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Why is ignorance of Islam and Muslims acceptable?

Why is Islamaphonia acceptable?

Sightings 1/27/2011
 
Good Sufi, Bad Muslims
–  Omid Safi
 
One of the lower points in the Park51 Center controversy was the comment by New York Governor David Paterson: “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites…They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.”

In a few short sentences, the governor managed to offend Sufis, Shi’i Muslims, as well as westernized Muslims, non-westernized Muslims, and “mainland Muslims” (whoever they are). Paterson overlooked the fact that some Shi’i Muslims are mystically inclined, and that six million American citizens are Muslims, thus there is no question of “westernizing” or “almost westernizing” for them. There is a more disturbing implication hiding in his assertion: the ongoing way in which the general demonization of Muslims, of the kind now routine on Fox News, is accompanied by an equally pernicious game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims.

There are many versions of this game, but the basic contour stays the same: The assertion that the general masses of Muslims are evil, terrorist-supporters, anti-western, patriarchal, misogynist, undemocratic, and anti-Semitic; and that these masses are set off and defined against either the solitary, lone Muslim good woman or man. The “Good Muslim” is often an individual, or a small circle, because to admit that the larger group of Muslims could be on the right side of the human-rights divide is to have the house of cards of the Muslim demonization game collapse on itself.

There are endless scenarios of this fictitious bifurcation: Reading Lolita In Tehran is “Good Muslim,” unspoken, nameless, faceless masses of Muslims are patriarchal, bad Muslims. Irshad Manji is an Israel-loving “good Muslim” who suggests that Muslims could be blamed for the holocaust, while the majority of Muslims are bad Muslims. Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk are “good” secular or ex-Muslims, defined against the masses of Muslims. It is worth noting how easily and how frequently the “good Muslim” solitary figure ends up being prominently featured on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Sarah Palin famously addressed “Peace-seeking Muslims” on Twitter: “pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.” In her inarticulate bifurcation, supporters of Park51 were defined as being outside the “peace-seeking” Muslim category.

The latest version of this bifurcation game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims is that of pitting Muslim mystics (Sufis) as the “good Muslims” against the majority of Muslims cast as villains. Sufi tradition offers incredible reservoirs for mercy, love, and pluralism. Yet it is inaccurate, and politically appropriative, to present Sufism as disconnected from politics or wider social concerns at best, and as agents of the Empire at worst.

This type of a presentation was prominent in the discussion about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the visionary American Muslim leader behind Park51. Time and again in the presentation of Imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan, we were reminded by the New York Times that they represented Sufi Islam, a gentle kind of Islam, nothing like the scary monster of political Islam: “He [Abdul Rauf] was asked to lead a Sufi mosque.” Daisy Khan is described as “looking for a gentler Islam than the politicized version she rejected after Iran’s revolution.” Another New York Times article was even more explicit in marking the couple as worthy “good Muslims”: “They founded a Sufi organization advocating melding Islamic observance with women’s rights and modernity.” 
   
The suggestion that Sufi teachings are somehow immune to politics, that Sufis have been unconcerned with social issues and questions of justice and politics are problematic. Historically speaking, Sufis have been fully engaged in both challenging political powers and alternately legitimizing political power throughout their history. Prominent Sufis like Abu Sa’id Abi ‘l-Khayr’s legacy has been used in legitimizing political powers, and Sufis such as ‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani and Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri have spoken truth to power. In both cases, Sufis have not remained aloof from politics.

The Park51 controversy exposes many underlying assumptions about religion in the public space and politics, particularly in the case of Muslims, who are given two options in this superficial bifurcation game: to be politically destructive in the manner of terrorists or “Islamists”, or to be politically quietist, acquiescing in the face of power. In this “Good Sufi/Bad Muslims” dichotomy, Sufis are asked to line up in the politically quietist camp, so that they can be validated.     

This dichotomy ignores a third group of Muslims: Those who, whether mystically inclined or not, want to neither destroy the world nor acquiesce to the wishes of the Empire, but rather seek to redeem the world by speaking truth to power. This group speaks out of the love of God and cries out for the suffering of humanity, defiantly and prophetically standing up for justice and liberation,  

And here is where the canard of “Moderate Muslims” comes to play: Ever since 9/11, we have been asked time and again where the “moderate Muslims” are, and why they are silent. No matter how often, and how loudly, Muslim organizations and individuals condemn terrorism, the likes of Thomas Friedman can still famously, and inaccurately, state: “The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks… To this day–to this day–no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” No presentation of factual data seems to persuade these critics that Muslims did, do, and will continue to speak out loudly and officially against terrorism. The reason their critics do not hear the moderate Muslims is because they are not listening.

Moving beyond the question of Muslims condemning terrorism, there is the larger question of what exactly makes someone a “moderate” Muslim? In its current usage, the term “moderate Muslim” is as meaningful as a purple polka dot unicorn. If the term moderate implies a balancing point between two extremes, it is a hopelessly vague term in the post-9/11 landscape. If one of the two extremes away from the “moderate Muslims” is easy to imagine (terrorism, Bin Laden, etc.), the other extreme is ill-defined. What are moderate Muslims moderating? If one extreme is terrorism, then what is the other extreme?   

“Moderate Muslims” are often defined, and confined, to be supporters of US foreign policy, vis-à-vis some important issues, such as supporting US global military presence, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian-Israeli issue. To dare suggest that the United States is today the world’s only military Empire with hundreds of military bases in other countries, or that we have in fact become the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about, or heaven forbid, that the Palestinians suffer from decades-long, unbearable occupation and violations of human rights, is to define one outside the safe (and lucrative) safe-zone of “moderate Muslim.” Sadly, even the safe-zone is not so safe. Imam Feisal has been sent on political missions abroad by the State Department, yet even he was not safe from being branded by Fox News as a terrorist sympathizer.  

If our public discourse about religion and politics is to evolve to a more subtle, and accurate, space, it must get to the point where religious voices that speak from the depths and heights of all spiritual traditions can do more than simply acquiesce in the face of the Empire. They can, and should, speak for the weak, and give voice to the voiceless.    
 
References

Fatemeh Keshavarz, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005).
Omid Safi, The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
CBS New York, “Paterson: ‘Mosque Developers Hybrid, Almost Westernized’ Muslims,” August 26, 2010.
Sarah Palin, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing,” Twitter, July 18, 2010.
Michael M. Grynbaum, “Daisy Khan, An Eloquent Face of Islam,” The New York Times, November 12, 2010.  
Thomas L. Freedman, “If It’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution,” The New York Times, July 8, 2005.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Military-Industrial Complex,” 1961 speech.
Islamic Statements Against Terrorism, compiled by Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina.
 
Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He served as the Chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion from 2002-2009. He is the author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (HarperOne, 2009). 

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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“I trace the rainbow through the rain and see the promise is not in vain.”

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.- Jeremiah 22:3-5

You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. – Marian Wright Edelman

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Comments on: "Sightings: Good Sufi, Bad Muslims" (4)

  1. Timothy Bladel said:

    You know, I am pretty sure you do not watch Fox news very often, and you are following the MSN talking points. I am so tired of this. Those on fox news say time and time again that 95% of all muslims are just fine. It is the other 5% that we are at war with. War nis not good hippie, everyone knows this. But neither is 3000 dead Americans. And on and on this list can go. How about honor killings. Funny thing is, if most Americans treated women, gays, and people from other country’s like Muslims did, you same liberals would be in an up roar. Now you defend them. You are defending the 5%. Most Americans are not buying this, but you know this already.

  2. What Muslims do you think “I” am defending? the 5% or the 95%?

    Or can you make up your mind?

    You say in one breath, 95% of Muslims and are “good”, and in the next breath condemn they all.

    Speaking of 3000 dead Americans, perhaps you can tell me how how many Americans have been killed by other Americans since 2001?

    How many from Hand Gun violence?
    How man from drunk driving?
    How many women and children have been beaten to death by people who should have loved them?

    And BTW, unlike FOX and other Conservative media, I actually like people with differing views to express their view unaltered in my “space”!!

    • Timothy Bladel said:

      First, I said Fox news states that 95% are good. I have made up my mind, most Muslims are way behinfd the rest of the world when it comes to Human rights. Look at whats going on in Egypt today. Do we like Iranian style countries. So if Americans kill Americans, then its ok for Muslims to do it? Do not understand your point there.

      I am saying that it is the religion it self that encourages them to act this way. Honor killings and such. I agree gun violence is bad, and I also believe it is this Gang bang culture we live in that also encourages much of this. I do not wish to see any women beat. By Muslim or American. But it is part of many Muslim cultures.

      I am glad you let others view in to your space, and Fox almost always has both sides on. Unlike MSNBC and many others. Almost half of Fox news watchers are Democrats. 46% A stat many times lost on the left. I only consider myself a fiscal conservative.

      I do not think the same sex should not be allowed to be married.

      My real point is, why do people not want to talk about many of the beliefs Muslims have. The culture is so oppresive towards most everybody but Muslim men. I do not think the left would sit idle if it was Christian males who did these same things.

      Could you imagine if you were not allowed to dress the way you want, not show your face, u had to walk 5 steps behind your husband or you just may get beat in the middle of the street by some unknown male. and all this is perfectly legal in the country you stay in. Thats Islam.

      The thing about Fox is, they do not ignore these things. The left winged media outlets do, and I believe that is were the big contrast is.

      I am not challenging many of the things you say. I know some Americans just hate Muslims.

      You said -“Imam Feisal has been sent on political missions abroad by the State Department, yet even he was not safe from being branded by Fox News as a terrorist sympathizer.”

      This was not Fox, but Tim Pawlenty on fox, and many have a big Problem with him doing this. In fact many many people on Fox did not agree.

      The mosque that was planned for construction two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was an divisive issue. People were upset, and I do not see the big deal about wanting to move it.

      My best friend is a Muslim, and not all practice the hardcore dogmatic views of their home country. To equate all Muslims to Islamic Extremists is akin to comparing all Christians to the KKK. I get that.
      My point was with many of the things Muslim countries do. If non-muslim Americans acted the way many Muslims do, the left would be going nuts.

      Why can we not talk about these things without the left saying we are encouraging the demonization of Muslims. If people do not like what they find doing research about the Islamic culture, then frankly I do not blame them. I love human rights, but not the right to do what we want to other humans. Thank you for being civil with your response, I will do the same.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ali Ekrem ADIYAMAN, Ninure. Ninure said: Sightings: Good Sufi, Bad Muslims: http://wp.me/pbs4D-6S […]

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