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Inclusive Islam: Why should activism be based on a Western discourse?

By Junaid Jahangir

I was invited to offer the keynote address for the Community Power of One Conference in Red Deer on Mar. 23. I ended my spiel with the words “relentless, everlasting, eternal love.” A gentleman in the audience pushed back, questioning the futility of offering love and flowers in the face of the alt-right groups.

I responded by alluding to how black musician and activist Daryl Davis destroyed the hate of some KKK members by forging sustained connections with them—authentic and sincere. The same approach has been used by Deeyah Khan, who made the film White Right: Meeting the Enemy.

This approach, though, does not work with those who are so consumed by their ideology that they end up harming others with the approval of their consciences. At the conference, I also expressed that we can reach out to many of those that we often paint as right wing based on our own zealous ideological outlook on life.

In a way, social justice activism has become a religion unto itself, and too quickly and easily do people write off others.

As cultural studies scholar and QTPOC Frances Lee writes in a CBC article: “Telling people how to live their lives is central to dogmatic religion and dogmatic activism. Both create an environment that encourages people to tell each other what to do.”

We hide behind the claims of standing up for the oppressed, when instead we merely vent our own frustrations and pent-up emotions. Indeed, much work for oppressed and marginalized peoples are done quietly.

This phenomenon reminds me of politicians in Pakistan before an election. Many of them wail about the ills of corruption and offer great concern for the poor. But words are not actions and this is as true of politicians as it is activists.

This is partly why I cautioned my audience to beware of those who would control us through their respective narratives.

I refuse to join the social justice bandwagon that mimics the preaching and punishment model of institutional religion. Why should the western narrative dictate the course of activism?

I think we discarded a lot of wisdom when we abandoned institutional religion for its excesses. The way forward for me actually comes from the past. I draw my values from the Islam that was upheld by a long line of mystics including Attar, Hafez, Rumi, Saadi and Bulleh Shah. They drew people together by emphasizing the unity of all humanity.

Our values include sabr (patience), shukr (gratitude), ajazi (humility), ehteram (respect), ihsan (excellent conduct), and futuwwa (spiritual chivalry), the essence of which lies in doing what is right without expecting the same in return.

Whatever change I was able to spur in the Muslim community with those who disagreed with my worldview was on the basis of sustained relationships based on these values and not through call outs.

Back in 2005, I was able to broach the topic of homosexuality in Islam for a religious magazine when it was extremely taboo. This was based on the long-term connection I had with my editor, who was also the scholar for whom I served as a research assistant.

In 2015, my co-author and I obtained a partial retraction of a conservative Muslim article on homosexuality in an Islamic journal. This was partly based on our scholarship, but largely based on the support we received from one of the editors with whom we forged ties based on sincerity and respect.

In 2017, Dr. Shabir Ally from an Islamic Centre in Toronto reviewed our book Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. While he politely disagreed with our thesis, he favourably expressed the depth and extent of our work and recommended our book to other scholars. That, again, was a product of our relationship, based on sincerity and respect.

Such life experiences allow me to emphasize love in my spiels. For me, love is not about feel-good Hallmark cards, but about a higher ethic. Our tormentors should never be our teachers. We cannot perpetuate the same hatred that was inflicted upon us.

This ethic of love is not unique to Islam. Many of our traditional and religious communities have passed this ethic from one generation to the next. The Jews have Hesed (loving kindness) and the Christians have the sermon at the Mount that teaches to “love your enemy.”

We do have role models in Edmonton like Mark Guevarra, who maintained his dignity even as he was fired from the Catholic Church simply for being with his partner Rev. Mark Chiang. Guevarra stood his ground but refused to give into hatred. He showed that his activism was not based on some academic critical theory but on the Aramaic words uttered 2,000 years ago—“Love One Another.”

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