A liberal Muslim goes to America
Iyanatul Islam | The Daily Star | October 06, 2004
Muqtedar Khan is one of the rising stars among Muslim intellectuals in the West. A US-based academic of Indian origin, he is a fellow of the prestigious Brookings Institution. The author of American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom, he is engaged in an admirable quest to demonstrate the relevance of Islamic values in enriching mainstream American society. Khan suggests a strategic alliance between America and liberal Muslims to defeat Al Qaeda and their affiliates. Is this a realistic proposition or a case of naive optimism? A cynic will point to the latter possibility, but such a conclusion needs to be preceded by an appreciation of the intellectual and ethical universe of an American Muslim.
There are several strands in Muqtedar Khan’s scholarship. They are clearly on display on his website entitled Ijtihad which is seen as an ‘…intellectual tool to bridge the gap between Islamic texts and our contemporary context’. Khan rejects the view that secularism is the inevitable legacy of modernity. He draws attention to the way religion intrudes on public life in the West, whether it is the debate over the banning of the Hijab in France or the discourse over the legality and morality of gay marriages in the United States and ‘unyielding support for Israel …among certain Republican politicians with evangelical connections.’
Khan’s thesis of the ‘myth of secularism’ leads him to dismiss ‘secular, Westernised Muslims’ as being unworthy of playing a leading role in winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim heartland. As he puts it: ‘Secular westernized Muslims have little influence in the Muslim World. Islam has become the dominant idiom of the Muslim World and the West must find a way to cooperate and co-exist with ….liberal Islamists who believe in democracy, tolerance and pluralism, but within the Islamic rubric’.
He is a ‘very vocal critic of George Bush’s foreign policy’ without subscribing to the thesis of American imperialism. This is evident in his reaction to the ‘civilizational dialogue’ hosted by France in Paris. He was distressed by the way in which the French were using the Paris forum to depict ‘ the US as a new-colonial power seeking to dominate the oil resources of the [Middle East] by force. Clearly the objective was to paint the US as an international villain and France as the international hero that is defending international norms, the multilateral order and a champion of third world rights.’
He reminded Europe of its double standards. As he puts it: ‘Compared to Europe’s history American colonial ambitions are insignificant and as far as democracy and freedom of religion was concerned the US was streets ahead of the French … I reminded them that the US was, as former Secretary of State Albright pointed out, the “indispensable nation”.
His allegiance to America leads Khan to delineate the kind of role that American Muslims ought to play as citizens of that country. Writing in the New York Times, he sets the context of his thesis by emphasising that 9/11 has been a traumatic experience for American Muslims. They now face ‘hostility and prejudice in many corners of society’. Yet, this traumatic experience also provides a window of opportunity to reconstruct the identity of American Muslims. Some positive changes are underway, such as endowments to fund Islamic Studies in American Universities, but a lot more needs to be done. As he puts it: ‘We need to … demonstrate that Muslims in this country constitute an ethical and philanthropic community that cares about humanitarian causes, about America and Americans and stands for justice and rights as embodied in the Constitution.’
He reminds fellow Americans that there are mutual obligations. ‘They cannot allow events overseas to foster anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia at home’. Ultimately, Khan sees a reconstructed American Muslim identity in which ‘…Muslims must realise that the interests of our sons and daughters, who are American, must come before the interests of our brothers and sisters, whether they are Palestinian, Kashmiri or Iraqi’.
Khan interprets anti-Americanism in the Muslim world as the product of dual forces. Thus: ‘…they are the manifestly unjust consequences of current and past American foreign policies towards the Muslim World and the use of America as the “designated other” in Islamist discourses seeking to reconstruct an Islamic identity and create a global Islamic political power.’
In his view, Islamic fundamentalists are ‘rogue Islamists’, a variation, it seems, of the idea of the ‘rogue state’ favored by American policy makers. Rogue Islamists have managed to use foster implacable hostility towards the US on a global scale. They need to be resolutely opposed by ‘liberal Muslims’ because it is a battle for the ‘soul of Islam’. Ultimately, ordinary Muslims will be the victims of anti-Americanism.
Khan chastises prominent Western scholars, such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, for failing to appreciate that modern liberalism is compatible with both Islamic values and Islamic history. As he notes: ‘Liberal Islam is that interpretation of Islam that is sensitive to liberal values such as religious tolerance, freedoms of conscience and speech, civil liberties, social justice, public welfare, and educational development…
Many liberal concerns have been protected in the heydays of liberal Islam in Islamic Spain, under Emperor Akber in Mughal India and under the Abbasid caliphate in the heartlands of Islam.’
Khan emphasizes that liberal Muslims are critical of American foreign policy, concerned about Islamophobia in the West and the way in which it is fuelled by ignorance about Islam and the Muslims. At the same time, they are aware that one cannot ‘blame the US or modernity for all the problems in the Muslim world.’
As noted, Khan suggests a strategic alliance between America and liberal Muslims to delegitimize and ultimately defeat rogue Islamists. But he laments the fact that American policymakers ‘…have so far shown interest in only using moderates to give legitimacy to some of US policies in the Muslim World’. While one appreciates Khan’s sense of betrayal, a cynic might be tempted to say: ‘I told you so’!
Iyanatul Islam is Professor, Department of International Business and Asian Studies, Griffith University, Australia.