American Muslims, Qadhi told the audience, needed to abide by the laws of their country, understanding that had they been born in Palestine or Iraq, their “responsibilities would be different.” He did not elaborate.
It is this kind of ambiguity that gnaws at some of Qadhi’s students. “We just get wishy-washy nonanswers,” one female student told me, adding that Qadhi’s “jihad of the tongue” was unconvincing. Being martyred in the battlefield, she said, is “romantic,” while “lobbying your congressman is not.”
I think Qadhi hits upon something real and important here: there is a distinction between universal and particular identities, affinities, and loyalties. Religious individuals who adhere to a profession of belief which is in its fundamental grounding universal in message and claim of truth have loyalties which expand beyond that of the nation or tribe. Even explicitly national religions, such as Judaism, have a component of universalism. Orthodox Jews assert that members of the Jewish nation much adhere to the commandments which their god enjoined upon them as outlined in the Hebrew Bible, but they also assert that gentiles should adhere to the Noachide Laws. Those of us who are explicitly or implicitly secular in our outlook have our own view of what is, and is not, universal, in terms of morality, often bracketed under “basic human rights.” The enumerated rights may differ from person to person, but there is an intuition that such a set does exist.
And yet one issue which crops up periodically, and is becoming more pervasive in our global world, is the elision of the distinction between universal and particular. We remove particular loyalties and affinities from our moral calculus in rhetoric. A Palestinian has obligations to a Palestinian which are not identical to the obligations of a Palestinian to an American. An American has obligations to his family which can not simply be reduced from his obligation to his nation. An individual is to some extent a bundle of identities, and sometimes those identities work at cross-purposes.
This is a problem for many Muslims. I do not believe that America is explicitly and consciously driven to be “at war” with Islam. But it is a reality that the United States is, and will be, involved in conflicts within the Muslim world, where American men and matériel will cause the deaths of Muslims, some innocent, and some not so innocent. There are structural facts about the reality of our universe: the concentration of oil in the Muslim Holy Lands, the existence of Israel in the heart of Islam and America’s powerful Jewish community, and America’s role as international policeman, which make the connections of American Muslims with those abroad problematic for them. The problem is greatest for those who espouse Salafism, which is notionally a thin spare doctrine which ideally makes no truck with practical considerations. The harsh logic of Salafism explains their war against the personalized forms of worship which have become common across most of Islam. This war is made most concrete in their destruction of holy sites which became objects of pilgrimage and veneration from other Muslims. The Salafists reject human nature, and wish to interpose in its place a holy nature of their own making, though they ascribe it to the divine.
What Qadhi’s students naturally observe is that the simple and clear Salafist logic, where the world is ethically flat and invariant in relation to their god, entails conclusions which are at contradiction with pragmatic existence within this world. Salafism realized in its pure form is as viable as the theocracy of Munster. The human moral calculus is not derived from logic, rather, we generally twist our own logics to align with our intuition. This is what Qadhi seems to be doing. Qadhi may be a orthodox Muslim, for whom the United States is secondary to the god on high whom he venerates, but his upbringing, family, and experience, draw him back to this nation. In theory before god all this should be nothing, but often the awesome god must give ground to the banal pleasures of human life. God can not grow where man can not flourish.
The tensions which serious Muslims must confront are today for us a boundary condition. Many of us face other such tensions, if submerged by the reality that we do not have to face two choices which satisfy different loyalties. I have discussed these issues with Jewish friends who were avowed Zionists. Though some dissent, by and large American and Israeli interests are aligned in such a fashion that the question of dual loyalties is not pervasive in the lives of American Zionist Jews (and more and more, Zionist Evangelicals), though even here it does manifest itself.
Another aspect of this problem is the more general one where Americans forget that what is good for America may not always be good for the world, or a specific nation. In other words American nationalism is conflated with universal morality and well being. The American nation has interests, and we do not live in the “best of all worlds,” and hard choices must be made. Whether those choices are just or unjust may vary depending on your perspective. Men will steal so that their family does not become destitute. Such men need to be punished by society if their crimes are caught, but we as humans understand that on occasion what is right and good for the individual may not be right and good for the society. It follows therefore that what is right and good for Americans may not be right and good for non-Americans.
We are who we are. We are Americans, members of a family, members of a church, etc. Our interests will vary. The ethical universe is not flat, and to be fully human we must acknowledge that. Both for ourselves and for others. Until that day we won’t be able to go beyond trite sloganeering.
<< Veena Malik