On American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics

by Mobeen, Occasional Reflections

The public square today is suffused with identity politics, and as it turns out, the American Muslim community is not immune to its allure. Recently, a number of commentators have commented on the midterm election as an indication of Muslim identity belonging. These commentators have argued that seeing Muslims successfully achieving electoral victories serves to facilitate social integration and affirm a belonging that political failure, alienation, and indifference would not.
Although the intent of these arguments is laudable insofar as they attempt to shed light on American Muslim belonging, the language and underlying concepts invoked in this rendering of affairs bears significant implications for how Muslims conceive of themselves and their religion. Specifically, the explicit appeal to “identities,” and the refashioning of Islam as an “identity” to which we find fraternal belonging must be critically examined for a community that continues to search for a footing in today’s polarized political landscape.
The appeal to “identities” in the political realm is a phenomenon that has gained significant traction in recent years and has often been described using the term “identity politics.” Identity politics represents a political program rooted in what has been dubbed by some “a culture of grievance.” Francis Fukuyama traces its origin to a “resentment over indignities,” one that has led groups “to believe that their identities — whether national, religious, ethnic, sexual, gender, or otherwise — are not receiving adequate recognition.” It is for this reason that we see the prizing of multiculturalism in the politics of the left and the growing rhetoric of intersectionality, marginalization, and the now ubiquitous “systems of power.” The core thesis of identity politics is that oppression does not occur in a vacuum. Each injustice is undergirded by a system and these systems are interconnected, thus making all of those suffering injustices victims of a shared set of opponents: hate, bigotry, prejudice, and, prominently, power and privilege. Much blame is laid at the feet of those who are regarded as wielding power and possessing privilege, and it is only by dismantling structures and challenging those with power and privilege that the ever-present reality of indignities being suffered by identity groups can change. This, it can be said, is the progressivist promise.
For American Muslims, these indignities are often expressed using the language of “Islamophobia.” Like other indignities, the grievances of American Muslims are not without fundamental merit. American Muslims have been, and continue to be, subject to anti-Muslim animus and ridicule. Their communities have been targeted for surveillance, the Executive has pontificated that “Islam hates us,” and plenty of pundits have maligned Islam and/or the Muslim community (sometimes repeatedly so). The problem has been exacerbated by an increasingly acrimonious political climate, one that has given way to progressive–alt-right tribalism, each defined by stubborn opposition to the political “other.” Moreover, immigrant Muslims have had the unique challenge of negotiating their place in a society that they have yet to come to terms with. Imperiled at times by anxieties over alleged disloyalties, these Muslims have worked to achieve “model minority” status, either through full-fledged allegiances with the prevailing political establishment or through the oppositional politics of the left that have provided them a sanctuary of affirmative recognition. For the former group, Islam is recast benignly in terms of “peace” or “equality,” while groups that subscribe to oppositional politics leverage the symbols of Islam to denote “resistance” or “feminism.” In all of this, Muslims have essentially set aside their Islamic theological and moral commitments, relegating them to post hoc legitimating devices at best, and entirely irrelevant at worst.

In the midst of this political maelstrom, progressive political actors have emerged as willing allies of the Muslim community. The umbrella of leftist multiculturalism has expanded, and Muslims are firmly represented in progressive protest movements like the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and related efforts. Moreover, progressive politicians have assimilated the Muslim cause into their ever-expanding oppression platform within which all other injustices have found residence. Here, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, and racism are all viewed as intrinsically bound up in the same matrix of hate. By working together, we are told, we can overcome the vices that give life to oppression and provide the fuel necessary for prejudice to find purchase in our social and cultural context.

The realm of progressive politics has taken on religious tones in efforts to build its own “theology,” one that is becoming more elaborate by the day. Cornel West speaks of “prophetic” efforts, though he does so without referring to any prophets. The language of “bodies” and protecting the loss of “bodies” is now central to social justice efforts, though this terminology emerged out of the writings of Ta Nehisi Coates, an atheist who spells out in his book Between the World and Me his explicit intention to use the term bodies to displace the soul which he sees as a figment of the religionist imagination. Coates is concerned exclusively with this world and finds strength in coming to terms with the absence of a redemptive hereafter. When asked about his beliefs, Bernie Sanders famously mentioned his commitment to reducing suffering and to take people from worshipping capitalist excesses to assisting those on the lowest rung of the totem pole. Nowhere in the picture was God, prayer, the hereafter, scripture, or any notion of a religiously-informed morality.

The precarious consequences of this new progressive politics have been damning though they often go unappreciated by those leading the charge. The concept of narrow “identities” that require constant attention is a decidedly anthropocentric one — in other words, it de-centers God in favor of our “selves” (i.e., nafs), making our world ever more horizontal (worldly) in lieu of its critical and necessary vertical (otherworldly) component. Everything becomes about being “authentic” to oneself and discovering one’s “own truth,” thus making determinations about truth and falsehood discretionary and personalized rather than derivative of objective Truth. It is a conception of oneself that relishes the ego, though a proper Islam works to subdue the ego and find fulfillment through submission to God. Moreover, when one construes of him or herself as an amalgam of an ever-increasing set of “identities” where Islam is simply thrown into the mix, it becomes increasingly unclear what makes Islam different, better, or worse than any other “identity.” In other words, my race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual preference are often prioritized over Islam, making the latter little more than an accessory to the former. On this note, Dr. Sherman Jackson writes:

Our problem as Muslims is not that we have commitments to different collective identities; our problem is that we tend to treat our collective identities as if they represented ultimate truth, as if they were Islam itself, as if they were an idol through whose appeasement we derive some sense of psycho-spiritual well-being or fulfill some cosmic mission. Our collective ethnic and racial identities often sit in judgment over Islam instead of invoking Islam as judge over our ethnic and racial commitments and sentiments. In this capacity, my Muslim brother or sister’s Islam determines almost nothing about how I relate to, engage, or treat them or their issues to which Islam itself might assign significance if not priority. All too often, race and ethnicity, albeit in unspoken ways, determine too much.
I want to declare that my ultimate commitment is to God and the religion of Islam, that Islam shall sit in judgment over my racial identity, not the other way around. Thus, even as I pursue the well-being of the broader Blackamerican collective, I shall commit to doing so on the basis of the values, virtues and priorities of Islam. My blackness is neither a morality nor a statement of ultimate truth nor a path to other-worldly salvation. Islam, on the other hand, is all of these for me.
The spread of identity politics has led to a class of Muslims who, drawing on their new political identities, look at their own communities, scripture, and belief with suspicion. They subject these to identity-driven critiques, and draw conclusions that result in deep religious tensions. How can one reconcile the importance of one’s gender with Islam’s gender paradigm based on a notion of inherent, complementary gender difference? How can one square the progressive commitment to “bodily autonomy” with God’s ownership of ourselves and His authority to provide instruction as to how our bodies may be used? Or how, indeed, can one resolve the obvious contradiction between the belief in sexual autonomy with God’s imperative not even “to go near” illicit sexual acts?

The consequence of this tension is either an abiding dissonance that yields religious indifference (or worse, apostasy), or an agenda-driven rewriting of the faith that can all too conveniently be reconciled with progressive norms. Additionally, many individuals prone to such an approach are socialized into an atmosphere that breeds secular intuitions. The right to free practice of religion is now demanded leveraging the language of oppression, power, patriarchy, and privilege instead of faith, belief, and morality. Every transgression or cause becomes a matter of life or death, every misstatement an indication of systemic bias, and every dissenter accused of being indoctrinated by some structural prejudice. Many Muslims — in direct contradiction to Islamic morals and ethics — now stand for abortion on demand, advocate for homosexual and transgender advances, and side with hardened secularists over communities of faith. Plenty of American Muslims today no longer see the “right” as possessing anything redeemable and preclude, in principle, the mere possibility of finding common cause with those whose political predilections are not represented by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This recalibrated politics represents a radical departure from the American Muslim community of yesterday that spoke with pride of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, not as cultural symbols who shared an overlapping “identity” with themselves, but as people who contributed in positive ways to society, lived admirably, and embodied the ethics, morals, and values that — and here lies the crucial difference — emerge from a life informed by God’s instruction. In contrast, today’s American Muslim politicians and political actors often endorse and advocate programs that have little to do with Islam as a set of beliefs — and that often flatly contradict it. Rashida Tlaib, for instance, in 2012 opposed an omnibus abortion bill designating specific procedures for discarding fetal remains, suggesting at the time: “Stop having sex with us, gentleman. Find somebody else to do it with. I ask women across Michigan to boycott men until these bills stop moving out of the House.” Keith Ellison, the first Muslim Attorney General, Ilhan Omar, and others have publicly endorsed the LGBT movement without qualification or concern. Linda Sarsour, a prominent American Muslim political activist and co-chair of the Women’s March, said in an interview prior to the 2017 Women’s March that “if you want to come to the march, you are coming with the understanding that you respect a woman’s right to choose” — precluding any discussion of the deep moral and ethical dimensions of abortion that have concerned other religious communities and that have informed the societal debate on this topic for over four decades, simply endorsing liberal ethical and moral commitments as a self-identifying Muslim with no further ado.

None of this is to suggest that Muslims should abandon their concern for justice, or that power is not real, or that patriarchy in certain situations is not toxic, or that privilege does not furnish advantages for some individuals. The question is simply whose conception of justice is it that Muslims choose to continue advancing. The unspoken subtext in all of these efforts is that it is a progressive concept of justice, power, patriarchy, and privilege that is receiving attention, not one that is determined by reference to Islam’s teachings. Muslims must resist such unreflective, uncritical embrace of progressive politics that operates with its own set of beliefs in lieu of Islam. Rather, we must bind ourselves to our beliefs and moral-ethical commitments as Muslims first and foremost and realize that a political bifurcation where one’s private convictions conflict with one’s public advocacy is untenable in the long run.

The truth is, no individual or social grouping behaves in a politically bifurcated manner, nor could they. Everyone holds positions that they believe to be objectively true and right and that they therefore honestly see as the most conducive to bringing about a healthy and just society. Self-identified liberal and secular actors in particular do anything but “leave their values at home” when they enter the political sphere; on the contrary, they constantly endeavor to have their deepest moral and ethical commitments enshrined in the law of the land as the best recipe for a just society as determined by their own deep-lying worldview commitments. Those who push, say, for a right to on-demand abortion only do so because they actually do not believe, as a matter of private conscience, that the fetus is a person endowed with human dignity and corresponding legal rights. Someone who does believe this, however, cannot coherently sequester that belief in the “private” realm while publicly advocating what he or she considers, essentially, to be murder. No reasonable person would expect this of anyone. Similarly, it is difficult to see how anyone who celebrates the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell vs. Hodges gay marriage decision as an objective good and a step forward towards a healthier and more just society can retain any coherent commitment to an Islamic moral vision that regards same-sex behavior — like zinā — as serious moral transgression and social ill. To think, therefore, that Muslims uniquely can somehow publicly advocate for things they “privately” believe to be objectively wrong and harmful is naïve at best. Public advocacy of any political cause either stems from an already settled personal commitment to the moral view that underlies the cause, or it will eventually engender this commitment. Not only is this the reality we observe all around us, but it is confirmed in the Quran as well where God says, “We have not made for any man two hearts in his breast” (Surat al-Ahzab, 33:4).

We as Muslims must begin to reflect more critically on the business of identity politics and how we intend to speak about our religion and conceive of ourselves — both individually and collectively — moving forward. Are we still a religious community? Or will we stand by idly and preside over the effective secularization of American Muslims and the reduction of “Muslim” to a mere social identity marker? The stakes could not be any higher.

Muslim imams, scholars, and communities must recommit themselves to an Islam with meaning and to a politics that is derivative of that meaning — not the other way around. As the late Richard Neuhaus once remarked, “It profits us nothing if we win all the political battles while losing our own souls.”

Shaykh Yasir Qadhi recently observed that the strictures being put in place in response to #metoo coincide conveniently with many Shari’a stipulations. Although the post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it raises an important point that we should not overlook: although political conservatives are seen as sharing our social mores, in instances like these it becomes more obvious that we bear significant differences in both our outlook and underlying commitments. Republican commentators raise the spectre of behavioral segregation and formalization as fundamentally undesirable, profoundly aberrant and entirely inconsistent with how polite society should function. Conservatives are as committed as liberals to retaining a social order where men and women retain sexual autonomy, with their explicit and limited objection (and this, only for some) being contraception and abortion.

By comparison, we should view these adjusted social mores as positive developments for a society that has rarely considered that sexual regulation and curtailment actually stands to improve the lot of both men and women.

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