notes on Islam and the supranational.
This is a tale of two stories.
Some time ago, Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani national living in Saudi Arabia, married Syed Rizwan Farook, an American citizen of Pakistani descent. Relatives allege that Malik had been of a more extreme mindset ever since she and her father moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a toddler. Malik’s family life seemed somewhat rocky — her father had cut off all contact with his family members in Pakistan following a bitter inheritance dispute, refusing to even attend his own mother’s funeral. The couple met online, and Farook would successfully bring his wife to California on a K-1 visa. It is thought that Malik, now a legal resident of San Bernardino, convinced her husband to join her on what appears to be a lone wolf attack, one apparently inspired by the message of the Islamic State. IS claims responsibility for the attack, but they’d take credit for sinking the Titanic if they could. As of this writing, the FBI has found no direct evidence that the couple had any contact with representatives of the organization; most hold that they were simply independently inspired. The bureau also walked back on earlier reports stating that Malik had made a public oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over Facebook, and that such reports actually referred to private messages sent by Malik’s alias account, “Larki Zaat”. As details continue to emerge, this much is clear: it was one of the largest mass shootings in US history, with the final body count coming to 14. An additional 24 sustained non-fatal injuries.
The second story also took place some time ago, when my wife and I took an impromptu trip to Morocco. Upon landing in Casablanca, we had a small bite to eat (my Humphrey Bogart fantasy would have to wait) and were quickly on the train to Fes. Known as Morocco’s spiritual heart, Fes has attracted a steady and consistent stream of “gummies” like ourselves — global, urban Muslims — looking to connect to the cherished Islamic religious heritage lying largely outside of our homes in the West.
Tired, in need of showers, and jet-lagged, my wife and I took our seats across from each another. I had hoped to get some much-needed rest. Until, that is, he entered in our carriage. Tall, majestic, yet serene, I recognized him as a West African. Dressed from head-to-toe in telltale blue flowing robes, he smiled and began clicking away at his rosary — known as a misbaha in Arabic — incanting God’s names over and over again. It would go on like this for the entire four hour ride, a sight not easily forgotten.
A few days later, my wife and I were outside the mausoleum of a revered shaykh, Ahmed al-Tijani, when her eyes went wide. She immediately blurted out in English, “You’re the guy from the train!” I turned around, and there he was, with a knowing smile. He and I struck up a conversation in Arabic. His name was Ahmadou, a businessman visiting from Dakar with his family for a conference. They were staying in a small apartment he owned right outside the tomb, a beloved place for him. “You must come and visit us,” he pleaded. I hesitated, because since when do you just enter a stranger’s home within five minutes of talking? But before I knew it, I had agreed (not without raised eyebrows from my wife), and we soon found ourselves following him up a narrow flights of stairs.
As we make our way up, and a door opens. Ahmadou sits us down. His children, teenagers dressed in bright colors, are singing along to a video in the corner of the room. He sends for one of them to go fetch some sweets and drinks. Between his children, his wife, and us, he effortlessly switches between French, Wolof, and Arabic, grinning wide throughout. He holds my hand gently as we speak, maintaining an intense eye contact. I have no qualms admitting that, at this point, each and every one of my internal alarm bells are going off. It’s not that easy to toss a deeply-ingrained American sense of personal space aside. But his generosity had a warming effect, and I could feel myself growing comfortable again. “Indeed, this bond between believers is strong and everlasting, and I thank God for having brought us together,” he said. (Formal Arabic, interestingly, sounds rather Shakespearean compared to regional dialects, and I’ve translated it as such). “You have spoken truly,” I replied, and just then, a verse from the Qur’an came to mind, and so I shared. “And whosoever forsakes other than God, and believes in Him, hath grasped the firmest handhold, one which shall never crack…” He then chimed in with the end of the verse, repeating it several times over: “…and God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”
I was floored. Here I am, a Pakistani-American kid visiting a complete stranger from Senegal in the middle of Morocco (a country foreign to both of us), and not even five minutes later we’re holding hands and finishing each other’s sentences.
When two average Americans happen to run into each other when abroad, they may say hello, maybe ask where the other is from, but rarely more than that. It is highly unlikely that they will share ultimate metaphysical truths, pray for one another’s forgiveness and salvation, eat a meal with one another, and exchange contact information. Yet with Muslims, whether in Milwaukee or Mecca, such an occurrence is hardly uncommon.
These two stories — one warm and fuzzy, the other, chilling and horrifying — have something in common, as much as I hesitate to admit it: they both involve groups of Muslims coming together on the basis of their shared understandings of Islam, however diametrically opposed they may be. As a wave of unprecedented Islamophobia engulfs the nation (no doubt amplified by Mr. Trump’s “proto-fascist” rhetoric), Muslims — and Islam by extension — have become objects of acute suspicion. Like hydrogen atoms, many feel that Islam provides Muslims with a keen ability to quickly bond with one another out of a sort of religious covalence.
Normative Islamic teachings do, in fact, encourage believers to bond with one another for the sake of God alone. This is not a contentious statement. Numerous Qur’an verses address believers as a group. For instance, “believing men and women are protecting friends of one another, they enjoin what is good, forbid what is evil, establish prayer, give in charity, and obey God and His Messenger.” Among those who will be shaded from God’s punishment on Judgment Day, the Prophet informs mankind, will be “two individuals who love each other for God’s sake, coming together on that basis, and parting upon that basis.” Another Prophetic narration asserts that, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are as one body. When one limb suffers, the whole body responds to it with sleeplessness and fever.” These are just a few examples. And we shouldn’t be surprised — it’s only natural for us to be predisposed towards those who share our belief in the same capital-T Truth, and Islam reinforces this on a grand scale, through teachings such as those above, as well as acts of group worship — the most spectacular being perhaps the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Western academics have also taken note. Back in 2003, Noah Feldman described Islam as a “mobile idea”, being distinguished as such by its universality and almost intuitive simplicity: There is one, true God, and His final and perfect emissary is the Prophet Muhammad. Humans are to gain closeness to God by adhering to the teachings divinely revealed to Muhammad. All believing Muslims on earth agree upon this, and such a base teaching provides fertile soil for common ground to be built between believers, regardless of how different they may be from one another. Of course, this is an ideal (the Islamic State has been accused of racism, after all, despite its insistence to the contrary), and Muslims, like other humans on pretty much any topic, find ways to disagree upon what this means in practice. But the significance of such teachings should not go understated. This doesn’t mean Muslims are the Borg, but neither does it mean that when two or more consciously Muslim individuals meet, that there isn’t some level of genuine connection over religion, perhaps even more so than with other faiths.
In the wake of the attacks in San Bernardino, Muslim communities in the West braced themselves for yet another round of collective suspicion, a phenomenon noticeably absent when members of other groups commit similarly heinous crimes. Wajahat Ali, in a timely op-ed recently, notes “that when a white male, say, kills three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, the entire civilization, behavior and population of whatever constitutes ‘whiteness’ are not indicted and asked to engage in post-tragedy condemnathons.” There are a couple things at play here (racism and Islamophobia, just to name a few), and Ali is right to point out the glaring double standard. But such responses do not adequately address the concerns that motivate the demand for condemnations in the first place : the unease towards what is assumed to be a connective tissue of sorts linking Muslims together communally on the basis of a shared faith (not dissimilar to how Catholics used to be viewed in America). Communal religious social organization causes anxiety in many Western liberals, in part because it triggers historical traumas of a time when the West used to hold religion and community in much higher esteem.
Communal religious social organization causes anxiety in many Western liberals, in part because it triggers historical traumas of a time when the West used to hold religion and community in much higher esteem.
To illustrate this point, scholars have long asserted that modern, liberal ideas of individualism generally atomize and individuate traditional group formations, such as those based on family, clan, or religion. One example is the now anachronistic concept of “Christendom” — an idea with no serious champion today. Christendom’s cognate in Muslim world, known as Dar al-Islam, or “The Abode of Islam”, was traditionally understood to be, generally speaking, a territorially contiguous area where Islam, loosely and informally defined and manifesting in extremely diverse ways in different contexts, was accorded a privileged (if not hegemonic) status in the public sphere, whether by virtue of it being ruled by Muslims, Muslims comprising the majority of the population, or both. This was the world of Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan who, in the 1300s, was able to spend his life travelling and even making a living across a vibrant Dar al-Islam comprising West Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, India, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and China, while still feeling more or less at home in various Muslim environs.
But as assumptions about the world changed, and as globalization’s tempo increased, Muslims, like Christians, began to call into question how they ought to categorize the world, and they did so in different ways. Christians, after centuries of religious wars, would eventually come to give up entirely on the idea of Christendom, if not Christianity altogether, opting instead for nationalism’s liberal organizing logic of secular nation-states and the individual rights of citizenship. Liberalism, it was argued, would, as implied in the word, liberate humanity from what were seen to be oppressive group structures, allowing men to fully actualize and assert their independent selves. This was how liberalism operated historically in Europe and America. Muslims, however, even as they continue to debate spiritedly on how best to categorize space within an Islamic framework, have not given up on the concept of Dar al-Islam in the abstract, and, I argue, are unlikely to do so anytime soon (it even happens to be the name of IS’s French-language magazine). Many members of the ummah are — whether they realize it or not — looking for a sense of belonging, and are actively constructing their own abodes however they can.
Today, Dar al-Islam has a new, fragmented, supranational reality. Transcending the state, it does not necessarily require physical space — the digital or the metaphysical will do just fine (and, as Malik’s e-bay’ah demonstrates, they sometimes overlap). When an ISIS recruit’s heart turns to the dark side, he or she becomes an “instant citizen” of a fanatical community that imbibes one with immense loyalty and purpose — no visa paperwork required. With around 31,000 foreign fighters having already traveled to the Islamic State’s heartlands from over 85 different countries, nations all over the world have been frantically looking for a way to stem the appeal of IS’s new multi-layered promise of belonging.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslims live quite happily in America, and know of nowhere else to truly call home, myself included. Sure, many tend to be socially conservative (my wife still tells me to cover my eyes when the naughty parts come on during movies), but there is a visceral appreciation of the freedom afforded to religious groups here to organize their own communities. In several Muslim-majority countries, the state strictly administers and monitors all religious activity; in many places, mosques even have their Friday sermons written for them by a central religious affairs ministry. I strongly feel that my experience as a Muslim born and raised in the West has been instrumental in helping me freely scrap together my own peaceful abode — whether in my small, hometown mosque in southeastern Wisconsin, the beautifully chaotic streets of Lahore, or the floor of a tiny apartment in Fes.
IS would jump at the chance to destroy the gravesite where Ahmadou and I had met if given the chance, and would likely deem us non-believers for our association with sufism, Islam’s esoteric, mystical tradition, which it views as heretical. Despite the vast chasm separating the majority of Muslims from IS, it appears to me that my faith’s ability to help forge incredible bonds across borders still comes off as a liability to many. Islamic religious grouping is seen to entail a certain type of political “loyalty” to other co-religionists that renders Muslims a perpetual fifth column in the eyes of wider society. In effect, Islam has come to be seen as an inherently political project, and Muslims, as Islam’s followers (regardless of their level of practice, if any), are finding it difficult to escape becoming politicized as a result.
So, what can good people do to face this situation? First, it needs to be understood that Muslims of all persuasions and levels of practice seek out community, and that the question isn’t how to stop that (a fool’s errand), but rather, what steps can be taken to ensure that this natural desire is channeled properly. Most importantly, though, the motivating desire that prompts this search for belonging — a struggle nearly everyone goes through — should never be cast aside nonchalantly. George Washington University’s latest report, entitled ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, analyzed the profiles of 71 individuals charged for “ISIS-related activities.” These profiles were compiled after reviewing over 7,000 pages of legal proceedings. It states in no uncertain terms that “ideological motivations are deeply intertwined with, and impossible to separate from, personal motives…a search for belonging, meaning, and/or identity appears to be a crucial motivator for many Americans (and other Westerners) who embrace ISIS’s ideology.” Recognizing this, non-Muslim allies can do their best to make their Muslim neighbors feel at home in their country at a time when many Muslims are filled with dread, whether that means a kind word or something more. In the same vein, Muslim friends and family members must continue to work to create avenues of healthy self-expression and loving communities in the hope that the next generations of Muslims in America find a place to belong — their very own Dar al-Islam — in the fullness of their identities and in a confident and positive sense of self.
What could be more American than that?