I have been trying to make sense of the new geopolitical condition of Muslims in the world today. A lot has happened over the last ten years that will keep scholars busy writing books for decades to come. In this article I will highlight some random thoughts I have about our new condition. There is no particular order as I am just sitting here letting my mind dictate to my fingers in a freestyle sort of way.
However the unifying message is something like this: "Muslims are scattered in their thinking and too eager to worship culture over haqq. If we don't regroup and reform our own understandings and practices, we will continue to flounder, and our children will remain confused and even ashamed to be called Muslims." We all have thought like this in recent years. I believe there needs to be more open discussion about who we are, what we want, how we will get there, and how do we keep Islam relevant in our youth in an age of social media and unimaginable pressures to conform to unIslamic values.
Arabia, Iran and the West
Women's rights are in flux in the Muslim world in many places. With the rise of the new Saudi potentate, Muhammad bin Salman, even Arabia has been undergoing many changes. Recently women were granted the right to drive automobiles and some reforms have been made to certain religious edicts. Today I read an article in which a Saudi cleric named Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq ruled that women do not need to wear the abaya, which is an all-encompassing outer robe similar to the now attacked burka, (which is worn in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and in other places where those cultures take up residence). In another development, in Iran women are no longer forbidden to attend sporting events.
Such changes are momentous in many of these societies, even though many voices differ with some dissenting and others saying they do not go far enough. Recent protests in Iran against the hijab itself have garnered international attention. This is funny in a way given how non-Muslim women in the West are defending or even promoting hijab. Clearly the world has been turning upside down now for several years and what you thought was one way is now completely another. In recent 'feminist' marches, non-Muslim women have even joined in salah and begun chanting Muslim phrases. In the past I would say, "Cool, look at the power of our da'wah!" However, now I just think, "What is really going on?" Oftentimes I am at a loss for words.
The End of ISIS and Other Political Movements
The recent crushing of ISIS by Trump, Putin and every leader of the Muslim world also got me thinking. ISIS wanted to create a new Islamic State, and their sudden rise was phenomenal. However, their brutality and bizarre behavior caused them to lose a lot of goodwill and potential support in the Muslim world very early on. I remember one man who was interviewed about them after he defected away from them. He said he went there with high hopes for establishing Islam, but that he saw them doing so many incorrect things. He had hoped they would reform themselves, but they didn't.
Personally, I also was shocked early on by what they were doing. It seemed from the get-go that they reveled in doing every unIslamic thing imaginable. If the Prophet was merciful to captured enemies, they would shoot them or burn them alive. If the Prophet forbade mutilating the bodies of the dead, they would publicly dismember and carve words in the bodies of the prisoners they killed. If the Prophet forbade children from going to war, they would teach five-year-olds to shoot prisoners in the head and become suicide bombers. I could go on, but you get the point.
I think one of the biggest geo-religious things that ISIS has done is to make it impossible to establish a real caliphate in the next several centuries. Everyone is going to remember the 'Islamic State' as a brutal nightmare of wickedness and evil. Unlike other times in history where reports remain in dusty books, all their actions were caught on video and widely distributed by they themselves! I think they were going for shock value, but all it did was make people all around the world hate them. If they were merciful and wise, they would have had the entire Muslim world behind them.
In addition, when they initially came to power, their only enemy was the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The U.S. under Obama was prepared to leave them alone and only took action later to prevent the unnecessary massacre of the Yazidis. A prudent strategy for ISIS to follow would have been to stop being so cruel and genocidal against all non-Arabs and non-Muslims, and to halt expanding southward in Iraq after they captured all the traditionally Sunni areas. Then they should have made a ceasefire with the Shia government in Baghdad. Doesn't the Qur'an counsel making peace agreements whenever possible, especially if your position is uncertain? ISIS built its brand on endless expansion, but this was a position not supported by the Sunnah, in which the Prophet did halt political expansion at times in favor of da'wah efforts in far flung places.
Why would it have been smarter to make a cease-fire with the Iraqi government? Because the Shia's had a desire to make their own breakawy state and the U.S. was propping up that government from the get-go. The U.S. would not have let their pet politicians fall. ISIS then could have expanded indefinitely in Syria until they could force a peace agreement giving the Alawites a strip of land on the coast and then stopping there to breath. They should also have made peace with the Kurds and used them to counterbalance Turkey, which at first was unsure what to do about ISIS. (ISIS should not have antagonized Turkey so much! There was no reason.) Finally, they should not have promised fire and brimstone on Israel so harshly because they were unprepared to do anything about it. Israel moves the forces of the world with its influence, and telling them you will annihilate them will get them to react with overwhelming force (using the armies of larger nations they influence).
Such a strategy of 'territorial pause' would have allowed the cementing of their caliphate and the moderating of their extreme positions over time. However, this is not what happened. They were monumentally over-confident in their abilities and failed to take into account basic principles of war and political strategies. Perhaps it was because the core of their leadership was actually remnants of the Iraqi Republican Guard (secular men). During both Gulf Wars these men boasted of their strength even while the U.S. was throwing them around like a rag doll. They learned nothing from the experiences. Instead they decided to make the whole world their enemies - all at once!
The Prophet did not follow such strategies, and sought peace agreements at every turn. Why? He understood his movement needing as much normalcy in peoples' lives as possible. Breathing room allows your people to grow stronger and allows you to solidify your position in the arena of nations.
While the United States was still a young country in the first decade of the 1800s, the British and French were fighting yet another global war. Some Americans wanted to join that war on the French side, but many other leaders knew it was folly. They had just achieved independence and had less than 20 years of freedom as a new nation. If they declared war on England, they could lose everything. By 1812 the overconfident Americans did declare war on England, and just barely survived it, ending in a stalemate by 1815. There was the real possibility that England could conquer them again and even Washington D.C. was occupied for a time!
From our own religious history, when the Prophet made the humiliating treaty of Hudaybiyyah with the Meccans - a treaty that totally advantaged his enemies, - the Sahaba were livid and angry. The Prophet had to work overtime to keep them calm and accepting. Why did he agree to terms that were unfavorable? He knew the community needed time to heal and regroup from the constant Meccan attacks.
This is strategy that works. This is what following the Sunnah is all about. Even the Taliban before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan were over-confident and short-sighted. They would still be in power today if they had better leadership, not that I think they were very Islamic either. Their racism against non-Pashtuns was unfortunate, and their treatment of women was unnecessarily unIslamic too. When Muslims are more governed by their culture than their religion, they lose every time.
Islam in the West
For some time now, Muslims have been drifting into the orbit of the Leftist movement, which is often called the social justice movement. This is natural considering that conservative movements tend to be made up of the natives of the country, who are increasingly alarmed at the rise of non-white populations and their religions and cultures.
Of course we need to recognize and respect the fears of the native populations in Western lands, as the changes their societies are undergoing are tremendous. Look at how Muslims treat each other when one or another ethnic group vies for power. Human nature makes us tribal, and tribalism, as the Prophet warned, is a bad thing. I feel bad when I see Muslim immigrants taunting native Westerners and boasting about replacing them. It seems unnecessarily arrogant and impedes true da'wah.
As I have seen Muslims marching in various social justice protests and joining with various political parties made up largely of liberals and Leftists, I have often wondered what the result will be. These Leftists promote every unIslamic thing. Homosexuality, bestiality, communism, pedophilia, 'casual' relations between the sexes and moral relativism. (The #Metoo movement is something of a counter protest against the sexual revolution, though Leftists fail to make the connection that traditional values are actually better and more respectful of women!)
I know a lot of people like to get involved in politics, Muslims included - power is intoxicating - but are we rushing in blindly towards things that will harm us more than help us? It's cool that being Muslim is the new 'hip' thing on the Left, but they also only accept us as long as we accept and adopt their values. So many young Muslims I know now, who often don't live by Islamic principles anymore, defend homosexuality, transgender-ism, moral relativism and even mundane things like not eating halal food and all the rest.
Christianity has largely caved in to liberal values in recent years and rarely opposes what was considered sinful just ten years ago. Consequently, they have no 'brand' anymore. Many churches are now just social clubs. Are we fated for that in the West? I would like to think that we can still call to goodness, morality and the path to heaven. In this regard, I think our community needs to have more discussions about what it means to be a Muslim in the modern age.
Some topics I would love to see addressed in our conventions, masajid and magazines are:
(1) How does the rise in 'Smart' phones and the decline in reading affect us? Islam is a text heavy religion, and few young people read anymore beyond texts, tweets and small articles on line.
(2) How can we recover our 'brand' and become more positive in public opinion as a religious community, especially after the Age of Terrorism has tarnished us so much? Our youth feel ashamed to say they're Muslims. This is a tragedy.
(3) How can we update our learning systems to better enable us to transmit Islam to the coming generations who are stepped in modernism and moral relativism? We don't have enough media for our youth! How is it that after so many decades we have NO movie industry, no animation industry, no game or app developers making things for Muslim consumption? How is it we have so few books for youth after so long?
(4) How can we reform our culturally-based masjids into dynamic centers of da'wah? Too many masjids are dead places where mean and angry men gather to pray, shout and leave with no room for life, creativity and no place for youth or women. What do the better masjids do that other masjids can learn from?
(5) What happened to all our dynamic speakers? We used to have so many great speakers who could take on non-Muslims and show the true logic and beauty of Islam. We have a few still, but they seem much less larger-than-life than we need now. Our youth need heroes too beyond sports stars and rappers.
(6) How can we tap into the wisdom of our forbears? There have been so many great books written by previous generation of Muslims that are largely forgotten now. Al ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Attar, Nizami and all the rest. We need to make literature circles in our masjids and book clubs and add intellectual fortitude into our lives. Previous generations of Muslims experienced hardships too. They wrote about how to cope iwith life and survived. We need to tap into that wisdom as well!
Inshallah, we can reform ourselves and move our community forward from strength to strength. I think each of us has to rededicate ourselves to our life's mission and realize we are only here a short time. We had better make our lives count!