Canadian Muslims should accept full political responsibility as citizens: loyalty to their country, critical of its policies

Just as I was about to write a follow-up to an earlier article on the anti-terrorism handbook published jointly by two Canadian Muslim organizations and the RCMP, a recent convert to Islam killed a member of the Canadian Armed Forces in Québec and, one day later, a shooter apparently self-identified as a Muslim attacked Canada’s House of Parliament in Ottawa. Muslim organizations were quick to denounce the attacks in the strongest terms.

Such disclaimers, while undoubtedly sincere, are no longer adequate to the security-obsessed political atmosphere that has been created in Canada. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada is once again a belligerent in a Middle-East war. Its avowed enemy (though it may have other adversaries it prefers not to identify) is the hyper-Islamist faction ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or Da’ish, its Arabic acronym. This organization, if we are to believe media accounts, clearly intends to carry the war to the enemy, wherever he might be. Including Ottawa, we may presume.

Muslims in Canada, who have lately been going to extraordinary lengths to dissociate themselves from what has been correctly labeled as an “ideology of violence”, may soon run out of workable options. The unanimous declarations of Canadian imams condemning Da’ish and its works as un-Islamic do not appear to be having any effect on either the Harper government’s determination to bomb far-away Muslim countries as part of yet another colonial-imperialist coalition, or on the hot-headed, single-minded and often deeply troubled young men prepared to act on the call of the group’s leaders to strike their foes wherever they find them.

Put bluntly, Canada’s Muslims are caught in a bind. Trapped between the shrill propaganda of the Harper government and its policy of punitive expeditions on the one hand, and the equally shrill call for jihad, seen as sanctified combat against the enemies of Islam on the other, what plea for moderation can prevail? In fact, the extreme nature of both positions ensures that extremism will prevail. Would Stephen Harper soon channel Pierre-Elliot (“Just watch me”) Trudeau of War Measures Act fame?

We need not have held our collective breath. Prime Minister Harper announced the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu attack in the House of Commons in response to a set-up question from an obscure backbencher. He then introduced legislation to strengthen Canada’s security services. These services—the RCMP and CSIS—already notorious for their disregard for, and hostility to, civil liberties, will gain draconian new powers to monitor, detain and arrest on suspicion or “reasonable assumption.”

What should Canada’s growing Muslim population do now? Public statements by individuals and organizations, while properly expressing abhorrence of crimes committed in the name of Islam, should be expanded to describe the current political context that the Harper government (and its arch-secularist Islamophobe allies in and around the Parti Québécois) has shaped. Muslim grass-roots organizations, while declaring their abhorrence of the crimes committed in the name of their religion, should be equally firm in demonstrating their loathing for the atrocities (known as “collateral damage”) committed by their government—and the coalition of which it is a member—in their name. Canada, they might well point out, has no United Nations mandate to bomb Syrian or Iraqi territory in whatever capacity. The country to which they as citizens owe allegiance is thus a party to aggression as defined by the UN Charter.

Citizen-based organizations and anti-war movements in Québec and the rest of Canada have already taken to the streets to protest Ottawa’s policy. Muslims should join such demonstrations and make their voices heard. They cannot afford to surrender their rights as citizens. Their determination to speak out against Canada’s policy of militarism should be as bold and forthright as their condemnation of the violent acts perpetrated in the name of their religion.

No more than they should accept collective responsibility for the acts of a handful of fools, petty criminals or, at best, misled young men.  Muslims in Canada cannot abdicate their duty as citizens to call their government to account for shaping the international climate that has fostered the rise of groups like Da’ish. Indeed, the finger of accusation should be pointed straight at Ottawa for its unconditional defense and support of Zionist crimes in Palestine and, by extension, for the oppressive and unjust status quo that prevails throughout the Middle East and stokes the fires of sectarian strife.

While it is a crime for Canadians to travel abroad to join the ranks of Da’ish, the Israel-based Lone Soldier Program benefits from tax-deductible status through the Ne’eman Foundation in Toronto. This program recruits mercenaries to serve—and fight–in the Israeli army against its Palestinian “enemies.”

None of these measures, however, should allow Muslims in Canada to avoid some communal soul searching. While they can and must reject collective guilt, they cannot remain indifferent to the exclusionist language that has, over the years, become accepted as religious discourse in mosques and, worse, in informal discussion groups and on the internet. The issue is less one of financial support of institutions by Middle Eastern sponsors of violence and obscurantism, and more that of legitimizing a retrograde political ideology—Wahhabi Salafism—that masquerades as religion. Curiously, while Da’ish has been identified as the enemy of the day, the sources of its political/religious program do not appear to bother either Washington or Ottawa, both of which maintain excellent relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its principal state purveyor.

Canadian political leaders, and their security services, enjoy instructing Muslims in the steps they must take to head off religiously inspired violence. They should be politely requested to keep their advice to themselves and go about their information gathering without the willing cooperation of Canadian Muslims. If state surveillance and monitoring tools and skills are as well developed and extensive as Edward Snowdon’s revelations show, does the political police really need help from us?

Ultimately the task of Muslims in Canada should be to deconstruct the pseudo-religions ideology that has enabled extremism to carve out a niche in their midst. Only Canada’s Muslims themselves can do the job. At the same time they should accept full political responsibility as citizens: loyalty to their country, critical of its policies. Especially when those policies perpetuate the climate of sectarian violence now wracking the Middle East.

Muslim Presence Canada extends its heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who were killed while on duty.

Our thoughts also are with the other victims injured in last week’s tragic events. We wish them a swift and full recovery.

In reaction to the attacks, the Harper government is now wanting to toughen the country’s anti-terror laws, including a measure that would allow “preventative detention”.  

Let us beware of the roads we take in the name of security.

We believe, given the attitude of the Harper government, that such measures are likely to stigmatize communities, erode civil liberties, institutionalize discrimination and create a serious breech in basic human rights protection.

The sad reality is that today there is a general lack of knowledge of Muslims and of their religion, and a resulting tendency to accept simplistic and absolute caricatures.

Canadian Muslims, for their part, have at times been slow to participate fully in and to understand Canadian society.

We call upon our fellow Canadian citizens to exercise their obligation of critical vigilance and to oppose all discriminatory security policies.

We call upon all Muslims to discharge their duties as citizens and residents to the fullest and to participate fully in every aspect of Canadian social and political life.

We are determined to work together to find a better way to address security concerns in a manner which is in keeping with the Canadian values we all share and are committed to defending.


Would it not be more useful in understanding the actions of a small number of young men to place those actions in context? It can be objectively argued that Canada (and the “West” in general) is pursuing what can be interpreted as a campaign of violent intervention in Muslim-majority countries

It is impossible not to be touched by NCCM Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee’s cry of anguish following news of the death of another Canadian in a suicide attack in Iraq (June 4, 2014).
Links provided by the NCCM statement give access to the stories of several young Canadian Muslims who have died in similar circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Russia. But the NCCM’s call to Canadian Muslims to combat the message of violent extremists raises more questions than it answers.

Would it not be more useful in understanding the actions of a small number of young men to place those actions in context? It can be objectively argued that Canada (and the “West” in general) is pursuing what can be interpreted as a campaign of violent intervention in Muslim-majority countries, either directly as in Canada’s “mission” in Afghanistan, or indirectly, through the Canadian government’s unconditional support of Israel, its endorsement of the military coup in Egypt that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi, or its inclusion of the Palestinian organization Hamas on the list of “terrorist entities” following the latter’s electoral victory in internationally-monitored elections.

The crushing of the Spanish Republic in the late 1930′s by the forces of General Franco provided motivation for many young Canadians to travel illegally to Spain and take up arms against fascism in that country.
Though these young men (and women) fought and died in battle, and suicide bombings and killing of non-combattants were foreign to their experience, their motivations may well have been similar: powerfully emotional, and driven by the personal and ideological imperative to “do something” meaningful with their lives.

The NCCM statement indirectly raises the question of the role and responsibility of the Canadian security services. It is well-known that there are informants in every mosque. What precisely the function of such informants is remains open to question. Is it possible that, like the FBI in the United States, the security services may be aiding and abetting young men who feel impelled to translate their understanding of religion into violent immediate action, both at home and abroad?

Do the Canadian government and the Canadian security services consider those who fight the Syrian government with gun in hand, and carry out suicide operations in Syria, to be “terrorists”, given Ottawa’s declared opposition to the current Damascus government? Or, like the United States and other NATO countries, has Canada countenanced the ideological indoctrination, travel and military involvement of young Canadian Muslims abroad? Likewise, given their penetration of Canada’s mosque infrastructure, are the security services totally unaware of the vectors of radicalization and unable to take action against them? Given the history of the RCMP, particularly in Québec before, during and after the October Crisis of 1970, it would not be surprising to learn that the security services may be more than idle onlookers and may actually function as provocateurs.

Are young male converts to Islam particularly susceptible to indoctrination by promoters of violence in the name of “Islam”? While no clear pattern seems to emerge, it does appear that a certain kind of susceptibility may predispose young men to accept the apparent certainties offered by “Islam”, by means of which they can then suppress their conscience and renounce responsibility for their acts.

These acts are presented to them by their shadowy handlers as submission to “God” and their violent death, as it brings death to other innocent people, will be praised and justified as pleasing to “Him.” Worse, many of the violent acts catalogued have been inflicted upon other Muslims, whose only “offense” consisted of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or belonging to the “wrong” confession and thus outside of Islam.

What is the connection between the radicalization process and the message of preachers of violence widely available on internet? What is the doctrinal space created for such individuals within the fold of self-styled “orthodox Islam”, with its insistance on viewing Islam and Muslims as overpoweringly positive and all other belief systems as irredeemably negative; on its self-assigned monopoly of Truth, which disqualifies the experiences, aspirations and beliefs of others? What, finally, are the mechanisms that have allowed this version of “Islam” to become the dominant discourse in Canadian mosques?

Abhorrent ideology and heinous acts, indeed! But neither has arisen in a vacuum. They have emerged within the broad context of a hyper-conservative, litteralist interpretation of Islam that has, in our day, transformed the dispensation of Mohammed (PBUH) into the “laughingstock of nations.”

Is it too late? How can Canadian Muslims rid their mosques of the culture of blind acceptance and binary reasoning that create such fertile ground for that ideology and those acts?

Insha’Allah the NCCM will launch a broad debate on this very question soon.


“There needs to be pushback. Those who believe in the human dignity of men and women must speak forcefully against such dehumanizing cultural practices. There is ample precedent within Islamic teachings to advocate an alternative approach in which both genders are partners in building vibrant families, communities, and societies”


Leave it to the good people at The Western Muslim Initiative, a Calgary-based online magazine, to provide insightful analysis of Western Muslim culture, with a healthy dose of biting humour.

Take, for example, Spam Imam, an advice column dispensed by a fictitious imam.

In one recent exchange, a concerned wife expresses her doubts about her husband’s sexual orientation: She found him staring surreptitiously at online pictures of Johnny Depp; he once called her “Jim” (her name is “Aisha”); and her foundation has gone missing.

The good imam counsels her to adopt the Islamic adage of finding plausible excuses for such behaviour, rather than finding blame: Her husband’s behaviour may simply reflect a platonic admiration for men he is trying to emulate in order to be attractive to his wife. Besides, advises the imam, foundation makes for good sealant for plumbing repairs performed by her faultless husband.

Apparently, cutting slack does not apply to the hapless “Aisha.” Spam Imam tells her to look in the mirror and see where she failed “as a wife and a woman.” Perhaps she has grown fat over the years. Or she has a successful career, and has thus challenged her husband’s masculinity. He counsels her to quit her job and concentrate on enhancing her “womanly charms” through a strict regimen of diet and exercise. She should also dress like a “harlot” at home. After all, Spam Imam concludes, a woman’s sole function in life is to take care of all of her husband’s needs.

Many within the community find such commentary uncomfortable, as it reinforces the unflattering stereotype of a misogynistic imam. However, this misses the point of a larger truth: namely, that disturbing attitudes toward women are alive and well within Muslim communities. A casual reader could be forgiven for failing to see the humour of Spam Imam, especially in light of recent real-life pronouncements in relation to violence against women. Truth is not only stranger, but harsher, than fiction.

In May, conservative Afghan legislators successfully blocked laws aimed at protecting women from violence, child marriage and becoming the objects of bartering. Some even argued that these laws were “against sharia,” and would lead to social chaos. What did these parliamentarians find so objectionable? For one: the criminalization of domestic violence. Conservative lawmaker Mandavi Abdul Rahmani was unequivocal in his belief that the Koran allows a man to beat a “disobedient” wife, as long as “she was not permanently harmed.” Another object of ire: protection of victims of rape from the charge of adultery. According to Mr. Abdul Rahmani: “Adultery itself is a crime in Islam, whether it is by force or not,” reflecting the Afghan custom of prosecuting raped women for adultery. The alleged fear is that such laws would encourage women and girls to leave their homes. Nonsense. The real fear is losing control and power over their lives.

A similar sentiment was displayed in March, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood issued a list of objections to a proposed United Nations declaration to condemn violence against women, including opposition to criminalizing marital rape and viewing marriage as a partnership between husband and wife with “full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as spending, child care and home chores.” Instead, the Brotherhood believes the husband should be the “guardian” of his wife.

According to The New York Times, Brotherhood “family expert” Osama Yehia Abu Salama advised female marriage counsellors: “A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house.” If she is beaten by her husband, she shares the blame. And women are like children: They simply can’t be trusted to handle freedom, according to Mr. Abu Salama. Such views are also held by a subset of conservative women.

And one can readily find imams from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India and Pakistan who preach domestic violence as a means of control – whether at the pulpit or on satellite TV shows.

There needs to be pushback. Those who believe in the human dignity of men and women must speak forcefully against such dehumanizing cultural practices. There is ample precedent within Islamic teachings to advocate an alternative approach in which both genders are partners in building vibrant families, communities, and societies. Thankfully, there are community workers and imams, here in the West, who are paving an indigenous form of the faith that incorporates gender equality. We still have a long way to go.

*Originally published in the Globe and Mail on July 2, 2013. Posted on this site with permission from the author


This wave sweeping across the region, which is indeed a historical turning point, is essentially about restoring dignity to people – a dignity that Allah has conferred on each human being


According to the Qur’an, human beings are created with a natural and innate disposition (fitra) that leads us to recognize the Divine:

“[Adhere to] the nature (fitra) of Allah upon which He has created [all] people.” (Qur’an, Surah 30:30); “He (God) has inspired in [human beings] the good or evil [nature] of an act, whosoever has purified it (soul) has succeeded, one who corrupts it has surely failed.” (Qur’an, Surah, 91:8-10).

This innate disposition is engraved in the human conscience and leads humans to question their actions and the imbalances in society.

Today, we reflect on these verses of the Qur’an as we try to understand and draw lessons from the growing discontent being expressed through mass street protests and the occupy movements in cities around the world.

People in many countries are expressing their frustrations with the system they live under by going out onto the streets and into the public squares.

They are fed up and won’t take it any more – they are fed up with being suppressed; they are fed up with being oppressed; and they are fed up with being treated unjustly.

In the second decade of the 21st century, and in this year of 2011, we are observing a shift around the world.

These street protests are leading to unprecedented and rapid changes in many countries.

In the past year, governments have fallen in North Africa and the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring demonstrations.

In the last few months, protests have sprung up in Europe and North America to push back against austerity measures being imposed by international financial bodies.

Greater equity is being demanded. But we also sense a search for meaning.

The Arab Spring uprisings were sparked by a young 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia who took desperate action by pouring gasoline on himself, then lit himself thereby consuming his body.

The desperate action of this young man, Mohammad Bouazizi, ignited a revolution in Tunisia.

Less than a month later, the dictatorship which ruled Tunisia came to an end.

This led to Tahrir Square in Egypt and fall of another dictator; to the Libyan uprising and the fall of the government; to continuing struggles in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and around the region.

Many analysts and commentators have said that these uprisings are about people seeking democracy and aspiring for freedom.

But the word that is frequently mentioned is “dignity”

This wave sweeping across the region, which is indeed a historical turning point, is essentially about restoring dignity to people – a dignity that Allah has conferred on each human being:  “Indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam” (Qur’an, Surah 17:70).

For decades, the dignity of people in these lands have been trampled and suppressed by tyrants. What the people in the region are asking for is a restoration of their human dignity.

These uprisings reminded us that when people stand together for common universal values – change happens.

Beyond commenting and analyzing the events that have captivated the world, we must look for lessons we can derive from these historic moments.

We have learnt that courage and non-violent resistance trumps tyranny. Once fear of the tyrant is removed from the hearts of the people, the game is up.

We have learnt that when people mobilize for something noble; to speak truth to power; to fight to restore their human dignity, exceptional things can happen.

Now we are witnessing mass street movements around the world.

Protestors are expressing frustration with, what they say, is an unjust system, one in which 1% take the greatest share of the pie and 99% pick up the crumbs.

Governments are baffled as to what exactly the protestors want: what are their demands? what are the list of things they want?; what do they stand for?. The protestors are described as “fuzzy and unfocused” and “their antics are infuriating people.”

However, the Occupy movement counter that they are anything but fuzzy.

Susan Ursel, the lawyer representing the Occupy Toronto, said that the protestors are “hope made visible” and are engaged in an “exercise of conscience.”

Occupy Wall Street issued a statement this week after being evicted from the New York park stating their movement is a struggle for justice and equity: “We are engaged in a battle over ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people — all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power.”

What the protestors are questioning is the system that has reached its limits.

Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist, calls what we are witnessing the Great Disruption and he is the author of a book by the same name.

He argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits: “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation — I see our system in the painful process of breaking down.”

Canadian icon, David Suzuki, bluntly describes how the world is in the state it finds itself in today:  “My generation and the boomers who followed have lived like reckless royalty and thoughtlessly partied like there’s no tomorrow. We forgot the lessons taught to us by our parents and grandparents who came through the Great Depression: live within your means and save some for tomorrow; satisfy your needs and not your wants; help your neighbors; share and don’t be greedy; money doesn’t make you a better or more important person. Well, the party’s over. It’s time to clean up our mess and think about our children and grandchildren.”

These mass street demonstrations and occupy movements have exposed, not just the corrupt dictators in the Middle East and the obscenely rich on Wall street, but almost every other player who are stuck in the past.  It has also exposed the lack of moral leadership of the religious establishments whether they are the churches, temples or mosques.

These mass movements are asking tough moral questions.

While the Arab spring is a reminder about the importance of dignity and the aspiration for freedom by human beings, the Occupy movements are a wakeup call about the important moral virtues of justice and equity.

When justice is on the table we must take heed because justice is one of the edifices of this religion:  “God commands justice and fair dealing…” (Quran, Surah 6:90); “…Be just, for it is closest to God-consciousness…” (Quran, Surah 5:8); “Believers!  Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…” (Quran, Surah 4:135).

Muslims cannot ignore the voices of people who are calling for a new social contract that is more just.

This is made clear by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) who once said to his companion, Mu’adh Ibn Jabal: ‘Beware of the supplication of the unjustly treated, because there is no shelter or veil between it (the supplication of the one who is suffering injustice) and Allah’ [Hadith, Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim].


When imbalance in society takes hold, the conscience of people causes them to rebel, to say ‘enough is enough.’

The street protests and Occupy movements are asking us to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

Equality and justice must be pursued in a totally new way — this obsession that we have today with endless wealth creation must be stopped.

The justice that we should be talking about is not a competition to redistribute wealth between the 1% and the 99%, to see who gets more stuff.; This type competition is detrimental to our humanity: “The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things), Until you visit the graves.” (Qur’an, Surah 102:1-2).

As people of Faith, we must bring to the table a discussion of justice that seeks to restore balance by offering insights into the effects of an unbridled obsession to get more material possessions.

We must promote a return to the simple lifestyle that the Prophets of God were sent to teach us – one that teaches us that having more does not make us happier and that dignity is not to be found in rampant consumerism.

We are required, as believers in Allah, to reject lifestyles that destroy ourselves and the planet.

We must ask ourselves, and these events around the world, should be asking us to interrogate ourselves. Are our current ways of living distracting us, destroying us and the planet?: “Believers! Do not let your wealth and children distract you from the remembrance of Allah. Those who do so are losers.” (Qur’an, Surah 63:9).

We have reached the breaking point.

The masses have had enough.

The environment has had enough.

The future of our societies is now being played out on the streets.

People are asking for a better world, for a cleaner world – a world that is just and equitable and one that honors the dignity of people.


We ask forgiveness of Allah for every stumbling on our part, and for every slip and error.

We ask His forgiveness for those of our words which have not been matched by our deeds.

We ask His forgiveness for every covenant we made within ourselves but which we then fell short of fulfilling.

We ask His forgiveness for every blessing which He bestowed upon us but which we employed in disobedience to Him.

And after having asked for His pardon for all these things, we ask that He should honour us with His forgiveness and mercy, and overlook the entirety of our sins, both evident and concealed.

O Allah Forgive us, have Mercy on us, guide us, support us, protect us, provide for us and elevate us

O Allah remove from those who are sick their difficulty and cure them, You are the only One who cures.

O Allah, forgive and have mercy of those who have passed away and elevate their status in the Hereafter.

Our Lord, accept our repentance, cleanse us of our misdeeds,  answer our prayers, substantiate our pleas, guide our hearts, straighten our tongues and banish all ill-will from our breasts.

*Sermon delivered by Muneeb Nasir at Hart House Debates Room, University of Toronto, November 18 2011


SUZUKI, David (2011). Occupy Movement Demands Fresh Thinking — For Our Grandchildren. Retrieved November 12, 2011 from

GILDING, Paul. The Great Disruption. Bloomsbury US, 2011.

DOBBIN, Murray (2011). A progressive dialogue: Occupy — What can it teach the left? Retrieved November 12, 2011 from

Supplications adapted from a dua that Imam Al Ghazali wrote at the end of one of his volumes of Ihya Ulum Ad Din.

Source: IQRA (

“American society, including Muslims, faces a choice: It can be driven by mistrust, fundamentalism and populism, or it can rely on constructive religious and civic organizations working for a better common future. The Muslim struggle for respect, justice and understanding has just started in the United States, and Muslims won’t win it on their own”


Just a short time ago, Europe seemed to be the part of the West where fears of Islam were most evident, with its bitter controversies over headscarf bans or the construction of mosques in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Yet in recent weeks, America’s relationship with Islam appears to have changed. The battle over a planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York and the proposed burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor have revealed similar worries, and journalists and intellectuals (including, ironically, European ones) have been quick to describe the rise of Islamophobia in America.

Polls show that nearly half of Americans have unfavorable views of Islam, and the fear of this faith in America is undeniable. But is it as simple as xenophobia and racism? I do not believe so. Natural and understandable concerns can be transformed into active rejection and open racism when political discourse and media coverage fan the flames for ideological, religious or economic interests. That is what is happening in America today.

The great majority of Americans do not know much about Islam but nonetheless fear it as violent, expansionist and alien to their society. The problem to overcome is not hatred, but ignorance. The challenge for Muslims in America is to respect the fears of ordinary people while resisting the exploitation of those fears by political parties, lobbies and sectors of the media. To meet this challenge, Muslims must reassess their own involvement, behavior and contributions in American society.

Negative perceptions of Islam are hardly new in the West — they date back to the medieval age, not to Sept. 11, 2001. In the late 20th century, they were overtly revealed through crises such as the Iranian revolution and the Salman Rushdie affair, which suggested that Islam threatened Western security interests as well as core values such as freedom of expression. More recently, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (as well as in Bali, Madrid and London) as well as the Danish cartoon fiasco only appeared to confirm to many in the West that Islam is an enemy, forever estranged from them. The wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict feed the same fears.

New domestic realities in Europe and America also deepen these negative feelings. The increased visibility of Muslims — through clothes, mosques, even skin color — shows that Western societies are changing, and such change is often frightening. Homogeneous identities, whether real or imagined, are becoming blurred as Americans and Europeans wonder about the future of their nations and cultures.

The Muslim presence is also often conflated with larger debates over immigration. The United States’ future is bleak without immigrants to help sustain the economy, but there is a deep cultural and psychological resistance to this inescapable reality. This affects not only Latinos, but also Muslims who already are and will increasingly become part of American society.

If we add to these factors the general instability associated with war and with the economic downturn, we get a picture of an identity crisis of sorts in America, and of how a nation of immigrants founded on freedom of expression and religion can now be torn by doubt, mistrust and fear. Little wonder that the presence of Muslims is generating alarm and almost outright rejection.

American Muslims must understand the sources of this fear and must behave accordingly. Whatever the tainted atmosphere today, the United States is not inherently anti-Islam in a religious sense or anti-Muslim in a racial sense. It is time for Muslims not to be on the defensive, to stop apologizing for being Muslims and to be more assertive about their values, duties, rights and contributions to the society in which they live. This is not a time for intellectual, social, political, economic or cultural isolation.

The new Muslim Americans (mainly coming from the Middle East or Asia) should learn more from the historical experience of African Americans, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Once enslaved and denigrated in the United States, they are now involved in all the mainstream American debates and activities, whether education, justice, politics, culture, arts or sports. Their struggle is far from over, but they show the way forward for American Muslims. With more active involvement, Muslims can get a deeper sense of what it means to be American, to feel more confident, to communicate and interact with their fellow citizens. Life is not only about rights to be claimed but also about collective sensibilities to be felt. It is possible to protect one’s rights while at the same time acknowledging and understanding the concerns of others.

This leads us into the major debate of the moment for Islam in America. No doubt, it is the legitimate right of Muslims to build a community center near Ground Zero. Yet, I believe it is not a wise decision, considering the collective sensitivities in American society. This is a moment to go beyond rights and reach for the common good: To build it elsewhere, if possible, would be a sensible and symbolic move. Doing so does not mean we must accept the false premise that Islam is responsible for 9/11, and it does not mean sacrificing one’s rights to the populist, neoconservative and religious fundamentalist voices that seek to transform the issue into a new clash of civilizations.

All Americans — be they Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics — who are determined to promote a just and pluralistic society should resist today’s irrational fears. And as I watch not only the battle in New York but also the reaction to the Rev. Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Koran in Florida on the Sept. 11 anniversary, I feel optimistic. We have seen Jewish and Christian representatives, as well as intellectuals and artists from across the political and religious spectrum, express support for the Islamic center because it would help bridge religions and citizens. These voices, in their diversity, represent both an evolution and an affirmation of America, and they must be heard and valued. The overwhelming condemnation of “Burn a Koran Day” might have been motivated partly by its potential consequences for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (as Gen. David Petraeus warned about), but it is clear that many Americans think such a disrespectful act would cross an unacceptable line. Once again, we heard a diversity of voices calling for respect and dignity.

American society, including Muslims, faces a choice: It can be driven by mistrust, fundamentalism and populism, or it can rely on constructive religious and civic organizations working for a better common future. The Muslim struggle for respect, justice and understanding has just started in the United States, and Muslims won’t win it on their own. Fortunately, the country is full of formal and informal alliances of people of good will promoting pluralism and ready to support them. This work is not easy, and it will take much time, determination and courage. But whatever controversies may rage in New York, Florida or elsewhere, we should trust the enduring, positive forces at work in American society.

Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, is the author of “The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.”

Artwork: Title-American Dream: Bleach and dye on Vintage American Flag, circa 1950. 84 x 145 cm. This is from a series of work based around fear & the American dream

“Intellectuals, the general public, and journalists often find themselves pressed for time. Yet time, further study, greater effort, and intellectual humility are what are needed to understand the reality of Islam and of Muslims today”


Never before have Islam and the Muslims been held up to such relentless scrutiny. Never before have journalists devoted so many articles, interviews and analyses to the “Muslim world” or to “Muslims in the West.” And yet never has knowledge of Islam, of Muslims, and of their geographical, political and geostrategic circumstances been so superficial, partial and frequently confused—not only among the general public, but also among journalists and even in academic circles.

When confusion is widespread, the dominant note is suspicion.

Terms of reference are rarely defined, nuances barely acknowledged, areas of research sketched out in the most desultory fashion. Far too often journalists or public intellectuals present their findings in research projects, articles, television or radio broadcasts with the assertion that they have taken pains to distinguish between radicals and conservatives or average Muslims. But when we examine their offerings more closely, we note a striking lack of clarity and an atmosphere of incomprehension that can only generate suspicion and fear.

Let us begin with a simple proposition: The world of Islam is as complex as those of Buddhism, Judaism or Christianity, in terms of its intellectual, spiritual and religious currents. Conversely, we must not begin by classifying Muslims according to the schemas inherited from the colonial era, dividing them into “good” and “bad” Muslims, into “moderates” and “fundamentalists.” Not surprisingly, the former invariably seem to be those who share “our” values, leaving all others to be classified as dangerous, either outright or “potentially.”

Large numbers of politicians, intellectuals and journalists have adopted such a system, with a fine dusting of sophistication. It is a system as scientifically untenable and intellectually superficial as it is politically dangerous. Drawn either from ignorance (a serious matter in and of itself) or derived from the ideological construct of a new Islamic enemy (a far more serious matter), it is in fact a projection.

The time has come to call upon intellectuals and journalists to broaden their frame of reference. The time has come to learn to apprehend the Islamic dynamic in its own terms, through its own terminology, internal categories, and intellectual structures. The time has come, as they enter into another referential universe, to make every effort to distinguish between that which gives that universe its unity and that which elucidates and makes possible its diversity.

Islam’s Levels of Diversity

 In the broadest sense, there is only “one” Islam, as defined by the unity of its Credo (al-’aq”da, the six pillars of faith), and by the unity of its practice (al-’ibad‰t, the five pillars of Islam). This unity, in both Sunnite and Shi’ite traditions, draws on shared recognition of two bodies of founding texts (the Qur’an and the Sunnah). There may be disagreement over the authenticity of certain texts, but common recognition of scripture-based sources and of the unity of faith and practice point to recognition of a single Islamic reference. At this level, the supreme level of unity with which all the world’s Muslims can identify, Islam is one.

There exists, however, a first level of diversity as old as Islam itself. From the very beginnings, and particularly among two of the Companions, Abd Allah ibn Umar and Abd Allah ibn Mas’žd, there were notable differences in reading and interpretation of the texts. Literalist, traditionalist, reformist, rationalist, mystical and strictly political readings and interpretations appeared early on—a reality that has continued down to the present day. Not only was the history of Islam to witness the rise of more than 18 legal schools (nearly 30 when counting the Shi’ite tradition), diverse ways of reading the texts also developed. Over the centuries, schools of thought emerged that reflected interpretations ranging from the literalist and traditionalist, to the mystical or reformist. Intellectual and often political confrontations accompanied and shaped the coexistence of these trends.

All of this understanding takes us far from the binary classification systems of “good” and “bad” Muslims. Religious outlook has, in fact, very little correlation with political posture: A rationalist or a liberal viewpoint in religious terms does not necessarily correspond with a democratic outlook in the political sense, just as all conservatives are by no means supporters of dictatorship. Western journalists have often been misled—and have misled their public—by reductionism of this kind (which would not be tolerated in reference to Judaism or Christianity, where the fine points of political orientation are better known and understood).

Moving beyond this first level of diversity, we must take into account the multiplicity of cultures that today influence the way Muslims express their belonging to Islam. Though grounded in a sole Credo and in the same practices, the world’s Muslims naturally partake of a multitude of cultural environments. From West to North Africa, from Asia to Europe and North America, stretches a rich variety of cultures that make it possible for individuals to respect the principles of Islam while adopting lifestyles, tastes, artistic expression, and feelings that belong quite specifically to one particular culture or another. Arab, African, Asian, North American, or European Muslims all share the same religion but belong to different cultures—a fact that wields a determining influence on their identities, their sense of belonging, and their vision of contemporary issues.

Islamism and the Perils of Reductionism

Many observers will easily recognize, in a broad sense, this elemental diversity in Islam. But they too hastily fall into another kind of reductionism, which can be equally nonfunctional and ultimately fraught with peril: the temptation to set Islam—with all the diversity we have outlined—against “Islamism” seen as an object of rejection or even opprobrium. Even though it is little more sophisticated than the first variant, this reductionism shifts perspectives. But it is ultimately founded on the same simplistic binary mode: “good” Muslims vs. “bad” Islamists.

The definition of “Islamism” is often vague, depending on the journalists, intellectuals and scholarly studies involved. We frequently hear of “political Islam” in the broad sense, of “Salafists” or “Wahhabis,” of “radical Islam” or even of al-Qaeda. The lines of demarcation between the different trends are rarely elucidated. All available evidence points to the conclusion that there is such a thing as a single “political Islam,” that it constitutes a threat, that whatever distinctions exist are at best insignificant and, at worst, the result of manipulation by Islamists propagating the image of “moderate Islamism” to lull the West.

Analyses of this kind are legion in Europe, where “experts” and journalists have generated a stream of reports and studies of the apparently monolithic universe of “political Islam.” Any scholar daring to apply such an approach to Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism would be immediately dismissed on grounds of superficiality and for the unscientific nature of his or her conclusions. Indeed, would it be possible to reduce political activity by Christians (political Christianity) to fundamentalism?

We know there are liberation theologians who reject a dogmatic reading of biblical scriptural sources who are deeply involved in politics on the left of the political spectrum. More toward the center, and sometimes quite to the right as well as to the left, we find Christian Democrats who are active in politics in the name of their Christian religious convictions. But who could possibly justify—in the analytical terms of the social and political sciences—relegating all these Christians to one single category, that of “fundamentalist—or even radical—political Christianism?” Who could claim that the most “moderate” of them are nothing but the objective, concealed allies of the “fundamentalists:” that the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff is nothing but the prettified face of Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre? One could only smile at such a fantasy-like approach to the Christian referential universe, but it seems that it can be quite easily accommodated—either through ignorance or ideological bias—when the subject is “political Islam.”

Political Islam’s Complexities

Yet the study of Islamism—of “political Islam”—reveals complexities equally as significant as the study of Islam itself. Between the positions of the promoters of political liberation through Islam, such as al-Afghani and Abduh in the 20th century and the extremist positions of the leaders of al-Qaeda today, lies an ocean of difference, both in terms of the understanding of Islam and of political action.

What holds true for the study of the historical timeline applies as well to the comparative study of the words and actions of the modern-day movements that are active in politics in the name of Islam. It is impossible to reduce the Turkish experience under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the 25 years of Islamic political power in Iran, or the 80 years of activity by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the same reading of the sources, to the same position on the political spectrum as that of al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is quick to condemn both his predecessors and his contemporaries as traitors to the cause, even within the confines of political Islam.

Whether one agrees or not with the theses of these movements, systematic study and a serious effort to understand the forces at work within political Islam require a triple approach:


  1. A study of the theological and legal underpinnings of the movements (literalist, reformist, mystical or other).
  2. Knowledge of the historical depth of these manifestations; numerous movements and/or leaders, such as Erdogan in Turkey and Ghanoushi in Tunisia, have changed their positions in the course of their political involvement.
  3. A detailed study of the national realities that have impinged on the growth and evolution of Islamist movements.

Only this kind of three-pronged examination can provide us with a proper framework for understanding the phenomenon of political Islam, far from ignorant reductionism or ideological manipulation of “the Islamist threat.” This inquiry is not about agreement or disagreement with this or that political-religious thesis, but of dealing scientifically with the matter under study.

Intellectuals, the general public, and journalists often find themselves pressed for time. Yet time, further study, greater effort, and intellectual humility are what are needed to understand the reality of Islam and of Muslims today, as well as the broad diversity of belongings and the demands expressed by political Islam. Our political simplifications may well reassure us, but they lead us only toward fear of the world. Reconciliation with the complexity of the Muslim world will, paradoxically, have the reverse effect.

Instead of seeing the “Other” as an emanation of “evil,” a goal that extremists pursue each day in the media, we must become aware of the existence of a multiplicity of views and of the millions upon millions of Muslims who, in their extraordinary political and religious diversity, daily turn their backs on violence, strive for democracy and freedom, and reject extremism. It is time for all of us to demonstrate humility, to appreciate the complexity that demands greater study, and the suspension of hasty and thus risky judgments. The hallmark of respect for others is to recognize in them the complexity we find in ourselves, to acknowledge their thirst for human dignity, and to realize that it, like ours, asks only to be respected.

We thank the following people