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My Year Inside Radical Islam - Part 4

Friday, May 16, 2008 


On page 94 of My Year Inside Radical Islam, one reads:

"As I was walking toward the red Tercel, a dark-haired woman who looked to be in her late thirties greeted me. She wasn't wearing a hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women. I was surprised to see her. It took me a second to realize the reason for my surprise: it had been weeks since I'd had any real contact with a woman. And, to my dismay, I had begun to internalize the dress code of the Musalla. Her lack of hijab struck me as wrong."

What Mr. Gartenstein-Ross is describing when he talks about having begun to internalize the dress code of the Musalla or Muslim center in Ashland is, actually, an expression of Pavlovian classical conditioning. In some of the early experiments conducted by Pavlov, a dog would be presented with an unconditioned stimulus, such as food, and, the presentation of the food would automatically induce the dog to salivate, which was referred to as an unconditioned response. In the next stage of the experiment, a tone would be sounded at the same time as the food was presented, and when the tone and sight of the food were paired enough times, the sounding of the tone was enough to induce salivation in the dog even if no food was present.

The process through which the dress code was being internalized within Mr. Gartenstein-Ross is not exactly the same as the previously described experiment of Pavlov, but there are some important similarities. When most men who have grown up in North America meet a woman – such as the situation described by Mr. Gartenstein-Ross -- there is no inherent sense that there is anything wrong with the way such a woman is dressed as long as her clothes fall within certain broad parameters of aesthetics and decency.

In such a case, the unconditioned stimulus is the woman and her clothing. However, under normal circumstances, there is not necessarily any particular unconditioned response which is likely to be displayed by someone like Mr. Gartenstein-Ross in relation to such an encounter.

Yet, if one works and spends time within an environment like the fundamentalist-leaning Muslim center in Ashland as Mr. Gartenstein-Ross did, then, what happens is that every time a woman appears on the scene, certain behaviours, comments, or body language are given expression through the male hierarchy of the group. Having spent considerable time in such environments, I am well aware of the things that are said, or the behaviours which are encouraged and discouraged, or the kind of body language and facial expressions that are used to induce people – both men and women -- to conform to a specific way of doing things.

One of the chants of the fundamentalist mind-set is that women must be kept out of sight. Women should not participate in mosque activities – unless it is to cook food. Women should be herded into little rooms in the basement or to some other room away from the main focus of activity. Women should be dressed in a particular way. Women should observe hijab. Women need to be kept separate from men.

After enough pairings of the foregoing sort of theological perspective and the presence of women, then, in a relatively short period of time, the presence of a woman in and of herself -- unaccompanied by the presence of a fundamentalist-oriented commentator -- is enough to elicit the mind-set which has been conditioning the thoughts and feelings of someone who is in a position like that of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross. Consequently, a person who is in a position similar to that of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross begins to automatically disapprove of a given woman if she does not conform to the theological mind-set which is in place.

One does not think about what is going on. One merely feels what one has been conditioned to feel such that the unconditioned stimulus – the presence of a woman without hijab – is enough to elicit feelings of disapproval … that is, the conditioned response.

Although both Muslim men and women are enjoined to be modest in their manner of dress, the Quranic verse which indicates that women should cover themselves does not stipulate that no part of a woman should be visible to the world. This extended notion of covering up is someone's interpretation of what God meant. If covering up is for the sake of modesty, and men are required to be modest in their dress, then, why is it that women are required to be so much more modest and so much more covered up in this respect than men?

Why aren't men the ones who are stuffed into small rooms in the basement or up in the cramped quarters of the balconies? Why aren't men the ones who are kept away from the main center of activities within a mosque? Why aren't men the ones who are discouraged from taking part in mosque activities? Why aren't men the ones who are told that they cannot use the main entrance to enter the mosque? Why is it okay to listen to the sound of a male voice in the mosque, but listening to the sound of a woman's voice somehow threatens to shake the foundations of all that is true and just?

In all too many mosques and Muslim centers, none of the foregoing questions are really open for discussion. Everyone – both men and women – has been conditioned to accept the status quo without engaging in any rigorous, critical exploration of whether such is the way things need to be or should be.

Almost everyone is on auto-pilot, operating in conjunction with classically conditioned responses. Reason, insight, critical inquiry, dialogue, rigorous examination, and wisdom concerning such issues are almost nowhere to be found.

As pointed out by Mr. Gartenstein-Ross, if one has objections to any of the foregoing, one is chastised and criticized for the weakness of one's faith, or one is given a book to read which is written by someone with the "right kind" of theological orientation, or one is recited a litany of obscure names residing in this or that Muslim country whom one is enjoined to treat as authoritative icons whose words are not to be disputed.

After all, those people are scholars. They are experts. They know Arabic.

Don't think! Don't reflect! Don't question! Just blindly accept what one is being told, and if one is not prepared to do this, then, you, my friend, are likely to be accused of being an unbeliever … or a minion of Satan.

In fundamentalist-leaning groups [and what is being said here applies as much to fundamentalist Christian and Jewish communities as it does to Muslim groups] there is tremendous pressure – both spoken and unspoken – that is imposed upon people – both men and women – to submit to the theology being promulgated by the group. One is encouraged to internalize the idea that obedience to what the theological leaders are saying is the only acceptable form of adab or spiritual etiquette.

If one objects to the idea of being required to show blind obedience to human beings, and, instead, one humbly expresses the opinion that 'I thought we were supposed to submit only to God", one is told that what these leaders are saying is precisely the same as what God is saying. From their perspective, what they are promulgating is what God meant even if what they claim God meant is not necessarily what God actually said in the Qur'an.

According to the fundamentalist orientation, one should be ashamed for even considering the possibility that God might have meant something other than what the leaders are telling one is the case. Creating such controversy is described by those with vested theological interests as being tantamount to fitna or creating discord in the community … and, remember, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

In other words, if you don't agree with them, then, you are the source of fitna. To suggest that such people may be the source of fitna for introducing problematic ideas and understandings in the first place does not appear anywhere on their theological radar except as a hostile invader seeking to destroy Islam.

For the fundamentalist mind-set, the only way to achieve group and community harmony is if everyone submits to their theology. Thus, the fundamentalists have set up the game plan to be something of a fait accompli … keep one's mouth shut and do things their way or be labelled as an unbeliever and as one who creates fitna in the community.

The fundamentalist strategy often tends to consist of bullying, intimidation, indoctrination, control, and oppression. Sincere dialogue and rigorous exploration of the issues are not compatible with such a strategy as Mr. Gartenstein-Ross indicates was his experience on many occasions during the course of his interaction with the Muslim group in Ashland, Oregon.

There are several junctures in Mr. Gaertenstein-Ross' book when the issue of apostasy is, to a degree, discussed. This topic, of course, is of particular interest to the author of
My Year Inside of Radical Islam because toward the end of his book he provides an account of how he left the Muslim community to become Christian.

Prior to the foregoing point, however, the issue of apostasy is explored within a context and at a time when Mr. Gartenstein-Ross still considered himself to be a Muslim. For example, on pages 153-154 of his book, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross relates the words of someone -- a fellow by the name of Abdul-Qaadir – for whom the author had respect on the basis of other conversations which they had engaged in previously.

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross wanted to know if such people should be killed. His friend said:

"The reason a lot of people are uncomfortable with this is because they don't understand the notion of apostasy in Islam. … They hear that you can be killed for leaving Islam, and their reaction is 'Huh?' What they're not considering is that religion and politics aren't separable in Islam the way they are in the West. When you take the Shahadah, you aren't just pledging your allegiance to Allah, you're aligning yourself with the Muslim state. Leaving Islam isn't just converting from one faith to another. It's more properly understood as treason."

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross reports that his response to the foregoing was: "That makes sense." Actually, the fact of the matter is that such a perspective makes no sense at all.

To say that religion and politics aren't separable in Islam is to propagate a myth. As the Qur'an points out, and as has previously been noted, when Muslims pledged their oath of allegiance to the Prophet at Hudaibiyah, not only was their oath given to Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the Prophet of God, but via revelation, Allah clarified the matter and said that the oath of allegiance given by Muslims was really to God for God's hand was above the hand of the Prophet.

There was no Muslim state at the time. There was a community in Yathrib whose people – both Muslim and non-Muslim – had, for the most part, agreed to accept the Prophet as leader of that community and who were prepared to accept his rulings in certain matters.

A constitution was established in order to formalize the nature of the relationship which had been agreed to between the Muslims in Yathrib and certain non-Muslim tribes. As such, this constitutional understanding did not bind the non-Muslim tribes to a Muslim state but, instead, outlined the duties and rights of the respective signatories and in this sense was more like a treaty among different peoples than a document which created a political state.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

"Leave me alone so long as I leave you alone." He did not encourage people to make requests that he lay down further spiritual precepts beyond what was given in the Qur'an, nor did he encourage them to question him minutely about deen for fear that people would burden themselves in such matters beyond what God had intended and beyond what they were able to do.

Certainly, the Prophet was not someone who busied himself with setting up a political, state apparatus. He did what was necessary in order to establish a judicious, safe, stable public sphere, but this was done not for the purposes of politics or creating a state but, instead, was done in order to develop an atmosphere which was conducive to people pursuing shari'ah according to their individual capacities and inclinations.

When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) passed away, a convention was established in which certain people in the community gave oaths of allegiance to whomever was elected to be Caliph of the community. The taking of such an oath did not bind the individual to an Islamic state but was, rather, a contract between the leader and those who acceded to being led by such a person.

As Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) indicated upon becoming Caliph:

"Obey me as long as I obey Allah and His Prophet, when I disobey Him and His Prophet, then obey me not."

The issue of the relationship between a leader and those who came to be aligned with that leader through an oath was not a function of politics or membership in a state, but, rather, this was a matter of a person's understanding concerning the truth. When all parties involved in such an arrangement were on the same page with respect to their respective understanding of the nature of truth under a given set of circumstances, then all such parties worked together, and when there were differences entailed by their respective understandings of the truth, then, allegiance no longer bound the two parties together.

Shortly after the Prophet passed away and prior to becoming Caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) said:

"Listen to me, ye people. Those of you who worshipped Muhammad know that he is dead like any other mortal. But those of you who worship the God of Muhammad (SAW) know that He is alive and would live forever."

Then he repeated a passage from the Qur'an:

"Muhammad is but a messenger, Messengers of God have passed away before him; What if he dies or is killed? Will you turn back upon your heels? And whosoever turns back upon his heels will by no means do harm to Allah, and Allah will reward the thankful."

A Muslim's primary allegiance is to Allah. Messengers pass away, and Caliphs pass away, and leaders pass away, but Allah is ever-lasting, and, ultimately, it is one's relationship with God that is of essential importance – not one's relationship with a state or government … Muslim or otherwise.

With respect to those who accept Islam and then turn away from it, the Qur'an says:

Those who turn back to unbelief after the guidance has become clear are seduced by Shaitan who gives them false hopes. [47:25]

There is nothing in this ayat which alludes, either directly or indirectly, to the idea that such a person has committed treason with respect to the Muslim community. Moreover, there is a question concerning exactly what it means to "turn back to unbelief".  

If someone becomes a Muslim and, then, due to various circumstances, leaves the Muslim community but still retains many of the same beliefs, values, and commitments, can one necessarily and categorically state that such a person has turned back to unbelief? If such a person believes in God, and the Prophets, and the life here- after, and the Day of Judgment, and the angels, and has respect and love for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and prays to God (but not necessarily in the prescribed format), and remembers God, and seeks to do good for the sake of God, and engages in charitable works, and is committed to fighting against injustice, and seeks, for the sake of God, to exercise qualities of patience, humility, honesty, love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and tolerance – can one say that such a person has turned back to unbelief? If one does not pray the five daily prayers or does not fast during the month of Ramazan or one does not go on Hajj even though one is physically and financially able to do so, but one believes in the oneness of God and gives zakat or charity, can one conclude that such a person has turned back to unbelief?

If someone comes to Islam accepting all the basic beliefs as well as observing the pillars of Islam, but, then, because of spending time with Muslims who are authoritarian, dogmatic, oppressive, arrogant, intolerant, misogynistic, and ignorant, then decides that he or she does not want to turn into that kind of Muslim yet is led to believe, through the use of undue influence in a cult-like set of circumstances, that anything which does not reflect such oppressive, arrogant dogmatism is not the true Islam, and, as a result, wishes not be considered a Muslim anymore, can such a person really have been said to have returned to unbelief? Isn't it much closer to the truth to argue that leaving behind the ignorance of such a group is actually moving toward Islam and not away from it … that leaving such a group is an act of belief in support of truth and a rejection of falsehood?

If a person gravitates toward Islam because she or he has been led to believe that the way of Divinity is about the sort of love, compassion, remembrance, piety, character, justice, kindness, tolerance, patience, friendship, and integrity which shatters the heart due to its breathtaking beauty and majesty, and, then, one is instead shown through people's words and actions that some Muslims actually promote having contempt for others, judging others, talking behind their backs, maligning people, harbouring enmity toward Muslims and non-Muslims alike, killing whomever disagrees with you, terrorizing humanity, being obsessed with harshly punishing others, oppressing people, and being intolerant toward one and all, why would anyone wish to stay mired in such a spiritual cesspool? Would not anyone with the least bit of understanding counsel such a person to leave the latter group of Muslims and return to your original understanding concerning Islam?

One begins to descend a very slippery slope when one starts to arrogate to oneself the right to decide who is, and who is not, a Muslim. A person treads on very dangerous spiritual ground when he or she assumes that God has appointed her or him to not only determine whose faith and deen constitutes the 'real Islam' but that God has, as well, authorized one to kill such individuals or punish them in any way.

Whatever might, or might not, have been the practices of the Prophet in relation to the issue of apostasy, this does not necessitate that such a practice must be observed in the present day. Just because the Prophet may have had, by the Grace of Allah, the spiritual wisdom and insight to make determinations in such matters, it does not, therefore, follow that anyone in today's world enjoys the same kind of spiritual wisdom and insight or that anyone in today's world has the same duties and responsibilities which accrue to a Prophet of God but which do not necessarily accrue to the rest of us.

According to some individuals, there is a reported hadith of the Prophet Muhammad in which he indicated that 'Whoever accepts Islam and then renounces that faith should be killed.' On the other hand, there also are reported hadiths which indicate that the Prophet told people to destroy their collections of hadith.

First of all, it is not clear what the Prophet meant – if he actually did say what he is reported to have said in this regard – when he allegedly indicated that anyone who commits apostasy should be killed. There are people who claim that they know what he meant, but I'm not quite sure why I should believe that such individuals actually know the mind and intentions of the Prophet.

Secondly, the Qur'an says:

"O believers! Obey Allah, obey the Rasool and those charged with authority among you. Should you have a dispute in anything, refer it to Allah and His Rasool, if you truly believe in Allah and the Last Day. This course of action will be better and more suitable." (Qur'an 4:59)

Now, if the Prophet ordered that collections of hadith were to be destroyed, I'm rather uneasy with the spiritual appropriateness of following something – namely, collections of Hadith -- which has reached me in apparent contradiction to such guidance. This is especially so since the alleged saying concerning apostasy does not just require me to do something that affects only my own, individual life but, rather, that to which I supposedly am being directed has rather serious ramifications for other human beings and their being able to continue to live.

The Qur'an indicates I may refer any such quandaries or disputes to Allah and His Rasool, and I have done this. The counsel of my heart which arises from this process of referral tells me something quite different than what the alleged hadith concerning apostasy indicates. Moreover, since the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, as previously indicated, that I should follow the counsel or fatwa of my heart no matter what others may say, then, this too would seem to mitigate against following the – I repeat -- alleged hadith concerning apostasy.

Of course, there will be those who will point out that when the Prophet said one should listen to the fatwa of one's heart no matter what others may say, the Prophet was not suggesting that this gives people permission to act in contravention to spiritual principles. I tend to agree with such a perspective while simultaneously noting that there is both considerable ambiguity as well as quite a few degrees of freedom concerning the nature of what, precisely, is entailed by such principles.

In addition, although the previously noted ayat of the Qur'an does indicate that one also should obey those who are charged with authority among us, there are quite a few questions which arise with respect the issue of precisely who it is that has been charged with such authority. There are many people who have usurped authority in illegitimate ways. There are many people who have arrogated to themselves the power to oppress the lives of others. Yet, I have a sense that those among us who actually have been charged by Divinity with true spiritual authority are actually few and far between.

Many people confuse power with authority. Just because God has granted one power, this does not mean that God also has granted one authority.

There are many pretenders who seek to use their power to leverage such authority or act as a pseudo-substitute for such authority, but, in reality, there are precious few people who have been charged with authentic authority. Furthermore, I am not at all convinced that such legitimate authority is necessarily given expression through the head of any specific political state or nation or that being charged with valid spiritual authority necessarily entails membership in the circles of religious scholars, imams, muftis, jurists, mullahs, or theologians.

Posted by Anab Whitehouse at 5/16/2008 01:33:00 PM  

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