Everyone knows that the “Muslims aren’t terrorists” line is pretty old now. Following terrorist attacks in the West, most recently in the UK and France, Muslims have stood against the call for us to be constantly apologising and condemning these actions as though we are in some way responsible. This is progress, given that some years ago, prominent Muslim organisations and individuals were falling over their feet trying to issue statements reiterating once again that this had nothing to do with Muslims, but was merely an insane minority.
More recently, the discourse surrounding Muslims’ reaction to such events has taken a turn. Based on the idea that actions speak louder than words, many have advocated for greater engagement in our local communities, to prove what Islam actually is. This argument is tied in with the fact that it is our Islamic responsibility to interact, care for, and engage with our neighbours, as numerous examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) show.
But this simple idea is often expanded and leads to the justification of certain concepts and behaviours that we as a community must be wary of falling for.
- Remember, nothing justifies Islamophobia
I have attended many a talk where a prominent Muslim speaker enigmatically talks about how the Muslim community can tend to be isolationist, and how this is directly linked to the lack of awareness about Islam in wider society and subsequent abuse that Muslims face. The solution then presented is that Muslims must play a more active role in their society, increasing awareness about Islam, and increasing tolerance.
Whilst on the surface this has elements of truth, it is naïve to reduce an issue as complex as Islamophobia to a lack of awareness. Anti-Muslim sentiments are not solely based on ignorance of Islam, but the nature of certain Islamic concepts being contradictory to Western society. By measuring Islam against a secular Western benchmark, many aspects about our deen – be it the different regulations for women, the idea of a transnational allegiance to an Ummah, or the fact that Islam has a holistic political framework – will always seem “extreme” even if explained correctly, because modernism today has deemed them so. Any aspect of religion that exceeds the boundaries of the private life is deemed backward and strange, and Islam, being a religion that comprehensively addresses every aspect of life, is regarded dubiously. In addition to this, the media propaganda machine has succeeded in portraying many more basic aspects of Islam through this lens, such as employees fasting in Ramadan or Muslim children praying at school; all are seen as evidence of a way of life that supersedes the usual boundaries and reinforces difference.
When considering Islamophobia in this context, the “good” behaviour of some individuals, or even one community will not be considered the norm, but rather the anomaly, and often, the result of Muslim integration in the West. We have seen recent examples of this. When sisters in the UK launched the #TraditionallySubmissive campaign, highlighting their academic and professional achievements whilst being practicing Muslims, commentators and social media were quick to respond by pointing out that it was Western society that had enabled them to do these things, and that their realities would have been very different had they been living under a supposedly Islamic society in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, Islamophobia and negative perceptions about Islam result from more than just ignorance of how Muslim’s practice their religion, but more deep-rooted debates on the place of religion in the modern world. To put the responsibility on the Muslim community to engage in order to reduce Islamophobia allows for the justification that many on the far right have used – that Muslims are not sufficiently integrated. It is but a small step from this argument to the idea that Muslims are suffering due to their own negligence.
But nothing justifies Islamophobia. Nothing justifies the terrorisation, humiliation and discrimination against an individual because of their beliefs. We need to recognise that this is intrinsically wrong and that we will not try and change ourselves to rectify it, but call out this injustice wherever we see it.
- Our “civic duty” is for Allah alone
A second issue with the direct link made between increased community work and increased tolerance is in regards to our intentions. The rights of our neighbours are ours to fulfil because they are obligated upon us by Allah (swt), not because we hope to change a certain narrative. In many cases our efforts within our communities will go by unnoticed. Such has been the case when Muslims have organised masjid open days, interfaith dialogues, charity events and cleaning the community campaigns. But regardless of the response, we must still make the effort to engage with wider society, as an Islamic duty of da’wah and to fulfil the rights our non-Muslim neighbours have upon us.
However, it is only when we recognise that our “civic duty” is for Allah (swt) that we remember that we must consider what this encompasses according to Islam. There is still an on-going debate in the Muslim community regarding the suitability of voting for a system of law that does not originate from Islam, and most would argue that to stand for a position of law-making in government would not be permissible from a shari’ perspective. Yet devoid of this connection to the deen, these actions would be considered basic civic duties. Therefore once again, the standard of today’s society should not be used to define our actions, but rather align our behaviour to what Islam asks of us, devoid of the result or others’ reactions.
- “Charity begins at home”?
Another issue prevalent in discussions surrounding Muslims being active in their community is the comparison between charity given abroad or at home. I attended an event where the sheikh dubbed overseas causes as “sexy”, as opposed to donating time or money to those who are equally struggling closest to you. Some have referenced the fact that zakaah is required to be distributed within your home region by the Muslim governor as further evidence that we need to support those at home before going elsewhere.
It is undeniable that we as Muslims have a responsibility to aid those suffering around us and to serve those closest to us. Poverty in the West has spiked in recent years, with homelessness on the rise and an increase in working people having to use food banks. There is much we need to do to solve this. But it is unnecessary for us to turn this into a competition between donating at home and abroad. We are instructed as Muslims to give sadaqah to those who are in need, not to excessively scrutinise who is most needy and give to them alone, but rather split our attention between all who need us. And it’s hardly difficult in the modern era. In terms of donating money, it would mostly require visiting two donation webpages instead of one.
But to digress for a moment, we should also recognise that if we as a Muslim community have overlooked those closest to home, it is not out of a lack of sympathy, but rather the expectation that, given we are living in developed countries, the government would consider it their responsibility to cater for those who are struggling. But the capitalist order of today is built upon the premise of rich and poor, and we as a community must step in to aid those in need. This is just another reminder of the flaws of the system we live under.
Sometimes it seems that it’s almost in vogue to bash the Muslim community, and this has evolved into a new kind of defence mechanism – to blame ourselves before others blame us. Whilst we are by no means perfect, and introspection is constantly needed, we have to admit that for some prominent community leaders, this is just easier than calling out other state actors, be they policy makers, the media or wider society. But we are not the root cause of this problem. The root cause of antagonism towards the Muslim community originates from ideological differences about the place of religion in society, a debate that holds just as much relevance in the West, as it does in regards to the future of Muslim countries.
And to briefly go back to the idea of actions speaking louder than words – the proportion of the actions and words has to be the same for this to hold true. The actions of a few will not be considered louder than the words of global states and media. To combat that, Muslims would need their equivalent. But that’s a discussion for another article.