This week, in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, I continued to think about the nature of Islam in the modern world. I got into a surprising argument with an Indonesian friend, the passion of which (on both sides) caught me quite offguard. He basically suggested that as a non-Muslim I should not have an opinion on Islam, and when I pressed further, he effectively shut down the whole discussion because it was making him uncomfortable. From his perspective, I was being insensitive. What do I – a non-Muslim – know or understand about his reality as a gay Muslim man? But to me, his point blank refusal to admit to any flaws in the Muslim faith represents a big part of the problem.
His argument, that any criticism of Islam just feeds into Western anti-Muslim bigots, is to my mind dangerously misguided.
This was reinforced with news that in the last couple of days a group of Turkish Radiohead fans were attacked violently by fanatics for the “crime” of gathering to listen to music during Ramadan – and this in Turkey, which (along with Indonesia,) has long been held up as a beacon of secular tolerance in the Islamic world.
If this is happening in Istanbul, what is happening in Cairo, in Kabul?
At the very least, Muslims need to confront the spectre of Islamism ( meaning,the imposition of Islam on individuals or societies regardless of their own wishes) and forthrightly reject it.
Or we will all continue to pay the price.
The path to the reform of Islam is a tough one, but its one that is already underway. Below are some of the writers and thinkers of the Muslim world who have already begun grappling with big questions about how to balance rights and religion in the twenty first century. I am not claiming to have read all their works, or be familiar with all their arguments. I cannot endorse everything they might have said. But at least, they are getting a long-overdue discussion started and I encourage everyone to read them and think about what they are saying and to acknowledge -as they all do – that there are serious flaws in Islam today.
If readers can suggest more names I will add them to the list.
Tariq Ramadan is the most controversial and perhaps the most conservative name on this list. He has been banned from the USA on charges of supporting terrorism (which seem to me, trumped up) but also banned from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ramadan seems to emphasize the idea of individual choice: he believes homosexuality is wrong, but that gays should not be criminalized or persecuted, and that women should cover their heads, but that it should be their choice and any compulsion to do so is un-Islamic. His critics accuse him of portraying different points of view to his audiences in the West and the Middle East, a claim that he rejects (and I am in no position to comment on).
Maajid Nawaz is a Pakistani-British lawyer, former Muslim radical and political prisoner in Egypt, who is now an eloquent critic of Islamism and of the failure of the West’s “regressive left” to address this problem. He talks of the “Voldemoort effect” whereby Western liberals refuse to acknowledge the looming threat on the horizon and refuse to name it (for fear that criticising Islam will be, or be perceived as, racism). He calls on Muslims to stop being so defensive and for Western liberals to attack any abuse of rights that occurs in Islam’s name. I personally find his writing on the subject to be clear and very compelling.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, to my mind, one of the most inspiring women in the world and is the most radical name on this list. No longer a practicing Muslim, she has renounced Islam, unable to reconcile Islamic doctrine with her passionate commitment to individual rights, particularly for women. Born in Somalia and like Nawaz a former Islamic radical, she fled to the Netherlands as a refugee, became elected to parliament and was threatened with death for her outspoken attacks on Muslim attitudes towards anti-female violence. Her latest book, Heretic, sees her reaching out to reconcile with Muslims by offering concrete suggestions of how Islamic societies could change. Its a strongly recommended read.
Sheik Hamza Yusuf, a US-born advocate for mainstream Islam and lecturer at a university in Morocco, who has recently said of Islamist terrorism: “What we need to counter this plague are the voices of scholars, as well as grassroots activists, who can begin to identify the real culprits behind this fanatical ideology. What we do not need are more voices that veil the problem with empty, hollow, and vacuous arguments that this militancy has little to do with religion; it has everything to do with religion: misguided, fanatical, ideological, and politicized religion.”