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Islam and Reform

I’m returning to my blog after a vacation of a few days, during which I finished the last of my three applications to graduate school. Soon I’ll be leaving my parents’ home in North Carolina to head west to San Francisco, where I expect to return to my old job as a computer programmer for a few months. This is a good time look ahead at the new year.

We ended 2006 with talk of censorship, and anxiety about the road ahead for freedom of expression in Morocco and Tunisia. In fact, one of the censored Tunisian bloggers has given up blogging and is no longer online. Things aren’t any easier in Egypt, where there have been recent scandals about police abuse of prisoners, and blogger Kareem is still in prison for expressing his views about Al-Azhar University.

Can we kick off the new year with a little hope? A lot of people think the PJD will win this year’s Moroccan elections, so what about looking at the positive side of this? I’ve long been convinced that politcal Islam can be a progressive force. There are progressive Muslims just as there are conservative ones. George W. Bush uses Christianity to justify his illegal war, but Martin Luther King was a Christian who saw his religion as a call to justice and peace. Doesn’t Islam show the same diversity?

To start the new year, I want to dust off an article I wrote in June 2005. At the time, I had been in Morocco for almost two years, and I knew a lot of young people who were passionate about their Muslim faith. Yet they were extremely open and eager to discuss new ideas. This piece is about “progressive Islam” or “Islam and reform.” Consider it a starting point for our discussion in 2007.

— • —

When I first got to Morocco, I was struck by the fervor with which young people are willing to defend their commitment to Islam, no doubt because they see it as being under attack everywhere. I think they are encouraged to feel this way by the Islamic instruction they get in school, and by the way Islam is linked to the cause of Arab self-determination. Following the failure in the 1970s of secular, Marxist-leaning nationalism like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, and the decisive swing of public opinion against the Soviets during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, regimes such as Morocco’s began to use political Islam as a siphon for discontent, and as a counterweight to the secular left which emphasized materialism and class struggle. In this effort, they had ample funding and propaganda support from Saudi Arabia. This continued throughout the 1990s, by which time leftist movements had been co-opted or squelched, and Islamists had gained political control of the universities, as well as professions such as law, medicine and engineering.

When I arrived in Morocco in September 2003, feelings were stirred up by the Clash of Civilizations, Osama’s blow against the U.S., and the U.S. countermove in Iraq. Over the next few months, tensions only got worse due to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the destruction of Falluja, and a harsh Israeli crackdown on the Palestinians that included the assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Yet Islam as a revolutionary force, capable of destabilizing governments throughout the region, was already played out, either corrupted by Saudi money into an apologist for existing power arrangements, or marginalized by its own extremism, such as the Algerian bloodshed of the 1990s, the Sudanese civil war, the attacks on tourists in Egypt, or the essentially suicidal intifada launched by the Palestinians at the end of 2000.

What remains of political Islam is a certain moral compass, a sense of honor and justice and correct behavior in public life, as opposed to the corrupt, self-serving and unpatriotic officials who are all too familiar in the Arab world. If the focus is not on segregating beaches and cinemas, or banning bars and discos, but rather on projects of social justice such as fighting illiteracy, aiding the rural poor, or providing standards of accountability in government, then political Islam has the potential to evolve into a powerful and broad-based popular movement, one whose aim is democratic reform.

During my first few months in Morocco, the importance of identifying progressive, democratic strains within Islam became clear to me. Islam has great credibility among the young, urban poor, for whom the secular nationalism of their fathers is a failed project. Yet their understanding of Islam is limited: it is reflexive rather than reflective, and ill-informed. A related problem is lack of information about ideas outside Islam that might serve as a point of comparison, whether alternative religious systems such as Judaism or Buddhism, or the heritage of Greek philosophy, or the evolution of secular humanism in Europe during the Age of Reason. This lack of information and critical thinking among the young strikes me as the legacy of an educational system that does not educate, preferring to leave young people intellectually malnourished. The information they receive is extremely thin. They aren’t taught to look deeper, or to ask questions. As a result they have only slogans, watered-down history and Islamic dogma.

Despite the popularity among Moroccan youth of Che Guevara and Bob Marley, these charismatic symbols of revolution have no historical context. The traditional revolutionary left with its dialectic of class struggle has failed to connect with young Moroccans, who in any case lack the tools to analyze their society in these terms. The New Left as we know it in the West, the anti-authoritarian and countercultural left with its critique of global capitalism and consumer society, is almost unknown in Morocco. As a philosophy of revolt, it remains limited to the wealthy, pampered elites of Europe and North America. In Morocco it is overwhelmed by flashier, better-known imports such as Nike, McDonald’s and Hollywood. This leaves progressive Islam as the reform movement with the strongest potential base among the young.

Unfortunately, the interpretation of Islam has remained the monopoly of conservative forces until now. Islam has been used to either defend the existing power structure, or demand its overthrow in favor of a theocratic state. As a result, a progressive countercurrent in Islam is badly needed. This new current needs to accept society as a work in progress, rather than insisting that Muslims go back 1400 years to an imagined Golden Age. Yet the moment for a “new Islam” to emerge may have slipped away, at least for now. Islamic fervor seems to be dying down. The strategy of distracting young people with amusements like Studio 2M seems to be working. A certain degree of reform has been introduced, in the name of modernization and development. These reforms are the State’s attempt to reposition itself, to assure its legitimacy under new conditions. The question is whether they will succeed. The immense burdens of poverty and ignorance must be addressed, or before long the pressure for radical action will build again.

Comments

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 5, 2007, 11:09

Hold the phone, you’re a PROGRAMMER? Hm. And what grad schools are you applying to (and what program, which is more interesting)…

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 5, 2007, 14:39

I’m a Visual Basic programmer. I’m not sure if that counts. I design and build automated document management systems that can compile a single hyperlinked PDF file out of hundreds of separate Word files. I also designed my literary website with its dynamic navigation features. The articles don’t have a fixed relation to each other, which makes it easy to add new content. Now I’m teaching myself Java (and classical Arabic) in my spare time.

I applied to Columbia (Nonfiction Writing), UC Berkeley (Journalism) and NYU (Near Eastern Studies / Journalism).

But let’s not get distracted. What do you think of the article, particularly this?

This leaves progressive Islam as the reform movement with the strongest potential base among the young.

In other words, there is enormous pressure for reform, and given the worldview of a typical young Moroccan, it is silly to expect that to manifest in the Western secular model (Jefferson, Hobbes, Rousseau) so we should look to Islam for clues, and help political Islam to manifest in its most progressive form. Is there a Muslim Gandhi or Dr. King…?

Comment from adel
Time: January 5, 2007, 18:03

That make us three programmers! teaching yourself java… you may take a look at IBM’s Eclipse IDE and it’s SWT GUI toolkit.

Islam (to me) is important to understand, because I live within Muslim community, I am not interest in Islam as religion but as great way to understand local culture… your posts DO help, thanks

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 5, 2007, 19:05

Adel, I imagine that even if you don’t think of yourself as a Muslim, most of your friends do. Do you ever talk about this sort of thing with them, about politics, or what needs to change in Morocco and the best way to do that? Are you scared or excited about the idea of the PJD taking over? Or do you think it won’t change much? From what you hear from other young people, how do they feel?

Comment from adel
Time: January 5, 2007, 21:36

Religions, most of my friends are careless, they live Islam as culture not religion, most of people I meet daily are Muslim, but then, they don’t have to learn about my religion preference

Changes, I really don’t want to change persons, I want changes laws and make respectful (I wish)

Politics, I believe in M6, I don’t totally agree with him but he is taking the right direction, in this case, it’s not democracy, because democracy may gives power to people don’t understand nor believe in democracy, PJD and alike is group of jerks, I am not scared of PJD take over, because it will not change much, except more of “a wife complain that husband force her to anal sex, what will you do for her Mr. Minister”

Young, they are careless, they talk a lot more about foreign politics than local politics, I think young people understand very well that election with not change anything important

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 5, 2007, 22:33

My experience is much like what Adel says – the young people in the South believe that politics are nothing but nepotism and cronyism. I remember the first time I saw a school painted for voting, with 15+ “parties” represented. It’s good for the monarchy to have so many parties, since no one can really dominate.

Another thing to consider is that Berbers normally vote with tribal affiliations foremost in their minds…

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 5, 2007, 22:53

If it’s better not to move too quickly toward democracy because the people aren’t ready (they vote stupidly, aren’t informed about the choices, etc.) and the State continues its corrupt ways that place a low value on “human capital” so the people remain stuck in poverty and never get smart about asking for something better — isn’t that a “vicious circle” that will never change? What’s the solution?

Adel, I feel that people do need to change before laws can change. It used to be that Socialism tried to educate and organize the masses, but today in Morocco they seem to be playing politics like everyone else. So now it’s the Islamists’ turn. Can Islam be a project to educate people to improve their lives? Some people say that’s what it was 1400 years ago. What about today?

Comment from adel
Time: January 5, 2007, 23:09

I think you overate Islam, (any) religion may works great as personal believe but not as system for country

Comment from Magda
Time: January 6, 2007, 11:57

Adel, I think you should see Islam more as ideology, than religion – as a set of guidelines, moral standards, and possible force of change.

eatbees, “Socialism tried to educate and organize the masses” – only in its very early stage, when it was a way to deal with poverty and inequality. But Socialism I have experienced – not so much….

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 6, 2007, 14:22

Magda, I agree with what you said to Adel, absolutely! But one problem is that when people grow up “inside” a system it’s hard for them to see it as “guidelines” because for them it is truth. (Not in Adel’s case, but in the case of most young Moroccans, Islam is quite simply truth. I’ve had this conversation many times.) So there is work to be done to loosen the idea of truth until it becomes guidelines. That’s where I’m trying to go.

About Socialism, having grown up (I think) in a Communist country, you would know! What you said about the “early stage” is right on. I was in Prague in 1991, just after the fall of Communism, and I saw what a gray misery Socialism can become. Today in Venezuela, Socialism is educating and organizing the masses, but if it becomes too dominant, it could kill freedom after a few years. In Morocco, Socialism had real vitality in the 1960s and early 1970s, especially when Ben Berka was the leader. But it ran into a wall of State repression. Today “there is no Left in Morocco” as a friend says.

I think the way forward is through small, local actions (programs for kids, picking up garbage) that can inspire people to realize their own power. At the same time, something needs to be done about the bosses who control everything at a high level and are accountable to no one (possibly, not even the king) for their power. These people seek only to satisfy their enormous appetite. Nothing will change unless they are uprooted, but there are no easy answers. I’m convinced M6 would love to get rid of them, but even he doesn’t know how! Maybe we should send the Islamists against them :)

Comment from Wydadi
Time: January 6, 2007, 15:01

Magda,if i have to make a choice-from where i am- between the socialism you’ve experienced and the world as it is now,”globalized”,”modernized”and cleaned up of those brutal communists,i’can say that i really miss that ugly soviet era.

Comment from Alshabaz
Time: January 7, 2007, 17:31

Jermaine has caused national controversy by openly praying his obligatory five time prayers live on national TV. However Channel Four the Broadcaster has censored any footage of the Former Jackson Five practicing his faith. Outraged muslims have begun to complain on grounds of fair representation as Shilpa Shetty was broadcast practicing Yoga, they are demanding an explanation from Channel four as to why Jermaine Praying has been censored. Complaints to Ofcom the body that adjudicates media complaints are set to flood in this monday. Jermaine has begun to attract many thousands of muslim votes.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 7, 2007, 17:39

@Alshabaz — I’m still not sure why such a thing would be controversial. (Consider also the controversy over Rep. Keith Ellison’s use of the Koran in his private swearing-in ceremony.) After all, the U.S. was founded on the principle of freedom of religion, and everyone has a right to practice his or her faith. Sometimes it seems like there is a “Muslim exception” in some people’s minds. Oh, well. Controversy like this is how we move forward, I guess.

Comment from Myrtus
Time: January 7, 2007, 23:37

“Unfortunately, the interpretation of Islam has remained the monopoly of conservative forces until now. Islam has been used to either defend the existing power structure, or demand its overthrow in favor of a theocratic state. As a result, a progressive countercurrent in Islam is badly needed. This new current needs to accept society as a work in progress, rather than insisting that Muslims go back 1400 years to an imagined Golden Age.”

Eetbees I love how you think. Your ideals for peaceful Muslim existence is very much in line with mine, however they’re merely ideals. Here is why…I think Islam is synonymous with Arab nationalism. I’ll give you an example. Imagine if Iceland were to become a Muslim nation…by doing so, it automatically adopts Arab Nationalism one way or another. Iceland will almost immediately have to declare itself as a sympathizer with the Palestinians just to demonstrate its commitment to the Muslim brotherhood and whatever other “Muslim” issue the band of brothers agree on. Iceland now becomes part of the tribe and has to abide by tribal rule, otherwise it has not fully accepted its Muslim identity as a whole.

I’m talking about Arab Nationalism as a political system, not as a culture. That’s what has infiltrated many nations through Islam and ends up interfering with the local’s (cultural) self-expression. Arab nationalism invokes fear and uses the Koran to wield power. That’s what’s holding people back, not Islam. I see Islam’s spiritual path as non-threatening. I am a Muslim first because it’s an integral part of my identity, It’s how I was raised, it’s what I base my own fundamental beliefs on, it’s a very important part of who I am and I should be free to express myself spiritually the way I want and not through some manmade rituals. Once Moroccans decide to put Moroccan nationalism first, instead of Arab nationalism, you’ll see how much progress we’ll make. In order to make progress, using Islam as a tool to do good is far more effective than waging wars and fostering hatred towards infidels.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 8, 2007, 00:43

@Myrtus — The line I’m walking is to criticize Islam and defend it at the same time. I will criticize it when it expresses itself in defense of wife beating, or persecution of homosexuals, or intolerance towards other faiths. I will defend what it can be and should be, according to its own ideals. It’s particularly necessary to defend Islam against ill-informed hate from people in this country (the U.S.) who see only what they want to see in Islam, and who attack out of ignorance. They are the mirror image of Islamic extremism. The two groups may deserve each other, but the rest of us don’t!

I totally agree that Islam has been turned into a perverse form of Arab nationalism by modern Arab leaders. See what I said in the post itself, about Arab leaders promoting Islamic nationalism starting in the 1970s and 1980s, once Nasserism and Baathism (secular nationalism) had reached their limit. Of course, they aren’t the first generation of Arab leaders to have learned this trick, which really goes back to the Prophet Mohammed himself. One of his great accomplishments was political, unifying the Arab nation for the first time under One God, instead of tribal gods.

As I think you know, I’m not defending Islam but a world where we are all bound together by shared values (what FDR called the Four Freedoms, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear), at the same time that we allow each other an infinite variety of ways to express these values, depending on language, culture, religion, geography, sexuality, and who knows what else. We can splinter into warring tribes, or we can attempt to come together, recognizing each others’ diversity through mutual respect. I will defend Islam to homosexuals, insisting that it isn’t intolerant if you understand it right, but I will defend homosexuals even more strongly to Muslims, insisting that belief in God means respect for all of God’s creatures, because God doesn’t make mistakes.

It’s beginning to look like we agree more than we disagree. “I should be free to express myself spiritually the way I want and not through some manmade rituals” — I couldn’t agree more. I also accept your criticism (implied more than said) that ideals mean nothing if they are just an escape from reality. I hope mine aren’t. Thank you for your thought-provoking comment, and let’s continue to talk. :)

Comment from Myrtus
Time: January 8, 2007, 09:31

“@Myrtus — The line I’m walking is to criticize Islam and defend it at the same time. I will criticize it when it expresses itself in defense of wife beating, or persecution of homosexuals, or intolerance towards other faiths. I will defend what it can be and should be, according to its own ideals. It’s particularly necessary to defend Islam against ill-informed hate from people in this country (the U.S.) who see only what they want to see in Islam, and who attack out of ignorance. They are the mirror image of Islamic extremism. The two groups may deserve each other, but the rest of us don’t!”

I am with you on that, but I think it’s very important for us to refine the ways of how we go about it. Yes, we should fight ignorance and do whatever we can to battle the forces of evil, but we can’t confront one side (them) and not the other (us). I think the only way to achieve the desired results is for us to lead by example, as ambassadors of our own cultural heritage, by embracing first and foremost who we are as individuals mind, heart and soul, with or without the religion that helped shape us (to each his own). We don’t actually have to be confrontational to get people to listen to us. Being confrontational can produce quite the opposite results, people will feel FORCED to have to listen and will most likely resist and resent our message, but if we stand up and we speak loud enough to voice our opinions and express what we’re all about, you’ll see that people of all faiths and cultures will start to come out willing to at least hear what we are saying and the dialog begins to take place. We can do that as individuals or we can do it collectively, what’s more important is that we DO have those options. You yourself are already doing that, eetbees, you are already leading by example, sparking people’s interest here on your blog and I applaud you for that. You and I agree on a lot of things, and you and I both agree that we don’t have to agree on everything, because we are entitled to have our differences (i.e our own individual opinions on AJ).(:

I’d like to make a comment on (your) Islamic nationalism vs (my) Arab Nationalism analogies too, but I have to run right now….I’ll be back sometime tonight when I have more time.

TTYL, make it a great day! (:

Comment from Hashmat Moslih
Time: January 18, 2007, 11:21

i agree with you eatbee, but Islamic parties were established during and after colonialism, their aim was to rally the people against the foreigners, they could only spend from that which they had best or most. They could not have told the masses that “do not follow the Westerners because we are going to build you roads and bring electricity and water and you are going to have a job in factories” – simply because these things were dependent on industrial revolution which occurred in Europe and was in the hand of the colonizers. So as the result the Muslim parties begun to speak of hereafter and the next world. They begun to talk about the immorality of the colonizers, they drink and fornicate they argued. Any one who follow their path will be domed in the next life they said. By adopting such a tactic the path was left open to the leftists whose arguments at times seemed more relevant then that of the Islamic parties. In the mean time both the communists and the capitalists misdiagnosed the situation they thought that what the Islamic parties were doing is not a tactic but rather it is all what Islam could offer. They thought Islam is all about cutting hands and stoning to death for those who still and fornicate. So as direct colonialism was replaced by indirect colonialism through the secular nationalist governments, Islamic parties shifted their attention to governance. Now colonialism had wore an indigenous veil, one could not have accused it so directly of drinking and fornicating. The debate had shifted but the nationalist governments were ruthless and the colonizers propaganda relentless. Any one who spoke of social justice would have been accused of being communist and godless and those who spoke of rights were seen as liberal capitalists. With the fall of communism now the Muslim parties have begun to address the issue, but you cannot address economic issues from the shadow you must take power, to do so Muslims have two choices, one to fight, the other to go to the ballot. To go to the ballot you become Hamas and to go to war you will be a terrorist. But you are free to chose. In the next 10 years we inshaAllah see an Islamic government free from war, it is then that we can judge its performance.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 18, 2007, 15:50

@Hashmat — An excellent analysis and I share about 80% of it. For whatever reason, some of my Moroccan friends are less optimistic than you or me about what may happen if Islamists take power. Also, some of the details in Morocco are different from what you describe—it seems like what you’ve written applies best to Egypt. But I will say that I share your hope that at least one Arab country will see a democratic Islamic government within ten years so we can see what that means, and inch’Allah it will be an example of tolerance all can admire.

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