Upon Obama's succession, the majority of the public believed that tensions between Muslim and non-Muslims were a thing of the past. Since his election, Obama has already appointed a U.S. envoy to the Muslim world, pulled an unknown deputy mayor of Los Angeles for an assistant director position with the Department of Homeland Security, and hired a Muslim woman as an interfaith advisor. Between this and the growing number of Muslims on Capitol Hill, it would be easy to imagine that America's traveling a golden path toward Muslim American relations.
Yet the past several months have witnessed a rise in tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Between demonstrations against building a mosque on Ground Zero, a renewed interesting in defying threats against depicting the prophet Muhammad, and (mostly recently) rising domestic tension between Israeli and Arab groups on the Flotilla attack, it is clear that American Muslim relations are deteriorating at a rapid pace.
As with the "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," what we now see is a public reaction to the acts or attitudes held by a wider Muslim community. The same shift of action and reaction is what ultimately caused the New York public bus ads offering Muslim apostates refuge from a potentially hostile Muslim community – a move made in response to Islamic Circle of North America [ICNA].
Back in December of 2009, ICNA launched nationwide ad campaigns offering an opportunity to discover Islam. Albeit a possibly earnest attempt, ICNA's billboard campaign comes across as a tacky marketing gimmick to attract converts and broadcast Islam to a larger audience across transit systems, including buses and subways.
Set against the backdrop of a peaceful patch of grass meeting at the horizon of a clear blue sky, the ad offers cheap slogans and free materials. The ad also banners "The way of life of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, & Muhammad," leading the religiously uninformed and easily influenced to believe that all these prophets not only followed Islam, but would share a philosophy. Anyone who has studied the life and teachings of these prophetic leaders knows that at least three of the five would have bitterly opposing views if ever across the table from each other. The reality of how not to market oneself, as well as basic differences among Abrahamic faiths, seems to have escaped whatever ICNA designee was appointed this task.
So what exactly is ICNA? According Stephen Schwartz, esteemed author and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, "ICNA is one of the most radical Islamist organizations in the U.S. Its rhetoric has always been extreme, in line with its role as a front group for the jihadist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Pakistan. Its aggressive dawah [religious outreach] program, including purchase of billboard space, to the extent that it draws Muslims or curious non-Muslims toward ICNA, can only increase the radicalization present in American Muslim life, to the detriment of the American Muslim moderate majority and their proper goal of Muslim integration into America."
As Schwartz argues, in the days after 9-11, the number of Islamist attacks (whether successful or not) has escalated considerably along with a greater number of Muslim front groups, of which ICNA is no less questionable. In a December 2009 issue of the Weekly Standard, Schwartz cites ICNA as "a front for Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the most powerful Islamist movement in Pakistan. ICNA is organized in paramilitary fashion and imposes discipline and tasks on its members. Its top leader, Zahid Bukhari, is designated its 'ameer' or 'commander.' Its goal, as stated on its website (icna.org/about-icna) is 'the establishment of Islam in all spheres of life.' Mission work, or dawah, 'has always been the top priority of ICNA.'
"ICNA's extensive literature distribution efforts," he continues, "include the talks and writings of Abul Ala Maududi, founder of JI, on 'the Islamic social order.' Maududi was the most prominent theorist of radical Islam in modern South Asian history. ICNA outreach also includes a 'Jihad FAQ' in which--dispensing with the usual evasions found in such materials--ICNA defines jihad as 'collective armed self-defense, as well as retribution against tyranny, exploitation, and oppression.' Furthermore, the same document distinguishes armed jihad from terrorism as follows: 'Jihad, when the need arises, is declared openly, while terrorism is committed secretly.'"
The response to ICNA's efforts was made by blogger Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugged who, with the help of her readers, collected approximately $8,000 to launch a response ad aimed at Muslim apostates. And here is where America's brilliance shines once more; one of the liberating facets of American society includes a cultivated freedom of speech: no matter how frustrating or infuriating to anyone – well, maybe not so much in Florida where the ad was removed.
To our detriment, basic American liberties, such as the freedom of speech, is treated as an a la carte system of law by too many Muslims (and a growing number of liberals), who persist in a thorough under-appreciation of what it took as a nation to gain the rights among which we are now picking and choosing , as if off some chap menu. Feeling it unfair that others speak critically of us, many Muslims are well on their way to resembling that constantly-complaining tattle-taleing child we all hated in elementary school.
Enter Faiza Ali, CAIR community affairs director, who bemoaned that "Islamophobes are notorious for their cheap tactics that seek to marginalize American Muslims and divide communities…Pamela Geller uses the same tactics as tobacco companies, hiding the cancerous nature of her agenda behind a smokescreen of feigned concern. Geller is free to say what she likes, just as concerned community members are free to critique her tactics and motives."
Yet the same smokescreen argument could be used for CAIR and ICNA, both of which have documented associations with fringe radical groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Hamas. The care and concern of those speaking out against groups such as CAIR and ICNA is not out of some shadowed fear of the foreign, but rather out of care, concerned that radical groups are parading freely within our society, wearing an eroded mask of public affairs and religious tolerance. Were such groups interested in public affairs, they would make more of an effort to integrate with American society. And were such groups interested in tolerance, they would show more courtesy to their intellectual counterparts.
The issue of battling ads has been weighed, and while neither is desirable, they both remain protected under free speech. Those in defense of the counter-ICNA ads cite the very real fact that apostasy in Islam means death. This is true; and to add to that, merely questioning the faith can brand you as an apostate and bring with it the very likelihood of forced exile from family and community. External doubt of your faith can lead to a very miserable existence; and in more extreme families, it can lead to death.
Because of this, my primary concern is whether the counter-ICNA people have thought of the long-term consequences of such an ad campaign. A website detailed in their ad offers only the following advice:
"If you fear for your life, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are unsure of how your family or community will respond to your admitting that you're leaving, don't take chances. Write to Pamela Geller at email@example.com or Robert Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need immediate protection from a threat, call the police immediately."
For serious apostates of Islam, or for those questioning their faith, a dialogue with two non-Muslims who ultimately do not understand the cultural position of this marginal Muslim community, does nothing to offer them a serious answer or recourse. Where is the infrastructure to help navigate apostates? Where will these ex-Muslims go? Who will house them? Where's the financial backing? What of the psychological damage they suffer? And if there are no counselors, are there at least secular Muslims or other apostates that can help them transition to what is ultimately an entirely new world?
The ad countering ICNA's Islamism campaign might be well-intended but it is misdirected. There is no serious framework to help guide Muslims, to connect them with informed Muslims who can answer their questions, or guide them if they still choose to leave Islam.
Muslims do face a great number of obstacles even contemplating the faith, let alone leaving it -- but it is also not as simple a matter as putting up ads on buses. The counter-ICNA ad for apostates is a gravely miscalculated effort that cannot be taken seriously or promoted in any manner other than as a strategy to combat ICNA's campaign.
Yes, it is commendable that non-Muslims have taken a greater interest in the welfare of Muslims than the Muslim community has; and I can only imagine the frustration felt by them in seeing negligent disregard and horrific acts committed in the name of Islam – all of which go uncontested by the majority of followers. With that in mind, to offer some sort of solution to apostates is a step in the right direction. However, to offer a solution without a solid plan is inadvisable.
Apostates or those questioning Islam are real people with real problems, most of whom will flock to the lighthouse these ads become, only to realize there is nothing there for them, either. By then, these ads will have helped trigger a course of action that cannot be reversed. For these reasons, it is critical that if such efforts include apostates, they not hold anger or resentment toward Islam. Better yet would be to have this type of network run by Muslims who believe in pluralism and tolerance, who live secular lifestyles, and who can understand the perplexities that potential apostates face.
The need to build this type of strong coalition is crucial for two reasons: effectiveness and credibility. Despite the best efforts of non-Muslims, it takes an apostate or a Muslim to truly appreciate and grasp the full context of the situation. In other words, those who have lived it will know it best. Further, because of the negative associations placed upon Geller and her associates, Muslims will be less inclined to reach out to individuals whom they are taught to mistrust. Rather, Muslims will be more likely to reach out to other Muslims who have traveled their path and can directly relate to what they are going through. Such a group is rare to find, but needed if we are to be serious about such an effort. Anything short of that is reckless.
There are solid steps that can be taken for those who are serious about helping Muslims in dire situations involving the faith or culture. The first step is to look to Europe, whose Anglo-Asian demographics are a blueprint we can learn from. We can take a cue from British Muslim women's shelters, research what works and what does not, and then learn from their efforts. This would include a heightened understanding of what apostates go through, how much of what they endure is beyond the bounds of religion, and what dangers they face in the immediate and distant future.
There are a number of institutions we can learn from and adapt to suit our purposes here. Some include:
- Roshni Asian Women's Resource Centre
- The Forced Marriage Unit
- Kiran Asian Women's Aide
- The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organization
- Asha Project
- Lambeth Women's Aid
- An-Nisa Society.
In addition to networking with these groups or tracking their efforts, there is a report produced by the Center for Social Cohesion that discusses "Crimes of the Community". It takes a look at forced marriages, honor killings, and other dilemmas faced by Middle Eastern and South Asian communities; but it also reaches beyond to offer readers a guide to understanding the circumstances of females struggling within the faith and culture. It not only lends a psychological filter for studying the complex lives of these women, but it also details the difficulties endured by shelters and groups when attempting to help remove women from hostile environments.
I repeatedly bring up culture and psychology because an Islamic upbringing is heavily entrenched in duty, social responsibility, and a predetermined code of ethics. Islam is a predominantly socio-political faith, offering a guideline for setting up a society; it is a blueprint that extends into the smallest aspect of any society – the family unit, and then to the individual.
Children growing up in a Muslim family are bound by far more than just the religion. They are bound by the culture associated with the faith. By the time children have reached any level of adulthood, there is a component within them that anchors them to the culture and faith, to a static pattern of thinking, that makes it very difficult to leave for reasons far beyond just community pressure, violence or death threats.
There is an inner sense of right and wrong that has been set as a psychological template in Muslim children; it which takes an immense amount of effort to disassemble. Even if adults are able to reprogram themselves, there are still emotional ties and financial considerations that render it difficult to resist the comfort of the familiar. Because of the severe cultural and psychological impacts experienced with being raised within Islam, I highly advise Muslims questioning Islam to consider Sufism before becoming apostates.
Sufism is not without its share of problems, such as a commitment to saints and a devotion to shrines. As for violence, Sufis are peaceful but not pacifists. They do believe in defending themselves if absolutely needed. They also do not force conversions, and are one of the most pluralistic groups of believers. The faith itself reflects Gnostic beliefs paired with Eastern teachings, and there are those who believe that Sufism did not emerge from Islam, but rather used Islam as a vessel to spread its message.
Sufism is legitimate facet of Islam and the third sect moving beyond Sunni and Shia. Approximately one third of all Muslims are Sufis; they embrace Islamic mysticism and pluralism. Unfortunately Sufis lack proper representation in mainstream Islam, although a number of think tanks (such as the RAND Corporation) are now recognizing Sufism's relevance in combating radical Islam. And herein lies the one problem adherents of Sufism face: that Wahhabis hate Sufis more than they hate Jews – an important fact to keep in mind for a Muslim with a fundamentalist family. For a Muslim with a fundamentalist family, Sufism is a gateway between Islam and other Gnostic faiths. However, broadcasting one's newfound Sufi beliefs is not recommended for Muslims suffering from radicalism in the domestic sphere. Rather, subtlety is key and will get you much further than announcing and arguing your faith in a cavalier fashion that could literary get heads rolling.
For Muslims who are finding their faith intolerable, my advice is to first evaluate your situation. If there is any abuse or danger, contact the authorities immediately - but do so discreetly. Should the situation be dire and hopeless, you will have to make a tough decision which involves not returning to the environment you have left, and not having any further contact with the individuals who have been complacent during your suffering.
If the issues are beyond the scope of physical or emotional abuse, my recommendation is to become an objective observer. Do not react to the intellectual failure of the people around you, but rather observe and understand them. At the same time, begin reading the Quran in a language you understand. Familiarize yourself with the faith you were raised in as chances are you have probably never read the Quran in context. When reading the Quran, I strongly discourage seeking the guidance of Imams or other Muslim leaders in your community. Do not ask them to help you understand the passages since they will likely flower them to suit an agenda. God gave you a mind: Use it.
Beyond that, familiarize yourself with the like-minded intellectual leaders and begin outlining a framework in which you can exercise greater control over your own life – which may include creating emotional and/or physical distances between conflict-triggers and establishing a route by which you are financially independent. But whatever you do, do not broadcast your thoughts to your community until you understand your options and wield greater control over your own life.
Recognizing the dangers of leaving Islam, and realizing that many Muslims are completely unaware of Sufism other than Rumi, I advise Muslims to look into Sufism thoroughly first before leaving Islam. In this way should they still decide to leave, they can still honestly say they are Muslim.
Before realizing that I was perhaps a Sufi all my life – I just didn't know it -- I was in a similar position as the many Muslims who struggle internally with Islam. During this period, we have to have enough faith to accept that while we cannot understand the path before us, there is a higher power and a higher purpose. Our path may seem like a complex maze, but if we could view the picture from above we would see that the path we take, the blockades we face, are all part of a greater process that challenges us to be more than we believe we are.
I believe that Islam has to be, and can only be, changed from within. Leaving Islam does nothing to change it; but changing the direction of Muslims offers a strong hope that Islam itself can change through its followers.
As an observer in your own life, you will begin breaking down the world around you. You will begin understanding other Muslims and Islam in ways you never before imagined. It will be difficult to endure at first, but it will likely be the greatest blessing you will ever receive.