Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Modern day slavery is on the rise. In the 2014 UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (just published at this link) we read about the following tragic trends:


  • “Between 2010 and 2012 victims from at least 153 countries were detected in 124 countries worldwide”
  • In the first report (2012) one out of four trafficked persons was a child; now in places like the Middle East and Africa it’s two out of three
  • 70% of all the victims are female, and two out of three children trafficked are girls
  • More than 6 in 10 victims were transported across at least one national border
  • In a New York Times article about this report we read that … “While sexual exploitation remains the predominant reason for trafficking, victims are also increasingly used for forced labor”
  • Organized crime syndicates operate with near impunity because many countries do not enforce the laws they have passed on this issue; in 40 percent of countries there have been few or no criminal convictions
  • The opening sentence: “The exploitation of one human being by another is the basest crime. And yet, trafficking in persons remains all too common, with all too few consequences for the perpetrators.”


Sexual exploitation of children, I hope we can all agree, is the vilest form of cruelty to our fellow human beings. And as the report lays out in great detail, no part of the world is spared from this plague and women bear the brunt of this tragedy. I touched on some of this in a series of three blogs in 2012 under the title of “Religion and Patriarchy” in the category of “religion and human rights.” But so much more should be said, especially when you realize that every year over 12 million persons, with more and more of them now being children, are abducted and enslaved.

Note too that the percentage of trafficked persons used for forced labor is on the increase. We know, at least anecdotally, that many children are sold by parents who are too poor to care for their many children, and girls in particular. We also hear about young women hiring themselves out as maids to wealthier families in other parts of the world and being badly exploited in slave-like conditions. It could be in the United States or Europe, but even more likely in countries like in the Arabian Gulf area where laws and their enforcement are particularly lax. Here’s an article about Indonesian maids being treated as “modern day slaves” in Hong Kong.

All this to say that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) figure of 21 million is very likely just the tip of the global trafficking iceberg. In the official statement announcing the release of the Report on Trafficking of Persons, Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, wanted to emphasize that the statistics told only part of the story. “It is clear that the scale of modern-day slavery is far worse,” he wrote.

We're talking about the poorest of the poor here – those robbed of their basic human rights, stripped of all dignity and at the total mercy of their captors. But not far behind are the more than ten million internally displaced persons (IDPs)  who are now under the care of the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR). They have become IDPs through war and natural disasters. But just as many more people are being trafficked than simply those who can be counted, there are many more people suffering from famine and war than those directly managed by the UNHCR.

That there is often a direct link between the trafficking of persons and poverty is a point made by a respected NGO specialized in this work, the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons (ITEMP). They point to the 2009 US State Department Trafficking in Human Persons report. Here is how a short article on their homepage frames the issue:


"By comparing gross domestic product information with source/destination information provided in the State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons report, ITEMP personnel discovered a strong correlation between a country’s per capita GDP and their odds of being a source or destination country for international human trafficking. 

Every $1000 increase in a country’s GDP makes the country nearly 10 percent more likely to be a destination for international human trafficking victims.

Likewise, every reduction of $1000 in a country’s GDP makes the country 12 percent more likely to be a source for international human trafficking victims. 

‘By finding the roots of the problem, we can begin to look for permanent solutions,’ ITEMP Director of Operations Charles Moore said."


In the first blog we used stories and figures from the IOM to look at one aspect of that growing gap between rich and poor globally. We saw that the estimated 800,000 migrants who yearly entrust their escape from either crushing poverty or political instability to unscrupulous smugglers are only a small part of the total picture.

We discovered that, despite the spike in violence and political unrest in the Middle East, most migrants are motivated by the desire to provide financially for their families. Poverty is at the root of these mass migrations today.

And what is more, beyond the millions of refugees and persons trafficked, we learned that 21 percent of the world’s population lives in “extreme poverty” (living on less than $1.25 a day). That’s roughly 1.4 billion of our fellow human beings.

Poverty and the unequal distribution of resources – including basic necessities like food and shelter, but also access to safe water, good schools, electricity, health care, and more – is actually worsening in some of the developing countries (including the US), says the World Bank in a short “Poverty Overview.”


Lessons from growing inequality in the US

So the issues of modern-day slavery, the plight of the refugees and the “extreme poor” remind us that we live in a world plagued by inequality. But as an American citizen, I am also reminded of the fact that at home too the gap between haves and have-nots has grown wider in the last few decades.

Google’s chief economist Hal Varian teamed up with the New York Times' Upshot on a research project in the summer of 2014 seeking to correlate particular searches on the web with the easiest and the toughest places to live in the US. This was based on previous research that had demarcated these areas on the basis of six factors including life expectancy, education and income.

David Leonhardt explains that searches with the highest correlation to the poorest US counties (mostly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon) covered the following interests and concerns:


“. . . health problems, weight-loss diets, guns, video games and religion are all common seach topics. The dark side of religion is of special interest: Antichrist has the second-highest correlation with the hardest places, and searches containing ‘hell’ and ‘rapture’ also make the top 10.”


By contrast, “In the easiest places to live, the Canon Elph and other digital cameras dominate the top of the correlation list. Apparently, people in places where life seems good, including Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and much of the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast, want to record their lives in images.”

For Leonhardt this project shows that “[t]he rise of inequality over the last four decades has created two very different Americas, and life is a lot harder in one of them.” He explains,


“Income has stagnated in working-class communities, which helps explain why ‘selling avon’ and ‘social security checks’ correlate with the hardest places from our index. Inequality in health and life expectancy has grown over the same time. And searches on diabetes, lupus, blood pressure, 1,500-calorie diets and ‘ssi disability’ – a reference to the federal benefits program for workers with health problems – also make the list. Guns, meanwhile, are in part a cultural preference, but they are also a health risk.”


George Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, delivered the 2011 Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers. It was entitled, “Inequality and Social Decline in America” (later published in Foreign Affairs Magazine). The nub of the issue is this, he writes:


“The persistence of this trend toward greater inequality over the past 30 years suggests a kind of feedback loop that cannot be broken by the usual political means. The more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the well-connected rich acquire, which makes it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price. That, in turn, frees them up to amass more money, until cause and effect become impossible to distinguish.”


Growing inequality, the result of this trend, “leaves the rich with so much money that they can binge on speculation, and leaves the middle class without enough money to buy the things they think they deserve, which leads them to borrow and go into debt." This was certainly one of the causes of the 2008 Great Recession and it “hardens society into a class system, imprisoning people in the circumstances of their birth – a rebuke to the very idea of the American dream.”

Two years later, President Obama put it in terms of upward mobility, or in this case, the lack thereof:


“The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies – countries like Canada or Germany or France.  They have greater mobility than we do, not less.”


This issue of inequality has loomed so large in our political and social discourse that the New York Times ran a series on the topic for a year and a half. It was moderated by Nobel-Prize in economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz (2001), who, in the closing article of the series (“Inequality Is Not Inevitable”) called the United States “the advanced country with the greatest level of inequality.”

I will come back to him, but first some figures from a study that was published this month. Henry Gass describes the project: “The study, from Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, uses a greater variety of sources to paint its picture of wealth inequality in the US than other recent analyses.” Here are some highlights:


  • Although US economic growth is “positive and steady,” it doesn’t benefit everyone equally, as “America’s overall wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands”
  • “the richest 0.1 percent of Americans [“160,700 families with net assets above $20 million”] have as much of the country's wealth as the poorest 90 percent”
  • “While the bottom 90 percent of Americans and the top 0.1 percent control about 22 percent of the country's wealth each, the top 0.01 percent of Americans [“16,000 families with a net worth of $371 million”] now control 11.2 percent of total wealth.” You have to go back to 1916 to find similar figures in the US
  • Though both have risen steadily over the past 40 years, “income inequality is less extreme than wealth inequality” and “wealth is ten times more concentrated than income today”
  • 1986 is the date when the average wealth of 90% of Americans began to stagnate and when the richest Americans’ wealth began to increase; the trend, so far, has shown no signs of abetting, and it is unique to the United States
  • Recently the proportion of wealth that the super-rich hold in bonds has increased in proportion to the wealth they hold in stocks – “meaning that an increasing portion of America's wealth could be inherited rather than built through business”


Back to Stiglitz. C.E.O.s make on average 295 times more than the typical worker, he says. This is an “ersatz capitalism”: our response to the Great Recession that struck late in 2007 was to “socialize losses and privatize gains.” That is, tax payers paid the bills, while the super wealthy pocketed millions more. No one was indicted and much less imprisoned for years of shady gambling on national wealth (my take on it). But this is no inevitable trend, he argues:


“If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics. People get tired of hearing about Scandinavian success stories, but the fact of the matter is that Sweden, Finland and Norway have all succeeded in having about as much or faster growth in per capita incomes than the United States and with far greater equality.”


What is more, Stiglitz isn’t shy about laying bare the causes and manifestations of this rising inequality. In part he blames the bankers and corporate heads who in their passionate push for laissez-faire economics (less regulation, please!) nevertheless have welcomed the series of bail-outs that have characterized the era inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher. Moreover, this economic privilege is undergirded by political privilege. In other words, “The American political system is overrun by money. Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.” As a result, almost a quarter of children under five in America are poor.

Poverty and political powerlessness also correlate with a restricted access to justice. Reeling as we are with the fallout of a black eighteen-year-old gunned down by a white policeman in Ferguson, MI, we know that our justice system as a whole is broken. As Stiglitz puts it, the contrast between the two Americas couldn’t be greater:


“Where justice is concerned, there is also a yawning divide. In the eyes of the rest of the world and a significant part of its own population, mass incarceration has come to define America — a country, it bears repeating, with about 5 percent of the world’s population but around a fourth of the world’s prisoners.

Justice has become a commodity, affordable to only a few. While Wall Street executives used their high-retainer lawyers to ensure that their ranks were not held accountable for the misdeeds that the crisis in 2008 so graphically revealed, the banks abused our legal system to foreclose on mortgages and evict people, some of whom did not even owe money.”


Theology does matter

 In the first blog I wrote that inequality worldwide was a human rights issue, thus both moral and theological. If God created us all – each and everyone of us – in his image, calling us to be his representatives on earth, his khulafa’ or trustees over his creation, we should not tolerate the fact that millions of us are trafficked for sex or greed, or struggling to find food to feed their families, or forced out of their land by wars and then drowned in the sea by greedy smugglers or left to die of thirst under the scorching Texas sun.

According to the Qur’an,


“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32)


This verse closely parallels some discussions in the Talmud, as I showed in one of my earliest blogs, “‘My Brother’s Keeper’ as Human Solidarity.” In the same vein, but more along the lines of poverty, we read in Deuteronomy, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deut. 27:19 NRSV). Then this from Isaiah the prophet, “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight the right of widows” (Is. 1:17 NLT).

Inequality to some extent is natural. Each human being is born with abilities and disabilities, and within a specific family, class and cultural context. Yet the kind of inequality we have been examining in these two blogs is egregious and an insult to the Creator.

There is a lot people of faith can do – yes, and people of compassion and human decency of all stripes – both locally and globally to reduce inequalities and contribute to human flourishing among those suffering the most. It involves both charitable ventures and political advocacy. In fact, instead of rivalries, misunderstandings, and polemics between religious traditions, let’s compete in good works; and better yet, let’s link arms, pool our strengths and get to work.


“Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and wherever you are, God will bring you together. God has power to do everything” (Qur’an 2:148, Abdel Haleem translation).

In a twist of events one could hardly imagine in a horror film, a boat owned by smugglers deliberately destroyed their human cargo. They rammed into a rickety boat jammed with four or five hundred migrants (who had paid them a minimum of $2000), capsizing it instantly. Over one hundred children and many more adults perished in the instants that followed. And as the boat circled around them, the smugglers laughed sadistically.

Despite their cruelty, over one hundred managed to cling to various objects. They then locked arms to keep warm in the cold sea a hundred miles or so from the island of Malta, but most slipped under the waves as the hours turned into a day and then to almost four days. The handful who survived had resorted to drinking their own urine and struggled with hallucinations.

One of the survivors was picked up by the Pegasus, a ship that had just rescued 386 other migrants from another shipwreck. According to the survivors, all Palestinians from Gaza whose houses had been destroyed in the recent war with Israel, there were also migrants from Libya, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.

Just that week six other ships brimming with migrants went down. But this case was different. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein (a Jordanian national), declared, these smugglers are likely guilty of “mass murder” and should be brought to justice.


Some grim facts about migrants

 A couple of weeks after this particular disaster, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a study conducted over six months entitled, “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration.” Here are some of its stark figures:


  • 8 migrants die every day, trying to reach richer and more peaceful countries
  • The IOM estimates that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders annually (this is part of a larger number of extremely vulnerable persons caught up in the sex trafficking and labor trafficking rings – representing altogether about 21 million people)
  • Since the year 2000, over 40,000 migrants have died worldwide – 22,000 of those trying to reach Europe; 6,000 died on the Mexican-US border; 3,000 in the Sahara desert and in the Indian Ocean
  • The pace is accelerating: over 4,000 have died in the Mediterranean this year alone; the Italian authorities estimate that 112,000 “irregular migrants” crossed into their borders, a threefold increase from 2013
  • Over 40,000 migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa in just the first half of 2014; 2,750 of those were unaccompanied children; 13,000 arrived in Greece and 2,000 in Spain crossing from Morocco
  • Libya, now a country descending into chaos, is the place of choice for departures
  • The study also documents general indifference to these migrants’ plight: apart from the IOM, there are no agencies anywhere tracking these deaths – quite a contrast to the media attention and millions of dollars spent on tracking the remains of the Malaysian MH370 flight!


I could not agree more with IOM’s director-general, William Lacy Swing:


“The paradox is that at a time when one in seven people around the world are migrants, we are seeing an extraordinarily harsh response to migration in the developed world. Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people. We need to put an end to this cycle. Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance, and deserving respect.”


What’s behind these population flows?

The IOM Regional Director for Europe – which we now know to be the number one destination for migrants – is Bernt Hemingway. In a June 2014 blog he noted two realities dramatically clashing at the moment: the desperation of all of these migrants willing to risk their lives to survive, or at least find a better life, and the shrill and strident voices of condemnation of them in European societies. Those traveling include some of the most vulnerable – women, often pregnant, and children. On the other side, these people are painted as invaders, and even criminals seeking to steal their hard-earned benefits.

“Emotive language colours the landscape with visions of surges, hordes and invasions, and this has been amplified in the various national debates surrounding the EU elections,” notes Hemingway. Yet when you stop to think about it, his starting point is inescapable from a moral standpoint: “But we must understand that for most the situation is desperate, and work from there.”

He then adds, “The complex flows of people across the Mediterranean are a result of conflict, poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

I have to inject here what I just learned and experienced in watching a jarring and gut-wrenching 42-minute documentary about thousands of deaths of migrants in Brooks County, Texas. Entitled “The Real Death Valley”, (improbably) sponsored by the Weather Channel and Telemundo Investigative. I didn’t just cry. I wept. These weren’t just statistics, but real human beings and in particular the story of two brothers marked for killing by gangs in San Salvador.

Brooks County is not on the Texas border. It’s 70 miles north of the Rio Grande river, which the travelers cross with their “coyotes” (smugglers). They are then taken in trucks to just a few miles of a major checkpoint where agents with dogs check for migrants. Then they are guided around the checkpoint by traversing huge private ranches for two or three days. But anyone sick or not able to keep up in the oppressive heat and humidity is simply left behind. Most of those who die fall into this category.

Back to the two brothers. The sick one, now terribly dehydrated, is close to death and the older brother calls 911. The local police, with only one officer at a time able to respond, usually calls the border police who are much better staffed. But sometimes the waiting time is too long, as in the case of this young man who dies after several hours. Fortunately, his brother is saved. I’ll let you watch the film to catch the rest.

Globally, however, war and the breakdown of law and order are not the leading causes of such hazard-laced migrations. In the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa) there is no doubt that the series of uprising in 2011 (optimistically dubbed the “Arab Spring” at the time) have left behind bitter conflict and several million refugees. But that is not the whole picture. Before this and still today, migration is caused by “poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

Hence the topic of inequality I touch on here and in the next blog.


Inequality is a moral and theological issue

Some good news, to start with. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May 2013 announced to the General Assembly as he rolled out the 2013 Human Development report that “[w]e are at the beginning of an historic journey.” This report aimed to build on and expand the original Millennium Declaration of 2000 and the ensuing Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and chart the way forward past the 2015 goal. Ban summarized the objective thus:


“The post-2015 process is a chance to usher in a new era in international development – one that will eradicate extreme poverty and lead us to a world of prosperity, sustainability, equity and dignity for all.”


Growing up as I did in France, the French revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity” was drilled into us school children. In the American version, the three “inalienable rights” trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter, I fear, has been reduced with time to economic opportunity. But equality of opportunity was never mentioned and, much less, emphasized. And that’s just at the national level, whereas the Secretary General is speaking about all humanity.

We certainly can rejoice that this 2013 report informs us that the share of extreme poverty in the world has dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2013 and that by 2030 most middle-class people will live in countries no longer considered “poor.” What is more, we can applaud the conclusion of the 25-member panel as to the proposed revision to the MDGs – specifically, “five major transformational shifts”:


  1. “move from 'reducing' to ending extreme poverty, leaving no one behind . . .
  2. “putting sustainable development at the core of the development agenda . . ."
  3. “transforming economies to drive inclusive growth . . ."
  4. “building accountable institutions, open to all, that will ensure good governance and peaceful societies . . ."
  5. “and forging a new global partnership based on cooperation, equity and human rights.”


That said, we’re still left with the IOM’s yearly figure of 800,000 people trafficked across borders. Grinding poverty still populates the daily suffering of a quarter of humanity and leads many to entrust their fate to the wiles of criminal smuggling gangs.

I am in the process of writing (or rewriting “Muslim Theologies of Justice,” as seen on my homepage) what is so far entitled, “Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation.” My thesis is that justice – and I mean “primary justice” here – is about human rights. It’s about the basic rights of human beings simply because they are human beings. I started moving in that direction in my article (see it in Resources), “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights: Human Dignity and Solidarity” now published in the Indiana International and Comparative Law Review.

All I’ll say here is that the UN body in the three decades following the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was on the right path when it attempted to hammer out a more legally binding version of it in two covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States is among a few countries that never ratified the ICESCR. Economic rights remain controversial in societies that pride themselves on individualism and the least possible regulation on the exploitation of capital.

The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan and the Qur’an constantly rebukes the rich who callously neglect or especially exploit the poor, the widow and the orphan. That’s why one of the Islam’s five pillars is zakat – the duty to redistribute 2.5 percent of your assets for the benefit of the poor on an annual basis (for more on this, see “Zakat and Poverty Allieviation”).

Jesus was the archetypal migrant, who owned nothing and “had no place to lay his head.” His teaching also reveals that he firmly believed the radical social justice discourse of the Hebrew prophets, as for instance Isaiah’s portrayal of “true fasting”:


“Free those who are wrongly imprisoned . . . Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them” (Is. 58:6-7 NLT).


Jesus summarized this in the two commandments in the Law of Moses: love God with all your heart, mind and soul; and your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:30-31 and parallels).

Solidarity is not only the right attitude to adopt toward fellow human beings in great need. It’s an attitude of love God calls us to put into action. More on this in the second half.

The core of the human rights paradigm is that all human beings by virtue of simply being human are bearers of inalienable rights. The intrinsic dignity of the human person, moreover, is the guarantee of the universality of the international human rights standard. Human dignity also includes human solidarity, as evidenced in international law by the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified in 1966. This paper argues from a comparative perspective, therefore, that human rights discourse is reinforced by the central tenets of both Islam and Christianity in two areas, its universality and its application to the economic sphere.


“A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights: Human Dignity and Solidarity,” Indiana International and Comparative Review 24, 4 (2014): 899-920.




Muslims often say – with a twinge of pride, I’ve noticed – that there is no clergy in Islam. Well, there is no pope and each mosque is fairly independent; that said, the more conservative ones in this country do their best to import a good imam from Egypt or elsewhere. Also, Iran’s constitution calls for the supremacy of the jurist-scholar in running the affairs of state. “Right,” you say, “but those are Shia beliefs.”

Still, Islamic scholars, the kind who teach Islamic sciences and offer legal opinions (fatwas), either as state functionaries in Muslim-majority countries or as members of various Islamic associations in the west, wield a lot of clout. These are the ulama (“those with knowledge”).

So my question is this. With the Mideast in turmoil (and even more than usual!) – mostly because of the so-called “Islamic State,” who really speaks for Islam? Maybe it’s not the ulama but the politicians and statesmen who wield the decisive power to “speak” in these ways.

Saudi Arabia, after decades of funding conservative Salafi causes, including the Salafi-jihadis of Afghanistan in the 1980s and those of various stripes fighting Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria since 2011, has now joined with the Arab Emirates and Egypt to lead an Arab front against ISIS. In so doing, they seek to isolate Qatar, which has always been an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood (which, by the way, has no connection to ISIS; the MBs gave up violence in the 1950s). Turkey, much more powerful than those three combined, is a member of NATO and is on better terms with Qatar, since it is ruled by an islamist party. President Erdogan is leveraging his massive influence to get the US-led coalition to directly turn on Bashar al-Asad as well.

I could go on. But all I’m saying for now is that, just as it has always been in Islamdom, rulers and ulama stand in tension, sharing power uneasily – political power on one side, and religious authority on the other. But first, we need some historical background.


Some remarks about history

As I tell my Introduction to Islam students, the only “real” Islamic state lasted for ten years in Medina with Muhammad at its helm as founder, prophet and statesman. Sure, his four closest Companions continued to rule in Medina for the next 29 years. Yet apart from the great wealth flowing in from the astonishingly successful conquests (and maybe in part because of them), this rule was hardly idyllic. Three of these successors (the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”) were assassinated, with Ali, the last one, embroiled in a civil war from the start. Nineteen years later, the Umayyad caliph Yazid massacred the Prophet’s grandson Hussein, his family and entourage, at Karbala in Iraq. This represents the Shia’s defining moment, when their second “Imam” sacrificed his life in the way of God and for the sake of his followers.

What after Ali’s assassination in 661 constitutes an “Islamic state”? I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, but the 20th-century ideology of “islamism,” crafted first and foremost by the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and now widespread under many forms, is sure that it did exist, at least in bits and pieces in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and the great “Gunpowder States” like the Ottomans, the Safavids (“Greater Persia”) and the Moghuls (India). The islamist slogans from the beginning were “Islam is the solution” and “the Qur’an is our constitution.” The more puritanical Salafis would answer that no genuine Islamic state ever existed after 661. Yet some of them now recognize ISIS as "the real deal."

The problem, of course, is that now we’re talking about a modern nation-state, the product of European Enlightenment ideals and statecraft hammered out in the ashes of Europe’s religious wars. These are states in which power is concentrated in various degrees among the three branches of government, executive, judiciary and legislative.

Islamic states came in many shapes and sizes over the centuries – from the mammoth Abbasid caliphate at its peak in the ninth and tenth centuries, to breakaway petty dynasties on the edges, to the various kingdoms and fiefdoms of West Africa and Indonesia. What they had in common, however, was the tremendous power of the ulama, the jurist-scholars who interpreted and applied God’s law, or the Shari’a.

In his great book The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman explains how the ulama, “the heirs of the Prophet,” were the guarantors and mediators of the law which the rulers were sworn to follow. Indeed, caliphs, sultans, and local kings, if they cared at all about Islamic legitimacy, were told by the Qur’an to “command the right and forbid the wrong.” So they had to appoint judges from among the ulama. This also meant that if the ruler wanted to pervert justice for his own gain he would be seen by the ulama as violating God’s law, which immediately disqualified him from ruling in the eyes of the ulama and the people.

In practice, the ulama wielded only moral or religious authority, not military force. So they could hardly strip a sitting ruler of his title. Yet when any strong man seized power, either by force or by being the heir of the deceased, he urgently needed “to be able to rely on the scholars to assert the continuing legitimacy of his rule” (Feldman, 32). There might be several other claimants and challengers. But too, if the country was menaced by a foreign invasion, “the ruler would need the scholars to declare the religious obligation to protect the state in a defensive jihad” (32).

So the history of past “Islamic states” is replete with instances of this tug-of-war between political power and religious authority, between rulers and the ulama class. This fact entailed, ostensibly, a tension between religion and state, if not a de facto separation. Don’t forget too that rulers usually had their own set of courts (mazalim courts) and that a whole branch of jurisprudence gave legitimacy to the ruler’s laws (siyasa shar’iyya). But the sultan or king still needed to appoint ulama to the top courts of his realm. In the end, justice was still God’s justice, emanating from the divine Shari’a.

With the advent of European colonialism, particularly after Napoleon’s short invasion of Egypt in 1798, more and more traditional Islamic states imported western codes of law and consolidated state power at the expense of the ulama. Whether Muhammad Ali in nineteenth-century Egypt or Kemal Attatürk in 1920s Turkey, rulers sidelined and even muzzled the traditional jurist-scholars. In the 1960s, President Gamal Abd al-Nasser simply “nationalized” al-Azhar University in Cairo, in essence putting the ulama under the thumb of the state, something unheard of in Islamic history.


An article for your perusal

In light of this background, I will offer two thoughts on the topic of the ulama and their role today. The first is to call your attention to a chapter of mine (“Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Purposive Fiqh: Promoting or Demoting the Future Role of the Ulama?”) in the newly published book edited by my friend, Adis Duderija: Maqasid al-Shari’a and Contemporary Muslim Reformist Thought: An Examination. It’s a case study of arguably the most popular of today’s ulama, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Some of you will remember that I’ve published two other chapters in other books on him in the past. You can read another blog of mine that is in part about Qaradawi. Here I argue that his turning to this popular legal methodology of the “objectives of Shari’a” in the late 1990s may actually undermine his overall goal of increasing the influence of the ulama. For more on this, see the pdf document of this chapter in “Resources.”


Ulama and Sultans today

My main interest in this blog, however, is to have you reflect on the current balance between religious authority in Muslim circles and political power. Granted, each of the 57 states with membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly “Organization of the Islamic Conference”) are unique in their political and religious orientations. Also, not all are Muslim-majority nations.

Still, this is the first time since 1924 that an armed group having conquered a vast territory is calling itself a “caliphate.” That was when the secular leader of Turkey officially abolished the Ottoman caliphate. So now, by declaring himself “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of ISIS, is claiming the rightful leadership of the worldwide Islamic umma. Naturally, all manner of condemnations and official recriminations have rained down, and only a couple or so jihadi groups have pledged allegiance to him.

Enter the Ulama. First, British Islamic leaders, both Shia and Sunni, produced a video condemning ISIS as standing against all the central tenets of Islam. Second, and much more significant, a letter of condemnation was presented in a press conference on September 25, 2014, entitled, “Open Letter to al-Baghdadi”. This 23-page document is written by 126 Muslim scholars, most of whom recognized jurists in Islamic law. The whole letter is a point-by-point refutation of the doctrines and practices of ISIS in the language and form of classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Again, scholars are both Shia and Sunni – a self-conscious and deliberate attempt to stigmatize Baghdadi’s virulent sectarianism.

You can download a copy of this letter on a site dedicated to it. From the Executive Summary which opens it, let me just offer you five of the 24 points:


7. It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.

8. Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and withoutthe right rules of conduct.

9. It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief.

10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.

11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.


All this is abundantly clear. All 24 points – and the legal content of the next 22 pages – represents the consensus of the vast majority of jurist-scholars in the Muslim world today. The above points, I thought, need no commentary, except perhaps the ninth. This is the issue of takfir, or the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim an unbeliever (a kafir, or infidel, or apostate), and therefore, according to classical Islamic law, naming that person a legitimate target for killing. That of course is the crux of all jihadi movements today, as it was in the very first generation of Muslims when the Kharijites (or khawarij) left Ali’s ranks in the Battle of Siffin and waged guerilla warfare against the central Islamic state.

So the ulama still wield influence today (see for example the Fiqh Council of North America and some samples of their recent legal opinions). But their role is much more ambiguous and limited than it was in the premodern period. Apart from the fact that many Muslims are neither very practicing nor conservative enough to pay attention to them, there is another issue that looms large in the background.


The divisive issue of politics – internal and geopolitical

I alluded to this question in the beginning. Saddam Hussein by invading Kuwait in 1990 set off a series of events that have led to the perilous situation we now observe in the wider Mideast. Consider the following:


  • US President George H. W. Bush launched an international campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This occasioned leaving American military bases in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
  • Osama bin Laden, who was joined by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued his “fatwa” (technically only a member of the ulama can do this) entitled, “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” That land, of course, was Saudi Arabia, his country which had just stripped him of citizenship.
  • The attacks of September 2001 sparked an almost immediate invasion of Afghanistan, which turned into the longest war in American history.
  • The US invaded Iraq in 2003, sparking a virulent resistance movement among the Sunnis, as well as the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Before he was assassinated by the Americans in 2006, he had managed to provoke the sectarian war that still ravages that country.
  • On the heels of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, a mostly Sunni alliance in Syria demonstrated against their dictator, Bashar al-Assad. This quickly turned into a civil war, as Assad immediately repressed it with ruthless force.
  • This conflict in turn attracted fighters from all over the Muslim world and elsewhere, and in particular, it has helped to create Salafi-jihadi organizations like the Nusra Front and the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (real name: Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, with a PhD in Islamic Sciences from Baghdad University) constituted ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham).


Much more could be added, but these are the salient points. Now I've saved one last source for you that merits attention.


The 2014-2015 Muslim 500 issue

This year’s issue of “The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims” just came out (see my 2012 blog, “Defining Power: The 500 Most Influential Muslims”). This sixth edition of the Muslim 500 is the first one that isn’t free (it’s only $4.99 for a low resolution copy) and perhaps the first one that is showing signs of hurried editing (some typos and other mistakes here and there). Still, it’s an impressive publication and, as I mentioned before, it says a great deal about the Jordanian royal family’s (and especially Prince Ghazi’s) theological and political views. It’s also a handy way to check the pulse of traditional Muslim leadership at any particular historical juncture. The editor’s introduction (Abdallah Schleifer) devotes 4 of his 10 pages to the Da’ish phenomenon he calls “a murderous heresy.” “Da’ish” is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, which is used in the Arab world and in France.

Two points stand out here. The first is the prominence of the Open Letter to al-Baghdadi, published in full in this issue. Schleifer connects it to the juridical language of the Amman Message of 2005, which I have described as the most significant Islamic consensus document in over a thousand years. In his words,


“The Amman Message (p 30) which was of groundbreaking importance at the time precisely because it confronted the pretensions of Al-Qaeda and lesser known extremist groups. But the Open Letter is the most comprehensive Islamic juridical rebuttal by orthodox scholars of the “religious” justifications for revolutionary Salafi-jihadis, manifest in its most extreme form by DA’ ISH.”


What Schleifer is affirming here is the pivotal role of the ulama in contemporary Islam in marginalizing the horrific acts and grievous ambitions of militant Islam and the historic efforts put forth by his own patrons, the Jordanian royal family who employ him. And this leads us to the second point.

Schleifer simultaneously castigates Saudi Arabia for using his wealth since the late 1970s to spread its brand of Salafism (Wahhabism) around the world and thereby unwittingly letting the Salafi-jihadi genie out of the bottle. The proof is that ISIL has systematically distributed the works of 18th-century reformer Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in every conquered territory.

With that background in mind, reasons Schleifer, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Egypt, has firmly condemned Da’ish and all other islamist adventurism. In his own words,


“King Abdullah has also firmly embraced Al-Azhar – the citadel of Orthodox Sunni religious thought and very much targeted by both Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in the anything-goes environment in Egypt of the Arab Spring and then its transmutation into Muslim Brotherhood rule for one year.”


Notice three things in this statement: 1) a strong affirmation of the importance of the Sunni ulama and their spiritual/theological center in Cairo’s al-Azhar; 2) a political statement: the Arab Spring was a calamity; and 3) President Sisi is a righteous bulwark against the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood (two very different phenomena, I’ll add).

So who are the "good" Muslims and who are the most influential? By now, I’m sure you’re dying to know who’s who in this year’s Muslim 500 list. In just the first top 20, eight are heads of state, eleven are ulama, and one is both (Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran – in 3rd place). The only islamist in the first fifty is Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas. Just this little bit says a lot!

This leads me to my last remark. Prince Ghazi of Jordan, himself both alim (singular of ulama) and royal family member embodies to perfection the traditional Islamic worldview I have alluded to in this blog. Who calls the shots in Islam today? In this globalized world of the Internet and massive flows of populations, it’s an impossible question to answer. That said, if you mean who is influential in mainstream traditional Islam, the answer is what it has always been – a constantly shifting power ratio of politicians and ulama.

16 September 2014

Things Not As They Seem

The above title could be said about much of life. As St. Paul writes, “We see through a glass darkly.” Here I want to discuss current events in the Mideast, first in Egypt, and then the issue of the Islamic State. Looking through the eyes of western media outlets and consulting insider sources yield quite a different picture. Consulting the insider views put us in a better position to see how progress can be made and then join others – especially people of faith, Muslims and Christians – to make that happen.


President Sisi’s Egypt

Two points should be made here. First, Sisi’s Egypt is even more authoritarian and repressive than Mubarak’s was. Egyptians haven’t forgotten the “January 25, 2011 Revolution” and it’s just a matter of time before the people rise up again. Second, the military coup that toppled President Morsi in July 2013 was not about secularism versus islamism (spelling it as it is, a political/religious ideology). Those two ideologies are indeed opposed, but their opposition does not come close to explaining the current political dynamics in that country.

Professor Mohamad Elmasry of the University of North Alabama rightly called Sisi’s policy one of “elimination” – but not just of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I covered the facts about how the army and police in concert massacred about one thousand MB followers (Aug. 14, 2013) in my third blog on the post-coup realities.

Elmasry’s opinion piece came on the heels of the MB leader Mohamed Badie’s death sentence along with 682 of his followers on April 28, 2014. This was after 529 others had received a similar sentence the month before – in spite of Badie’s public words calling his followers to remain peaceful and not to respond to violence in kind. He declared himself ready to die for his own convictions as a peaceful protester.

Though most of the more than 1,500 protesters who were killed in the following months were MB-affiliated or at least sympathizers, some of those were not. Likewise, the 16,000 jailed political opponents since then were not all pro-Morsi activists.

In reality, the post-revolutionary situation of non-Muslim religious groups has not improved under Sisi, as New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick attests. “Nothing has really changed,” said Christian Kameel Kamel, whose 26-year-old son had been jailed for blasphemy against Islam and who still hasn’t appeared in court since the appeal to his first sentencing.

The “culture of sectarianism” has continued unabated, asserted human rights activist and researcher Ishak Ibrahim. Yet, amazingly, Christians remain mostly pro-Sisi. As a fellow Christian, I think they will likely come to regret their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood. Hatred (or even fear) does not become followers of Christ; what is more, there are plenty of other Muslims advocating a greater role for Islam in Egypt (i.e., “islamists”) who don’t like the MBs; finally, when some day greater democracy is restored (as we all pray it will), this could come back to bite their community.

Beyond Christians, there have been two high-profile cases of people imprisoned for atheism, and at least three Shiite Muslims have been condemned to the legal sentence (five years in prison) for blasphemy as well. Religious freedom is badly lacking in today’s Egypt.

Ironically, the 2012 presidential election saw massive numbers at the polls. Morsi won with only a three-percentage-point lead and the electoral process was considered fair by international observers. By contrast, the 2014 election saw little participation, as the outcome seemed inevitable. As a Middle East Report article makes it clear, even with an artificial two-day extension of the voting period, the state’s declared 30 percent participation seemed inflated. The pro-regime media badgered and pressured people to vote with slogans like this, "Any woman who goes shopping instead of voting should be shot or shoot herself." To no avail. Only a few came out to vote.

Also like Mubarak and Sadat before him, Sisi portrays himself as the defender of “true” Islam and has found, as they did, the al-Azhar establishment (perhaps still the most prestigious Islamic university in the world) very obliging and supportive of his cause. For instance, when al-Azhar condemned the recent Noah film as “a clear violation of the principles of Islamic Sharia,” the official state censorship board upheld the ruling. Emad Shahin, a well-know political scientist who left the country in protest of Sisi’s policies (barely escaping his own imprisonment), President Sisi has made “extensive” use of religion to bolster the legitimacy of the “coup leaders.”

Though manipulating religion for political gain is as old as the world, it is likely that Sisi is playing with the same dynamite that blew up Mubarak’s regime (see also Elmasry’s piece, “Egypt’s ‘Secular’ Gov Uses Religion as a Tool of Repression”). The so-called “Islamic Revival” has been transforming Egypt since the late 1970s and shows no signs of abating. The best book to read on this is still journalist/scholar Geneive Abdo’s masterful No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.

A veteran liberal opposition leader, Ayman Nour (he ran against Mubarak in 2005 and is now exiled in Lebanon) recently said in an interview that Sisi was a one-sided president. He isn't representing all Egyptians, but only following his own anti-Brotherhood path. In the end, he quipped, "Mubarak took us many years back, and what Sisi is doing will not push us to the front. Sisi's actions will bring us to the abyss."

Just to give you an idea of how serious the human rights situation is, have a look at this article explaining why the Carter Center decided to pull out of Egypt. Jimmy Carter and his advisors believe that "the upcoming [parliamentary] elections are unlikely to advance genuine democratization."

Considering some of his other writings, I was pleasantly surprised by a recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, entitled “ISIS and SISI”. Taking his cue from Israeli analyst Orit Perlov, Friedman contends that two governing styles now dominate the Mideast: the radical Islamic ideology of ISIS and the absolute power of the (secular?) state under Egypt’s Sisi. Yet neither “hyper-Islamism” nor “hyper nationalism” will deliver what the people desperately need – “the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.”

Friedman is right to label Sisi’s regime as “hyper-nationalism” and so is Elmasry in putting “secular” between quotation marks. Egypt’s top clerics (ulama) and Pope Tawadros II regularly appear on Egyptian TV to sing the regime’s praises and heap blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, as I said earlier, this is to play with fire, at least with regard to the vast Muslim majority of Egyptians. Sure, Muslims gladly spilled into the streets to call for Morsi’s resignation, but many of them, and not just the ultra-conservative Salafis, yearn for a more authentically “Islamic” regime, as anthropologist Yasmin Moll has discovered in her research on the Egyptian media industry (“Islamism beyond the Muslim Brotherhood”).

Moll’s fieldwork was conducted between 2010 and 2013 among some leading media producers who worked for a “transnational Islamic channel that defined itself primarily against the Salafi television channels that were closed down by the military following the coup.” Most of these “saw themselves not just as muttadayinin (religious) but also as islamiyin (‘Islamists’). Yet, they were highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power, with many of them joining the massive June 30 protests against Morsi.”

This is not how the tensions in Egypt are generally portrayed in our Western media. We usually read that Sisi leads the existential struggle for a secular state against the arrayed forces of militant Islam led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much more complicated than that, writes Moll. In the social milieu in which these producers move, there are no “secular liberal elites.” Rather, these people “explicitly believe that secularism cannot be legitimately justified or reasoned from within an Islamic frame.” She explains,


“This is because, for them, Islam guides and makes normative claims on every aspect of human life, including political life. They were not against the Muslim Brotherhood because of its similar commitment to the “comprehensiveness” (shumuliyyat) of Islam, but because they perceived the organization as arrogant and incompetent, nepotistic and exclusionary. That the Brotherhood claimed to be acting in the name of religion while behaving badly made its actions much worse, but their support for Sisi’s removal of Morsi in no way hinged on seeing the military as a bastion of secularism.”


Unlike the Salafis, however, this islamist orientation involves in some fashion “creating a shared space (masaha mushtarika) between Egyptians of different political orientations and moral sensibilities, including between those who identify themselves as pious and those who do not.” This is not unlike the AKP ruling party of Turkey some call “soft islamism,” which is comfortable functioning under the umbrella of a secular constitution. But above all, it’s about a democratic politics that could be adapted and adjusted for use in a Muslim-majority country like Egypt.

No, things are not what they seem in Egypt from watching the news on mainstream TV or reading about them in Western news outlets. Might the reality look more hopeful from another vantage point? Maybe not. But knowing it in more detail and in a more balanced way politically makes it more interesting. And, who knows, we might be able to influence our lawmakers and politicians to take a more constructive path in relating to this part of the world.


The unhelpful “Islamism” prism

Dennis Ross, a diplomat with a wealth of experience in this region under several US administrations, wrote an OpEd on the heels of President Obama’s speech outlining his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, Ross takes a manichean view of the Mideast: the islamists versus the non-islamists. The latter are “our friends,” he argues, the others our enemies. But these "friends" also happen to be “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared.” We might have worked more closely with Turkey and Qatar, but both these Sunni states support the Muslim Brotherhood.

But this also means, Ross asserts, “recognizing that Egypt is an essential part of the anti-Islamist coalition, and that American military aid should not be withheld because of differences over Egypt’s domestic behavior.” Forget human rights, or at least turn a blind eye to them in light of more pressing issues. Why partner with these “non-Islamists” states? His answer is simple:


“These non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region. They favor stability, the free flow of oil and gas, and they oppose terrorism. The forces that threaten us also threaten them.”


Ross had astutely explained why in his opinion the “Arab Awakening” of 2011 had failed to produce democracy in the region. Three reasons:


“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate. Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”


Still, Ross feels the Obama Administration is too squeamish about “about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time.” Obama, like Carter long before him, actually cares about issues of human rights and people having a say in how they are governed (though not enough so, in my opinion). Ross retorts that Egypt and the UAE are already bombing the islamists in neighboring Libya without asking for our permission. Don’t discourage them, he warns, but work with them in the hopes of harnessing this energy in the right direction and more effectively.

My question to Ross is this: isn’t running roughshod over people’s convictions and lending support to regimes (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who ignore their people’s basic human rights a bad strategy in the long run? It seems to me that the US already has such a lamentable record in the region for arrogant and blundering interventions that this will just reinforce widespread anti-American feelings among these peoples. If “stability” is just another word for “political repression” – which it is in practice – then this is just as shortsighted as the neo-conservative-inspired 2003 invasion of Iraq.



What about ISIS, you say? Well, first of all, to get a good feel for its territory on the two rivers see this interactive map. Then read this piece by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy: “Obama’s Mission Impossible”. A New York Times editorial concludes about the same thing, just looking at the challenge of training “moderate” Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS. The US has a pitiful record when it comes to training troops, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. And then, these rebels’ only focus is on bringing down the Asad regime. Channeling their energies to effectively fight IS is truly a long shot.

Finally, read the transcript or listen to Terry Gross’s recent interview of the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief Tim Arango on Fresh Air. He details how the US poured $5 billion into training the Iraqi army that simply crumbled when confronted with ISIS and shows how ISIS is the de facto creation of American adventurism in Iraq.

Much more could be said, but let me end with this thought. President Obama likely has no political alternative to pursuing his announced combination of Sunni coalition building and bombing to “degrade” the Islamic State’s military capabilities – though the most logical neighbor with the most goals in common happens to be Iran. Too bad he “can’t go there” (politically)! But we should have learned our lesson by now. Particularly in this part of the world, war is always counterproductive.


Things as they should be

Jim Wallis speaks for many Christians and people of other faiths too when he writes that “War Is Not the Answer”. He reminds his readers that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq US church leaders offered a peaceful alternative that would still meet the stated goals of the war – in six points. In fact, it was seriously discussed in Tony Blair’s cabinet meeting. “The American church leaders’ plan,” the UK Secretary of State Clair Short told Jim Wallis, really was an attractive alternative to war because it showed how Saddam Hussein’s regime could be brought down and his WMD’s dismantled (it turned out they didn’t exist).

I agree with Wallis. The American president should have waited another couple of weeks when the US chairs the UN Security Council meetings in New York. His idea of coalition building is good, but it needs to be widened. Will it take longer with UN involvement? It will, but that’s the only way to recover some legitimacy for its actions in that region and for a much greater amount of pressure globally to be put on the Islamic State for seizing vast territories by force and all the while committing untold crimes against humanity. In the end there will have to be some force applied against IS, but applied on the basis of a wider coalition will more likely empower the local Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, Christians and others, to rally around plans for more transparent, broad-based and efficient governance. That’s the only stability that will last.

It’s time people of faith, and particularly Muslims and Christians, speak out for peace and work together as local and global civil society to see these kinds of goals implemented in the region. Instead of looking at how things seem from the vantage point of the powerful, both insiders and outsiders of the Mideast, they could help each other see how the world should look like – more just, peaceful and compassionate – and find ways to move in that direction.

 A couple of weeks ago Duke University Arabic professor Mbaye Bashir Lo attended Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger. Originally from Sudan, he’s doing research on militant Islam in West Africa this summer. What he heard the preacher say startled him: “These are troubling times: there is killing everywhere, and certainly, these are signs of the end of time.” This was followed by a hadith of the Prophet, “At the end of time neither the killer nor the victim will know the reason of the killing.”

Lo’s article that inspired this blog was published in al-Arabiya online, the Saudi/Emirati-owned news service, based in Dubai and al-Jazeera’s closest competitor in the Middle East. [At least at this writing the article has several mistakes, and even one in the title; I’ve never seen that on al-Jazeera!]

One point he makes is that since the 1991 Gulf War (First or Second, depending on whether you count the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s), no war has been fought between two national armies. George H. W. Bush’s international coalition was composed of armies contributed by those nation-states fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. But the Balkan wars of the 1990s, for instance, had to do with the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I think he’s right, but if you can think of a counter-example, please post a comment below.

When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 they quickly routed its army and then followed nine years of fighting mostly Sunni militia, with an increasingly organized al-Qaeda branch on the side. Think too of the Russian “rebels” fighting the central Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk and other eastern provinces. This is a proxy war, with Russia clearly involved, of the same type that has been raging in Syria for three and a half years now.

That said, as Lo recognizes, most of the violent hot spots today involve at least some Islamic militants:


“Look at the news highlights of the past week: a suicide car bombing killed 21 in Baghdad; gunmen killed 21 security forces on Egypt's western border; in Gombe, Nigeria, Boko Haram militants killed 32 villagers in different towns; in Libya, 38 were killed as the Libyan Army and Islamists clashed in Benghazi; in the Chaambi mountains of Tunisia, gunmen killed at least 14 Tunisian soldiers. The list goes on, to say nothing of what is occurring in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, among other places.”


To say the least, this is depressing and even bewildering for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Why is jihadism on the rise, anyway? After all, and by far, Muslims remain the majority victims of this systematic slaughter of civilians.

I want here to discuss Lo’s answer in three parts. First, it seems that militant Islam is feeding on both favorable ideological and geopolitical conditions. Second, as I alluded to above, we might be seeing the “fading of an old order,” that is, the international order the foundation of which go back to Swiss political philosopher Emerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations is being seriously shaken. And finally, as I’m (slowly) writing my book on justice, I’ll comment on how “justice” might relate to this topic, especially in the way Lo ends his piece.


Jihadism, dying and victory

Lo thought that the imam’s sermon was “very relevant in the current discourse of militant Islam.” Muslims generally believe that the Prophet Muhammad was victorious because he was “right.” In other words, his was a righteous and just cause and so he prevailed religiously, politically and militarily. Lo explains, “There is a right reason and a wrong reason to die. The right reason is associated with victory, while the wrong reason is associated with peril and defeat.”

The converse is that if your cause is unjust, you cannot prevail. That of course posed a cruel dilemma for Muslims under colonial rule. How could these plundering conquerors have the upper hand? The same logic, adds Lo, buoyed ISIS founder (IS from now on, The Islamic State) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his bid to break off from al-Qaeda and declare himself caliph of all Muslims. Had he not, unlike Ayman al-Zawahiri, proved his mettle by conquering a territory larger than that of Great Britain? IS fighters took control of a quarter of Iraq while chanting, [We are on] “the righteous path, and the sign is self-evident.”

Sayyid Qutb (executed by President Nasser in 1966) glorified martyrdom (shahada) for martyrdom’s sake, continues Lo (on him, see my blog, “Jihad Revisited”). This mindset prevailed until the Muslim Brotherhood actually came to power in Egypt in 2012. Jihad now is all about achieving victory. Lo continues:


“The new leaders, Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Muhammad al Zahawi (the leader of Ansaar al-Sharia in Libya), Ramadan A. Shalah, (the military leader of Islamic Jihad in Ghaza,) and Abubakar Shekau (the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria), are not interested chiefly in shahadah. They want tangible evidence of victory: bondage, ransoms of war, estates and Khilaafah [caliphate]—for them, these are the hallmarks of real power. According to the Yemeni singer Abu Hajir al-Hadrami, through jihad, al-Baghdadi is ‘re-wiring the Muslim land.’”


That's a few words about the ideological vacuum the jihadis have filled. Regarding the favorable geopolitical conditions, I'll only state the obvious: jihadism finds its home in any territory (under)ruled by a weak state and thrives when instability turns to chaos -- like Sudan for bin Laden after Afghanistan, then Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover; then post-US invasion Iraq; then the Syrian civil war and Iraq in the last eight months.


The fading of an order?

Vattel penned The Law of Nations (the French original, “Droit des Gens,” could also be translated “The Right of Peoples”) in 1758 a century after the horrific religious wars known as the Thirty Year War. For me there’s an eerie parallel with today. Sure, nation states were involved in the fighting, but at bottom it was Christians fighting Christians.

Vattel’s central thesis is that only a sovereign can declare a war and only troops can fight troops. Civilians should both stay out of the fray and be protected from harm. Are we witnessing the end of that order? Over 70 percent of the recent Gaza war’s victims were civilians, with almost 500 children killed.

By the way, Vattel’s Swiss editor Charles Dumas sent Benjamin Franklin three copies of the French book just before American independence. Franklin in his letter of thanks included this phrase, “It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.”

So is that order passing? Lo might be overstating his case. Vattel’s book fed into the wider current of Enlightenment philosophy that also inspired the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, and eventually the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the body of international law that followed. Should the UN fall apart (heaven forbid!), yes, that would mark the end of the era of international law – contested as it is. But Lo is raising an important issue, that of justice and how it works out on a global scale.


Justice and legal theory

Having published a good amount on Islamic law in the 2000s, I wanted to write a small book on justice that would incorporate some of that research, as well as some of the work Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff completed in the same period (see my blog Jesus and Justice for a taste of Justice: Rights and Wrongs). Knowing I needed some input from legal theory, I turned to Raymond Wacks’ Philosophy of Law: A Very Short Introduction. I was not disappointed.

In 128 pages Wacks offers an intellectual history of “justice.” At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say that there are three basic ways to look at law and justice:


1. Law and morality are intertwined. In fact, human laws in their general principles flow out of natural law. This is the heritage handed down by the Greeks, and especially the Stoics, for whom “natural” was derived from human reason. This is the current too that impacted the Muslim rationalists, the Mu’tazilites, and also Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). This current was in turn passed on, at least partially, by Muslim Spain to European theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Humans know good and evil, because through creation God imparted this knowledge of objective moral truth to humankind. Any law enacted by humans that goes against natural law (and divine law as revealed in the Scriptures) is not law. The good precedes the right, and this is the current that fed into the Vattel, Hugo Grotius and human rights tradition.


2. Law is man-made and morality is not relevant. This is legal positivism. There are no legal norms outside of humanity and, what it more, law and morality are two different things. For “exclusive” legal positivists like Joseph Raz (b. 1939), law is a social fact and hence, autonomous. It is also the only source of authority in a society, outside of any moral considerations. Other positivists, so-called “soft” positivists, like H. L. A. Hart (d. 1992), see law with a minimum content of natural law; and yes, this content does have moral implications. That said, the law is a system of rules people make to ensure that a human society can function and not be destroyed by people’s selfishness and inclination to violence.


3. The field of “critical legal studies” questions the validity of all formal schemes of human progress, and even the notion of utopia, noting that, above all, law is about power. The history of the Western world is replete with Western states conquering and subjugating other parts of the world, and forcing them to submit to their laws. Globalization for them is mostly a form of neo-colonialism, by which Western economic power – through its multinational corporations and a neoliberal form of capitalism – subverts and drains developing countries from their economic and therefore political potential. Extreme partisans of postmodernism even doubt that there are any possible basis for moral agreement among humans. So much for human rights . . .


Mbaye Lo’s conclusion

Lo has given us a useful snapshot of the jihadis’ mindset about military jihad, but nowhere does he offer a critique of their tactics or theology. I’m sure he has done so elsewhere, or he wouldn’t be teaching where he is. Further, his pedestrian tone seems to dismiss the jihadi threat by saying it’s simply part of a general breakdown of the international order (civilians are killing civilians everywhere) and that, according to his Niamey imam, these are the signs of the end times.

What is more, though he admits that the roots of jihadism are complex, he basically concludes it’s America’s fault:


“I agree with the imam: this is the end of time, scary times, and troubling times. Many factors have contributed in its making. But I still blame the U.S. for abandoning the moral high ground when confronted by militant Islam. It has failed to lead by example, by its moral ideals. A Wolof proverb states, “if the father is a drummer, then no child should be scorned for dancing.” In this instance, the U.S. has led by policy and actions, and the rest of the world has followed its example.”


I am definitely recommending the first position above: law and morality must go hand in hand, and justice is about treating all human beings with respect and dignity. The partisans of critical legal studies certainly have a point about law and power. The United States has reacted to militant Islam in ways that have clearly skirted international law and violated human rights, including a clampdown on the press at home (see Dowd’s column). It all started on Sept. 14, 2001, with the AUMF, which gave the executive branch carte blanche in pursuing the "war on terror." But I would say that if you want to be called “leader of the free world,” then you should lead by example. True, there are many reasons why jihadis do what they do, but foremost among them is their theological orientation.

Plainly, the jihadi movement is now on steroids with the dramatic expansion of the “Islamic State”in Syria and Iraq, with dire consequences for the whole region. I applaud the coalition of British imams (“Imams Online”), representing Shias and Sunnis, who issued a 4-minute video strongly condemning the Islamic State and its tactics of terror. In fact, it seems that this crisis sparked the formation of the coalition in the first place. According to their website, “Senior British imams have come together to emphasize the importance of unity in the UK and to decree ISIS as an illegitimate, vicious group who do not represent Islam in any way.”

Make sure too to read this gut-wrenching piece of soul-searching by an American imam, "Lunacy in the Levant: Deconstructing the ISIS Crisis."

To sum up -- Justice demands the rule of law and the opportunity for all nations to continue the process of hammering out “international law” based on the respect for the “natural” (and I add, “God-given”) rights of all human beings. Yes, the United Nations organization does need reform so that all nations can feed into this process in a just manner. But one way or another we will have to work together to make sure that no group can drive people out of their cities and exterminate others, all in the name of religion. It’s our moral duty to struggle for justice, even until the end of time!

If you’re like me and plan to enjoy a cup of coffee tomorrow morning, we will be in the company of 1.6 billion others across the globe. Coffee is one of the most traded commodities on the planet – at more than $100 billion a year! Still, 70 percent of that coffee was hand picked and processed by small farmers who remain dirt poor. Thankfully, that is changing, thanks to the Fair Trade movement.

I have to add, though, that my cup of coffee tomorrow morning will remind me of the poor farmers I just watched on the screen. They were picking those red beans on the stem, dropping them in a basket tied to their waist, probably doing this all day, and then brought home several large burlap sacs for the next stage of a long, work-intensive process before the coffee beans are ready to be exported.

Just for the record, that cup of coffee is made from 70 of those red berries picked in the forest of Central America’s highlands (or in Africa, or Indonesia, or elsewhere).

That both moving and delightful documentary film I just watched was called, “Connected by Coffee.” Two American coffee roasters take us along on a 1,000-mile trek from southern Mexico to Guatemala, and from El Salvador to Nicaragua, visiting the small farmers – mostly indigenous peoples – who have supplied them with coffee for over a decade. These coffee growers are all organized into cooperatives (the one in Nicaragua was all women) and our two hosts are truly their friends, through thick and thin, dancing with them and, in one instance, crying with them. For the sad fact is that, largely due to global warming, a deadly fungus (“coffee rust”) has destroyed virtually 70 percent of their crops in the last two years. Yet they carry on with their friendship, because “it’s about a lot more than coffee.”

“Connected by Coffee” introduces us to the Fair Trade idea – an amalgamation of the environmental movement, the human rights movement, the feminist and peace movements, and more. Here it’s defined it as “an approach to business that strives to replace exploitation with direct, long term relationships based on dignity, respect and equality.” On a subcontinent where coffee powered most of the economic growth for over two centuries, it has mostly been the symbol of shameless abuse – large plantations run by the rich who treat their workers hardly better than they would treat slaves.

Fair Trade, then, is an encouragement to small farmers to pool their resources and leverage their selling power, to invest in the machinery that enables them to bypass all the middle men, fetch a higher price for their product and export directly.


Revolutions and social justice

I had written about “the fourth world” in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, and showed how the indigenous peoples of the earth are so often forgotten and shoved aside as the poorest of the poor. I also gushed about how the indigenous uprising in the southern tip of Mexico was launched on the very date the North American Free Trade Agreement was to come into effect, January 1, 1994. The Zapatista movement and especially the nonviolent branch Los Abejas (The Bees), which included 48 different indigenous groups, fought against unfair government policies, violence on all sides of the current conflicts, and the predatory practices of the multinational corporations that effectively crippled their already weak economic potential. Yet their weapons of choice were fasting and prayer, and peaceful marches, including one that ended up in Mexico City.

The Zapatista revolutionary movement caught the imagination of the world as the Internet was just getting underway. Thousands of websites were launched to support their agenda and they became a cause célèbre for the anti-globalization movement, which spread dramatically after the 1999 Seattle WTO protests.

The very first stop in “Connected by Coffee” is to the small village of Acteal, in the southern most Mexican province of Chiapas. That’s where in 1997 a band of paramilitary fighters aligned with the Mexican government mowed down in cold blood – and most of them while worshiping in church – 45 men, women and children. The film shows you a heart-wrenching clip of the funeral, pictures of some of the victims and then you meet Antonio, one of the survivors, who since then helped to start the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative.

Fair Trade is about justice for all, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That idea of social justice runs through the whole documentary, and if you didn’t know this before, these countries are still barely emerging from revolutionary movements that fought for equality under the law for all, women, workers, and indigenous peoples alike. So many innocent people disappeared in this caldron of torture and death, with the USA, sadly, almost always backing the wrong side.

This is only the second blog I’ve written on Fair Trade on this website. The first one dealt at length on the issue of Free Trade versus Fair Trade, so I won’t go over that here. But notice the connection once again: the Zapatistas launched their revolution on the day NAFTA came into effect . . .


Closer to home

You also know from my first blog that when my family and I moved from Connecticut to Media, PA in 2006, Media had just declared itself North America’s “First Fair Trade Town.”  Fair Trade towns was the brainchild of Bruce Crowther in Garstang, Lancashire, UK. It became a reality in a town meeting in April, 2000. Since then, we count more than 1,500 Fair Trade towns and cities around the world, many small like Media, but others like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Oslo, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

The American story begins with Hal Taussig, the inventor of a new way for Americans (first for teachers like himself) to spend a vacation in Europe. Connect them to local people and immerse them for a short time in their lives and customs, Hal said. That was the birth of Untours. Hal was always much more than a creative vacation planner. A 2011 article in the Huffington Post called him the “UnMillionnaire” – and for good reason. He literally gave away all his income, lived very simply, and invested everything in the Untours Foundation that lends to innovative social projects that have the best potential for solving problems of poverty.

In 2005 Hal told Elizabeth Killough who was now managing the Untours Foundation that he thought Media should become the first Fair Trade Town on the continent. Understandably floored, Elizabeth looked into it, however, and discovered Bruce Crowther’s movement that was starting to pick up momentum. They contacted Bruce and a year later the Media borough voted to implement the requirements for being qualified “a Fair Trade Town.”

Yesterday I went to visit Elizabeth at the Untours Foundation. I know her well, since I have been a member of the Media Fair Trade committee since 2008 and she has been its coordinator from the beginning. But this time I wanted her to tell me how she felt about all her efforts to promote Fair Trade over the last eight years. Here’s my summary of her main points:


“I’m thrilled with how the movement has mushroomed and attracted so much enthusiasm. The Fair Trade Campaigns movement now has over 1,000 towns, but also a growing number of schools, universities and even religious congregations. Here locally we now have a Fair Trade elementary school; the local high school is Fair Trade and so is the local branch of Penn State University. My one disappointment is that Fair Trade sales haven’t followed. It’s like the organic movement: 40% of respondents will tell you in a survey that they support organic foods, but only 10% actually buy them. Our job is to put ourselves out of business. But we have a long way to go before we can reach a critical mass of consumers who will systematically buy Fair Trade products over all other choices.”


Exactly. Fair Trade is about connecting coffee drinkers to coffee growers. It is about me asking, “where was this garment made? In a sweatshop or in a factory that cares for the welfare of its employees – keeping them safe, paying them a living wage, and allowing them to organize.” Fair Trade is also a commitment to social justice – leveraging my buying power as a consumer in a rich nation in an ethical manner so as to ensure that the producer is paid fairly. So if people pay only lip service to Fair Trade, the concept of a “Fair Trade town” is meaningless.


Dreams coming true in Paraguay

I end with a story I find very heartening. It’s not about small farmers, but about the Fair Trade concept applied just as judiciously in another context. I tell this too, because, as Elizabeth made clear to me, the global success of Fair Trade (over $5 billion in yearly sales) has spawned a lot of debates and disagreements. Part of this comes from large corporations like Starbucks who have jumped onto the FT bandwagon. As a result, there are now many certifying agencies and two main philosophical positions on Fair Trade – those who limit FT to small farmers or small factories co-owned by their workers, and those who accept plantations and larger factories that seek to apply more ethical standards. I say, all of this marks progress over the old oppressive status quo!

Now to my story, which you can read on the website of the most influential FT certifier, now called FLOCERT (I recommend you browse that site for any FT questions you may have).

The small town of Manduvira, in a district inauspiciously called “swamps and streams” about 40 miles from the capital Asuncion, just saw the inauguration of a new sugar mill with – amazingly – the presence of the vice-president and several government ministers. This was a big deal, for several reasons.

It garnered national attention mostly because of the economic model it showcases. In the article, “Sugar Farmers in Paraguay Realize their Dreams,” we read about their humble beginnings:


“Founded in 1975 by a group of teachers and agricultural producers as a savings & credit cooperative, Manduvira’s objective was to help members gain access to credit and, through the creation of projects that would benefit the community and create mutual support. Then activities were widened into crop production and Manduvira received Fairtrade certification in 1999.”


But their one great obstacle was that farmers had to transport their sugar cane 100 kms to the nearest sugar mill. Lots of money was lost in transport and milling costs. Worst of all, they had to collect the finish product there in order to get the organic and FT sugar exported. Hence, the idea of their own sugar mill.

That idea became a reality thanks to their FT connections. Another article puts it this way:


“Manduvira’s new mill will be a boon for the 1,750 member-strong farmers’ organization, which will no longer have to pay to rental and transport costs to another mill, 100 km away along dirt roads. This $15 million project was funded through a combination of national and international loans, contributions from the Fairtrade Premium, and the Fairtrade Access Fund . . .

“The Manduvira Cooperative exports certified organic and Fairtrade sugar to almost 20 countries, including most of Europe, Canada, Latin America, New Zealand and South Korea. Fairtrade staff have worked with the producer group helping it to achieve organic certification and long-term relationships with international clients.”


Several restaurants in Media where I live serve organic FT sugar and coffee. If you poke around you may discover more of those products where you live too. And if not, I urge you to ask questions and prod local businesses to look into this. Who knows, you too might start a FT movement in your town! At least, I hope we all become a lot more curious about where our products come from . . . and even travel to develop some relationships with small producers.

By the way, one of the loan recipients of the Untours Foundation is the amazing cocoa cooperative of New Koforidua, Ghana, now the proud owners and producers of Divine Chocolate. What that story doesn’t tell you is that Christians and Muslims are members of that cooperative – yes, you can imagine how happy I was to discuss this with one of the four farmers who came to Media on a tour of the US East Coast!

Oh, and I forgot to tell you. I walked out of Elizabeth’s office with a Divine Chocolate bar . . .

As I turn to the “Muslim” side of the equation in this two-part blog that summarizes some of the findings in my article for the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, we have to ponder the rapid advance of the jihadi group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham, or “Levant”) in Iraq, as they are now within striking distance from the capital and have erased the border between Iraq and Syria.

As veteran Middle East correspondent David Kirpatrick astutely observes, jihadist forces have been on the rise, and especially after the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood by the military government in Egypt since July 2013. Shortly after those events, ISIS, one of two powerful jihadist groups fighting in Syria, declared that islamists (Muslims wanting a more robust role for Islam in the public sphere) should now have learned their lesson – they must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballet boxes.” Should we negotiate with the powers-that-be? Yes, but “in trenches rather than in hotels.” The Muslim Brotherhood, said the document, were merely “a secular party in Islamic clothing”; and because of that, they embody “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”

To say the least, we are witnessing spirited debates among Muslims (and especially islamists) on the issue of human rights and democracy!

That said, before we look at three Muslims on the other end of the spectrum, I have to point out a very insightful article byJocelyne Cesari (Harvard and Georgetown universities) on why some form of political Islam is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Leaning on the thesis of her recent book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, she argues that the Muslim states that arose out of the ashes of Western colonialism were founded by secular leaders who turned Islam into a modern nationalist ideology. This is what happened in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. As a result, Islamic symbols have been and will continue to be bandied about by both political elites and their opponents.

Keep this fact in mind as we look at some of the conservative push back on the UDHR after the 1970s “resurgence of Islam” and then briefly fly over some of the writings on human rights by three key Muslim scholars based in the US.


The 1980s flurry of Islamic Human Rights Schemes

In the first blog I signaled a movement in Asia and in Muslim states more generally to question the universal application of the UDHR and the International Bill of Rights. From a more secular perspective too – mostly from within the social sciences – the objection of cultural relativism was beginning to erode what for many had been the perceived stellar nature of human rights standards.

This too was the time when Muslim societies were becoming more religiously observant – across the board. On the heels of the shocking Arab defeat in the 1967 “Six Day War,” the secularist, nationalist and socialist ideology of Egypt’s influential leader Gamal Abdel Nasser started to ring very hollow among the masses. Instead, people started to pay more attention to religious leaders preaching every Friday from the mosques that the reason God had allowed them to taste poverty and defeat was because they were no longer following his Straight Path. His Shari’a must once again be the law of the land (for more on this, see my two blogs on Islamism and the veil). Of course, added to this was the windfall of petro-dollars that enabled Saudi Arabia to spread its arch-conservative Wahhabi ideology far and wide.

It was in this atmosphere that the following “Islamic” versions of the UDHR came into being – what Ann Mayer calls “human rights schemes”:


- conservative European Muslim leaders issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981);

- then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990);

- finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).


To different degrees, these documents pay lip service to the UDHR and the concept of human rights (and democracy), but with regard to religious freedom and family law they add that nothing may contravene what has been established by the Shari’a. In essence, the idea of human dignity and all the rights that flow out of that are praised, but only within the framework of the traditional jurisprudence of Islam’s five main schools of law. That said, there are plenty of internal Muslim debates – even in conservative circles, which represent the majority I must add – about many of the details involved. There is a growing consensus, for instance, that capital punishment for apostasy and the duty of women to stay in the home, are outdated rules not in line with the “real” teachings of Islam.

Still, there is a discrepancy between the general aspiration of Muslims worldwide for civil and political freedoms, for equal rights for men and women with regard to education, the workplace and politics, and the conservative discourse of Muslim scholars standing behind those documents mentioned above. For the masses, Shari’a remains both a symbol of social justice and accountable government, and a symbol of the high standard of God’s rules to which the believer submits – from the “Five Pillars” to inheritance laws, from the modalities of divorce to the treatment of apostates.

The three men whose views I touch on here all believe that any contradiction between current human rights standards and traditional interpretations of Islamic law should fall away when Islamic law is applied according to the ethical and theological norms put forward in the Qur’an and Sunna. Here I brush over the bulk of my article only to highlight two themes that all three men develop – human dignity emanating from creation and the priority of values over man-made rules. [I will make the whole article available after it’s published in January 2015].


Human rights flow out of God’s creation

All three of these men are eminent scholars whose writings touch on Islam and human rights. Two of them are activists as well. Khaled Abou El Fadl directs the Islamic law program at UCLA but is also a practicing human rights lawyer in the US who frequently speaks to Muslim audiences around the Muslim world. Granted the Oslo Human Rights Award in 2007, he was also nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the US Commission for Religious Freedom.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im directs the Islam and Human Rights Program at Emory University’s School of Law, which is specifically designed to support and train Muslim human rights activists in various parts of the world. Originally from the Sudan, he was a disciple of the Sufi sheikh, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and his Republican Brothers party in the Sudan in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of his inclusive interpretation of the Qur’an, Sheikh Taha was executed for apostasy in 1985 by the military strongman, General Numeiri.

The third scholar, Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor at George Mason University, is originally from Iran and hence, a Shia thinker. For that article I looked at his 2009 book, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. He had already done much work on Islam, democracy and pluralism (see his 2001 book).

In a 2004 book, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Abou El Fadl explained – what I frequently mention on this website – that God called Adam his trustee on earth (Q. 2:30) and that alongside other verses using this root in its two plural forms, this means all of humanity is called by God to peacefully manage together creation’s bounty on earth. This trusteeship of humankind on earth (or “vicegerency,” an older a more awkward English term Muslims often use) also has implications for human rights:


“1) Human beings are God's vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God's law; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.”


Notice too that points 5 and 6 draw a distinction between “God’s law” and “fallible human interpretations” of it (the distinction Sharia/fiqh, or the applied jurisprudence of the five main Islamic schools of law – see this blog of mine).

He makes the creation connection in other writings, even tying it to the image of God in human beings (which, by the way, is mentioned in some authoritative hadiths). Here in a 2005 book chapter in Does Human Rights Need God? he explains how the divine origin of humanity grounds its sanctity: “. . . there is no question that [in Islam] human life is sanctified . . . There is also a recognition that the sanctity of human life creates demands that, in turn, create duties, which become compelling rights.” In other words, it is only just and right that human persons are treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings.

In fact, argues Abou El Fadl, the human rights concept at its core is the idea that a human person’s life is inviolable and sacred. Each human being is inherently precious – precisely because he or she is a human having been created by God to be his deputy on earth. If that is so, then we must do everything to make sure people’s basic demands are met, so they can live a decent life and flourish.

Sachedina too builds his case around the creation of humanity, but he concentrates on the notion of fitra – the good nature God instilled in humans at creation (Q. 30:30), which acts as a moral conscience for all people, regardless of their religious or non-religious background. He, like Abou El Fadl and An-Na’im, insist that a democratic government be “secular” in the sense of granting all its citizens equal civil and political rights – again, by virtue of God’s good creation:


“The rights-based discourse is not a religious one, though the ethical claims it makes are universal in nature and share with religion an evaluation of innate human worth . . . The process and progress of secularization is critical because to a great extent most Western ideas of universal human rights rest on a secular view of the individual and of the relations between such individuals in a secularized public sphere. The idea of individuals as bearers of something called rights presupposes a very particular understanding and reading of the self essentially as a self-regulating agent (2009:148).”


Values should trump man-made rules

Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft is no doubt his most popular one to date, but not simply because it’s written for a more general audience, but too because in it he confronts the religious extremists head-on. The problem with the “textualists” (those who are adamant about applying the texts literally), he says, is that they’ve bought into the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence that has been “voluntarist.” That means that ethical values have no existence in and of themselves; they only exist as attached to God’s commands in the texts. So an act is good or bad only if it is qualified in that way in the Qur’an or Sunna. What is more, since ethical values like justice, kindness, mercy and righteousness don’t have any objective existence (the position of ethical objectivism), they can only be known from the text and extrapolated from there to new situations arising only with the greatest care. So by definition, a non-Muslim political entity could never deliver a just or righteous society.

Abou El Fadl writes, “In my view, God’s moralities and virtues are inseparable from God, and they are unalterable because God is unalterable. As such, God’s morality is binding upon all, in the same way that God is present for all.” Then this statement, which aims to undercut the textualists: “Divinity is approached, in my view, through studying the divine moral imperatives rather than the rules of law, because morality is prior to law [my emphasis], in the same way that God is prior to anything, including the text or law.” Human rights, therefore, flow out of God’s creation of humanity and, as a result, are inherent to them. Equally, people can grasp the truth of their own dignity by looking beyond the sacred texts. Doesn’t the Qur’an in dozens of places call its readers to meditate and reflect on the signs of God’s creation?

Peace, justice and goodness, then, are values that all people share, though they can disagree on how they apply in different contexts! But that does mean that the ethical ideals expressed in all the holy books are common to all. The Qur’an itself explicitly recognizes the divine origin of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, though there has been some disagreement among Muslim scholars about whether or not they were corrupted, or to what extent.

Add to that the distinction Abou El Fadl makes between the ideals in the sacred texts (Shari’a) and their human interpretation in works of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Picking up on these themes in the very first sentence of his book, Islam and the Secular State, An-Na’im announces his book’s main point:


“In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’a – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Shari’a cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.”


In other words, no religion can survive if it’s imposed by the state. And if the state imposes some particular version of a religious tradition, it will doubly betray the tradition – by imposing it (“There is no compulsion in religion,” Q. 2:256), and by potentially forcing people to act against their own conscience by following a particular human interpretation of their faith with which they disagree.

But how do you convince a majority of Muslims worldwide, who are mostly conservative and believe in some kind of literal application of the texts, that God holds out an ideal of justice and goodness for societies, which people should follow, even if that means going against certain commands in the scriptures (because, presumably, circumstances are vastly different today?

Muslims need to see that human rights norms are basically in harmony with Islamic principles, writes An-Na’im. Apart from “some specific and very serious aspects of the rights of women and non-Muslims and the freedom of religion and belief,” “Shari’a principles are basically consistent with most human rights norms.” That’s important, because if any Muslim is confronted with the choice between Islam and human rights, he or she will have to choose Islam. So what is called for is negotiation, not confrontation.

But more than anything, concludes An-Na’im, what needs to change is Muslims’ perception of Shari’a. That’s a tall order, though many seem to intuit that Shari’a actually includes the ideals embodied by human rights standards. According to the most substantial polling ever conducted in 35 Muslim nations from 2001-2007, large majorities of Muslims believe that women should have . . .


. . . the same legal rights as men

. . . rights to vote

. . . the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home

. . . the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels.


The conversation about Islam and human rights is ongoing, just as the sociopolitical landscape in Muslim nations is evolving and the opinions of Muslims living in the West are becoming increasingly influential. I’ll just end with this fascinating piece of research by two Muslim scholars at the Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, Hossein Askari and Shehrazade Rehman, called the Islamicity Index. First published in an article in 2010, they have now included a variety of political, civil and economic factors to match what they consider “Islamic” values. What is striking is that according to this scale Muslim countries score very low: the top two, Malaysia and Kuwait, are respectively in the 38th and 48th position. The first ten in order are, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium.

Perhaps this quip by the lead author, originally from Iran, best summarizes some of the tensions and debates among Muslims raised in this blog:


“We must emphasise that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination.”

The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, with links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), recently rocketed into global infamy after their abduction of over 250 school girls and their threat to sell them into slavery or forced marriage in exchange for the release of their jailed companions. They’ve also been known to kill scores of policemen and civilians in the northeast of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians. Less publicized were their latest brazen attacks on villages, in which, dressed as soldiers or policemen, they gather everyone in the center square and systematically massacre men, women and children.

Then some of you might have read a NY Times Op-Ed, about how Junaid Hafeez, a young poet, Fullbright scholar and English professor, was arrested on the charge of blasphemy against Islam, and how Rashid Rehman, the special coordinator of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, had courageously undertaken to defend him in court. Rehman was soon gunned down in front of his colleagues and the attackers have still not been apprehended.

With items like this in the news daily, no wonder many westerners assume a fundamental contradiction between “Islam” and human rights. Much of this comes, of course, from a western media bias against Islam since 9/11, and also, let’s be honest, from news services eager to increase their profit margins by publishing (in print or on TV) what is most extreme and sensationalist.

You probably would never hear stories like this one published last week in Pakistan, “Ulema’s Council Fatwa Declares Honor Killing Un-Islamic”. Yet these issues are being debated among Muslims all the time, and even here in Pakistan, which has witnessed countless suicide bombings (with fellow Muslims by far the most numerous victims, both Sunni and Shia), the highest ranking Muslim clerics are condemning all politically and religiously-motivated violence. No young single woman in particular should ever be killed. What’s more: “No Muslim sect will be declared non-Muslim and no Muslim or non-Muslim will be declared worthy of being killed.”

That’s Pakistan and its religious establishment, and that’s newsworthy. But all mainstream Muslim institutions and scholars have been condemning violence in the name of Islam long before, and especially after 9/11 – in the west, of course, but also most everywhere in the Muslim world. You might ask, “Why is there still so much violence that seems to be motivated by religion?” There are many reasons beyond the jihadis’ simplistic yet terrifying single mindedness. Social and political unrest account for most of it, but explaining violence isn’t my topic here. If you’re wondering about the topic though, just look at this one frustrated Pakistani-American Muslim's article shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (“Do You Even Hear Muslims When We Condemn Violence?”).

My task in this and the next blog is to unpack the main points of an article I just finished, which will appear in January 2015 in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “Islam and Human Rights: A Growing Rapprochement?” In this blog I deal with the contested nature of religion and human rights – along with the fuzzy concept of “human rights” itself! Then I’ll turn to the special case of Islam and human rights.


What on earth are “human rights”?

With so many agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world purporting to further the cause of human rights (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), this may seem like a silly question – something scholars would ask, because their livelihood seemingly depends on making everything more complicated than it really is! I assure you, though there is some truth to this (though I would add too that reality is really a lot more complicated than appears on the surface!), the notion of human rights is quite slippery. Here are just a few thoughts you might pursue:


*** Philosophically (and theologically): the dominant current has been the idea of “natural law,” that is, human beings have an innate sense of justice, which posits that laws in society ought to respect the dignity of each human person. This idea can be traced back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and then to the Stoics, who taught that the universe is purposeful and that human reason applying itself to virtue can discover these natural laws. Natural law was then forcefully articulated by Cicero (1st century BCE) in a Roman context – so much so, that these ideas endured and were passed on to the Muslim philosophers (like Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in the 12th century), then to Thomas Aquinas, often called the “Father of Roman Catholic Theology,” then to the Renaissance and finally to 18th-century Enlightenment.

So, for instance, the American Declaration of Independence declares the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Creation” is mentioned there. Even in the United States today, this is controversial. The dominant ideology is secular – because of the (not-so-clear) "separation of church and state" – and, though most Americans are at least nominally Christian and would agree with Muslims and Jews that human rights accrue to all humans by virtue of creation, many others are agnostic or atheists, or Hindu, Buddhist or of some other faith that does not believe in a Creator God.

This was the case of the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which begins with this phrase,


“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …”


This is the assumption that seemed to capture the consensus of a wide variety of people from many ethnicities, religions and nationalities, who at the time were reeling from the horrors of two world wars. True, as you can read in the text from which I took the above picture, the formulation comes straight out from the European Enlightenment. Still, this quasi-natural law formulation (the UDHR studiously avoids any reference to the divine) won the approval of all nations present in 1948, including the Muslim states of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey (only Saudi Arabia abstained).

Since that time, however, much has been written from many angles to find some kind of philosophical backing for this notion of inalienable human rights. Do they stem from “nature” (another contested term), or are they a logical imperative, much as Kant would have argued? Also in terms of ethical theory, you can read many articles and books published in the past decades seeking to ground human rights theory from either positivist or utilitarian positions.


*** Legally – how do you establish a universal right binding on all states?

So then, what about the nature of “rights”? One influential theorist, Wesley N. Hohfeld, has pointed to a number of complexities in this area. Does “having a right” mean one is entitled to something, and does this not also impose a duty on another person to give it us? Or is it simply an immunity for keeping one’s legal status safe? Or is it the privilege to do something (like voting)? Or is it the power to alter existing legal relationships? This might all sound abstract or too theoretical, but it creates some real conundrums in practice, particularly for the “right to life.” Of all the rights, this one seems the most likely candidate for “an absolute right.” Yet, while the European Union has banned the death penalty, the United States and many other countries still have it on their books. Definitions and boundaries related to human rights are routinely disputed.


*** The list of rights – the so-called “generations of rights”:

Since the eighteenth century the drawing up of constitutions in the West is seen as a way to curb government power and enhance individual rights. The UDHR, despite its great moral authority was not a legally enforceable document, though it is the first of three main documents in what is now called the International Bill of Human Rights. The other two documents were signed in 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). The ICCR represents what many call the first generation of rights, based on the notion of freedom and political participation. These are also called “blue rights,” meaning civil and political in nature. They are “negative rights,” in that they serve to protect individuals from the harmful incursions of the state.

Of all rights, those listed in the ICCR are the most legally enforceable, unlike the second generation of rights, those concerned with human equality, as spelled out in the ICESC – or “red rights,” so-called because they are “positive rights.” As opposed to the negative rights, these rights are claims on the government to fulfill people’s needs. Those include the right to health care, the right to employment, rights to science and culture.

Finally, the third generation covers group and collective rights (like minorities, indigenous rights, etc.), environmental rights (starting with the 1992 Rio Declaration), women’s rights (the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW) and intergenerational equity and sustainability rights. Naturally, these rights are even more difficult to enact in a legally binding way. Yet you can imagine that, from the perspective of this website and the views of many people of faith (and many very secular, left-leaning people too) these rights form the backbone of a sustainable human colonization of this planet. We can’t survive as a species in the long run if we don’t agree together on some basic ground rules for the way we treat one another and the "commons" we inherited from our ancestors.

That said, these rights are controversial and contested. The United States, for instance, took years to ratify the ICCR, and when it did, it registered several reservations; and it never ratified the ICESC, nor CEDAW, nor any environmental treaty to date. Muslim countries were much more involved in the committee work leading up to the International Bill of Rights than the US – something to keep in mind for the next section.


Some historical background

I want to make three quick points here. First, Muslim representatives to the UN at this stage were western-educated and rather liberal in their outlook. For instance, though Article 18 on religious freedom stipulates the right to change one’s religion and therefore directly contradicts traditional Islamic law, not one Muslim state voted against it. They didn’t see this as terribly important and would rather not go on record for opposing it. The Pakistani representative, for his part, Sir Muhammad Zafrulllah Khan, was adamant about the Qur’an supporting religious freedom – a position taken by all the more liberal-minded Muslim reformists today.

Surprisingly too, no Muslim nation in the end voted against Article 16, which requires equal rights for spouses in marriage. It was debated more passionately by Muslim representatives than Article 18, mostly because in all five schools of Islamic law a Muslim women is forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim man, and, additionally, her rights to initiate divorce are much more limited compared to her husband. Interestingly, the United States did vote against this clause, as interracial marriages were still forbidden by law on its territory.

Second, according to Ann Elizabeth Mayer (her book on Islam and Human Rights is now in its fifth edition), this was the period of decolonization and though Muslim nations often voted differently on many issues, in general they all tended “to identify with the victims of human rights violations.” As many Muslim people groups were fighting (sometimes militarily) for their independence, Muslim nations in the UN often found themselves systematically opposing western nations that were holding out on minority rights and anti-discrimination laws. As she puts it,


“Coming out of periods of subjugation by European powers, they were naturally enthusiastic backers of the principle of self-determination and were united in denouncing the human rights violations that European colonialism had perpetrated as well as the hypocrisy of European states that gave lip service to human rights that they were unwilling to grant to subjugated populations in their colonies.”


Third, starting in the 1980s observers note a wave of resistance to the universal character of the UDHR and the International Bill of Human Rights. This push back came mostly from two regions, Asia and Muslim states, in the first case for reasons of cultural specificity (this coincides with the rise of cultural relativism in the social sciences), and in the second for religious reasons. In the Muslim case several initiatives emerged. First, conservative European Muslim leaders, mostly from Paris and London, issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981); then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990); finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).

This will be my starting point for the second blog. As it turns out, the world was becoming “furiously religious” at that time, as sociologist Peter Berger put it in his 1999 book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.

[On this topic, I received this week my copy of Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, to which I contributed the chapter entitled, “Fundamentalism Diluted: From Enclave to Globalism in Conservative Muslim Ecological Discourse”]

As human beings we are constantly navigating the multiple layers of our (fluid) identity. I am still a son, though my parents have been gone for a while. I am a husband and father, a teacher in several contexts, a former pastor in Algeria. For sixteen years I lived as a Christian in three different Muslim-majority countries. I’m a white American male, with all the power, pride, derision and guilt that you, the reader, might read into it. I inhabit many other personae, depending on where I am and what I’m doing. And so do you.

This is the story of an African-American man, Zain Abdullah, who was born to Christian parents and mostly raised along with two older sisters by his mother. My task is simply to whet your appetite, so you will read his story in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “A Muslim’s Search for Meaning.” Here are several themes that struck a chord in me as I read.

A quick aside: I featured another convert to Islam (or “revert,” as Muslims like to put it – “Islam” for them is the natural state of creation) back in January, a white female American, G. Willow Wilson, while highlighting her fascinating book, The Butterfly Mosque. Why don’t you present Muslim converts to Christianity, you might ask? Of course, there are many examples there too, like my friend, Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, born and raised in the Gambia (here’s the best introduction). My answer is this: I have more Christian than Muslim readers (I think), and because my aim is to break down barriers between the two communities, it is Muslims who bear the brunt of our western societies’ stereotypes and prejudice.


What is religion? What is Islam?

This is a question I challenge my students in “Comparative Religion” to grapple with throughout the semester. When one of them writes in her/his final essay, “it’s a complicated issue,” I breathe a sigh of relief, and say to myself, “mission accomplished.”

In this piece, Zain Abdullah opens up his heart to us. I’ll get to that more personal tone below. But for now, he also writes as a professor of Islamic Studies, whose research draws a good deal from the social sciences (his PhD is in cultural anthropology). Yes, he’s been an imam and a university chaplain, but this article is framed by his concern to articulate a view of Muslims and Islam that breaks the prevalent western stereotypes.

So I’ll skip the more confessional definition of “Muslim” you read on the second page. This is about the way it’s used in the Qur’an and how it’s only the first step in one’s personal spiritual development (muslim, “submitter”; mu’min, “believer”; muhsin, “perfected believer,” or literally, “one who does good”). But this does raise the vexed problem of how one might “translate sacred meanings properly from one religious context to another.” Unfortunately, that natural impulse to oversimplify and stereotype leads people to reduce Muslims to Sunnis, Shi’a, or Sufis.

But then Abdullah adds this, which I find very helpful:


“When we consider the deeper implications of words like Islam, din, Muslim, mu’min, and kafir, we find that the Qur’anic message is essentially a call to belief in a new worldview, or a way of envisioning a world that is different from the one we currently have. This approach will necessarily alter our sense of who Muslims are and force us to rethink their place in today’s world.”


I do think that “religion,” however else we may define the term, is about a comprehensive model of reality, a way of looking at the world and human experience that explains those basic questions that science can never answer: How did this world come into being? How do we humans fit into it? Where do we come from and where do we go after death? And, perhaps most importantly, how ought we to live? In one word, religion gives “meaning” to human experience.

But to this rather abstract definition, you have to immediately add the notion of community, taking into account the social nature of homo sapiens. This is where the idea of culture fits in. So on page 28 Abdullah reflects on the American mosque, shaped as it is by the individualistic ideology of American culture. Another way of putting it is “the Protestantization of Muslim life in the United States,” with the mosque structured on “an ecclesiastical model.” The imam, like his Protestant, Catholic (or Jewish) counterpart, is expected to run an administration that cares for the needs of his flock – often walking recent immigrants through the maze of American bureaucracy and translating new cultural idioms and practices. And they will also marry and bury all those entrusted to their care.

Further, you run into this paradox, says Abdullah, as both anthropologist and theologian. Having traveled to many parts of the Muslim world, one could lament (and he does) that “Muslims around the world tend to be somewhat balkanized. Most maintain strict parameters for socialization and only marry within their ethnic group.” On the other hand, Muslims globally share this ideal of “the single ummah.” That’s the community of Muslims, the “mother,” or literally “the womb.” So the paradox is, much like it is for any other global religious tradition, the belief in the ideal unity (ummah) of all Muslims despite the formidable variety of their beliefs, practices and identities. In his words:


“Muslim religiosity—in many respects, the whole idea of being Muslim—is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community. Still, the group sense of what it means to be Muslim constitutes an overlapping of three very distinct relationships: matrimonial, familial, and communal. The shape of these associations, however, varies and will result in multiple ways of understanding Muslims. But the tendency for both Muslims and outsiders to view Islam as a monolithic entity is clearly untenable.”


The challenge of conversion and identity

When Abdullah was twelve, he heard about the Nation of Islam. He wanted to know more about it. His older cousin's take on it was that being black was already one strike against him. Embracing Islam would be a second strike. That sounded “really bad,” he remembers thinking. That impression struck with him.

By chance – or so it would seem – his parents gave him a name that sounded nice to them. In fact, “Zayne” really comes from the Arabic for “good,” or “one who beautifies the believers.” Next, while in the eleventh grade, a female classmate dressed in the full Nation of Islam garb, asked him, “Do you know you have a Muslim name?” That was his first clue, though the young woman’s demeanor didn’t attract him in the least to her faith. Yet somehow that epithet dovetailed nicely with the cultural and ideological mosaic he grew up with – “Black and immigrant Muslims, Christian evangelicals, integrationists, Black nationalists, and a Black working and middle class.”

In my reading of the essay, I’d say two factors most favored his conversion to Islam. The first was a genuine spiritual interest along with an innate intuition that God was one, though not in the New Testament sense. Still, in college he would often read the Bible into the wee hours of the night. But he was also studying Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism.

The second factor was his meeting a Black Muslim from Panama who was selling jewelry in the student center. After several conversations with him, Zayne found himself repeating the Shahada (the Arabic for “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger” and also the first of Islam's "five pillars"). He had just embraced Islam and would change his name to Zain Abdullah. In fact, the turning point had come through a human instrument, Abdul-Malik, a man with whom he could identify and hence could persuade him.

But that was only the beginning of a much longer quest – still continuing in some ways – to understand what it meant for him to be “Muslim.”


Islam, marriage, and young people

Abdullah opens for us a window into one fascinating characteristic of the Muslim worldview. Since “marriage is half of religion,” as Muslims are often taught, new converts in the US are often paired off as soon as possible. His own marriage lasted only two years and he never tells us whether he remarried or not. But he does point to this as a wider phenomenon -- particularly for converts in the west -- and an unfortunate pattern that “results in a high divorce rates and a succession of serial marriages.”

Since extra-marital sex is so strongly reproved, it leaves young people, the lion’s share of Muslim-majority societies, in a bind. As you can imagine, the high rate of unemployment and widespread poverty in many of these countries s create tough dilemmas for the youth, as is well documented in the sociological work by Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, Being Young and Muslim .

This is a good example of a cultural practice nicely suited for traditional societies (arranged marriages in a strong extended family context) that is then reinjected with new religious meaning into an entirely different context (contemporary urban society). The result is not a happy one:


“If marriage constitutes half of our religion, what does being a Muslim mean for an expanding population of the perpetually unmarried? And since any prolonged celibacy is equally prohibited, there is a strong tendency that millions will fall into deep states of depression and guilt, especially if they are unable to reconcile the tension of being a single Muslim in a family-oriented religion.”


Being a Muslim today

Remember the older cousin’s quip about being black and Muslims as two strikes against you? That certainly turned out to be true, particularly after 9/11. But this piece isn’t all about Islamophobia, though he touches on it near the end. Again, it’s complicated, like when his own mother told him out of the blue one day, “You Muslims kill.” She had read the Qur’an and books by Muslims, but she watched the daily news on TV and a good many evangelical programs as well. Here is part of his reaction to that statement:


“Still, my mother isn’t entirely wrong. Muslims do kill. Christians kill. Jews kill. Sikhs kill. Buddhists kill. Hindus kill. States kill. God kills. And people kill in the name of God. This is one of the most perplexing points about religious terrorism: How can otherwise pious people, bent on being good, cause so much suffering in the world? . . .

Muslims do indeed kill. And they also kill fellow Muslims, as four Muslim suicide bombers proved in a Muslim section of London in 2005. Grappling with these realities is part of what being a ‘Muslim’ has come to mean today. Furthermore, the deployment of the term as a political category impacts us all, forcing a realignment of how we must now navigate our surroundings.”


But just like western Europe grappled for two centuries with the “Jewish Question,” they are even more preoccupied with the “Muslim Question” today. On the other hand, when one considers the overwhelming impact of western colonialism in Muslim lands, "the line separating Muslims and the West is more imaginary than real."

This is where Abdullah’s own spiritual pilgrimage is so indicative of much larger currents and trends in the Muslim world over the past decades. Yes, Abdul Malik did offer him compelling reasons to become Muslim. But he also discovered Abul A‘la Maududi's book, Towards Understanding Islam. That’s when he truly decided to convert. Maududi was by far the most influential islamist writer and activist of the twentieth century. Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, might easily clinch that title, except that he didn’t write much. The South Asian Maududi, as Abdullah experienced, had a knack for writing clearly, persuasively, and with the black and white certainty of the fundamentalist.

Also crucial to his formative years as a Muslim, Abdullah sometimes frequented a Newark mosque that was run by another South Asian movement (this one from the 1920s), the Tablighi Jama‘at. Tablighi men traditionally dress in long white robes, baggy white trousers and white skullcaps. They usually go door to door seeking to win other Muslims over to their more conservative doctrine and way of life. But don’t confuse them with Salafis, whose robes come down midway between the knee and ankle. Sociologically, however, both groups nicely fit into what French scholar calls "neofundamentalism" (more on this in my blog on religious fundamentalism).

During those years Abdullah practiced a very conservative, regimented and communalist type of religiosity. As he puts it, free will was not part of his vocabulary or worldview at that time:


“Then, when I became Muslim in the late 1970s, everything came under the command of divine will (qadr), requiring that all human behavior begin and end with the phrases insha’Allah (If God wills it) and masha’Allah (God has willed it).”


Graduate studies changed that, and he’s been finding his way as a Muslim ever since. So read this piece for yourself. And if you are a person of faith yourself, I think you’ll be able to identify with much of what he says. One thing is for sure. Abdullah’s “search for meaning” is a rich and delightful introduction to what it means to be Muslim today.


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