With the publication of former radical Muslim recruiter Hasan Butt's plea to fellow Muslims, the left-wing media is now playing the game initiated and developed by the American right-wing: assuming that former terrorists and radicals are a source of insight, or even of value, in dealing with radicalism and terror.
To a problem that has myriad and contradictory prongs -- social alienation, theologies fertile for nihilism, foreign invasions, political repression, even sexual and domestic violence -- a former terrorist or radical is hardly a sufficient expert. If anything, the same mentality that led him to first seek out a one-stop utopia in radicalism, upon his conversion, leads him to posit a one-stop solution to it as well. Further, reliance upon these "former" radicals and criminals keeps the discourse about violence stuck in the past. We keep doing historiography; the terrorists keep evolving.
About a year ago, Fox News and CNN's Glenn Beck (who asks Muslim Congressmen whether they aren't in with the insurgents), started parading around a couple of reformed terrorists. The first was Tawfik Hamid, an Egyptian, who was formerly a member of the terrorist group Jamma'a Islameia, now welcomed at the ultra-conversative Hudson Institute. After detailing how he was no longer a terrorist (why thank you very much, good sir), his solution to terrorism and radicalism has been "Islamic reformation!" The exclamation mark is my contribution to his effort. To his defense, sometimes he rearranges the words of his venture and calls it "reformation of Islam." Demonstrating his originality, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, the title for which has already been used for a book by someone else. The primary thrust of the piece, which is supposed to leave the rest of us agog, was the vacuous and already established assertion that radical Islam is an anti-liberal system. He made other equally astonishing discoveries through the course of this piece, concluding with the earth-shaking assertion in his tag line that he was a "Muslim reformer."
If all it took was the conflation of the words "reform" and "Islam" to get the media aroused then where were Fox News and CNN when Sudanese Islamic Lawyer and dissident Abdullahi An-Naim wrote his book, Towards an Islamic Reformation, in...1996? Where were these media outlets when Abdulaziz Sachedina, a Shia thinker and philosopher located at the University of Virginia, aroused the wrath of Ayatollah Sistani for daring to posit a separation of mosque and state in Islam in...2002? As far as I know, unless The New Yorker magazine or some other equally elitist magazine sits down with these men, An-Naim, Sachedina and others like them sit in relative obscurity under leafy glades.
Now Hassan Butt has come along. Once foolish enough to be duped by the disgusting tactics of al-Muhajiroun he is now lecturing Muslims on how they need to disavow what he didn't have the intellectual know-how, or spiritual elan, to resist on his own (and which most Muslims disavowed regularly while Mr. Butt went under).
This time it is not Fox News slurping up his words, but the Observer, who really should know that such conversions while authentic (I'm glad Mr. Butt left the dark side), are as much about self-preservation as they are about faux altruism.
The sad part is that Mr. Butt is not really adding anything to the discourse -- except of course the fact that the media is willing to promote him given his duplicitous and dangerous history. What has been his brilliant new solution to dealing with radicalism? Calling upon Muslim scholars -- not even upon himself -- to fashion "new theological territory." Startlingly, and yet, not surprisingly, his article does not list a single actual name of the kind of scholar who can break such new ground. Does he know any? Perhaps he can take the same way out that Ed Hussain, author of The Islamist recently did: invoke the one name that 99 percent of Muslim youth already know: Hamza Yusuf, the famous Caucasian convert to Islam, and leading authority in traditionalism. Yet Hamza Yusuf and his brand of traditionalist, orthodox, and ultimately pacific Islam, was around back in the late parts of the last decade as well. There had to be a reason that these men didn't gravitate towards Yusuf then. That reason is not discussed. Instead, responsibility is shifted upon Yusuf to do the actual hard work of speaking to youth.
What these former radicals and terrorists are not telling us that the "alternative discourse" to radicalism and terrorism existed among Muslim communities for a long, long time. Sometimes it took the form of Sufi groups such as those headed by Nuh Ha Mim Keller and TJ Winter, a lecturer in the UK. In other manifestations it took the form of progressive Muslims, such as the Muslim Canadian Congress and Progressive Muslim Union of North America.
For the most part, however, this alternative discourse took the form of every day Muslims, like those that play cricket for their nations, who do comedy, and set up magazines and websites discussing the precise theological issues that Hamid and Butt didn't know how to address once, and wish to be spokesmen for now. I do take umbrage in the fact that back when these easily duped figures like Butt and Hussain and Hamid were agitating for Global Caliphates, my friends and I would confront them at various Islamic conventions and call them traitors to the Islamic tradition and yet now the WSJ and Observer are parading these figures around as talking heads, while not acknowledging the existent discourse among Muslim communities that challenged them previously.
Not only that, but Muslim scholars worldwide are not just entering "new theological territory" they have already entered it, set up minarets and domes there, have been risking their lives to draw people in, and started to have actual political success. Besides the aforementioned An-Naim who after 30 years of exile is on his way back to Sudan, there is the Indonesian activist Susilo Bambang who has been able to do what most traditional Muslims cannot: destroy radical Muslims without becoming appropriated by the American right-wing. There is also the case of Islamic Jurist Javed Ahmed Ghamidi in Pakistan (comprehensive analysis of his work here), whose activism finally manifested in the successful passage of the Women's Protection Bill in Pakistan (a repeal of the barbaric rape laws), and a flyer published by one of his students regarding terrorism has long been part of discussion among Muslims on how to use Islamic Law itself to challenge radical and nihilist readings of Islamic Law. Even ultra-orthodox Muslims who otherwise resemble the isolationist Orthodox Jews of days yore, have long before Hamid and Butt and Hussain put forward intellectually coherent, and authentically Islamic methods of challenging terrorism and radicalism.
Ultimately, reliance upon former terrorists and radicals only provides limited and often de-contextualized insight. Evidence? Butt's recent plea to Muslims is targeted to British Muslim communities. Read his article. Yet, Scotland Yard has determined that this recent spate of terror-plans "has nothing to do" with the Scottish Muslim community. In fact, this time, unlike 7/7 London, the terrorists came in as doctors on a fast-track immigration program from places like India and Iraq.
Very well then. Let us begin a search for any former radical foreign doctors who want to tell us how to deal with their kind of terrorism. Doing so will continue to assure that we stay behind the terrorists and radicals in winning against terrorism. Fox News? Observer? Mainstream media?
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