City of Brass

City of Brass


Islam’s appeal is a post-racial identity in a still-racial world

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Apologies for the lack of posts this month – I am in Stockholm attending my annual conference. Since Stockholm isn’t Hawai’i, I am here alone, which means I am overly diligent about attendance to compensate for missing my wife and kids. And they charge you to use public toilets here, too.

Being immersed in academia as I am this week, I’m totally and blessedly clueless about what is going on out There. I intend to stay that way. But I did want to share a couple of things. First, the editor at New Humanist Magazine sent me an old link to an essay about young black muslims in Britain after the 2005 bombings. The essay is a fascinating probe into identity, race, and religion, and closes with some observations that are remarkable (and revealing of integrity) for someone who self-identifies as a secular humanist:

At the heart of the appeal of Islam, in Abdul-Rehman Malik’s view, is the fact that it offers a form of community which is beyond race. For those raised within the rigid racial hierarchies of post-colonial Britain, the attraction of a sense of solidarity which refuses to prejudge people based on skin colour is obvious. For D this appears a critical attraction: “Islam is open to anyone, doesn’t matter what colour you are, black, brown, white….”

Certainly there is a sense in all the young men I talk to of a global communal consciousness hardly typical of the average teenager. From comments on the vilifying of Muslims – “when that black boy [Anthony Walker] was killed in Liverpool no-one said it was a group of Christians who did it, or that it shows all white people are murderers” – to the link between the war in Iraq and terrorism – “I think the government are hypocrites, they are the ones stirring it up. They are waging a war for oil. How can they not expect retaliation? I’m not saying that one life is worth more than another but the London bombs have been on the front page for months and you have people dying in Iraq everyday” – they exhibit a healthy, realistic scepticism. Islam is providing them a frame within which to understand domestic racism. “Not everyone in the country is racist, maybe it’s a quarter, maybe half. Its not blatant, but its deep” – and politics together – “the government of this country is Christian, they see a lot of people turning to Islam so they are trying to make it look bad”.

The arguments can be callow, but feel grasped for rather than implanted, and in motion rather than dogmatic. They are engaged in the act of thinking themselves into and through a sense of national and global identity within which they can find dignity and common purpose, values sorely lacking in British youth of any stripe. “What I feel,” concludes D, the group’s most garrulous talker and persuasive rhetorician, “is that if they gave us a chance and stopped trying to beat us down then we would make something of ourselves and show that we can become something.”

It may be time to acknowledge that young people discovering a personal sense of responsibility, an appetite for knowledge and a global sense of commonality might be a good thing, even if they do discover these things within the context of religion. People like D and B, Idris and Karim, have the potential to form a new kind of engaged, moderate, pragmatic political and cultural leadership for British Muslims. If Britain is to deliver on its multicultural promise, their voice needs to be heard.

Indeed, I think part of the reason that the multicultural promise seems to have failed is precisely because the value of religion has been so – ahem, religiously crusaded against by the secular humanists, especially in mainland Europe. It’s refreshing to see a humanist acknowledge the universality of humanism, be it religious or secular.

The other thing I want to note is that I have been sent a review copy of a new book, Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims I will be reviewing this book with my Christian colleague at Beliefnet, Robert Gelinas. I read most of it on the flight over here and it’s a  very intriguing idea. I look forward to the discussion (not debate) with Robert about the book. I think the value of this kind of discussion (not debate) from the muslim perspective is that it promotes genuine knowledge about each other’s beliefs, without any compromise. It is good for us that we will always respectfully disagree – but we are better served by knowing what precisely we disagree with. As far as what Christians can learn from Muslims, which they can apply authentically towards their own practice of Christianity, of course I won’t be able to comment, but I am eager to see what Robert’s views are in that regard, and look forward to hearing his thoughts.



  • Hitch

    “Indeed, I think part of the reason that the multicultural promise seems to have failed is precisely because the value of religion has been so – ahem, religiously crusaded against by the secular humanists, especially in mainland Europe.”
    This is contrary to my experience. It’s left-leaning secular humanists and moderate believers who promote multiculturalism and it’s religious and cultural conservatives who push against it.
    The misguided restrictions in Switzerland and France come out of the politics of Christian religious backgrounds not secular humanism.
    Look at the Netherlands, one of the most liberal societies in Europe and one that had made perhaps the most progress towards multiculturalism. Are you seriously suggesting that people freely expressing their views has done more harm than people being murdered in broad day-light for having done so?
    No serious secular humanist can stand by and say that it’s humane to have people murdered for expressing views. Nor should any believer!
    Yes there is a backlash against Islam in Europe and it’s a problem. But it is not a secular humanist backlash.
    The roadblock to multiculturalism is violence, intolerant dogmas and people following scripture that distinguishes between people’s value based on their stated praise for a belief. In a multicultural society you have to allow the other. Perhaps it’s time to “de-otherize” secular humanists?
    If one side cannot life and let life, multiculturalism becomes a failed promise, and it’s the side that by claiming special promise breaks that implied contract. If all you do is live your life by your rules and do not violate others, multiculturalism is fine and secular humanist thinkers in fact paved the road to this program: Freedom of expression and religion as well as freedom from religion if one so chooses.
    Secularism by the way only means that no one religious system dictates the social order or ethical standards. Humanism means that humans are inherently valued. If someone calls themselves humanism but does not honor the humanity of the other that simply isn’t a secular humanist.
    But yeah there is the centuries old meme that the non-believers are to blame…

  • paagle

    A counter-point to the notion that Islam transcends racism is that it is its very inclusiveness that permits believers to be intolerant of non-believers. Many people have a hard time maintaining belief that, say, brown-skinned people should be discriminated against simply because nobody chooses their race.
    If, however, you believe that your religion is the only pure revelation from God and that anybody can accept this revelation and become a Muslim, then it is much more difficult to accept people that for some obstinate reason won’t see the truth and join the faith. Judaism shares many of what I think are Islam’s faults: a hard line between believers and non-believers, lots of rules that only make sense in a very particular and usually long gone context, an explicit belief that their religion makes them better than non-believers, and a clear path to violence based on offenses to religion. Judaism has what I think is the virtue of being a mostly closed faith. How can a Jew of basically good will blame me if I was not fortunate enough to be born one of God’s chosen? A Muslim of basically good will can, however, from the perspective of their religion, countenance discrimination against me based on my non-belief by thinking that if I just joined up (to what is so plainly true and so plainly an upgrade on my beliefs) I could end the discrimination.
    Personally I’d rather share a planet with people who think I’m less than them because of an accident of birth than because of my own obstinacy.

  • Hitch

    We shouldn’t even be exposed to two poor choices. “Less than them” has no place in a pluralistic society.

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Teed Rockwell

    Although it’s easy to forget this now, Atheism has its history of dogmatic persecutions of other world views. In Russia and China under Communism, atheists not only murdered leaders and followers of other religions, they did it in the name of Atheism. Contemporary Secular Humanists shouldn’t be blamed for this, of course, but neither should contemporary Muslims and Christians be blamed for the actions of extremists who hijack their religions. Contemporary Atheists do this to other religions all the time: read Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins among many others. There really is a strain of contemporary Atheism that believes we can make the world less intolerant by wiping out belief in God. What happened with Communism shows that this is mistaken. The evils people do in the name of Jesus, Muhammad, or Marx do not spring from their belief systems, but from Fanatical dogmatism, regardless of beliefs. And yes, there really are Atheists who are making that dogmatism respectable once more, and that has potential for great evil.

  • Hitch

    What is responsibility? That is ultimately the question. Some moderate muslims ultimately want to tell this story: (1) “I oppose violence” (2) “I agree to free speech” (3) “X Y and Z is offensive but I will submit to a position of wounded silence”.
    See I agree with (1) and (2) but (3) is a problem.
    Why is there violence? Because some folks insist that they are right to be offended! This isn’t some abstract notion of trying to pin moderates to the horrors of the extremes. Not at all. It is debating your very own position. I am still waiting for Aziz to come out and explain how his position is humane with respect to the Danish Cartoonist. How is it humane to continue to perpetuate that the cartoonist supposedly meant “pure malice” when that person is under threat of harm?
    We cannot separate the ease with which offense is taken from the reaction. Aziz calls it “overreaction”. Geez. So you want to be responsibility for a culture of offense and retribution because guilt-tripping via “woulded silence” is your way of indicating that people should have your view? But you still get to say “I’m part of the solution, not the problem because I dennouce violence”?
    No, you set up a massive straw-man, a false analogy with Stalinism. I would want you to hold me to task if I said that it’s OK to be offended by religion and it should all be silenced, but not by force. Because I would be hardly better than Stalin, except for the violence.
    This is what moderates get criticised for, the complicit support of a culture of short fuse offense taken and the willingness to demand censure of freedom of speech, ideally by voluntary withdrawals. The lack of perspective taken yet demand to have ones own perspective fully respected. That is the criticism, and not the false pinning of blame for the actions of others.
    I want to see a moderate muslim actually stating the Danish Cartoonist’s position accurately, namely that in response to Islamic Violence he wanted to articulate the issue. Is that point not legitimate? Apparently not, because one side is so consumed by demanding that their offense trumps all other perspectives. Tragedy is that the violence is real, so to silence that expression is to silence discussion of what is going on. But yeah one can try to do it by calling people Islamophobes who try, just as people are called anti-semites, anti-american and all sorts of other unfavorable labels. And it works because Islamophobia is real, as is anti-semitism, and anti-americanism.
    So yes, even some moderates contribute to a totalitarian climate. The OIC tried to get blasphemy laws passed to silence criticism or reflection of religions. Is that better than the violence? Absolutely. Is that the right attitude? Not at all, it just leads to the desired outcome of the violent through different means, which is disrespect of free expression.
    This is what moderates are blamed for and this is exactly what I ask Aziz and other moderates to respond to.
    Talking about dogma, when will I be able to visit Mecca? It’s silly to claim that atheists make dogmatism respectable again. I know a few dogmatic atheists. Compare their numbers to the numbers of people who (a) agree that no non-muslim should enter Mecca (b) thing that Jerusalem is the property of Judea (c) think that Jerusalem is holy to Islam (d) engage in violent protests because of artistic expression. In fact compare their number to the number of people killed because of the reaction to Rusdhie, van Gogh, and cartoons.
    The truth is that dogma never as gone away but people are blind to their own dogmas. And a few atheists who actually dare to forcefully critizise religions are quickly labeled aggressive, dogmatic or worse, when actually listening to their opinions does not really justify this.
    So insinuating that perhaps some vocal atheists will bring Stalinism back is a massive distraction from what is actually real. Such as clerics in Sudan demagoging against vaccinations because of “jews and freemasons” and that causing a resurgance of international polio cases? The evil that Iran upholds the fatwa against Rushdie and even moderates complained about his Knighthood. And of course the root of many evils in the middle east, hardly caused or promoted by dogmatic atheists. But reflecting the reality that real and existing dogmatism, in the realm of religion may be a problem, that is not speakable. Let’s rather call the people who articulate this aggressive and leading to Stalinism!
    Finally Stalinism was not dogmatic atheism, it was totalitarian intolerance against anything that Stalin disliked, including competing thoughts of “communism” or anything else. But apparently it’s not dogmatism to misrepresent this. So let’s remind us!
    Just like people quote Marx about “the opiate to the people” but never the context in which it is made. Because it’s not about fair and faithful discussion, it’s about painting others in a bad light. So yes, Stalinism is scary because tyranny is scary.
    This is how “scary” contemporary “aggressive” and “dogmatic” atheists are: They sit down with believers and debate.
    So yeah it’s easy to paint atheism as scary or secular humanists as the cause for the failings of multiculturalism. Neither is really grounded in reality unfortunately.

  • bahman

    I just want to say that the picture you have put here looks like a member of terrorist organization why dont you change it or do you need put a picture at all this pictur make the people turn away from muslim.that all I want to say now

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Teed Rockwell

    I have read the Atheist Religion bashers in great detail, and many of them do advocate the complete elimination of all religions (Sam Harris most explicitly) There are fewer of them, so they are not as dangerous as the worst Islamoid extremists. That’s why I said POTENTIAl for great evil. But they are a danger never the less, and have provided justification for genuine acts of violence against Muslims. Atheist Christopher Hitchens supports the Iraq war primarily for Islamophobic reasons.
    As for your claim that moderate Muslims need to speak out more against intolerant extremists–many of them do speak out and their voices are not heard. Did you know that the Danish Muslim group that sent out the pictures to the rest of the Arab world condemned the violence that those pictures eventually inspired? Neither does anyone else, because it wasn’t covered by the major media. Check my blog using the tag “Muslim Outrage” and you will find information about Muslims actively condemning Muslim extremism. Apparently the media thinks 10 American converts to Islam with a website sending an Angry letter to a TV station is more newsworthy than 51 demonstrations in Pakistan against terrorism. (The demonstration in Islamabad had over 1,000 people)

  • Hitch

    I see fear (of atheist arguments), anger (over media coverage) and self-victimization. I don’t see how you will contribute something positive being that far in the ditch. But do try.
    Actually listen to Harris, actually read Hitchens and understand his context. Actually understand that most people are well aware of the plight of Muslims in many contexts. And most are fully aware that there is violence in all cultures (abortion clinics).
    It’s good to think beyond the stereotype and the enemies and actually look at the situation.
    But if you think it’s more helpful to be scared of atheists, well there is nothing I will be able to do about that. I have yet to see cures for irrational fears.
    If you think you help the moderate voice, I fear I can tell you, you are not. Take the poster you link on your blog. I understand that he is saying, but it’s fear, demagogery and self-victimhood. And it’s in fact reverse-islamophobia. You think it helps to tell non-Muslims that they are all islamophobes, when their friends have all faiths including Islam? Is that moderation? Or is it anger and bashing of the other?
    But you make up your own mind.

  • Jauharah

    The ideal of a colorblind society amongst Muslims is the foundation ideal we were given. To use the excuse that it was the influece of others that created the racial rift we see today is weak because it suggests that Islam was overshadowed in the lives of Muslims then and that those artificially elevated to “superior” positions are enjoying that status so much that they are unwilling to give it up no matter how much they claim to be.
    Colorblindness may be seen in the masjid during salat but the veil of the not-so-secret reality is lifted once outside. This is most visibly seen on the most basic level – that of family most particularly in the selection of spouse. It’s not uncommon for one of the criteria to be “must be white or very light skinned” as if skin color has any direct bearing on one being a good Muslim or not. I’ve heard stories of fathers not wanting to marry their daughters to dark skinned or African-American men, for example or for that matter our Middle Eastern or Asian brothers also shunning women of similar features. How does this help increase the ummah? It doesn’t. Similar is also seen when you look at one’s circle of friends. Far too often that circle all looks the same. How does this strengthen the ummah? It doesn’t.
    Imams and scholars are looked to for advice and guidance but unless and until they can not only speak on the foundational need for colorblindness but also live it themselves, nothing will chance and these rifts will continue. And in that failure, Muslim society will continue to be attacked and persecuted.

  • http://muslimbuddhist.blogspot.com Teed Rockwell

    “I see fear (of atheist arguments), anger (over media coverage) and self-victimization.’
    Seeing as I’m not a Muslim myself, it can’t really be called self-victimization.
    “Actually listen to Harris, actually read Hitchens and understand his context.”
    I have read them both, and both advocate the elimination of all religion as a worthy goal. Harris claims that it is essential for the survival of the human race. If that isn’t anti-religious prejudice, I don’t know what is. I have no problem with Atheism, only problems with Atheists who claim that religion should be eliminated. That kind of fanaticism is, or could be, every bit as dangerous as Theistic fanaticism. Part of my objection to Harris and Hitchens is that they mistakenly believe that you can eliminate persecution and fanaticism by eliminating belief in God. (That and the fact that their scholarship of religious texts is pretty bad) Communist persecution of religions in the name of Atheism shows that this doesn’t work. People get murderously fanatical about lots of things, including Atheism. There’s not as much danger of it happening right now. But I don’t think it sets a very good example to followers of religious traditions to say they should not be fanatical, and then fanantically insist that they need to need to abandon their religions in order to save the world. And that is what Harris says.
    “Actually understand that most people are well aware of the plight of Muslims in many contexts. And most are fully aware that there is violence in all cultures (abortion clinics).”
    I’m not talking about most people I’m talking about three writers who I am specifically paraphrasing. That’s not stereotyping.
    “But if you think it’s more helpful to be scared of atheists, well there is nothing I will be able to do about that. I have yet to see cures for irrational fears.”
    If you can read articles about Imams condemning violence by Islamoid terrorists, accepting images of Muhammad, massive protests against Taliban terrorism, and see nothing but self-victimization, I’m afraid I have no cures for your irrational fears either. Perhaps you didn’t see all the posts about Muslims condemning terrorism. I’ve added a few more links to the “Muslim Outrage” link, which may be helpful.
    “You think it helps to tell non-Muslims that they are all islamophobes?”
    Where do I say that all non-Muslims are Islamophobes? That isn’t stated in the poster either. The poster just says that Muslims are being treated badly right now by many people and governments, which is true.

  • Hitch

    Let me repeat, Harris nowhere calls for the extermination of all religions. Quote from his book and we can discuss.
    Harris talks about opening up to debate and evidence and going away from the notions that certain things are beyond criticism, specifically religious doctrines and the harm that comes from religion. This is completely different that what you claim he says. I’m happy to quote at length about this, specifically his Epiloque in “The End of Faith”.
    He doesn’t ask people to drop their religion right now. He ask for a willingness to allow debate and evidence.
    Yes what started this whole discussion here is a certain atheist-phobia. Or “blame the atheist” thing that is going on. So secular humanist borked multiculturalism and verbal critics of religion are all setting stage for the extermination of religion.
    If you call Hitchens an islamophobe for criticising all religions then you paint all people who criticise religion in the same light. No you don’t talk about 3 people.
    But furthermore, Hitchens is such a horrible Islamophobe that he argues for palestinians and kurds, both populations predominantly Muslim. I do not believe that you make a fair case.

  • Hitch

    Is Islam anti-secular? I was curious to discover the following reinforcing Aziz’s notion of post-racial identity in Islam in the farewell sermon of Muhammed:
    “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white except in God-consciousness.”
    This is both post-racial but also at the same time claims superiority of ‘god-concious’ over those who don’t have it.
    Coincidentally another key notion is found in the same sermon:
    “O’ people! Verily your blood, your property and your honor are sacred and inviolable until you appear before your Lord, as the sacred inviolability of this day of yours, this month of yours and this very town (of yours).”
    The interesting part is the ownership and inviolability of honor. The notion of offense seems to run deep with even moderate muslims.
    A few steps down we read that women are to be economically dependent on their man and that the man has the right to punish but not too harshly. Women are displayed as helpers and unable to take care of themselves. This also explains the rhetoric of defensiveness with respect to mothers, wives and daughters in discussion of offense against Muhammed.
    But back to the topic of fear of criticism of religion:
    “And beware of transgressing the limits set in the matters of religion, for it is transgression of (the proper bounds of) religion that brought destruction to many people before you.”
    So the prophet in his goodbye warns of how scary secularists and critics of religions are…
    I think a few things do make more sense to me now. Aziz, how are these statements understood broadly today? And how should they operate in a truly multicultural world?

  • Abambagibus

    Muslims keep complaining that predominantly non-Muslim nations must be kinder and ever kinder to them, or else such nations are ethically inferior in the superior vision of the true Faith. Furthermore, if any of such nations should call itself Christian, the Muslims therein would anger to the point of condemnation, especially if it were to do so with pride. In the non-Muslim West, government must remain forever Faithless, an artery of thought contrary to the veins of most of the American founding fathers, now easily condemnable by the wisdom of the left and of the Faith beyond the infidels.
    And, as for those Muslim countries which call themselves Muslim and proudly, their kindness to non-Muslims who openly dare to be non-Muslim among them has a self-contradictory taste which has rationally persuaded many a Christian mission to beware for the sake of its comfort. I was wondering therefore if it would be wise for me to openly complain, in a proudly Muslim nation’s public square, that the place wherein I find myself must be kinder and ever kinder to those of my ilk.
    I have gone into many a Christian church, where among those remaining in fellowship after the sermon, I would tout a Quran, whereupon the few and sometimes the several would be kindly very interested in its passages. And once, for the sake of their attention, I waved it in the air. Not a word of protestation from the crowd. I am now considering the future of a similar deed, but with a King James Bible and in the sternness of a Mosque.
    Adambages Obvos.

  • cut and paste

    If a person believes that breaking a mirror causes 7 years of bad luck would you consider them intelligent? What if they were a good person? What if they had a good sense of humour? What if they were good to their parents? I understand that we all have at least one belief that is idiotic. That is part of the wonderful mozaic of humanity. But being a good person doesn’t excuse one for having idiotic ideas. Part of the reason so many have these idiotic ideas is because our leaders endorse them. I think it is time to say, religion is caustic to society, it is the result of lazy thinking, believing in god is a primitive superstition. You are free to do it. We are all free to do stupid things in a free society as long as the effects are limited to ourselves,
    but just because you have the right to believe something doesn’t mean that what you believe is right.

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