By Nabil Echchaibi
17 June 2017
My existential crisis as a Muslim man haunts me to the core of my being. Amid the horrendous nihilism of Isis, the dull orthodoxy of self-proclaimed custodians of Islam and the culture of fear in the west which sees everything Muslim as pure evil, I seek an answer to a simple and unasked question: how does it feel to be Muslim today?
Instead, you ask me to denounce – even apologize for – the horrors of Manchester, Nice, Orlando, Paris and Berlin, as if I were a silent accomplice cheering softly behind the garb of my faith. You mistake my silence for duplicity, my shock for deceit, and my choking inability to comprehend for disloyalty. But have you asked me how I feel instead of how you feel about me?
Well, I feel morally and psychologically exhausted. The moral gulf that separates me from the demonic force of Isis is both comforting and haunting. Haunting because their abominable strike will always be louder and more spectacular than the tenor of my indignation. Their tales of terror and destruction will always muffle my calls for tolerance. My voice of moderation is deep but faint in the face of their unspeakable bestiality. I do not apologize. I clamour for my right to be heard and narrate my distress, confusion and hope.
I’m tired of seeing my faith trapped in a cancerous cycle of terror, reduced to a vapid discussion of veils, Burqas and Burkinis, and held back by an obsessive fixation with Fatwas. An imam who condemns music because it might turn young people into apes and pigs is simply an aberration to Muslim theology. We have far more important questions in need of urgent answers. Questions that should haunt our present and perturb our daily existence as adherents of this faith.
What keeps me awake at night is how we plunged into this sorry state of decline. Why we suddenly stopped thinking and inventing, we who gave the world astronomy, chemistry, algebra, surgery, the university, musical scales and coffee. How can we reconcile the anarchic savagery of our worst Muslims today with the humanist generosity of our best Muslims of yesterday? What have we to offer the world today?
Besides the brutality of colonialism and imperialism, I often wonder about our own responsibility in this squandering of energy. Our humanist ancestors of a bygone golden age towered over the world because they chose, at their own peril at times, to engage history and project their knowledge in favour of all humanity.
Sadly, Isis is only the cumulative result of people who have long expelled themselves from history, neither moving things forward, nor bringing back anything new. This is the tragedy of being rendered superfluous. In fact, the viscerality of Isis has deep and painful roots in a relentless process of atomization of the Muslim individual. The vast majority of Muslims have not resorted to violence, but they have not effectively risen up against the closing of free thought, either.
Many have written about this historical decline and often in unsavoury ways, assigning Islam an unflattering place in the waiting room of history. My aim here is not to disparage a civilization, but to diagnose its current malaise, one that inflicts Muslims today and prevents them from thinking themselves into the world, not because they are incapable of doing it, but because of a coordinated campaign to deny them the right to do it. Like many Muslims, I feel the weight of this tension everyday because the distance between our religious leaders and the world in which we live is a gaping hole.
The biggest orchestrator of this campaign is not Isis. That is only one of its sad manifestations. It is Saudi Arabia and its rampant Wahhabi religiosity which cripples everything Muslim today. Its literalist theology is suffocating and has no place in the modern world.
How can we tolerate a religious system which still flogs its people in public squares, denies its women basic rights like driving and looking out windows and criminalizes any form of dissent? Weighty words fit for a colossal peril that is Saudi Arabia. I do not mince my words because this tragedy has gone on for too long and it robs Muslims around the world of their ability to think their religion anew.
In fact, I agree with Algerian author Kamel Daoud who made a subtle distinction between a “black Isis” and a “white Isis”. Black Isis, he says, beheads, pillages, kills indiscriminately, and destroys the cultural heritage of humanity, whereas white Isis – Saudi Arabia – is better dressed and cleaner, but it does more or less the same thing.
Saudi Arabia has produced, according to Daoud, a “fatwa valley” and a massive industry of theologians, imams, mosques, books, cartoons and religious editorials and satellite television channels. Oil has not only polluted the planet, but it has significantly stalled the intellectual and religious march of Islam by erecting prison walls around thinking and innovation. This is not an extreme view to hold. It is one largely shared in the streets of Muslim-majority countries. Yet, we don’t act on it.
This should also explain the pain I endured after watching Donald Trump dance with the royals of Saudi Arabia last month. The violence of that scene is infuriating because it tells every Muslim that no matter how the Saudis, the custodians of the most sacred sites in Islam, violate human rights, bomb and starve the children of Yemen, or foreclose any opening for religious moderation, the US will simply look away because oil and free trade have far more value than Muslims fighting for their right to freedom.
But why do we allow ourselves to live at the mercy of this vicious strategic game suspended between the greed for resources and power? How do we turn away from this path of indoctrination and passive absorption to embrace an open society that questions and interrogates its beliefs and values in perpetuity?
We do not have to go far for inspiration. Muhammad Iqbal, a Muslim modernist philosopher and poet, told us at the turn of the 20th century that for thinking to be free, it does not have to be reactionary, defensive or simply restorative. It must above all lead to an embrace of risk and open discussion. Religion for Iqbal was a continuous project in perpetual movement; not a closed theology doomed for mere imitation. Islam marked the end of prophecy, not human intelligence.
In a time of deep confusion and anger, we must turn to the hopeful amongst us to shed our intellectual laziness and awaken in all of us a new spirit of vitalism that looks outward to the world. Muslims need a radical theology of hope in harmony with the world, not outside of it.
This angst we feel inside can only heal if Muslims can yank their faith from the darkness of intolerance and the lull of tradition. But for that to happen we need to counter the futility of the suicide bomb wherever it hits with the peaceful promise of moderation.
Whether we rise up to this urgent challenge is the answer to our existential crisis.