Countering the Assault of Secularization

This piece is the final part of a three part policy report on the secularization of the Muslim mind. You can read part one here and part two here.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims comes while the Muslim world stands at a crossroad between liberation from authoritarian regimes and a continuation of corrupt neoliberal and neocolonial rule. If the Muslim community is to reclaim Islam as a liberating worldview and comprehensive way of life, then it must begin with an awareness of our current state-of-affairs, accept what is at stake in this global ideological struggle, and realize that new horizons are possible. This awareness must occur in one place – the Muslim mind. The fashioning of Islam in public space and promotion of a certain brand of Islam by Western governments is pernicious.

The success of the secularization and Islamophobia agendas are only as successful as their ability to appropriate Muslims within our community, by preempting and suppressing collective Islamic counter-narratives. In this regard, responses within the Muslim community not only fall short of meeting the challenge, but have also been self-defeating. Engagement with various government counter-radicalization initiatives perpetuates the “war on terror” narrative and its pursuit of a good Muslim. In the following section, we outline three alternative policies that represent proper Islamic responses rooted in the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.

Policy One: Reclaiming Islamic Politics and the Empowering of our Mosques

We propose a policy of open community dialogue and overcoming the taboo attached to global political visions of Islam. The grievances of the youth in our community should not be shunned and deemed indicators of radicalization. We must address how secularization has caused non-Islamic trends to permeate into our homes, communities, and institutions. Rather than ignoring pressing questions about the Ummah, Muslim community leaders must recognize these questions and facilitate our own Muslim space for dialogue beyond the purview, control, and secularization of law enforcement and government entities. In discouraging politics in the masjid to prevent “radicalization,” we ignore problems that affect our entire community, such as false accusations of terrorism, militancy, and other labels that intimidate Muslims from practicing their faith as a full way of life. We also alienate significant segments of our youth and ostracize them from the community, compelling them to seek answers elsewhere.

The causes of radicalization or the propensity to engage in violence cannot be reduced to individual factors. The collective well-being of the community has a direct role in fashioning the well-being and trajectories of its individuals. Alienation is symptomatic of a larger communal problem that cannot be reduced to dispositions towards extremism. Moreover, dispositions towards violence stem from a lack of alternatives in regards to individual and collective grievances. If we are unable to engage in meaningful discussions about such grievances and deliberate non-violent and political alternatives within the framework of Islam, it is inevitable that members of the community will seek their answers elsewhere. Islam inherently has a global vision for humanity; however, Muslims in the United States and beyond lack this global vision.

Popular politics must be liberated from negative preconceptions about politics that emanate from the Islamic worldview (‘aqeedah) and Islamic centers must reclaim their function as open spaces for communal dialogue and public platforms for collective Islamic action. This requires that we overcome the taboo attached to political visions that lay beyond secular electoral processes every two-to-four years that have inhibited our ability to provide systemic Islamic perspectives on domestic and global issues. This proposal is based on the Prophetic method, in which mosques served as platforms to encourage and educate the Muslim community to address current events and its affairs. To empower our mosques and reclaim their function, we need to revive this forgotten Sunnah of intra-communal dialogue.

Policy Two: Forming Political Awareness in the Muslim Community

In the face of the ongoing assault on the Muslim mind, community leaders must work hand-in-hand to create informed Muslim communities. An aware Muslim community understands the necessity of grounding its collective political vision and action in an Islamic worldview, cognizant of the unbreakable link between its domestic and global interests as an Ummah. It is a community that challenges domesticated and secularizing agendas and is not restricted by the power structures that seek to limit its choices. Decades of research on American politics and political psychology reveals that the American public suffers from excessive ignorance about both domestic and global politics. According to political scientist Larry Bartels, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics.”1 The causes behind this ignorance are two-fold: (1) the misrepresentation and bias exhibited by politicians and media outlets and (2) a growing sense of apathy amongst members of the American public.

Political apathy stems from the misconception that politics has little effect on one’s individual, communal, and national interests. Muslims abroad are continuously assaulted with little domestic awareness of the psychological, emotional, and political consequences that these assaults have. An informed Muslim community is essential to generate awareness regarding the perils of American policies. In contrast to the prevailing secular narrative, Islam is a rational and holistic intellectual basis and is not restricted to matters of rituals and private life. To adopt Islam as the basis for both worship and politics is to both believe in and to live Islam. An Islamic basis for politics provides Muslims with the autonomy of thought and action needed to pre-empt being appropriated by external political agendas that both subvert Islam to its own ideological commitments and limit our choices and vision. A global perspective does not only amount to acquiring more information and possessing more acute political awareness, as it also unleashes new possibilities, beyond those defined by a minority complex. When Muslims recognize that rather than being a marginal minority, they are in fact part of a global and resourceful majority, new possibilities emerge.

The Muslim community must confront domestication and revive the Islamic worldview (‘aqeedah), recognizing the following points:

  1. The distinct nature of the Islamic worldview (‘aqeedah), which serves as the basis for thought, action, and vision. It is a worldview that is both spiritual and political, as it is rooted in divine revelation and provides a comprehensive mode-of-living.
  2. The necessity of adopting our own Islamic narrative on domestic and global affairs. It is no longer tenable for Muslims to appropriate and subject Islam to conservative and liberal narratives. The secularization of Islamic concepts such as Shar’iah inhibits our ability to speak as Muslims.
  3. The global and universal nature of Islam. It is imperative that Muslims realizes that Islam is a global message and that Muslims are a global movement with a global political vision.
  4. Islam as an ideological alternative to the secular liberal order. We must articulate Islam as an ideological alternative to the secular liberal order with a unique worldview and system that can solve political, economic, and social problems.
Policy Three: Exposing, critiquing, and abstaining from secularization initiatives

Finally, we propose a policy of exposing, critiquing, and abstaining from counter-radicalization initiatives involved in the secularization agenda that subvert Muslims to ill-defined security and anti-terror narratives. Muslim leaders can no longer serve as instruments in the domestic and global battle for Muslim hearts and minds. Our communities must abstain from participating in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives, expose their coercive tactics, and openly challenge the underlying narrative. The Muslim community must be wary of ‘engagement’ tactics by law enforcement agencies that push the CVE agenda by recruiting community members to actively counter ‘radical Islam’ and promote a secular Islam. We should not become informants and assist in surveillance activities of our mosques, events, and the Muslim community at large.

The narrative established by Western governments and the media is imposed on Muslims globally (especially on those in Western countries) and links individual acts of violence by Muslims as violent extremism emanating from a political ideology of Islam. Muslims are forced to condemn, assimilate, prove their patriotism, adopt Western values, reform Islam, and redefine it so that it is palatable to secular liberalism. Within this narrative, terrorism is seen solely as a Muslim problem, requiring community self-policing of radical ideas and individuals that do not fit the good Muslim construct, and requiring unquestionable support for anti-terrorism interventions in the Muslim lands.

There are two fundamental reasons as to why the Muslim community must abstain from participating in counter-radicalization initiatives:

Firstly, we can no longer allow power structures to limit our choices and domesticate or secularize our visions as a community. The power of these initiatives depends on the consent, obedience, and participation of the Muslim community. If such consent, obedience, and participation are withdrawn, these programs become powerless. A withdrawal would strip these programs of both their authority and human resources, which is particularly important when recognizing that these programs are embedded in institutional, ideological, and political structures of discrimination. These structures of power aim to create a new secularized good Muslim who poses no challenge to America’s political and economic interests.

Secondly, these initiatives have failed to meet their own stated objectives, as they do not provide peace and security. John Horgan, the director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies succulently observed that,

we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow cure the problem through deradicalization programs that in many cases have a track record of failure around the world.2

Instead of creating more amenable relations with the State, counter-radicalization initiatives reinforce the State’s viewing of the Muslim community through a security lens. Brookings Institute, a global U.S. think-tank admittedly proposed an end of “FBI and law enforcement outreach as a CVE activity” stating that,

otherwise, it will continue to strain relations with Muslims and reinforce the impression – rightly or wrongly – that the government views them writ large as a potential security problem.3

Rather than creating a more amenable image of Muslims in America and reducing violent extremism, these counter-radicalization initiatives perpetuate negative representations of Islam, foster mistrust within the community, and fail to quell the grievances of Muslim youth. If anything, ongoing surveillance, infiltration, and entrapment have created new grievances and exacerbated existing ones between not only Muslim communities and both the State and the public, but also within the Muslim community.

CVE initiatives reinforce a misdiagnosis of the roots of so-called “extremism.” First, they obfuscate the ideological and structural origins of negative representations of Islam. As we have explained in earlier sections, negative representations of Islam are not borne exclusively out of violence perpetrated by Muslims. Secondly, these initiatives fail to recognize the impact of the State’s own domestic and foreign policies on violence against the West. Patrick Eddington, of the Cato Institute, explained about a House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) memo that:

Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.4

One is then left asking: to what extent can the perpetrator of the problem also serve as the solution-provider?

We must expose these policies as being part of a pretext to pursue political and economic interests in Muslim lands and part of the ideological war against Islam. The counter-narrative should be that Western foreign policy is the primary cause of terrorism and the State-sponsored violence by Western governments far outweighs any violence perpetrated by non-state actors.

We must adopt an independent agenda that allows the Muslim community to shift our energy to the Islamic approach of political engagement that is committed to the interests of our community, as opposed to serving the interests of the government. Muslim communities can mobilize internal resources, such as shared Islamic beliefs about the proper means of political activism, to embrace the reestablishment of the comprehensive Islamic system as the practical solution to security and safety.

Works Cited:

  1. Bartels, Larry. 1996. “Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections.” American Political Science Review 40:194-230

About the Authors:

Ali Harfouch is a guest contributor. He is a Beirut-based lecturer and has a Masters in Political Science. His interests are Islamic politics, metaphysics, and epistemology. You can follow him on Twitter here

Dr. Abdur-Rafay is a guest contributor. He is a physician by profession and his interests are Islamic politics and activism. You can follow him on Facebook here

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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