Opinion Piece in Newsweek, "A Dream Deferred? Islam, Modernity and Double Standards"

Doha, 19 June 2015

Over the past five years, the Middle East and North Africa have witnessed inspiring events. The world has been amazed at the energy and vision of youth who courageously ushered in change, with some commentators even remarking that America and Europe had a lot to learn about democracy from Arab youth.

What stood out and was most moving was the spirit of resistance, the spirit of persistence—the human spirit, which planted the seeds of freedom in the first place. 

But, as Langston Hughes once asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” 

We are witnessing exactly what happens when dreams are not only deferred but suppressed, not only in the Middle East, but on the streets of America and Europe as well. We are learning that noble dreams cannot be quashed, though, unfortunately, they may be distorted. 

They might find another, more aggressive channel of expression. This is the price we are paying today for our lack of courage when it mattered. Every act has a consequence, but so does every inaction. 

So, any diagnosis of the current situation requires clear-headed political, not merely cultural, analysis. The first step is to critically examine the words which we use to diagnose. 

Can we in today’s world really continue to speak of West and East? Are they geographical distinctions, or states of mind? Is the East to be the West’s perpetual mirror image? As Jalaladdin Rumi said, “I am neither of the West nor the East.”

The same applies when we talk about Islam. On a daily basis, we hear about “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims. I often ask myself: Am I a moderate, a liberal, a conservative? When I try to translate these terms into Arabic, there is not even a meaningful translation. So I ask, who is contriving these labels and their definitions—and for what purposes? 

Likewise, the word “medieval” is appearing more and more to describe the actions of radicals. But why do we insinuate that somehow those who are perpetuating certain acts of violence do not belong to our age? That somehow they are not “modern”? 

It is a naïve refusal to accept our collective responsibility. ISIS is as modern as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They are all products of our age.

Global media, both Western and Arab, often claim that Islam does not believe in freedom of expression and is stuck in medieval times. But how could Islam, a religion based on eternal and universal principles, which revolutionized the social system at the time of the Prophet, not believe in freedom of expression? 

Whose freedom? Whose expression? Whose democracy? When we stand for freedom, we must stand for everyone’s freedom, and when we stand for the right to express oneself, we must stand for this same right for all. When we call for democracy, we must accept the results. 

Why is it that world leaders gathered to march in defence of Charlie Hebdo, while the Chapel Hill murders were shrugged off as a parking dispute? 

At the same time we are confronted with double standards. Why is it that apologies are offered when Europeans are mistakenly killed by drones, but only silence follows when innocent Yemeni and Pakistani children and civilians are killed by the same drones?

Why are the democratic choices of the Muslim populace being slaughtered?

Why do Muslim lives seem to matter less than the lives of others? If they matter at all! I believe this dehumanization is cultivated through a process of Muslim-phobia. 

Muslimphobia is a fear of Muslims, not necessarily Islam. There is an intellectual curiosity in Europe, for example, about Islam: a respect for the vast and rich architectural, philosophical and historical traditions. 

Paradoxically, parallel to this interest in Islamic civilization there is a fear of real, living Muslims. For example, a Muslim is first and foremost identified as a Muslim, rather than simply a human being. Whether they are Pakistani, Malaysian, Senegalese, or even American or European born, their multiple identities are levelled under a constructed monolith of Islam. 

Let me remind you, however, that Islam has never been monolithic but has from the start been a vast container for diverse cultures and ethnicities. The homogenization of Muslims into a fearful and unknowable “Other,” separate from the beauty and nobility of Islam and its civilization, is at the root of Muslimphobia. 

Islam lives in the hearts of Muslims from diverse ethnic groups and cultures, which definitely affect their worldviews. It is not only found in scriptures, literature, art, philosophy, or history. 

People turn more and more to the Internet for information about Muslims and Islam. Yet intelligent resources remain on the shelves of academic journals, inaccessible to average citizens. We need to connect the academic study of Islam with the public who is seeking information, just like we need to consider the needs of young Muslims looking to their traditions for tools to build a new modernity. 

The youth of my region, just like youth all over the world, are eager to construct their own modernity. In the Middle East and North Africa, this modernity contains Islam. Yet we need to ask, as we become more global, are we really becoming more pluralistic? 

We live in a world of multi-religious and multi-ethnic realities and we have the tools, within Islam, to embrace this diversity. We should not only look back to history for the glory that was Islam but to the future and to the glory that is Islam. We should be inspired not only by historical values, but by eternal ones. 

We need to apply Islamic principles and ethics to the pluralistic, just societies our youth envision. As Muslims, we need to be present in public discourse, not only in our societies but in global society. We need to demonstrate that Islam is a rich, living moral tradition that can offer solutions to universal challenges. 

So what happens to a dream deferred? I would like to answer: it may shy, but never die.