This week, the Usuli Institute was blessed with beautiful people visiting it.These truly, distinctly beautiful human beings that have honored Usuli with their visit has allowed me to dream that Usuli's voice will live on. The Usuli Institute should be a home for people who care; for intelligent people, for inquisitive people, for rational people, for reasonable people, for people who understand that Islam is about living beyond yourself and for others than yourself. It is for people who understand that religion is not about the performance of rituals, that God is beyond all rituals and beyond all performances, but the means to God's service is to serve what God created. As told in the famous hadith, God is wherever a person is ill. God is wherever a person is in need. God is with whoever needs to be vindicated, supported and upheld.
The Usuli Institute should be a space for Muslims who care about human dignity; who care that Islam is not associated with backwardness, with despotism, with injustice, with unfairness, with irrationality or with ignorance. Usuli should live on and be a safe space for all those Muslims who care and who understand that God works through God's creation, who understand that we should not expect miracles to uphold our faith. There are no miracles that will transform our faith into something that the world will look up to; it entirely depends on us as human agents who take on the covenant with God to live as true Muslims.
Hardly a week passes without a reminder that Usuli's voice is critical if Muslims are to have a voice in a world that gravitates towards irrationality, intolerance, racism, classism and oppression; in a world that has lost its moral anchor. The Usuli Institute should be a space for those who think that the world's moral anchor must be inspired by Islam; that it must be navigated, influenced, and in many ways shaped by Muslims as the bearers of the covenant with God.
The voice of Usuli, of course, entirely depends on the willingness of those who believe in the idea to sacrifice, to commit, to become dedicated, and to forgo opportunities for a principle, because nothing is upheld without sacrifice for a principle. As happy as I felt about being honored with the visits of those who care, every week reminds me that the obligation upon us as Muslims is heavy. Just recently, we have seen transformations and momentums in our world that consistently pose the questions: What is the Muslim voice? Where is the Muslim voice? What is the nature of the Muslim voice?
Recently, the governor of North Dakota signed a rather curious bill into law. North Dakota is following in the footsteps of Texas, who has recently passed perhaps a more sophisticated version of the same law. However, both laws fundamentally achieve the same thing. The law in North Dakota prohibits public schools from teaching Critical Race Theory. As chapter 15, section one of the law states, "Each school district and public school shall ensure instruction of its curriculum is factual and objective. A school district or public school may not include instruction relating to Critical Race Theory in any portion of the district's required curriculum under sections, 15 … Or any other curriculum offered by the school or district. For the purposes of this section, Critical Race Theory means, theory that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systematically embedded in American society and the American legal system, to facilitate racial inequality. The superintendent of public instruction shall adopt rules to govern this section."
Of course, first is the very principle of censorship. First is the very principle that the idea that the state should intervene to regulate speech, to decide as a historical matter, as a matter of social theory, and as a matter of philosophy, what is correct and what is incorrect. The idea that the government as an entity should decide what must be excluded from educational spaces, and what can be included.
But second, and the issue that I am sure most Muslims will think about: Should we care as Muslims? We cannot answer that question before knowing something about Critical Race Theory. Even if we consider that Critical Race Theory is a brand of thought that perhaps, like Marxism, explains historical and social movements with an emphasis on the roles of race and racism in human history; and that race, like the forces of class or the forces of economic inequality and privilege, becomes institutionally embedded; and because it is institutionally embedded, it becomes a regular active force in human society. If we assume all of that, should Muslims care?
It does not take a genius to realize the obvious point that, whether Muslims are considered a part of racial category or not, the real question is, who has the power of defining Muslims as such? If you are treated as a racial phenomenon, if you are racialized, if Islam is associated with turban heads, with people who live in deserts, with sand people; if Islam is associated within Indu-Pakistani culture or Afghan culture or Arab culture; if Islam is seen primarily as the product of an ethnic dynamic, who has the power to define you?
You as a Muslim may not think of yourself as belonging to a race. Recently, I bought something that required the involvement of the state, and as part of buying this material, I had to fill a form that asked, "What race or ethnic group do you belong to?" and as I looked at the categories, “other” was not an option, interestingly enough. I found that I did not fit in any of the categories, and the only option open to me was to check off “white.” At that moment, who exercised the power to define me as white? Am I really white? Does anyone really consider me white? Are my experiences the experiences of a white person? So as a Muslim, you confront the reality that as a minority, you do not hold the power to decide whether you are racialized or not.
But again, a second point: It does not take a genius to realize that if states like Texas and North Dakota can ban the instruction of critical race thought, they can also ban any discussion about Shari'a. They can ban any perspective about Palestinians. And why stop there? Perhaps a group of particularly right-winged electors may ban the discussion of genocide against Uyghurs, or they may ban particular perspectives about the Crusades and the role of Crusades. Again, why stop there? They can ban instruction about the history of colonialism and what colonialism did to indigenous people.
An intelligent Muslim would understand the inherent unfairness in a state dictating an intellectual discourse that searches for the truth in history. Usuli should be a space for the kind of Muslim that will look at a law passed in North Dakota and see the implications for the fate of this country, for the fate of the civilization that we have been born into and that we grew up in. For the kind of Muslim that sees the implications when God commands us to bear Shahada, to bear witness, and by necessity, to bear witness for al Haqq (Truth). Can the state define what Haqq is in a situation like this?
Do you see the danger posed, for the fate of democracy, in conceding this kind of power to the state? Do you see that it is absurd? But we reach a new level of absurdity when we find Muslims who, in all likelihood, have never read anything about critical race thought and yet, have become committed to the idea that critical race thought is, by definition, unhelpful, flawed and biased. Critical race thought teaches us to pay attention to an element that Islam itself taught has us a long time ago: That race should not matter. But indeed, race has always mattered. Indeed, the history of colonialism itself is a racial history. The history of the West's interaction with the rest, including the Muslim world, is in very large part a racial history. Look at race in correlation to the number of people in prison; at race in correlation with the number of people in the highest positions of government, in major financial institutions, and in major institutions of law. Does it not speak volumes that, despite the long history of black people in this country and the percentage of black people in law schools and business schools, consistently and without fail, black people are always grossly underrepresented?
To ask the question, "Why is this a reality?” ought not be a crime. The space that I dream of, that I dream Usuli would provide, is for smart, intelligent Muslims who hear the alarm sirens when they learn about a law like the one passed in North Dakota. That people who would see the natural connection between the law in North Dakota and another very recent, sadly interesting event.
Just a month ago, the council of Europe, which has a human rights body- a pan-European human rights body attached to the council of Europe, that acts essentially like a human rights watchdog organization created by the council of Europe- decided to take on a campaign to educate people in response to the sharp increase in violent attacks and discrimination against Muslim women in Europe wearing a hijab. So, that body decided to take on, basically, an information campaign. France, however, stepped in and objected to the anti-hijab discrimination campaign, describing it as deeply shocking because Islam and the hijab oppresses women. As I have said before, the minister of youth in France, who is unfortunately a person with an Arab-sounding name, condemned that campaign, describing the hijab as an inherently oppressive and sexist institution. And sadly as a result, the council of Europe dropped the anti-hijab discrimination campaign. After France objected, the state intervening in moral historical instruction, the campaign was dropped.
Now, an Islamic coalition known as FEMYSO, basically a pan-European Muslim youth coalition for European Muslim student organizations, created a delegation that met with the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli. In this meeting, Muslim representatives discussed with the Commissioner for Equality the alarming rise in Islamophobic attacks across Europe, and the alarming rise in discrimination and complaints of discriminatory behavior against Muslims, which, every year, rises by a hundred percentages; in other words, 200 percent, 300 percent.
Helena Dalli, whether she intended to or not, at least said encouraging words to these Muslim representatives, assuring them that the Commission on Equality in Europe does not approve of the rise in Islamophobia and that the rise of Islamophobia is alarming. France, again, objected to the meeting, and vowed to have the European Commission on Equality sever all its ties to the Muslim Student Organization, who the French government described as simply an Islamist association. Keep in mind that this is the same French government who, just last year, withdrew the license to operate from the only French association committed to fighting Islamophobia in France. So it has now become illegal to belong to this organization and illegal to donate funds to this organization.
It is an organization known as CCIF, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. The French government shut it down. The French government did not see any problems in the inconsistencies with cheering for freedom of speech when it comes to seeing cartoons of the Prophet but shutting down a civic organization committed to fighting Islamophobia in France. The French government does not see an inconsistency or a contradiction. They do not see an inconsistency or contradiction in constantly lecturing Muslims about how they do not understand the principles of freedom of speech. Not just in shutting down the organization committed to fighting Islamophobia in France, but even in shutting down a publishing house in France. The crime of the publishing house is that they printed books about figures in Islamic history, describing the act of educating Muslims and non-Muslims about such figures as an act that endangers national security.
So that Muslim publishing house was shut down, and if it attempted to publish any of the material that the government confiscated, it would be criminally prosecuted. This is the same France that forced all religious leaders, and all people who work in organizations like the Usuli Institute, to sign the infamous Article Nine of the French government's charter, which states that denunciation of state racism shall be considered legal defamation, and that Muslim institutions are banned from political speeches about foreign conflicts, and that they can be criminally prosecuted for talking about Palestine or Mali. France has committed horrendous human rights abuses in Mali, but Muslims, under the threat of criminal prosecution, are banned from discussing Mali or Palestine, or at least in Muslim institutions. So this is now the France that even will militate to dissolve any bridges built by a fairly benign commission, the commission for equality, and Muslim organizations.
If you think even for a moment that what transpired in France is not about race, then you are sadly deluded. Race is not about skin color. Race is about an attitude of supremacy and privilege towards a people that are defined in a summarized fashion and summed up in physical attributes, whether such physical attributes are biological or not. I could adopt a myth that all Muslims have tails. If I define Muslims as such, I have racialized Muslims, whether, in fact, Muslims have tails or not. I can define all Muslims as turban heads, whether any of you wear a turban or not, I have racialized Muslims. I can define Muslims as people of the sand, or more offensive expressions of the like. I can portray Muslims as constantly producing weird sounding, nasal voices in crowded bazaars, incoherently haggling about stuff, whether any of that is real or not, I have racialized Muslims.
And I come back to the Usuli space. I dream that the Usuli Institute would provide and become the natural home for people who do not need an explanation to understand the profound implications for the world we live in, and what France is doing. The profound, disturbing, scary implications when the council of Europe drops an entire educational campaign about the hijab, just because France said, "Drop it,” as they would see the profound implications in North Dakota passing a law as it did. How many Muslims know that a country like Uzbekistan has been struggling to be accepted by the Council of Europe? That Uzbekistan wants to be considered European country, but at the same time, Uzbekistan is one of the worst places that discriminates against Muslim religious practice.
In Uzbekistan, if you are a male and you grow your beard for religious reasons, the government forcibly shaves it. How many know that you can go to prison in Uzbekistan for wearing the hijab? You may cover your hair for nonreligious reasons, but you cannot cover your hair for Islamic reasons. Europe had placed Uzbekistan, in 2017 and 2018, as a country of concern for discriminating against Muslims. Inexplicably, Uzbekistan was removed from that list, so since 2019, Uzbekistan is no longer condemned by the European council for discriminating against Muslims, although just as of this week, Uzbekistan continues to forcibly shave the beards of any Muslim who dares grow their beard for Sunna reasons, and continues to imprison hijabis, as well as ban hijab in public spaces.
I dream of a Muslim who understands the danger and the profound implications of a council in Europe that considers Muslims so dispensable that, while Uzbekistan continues to escalate its discrimination against religious Muslims, suddenly the Council of Europe sends the message, "We do not care," coupled with France, coupled with North Dakota, coupled with so much of what we see in the world.
The news recently featured a man by the name of General Ahmed Naser al-Raisi. Al-Raisi is the inspector general in the United Arab Emirates, and just recently, al-Raisi was elected as the chief - the highest position, basically the boss - of the Interpol. The problem is that Ahmed Naser al-Raisi is a well-known human rights violator, and is someone who has a very long track record of being implicated in unlawful imprisonments and torture, including torture that he actually undertook personally. There are lawsuits in at least five different countries filed against al-Raisi for torturing victims, including Europeans citizens, and of course mostly Muslim- all except one. This man is now the head of Interpol.
The Emirate used its money and influence, and it is very clear that as this human rights violator, this well-known practitioner of torture, as head of Interpol is going to do exactly what the charter of the Interpol prohibits it from doing, and that is being used as an instrumentality to go after political dissidents. Chinese representatives of the Interpol have already used the Interpol to pursue and capture and make Chinese dissidents disappear, but now we have an Emirati as the head of the Interpol. So just understand that The Emirate, or Saudi Arabia, or a country like Egypt, can classify you as a terrorist- whether they have any legitimate reasons to call you a terrorist, that is a completely different matter. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and The Emirates are infamous for calling political dissidents terrorists, although those political dissidents have never undertook a single violent act. According to The Emirate, even CAIR is a terrorist organization.
According to The Emirate, I am sure Khaled Abou El Fadl is a terrorist. When The Emirate designates someone or an organization as a terrorist, the first thing they do is send us up to the Interpol, so the Interpol can act as a watchdog, effectively preventing this person from being able to fly comfortably, to get on a plane, or in worse circumstances, convince any country that you visit to arrest you and turn you over for prosecution. With the election of someone like that as the head of Interpol, I see in this another indication of the extent to which Muslims are racialized, dismissed and deemed to be unworthy of the basic and most fundamental human rights. Those who accepted Emirati pressure and elected this guy know very well that the victims of the man are going to be exclusively Muslim.
Why did they deem that good enough for Muslims? As acceptable for Muslims? Why did they know that Muslims would be powerless to change that reality? Why did they know that Muslims would be so oblivious, that there would be no uproar and no reaction? Why did they know that the vast majority of Muslims would not even know, leave alone care? I dream that Usuli can be a space for the kind of Muslim that is intelligent enough, conscientious enough, aware enough, moral enough, ethical enough, educated enough, humane enough, and human enough to care. If you are that type of Muslim, make Usuli your home. If not, may God be with you wherever you are.