Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to entirely ignore current events. Some of the news headlines recently have been very triggering. We lived through all this stuff in the ’80’s and ’90’s, and recent events keep bringing it back.
I am glad to no longer be living in any of the conservative Muslim communities that I was involved in or had dealings with, because I remember all too well how they used to deal with these sorts of international events: Incendiary, polarizing, us (Muslims… and therefore always in the right) versus them (kuffaar… and therefore evil) rhetoric from the minbar. Protests. Incessant calls to boycott X, Y and Z companies and products. Fundraising dinners, allegedly for refugees and orphans produced by the conflict—though in those days there was often little financial accountability, so who knew where the money really went. Guest speakers at Islamic conferences and other gatherings who talked about their experiences with the conflict (and collected donations, allegedly for relief work). And of course, the duas at Friday Prayers for “the mujahideen in X, Y, Z… wa fi kulli makaan!” (You could usually tell what the imam’s sectarian and political leanings were by which “mujahideen” he would or wouldn’t pray for in those duas.) And at times of particular crisis, imams would recite the Qunoot an-naazila. Even back in my most koolaid drinking days, that prayer deeply disturbed me. Invoking God’s curse on people? Really?? What an absolutely horrible thing to do. But it was justified because it is supposedly the sunna.
Looking back, we were constantly immersed in discussion about world events—at least, when these events had anything directly to do with Muslims. We could have hardly avoided that, actually, because they were routinely discussed from the minbar, written about in Islamic magazines, and highlighted through conferences and fundraising events. Unlike many of their non-Muslim counterparts, our kids knew a lot about countries on the other side of the world and what was going on in them. And this was before the internet! Once we had that, the endless discussion of the persecuted Muslim-du-jour (I owe that expression of Mohja Kahf… lol) was even more, well, endless.
These discussions of world events were very one-sided. We were taught to take world events personally. After all, as the hadith has it, the believers are one body, so that if there is pain in some limb, the other parts also feel it. Hearing or reading about the persecuted Muslims du jour in wherever, we too felt persecuted. As far as we were concerned, Muslims—especially if they were conservative, “properly” practicing Muslims with “correct” beliefs and who wanted to live under an “Islamic state”—had to be the innocent party in any conflict, while any group or government opposed to them had to be oppressors. Of course, such Muslims could not be guilty of any atrocities themselves. Our politics had no inbetweens, no shades of gray, no ambiguities, no room for compromise.
It was like a medieval morality play—which led itself (conveniently enough) to truly terrifying apocalyptic sermonizing. Sermons on Friday and other times as well tied current events to frightening hadiths about the signs of the end of the world and what life on earth would be like just before the apocalypse. Especially when the Bosnian genocide went down. We believed that the end was near, that if we weren’t killed because we were Muslims, our kids would be. (After all, it that could happen in “civilized” Europe, at the hands of “civilized” Christians, where in the world was safe?) We heard hadith after hadith about how Islam will unravel bond by bond until nothing is left but the salat… and then the last man on earth who still prayed would be killed for his faith. And then nothing would be left but “la ilaha ill Allah,” which a few old people would still say, not knowing what it really meant. And hadiths about the appearance of the Dajjal, the one-eyed antichrist who would cure the sick by his satanic powers and demand that people bow down to him (which would then doom them to hell). We really believed all this, and it was terrifying.
This type of approach to world events did not give us much in the way of resources to make sense of atrocities perpetrated by Muslims, nor was it meant to. Certain causes, those that involved a “kafir” government against Muslims, especially if those Muslims were also supposedly “good” conservative believers, were the most popular. Looking back, I suspect that this was not only because some of these issues received a fair amount of attention from the non-Muslim media so Muslims were already familiar with them, but because they seemed to offer a simple “us versus them” cause to get behind. Community leaders could easily leverage such popular causes for their own purposes. Immigrant-dominated mosques or groups, otherwise internally divided by ethnicity as well as a number of other factors, could pull together in support of causes of that type. We could feel like the righteous and unjustly persecuted yet again.
But conflicts between Muslim groups, sects, ethnicities, or countries were a different story, as was oppression by Muslim governments of non-Muslim or demi-Muslim religious minorities. Such conflicts wouldn’t be likely to unite the Muslim mosque or group, and risked doing the reverse. They raised embarrassing and morally difficult questions that our Muslim leaders and opinion-makers saw little benefit in opening up for discussion, and plenty of reason to avoid. So, back in the day Muslim orgs didn’t deal with them. (Nowadays, I notice a trend towards groups like ISNA issuing statements of condemnation in some such situations. Which is progress of a sort.)
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories and denial abounded in the circles I moved in. There was great reluctance on the part of some people to admit that apparently pious Muslims could and did do horrible things in the name of Islam. During the civil war in Algeria, when extremist Islamists tried to take over the country and in the process slaughtered civilians and committed a number of atrocities, there were Muslims here who refused to believe that such supposedly “good brothers” could really be doing such things—so it had to be Algerian government operatives posing as devout Islamists (complete with fake beards!) who were “really” carrying out all of the massacres.
Those who didn’t truck in conspiracy theories had their own ways of dismissing troubling realities, ranging from reports of torture in Iranian prisons to the Taliban’s treatment of women. One could always claim media exaggeration of course, or biased reporting. Or one could simply dismiss such things as “unIslamic,” or as “culture, not Islam,” or as “misinterpretation”… or as tragic, but in any case much less important than whatever the current Muslim cause celebre is. Or to claim or imply that the real cause of the problem was the perpetrators’ sect or presumed lack of “Islamic knowledge.”
But however they dealt with such issues, they avoided dealing with the underlying moral question of violence and its religious sanction. As well as with issues that didn’t fit into the neat soundbites that they wanted to deliver.