Our Discussion of Islam

David Foster

May 1, 2011

Last month’s congressional hearings on Islam confirmed once again that our public discussion of Islam, and of its possible relation to terrorism, takes place on a very low level. There are many reasons for this. Besides a general ignorance of basic facts, discussion is too often ended by slogans like “religion of peace” or “Islamophobia.” Some think there is nothing to discuss, because terrorism has nothing to do with any school or teaching of Islam-extremism or fanaticism, found in all religions, is the problem. Or again, to examine Islam critically seems unjust and ungenerous, like beating up on a minority. Others are fed up with the way some groups with Islamic-sounding names force themselves on the wider society with demands and violent acts—better just to ignore the whole issue. Still others are afraid, sometimes for good reasons.

But in an open society public discussion is essential and that goes as much for Islam as for any other subject. We should be grateful, therefore, for the profile of Yasir Qadhi featured on the cover of a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine (March 20, 2011). Born in Houston to Pakistani immigrants, Qadhi was raised largely in Saudi Arabia. In college he became a Salafi, the ultra-strict form of Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. He went on to study Islam for almost ten years in a Saudi University. In the world of orthodox Sunni Islam, it would be difficult to get better credentials.

After 9/11, however, Qadhi did some soul searching and appears to have been moving away from extreme positions. He seems genuinely at home in American popular culture. He can even joke—”make love, not jihad” is one of his quips. He lives now in Memphis, Tennessee, where he teaches at Rhodes College while finishing a Ph.D. at Yale and running a flourishing international business as a celebrity cleric specializing in discouraging young people inclined to radicalism. Although the article raises more questions than it answers, it is a portrayal of a real human being and of some of the complications facing Muslims trying to reconcile their faith with life in America. This is the kind of thing that may allow us to begin talking in a more direct way about some important issues. I note just two, neither of which involves the loaded word, “jihad.”

Although Qadhi seems to have become more moderate since 9/11, some statements from his more radical past still appear on YouTube. In one that is quoted in the article, Qadhi explains that one form of disbelief is adhering to man-made laws over God’s law: “Can you believe it?” he says. “A group of people coming together and voting—and the majority vote will then be the law of the land. What gives you the right to prohibit something or allow something?”

The article implies that Qadhi has moved away from this position, though to what is not said. Whatever Qadhi himself might now think, however, his statement is interesting as an opinion with considerable appeal to many strict Muslims. How should we respond to it? In the first place, by recognizing what’s at stake. The key issue is not whether or not the majority should rule—neither side simply accepts that view—but whether or not human beings have the right to govern themselves. In the Western tradition of political thought, Qadhi’s opinion would be a form of “divine right” politics, the view that political institutions and laws can be legitimate only if they can be traced more or less directly to divine action. Against this view, the Western political tradition argues that all men are created equal and that God left humans free to use their natural faculties in political matters. This implies that human beings have the right to form governments based on consent and to use their capacity for reason to contrive things like the separation of legislative and executive power. That at least is how John Locke frames the issue in his influential critique of the divine right position.

Americans are the heirs of Locke’s view. According to the Declaration of Independence, the just powers of government are derived from “the consent of the governed,” and whenever government is destructive of the unalienable rights it is intended to secure, the people have a right to “alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Power in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Similarly, our Constitution is the work of “We the people,” not of a prophet whose divinely revealed law precludes the people coming together and, through deliberation guided by reason, choosing political arrangements. Again, as the best interpreter of that Constitution puts it, the founding of the United States was an attempt to establish good government by deliberation and choice—i.e., human deliberation and human choice (see Federalist #1). These ideas suggest that one fundamental point at issue between Qadhi’s earlier views and American political ideas is whether or not consent and reason are legitimate means to solving political problems.

A second issue has to do with the Islamic principle of ummah, defined in the article as “the global community that unites all Muslims.” The article reports that “the Prophet Muhammad was said to have likened [the ummah] to the human body. If one part hurts, the whole body aches.” This remarkable idea is one reason many devout Muslims in America have conflicting loyalties: if we are involved in a war in which Americans are killing Muslims, they ask, what does the principle of ummah require of a Muslim? As a young woman from Maryland who volunteered at Qadhi’s organization is reported to have said, “If any Muslim is oppressed anywhere, the prevailing wisdom is that we should be standing up to help them-if we’re true believers.” Sometimes, she added, “you feel guilty for living here” in America. Another young man who studied with Qadhi asks more pointedly, “if we are at war (i.e., with Muslims), how can we live in America peacefully?” Anwar al-Awlaki and Nidal Hasan didn’t think they could.

The young Muslims interviewed in the article are dealing with genuine problems raised by the doctrines of their faith. It should go without saying that not all Muslims share their opinions—by all accounts, millions do not—but enough do to make it worth thinking about them. And there is no good reason why those of us who are not Muslims shouldn’t reflect on these opinions from our own points of view. The article suggests that Qadhi urges the young men and women he counsels to think “in colors” rather than in simple black-and-white categories, and he prods them to “find a balance between loyalty to Islam and to America.” The example given of this “balance” is that they should pay taxes, but not serve in the military. “There is no draft,” Qadhi said. “Thank God for that.”

The precise character of this balance, and the basis upon which it actually rests, are questions too deep for a magazine profile. But clearly there are serious issues here. It would be useful if Muslims, both here and abroad, at least heard the case for republican self-government. That case in turn would be much more effective if it addressed their concerns. But that can’t happen unless we learn something about Islam and are willing to discuss it openly. And it wouldn’t be a bad thing if a more informed engagement with questions raised by Islam led us to recover the fundamental arguments that underlie our own political commitments.

David Foster is chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Ashland University and a fellow of the Ashbrook Center.