As a Muslim, I am Exhausted…

“How should Muslims respond to the threat of extremism?”

This was the question posed in the New York Times‘ “Room for Debate” last week. The debaters included Muslim activists, journalists, and scholars who all had very perceptive things to say. But the overarching view seemed to be that the belligerence of a few “bad Muslims” can be countered by the morality of “good Muslims.”

It’s time we complicated this formula—or better, put it to rest. What we need is not Muslims who apologize or repeat the same platitudes that Islam is a religion of peace and that the Qur’an is no script for violence. It is far more urgent to see Muslims do other things besides talking about religion.

The Times debate was instigated by Ben Affleck’s brave standoff with Bill Maher and Sam Harris on HBO last week during which the Hollywood actor and director exposed the racist paranoia of a persistent chorus of Islamophobia that both Maher and Harris fully embrace (watch it here).

Islam bashing has indeed become so ridiculous that a group of Muslim Redditors recently retorted with a mocking campaign they called, “As a Muslim, I condemn Ebola.” But it’s not the Afflecks or the Mahers of the world we need to write about. I am far more concerned about how our creative energies are wasted reacting to this endless provocation. As a Muslim, I’m exhausted.

You may think that what plagues Muslims today is a rowdy minority of gung-ho militants in the desert of Iraq and Syria. I think our problem is more subtle than that. We have convinced ourselves, and others, that we live on a planet apart as perfect Muslims who speak exclusively as agents and caretakers of their faith. The spectrum of our visibility is narrow: we are either the fanatic bad Muslim or the sanitized “good” Muslim. You see us only around incendiary topics and we come in mostly to defend ourselves against a pre-scripted narrative of Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, sharia law versus democracy, and other binaries that only accentuate our difference.

And we happily indulge because any time on mainstream media is a premium. Our media presence feels more like a witness testimony in a trial for which the verdict has already been decided.

It’s time we complicated our stories and stepped out of this public relations function, which denies Muslims around the world the benefit of their lived experience and robs them of the joys and limits of their own history. We must chronicle the lives of Muslims beyond the exclusive lens of piety. There is more to us than just our faith, and not every stereotype that torments us today can simply be corrected by a celebration of the perfection of our sacred texts. The CAIR (Council of American Islamic Relations) representative or the Saudi mufti who denounce ISIS are doing important work, but it is naïve to believe that positive images of Islam alone can drown out the paranoia of Islamophobia, that the solution to all our problems lies only in the depths of our spirituality.

We need raunchier stories that reflect how complex our Muslim lives really are. Muslim lives are not stable, one-dimensional or perfectly harmonious. Like everyone else’s, Muslim identities are rich, dynamic, but also fragmented and fractured. Insisting we are above the fray of life because we live off the wisdom of our faith is pretentious and misleading. I do not wish to discount the importance of faith, but it’s the fact we project a closed certainty about the world I find utterly stifling. 9/11, and its political and cultural backlash, was a macabre trap to get us all to retrench into our myths of stable pasts and pure origins. We spend much of our time just condemning the despicable violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, as if this were our prime function in life.

Maybe we apologize too often because the perfection in our heads blinds us to the messiness of our lives and the challenges of our existence. Yes, our defensiveness is largely provoked by a rampant ignorance about Islam and Muslims, but it’s also partially determined by our stubborn propensity to conceal our imperfections, to dis-narrate our lived diversities and push back against the supposed perils of doubt and contamination of change.

Against the wisdom of our most enlightened forebears we have become afraid of art, literature, film, and music. We denounce everything or we call for its sanitization to follow a narrow path of fanatical morality. And the media love our censorious kind. They make us appear fixated on cleansing the world, as if we were a dying breed of puritans who leave their moral havens only to man the barricades of their faith. Is this really our only role? We should stop falling for this trap because the same media that parade the vigor of our faith will be first to condemn our anachronism and moral fragility.

A manicured image of Islam isn’t working because we have turned our desire for normalcy into a dogged campaign of hushing our diversity. Simply producing compensatory positive images of Islam and Muslims is akin to what British-Pakistani novelist Hanif Kureishi has described as “cheering fictions and useful lies.” His ethnic characters are realistically engaged in an anguished struggle for identity through rich plots of sexual and cultural politics. They are not perfect by any means and readers relate to them because of the honesty of their frailty. Many Muslims writers, filmmakers, musicians do this, but their work is often obscured by this orthodoxy of perfection and an intolerable public opinion which is largely uninterested in nuanced portraits of Muslim lives.

You see, the story of Muslims does not have to be always positive, culturally stable, collective, or politically correct. And Muslims themselves have to work harder at opening up the boundaries of the category ‘Muslim’ away from its ghettoized religious connotation and its basic premise that if ‘good’ Muslims can speak, things will be better.

“Free cultures get what they celebrate,” said the inventor Dean Kamen. Let our inventiveness not be tied up in a narrowly scripted game of reactive politics. Let us reward those of us who are not afraid to tell it as it is. We owe that to ourselves.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    There is a lot of pressure to see the Muslim side of the problem, and blind ourselves to the American side. There are Muslim fanatics in Iraq doing bad things. How did it get so bad? If we back up a bit we can see an American push in that direction.

    We responded to 9/11 and being attacked by a small number of Saudis by conquering Iraq, including Baghdad, possibly because Bush’s father didn’t take Baghdad when he could have. We were probably enticed by the undeveloped oil fields, and at the time trying to get control over them seemed like a good idea for world peace. We worked hard to confuse ourselves about what we were doing and why. The region was also a great test bed for the 21st century weapons we were developing like laser guided bombs, and then unmanned drones. We did take control of the country away from the Iraquis, and established a kind of American style system there. This was bound to turn some of our enemies into even deeper enemies. We thought as Americans people would love us, and when that didn’t happen to the degree we wanted, we did all we could to find out where the hangups were and kill them. This might not always be the best way to spread Democracy, but it is what we do, and global Democracy isn’t of much value anyway unless it helps our capitalist leaders get tighter controls over the world’s economy. This is really the only way we know, and if people want to fight us over it, we are more than happy to kill them from afar. Take that, heathen Muslims.

  •' Hijabi Monologues says:

    This speaks to your sentiments, Nabil:

  •' cranefly says:

    More people need to see this. It’s good.

  •' GregAbdul says:

    This is I think the best I have seen written by a Muslim since the Maher story broke and we all got slightly (or not slightly) obsessed. I keep sayin’: we are being denied our individual humanity. It is wrong to compare Egyptians to Americans when you talk about equality. America is a superpower in decline. Instead of bashing the third world, we need to get our Western act together. We need to quit resisting the idea of an every expanding franchise. Ten years ago, it was the gays who were threatening to break through and the issue was a winning wedge issue for the GOP. Now we have this intense debate about whether it’s okay to bash Muslims or not. Certainly freedom of speech gives the demagogues like Maher the right, but Brother Nabil you are dead on. I know I have been missing important things I need to personally do the last few days and these episodes are draining…and you get trolls and they are only interested in insulting responses. Thank you for helping me get back to my life. May Allah reward you.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Be careful. Being in decline makes us dangerous.

  •' John1966 says:

    If you want to fight “Islamophobia,” the first step would be to stop using that inapplicable, pejorative, propaganda word. The more you believe the nonsense that people are bigoted, the deeper into your tunnel-vision you recede. People aren’t making up reasons to disapprove of Islam, Islam has a very public history of violence. By denying Islam’s OBVIOUS negative track record, you have made a fool of yourself, and trapped yourself into childish belief that everyone ELSE is the problem. You need to be honest about the magnitude of the risk of futility, folly, and falsehood you are taking in believing that Islam is legitimate or redeemable.

  •' AYR Ramadan says:

    Excellent piece. However the equally important question is how should Muslims respond to oppression,persecution and injustice? To say that extremists are Not inspired by the correct interpretation and understanding of the Quran and life example of PM(saws) is true. However many are being motivated by what they Perceive as their Quranic obligation to “stand up for justice”. Their methods and tactics must be condemned but what do we offer them as viable alternatives? What’s lost when we condemn the indefensible HAMAS actions of for example, is a context for what is driving them. Hence we have the likes of a Sean Hannity et al attempting to conflate HAMAS,ISIS,Boko Haram and Al Qaeda into one indistinguishable blob of “Islamic terrorists” or members of “radical Islam”. What are acceptable Islamic methods of resistance to illegal and immoral “occupation” as say in Iraq or extra-legal drone attacks in
    Pakistan,Somalia and Yemen that have killed innocent people? President George W. Bush himself admitted that “no one likes to be occupied by a foreign nation”. What about the continued unjustifiable and cowardly imprisonment of scores of admittedly innocent Muslims in Guantanamo? The discussion has to be broadened beyond condemning one side,the Muslims, for wrong doing while excusing American and Israeli transgressions and Yes war crimes. Where are the calls for Jewish and Christian religious leaders and regular citizens to condemn endless war and militarism as instruments of foreign policy?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    At least that is our American perspective. We tend to see ourselves as the saviours of the world, and it is hard for us to see the problems we cause along the way.

  •' Maya Bohnhoff says:

    John, there is unfortunately such a thing as Islamophobia. There are bigots who are prejudiced against any and all Muslims and Islam as a faith because of groups like ISIS and because of the persistent, misperceptions of Islam, which has no more negative a track record than Christianity and whose well-documented principles of warfare (per the Qur’an) are far less barbaric than those of Christian forces such as the ones that flooded the Americas on the heels of their “discovery” by Europeans.

    Muhammad’s basic guideline for war was to fight until the enemy ceases its aggression, then stop and establish peaceful, even friendly relations. The fight was to be against oppression of the Muslim community, not against anyone not Muslim. Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an would reveal that ISIS and other extremist groups are more than simply extreme—they are acting in contradiction to the dictates of their own scripture and the Sunnah—the way of the Prophet.

    Your comparison to Nazi-ism is apples and radishes. No one here is defending ISIS (Nazis) in defending the majority of Muslims (Germans). In your analogy, the person would not be trying to defend Nazi-ism but to make the point that being German is not equivalent to being a Nazi.

    Most of the Qur’an is not about fighting wars. It’s about how Muslims conduct their lives in relation to others of all faiths and no faith. To act without kindness, Muhammad says, is to belie religion. He also taught that Muslims should never be the aggressors in a fight. It’s not up to Nabil or anyone else to “give” you reasons to feel differently about Islam. It’s up to you to educate yourself so that you don’t continue to spread hatred of something you apparently lack knowledge of.

    Read the Qur’an, for a start. Not just the bits about how to conduct warfare. All of it. I recommend the Pickthall version because it contains historical notes that help the reader understand what the world Islam arose in was like.

  •' Penny Davis says:

    This book was a nice surprise for me: “How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position” by Tabish Khair

  •' fiona64 says:

    Congratulations, John. You’re part of the problem.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    I am certainly tired of these rationalizations. The empirical evidence is pretty stark. I certainly am not going to move to any country where “Islamic values” are the norm. Based upon half the stuff that comes out of my mouth on any given day I’d be arrested (or worse). It could be even worse, if I happened to be born with female genitalia or a homosexual. Certainly all a result of “imperialism”. So much for liberals sticking up for liberal values.

    Even Indonesia, held up as a shining example of a more liberal Muslim country, has recently allowed certain regions to sentence 100 lashes for being a homosexual and let’s not forget the atheist that was arrested for a Facebook comment deemed inappropriate by his peers. How is this allowed to happen is the vast majority of Muslims gasp in horror at such un-enlightened acts? It must be imperialism.

    And yes, the United states recently viewed homosexuality poorly and it was a crime in many places – but this isn’t a positive argument for Islam.

    Lastly, lots of very serious and snarky critiques of Christianity occur on this website (many by me) for much less serious offenses, like not allowing women to have birth control covered in their health insurance plans. But somehow, Islam gets a pass – can we imagine if that was the most serious issue in Islam today? Imagine the Book of Mormon on Broadway, except about Islam? What would the reaction be, how much support would there be from the moderates?

    Sam Harris is correct to voice his concerns about the base tenets of Islam (and any other religion), ideas inform actions.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We have long been abusing the region for greedy purposes. Iran elected a democratic government, but under them Iran was in the process of taking control of Iranian oil fields. We stopped that through a CIA coup led by one of the Roosevelts and toppled their democracy, and installed our puppet government that would be favorable to western oil interests. The situation decayed and we now look at Iran as our mortal enemy. More recently, Iraq was trying to mind its own business and wanted no part of any conflict with us, and in fact was an enemy of Al Queda who attacked us. We know what happened next. We manipulated them and the world and got the war our war president wanted, and we had a popular deck of cards for killing their top 52 people. We regard them as backwards people who won’t notice what we are doing, but we tend to underestimate them. The more we mistreat them and treat them like dogs, the more vicious some of them become. We should be thankful for the many of them who resist the temptations to lower themselves to our level.

  •' Cal Kris says:

    lives are “not stable” nor “perfectly harmonious”? Who knew? “Maybe
    we [Muslims] apologize too often”. I must have missed all that public

  •' Jekyll says:

    Bet you caught the Jews apologizing for gaza massacres.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Not sure what this has to do with the issues I raised.

    And I agree, lots of countries including the US have been abusing the Middle East.

  •' phatkhat says:


  •' phatkhat says:

    Wow. If you think that Muslims have never made any constructive contributions to civilization, you know very little history. If it were not for the Arabs, we’d still be using Roman numerals, and we’d have no algebra, for only one example.

    Whatever you say about Islam can be said about Christianity – or any other religion. The vast majority of adherents are good people who just want to live their lives and go on about their business. It’s the fundamentalist whackos that spoil it all. And if you think that Christian fundamentalist zealots don’t have a violent streak as well, you are sadly mistaken. It’s just that they prefer guns over swords.

  •' phatkhat says:

    Your comparison to Nazi-ism is apples and radishes. No one here is
    defending ISIS (Nazis) in defending the majority of Muslims (Germans).
    In your analogy, the person would not be trying to defend Nazi-ism but
    to make the point that being German is not equivalent to being a Nazi.

    That deserves to be repeated.

  •' phatkhat says:

    Well, they aren’t doing it on Fox. Maybe you should expose yourself to other sources.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think we should concentrate more on our own problems. The best thing we could do would be to deal with what we did when we started the Iraq war after 9/11.

    If Christianity began as a way to abuse the world, and control people, then Islam was a necessary reaction to that. If we weren’t centered on our own greed, Islam wouldn’t have to be centered on fighting against us. I guess this is a hard concept for people to get because they see things from their own point of view. They blame the other side, and things degrade from there.

  •' Mark Woods says:

    Maya – you said: “The fight was to be against oppression of the Muslim community, not against anyone not Muslim.” That, of course, is not borne out in history. The Muslim wave that Muhammad inspired and motivated that swept across North Africa from 700 – 1000, and into Europe right up until the 1400s, was simply because they could – so they did – aggrandize property, people and wealth unto themselves, and killed any and all who got in their way. “Convert or be killed.” Sounds like a religion of peace to me, all right.

  •' khughes1963 says:

    We would also not have some of the classics of Greek literature and philosophy, either.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    So – not to drag this conversation on any father (which is exactly what I am doing). This double standard that allows a full and open critique of Christinity, while imposing a self-imposed silence on Islam – is kind of a soft bigotry. Read this recent post from a a Brtish ex-Muslim group. I think it sums it up very well. Though you might find it interesting.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    This is a Christian nation. Islam is not our problem. Christianity is. I was raised a Christian, so that is what I question. Let Muslim countries question their own religion. The best we could do would be to show them how by criticizing our own religion.

  •' timberwraith says:

    It isn’t often that you and I agree, but I have to say that what you’ve written in this thread is right on the money. Thank you, Jim.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Whatever we disagreed on must have been a minor issue.

  •' timberwraith says:

    Far more minor than our agreement on this topic, I’d say. A lot of lives hang in the balance in relation to the West’s deepening fear of Muslims and people living in the Middle East (and the fact that they have the great misfortune of living on top of “our” oil).

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