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A letter to a young Muslim on the future of Western Islam

Reuters/Lucas Jackson
No turning back now.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

We have failed you.

While jihadist movements continue to expand their reach, anti-Muslim bigotry is becoming more and more mainstream. Both narratives mean to deny the possibility of meaningful coexistence. Which is the identity and the reality of thirty million of us.

Thirty million Western Muslims, spread out across Europe (excluding Russia), the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But though we had every reason to speak out, we have barely begun to come together.

When we are talked about, it’s either as a problem (terrorism) to be solved, or as the solution (counter-terrorism) to the problem we’re held responsible for. We have little to no relevance outside national security.

And because we do not seem to matter, we might begin to feel as if we do not exist.

I will not excuse myself by saying that we could not have known how bad it would have gotten, or that the forces arrayed against our narratives were too entrenched. I will not soften the blow, either, by hoping it is always darkest before dawn. Because it may get darker.

God does not change the condition of a people until they change themselves. I ask myself how we have gotten to this juncture. I reflect on what I could have done differently. If my life’s experiences can be of any benefit, even as a cautionary tale, then I offer them.

What follows is neither exhaustive nor conclusive, but an outline for what you can do, and what I think you must do, to reverse this state of affairs, to help build the kinds of communities our history and heritage promises we can.

Part I covers our relations to the wider world; Part II concerns our own communities and identities.

Part I: All allies, foreign and domestic

1. First and foremost

People will ask you, “Are you Muslim or are you American?” (Or some other such question.) You will answer, “Yes.”

People will also ask you, “Do you condemn terrorism?” And you must not say “Islam is a religion of peace.”

You will do more than condemn, too. You will show that you are actively involved in building narratives that compete with the dangerous ones. I know you won’t do this because powerful people are asking the questions, but because you, like me, want better for your communities.

People will also ask you, “Do you condemn terrorism?” And you must not say “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Long before ISIL became the watchword on everyone’s lips, before Islamophobia had become the platform of too many Western political parties, I attended a gathering of Muslim leaders in the Middle East. The reason I recall this to you is because the point of this gathering was to bring top minds together to discuss our common challenges.

Very quickly, however, we became split.

Not out of hostility or apathy, but because our experiences and our priorities were so different that our conversations proved frustratingly unproductive when held in unison. Whether we were Pakistani Britons, Crimean Tatars or African Americans, it was clear Western Muslims had more in common than with each other than Muslims from the so-called Muslim world.

It is not just impossible, but unreasonable to expect so many different people to think along the same lines, to have the same priorities. Unity shouldn’t mean unanimity: Down that road lies dictatorship and extremism. Unity should mean a desire for ongoing and accelerating cooperation in ways that are tangible, realistic, and productive.

2. Hope and range

You might feel, from time to time, that you are caught in an existential battle, and that you and your community will be the first to be sacrificed. You will remember that the most recent European genocide was against Muslims. White European Muslims, in fact, whose Islam predates the establishment of Protestantism in many European countries.

No one asks them, “Are you Protestant or are you European?” I do not tell you this to dishearten you, but to embolden you. You must make asking these questions unacceptable and eventually unthinkable. Because the Islamophobic rhetoric in circulation in many parts of the West today is the same that preceded the Bosnian genocide.

Because you are bold enough to do what needs to be done.

To build the alliances necessary, and work with the partners required, to not just defeat far-right extremism whenever it rears its head, but head it off before it takes root. Alliances demand cooperation with those you may find disagreeable, or who find you disagreeable. If any one political party takes our communities for granted, the others will write us off. And you will do what it takes to make writing your community off that much harder.

European Union membership for Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia must be supported. Not only are these countries part of Islam’s long history in the West, but their admission will help you and your country. The West is more secure when it’s more integrated, and you are more secure inside larger, more internally diverse political units.

3. Eurabia’s outermost boundary

You will hear some speak loudly of Islamic unity, and condemn you when your actions do not support their idea of solidarity. But here is the painful truth: Many of your political choices will be hard choices. They will not have easy answers. It is natural to want to see Bosnia and Albania in the EU.

But Ukraine is a Western country most of whose citizens, including its Muslim minorities, want into Europe, too. You have a moral obligation to consider Ukraine’s right to European Union membership, and to appreciate that they want what we have. But Russia, which has a substantial, growing Muslim population, believes otherwise.

Here is the painful truth: Many of your political choices will be hard choices.

Russia is a Western country, too. But their Western identity is not the same as your own. Identity involves culture, worldview, but also and critically, political circumstance. The levels of integration that develop between the hugely diverse communities of the Muslim West will never extend equally to Russia. The West actively tries to accelerate integration.

That integration shapes you.

Egyptian, Saudi, Iranian, and Turkish religious bodies have long competed to build influence across the Muslim world. In your lifetime, Western Muslim institutions will begin to project their religious, cultural and social soft power across the rest of the ummah as well. But while Russia and other nations may welcome the receipt of some of our ideas, they will draw the line at our enthusiasm for democracy.

They may even spurn you for it. That doesn’t mean ignoring the Muslim-majority world, or the world. Accept what you can do, and what you cannot.

4. Fairly balanced

“We need more Muslims in media,” people will say, so we are not misrepresented. They are right. “We need more Muslims in government,” they will say, so we are not unrepresented. They are right. But who is to say that when there are Muslims in the media, or in government, that they will seek what is better, or what is simply better for them.

Do you combat racism now, because it is wrong, or because it excludes you? Do you combat an aggressive foreign policy now, because it is wrong, or because the targets are Muslim? Do you oppose the occupation of Palestine because it is wrong, or because it is a Jewish people occupying a mostly Muslim people? Ask now, before you are powerful.

We will have arrived in the West, tragically, when we hear Muslims talk of closing the borders to whatever community comes after us. When we are the “us,” not the “them.” I do not know if you will live to see that day, but I hope you can head it off. To keep yourself honest, you need a community with institutions independent of each other.

So they can challenge each other.

To speak truth to power, you need power. Or, more precisely, you must make sure no one voice has too much power—that no element of your community is too big to fail. All that, in turn, depends on what kinds of communities you build.

II: The stuff we are made of

5. The reconstruction of religious life

You must reinvest in and reform religious education; what we have now is not nearly good enough. Teach our faith with confidence, creativity and sophistication, but also with caution. Students and especially leaders must be taught to recognize that there are valid, legitimate and inevitable differences of opinion within any community, as of course exist between communities. But leaders will only be as capable as the institutions that support them.

One of our great challenges is the lack of representation. I recommend you force diversity until it becomes second nature. Institutions should compel themselves to reserve a certain number of seats on any board, or relevant body, to reflect the relevant ethnic and sectarian differences, to realize equal representation for women (we are woefully behind), and for youth (to create leadership tracks).

But leaders will only be as capable as the institutions that support them.

One of our great challenges is the monopoly of power. Having learned lessons from the failures of post-colonial states, term limits must be strictly enforced.

One of our great challenges is moderation. Your religion is sacred, and must remain so. We do not change our worship merely because times have changed. But we can also acknowledge the implications of our rituals, and compensate for them. I believe, like the overwhelming majority of Muslims do, that ritual prayers should be led by men. But given this obligation, it should be the case that mosques should be led by women.

I still know of mosques that forbid women from leadership positions as a matter of policy.

We need, I hope you can see, new thinking. You can and should provide it. Too many mosques and communities are still using failed models of leadership, too many Muslim institutions are mired in a narrative of victimization, and too many have no mechanism for producing new leaders, never mind to extend their mandates, but even to renew them. Challenging this, and them, will not be easy for you.

People will hate you and call you all kinds of hurtful things; you might even begin to doubt yourself. If you do, look out at the Muslim spaces, institutions and societies before you. Are they as good as they can be? Clearly doing what has been done before doesn’t do much. You have much to learn from others, and should respect their experiences, but you do not have to do as they have done.

Don’t confuse unity with unanimity. Don’t fall for abstractions and rhetoric: We rely too often on these, or rather, we use them to preclude conversations that must happen, or to enforce consensus where in fact there is none.

6. Halal options

The pressures of Islamophobia and extremism will have serious consequences in the future. The very vulnerable can be pushed to depression, or violence. If you think it’s bad now, look out.

You will have to make mental health, spiritual wellness and positive communities a priority. To that end, early warning systems must be created, along with coping mechanisms, tools for self-care, and an increased emphasis on training religious leaders in counseling, pastoral care, and openness. Palliative options must be matched by simultaneous measures aimed at empowerment.

The young people who come after you must never be allowed to feel voiceless, powerless, or irrelevant. They should see that the best path to addressing their grievances is through existing institutions, through media and politics, and that the worst path is violent extremism. The question of violent extremism, of how it harms and why it harms, will be one your generation needs to expend significant energy on.

Many of our thinkers have led us to a civilizational dead-end. Reform means executing a nimble U-turn in traffic.

7. The Caliph is dead, long live the Caliphate

The project of a statist, authoritarian Caliphate is the single greatest obstacle to Muslim unity. The politicization of Islam immediately transforms the joy of cooperative action into hostile—even violent—disagreement, dividing and harming the people and places we mean to help. In fact, not only does jihadism do nothing for suffering Muslims, it increases suffering in the world. It is a disaster.

Political Islam, while a dead-end for much of the Muslim world, would be still worse for Western Islam. You must work to build a more democratic, pluralistic and tolerant West. But this does not mean you forego your moral commitments to your co-religionists, nor that you ignore or deny what makes your religion unique. Our generation made that mistake.

If you refuse to provide positive models for our religious values, these values will not disappear.

Nature, Islam, and nearly everything else, abhors a vacuum. If you refuse to provide positive models for our religious values, these values will not disappear. Other, worse models will prosper. Because they are, at least, an answer. What is your answer to the Caliphate? To Islamic unity? Do not merely say, “your idea is wrong,” but “here is why your idea is wrong,” and more importantly, “here is mine.”

By building ever larger institutions, non-profits, regional religious federations, and promoting cooperation between the democracies of the West, you can (and you must) model a new form of Muslim unity, one which enables Muslims to pool their resources without setting them at odds with each other, or holding one another hostage to mutually exclusive claims. That can be your answer, your way forward, your way of empowering your community, and your country.

Why, after all, would Western Muslims pursue a narrative that set Islam and the West at odds?

I hope, if you can, that you go to the Alhambra in Spain, or the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque in Bosnia. Not just because these are proofs of Islam’s long history in the West, but because they will give you hope. You may see times far worse than these. In those dark days, remember those places. Remember who built them.

In 1258, the Mongols destroyed Baghdad. It was, perhaps, the nadir of Islamic civilization. But the Alhambra, and Husrev Beg’s mosque, were built after 1258. The story of Islam has its bright chapters, and its dim chapters, but there is no single direction to our narrative. Read, God commands. In order that you may write.

What kind of chapter will you write?

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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