolutionaries. In fact, they rarely even frame it that way. The whole focus on terrorism — to the exclusion of positive developments — is problematic. Instead of opening up discussion, it paints people into corners, puts them in boxes, labels them as somehow different to “us.”

It’s this sense of “us” and “them” that Ed Husain talks much about in the show, particularly in the uncut interview. Having grown up in Britain, he has some quite pronounced views on social stratification and class segregation there.

But — and this is a big but — it seems to a cynical Muslim audience that it’s a short leap from calling something Islamism to stripping away that –ism, and just blaming Islam. The search for “moderate” Muslims by the media is held up proof of the media’s ignorance and complicity in framing how Muslims are portrayed. We’ve even had discussions here about what words we use to promote this show: do we catch the ear by offering insight into suicidal terrorism, or do we say that a radical has turned to a deeper spirituality?

In some sense, the whole usage of the term “moderate” reflects to what degree we view everything, in the US, through the lens of politics. Moderation is stressed repeatedly in the Qur’an as something to strive for, but no one within the Muslim community comes out and says, “Hey, world, I’m moderate!”

People do split into broad camps of conservatives, traditionalists, progressives, liberals, secularists, or what have you, but there’s a lot of debate over the terminology of these various shades of experience. Terms like conservative, moderate and progressive, having no real scriptural basis, seem borrowed from American media parlance. They can be useful shorthand, but sometimes obscure the nuance and complexity of today’s intellectual ferment. They can turn real people into distant intellectual constructs.

Some want to call this period of Islamic history the “Reformation,” borrowing again from an outside frame of reference. It honestly doesn’t matter what we call it. What matters is the substance, the story of our time in history, the opportunity, and the stakes we play for. People will criticize someone like Ed Husain for focusing on radicalism and calling for more discussion, for associating the Muslim experience with some problematic social malaise, or some violent ideology, when the daily lived reality is so far from that.

I myself find the issue of identity boring, because it doesn’t satisfy the real weighty questions that I wrestle with, things that are light-years away from the questions the media focuses on. I’m more concerned about purpose in my life, about goodness, about the music inside language, about if I should play PlayStation for another half-hour or start making dinner.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that someone like Ed Husain doesn’t have a story to tell. One can be self-critical without being self-hating. And I can’t say firsthand what it’s like in the UK, because I haven’t lived there. But Ed Husain talks about the North American Muslim community as a source for direct inspiration for him — there’s a strong streak of civic and social engagement in the Muslim community here. Just look to Krista’s interview with Ingrid Mattson or a recent interview on Altmuslim with Zaid Shakir. A great, high-profile British blog, Pickled Politics, seems to have a good pulse on the same reality in Britain.

That’s why Ed Husain has not abandoned Islam nor found it to be somehow inherently broken. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have criticism to offer about people who preach violence “in our name.” And nor does it mean, because he stakes out a claim, that he has the final, definitive answer. He doesn’t claim to, either, but he is part of a larger conversation. And if you have stories that inspire you, why not share them, and keep us honest?

(Photo by Chan’ad Bahraini/Flickr)

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