The first ever Muslim Reform town hall came last week to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s district in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Our theme was “Honoring Islam by Asking ‘Appalling’ Questions.” Honoring Islam by asking questions has always been integral to the faith. As people of faith, we are invited to dialogue and debate without any restriction on whose ideas we can engage with. No one is off limits, not Islam’s greatest philosophers, and certainly not some congresswoman.
The fringe narrative here is Islamism, a relatively recent construct that takes the idea of a totalitarian state and demands puritanical ideological rigidity. And in doing so, it violates a cornerstone in Islam: There shall be no compulsion in religion.
Reform is part of an ancient narrative on ethics, philosophy and spirituality. As we move forward, we’re going to need to keep asking questions in order to shape our collective reality and underscore shared values.
The Problem Wasn’t the Low Turn Out. It was the Bigotry.
While audience numbers were lower than expected, it’s understandable considering this was a quickly put together event and didn’t take place in a major city, especially one where we would have had more relationships with the community.
It’s also worth noting that CAIR-LA’s executive director, Hussam Ayloush, took time to leave an antagonistic comment on our Facebook Live video, launching the usual cheap shots Islamists take whenever they’re vexed. (They’re always vexed whenever we show in up in real time, which naturally means we need to show up in person more.)
So the problem wasn’t the low turnout. In fact, the Facebook live video got pretty decent hits without being promoted and within the industry, there was a lot of closed door buzz and inquiry around the event.
The thing that shifts our focus back to “what kind of Muslim reformer do we want to be” is who was in the audience. There were a group of people in the audience who were there specifically to demean, antagonize and be belligerent, which they were increasingly throughout the two-hour event.
There is no doubt Asra and Zuhdi showed incredible grace and had far more patience for it than I did. I didn’t travel 1,900 miles to be someone’s punching bag, and I don’t have patience for bad faith engagement.
Yet, I do deal with a lot of ignorance and frustration around Islam and Muslims, and I have patience for that because:
- It takes a lot of effort to be well-versed in these issues and not everyone has the time. When people come home after a long day of work, tend to their families, make dinner, spend time with their kids — are they now supposed to also undo the knots to understand a 1,400 year old faith? That’s asking a lot. So if we can act as a bridge, so be it.
- People are frustrated and for good reason. That frustration deserves our patience and respect; it deserves to be honored as sacred. It needs to be heard.
However, outright belligerence and hate is another thing. But it was more than just how we were being treated. We’re used to the hate. During those moments my thoughts were with the three or four Muslims in the audience we didn’t know. The ones, I admit, I expected to pose a challenge but who sat through the event with tremendous respect and listened.
They were listening to the hate too, and along with them all other Muslims. They’re all going to watch for how we respond to bigots — be it CAIR or anti-Islam types.
What Kind of Muslim Reformer Are You Going to Be?
The tension in those moments was laced with difficult questions around Islam, questions having to do with jihad and slavery. I give the Muslim Reform Movement tremendous credit for being true to their mission statement and being tolerant of diverse views, because I disagree on some of these issues. And still, we’re able to accept we have different slants on some things and still get on with the core work. (This respect for diverse opinion is unthinkable among Islamists.)
- I believe there are two Islams: Man’s Islam vs. God’s Islam.
God’s Islam (Allah’s Islam) is the spirit of the message, as is always the message between the higher self and the lower self carried through vessels since time immemorial. Man’s Islam is the message corrupted. Nothing I do or say as a reformer is off limits because I reject Man’s Islam and am here to uncover and restore an older truth before we started playing a very destructive game of telephone.
- We can’t write jihad off as “some bad verses.”
I’m not a pacifist, far from it. I don’t mind a fight and I won’t run from one either. As a patriot and supporter of the Second Amendment, I believe in the right of a community to defend itself.
However, as a messenger of God, there is a higher duty and that is to be a vessel for the message. It’s one thing for a community of men to defend themselves, and quite another for a messenger of God to raise the sword in His name. It would have been better for Islam to have never existed than to have justified a legacy of violence in God’s name. To that, people say, “But what about violence in Judaism and Christianity?”
To that, I say: I’m not Jewish or Christian. I’m speaking to what I know and what I was born into. Simply writing off jihad as some bad verses doesn’t destroy the power those verses hold in some minds. Those verses will be conjured up as needed until we destroy the power they hold.
- We can’t excuse slavery under Islam. Men will justify slavery, but the Lord of all things would not tolerate it. It is my firm belief that no God would allow for slavery of one creation to another creation. Systems of men justify it, but a religion of God will not.
These are difficult conversations that are much more complex than just “Islam is bad” or calls to “leave Islam.” These are layered conversations, and they need to be had in full context that includes how these verses came to be, what their psychology is, and how to talk about them beyond just distancing them as some people did something some time ago.
These are the conversations that shape us as reformers. Are we going to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s or Malcolm X’s? Are we about love or are we about revolution?
I embrace both. This is first and foremost a work of love and you don’t abandon something you love. But this is also about ruthless honesty, becoming a catalyst for transformative change, and a refusal to compromise core values.
That I hold what are “heretical” views and still am included is a testament to living the reform philosophy of freedom of inquiry. But this is part of the heritage we hold as Muslims. In centuries past, spiritual seekers and philosophers would say things that are far more extreme.
One man once declared he was God and ran out into the town square and declared it openly. He was promptly killed. In other cases, those views were tacked onto Islam and became codified as part of the faith, making it far more difficult to separate Man’s Islam and Allah’s Islam.
Was the Muslim Reform Town Hall Worth it?
We were overdue for coming together in real time, and there was no more symbolic a space to hold our first town hall than on Ilhan Omar’s turf. A ground game is critical for us at this juncture. We’re winning the battle of ideas. It’s time to win the hearts and minds of people in the community, many of whom do agree with us but are afraid to speak out.
In coming together, they get to meet other members of their community who are like-minded. The counter-Islamist narrative is real, and it has the numbers. We just need to bring those numbers out.
So the question is what comes next?
We’re in talks about that now. There are some great ideas being floated around internally and one way or another we’re going to make it happen. What’s key here is that it’s onward and upward from here. We’re collaborating in ways we never have before, and that’s happening in part because we’re getting to know each other, build trust and relationships we can lean on to drive forward.