“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.