The description of the past cannot be the prescription for the future
I attended the launch of the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow at the invitation of Raheel Raza, journalist, author, public speaker and activist. She founded MFT to amplify the moderate Muslim voice at a time when it’s in danger of being lost in the clamor of extremist rhetoric.
An energetic advocate of women’s rights and social reform, Raheel wants the group to be unconstrained by religion and open to all who share a vision of tolerance and diversity. She sees it more as a movement than an organization, connecting and motivating people around the globe, holding conferences and workshops to educate and strengthen the progressive Muslim identity. Of particular concern to her is providing direction and support for Muslim youth.
Her foresight is timely; before the Taliban-sanctioned assassination attempt on Malala Yousefzai, no one was giving much thought to the Muslims of tomorrow.
As Raheel welcomed the audience and the cameras clicked and flashed, I glanced around the auditorium; half an hour in people continued to arrive. There were no hijabs or “Islamic” beards, no segregated seating. I heard the prophet mentioned without the suffix “Salallahu alayhi wasalam” (Peace be upon Him). I can’t tell you how comfortable that made me; dialogue with some Muslims can feel like a piety competition – the tension is palpable when you don’t couch your words in the correct phrases.
The radical contingent was conspicuous by their absence, after all, you can’t shut down a discussion with accusations of Islamaphobia when your counterpart is Muslim.
Part of the group’s vision, Raheel explained, is to defend freedom of speech as the basis of all other freedoms espoused in the constitutions of liberal democracies. It’s about working together with the wider community to educate, unite, share experiences and bring the problems of Muslim society into the public arena where they can be addressed.
Joining Raheel in exploring MFT’s mission were Christine Williams – journalist, talk show host and producer at CTS TV, and Vice-President Salim Mansur, author and columnist for QMI and a professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.
The keynote speaker was Dr Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A father of three, Dr Jasser echoed Raheel’s concern for the next generation. He spoke of the real threat of radical Islam and the difficulty of raising awareness, thanks to Muslim apologists insistent on clinging to a perception of victimization.
He outlined its seditious growth in liberal society, here and across Europe, through increasing pressure for legislative support of religious and cultural mores and the cultivation of a separatist ideology. Terrorist attacks are just a distraction technique, Osama Bin Laden unwittingly did us all a favor by shining a spotlight on extremism, the gravest damage is the stealthy erosion of civil liberties.
Dr Jasser cited Britain as a case in point. There, Sharia courts have existed since 2003, initially sitting on civil matters but increasingly hearing criminal cases. They’re closed to independent observers and don’t publicize their decisions. Once the hallmark of the British legal system, justice can no longer be “seen to be done”.
When I first converted to Islam, Muslims often made me feel I lacked the knowledge to hold an opinion. Perhaps the British government fell for this rouse when they ended up listening to the wrong people. Many non-Muslims believe their understanding of Islam, however intellectual and well researched, is somehow inferior to someone whose bias has shaped their vision. The idea that only professors and sheiks can declare what’s Islamic is an obstacle to reform and goes against a basic tenet of the faith: that all are equal before God. It’s the reason Islam has no clergy.
Consolidating our identity
Identity lies at the heart of the spread of Islamism. Muslims have allowed themselves to be defined by others for too long. MFT seeks to help them find their own narrative through education and awareness. Confidence in your identity lets you reason through problems without being coerced into a contradictory view. Independent thought is the very bedrock of faith – without it religion is just dogma.
For Muslims, the question of identity arises again and again. We’re a global group and should share a global vision. But the insidious promotion of an “Us & Them” mentality where the West is the “The Great Shaytan”, and the formation of separatist groups based on a narrow religious framework has led to self-marginalization and alienation.
Both Raheel and Dr Jasser emphasized the duties and responsibilities of citizenship as the cornerstone of our identity. Thankfully they resisted laboring the patriotic angle. As someone born in one country, raised in another and currently living in yet another, I find it potentially alienating; patriotism reminds me I’m an outsider, inhabiting the gaps between nations. But the message was clear: as fellow citizens, the laws of the country we live in unite us first – the obligations of religion must fall under this umbrella.
Enlightenment & reform
MFT brings together those who can enact change; it already benefits from a diverse multi-faith advisory board. The two hundred people in that room shared common values routinely denigrated by insecure Muslims: values of individual freedom, gender equality, human rights, freedom of conscience, free speech, science, and democracy.
We look for plurality and inter-faith dialogue, the separation of religion and state, we recognize Sharia as an antiquated man-made construct distinct from spiritual faith and we want Islam to be a beacon of enlightened thought, not a throwback to the dark ages. These are the values of the mainstream Muslim.
During the question and answer session, one man stood and identified himself as an apostate – there was no gasp of dismay or disapproving mutterings; no one batted an eyelid. Under Sharia he would be put to death, but in this room his reluctance to be associated with Islam as it’s currently perceived was understood.
Leaving the event, I was struck by the surge of affinity I’d felt with that roomful of strangers. I realized I’d never experienced anything like it in the ten years I’ve been a Muslim. There’s much work to be done and MFT is laying the foundations – help us wake the silent majority and expose the ignorance of extremism.