Thursday, February 26, 2009

What is a Muslim, continued, continued... Imams unable to grasp needs of Western Muslims: report
Imams are out of touch with the needs of Western Muslims, and divorced from the struggles their congregants face in secular society, according to a new report from a leading Canadian scholar.

Many religious leaders don't offer constructive advice about how to reconcile traditional beliefs with the challenges of integration in Western societies, concludes the study, which is based on focus groups with 60 lay Muslims in Ottawa, Washington and Britain.

"My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam who gives a sermon in a Friday mosque, who happens to be someone who goes out to work from 9 to 5, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13," one interviewee said, "and not speaking to me about the battles that we won 1,200 years ago."

Karim Karim, director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, is the author of the report to be published today by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy.

"We need to acknowledge the soul searching in the Muslim world," he said, "and the diversity of voices, and not let the process be hijacked by the groups or individuals who claim to speak for 'the Muslim community.' "

Some Muslims in the survey complained about "the cultural illiteracy" of imported imams. Others expressed the desire for a more elevated discourse in the mosque and a critical approach to dogma.

"What I am looking for is an intellectual Islam that examines where we are today and how we move forward," a participant noted.

Others took issue with conservatism in the mosque, including dress codes for women, and imams who insist women fast when they are pregnant or menstruating.

In fact, a lot of Muslim scholars are "reopening the gates of reasoning," said Prof. Karim, and engaging more with contemporary society. "Religious law's governance of the minutiae of daily life under religious law is contentious not only for Western Muslims but also for Muslims living in majority-Muslim countries," he notes.

To counter the power of conservative imams, some Muslim institutions in Britain and the United States are training imams to develop a more critical approach to traditional religious issues. The report also recommends that Canadian policy-makers target "Islamophobia" through anti-discrimination programs and by supporting cross-cultural initiatives, such as the twinning of mosques and synagogues.
As Ernest Gellner argued, the growth of the modern state in the Islamic countries, in response to the Western-led transformation of the traditional world, transforms the practise of Islam. The old Islamic world was divided. On the one hand there were the many clans and tribes who practised significantly local cults, with their local shrines paying homage to local saints/protectors and practising local rituals. On the other hand, a numerically small, literate, book-bound Ulema preached a "pure" Islam to the urban elite. The multiethnic, multi-tribal, residually polytheistic, and local nature of culture in the pre-modern world mitigated against the book-bound elite ever dominating the culture of Islam. However, the modern world, with its need for a large bureaucratic state, provides much opportunity for growth in the puritanical Islam of the book, for the modern state needs some kind of unifying trans-local culture, and preferably one that can be streamlined without too many embarrassing religious eccentricities that would clash with the cognitive needs of urban life in a now global economy and politics.

Gellner's writing is now more or less a generation old and we might ask to what extent was Gellner right that the puritanical Islam of the book would prevail over the local cult in adapting to modernity. On the one hand, we can of course see very much evidence for it around the world where all kinds of middle-class young people feel compelled to take up study of the Koran and other Islamic texts in a search for identity, many also signing on to the Islamist and terrorist political projects that are conducted in the name of the book (all asides to Israel, the Great Satan, etc., being somewhat secondary).

However, on the other hand, as the above article suggests, there is also a kind of modern educated Muslim who looks at the book-bound Imam as something locked in the past, unable to preach a religion that makes sense in a country like Canada today. It was my impression, or best guess, that such people provided much of the audience in Vancouver for Tariq Ramadan. And yet, I also inferred from the tone of the questions asked Ramadan that such people know, that despite his liberal talk, that Ramadan, with his Muslim Brotherhood roots, is also ultimately somewhat in debt to the puritanical readers of the book, and his questioners were less than convinced by what appears to many to be his double talk where on the one hand he professes to respect the book absolutely while on the other he promises some reformed reading thereof (he wants to reform the reader, not change the book; but to do this he has to allude mysteriously to some heretofore ignored or misunderstood "real meaning" of the Koran and the historical context of its revelation).

This is not surprising when, as is common in Vancouver, the "Muslim" is a refugee from a country like Iran where the victory of the book-bound at the political level has now resulted in a country with a massive heroin addiction problem, middle-class women selling themselves as prostitutes, among other social ills, as Spengler reports. One area in which Islamic law clearly lets the people down is on the question of how to adapt to the global economy. When oil wealth arrives in quantity, not as a result of the productive re-organization of Muslims to exploit the mineral, but as rental income from foreign companies, there is a huge question of how to distribute this wealth. It becomes a source of much corruption in what Spengler not unreasonably calls a "potlatch" culture.

The general rule, as I understand it, is that if one is to adapt successfully to the modern free market and liberal society, one may well be served by some kind of highly-disciplined faith and ritual, if this is strictly a private religion. But any attempts to make such a religion be the guiding hand of economic life, civil society, or of the state, ends in disasters like the present state of Iran.

I am suspicious of liberal religion as an answer to personal needs in modern society: the lessons of Christianity in liberal society is that it is not the liberal, but the more conservative, churches that succeed best in guaranteeing the individual's survival and success in the anonymous marketplace, or as a creative leader in politics. Yet the equation may well be different with Islam. For all we know, Gellner's observations of an Islamic world where modernity means the men of the book gain the upper hand over the local cults will in time evolve further to a world where local cults of, say, pot-smoking Muslims, or feminist hijab burners, or jet-setting traders, protected by liberal states, and needing to mediate the reality of a clearly triumphant free market economic system that the foundational Islamic books have no way (as yet revealed) to understand or recognize, will demand the Mullahs preach some new kind of Islam that allows them to live as something other than puritanical zealots.

But if that is to happen, we may all have to do a better job, in good faith, of talking to Muslims and others about the fundamental anthropological nature of the antisemitism and the more generalized fear of the "kaffir", or unbeliever, that is integral not simply to the Koran, but to the inevitable resentments thrown up by a globalized, free-market, modernity.


maccusgermanis said...

I am suspicious of liberal religion as an answer to personal needs in modern society: the lessons of Christianity in liberal society is that it is not the liberal, but the more conservative, churches that succeed best in guaranteeing the individual's survival and success in the anonymous marketplace.

I have similar suspicions of hypocracy, but I don't think you've well supported the idea that the misnamed "liberal" churches are inferior in "guaranteeing the individual's survival and success in the anonymous marketplace." Have you some master vestry with detailed income information?

And regarding the father tired of hearing of old battles won, I rather he not take his pot smoking son to mosque at all. The father, simply looking for some order and sense of discipline, exposes the youth to an oft proven destructive order.

truepeers said...

Have you some master vestry with detailed income information?

-no, of course; but there is a phenomenon widely discussed and recognized: that the "old line" Protestant churches - in North America, the Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans - are in numerical decline. They may still be rich in some cases, for they have endowments from past generations and they appeal to a certain kind of social elitism. But the clergy spouting liberalisms that many doubt have much to do with the discipline of Christianity and its recognition of the tragic or fallen nature of our humanity, are not attracting large numbers to the churches which have been bleeding members for years now (and in a city like Vancouver, much of their membership is now from immigrants, often still loyal to the denomination of their missionaries in the old country, who may be taking their churches yet again in a new direction that serves the need of those adapting to market society). The Catholic church is similarly split between liberals and conservatives and if the present Pope (and the last) is any guide the pendulum is currently away from liberalism if not towards some mindless reactionary stance.

maccusgermanis said...

A very market oriented argument. The assumption being that the consumer would go to the church that gives them the best guarantee for survival and success in the anonymous marketplace. Or perhaps they tend toward that which is internally the most logically consistent. So that the ideologies, to which they submit themselves are actually well defined.

By "liberalisms" I presume that you mean poorly considered platitudes, not befitting a learned and free people.

truepeers said...


As I understand it, the appeal of the evangelical churches today is that they focus on a personal relationship with Jesus, providing some hope or guarantee of individual salvation, and do not see it as their business to be working towards some kind of social Utopia. It is those churches still intent on building the kingdom here on earth - and not through an emphasis on redeeming the individual, but through top-down elitist "politically correct" social transformation - who are losing their audience.

How of if any parallel can be drawn to the Islamic struggle is something I leave open to discussion.

truepeers said...

I might add that a church that makes individual salvation the focal point is helping to make the individual into the norm of all that is sacred, rather than some more exalted and centralized centre of attention, like say a "progressive" hero in the cause of labeling the normal society as violent, and the marginalized victim as the new source of communal solidarity, a solidarity that requires centralized state institutions and "progressive" leaders that are the project of the Social Gospel.

This is, briefly, why I see the evangelical Christian as being better adapted to free market society which I see as being a creation of the Christian worldview. Again, what the parallels may be for Muslims serious about adapting to the free market, I don't really know...