How to Understand the Middle East

The most commonly (ab)used phrase in any discussion of the Middle East is, of course:

“Well, it’s a very complicated situation.”

This is almost always used to justify Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights and it usually follows some vaguely racist statement about Arabs. Something along the lines of “those (quasi-)people just don’t seem to want freedom, democracy, and peace.”

As though it was just a matter of cultural heritage to desire constant war and upheaval.

It seems to me that these past few years have been the most tumultuous in the recent era. The Arab Spring has spawned a wild transition from uncomfortable, repressive stability to uncomfortable, repressive instability.

If you’re an Egyptian, then you’ve already experienced 4 different quasi-functioning governments over the past three years – with exactly 100% of them conveniently resembling each other in backwards authoritarianism.

If you’re a Libyan, then you’ve witnessed the brutal murder of the former dictator and the fast descent of the small population of your rather large country into chaos between warring militias and small tribal statelets.

And if you’re an American, then you’ve probably understood none of it.

Many of my dear friends have asked me to explain situations in the Middle East to them in clear terms. I ought to preface this with the other most commonly (ab)used phrase in any discussion:

“I’m no expert, but…”

I’m no expert, but I do know how to make heads and tails of the situation(s), conflict(s), and war(s) throughout the Middle East. And there’s a very easy way to do this, although it requires a bit of time and patience.

STEP 1: Gathering Background Information

You have the internet. Use it.

I’m actually kind of surprised when people come to me with total ignorance about something like the war in Iraq or the Saudi royal family. With resources like Wikipedia and Google, you can pretty much find anything.

Wikipedia has a page on Hamas, Christianity in the Middle East, Hezbollah, Iran, Kurdistan, Algeria, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, The Druze, and Elvis Presley.

Don’t like reading?

Let me recommend this speech:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3I3ahtwrZE]

Don’t want to watch a speech?

Let me recommend some documentaries for you on Youtube: Once Upon a Time in Iran, American Radical, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, and Islam: Empire of Faith.

Don’t like documentaries?

Go watch Paradise Now.

If you’re looking for books about Middle Eastern history, you could read anything by Laury Silvers, Omid Safi, or Edward Said. Or you could read a book by Juan Cole, Hamid Dabashi, or Norman Finkelstein.

If you’re looking for books on modern politics, then you could read literally anything by Noam Chomsky about the Middle East.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jCLFWM6P60]

STEP 2: Ascertaining the Current Situation

Watching the news can be cumbersome, I know. Plenty of people have complained to me that it’s impossible to determine what’s happening at all. Given the state of the media today, who really knows what’s happening?

Here’s what you need to keep in mind: everyone’s agenda is usually easy to figure out.

Let’s just ignore most American news, because it’s almost all unreliable.

Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar and basically toes the Qatari line. It also appeals to mainstream Sunni Muslims. So when it comes to the media Al Jazeera produces, you need to read it with that lens in mind.

Press TV is owned by Iran. Ultimately, it serves as little more than Iranian propaganda, but occasionally has some really good material that you aren’t going to find elsewhere.

RT (standing for Russia Today) obviously represents the interests of Russia in the Middle East, but has had some really outstanding reporting on conflicts like Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and Libya.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are a couple of news outlets that are worthwhile in the U.S. – one of them being Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, which posts a roughly 10 minute video on Youtube every weekday going through world headlines.

You can spend 10 minutes every day learning about the world around you.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5AzbnNdeEA]

And since Democracy Now isn’t owned by any corporation or state, it serves as probably the single most objective news source out there.

STEP 3: Thinking

This is naturally the most difficult task of them all. But a natural skepticism towards information is probably the most important faculty you can develop with regards to the Middle East.

If someone tells you that Hezbollah in Lebanon is a terrorist organization, don’t take that as necessary fact. Read a book, watch the news, ask a Lebanese person.

I think the trickiest thing about our present situation is the fact that most Americans simply don’t know any Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, or Egyptians. They can’t turn to their friend and say, “Hey, can you explain this to me?”

So instead, they choose to make wildly ridiculous statements like “Saddam has WMDs” or “Israel is defending itself” or “Arabs are just aggressive and hate freedom”.

Don’t do that.

Pause.

Think.

Maybe visit your local mosque, ask one of your Muslim friends, watch a Youtube video. You won’t get the whole story, but you may get some new insights with regards to the Middle East.

The Middle East isn’t quite as backwards, barbaric, or ballistic as it may appear.

And there’s no excuse for ignorance today.

Will you understand everything about the Middle East?

Well, I’m no expert and it’s a very complicated situation.

But this should help.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpcbfxtdoI8]

Confessions of a Muslim Communist

At first glance, you might suspect some intense cognitive dissonance with me claiming to be a “Muslim Communist”, but I can assure you, dear reader, these ideas are not as opposed as they might seem.

In order to locate myself on this spectrum of political and religious thought, we have to go back a few years. We have to retreat to my adolescence and its discontents.

We have to talk about the first prophet that I ever followed.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in April in the year 1870 at the twilight of the Russian Empire. When he attended university in the late 1880’s, Ulyanov was transformed by the works of Marx, Engels, and Chernyshevsky. After he changed his name to Lenin in 1901, Vladimir went on to lead the Great October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and establish the Soviet Union. For the next four years, he and Leon Trotsky led the Red Army against the White Army (a collection of monarchists, nationalists, and proto-fascists) in a brutal civil war. His meteoric career was cut short by a series of strokes and by 1924 the communist leader was dead.

Lenin Mr. Skittles

When you think of the Soviet Union, you probably think of a gray, icy dungeon; a frozen hell where all there is to eat is one single potato, and even that is covered in mold and ice. The people are surrounded by chains and commissars and, in order to pass the time, everyone drinks vodka and builds nuclear weapons.

We all know the distorted image that Americans have of the Soviet Union.

But you can rest assured that I’m not here to sing the praises of the USSR.

However, when I was fifteen, I was more than happy to do so.

After all, the Soviet Union under Lenin was the first country in the world to decriminalize homosexuality (which would later be re-criminalized by Stalin and remains an issue to this day), it was the first country to legalize abortion and provide abortions on demand for free, and it was the first country to implement universal healthcare.

I was totally willing to overlook the pitfalls of the revolution as long as I could maintain my glossy-eyed reverence for Lenin and my deep and abiding love for the Communist movement.

To this day, I still have to catch myself occasionally, because once you slip into that mindset, it becomes far trickier to wiggle yourself free. Conviction turns into some sort of self-righteous rebellion and your ego takes over.

If you’re ready and willing to see the good things that the USSR accomplished, then you’re probably ready and willing to see the terrible things that the US has done. At this point, it becomes easier to simply flip allegiances and latch on to the absurd notion that 20th century Soviet-styled countries were borderline paradise.

Before you know it, you’re wishing Fidel Castro a happy birthday on your blog, despite your better judgement.

(To be clear, I don’t regret wishing Castro a happy birthday, but I wish I would have written something more balanced and critical, because I think that post doesn’t really reflect my genuine opinions about the government of Cuba.)

Stalinn

This actually reads “Thank you, dear Stalin – for the happy childhood!”

But if Lenin was my first prophet, then it wasn’t Stalin who served as my first khalifa (or “Caliph”, meaning “successor” or “vicegerent”). No, Stalin’s Russian chauvinism and bureaucratic despotism represented to me everything wrong with 20th century communism.

The only legitimate khalifa I would recognize would be someone with whom I felt a deep affinity in their opposition to such a deformed communism.

That title goes to the man with whom Lenin commanded the Red Army throughout the civil war – Lev Davidovich Bronstein, also known as Leon Trotsky (if you want to his life story, I highly recommend this excellent documentary).

Trotsky had joined with Lenin on the eve of the revolution and would stand by his side for the next 7 years (not without a few hiccups here and there). Following Lenin’s untimely demise, Trotsky fought against Stalin for control over the Communist Party. Stalin had successfully consolidated his power by 1926 through some political maneuvering and in 1929 Trotsky was thrown into exile. He spent the next 11 years writing, speaking, and organizing against Stalin’s “degenerated worker’s state“. He was assassinated in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico.

In the eyes of many, Trotsky was a man of theory while Lenin was a man of action. Trotsky was the esoteric and Lenin was the exoteric. Trotsky was the tragic hero and Lenin was simply the hero.

Trotsky

“Ladies.”

But, as time went on, I moved on to a more nuanced position regarding the “Great” October Revolution.

This isn’t to say that I don’t still have love for Lenin and Trotsky, because I do. However, I’m not the Trotskyist that I once was. On the flip side, I’m also certainly not trying to strengthen the pathetic argument that Marxism is some sort of religion with prophets and false prophets, blah blah blah.

I’m simply placing the lens upon my experiences as a former Trotskyist and a current Muslim.

The story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor has played out countless times throughout the history of humanity.

And if you happen to know the story behind the Sunni-Shi’a split, then you’re probably already able to predict the parallels I’m about to draw. If not, dear reader, then away we go!

There exists a classical and incredibly potent story of a prophet and his/her dispossessed rightful successor. That is the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) and Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him).

Briefly, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in or around the year 570. When he was 40 years old, he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and began receiving revelation. This revelation would be eventually compiled into what is now the Qur’an. Throughout the rest of his life he would fulfill the roles of father, grandfather, husband, statesman, general, diplomat, and (most importantly) messenger of God. He passed away when he was 63 and his death sent the young Muslim community into disarray.

Two main factions emerged almost immediately – the proto-Sunni and the proto-Shi’a.

The Stalinists and Trotskyists of their age (although neither group would like me characterizing them in those terms).

The people who came to be called “Sunni” pledged allegiance (or some form thereof) to the actual political successors to the Prophet (PBUH) in the following centuries. The Shi’a, on the other hand, believed that Imam Ali (a.s.) had been designated by the Prophet (and by extension, by God) to be the true successor. Just as the Trotskyists had been designated by Lenin (and by extension, by Marx) to be the true successor.

And since Imam Ali (a.s.) was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and had been raised in his shadow, it’s easy to see why. Imam Ali (a.s.) is considered to be one of the most noble individuals to have ever lived. In his marriage to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima (a.s.), and their lineage, the Shi’a draw the people whom they consider to be the 12 imams – the 12 true successors to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

In fact, even the Sunni venerate Imam Ali (a.s.), albeit not recognizing his imamate and unrivaled claim to khalifa from the beginning. He instead fulfills the role of 4th Rightfully-Guided Caliph. And although his son, Hasan (a.s.) was the 2nd Shi’i Imam and the 5th Sunni Caliph, his brief political career is overshadowed by the preceding and succeeding civil wars.

(For a great, also brief, video about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the religion of Islam, I recommend this video.)

Kofi Annan Imam Ali

The nexus between the story of the Russian revolutionaries and the early Muslim community might seem a bit tenuous at first, but I’d invite you to examine the haunting similarities between Imam Ali (a.s.) and Leon Trotsky.

Both men were considered to be almost too fitting for the role of successor.

In the case of Imam Ali (a.s.), the argument has often been made that if he had led the Muslim community, it would’ve collapsed into strife, simply because he was too noble in his decision-making. Whereas in the case of Trotsky, the other Bolsheviks were trying to prevent him from becoming a second Napoleon.

You see, the early Soviet leaders very much saw themselves as having taken up the mantle of the French Revolution of 1789.

Therefore, they constantly were analyzing the progress of the Russian Revolution against that of the French Revolution. And who killed the French Revolution?

Napoleon.

He was too clever, powerful, and charismatic. The others banded behind Napoleon in the counter-revolution and the establishment of the First Empire.

So the Bolsheviks looked around and thought to themselves, “Who is a potential Napoleon here?” For them, the answer was obvious.

Trotsky had studied literature, languages, culture, politics, and history. He was charming, attractive, and intelligent. He was the best public speaker among them and he had the broadest support throughout the ranks of workers. He had led the Red Army to victory and all the while wrote brilliant works of literary criticism like Literature and Revolution.

He was clearly the next Napoleon.

And it was this paranoia of Trotsky’s power that eventually led to a number of Communists standing behind Stalin, whom they initially believed would serve as the perfect mindless bureaucrat and just shuffle paperwork.

trotsky-bourgeoise-are-punks.gif.pagespeed.ce.sPlL1gJJW2

Trotsky, being charismatic.

And although the 7th century Muslims probably weren’t scared of Imam Ali (a.s.) morphing into Napoleon, the tribal leaders certainly didn’t want him in power.

After all, he was from the same blood as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which means that once that bloodline was established in power, other factional groups were not going to be able to regain the control that they lost after the message of Islam decimated their Pagan political-economic systems.

Imam Ali (a.s.) says in Nahj al-Balagha: “Greed is an eternal slavery.”

Sounds fairly close to communism to me.

These two men share more than just their dispossession. They were both top-notch generals and warriors. They were both considered to be men of deep theory and sharp wit. They both spent their lives fighting against what they perceived as injustice. And they both were assassinated by former allies.

And Trotskyists and Shi’a Muslims have more in common than might initially meet the eye. They both obsess over the distortion of “correct” history – about rumored (and actual) last wills. They both read heavily into texts in order to grab at historical indications of their prophets designated the true successor. And they both mourn for the loss of the true, righteous path of the ideology.

If only my person had won out, everything would be different!

I do it too. How could you not?

Sometimes it’s easy for me to play with the histories of my two ideologies.

I can imagine Imam Ali (a.s.) commanding the Red Army in the war against the fascists.

Or Leon Trotsky pressing his head in the sand in submission to Allah and reciting duas in Russian.

The call to prayer echoing over Saint Petersburg, including the Shi’a line “ashhadu anna aliyun waliullah”.

Shaykh Lenin’s Mosque being constructed in Saudi Arabia around his tomb proclaiming his elevated place among the community of the believers.

Sufi mystics twirling on Red Square during the Victory Day Parade.

My two seemingly paradoxical viewpoints seamlessly blending into one another in my head. It’s never been difficult for me to justify both positions, even though everyone may look at me like I’m incredibly neurotic.

Perhaps it’s my need to identify with the dispossessed in order to feed into some self-righteous nonsense.

Maybe there’s something deeply psychological in the way I’ve read and interpreted the stories.

It might not be so accidental that a young Trotskyist would later identify with a minor sect of Islam.

Or maybe I’m not as neurotic as I seem.

sultan-galiyev

“Yes you are.”

That insanely handsome man in the photo was a Tatar Muslim Communist who became a prominent member of the Bolshevik Party during the early years of the revolution.

Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev serves as one of my clear historical reference points.

He was the theorist and strongest proponent of national communism. He fought for national self-determination for the Muslims of the former Russian Empire and supported a Marxist analysis of economics, while remaining committed to the Muslims of the world. Lenin and he were incredibly close, but after Lenin’s death he was purged from the Party and eventually killed by Stalin’s systematic persecution of early Bolshevik leaders.

But, for Sultan-Galiev, there was nothing inherently contradictory in the tenets of Islam and the tenets of Marxism.

In fact, in many ways, they complemented each other.

And he isn’t alone in this trajectory.

Abu Dharr al-Ghifari was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and sided with Imam Ali (a.s.) in the initial question of succession. We could call him a proto-Shi’i Muslim, while at the same time easily slipping him into the history of socialism.

Frantz Fanon, who although himself was not a Muslim, wrote extensively about Muslims struggling against the imperialist yoke of the West. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he formulates a new method of thinking about resistance to European/American hegemony. His account of the Algerian Revolution is considered to be one of the most important accounts of any revolution ever.

And Ali Shariati, the man considered to be the theorist behind the Iranian revolution, made a point of sewing together the fabric of socialism with the fabric of (Shi’a) Islam. His works on reinterpreting Shi’i history as well as his anti-imperialist positions make his works a light in the darkness.

Ali Shariati

Alright, that’s the most terrifying image of Ali Shariati.

Putting the words “communist” and “Muslim” together is fairly dangerous these days.

Some crackpot, right-wing lunatic is going to steal this blog post in order to defend their bizarre conspiracy theories about Barack Obama.

So I’ll leave you with this, dear reader:

Unfortunately, Barack Obama is neither a Muslim nor a Communist. A Muslim would not drone-bomb Pakistani children and a Communist would not have such dismal policies in helping impoverished people.

And, of course, there’s probably no convincing you of that if you’re one of the wretched idiots who still thinks that Obama is a socialist, Muslim, fascist, black-power, Kenyan Nazi.

But you can rest assured, dear reader, if Barack Obama was a Muslim Communist, then I would have voted for him.

On the First Day of Ramadan, My True Love Gave to Me

“Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and to the poor, and to travelers and those who ask for charity. The virtuous are those who set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are the God-fearing.”

 -The Qur’an 2:177

I’ve been struggling with this verse all day. It’s one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an, but it left me pondering an existential-crisis-inducing question.

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

In our post-industrial age of perpetual technological bombardment, is virtue even possible?

How do you find virtue in your actions in the endless cacophony of pop culture and superficiality?

Does virtue even matter? Or, as post-modern philosophers would argue, is the idea of virtue a nonsensical, moral boundary that can be dispensed with in our era after the supposed death of God?

Here, I disagree with the post-modernists, but that’s where my distress comes in.

"Dis dress comes in?"

“Dis dress comes in?”

Bad pun, sorry.

I consider one of the most important moments of my life to be the moment I stopped thinking personally and started thinking politically.

Politically meaning with regards to social relationships and social structures.

When I was around 15 or 16, I walked by a television that had been left on in an empty room. Immediately as I passed, on came one of those missionary evangelical Christian commercials.

“For the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed this child for a week.”

Despite the self-serving, imperialistic, evangelizing message of the commercial, it has influenced me more than perhaps any other single moment.

The images of the sick, impoverished children haunted me.

I suddenly realized that these were real people.

Real people.

Not on some intellectual level, but on a true, deep, visceral level.

It made me ask the most important question that someone could possibly ask.

Why?

Why is it that children around the world are starving and are in need of a mere 65 cents in order to get food?

Why is it that my clothes are made (mostly) by poor women across the world, but never in my own country?

Why is it that so many innocent people are dying needlessly in wars across the globe?

But, more importantly,

Why is it that I’m not?

disney_sweatshop

Today, nine years later, on the first day of Ramadan, I’m stuck asking those same questions.

The amount of money I give to charity is a pittance compared to my income. The shirt I’m wearing as I write this was made in India. Perhaps it was made in a city that I visited last year as a rich, white, awful tourist. And, as everyone knows from the news, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Honduras, The Central African Republic, Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, Somalia, Mexico, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan aren’t doing so hot right now.

That’s why being virtuous is important to me. How can you look at the world with callous indifference?

The United States is funneling money and weapons into Syria and Iraq.

Obama is pursuing an absurd foreign policy of supporting the militants when they cross into Syrian territory and killing the militants when they cross into Iraqi territory.

This only makes sense if you consider the fact that the U.S. clearly wants the Syrian conflict to continue.

And why would the U.S. government ever want that?

It’s a very meticulous historical strategy of divide and conquer.

Like an empire?

Bingo.

And how can you be virtuous when you live in the center of an empire at its peak?

George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2002. I’ve had a difficult time watching that clip for years.

Something about it makes me want to cry.

I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that Bush said that in an apparently sincere way or if it’s the insidious policies he pursued that contrasted that statement. How do you say Muslims are people and then subsequently drop bombs on Muslim children?

Maybe it’s just the way he said “Allah“, as though we worship some alien god.

Maybe it’s all of those things simmering together in a minute of intense emotion.

Honestly, it’s not easy to be a Muslim and an American.

Not because I feel discriminated against. Not because I’ve ever felt the racist backlash against Muslims. Not because I’ve ever felt the micro-aggressions and evil glances for my attire.

But for me, the difficulty is reconciling my beliefs with how I live my life.

For me, the difficulty is in being virtuous.

29artsbeat-robin-jumbo

boo hoo

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

As an American, the ability to live a virtuous life sometimes feels as though it has been stolen from me.

The taxes I pay go to funding militant groups and corrupt governments across the globe.

The gasoline I buy props up oppressive dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East.

And any money I put into the economy by purchasing any item directly fuels this entire system of imperialism and capitalism.

It’s easy to feel helpless.

But for the next 29 days I will try my best to think deeply politically.

As a human being, thinking politically means opposing the structures and hierarchies that lead to mayhem, war, and genocide.

It means acting upon that base compassion for others and being mindful of your words and deeds.

It means recognizing the world as it is, but striving to continuously make it better.

Image

This Ramadan is my fourth. It gets easier every year. From dawn to sunset, over a billion Muslims go without food or water.

Why?

In order to fulfill the divine injunction on all able Muslims to fast.

In order to remember the poor and the hungry.

In order to empathize with those who are suffering.

In order to increase self-reflection, humility, patience, kindness, and strength.

In order to find an outlet to be virtuous. Or at least to learn virtue.

In order to be like the Prophet Muhammad – may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.

In Surat al-Imran, the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an, it says:

“Say, ‘If you love God, follow me and God will love you and forgive you for your sins. God is most forgiving and most merciful.'” (3:31)

The goal is to be the best person you can be. If not, then why bother living?

On the first day of Ramadan, my true love gave to me some guidance when I felt lost.

InshaAllah, that will only continue.

I’ve been a Muslim for 3 years today.

Ashhadu anla ilaha illa Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammad arrasulullah.

On June 9, 2011, I stood in a serene grove on the side of a house of two dear friends in Bloomington, Indiana and repeated the Arabic phrase, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The slender Arabic words had escaped me effortlessly and with them I had made the “formal” conversion to Islam.

It was a moment that I had pictured a thousand times before I actually went through with it.

And I knew that my words were a revolution. They were a revolution against the society in which I had been raised, but they were, more importantly, a revolution against my Self.

I’ve attempted to steer clear of talking about my religious views too much on this blog, mostly because I have been trying to avoid the charge of spreading religious propaganda and I’ve also tried to be especially considerate of my idiosyncratic worldview clouding some of my more serious political pieces. By writing about this, I’m not attempting to be a polemicist, but rather simply sharing some of my potential biases and premises.

Many people have asked me what drew me to Islam. Was it the Qur’an? Were you friends with Muslims? Was it X,Y, and Z?Image

I have never given a complete answer and, honestly, I don’t think a complete answer could ever be given.

I never planned on becoming a Muslim. In the months and years prior, I had merely casually researched Islam as a point of interest. So much of the world seemed to be influenced by the so-called “Clash of Civilizations”, and if Islam was the counterweight to Western Christianity, then I felt it was imperative that I know something about it.

Like many people in the United States, my understanding of the religious tenets extended little beyond the five pillars. When Iraq was collapsing into civil war between ethnic factions and the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, I was as clueless as everyone else about the differences between the groups.

As I entered my adolescence, I became determined to make sense of the senseless state of the world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the contentious relationship between the U.S. and Iran after 1979 all piqued my brazen curiosity. In my first semester in college, I took a course called “Oil, Islam, and Geopolitics” that sparked a fire inside of me.

I remember distinctly feeling the gravitational pull of the Middle East and Central Asia.

taqwacore

In the waning months of my sophomore year at Indiana University, I spent an inordinate amount of time neglecting my studies in order to check out sometimes 15 books at a time from the university library and devour them in my room. Books like “The Shia Revival” by Vali Nasr, “Muhammad” by Karen Armstrong, and “Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam” by Carol Anway.

At the same time, I found my old copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which had lost its cover years earlier. I also managed to check out some different translations of the Qur’an from the library, but found them all to be rather impenetrable. Getting beyond Sura Al-Baqara, the lengthy second chapter, seemed like an impossible feat (although I eventually made it through unscathed).

It was around this time that I also began watching a series of documentaries on Islam that I had found across the internet. YouTube still hosts quite a few when you search “Muhammad” or “Islam”. At this point, I still had no interest in becoming a Muslim, I simply wanted to learn as much as I could about the religion.

Perhaps the most influential books on me at this point were the works of Michael Muhammad Knight. I discovered him through a documentary on Muslim Punk music and have since read all nine of his books. However, it was after reading “The Taqwacores” (MMK’s first published novel and the one from which he probably wants to disassociate the most) that I began to feel like a Muslim.

As far as I was concerned, I was still an atheist, although I was hastily softening my stances on the question of the existence of God.

One day at work, I was reading a book by Jeffrey Lang about his experience with Islam and a man came up to me and politely asked me what I was reading. I showed him my book and he immediately invited me to the mosque in Bloomington. Three months later, here I was, in his front yard with him and his wife, saying aloud what I whispered to myself so many times.

“La ilaha illa Allah”

There is no god, but God.

Image

Just like that I became another head in the fastest growing religion.

Another check in the box.

I often wonder to what extent my comfort in transitioning into Islam was a result of my privilege. An act of white, heterosexual, male, American privilege. Unquestionably, every last one of my actions dances in a tremendous, terrible, inescapable vortex of privilege. And although I’m cognizant of that fact, it doesn’t make the self-analysis any easier.

I’ve been blessed to pray in mosques from Seattle to Saint Petersburg and from New York to New Delhi. I’ve been blessed to make Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and travel up to Medina with one of my best friends. I’ve spent Muharram sleeping on the floor of the Shi’a Islamic Center in Kochi and I’ve prayed fajr with a group of Wahhabis in Goa.

I’ve met with the highest-ranking Shi’i cleric in North America and I’ve shaken hands with the Imam of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I’ve prayed with the Salafis and the Sufis, the Sunni and the Shi’a, and throughout all of it, I’ve known that without my privilege, I probably would’ve experienced none of it.

Where does that leave me?

The materialist perspective might contend that religious conversion is sparked by traumatic events, the need to explain things, or an identity crisis. The religious perspective might rely on views on the ancient triad of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The social perspective might say that I’m a privileged white, heterosexual male and I can do whatever I want in our racist, patriarchal, trans/queerphobic society.

I could never tell you what pushed my conversion directly. I have vague ideas and feelings about the matter, myself.

It never was much of a clear thought in my head, because it was something I knew almost instinctively.

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It’s as though the drive towards Islam was not unlike the drive towards eating after fasting or sleeping after staying up for days.

Picking up the Qur’an for me today is just like picking up my guitar. I never know what I’m going to get out of it and I’m always amazed by what I walk away with.

Recently, I’ve seen multiple statistics that say that 75% of converts end up leaving Islam or that many young people in the West are leaving Islam. And I’ve also personally seen a number of friends and acquaintances leave the religion for various reasons (sometimes as a result of no community and sometimes as a result of too much community).

And it always surprises me.

Despite the hardships and the struggles, I have never thought about leaving Islam for a moment in the past three years. I’m not a perfect Muslim by any means; I’m ignorant of plenty of important things, and I’m stubborn and I’m lazy. Yet it’s never even crossed my mind to be anything but who I am and who I am is a Muslim.

I don’t blame them, of course. How could I? I can’t possibly know all the experiences and ideas that have led them there.

Hell, I can’t even know all the experiences and ideas that have led me here.

And I’m sure my privilege plays a larger role than I could ever possibly see.

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“So why did you become a Muslim, anyway?”

My friend asks me this as we’re driving around my hometown. Lorde’s album is playing and the lights from gas stations and convenience stores illuminate Indianapolis Boulevard a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and greens. I pause for a moment, going through all the usual responses in my head.

The Qur’an just spoke to me in a way nothing else ever has.

I just found a lot of accurate truth-claims in the central message of the religion.

I just felt at home in the mosque and knew it was the place for me.

While all of these are true, none of them tell the whole truth.

Why did I become a Muslim?

I could never begin to answer that question, much to the frustration of Muslims as well as the old friends and family who probe me. Of course, the only acceptable responses are ones that fit into the social paradigm of religious conversions.

The question feels bigger than I am.

You’re supposed to talk about a light-bulb spiritual experience or a radical self-discovery. Otherwise, you’re inauthentic.

But that’s never what I’ve wanted to say, because it doesn’t match what I feel. What I want to say is that it’s impossible for me to express in words why I became a Muslim and it’s impossible for me to express why I continue to be a practicing Muslim (“practicing”, by the way, does not imply “perfect”).

La ilaha illa Allah means more to me than these cliché religious experiences.

After three years, I no longer feel like a Muslim convert, I just feel like a Muslim. So instead of these responses, I say exactly what I’ve always wanted to say. For the first time, I give the answer I’ve always wanted to give, regardless of the socially-acceptable script.

“I just think Islam is super cool.”

From Muhammad to Marx: Re-Mapping Political Constellations

“Do not wrong [others] and you shall not be wronged.” – Qur’an 2:280

“And all that believed were together and owned all things in common; and sold their possessions and gave everyone what he or she needed.” – Acts 2:44-2:45

“From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” – The communist programme

Ever since Marx declared religion to be the opium of the people, there has been an unfortunate suspicion between many religious people and the movements for radical social change. Luckily for us, this distance has occasionally been punctuated by moments of brilliant, cohesive struggle. The most obvious of which has been Liberation Theology throughout Latin America. The movements for justice have seen their goals in the soul of religion – the soul of the prophets. Abraham, Joseph, David, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be upon all of them) established not only a religious legacy, but also a political legacy.

What is the political legacy of these prophets?

A state-less, class-less society.

In other words, communism.

This may sound absurd to those of us who have been raised with religion often being taught (manipulated) in order to fit a certain worldview. Listening to some people, you’d think that Jesus was a rich white guy who spent all of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality (rather than spending exactly 0% of his time talking about abortion and homosexuality). Other people contend that Muhammad was more focused on which way your toes pointed when you pray than showing people to take care of each other.

It’s a really silly concept. And it’s an absurd notion that religion is more about these tiny, fragmented acts than it is about essentially being a good person.

Prophets never came to a people and said, “Yo, you’re doing everything right.” They always came with a radical message of change. They called out the rich, corrupt, thieving parasites at the top of society – the Pharisees, the Quraysh, the Babylonians.

Do you think they would be cool with neoliberal capitalism?

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Does it make sense at all that some people are rich and some people are poor?

Does it make sense that some people are starving and some people are throwing food away?

Seriously – think about it.

Many people with whom I’ve spoken over the years have told me that they left their parents’ religion due to the hypocrisy and seeming ridiculousness of the fundamental beliefs. The purpose of religion is lost on them.

And why shouldn’t it be?

If you associate Moses with genocide, Jesus with racism, and Muhammad with female genital mutilation, then why would you ever embrace the core of religion?

It takes a great deal of effort to move beyond these distorted images.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.”  – Karl Marx, 1844

Rarely is the first sentence included in the quote. However, it is the first sentence that ought to be emphasized in order to understand the true place of religion in the world. Marx knew what his later followers did not.

However, Marx was also subject to his time and place. He couldn’t have imagined the socialist elements of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam shaping world politics as much as they have since the 19th century. In his time, capitalism was not yet a global force and anti-colonialism was not yet married to religion throughout the world.

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“Certainly we disagree with the Communist Party, as we disagree with other political parties who are trying to maintain the American way of life.” – Dorothy Day

Archbishop Romero infused his call for socialism and freedom with Christ’s message. The Algerian uprisings against the French were sharpened with the spirit of Muhammad. The Jewish communists of the early 20th century relied upon the principle of justice from the Old Testament as they fought the fascists and racists in the streets. These people used the message of the ancient prophets, but there have been important modern prophets as well: Ali Shariati, Desmond Tutu, Malcolm X.

Let’s not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was a democratic socialist, anti-imperialist, black revolutionary Christian.

 

My favorite story about Jesus is one that I’ve only heard in the Islamic tradition.

Isa, as he’s called in Arabic (and probably Aramaic), only had three possessions. He had a comb to brush his hair, a bowl to drink water, and a garment to cover himself.

One day he was walking past a river and saw a man combing his hair with his fingers. Isa thought, “What do I need this comb for?” and immediately gave it away.

A few days later he saw a women drinking water directly from the river with her hands. He thought, “What do I need this bowl for?” and he gave it away.

From then on he lived with no possessions but his cloak.