The Narrative Behind #HappyMuslims
BismillahiRahmaniRahim. La Hawla Wala Quwwata illa Billah. Hasbunallahu wa ni’mal Wakil.
I offer asalaamu’alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh to both Br. Adam Deen and “The Honesty Policy”.
INTRODUCTION This is a formal response to the current, and what may be considered petty, dilemma that has been caused by the recent release of a controversial video titlted”#HappyMuslims”. As a matter of formality– due to the public nature of this address — I shall henceforth refer to Br. Adam and The Honesty Policy indirectly. This is also conducive as both parties represent a segment of the Muslim community that agrees with their stance on the matter now being discussed. As such, this response should not necessarily be seen as limited to those being singled out. It should also be noted that in no way is this address meant to humiliate or insult all aforementioned, rather it is in hopes of affirming and manifesting a directive of the Qur’an:
[Prophet], call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided. – (16:125)
I must admit that there have been many times in my life as a Muslim that I have not adhered to this criterion, so this is more a reminder for myself than anyone else. I do hope that my words, despite their opposing nature, will stay true to this. While I am not too familiar with The Honesty Policy members, I do know Br. Adam personally, though we are not close. I remember when he visited here in Malaysia to give a conference, and I was allowed the privilege of escorting him around Kuala Lumpur. We talked on a number of issues related to dawah and our backgrounds. From what I know of Adam, he is a sincere and passionate brother willing to give his intellectual talents for the faith. His academic background is similar to my own — Philosophy — despite the fact that we emphasize different methods in the discipline; he towards a more synthetic approach, whereas I more deconstructive. His is about reconciling differences, whereas mine is more about destroying opposing ideologies. One is constructive, the other destructive. Where the former builds, the latter takes apart; a thorn in the side, as it were. Adam then should be fully expecting what I’m about to write, though I hope he does not become frustrated with my approach. Where destruction occurs, the chance to rebuild is always there, so such criticism should not be viewed in an entirely negative light.
Brits[Muslims] have a bad rep for being a bit stiff, but this video proves otherwise. We are HAPPY. We are eclectic. We are cosmopolitan. Diverse. Creative. Fun. Outgoing. And everything you can think of….This video is to show the world despite the negative press, stereotypes and discrimination we are burdened with we should respond with smiles and joy, not anger.
However, the video failed to escape criticism, especially from within the Muslim community itself. Many Muslims complained of the “immodest nature” of singing and dancing in public, whereas others provided a sociological deconstruction of the intentions behind the video. The counter-response to these objections, both by the Honesty Policy and Adam Deen, was to concentrate on the former while completely ignoring the latter. Neither of these objections are more valuable than the other, but weaving a counter response that excludes one of them is indicative of a very serious flaw in reasoning. The Honesty Policy repeatedly mocked those who opposed the project, calling them the “haram squad” (literally meaning “the sin squad”; a pejorative label typically used against Muslims who are seen as too restrictive because of their open disapproval of certain actions or statements within the Muslim community). On his FB page, Adam frequently applied the label of “puritanicals” to those who disagreed, though he would later clarify that not everyone who opposed him deserved this label. However, a question cannot help but be raised as to how this really makes things better, since he has yet to really tell us what the differences are between the two parties. The Honesty Policy has also defended their statements based on the fact that an eminent scholar, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, has backed their project; they reference apparent disagreements among scholars as evidence of Islam’s “openness” to various perspectives. Adam has repeatedly called for puritanicals (and that other group he has yet to label) to provide evidence behind their claims, while simultaneously stating that “there is no evidence” behind their claims. Adam has either remained unaware of the contradiction behind these two mutually exclusive statements, or he’s simply posturing. The other side of the debate has also not been so forgiving in their judgments. Many Muslims have outright condemned both The Honesty Policy and Adam in a very hostile manner, playing into the pejorative labels being applied to them. This has not helped matters, though it does help that among all those that disagree, this appears to be a minority of angry individuals, who despite their harassing comments, are still not “extremists”, “radicals”, “terrorists”, etc., just as The Honesty Policy and Adam, are not necessarily “deviants”. What remains to be found within this heated discussion, despite already a number of well-reasoned and measured responses, are the real reasons behind this backlash and why exactly the #HappyMuslims project is wrong. Wrong how? Morally? Rationally? Islamically? All of the above? At the bottom, it’s neither, nor all. All of these are merely products of another problem: #HappyMuslims is wrong because it destroys the very discourse necessary to answer this question to begin with. Prior to dissecting this however, let’s deal with the counter arguments brought up by Adam and the Honesty Policy first, so that I am not accused of lacking concern on matters of religiosity.
As noted above, Adam and the members of The Honesty Policy have primarily focused on the issue of whether or not the video was “halal” (permissible) or “haram” (sinful). The latter have been less eager to respond to accusations against them, and have completely relied on the fact that Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has given his support. Adam, on the other hand, has attempted a full out refutation of his detractors on his blog. As such, I will be responding to Adam primarily. Adam’s entire argument can be best exemplified by the following excerpt on his blog:
When engaging with Puritanical Muslims, one discovers there really is little substance to their claims. Often Puritanicals ask for evidence to deem a given action ‘Halal’, or permissible. Although this gives the impression that one is being true to the faith, the question is based on a false premise, namely that ‘every action is Haram until sharia permits’. E.g of a question, I had someone ask me “where is the evidence during the Prophet’s [sallallhu alayhi wasallam] time, of the women of Medina dancing publicly?”…This is a completely topsy turvy way in which do deduce ‘Hukm’ , Islamic rulings, not to mention the fact it leads to absurdities. It’s analogous to the notion that one is guilty until proven innocent! While it should be noted that this principle is true for Ibadat, i.e. acts of worship, it is not the case for anything else…The correct view regarding fiqh (jurisprudence) of actions is ‘Every action is halal (permissible) until texts restrict’. Thus, the onus is on the Puritanical Muslims to find the evidence to deem dancing ‘Haram’ or impermissible…So my challenge to the detractors is this, where is the clear-cut or definitive evidence to deem the video ‘Haram’ or impermissible?…There simply isn’t clear-cut evidence to dismiss it as such. Puritanical Muslims have been at pains to find a verse or hadith to vindicate their outcry.
As noted earlier, Adam’s call for evidence contradicts his confidence that there isn’t any. However, what is most problematic with this argument is his gross misinterpretation of his detractors’ positions as well as what he constitutes as “evidence” in Islamic law. Adam assumes, without any credible argument, that those that are primarily opposed to his view are coming from a perspective that restricts behaviors based on there being no positive evidence in favor. On the contrary, many who have disagreed have been convinced by evidences suggesting that such actions, such as dancing or listening to music, have mostly been seen as unfavorable within the Islamic tradition. Adam takes the common question, “where is the evidence during the Prophet’s [sallallahu alayhi wasallam] time, of the women of Medina dancing publicly?” as indicative of this sort of unsupported reasoning, but this is simply presumptuous. The question is merely a challenge to Adam to prove the normative opinion wrong — not to validate some imagined “puritanical” view that everything is haram by default. Perhaps some may in fact hold this view, but Adam’s rant hasn’t shown any examples of this being the mainstream trend of disagreement, no matter how many times he complains about “puritanicals” coming to rain on his parade. The second issue with this argument is how Adam wishes to be proven wrong. He wants evidence that shows a “clear cut” condemnation directly from the Qur’an or ahadith (narrated reports). The problem is that while this is certainly a method propounded today by hardcore Salafis (presumably the very same puritanicals he wishes to denounce), it has never been the normative method of traditional Islamic jurisprudence. Many issues dealt with by fiqh have neither “clear cut evidence” from the Qur’an or ahadith, nor were such things ever necessary. There are other forms of evidence that play an important role in determining rulings on controversial matters — as Adam should be well aware of — such as ijma (consensus) and qiyas (deduction by analogy). Within the Maliki madhab (school of thought) an additional criterion of the “living Sunnah”, or the amal (behavior) of the Medinan community, even supersedes the hadith. Perhaps Adam did not realize the possibility of his questioner being Maliki? In any case, such a demand for “clear cut evidence” from mostly lay Muslims is completely out of line. As the celebrated Tunisian Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani stated in his Kitab al-Jami’ fi al-Sunan:
Ibn `Uyayna said: “Hadith is liable to misguide all except the jurists” (al-hadithu mudillatun illa li al-fuqaha’).
Ibn Wahb said: “Every memorizer of hadith that does not have an Imam in fiqh is misguided (dall), and if Allah had not rescued us with Malik and al-Layth (ibn Sa`d), we would have been misguided.”
Given the above, an appeal to scholars on the issue would be a far more Islamically appropriate demand. Adam (including The Honesty Policy) recognized the numerous responses citing scholarly consensus on the issues of music, permitted and non-permitted types, as well as dancing — not to mention the proper attire for men and women, which was not displayed by many individuals in the video. What was the response? Simply put, both appealed to a minority view from a group of scholars they have yet to name (aside from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), and rather than explaining why the minority view is valid, they seem to advocate the perspective that disagreement itself justifies the opinion in question. Adam cannot possibly make this more clear when he says:
[G]iven that the discussion is within the remit of fiqh exploration, if one wants to be charitable, one might allow the claim that some may deem the video ‘haram’. And yet, even this merely suggests a difference of opinion. What’s the consequence of this in terms of fiqh, responsibility and judgment? It means it can only be ‘haram’ for those who deem it ‘haram’, and not for those who differ with that interpretation! To see it any other way would be a form of authoritarian fiqh tyranny, a problem Puritanical Muslims suffer from quite regularly, wanting to impose puritanical ‘Islamic opinions’ on everyone else!
While this certainly may be the case with many controversial issues, it is not always the case that one can simply agree to disagree in matters of fiqh. Sometimes the minority opinion is simply wrong. Even when this is not the case, the safest opinion to accept for the sake of not causing fitna (conflict) in the community, is that of the majority. Regardless, Adam and The Honesty Policy have repeatedly placed the burden of proof on those who disagree — despite the fact that the evidence against their position is quite strong — and rather than engage that majority view on the same footing, both parties have simply evaded the responsibility, citing “differences of opinion” whilst calling everyone else who disagrees pejorative labels who are out to “tyrannize” them. What this clearly shows is that if you truly wish to be proven wrong, this is not the method to be adopting for beneficial discourse.
However, the question remains as to whether or not the video is halal or haram. I leave the reader to seek out the proper authorities and to judge based on whom they believe holds the most knowledge on the matter. I am not an authority in fiqh. If there is anything I could say,however, is that my Shaykh once said of haya (modesty) that those who truly understand this principle in our faith are not people who merely cover themselves appropriately, but speak, act, and think with haya. For shame is not simply a passive thing, nor is its primary focus on repelling sexual desire, but it is the best of manners in which attention is not drawn to oneself unnecessarily — and this applies to both men and women. Perhaps this is why the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) once said: “For every religion there are morals and the [essence] of Islamic morality is modesty (khuluq al-islam al-haya’).” The question of whether an action is halal or haram is perhaps not the right question in this situation, but whether or not the attention was a necessity, and who exactly it was for.
Contrary to popular belief among most Muslims today, we and our religion are not only perceived as violent and intolerant. There is in fact another image being imposed on us: the idea of a “moderate, liberal, pacifistic ” Muslim that submits fully to the standards of secular society and law. These “moderates” are also seen as being obligated to control the more extreme elements in their communities. If a Muslim does not openly speak out against extremism 24/7, dedicating their every waking moment to showing how peaceful and loyal they are to
king constitution and country, with a megaphone on every street corner, then they are by default an extremist. Indeed, while many non-Muslims may not buy into this narrative, those of us trying to combat Islamophobia in society should at least try to recognize that it has two faces. For instance, the infamous American Islamophobic blogger, Pamela Geller, does not actually demonize all Muslims as terrorists and extremists. Rather, she sees Muslims as being in two camps, one of which she seeks to defend and champion above the rest. In an interview with The Times of Israel, when asked if she was opposed to Islam and Muslims as a whole, she answered with the following:
Of course not. I’m a human rights activist. I fight for all people who yearn for freedom…I am opposed to jihad and to the most brutal and oppressive ideology on the face of the earth: the Sharia [Islamic religious law]…Who speaks for the Muslims who flee jihadi wars, Sharia, honor killings and misogyny? I do.
For her, the extremists believe in jihad and Sharia Law, but ask most Muslims today and they will tell you that they too believe in jihad and Sharia Law, just that their understanding and application of it is entirely different from those who commit atrocious acts. So for Geller, rejecting jihad and the Sharia (the entire corpus of Islamic belief) and becoming a secularist is the sign of a “good Muslim” as opposed to a “bad” one. This is made even more obvious as the interview continues. When Geller is asked if she seeks to liberalize the Muslim world, she answers in the affirmative: “Yes”.
On the other side of the pond in the United Kingdom, UKIP politician Gerard Batten recently suggested to parliament that Muslims be forced “to sign a declaration rejecting violence and accepting the need to modify the Qur’an.” He too affirmed the existence of “moderate” Muslims when he said: “I would expect the fundamentalists to agree with me that democracy is incompatible with fundamentalist Islam. Moderate Muslims have to decide which side of the argument they are on.” These are just but a few examples. The label of “moderate”, contrary to the unsubstantiated position that it means wasatiyyah (“moderation” understood by the limits of Sharia, the very thing Islamophobes want to do away with), should be understood as a loaded term defined completely by secular, non-religious principles. The same goes for terms like “fundamentalist”, which when uttered implies some form of extremism, while simultaneously meaning “one who follows the fundamentals of their religion”. The very fact that many Muslims don’t seem to have a problem utilizing both terms is indicative of a lack of awareness of the narrative in question, which seeks to pigeon hole us into one of these two camps. That lack of awareness is also apparent in Adam and The Honesty Policy’s actions and statements. Uses of the terms “puritanicals” and “haram squad” give in to this false dichotomy of the narrative, further dividing us based on the goals and desires of those who despise our religion; our way of life. The term “puritanical” became a popular pejorative for Muslims a few years ago by a self-proclaimed “moderate” Muslim by the name of Khaled Abou el Fadl. His book, The Great Theft, while not necessarily arguing for this strict dichotomy, did provide a term that could further be used to divide us based on this narrative:
Those I am calling puritans have been described by various writers as fundamentalists, militants, extremists, radicals, fanatics, jihadists, and even simply Islamists. I prefer the label puritans, because the distinguishing characteristic of this group is the absolutist and uncompromising nature of its beliefs. In many ways, this orientation tends to be purist, in the sense that it is intolerant of competing points of view and considers pluralist realities to be a form of contamination of the unadulterated truth.
Notice any distinction between a puritanical and a non-puritanical? There isn’t one. The nature of human beings in general is uncompromising when it comes to our most cherished beliefs. Of course, one can only realize this if they are not utilizing the term to pressure others into conformity. Who wants to be a “puritanical” anyway? It’s something frowned upon by those of the establishment, of which many people want to be a part of. Let me clarify that I am in no way condemning the labeling of extremists, but that I am condemning how and by what means those extremists are being labeled.
But the use of these terms by both Adam and The Honesty Policy wasn’t their most grievous error. Their intentions, and the very nature of the video itself, was all that was necessary to justify the narrative of Islamophobes. Giving into the fear of being seen as extremists, Adam and The Honesty Policy chose to be branded with the polar opposite term, by showing the self-proclaimed world of “diversity and pluralism” that they are the same as everyone else. Through this superficial act of secular pop culture antics, neither parties have expressed anything authentic about Islam or Muslims, nor have they destroyed stereotypes. This act is even more surprising for Adam, given that the institute he heads claims to “raise awareness about the sound use of critical thinking and intellectual thought.” If that were the case, you would think that dancing on camera would have been the last thing on his mind. You would also think that the last thing Muslims would do is dance and sing to an artist that has repeatedly been called out for his sexist and misogynistic music and videos — some of the very stereotypes that #HappyMuslims was intended to combat. Irony never felt so embarrassingly shameless. More importantly, if not more damaging, by justifying this narrative they have made the rest of us who disagree with this video look like extremists by default, thereby marginalizing us further and silencing our voices through the implicit slander of the Islamophobes’ false dichotomy. While I believe this was not their intention, perhaps all those involved should consider that the anger towards them has more to do with the fact that the rest of us have been humiliated by their actions, and not so much by what those actions were.
A few year ago I ran a semi-popular YouTube channel that focused on providing answers to non-Muslims about Islam. At one point, a well known bigot had released a video basically condoning genocide of the Muslim world, prompting me to respond quickly to this horrific outburst. In my response, I was angry, but I made absolutely sure I was careful with my language so that others would know what I stood for. Near the end of my response, I warned the gentlemen that if he or anyone else were to ever try to manifest those genocidal fantasies, that they would be met with real, physical force from the Muslim and non-Muslim world alike. My response was balanced, despite its harshness. I was clear and concise. I presented myself as rational and in line with the moral principles of self defense and justice. I thought that there was absolutely no way that my video could be misinterpreted or misquoted. I thought wrong. Within hours, this individual took a short clip of my video and spun it around. He accused me of making death threats because of his “free speech” and went on to show me as an example of how Muslims really are: extremists, terrorists, and the like. For three years after, I endured constant harassment, death threats, and even people calling The FBI and Homeland Security on me. No matter how many times I contacted YouTube to ask them to take down the video because of its slanderous nature, they refused to take me seriously. It became so bad I attempted to get legal counsel to file a lawsuit for slander/libel, but I couldn’t afford it. Even the numerous videos I made over that three year period, attempting to clear my name of these accusations, were met with the same hostility and disdain. It didn’t matter that I never supported terrorism or extremism. It didn’t matter that my words were taken out of context. None of this mattered, because most of those hating me didn’t want it to. The narrative of the “Islamic threat” had to be preserved. Someone had to be made an example of, no matter what they truly said and stood for. How does this relate to the issue at hand? Because I know the intentions behind #HappyMuslims quite well. In fact, I beat them to the idea several years ago. Yes, I’ve danced on camera for all to see; to show everyone how normal I was. As a part of my public relations campaign, I wanted to prove that I was a moderate Muslim, and that I was just like everyone else. So, I decided to show all these non-Muslims that were harassing me that I could dance. Prior to my conversion to Islam, I was a very avid breakdancer and still knew how to do it pretty well. The difference was that I did it now in private for myself as I knew it was wrong to display to others. However, I was so desperate to be accepted that I decided to forgo that feeling and just let go. I just wanted to stop being hated. I just wanted respect.
When the video was eventually released, I received a wave of positive responses, most of which echoed the very same sentiments shown towards the #HappyMuslims project: “See! Muslims are normal too!” , “Great job! This is a surprise!”, “Look, Ali is a moderate!!!”, ad naseum. At first, I was elated; I finally felt some measure of humanity. However, something still felt unsettling. Something still felt wrong. I wouldn’t find out exactly what that was till a few years later when I decided to finally remove the video. In that moment, I had given in to a narrative that not only destroyed the image of Islam, but destroyed the image of my brothers and sisters. I had not regained my dignity, but I had given it up to serve the interests of my desires to be accepted by those that didn’t want to see me as me, but as them. I only ask that others reflect and to not make the same mistakes as myself. If we truly wish to counter Islamophobia, we should first stop letting it define who we are.