Radicalization in the Muslim Community – NYT: “Uncle Sam is No Imam”

The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed from Samuel Rascoff, from the article:

From a national security point of view, challenging ideas that underpin radical Islam makes sense. Counterterrorism is ultimately about ideas; why shouldn’t officials try to marginalize the theological teachings cited by violent terrorists?

The problem is that when American officials intervene in Islamic teachings — interpreting them to believers in a national-security context and saying which are or are not acceptable — they create tensions, both legal and strategic.

The legal tensions are obvious, but the strategic tensions may be lost on many Americans. With a significant number of US Muslims coming from countries where government intervention hegemony advises dictates the confines of faith, US government programs will naturally cause mistrust, and may push some towards radicalism.

Out of fear of government reprisal, many Islamic centers around the nation seek to remedy radicalism in the different ways. At times they buy into the blame game, so there is an eradication of religious leadership from the community. “Imam-less” communities are a trend in several areas of the US, yet these areas still suffer from radicalized elements, as disaffected youth raised in the united states find the lack of leadership puzzling, especially when leadership decisions are being made by volunteers wholly unqualified to offer professional much less religious opinion. Where will these people go then?

On the other hand a neutered form of “spiritual” Islam is promoted in which practices are unsubstantiated textually, and Imams are merely “prayer leaders” and “spiritual guides” with no leadership influence beyond “praying for the congregation”. Community decisions that are at the heart of the ethics of Islam (from Eid, to Zakat, to the proper use of donated funds, to the treatment of women in the mosque) lack transparency, and cause further stagnation of positive community growth, while encouraging radical attitudes to rear their ugly heads.

When a layperson feels that his/her local mosque is misappropriating anything entrusted to it, a natural suspicion will develop in the community. Many who have lived under repressive regimes will notice a trend, as many such countries promote a faith embodied in prayer alone, with other religious acts (from zakat to fasting, to social work and humanitarian efforts) as hand-off. This will drive those people further away from the place they should be coming for guidance, and towards ill-informed arenas for gathering Islamic knowledge (Sheikh Google and Peer Wiki Saheb).

What then is the solution? Lay Muslims often will say authoritatively “There is no clergy in Islam” True, in the sense that we have no ecclesial hierarchy. There is however a concept of authority, in areas of faith, governance, and organizational representation. While it is obvious that there should be no unilateral leader in any community, a system of checks and balances needs to be created wherein qualified Imams are hired, empowered, and given the freedom to be the authorities of their realms. When qualified individuals are not nurtured, trained, and empowered to serve their communities, we ourselves are creating a leadership crisis. When the individuals that represent religious authority in the community are themselves seen as puppets, we cannot expect those that would lean towards radicalism to confide in them and reform their ideas. We certainly can’t expect them to stay away, as they will consistently try to mend the rift created from what they see is a compromised religious ideal.

From the article:

Countering radical religious ideology is on much more solid constitutional — and strategic — footing if the heavy lifting is done not by the government but by grass-roots organizations that are grounded in civil society or in religious communities. The government must not be heavily and directly involved.

This is a good start, but we as Muslims must analyze these issues internally. The solution, in my humble opinion, lies in not just creating institutions and initiatives that are grounded in faith, socially relevant, and legally viable, but in reevaluating what it means to have religious leadership; Who really is an Imam? Who speaks for Islam? What sort of faith do we have in our texts, and what sort of trust do we have in those entrusted to interpret it? If we cannot answer this latter question, and instead allow ourselves to interpret it, how are the personal interpretations of some laypeople (say non-radicals) more authoritative and valid than those of others (say radicals)?

When we are the only religious community in the US that actively marginalizes our religious leadership, and one of the only communities in which religiously uninformed opinion decides who or what religious leadership is, then it is no wonder that Uncle Sam would try to fill the void that we have created.

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