I normally start with a Qur’anic passage or verse, before dissecting a set of events and applying the Qur’anic revelation to the events analyzed. Recently, however, an event took place in Saudi Arabia that is profoundly telling on its own. It hardly needs any commentary for it to combust with all types of meanings and connotations. It is a very telling event that, in and of itself, calls upon us to engage in deep reflection about the state of Muslims and the moral situation in which we find ourselves.
Recently, a well-known Saudi cleric, Emad al-Moubayed, managed to escape from oppression in Saudi Arabia, and, upon arriving in Britain, released a message saying something to the effect of, "Thank God I have safely managed to exit Saudi Arabia, and I have reached a country of aman, of safety and security." He left Saudi Arabia, where aman is absent, where he is under constant threat of being like the hundreds of other clerics who have been arrested, imprisoned for years, tortured, and killed. Whether he intended to say so or not, what a Shaykh like Emad al-Moubayed said places every Muslim before a juxtaposition that is undeniable. It is as clear as the sun. In the land of the Prophet and the Haramayn, a cleric like him is not safe, and where they find safety is in England.
This is the story of so many of us who have sought refuge in some Western country. The irony is that many of us find that living our Islamic identity is precarious, dangerous, and, indeed, very threatening. So many of us, to feel that critical word, aman, to feel safety and a sense of security, have no choice but to leave the lands of Islam to seek refuge in cultures that have never been Muslim and have never embraced Islam. The paradox in this is both astounding and endlessly painful. This has been the state of Muslims clearly throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st century.
But let us first acknowledge the fact that a fairly mainstream Shaykh like al-Moubayed, who is not known for his political associations, involvements, or opinions, was forced to escape to a Western nation. In other words, even someone like al-Moubayed, who has striven to remain as apolitical as possible, does not feel safe in the lands of the Haramayn. He was forced to escape and declare, effectively, "I have left the lands where aman, safety and security, is absent, to a land where aman, safety and security, is present."
What calls upon us to deepen our reflection is that there is a backstory to what happened with Emad al-Moubayed, and it is a backstory that is, again, full of ironies and meaning. Initially, Emad al-Moubayed made a short video in which he stated that, as a faithful Saudi subject, he felt it was his duty to give a word of advice to the authorities, effectively warning the authorities about the amount of transgressions and indiscretions committed by the youth in the wild parties organized all over Saudi Arabia, saying that these indiscretions in the land of the Prophet were inappropriate. Shortly after posting this video, Emad al-Moubayed made another video in which he profusely apologized for his first video, praised the leadership, and said, "I have been misunderstood. My words were taken out of context. I did not mean to imply any criticism of our great leadership. We in Saudi Arabia live in aman, in great security and safety, and we are very grateful to the leadership for the stability, safety, and security that we enjoy.” Months go by, and al-Moubayed then succeeded in escaping from Saudi Arabia, announcing his arrival in Britain, and “taking off the mask,” so to speak.
We are so accustomed to this. Our psychologies have become so acclimated to the paradox that the very land where the Prophet Abraham prayed to God, "Lord, make this a safe sanctuary” (Q 2:126), the very land that the Prophet Muhammad declared a sanctuary until the end of days, is only a sanctuary to those willing to live as mindless drones in total submission to the political authorities that rule over Mecca and Medina. If you are willing to live as livestock, without an opinion or thought that could get you in trouble, without identity or personality, without any expression that could possibly clash with the will of the political authorities, then safety and security exists for you. But for anyone else who rejects the principle of total submission to those in power, it is not a land of safety and security, whereas a country like Britain, in contrast, is a land of safety and security.
If, as a Muslim, something inside of you is not deeply and thoroughly shaken at a moral level by the fact that even the clergy of Islam are no longer safe in Mecca and Medina, and that, in fact, their only refuge are the countries that colonized, dominated, and subordinated the Muslim world, then something is drastically wrong. This is a profound statement on our condition as Muslims. What compounds and complicates this issue further is that we are well aware that Saudi prisons are full of religious scholars. We are well aware that European countries, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia host dozens upon dozens of Muslim scholars who have escaped from Muslim countries and were forced to seek asylum, safety, and shelter in countries that have no relationship with Islam other than a relationship of historical antipathy and historical hostility.
What is the deeper issue here? It is the normalization of cultures of authoritarianism and despotism. As scholars like Salman Alodah sit in prison, as scholars like Awad al-Qarni are sentenced to death, as clerics like al-Moubayed are forced to escape to Britain to seek safety and shelter, Saudi Arabia announces an initiative called the so-called “Charter of Mecca,” an event taken under the auspices of the Muslim World League. The Muslim World League, of course, is headed by Mohammad al-Issa, a man famous for his full submission and subordination to the despotic, authoritarian state in Saudi Arabia. In other words, Mohammad al-Issa is a thorough apologist for whatever the Saudi state says, wills, or wishes.
Mohammad al-Issa, acting upon the orders of the Saudi state, shakes hands with the most extreme Israelis who are regularly involved in atrocities against Palestinians. That does not trouble him. He gets his marching orders from the Saudi state, and he implements and obeys blindly. The Charter of Mecca is fascinating. As the first step of this proclaimed charter, Mohammad al-Issa and the Muslim World League want to establish a precedent that the only religious authorities, scholars, and religious figures who will be invited to partake in the Charter of Mecca will be the “legitimate, orthodox scholars of Islam.” Everyone else not included, according to this effort, is a heretic, outside the fold, or an entirely marginal figure to true and orthodox Islam.
But what are the principles anchored by the Charter of Mecca? You soon discover that the Charter of Mecca does not even remotely come close to addressing matters of human rights, justice, morality, or ethics. The Charter of Mecca claims that the main problem confronting Muslims all around the world is “extremism and terrorism.” According to the Charter of Mecca, however, who are the extremists and terrorists? It is those who indulge in “political Islam.” Once again, we come to this meaningless slogan. What does the Charter of Mecca want? Remarkably, the first principles of the Charter of Mecca are that of absolute, unmitigated, and uncompromised loyalty and obedience to the state. It is to thoroughly obey those in power, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Remember that al-Issa and the Saudi government were very supportive of Trump. Their attitude even toward right-wing politics in the West is that Muslims owe total, unmitigated, and unconditional obedience.
Even opposing something like the Muslim ban, then, is “political Islam” and evil. You are commanded, as a “good Muslim,” to not even be involved in promoting an organization like CAIR, in promoting a Muslim candidate running for Congress, or in opposing the Muslim ban. All that is “political Islam.” The ethic is an ethic of absolute statism in which the state functionally becomes god. The state is possessed of a mysterious, near-mystical knowledge of politics. You are told that politics is a mystery in which the common folk cannot engage, because politics is replete with unknowns. It is as if the world of politics is the world of the ghayb. In the same way that the Qur'an talks about the world of ghayb as belonging to God, in the statist paradigm, it is not that God is shrouded by the mysteries of ghayb. Rather, the state is shrouded by the mysteries of ghayb. And because commoners do not have the capacity to understand the mysteries of politics, what is owed to the state is complete obedience. Your negotiation of your Islamic obligations is only in the space allowed for you by the state. The state will tell you the legitimate space in which to engage God, in what way, and by what means.
Here is another irony. This elevation of the state to a near-Divine status, shrouded in ghayb and mystery, sanctified as a secret object that demands total unmitigated and unadulterated commitment by its subjects, is, of course, an earmark of fascist political theology. In the early 20th century, state worship was a political theology that was aggressively advocated by a group of political philosophers who had effectively lost faith in moral institutions. They put their entire trust in the authority and authoritativeness of the state. The state became the beginning and the end of morality, of ethics, of everything.
We know what the world experienced from the realm of totalitarianism and fascism. Yet, in the 21st century, Muslims are reverting back to a statist theology that is indistinguishable from fascist political institutions and philosophy.
Of course, all of this would not be possible if Muslims themselves were not largely oblivious, illiterate, uncritical, and unthinking. Those organizing the Charter of Mecca know well that they are going to send out invitations, and that all types of Muslim figures want the honor of being sanctified and approved of by the Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian governments. They want the factor of coolness. They want to get invitations from international governments. They want to travel first class and be received as a guest of honor. They want to be treated with a great deal of fanfare. So they will accept the invitation.
Are they just oblivious? No. There is a deeper illness in our psyche. The deeper illness in our psyche, my brothers and sisters, is that we are all authoritarians, despots, and dictators, and that is why we are not offended to the core by the culture and logic of dictatorship and authoritarianism. What do I mean? God draws our attention in Surah al-Baqara (Q 2) to those whom God describes as “concealing” what is in the book (Q 2:79, 174). Of course, at the most superficial level, commentators say that Surah al-Baqara is referring to those who knew the prophecy of Muhammad was prophesied in the book, but would not admit to that fact and would even deny it, for they did not want to acknowledge the truth.
At a deeper level, however, God is alerting us to a dynamic. It is a dynamic that authoritarian minds engage in all the time. An open book has possibilities of meaning. It can authoritatively support, back up, and provide legitimacy to a number of potential meanings. That is the nature of texts. A text that excludes all meaning except one is a closed text. A text that triggers potentialities of meaning, that sets an energetic process and movement, that inspires energies for accomplishment and achievement, is an open text. It is much harder for the text to be open than closed. The truly brilliant text is a text that triggers a number of potentialities that are capable of evolving, progressing, and growing to the greater fulfillment of humanity. The less brilliant text is a text that is closed upon itself. A text that does not really inspire you—it tells you what to do, and you follow it—-is not a brilliant text. That is not a difficult text or a text with great potential.
God is not a dull author incapable of motivating intellectual and moral potentialities. The truly brilliant text is a text that inspires development and progress, a text that elevates its readers, rather than suffocating the reader within a world of closed meaning. A truly brilliant text liberates the reader within universes of open meaning. To “conceal the book” is to conceal the potentialities of the text in an entirely authoritarian move. It is when, because of our own limitations, we say, “This book can only mean X.” But the authoritarian personality is, by necessity, self-serving. It is also inevitably dishonest in its relationship to the text and to itself. In order to streamline its vision of the world and streamline the potentialities of meaning, the authoritarian personality will necessarily engage in lying to others and lying to itself. It will necessarily exclude all the potentialities within the text. Not because the potentialities are not there, but because it will have to usurp the meaning of the text and insist on closing the meaning upon what it desires the meaning to be. It cannot achieve that, however, without a great deal of dishonesty, double-talk, and duplicity. The vast majority of Muslims feel comfortable with this type of duplicity in which we declare principles, but are uncomfortable with negotiating results that we cannot control beforehand.
Look at our Islamic institutions in the United States and Europe. How many Islamic centers actually engage in an honest process of elections and real choices? How many Islamic centers tolerate or understand the world of potential meanings? In my experience with Islamic organizations, like al-Moubayed, I have not found any support and validation among Muslims. My aman was never among Muslims. Tragically, where my worth has been validated and celebrated, where my intellectual accomplishments have been praised, evaluated, and engaged, was among non-Muslims. Why? We Muslims have gotten used to the art of denial, duplicity, and self lies. I have been thrown out of more Islamic centers, Islamic organizations, and Islamic camps than I care to remember. I have been excluded from more Islamic spaces than I ever care to remember. Not because people necessarily disagreed with what I was saying, but because of simple, base emotions like jealousy, or an inability to engage and negotiate the world of open meanings that my intellectual endeavors and interpretive activity made possible.
In our culture of despotism and authoritarianism, we Muslims have grown so comfortable with this duplicity. We know the prohibitions, we know the haram from the halal, but we are so comfortable stabbing people in the back, slandering opponents, announcing that they are “heretical” or “unorthodox.” We maximize this type of talk about the very people whom we cannot confront. In principle, Muslims will get together and recite the Qur’anic verses about not backbiting or slandering others (Q 104). Muslims will recite the same verses and nod their heads in affirmation when the principles are invoked. But they will then turn around and engage in backstabbing, slander, backdealing, and duplicity.
That is how authoritarianism works. That is the culture of authoritarianism. In a culture of despotism and authoritarianism, you are always impressed and dazzled by those who subordinate you. In a culture where we gravitate to embracing Whiteness, we do not know what to do with race, so we engage in duplicity. We declare that Black people are our “brothers and sisters,” but we never invite them to our centers. We never elect them to office. We never talk about race in any serious way.
Recently, my son, Cherif, experienced the typical duplicity of Muslim organizations. It is something I have encountered and experienced so many times. The Islamic Center of Southern California, which loves to declare lofty principles, blacklisted me because they did not like my speech. Similarly, the Muslim Student Association here at Ohio State University announced that it was holding elections for office positions. They said they did not have enough people running, and they needed to fill some positions. My son Cherif volunteered to run for an office. He promptly received a letter saying that after a thorough review—in line with the duplicity, wherever we find a Muslim organization saying “a thorough review,” we know they are lying—they determined that he was not qualified to run. Upon further investigation, they then claimed that there were “many people'' who wanted to run for office, so they had to be meticulous in reviewing the qualifications and the paperwork. And, as usual, it turns out, when the dust settles, that there were not many people running for office. There was only one other person. It is clear that the MSA wanted this one other person elected.
It is clear that they were going to exclude any other nominees so that the person whom they want to occupy the office will occupy the office. I do not mention this because it is an exception. I mention it because this is the rule. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that this is what we experience constantly. The letter these kids wrote, lying, is like the letter I received from the Islamic Center, which claimed that when I criticized Sisi there was an “immediate uproar.” They know they are lying. But immediately after lying, partaking in duplicity and dishonesty, they will then turn around, say, “Allahu Akbar,” and pray. It will never dawn on them that this is un-Islamic behavior, sinful and haram. That is what the culture of despotism does.
The culture of despotism will force Emad al-Moubayed to appear on television, praising the rulers, talking about the “wonderful life” in Saudi Arabia, and then run away to a non-Muslim country as soon as he can. Despotism, dishonesty, and slander are all from Satan. When you stab people in the back and conspire against those whom you cannot confront and engage, it is from Satan. We all know this. So how can we embrace what is from Satan every day of our lives without blinking an eye, without pausing to think that the scholars who tell us to celebrate those invited to the Charter of Mecca are not simply engaging in harmless behavior; they are anchoring the culture of Satan among us? They are affirming the culture of duplicity and lies.
I saw the amount of backstabbing and vicious attacks directed at Fazlur Rahman when he was alive. No Muslim dared to engage Fazlur Rahman face-to-face, because they knew he was a thoroughly knowledgeable man. But behind his back they accused him of everything on the face of the earth. I saw the same with Muhammad Asad, the amount of people who talked about him, all the while never daring to confront or engage him. I saw the number of hateful, virulent attacks even against someone like Roger Garaudy, who was imprisoned in France because of his free speech about the Holocaust. I was there when Roger Garaudy visited the United States, and I saw all the Muslims who could not understand what Roger Garaudy was saying, who could not engage his philosophical mind. I saw all the disgusting stuff that they heaped on the man behind his back.
This is the despotic personality. I know we all suffer from it. This is the result of the hypocrisy and despotism that the Charter of Mecca wants to reaffirm among us. And this is “concealing” the Qur’an. This is lying about God's Book. This is concealing and misrepresenting God's Book. Ultimately, this is corrupting God's Revelation. That is it; from the elections in the MSA, to the ban of the Islamic Center of Southern California, to the maligning of Muhammad Asad, to every slanderous campaign that has been waged against scholars of real knowledge and real integrity.