We progressive populists are a bunch of wimps. We recognize fear-based ignorance in our fellow Americans as their Islamophobia* rages and all reason and sense fly out the window. Instead of noting their foolishness and getting back to the real issues, we are sucked in. We are reactionaries. So afraid we might be like them we err on the side of milquetoast.
In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary does an extraordinary job of telling the history of humanity from an Islamic perspective. One of the many elements I found compelling was how clearly he demonstrated the history of the world I knew—and it’s safe to say most Americans were taught a similar history as the one I learned—essentially ignores or omits the existence of what Ansary calls “the middle world.**” It’s a fascinating exercise. Informative, too. As the reader is brought into the earliest days of Islam, we see how the people living there thought of themselves as “the world,” just as European/Westerners did.
What brought me to this book was bits of a public affairs speaker I heard on the radio a month or so ago. I wish I was able to track down the actual speech. It’s possible it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, though I’m not sure. The speaker’s point was similar to that made by Hirsi Ali, though. Well-meaning progressives are so uncomfortable with what might sound ignorant, racist, or simply hateful, we end up watering down the truth. I began searching for a way to learn what Islam is really about, not what the extremes claim it is about. In Destiny Disrupted I happily found a source of the entire history of Islam written in a near story form. A good read that really brought me into the frame or perspective of Muslims. It did, however, make clear to me that we progressives are chickening out of the real discussion. We’re afraid to say a bad word about Islam in ways we aren’t afraid to criticize almost any other institution.
For example, how many people have a hard time criticizing the Catholic Church for how it managed child sexual abuse? Not many people beyond some conflicted Catholics, I imagine. The situation was horrifying and wrong. We all spoke freely about how the system needed to change, yes?
Well, I’m not prepared to be or planning on being very critical of Islam. And I can guarantee you I will never make blanket statements about “all Muslims.” In fact, Ansary’s book does a beautiful job showing how Islam evolved from the 7th century along many different lines. “Rivers,” he refers to the most common perspectives. It blossomed and bloomed and devolved and starved and expanded. In fact, the Muslim world was much more advanced than its Western counterparts until the Reformation/Industrialization/Nationalism days.
One example of a misguided attempt at defeating ignorance is well described in Ansary’s conclusion. He talks about how American Muslims will say that jihad means the internal struggle to remain true to Allah, that Islam is a religion of peace. This doesn’t respect the reality of the rich history of Islam, however. It is true that some interpretations of the meaning of jihad focus on the internal struggle. However, throughout history, there was a recurring pattern of near-constant warfare on the edges of the Muslim world. This served many purposes (economic, civil, religious) and Ansary explains in the book how it was when this constant fighting at the edges of the community began to fade that the entire larger community (Ummah) started to crumble. For any of us to claim that war, fighting, militancy isn’t a tremendous part of Islam, we’d be just as ignorant as the idiots who think that’s all it is. In fact, for most of the life of Islam it was the victories in warfare that were used as evidence Allah was with them.
In later posts I will address the issue of the role of women in Islam and I’ll likely have a lot more to say. Most important for me to share now is that just as the FOX News loving brain-washed racists who think all Muslims are backwards and evil are wrong, we progressive populists (or liberals or whatever you call yourself if you are someone striving to avoid fear-based hatred and ignorance) shouldn’t be blind to the actual problems that exist in Islam. What we should do, and what I’ve started doing, is learn what it is actually all about. What is the reality. It’s not that all Muslims hate Americans and want to kill us. It’s also not that Islam is a religion of peace and love for all, either. Some Muslims want it to be, but that would require revolutionary change. In any case, we ought to inform ourselves beyond what the mainstream media pass along in their little Western-centric dribbles.
For me, being a populist progressive means believing in freedom and justice for all. It also means not blazing through in opposition to those we know are usually wrong (the radical right, the conservatives) in knee-jerk reactions. We are better than that. In fact, I suggest we all start with that simple interview with Hirsi Ali posted on Salon. She does a fine job noting some of the issues of Islam that deserve strong criticism.

*According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, “in 1997, the British Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as the ‘dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims.'”
**Rather than using “the Middle East” which places “the West” at the center of the world, Ansary refers to the geographic placement of the Muslim world. Right there, in the middle.