The issues of representation and self-perception are always present in the affairs of Muslims. Islam is a living religion. Islam is not about idols, artifacts or dead symbolisms. Islam is about a living God that lives with us and that accompanies us in all our affairs, that is ever present with us. The minute that we forget that God is with us in everything, we in fact forget the core message of Islam. We forget the imperative of Godliness and what God and Islam are.
In my late childhood, among the common forms of entertainment were American comic magazines that my friends and I would often read. Among those magazines was Sgt. Rock, a comic about an American war hero in World War II who fought Nazis. Of course, an American war hero always won his battles. I remember when reading the Sgt. Rock series, it would occasionally talk about a group of resistance fighters, who would turn out to be Jewish heroes, aiding the Allies against Nazi forces. After defeating the Nazis, the Jewish heroes would wear their shawls and stand to perform prayer as the American soldiers would watch them in admiration and gratitude. At the time, it was unthinkable to me that this magazine could have very well spoken about Muslim heroes who fought Nazis, and then stood in Muslim prayer after the end of battle. Of course, the comic never did so. In fact, like so many people, it never occurred to me that a single Muslim lost their life fighting Nazis or playing any significant role in WWII.
Why is this important? Because the entire structure of the world order that we have today is a product of WWII. The United Nations charter, the current organization of world states, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights were all born out of the historical moment of World War II. Like so many Muslims, I have always believed that Muslims were either non-participants in WWII or were on the side of the losers – with the fascists and the Nazis. So basically, it seemed that while those who created Israel – and the Jewish people overall – were among the victors in WWII, Muslims were on the other side.
The impression created by magazines like this, that I read when I was so young, raises the question of representation. There are authors, publishers and an institution behind them that made a conscious decision to influence young, impressionable minds with the assertion that Jews were on the right side of history in WWII. That impression would have its ramification onwards.
When I was an 11th grade student attending the American School of Kuwait, my American social studies teacher was discussing World War II using an American textbook. Not only did the textbook not mention Muslims at all, but I remember distinctly that this teacher – although this class was in an Arab Muslim country – gave the entire class the impression that Muslims and Arabs supported the Nazis. Although we never discussed it amongst ourselves, as young kids, we were all saddled with an unspoken sense of shame that we were the descendants of those who supported the wrong side in World War II.
Too often, especially in the age of Islamophobia, Muslims do not realize that their entire consciousness is a product of an engineered awareness. They only know what they know because they were told that they know it. The knowledge that they possess was engineered for them, and they are not aware of that. Therein is the problem. In fact, there is a major process of misrepresentation and false consciousness at the center of what goes on in our lives today.
Few people know that you can go to areas in Egypt and visit the graves of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Egyptian Muslim soldiers who lost their lives fighting with the Allies against the Nazis in World War II. You can go to Libya and visit the grave sites of Libyans who fought against Italian fascists and German Nazis in World War II. You can go to Algeria and visit the grave sites of the thousands of Algerians who lost their lives fighting with the French in World War II. Something often omitted from our historical consciousness is that countries like France, in both world wars, were badly in need of soldiers, so they went to their colonized Muslim countries and made a simple offer: ‘Muslims who join our army and fight with us against the Germans, will be given French citizenship if they survive.’ So, many Muslims joined. Thousands lost their lives, but those who survived were given French citizenship. However, they were never treated as French citizens with equal rights. They were ghettoized and treated as subservient.
Not only that, but after these world wars, countries like France needed labor to rebuild their destroyed countries. The cheapest labor around was Muslim labor. Muslims were hard workers and did not demand rights. So, France invited Muslim laborers from Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Lebanon, offering citizenship for labor. Muslims rebuilt countries like France after World War II, and after gaining citizenship, they were again treated like second-class citizens with few rights.
We do not hear about the long history of discrimination against Muslims in Europe, leading to instances like the 2005 mass demonstrations by Muslims demanding equality in treatment, pay and opportunities in employment. Numerous studies have been done about the impact of racism in countries like France and America, how they lead to the marginalization and ghettoization of Muslims.
When was the last time a Muslim was exposed to the graves of Muslims who paid with their lives to fight against Nazism, to create the world order that we live in today? How many of our children know enough to tell their teacher and peers, ‘Muslims played a huge role in defeating Nazis in World War II?’ How many of our children have seen the videos of Senegali, Malian and Algerian soldiers praying Jumuah between battles? Our children are not aware that without Muslim soldiers, it is unlikely that the battles in North Africa would have been won. Without the sacrifices of their fellow Muslims, the fate of history would have been very different. They are not aware that there is historical fraud being perpetuated against them in the way that history is told. Most of our children, by the time they graduate from college, will hear about al-Husseini of Palestine, who, having despaired that British colonialism would not treat Palestinians fairly, tried to find a solution by allying himself with Hitler. But they will not hear about the thousands of Muslims who fought against Nazism, playing a huge role in what became the post-World War II world order.
It is myopic to think that what is going on in France today is simply an issue of freedom of expression or simple ignorance. How many Muslims know that the first mosque in France dates back to 1856, and that that mosque was destroyed by an Islam-hating French mob during the French Revolution? After the French Revolution, despite everything the French say about liberty, the French could not tolerate Islam to the extent that they would not allow for a rebuilding of another mosque until the 1920s.
Yet, the mosque that was finally built in Paris in the mid-1920s played a big role in resisting the Nazi occupation of France. It also played a pivotal role in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews when Nazis were arresting Jews and sending them to concentration camps to be exterminated. Many of these Jews escaped to the mosque in Paris, and the imam of that mosque would give them false identity papers, changing their status from Jewish to Muslim so that they could escape to either another European country or to Algeria. Thanks to this Paris mosque, the lives of many Jews were saved. This story is further detailed in the book, Among the Righteous, as well as in a New York Times article titled, “Heroic Tale of Holocaust with a Twist.” What is the twist? That it was Muslims who saved Jews. The fact that the author is positioning this as an oddity again tells us about the issue of representation.
Why is it that when a mosque plays such a historical role, we Muslims are not taught that it is from the heart and soul of our religion? The actions of this imam are portrayed as an outlier, as a product of the heart of this one single person; although this is untrue. Yet, when a 16-year-old boy kills a teacher, it is taken as representative of the entire Muslim world. In the recent attacks in Geneva, there was a Palestinian, who, during the attack, acted to save a police officer from terrorists. There was a Muslim Turkish man who saved the life of a non-Muslim woman. The actions of these two Muslims were not taken as representative of common Islamic impulse, or as a representation of what Muslim minorities contribute to European society at large. They were not taken as a sign of Muslim integration in the European society, nor were they taken as an expression of Muslim civic values that are well-integrated with the moral values of Europe. But instead, the actions of terrorists represent the Islamist problem and the way that Islam poses a threat.
Representation comes from awareness and power. You can never have power if you do not have awareness. You may have the means for power, like money, but if you do not have the awareness to know how to spend that money, that money will not yield any power. Awareness must precede everything.
In the khutbah, Dr. Abou El Fadl played a video directly relevant to the issue of representation and self-perception. This video is not of a Muslim, but of Paula White, who is an inspirational figure for many Christians in the United States and even spiritual advisor to the President of the United States. In her speech, she says, "Strike, strike, strike against your enemies. I hear the sound of victory." Imagine if a Muslim imam said this. Why is it that a Christian, the spiritual advisor to the President of the United States, can give this performance without issue? Most non-Muslims look at her speech and say, “This is silly.” But if the same conduct came from a Muslim, it would not be attributed to silliness or some type of psychological failure, it would instead be attributed to a failure of Islam itself.
She also exhibits blatant racism in the performance. When speaking of angels coming from Africa, she believes they express themselves through speaking in tongues. She cannot even be troubled to learn proper African languages, instead choosing to simply utter gibberish, much like the way a small child imagines Africans speak. Even this demonstration of racism doesn't make anyone pause, it doesn’t make anyone attribute that conduct to a defect in Christian theology or anything involving Christianity. But the minute any wrong is done by Muslims, even Muslims themselves start faulting the nature of Islam, the history of Islam, and the Sirah of the Prophet.
For so many, it is not enough for them that God told us, "God and the angels pray on the Prophet, so you pray on the Prophet." It is enough that God tells me that the Prophet is a man of high moral character. If I have true faith, the rest are details. It is a sign of the psychological defeat that Muslims suffer from, that everything shakes the foundation of their faith. Every misconduct performed by a fellow Muslim becomes representative of a larger defect in the nature of Islam.
It is our nature to think that we are independent free thinkers. But to be a truly free thinker requires hard work. It requires an enormous amount of deliberation and education. 99% of Muslims are not free thinkers, because 99% of Muslims do not work to be sufficiently educated enough to know how to think freely and not have their ideas constructed by the other for them, so that they only react to what the other wants them to react to. I pray to God that the 1% of free thinkers becomes 5%, which becomes 10%, so on and so forth until it is the majority. The day that that 1% becomes 5%, the entire fate of the Muslim ummah will start changing in foundational ways.