Events in the Arab and Muslim world direct me again back to W.E.B. Du Bois and the pressing question in his book, The Souls of Black Folk— how does it feel to be a problem? The question posed by Du Bois in relations to African Americans and the problem of race in America has not ended and is as intense today as it was at the time he wrote the book.
Inspired by Du Bois’s framing, I ask a similar question– how does it feel to be Muslim today? To listen, watch and read news about Muslims is a daily act bringing with it a process of self-doubt and devastation. Bombings in mosques in Yemen, beheadings in Iraq, barrels filled with death in Syria, a cowardly mob of ‘men’ murdering a woman in Afghanistan and mass murder in a Pakistani school just to name the well-known events; but countless others fill the daily news cycle to chip away at ones soul. How heavy does it feel to be a Muslim today!
I dread the morning news for it is as sure as the rising sun that the Muslim subject is everywhere: dead, maimed, bombed and bloody. Muslims are keeping the journalistic enterprise afloat by sheer madness of actions committed in the name of Islam. No news day is a good day but these are rare and far between for if it bleeds it leads and daily the Muslim wound is deepening and gushing profusely.
How do you mourn the nameless and faceless when by the time you get to know what happened to them another group of nameless and faceless Muslims are killed and maimed! Who are these Muslim subjects? What crimes have they committed? Why are they reduced to mere numbers and GPS geographic locations? All of them are beautiful human souls with names, families, mothers, fathers, wives, brothers and sisters who agonize over the sudden loss, yet their collective voice is not heard beyond the confines of the silenced self.
As the day progresses then one is daily confronted with answering questions about the motive of the murderers and their claim of religious authority for killing and murdering all types of Muslims. Explaining differences or similarities between Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Wahabbi, Sufi, Ahmadi, Zaydi, Ismaili and countless other names becomes a full time job next to ones daily work schedule. A Muslim has no down time and even among family members the discussion will get back to the crazy and insane death and destruction involving distant and not so distant relatives in the Muslim world.
A Muslim is an injured soul walking numbed from the sheer magnitude of the suffering and death visited upon cities, towns and places fixed into his/her cultural and historical memory. The Muslim landscape is ablaze and with it the collectively held meaning is reduced to ashes and often through self-inflicted burnings.
Baghdad, the city of a Thousand and One Nights’ fame, has been bleeding non-stop for forty years and no end in sight for Iraq and its ancient people: Sunni, Shia, Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, Jews and Christians. Damascus, one of the first continuously inhabited cities of the world, sitting in ruin and the stench of death and destruction is everywhere and likewise no end in sight. Egypt, the land of Al-Azhar, the Pyramids and papyrus narrating and recording civilization’s long march and human ingenuity is fracturing at the seem and its best and brightest are in graves, jails or exile. Kabul and Afghanistan, the land of Abu Hanifa and the passageway for the Silk Road, has been at war and focus of powers Great Game with the dead and dying are collateral damage to drones of unconsciousness. Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali all are close to either a disaster zone or hanging on a thread away from collapse.
What should the answer be when the questions about Islam and Muslims are inside each and every household– and ones own mind? Can I answer my own questions about a tradition being dragged into the mud by some of its own adherents! A Muslim today is a problem that has no ready answers and those coming forward attempting to solve the riddle themselves emerge from within the same questions and not outside of it. Yes, everyone can point and site a text to support their actions but it is a matter of rationalizing a pre-determined course through narrow ideological selections and readings while leaving behind mountains of evidence demonstrating the total opposite.
Are Muslims violent, terrorist, barbaric, uncivilized, backward, despotic, oppressive toward women, irrational, and a death culture celebrating destruction while suffering deficiency in love, mercy and imagination? The news and events around the world daily reinforce this lens and I find myself often reduced to stupefying silence and an inability to explain the inexplicable even to ones own self.
What does Islam say or not say is irrelevant when blood and death is the language and the syntax is stitched together with mayhem, bullets and guns. Islam is a noun that drives its meaning from an action verb but not the one contemplated or identified daily in the news. The Islam of the news points only to a violent verb that attempts to create a noun without a reality, permanency or metaphysics attached to it. I don’t know the Islam of the news: the noun and the verb are masquerading in a reality show producing something akin to a non-stop running of the night of the living dead.
A Muslim today is walking in the midst and living the aftermath of a night filled with the living dead proclaiming a defense of God while killing Him at every corner. The names flashing daily on the news are seared into Muslim consciousness and begin to rewire and frame ones own view of him/herself as well as the Islam claimed to be represented in such actions.
Certainly, the need for rethinking monumental issues in Muslim societies are paramount and will need the best and brightest in this generation and a few others to put themselves to the task. Muslim societies can no longer assign religious education to those who have the lowest achievement while the best and brightest are preoccupied with the world and a race to accumulate more wealth. What is urgently needed is an investment in educating ethicists and religious ethicists in particular. Qur’anic and Hadith texts alone do not kill people nor are they capable of firing a single bullet on their own. However, ignorant people readings of text, misinterpretations and ethics of ends justify the means will reap death at every corner.
If ethics and its pursuit are made to be impoverished then the outcome is what we are witnessing across the Muslim world. The problem is not uniquely Muslim, rather, it is a structural outcome of colonization, distorted ‘reform’ agendas, post-colonization, imposed and never thought-out modernity, privatization benefiting the global north and current elites ‘leading’ nation-states by brute force—while all along focused on their own power and wealth over the welfare of their own populations.
The challenge of being a Muslim today is both a crisis and an opportunity in the same moment. For the Muslim task is to imagine the impossible and set out to actualize it in the eye of the most unforgiving storm—a material world that dresses Islam, religion and human discourse in an imperial violent garb. Our task according to the Prophet, “if the end of the world comes upon you while planting a seed then continue planting,” a most hopeful message in the midst of the storm. As a Muslim I feel like planting a seed today for future generations and the best seed according to the Qur’an is education.