Muslim Exceptionalism and the Individual as Ummah

Obviously, the event taking place in the world is one that cannot be ignored. The most overwhelming set of events that we cannot overlook is, yet again, what is taking place in Gaza involving the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the rise in casualties. The most recent set of events underscore the extent to which we, collectively, as Muslims, despite how much we try to ignore the fact, are so marginalized that the assault on our senses and sensibilities truly becomes overwhelming.


As we know, Netanyahu's government has been confronting mass demonstrations and protests in response to Netanyahu facing a series of corruption charges, and he is able to avoid prosecution on these charges as long as he continues to be prime minister. Most of us have followed how Netanyahu wanted to change the law in Israel to weaken the role of the judiciary branch in an attempt to effectively render himself immune from prosecution, and his plans to do so were met with mass protests in Israel. It is quite unlike what happens in a Muslim country when a Muslim leader decides to become more autocratic, more despotic, or more dictatorial. When Muslims are involved, the Western world not only does nothing to impede the progress of dictatorship and despotism, but quite often also sends a message to the dictator in the Muslim world, "Go ahead, establish your autocracy. We do not care so long as our business interests are not impeded." But because Netanyahu is from a country that the West actually cares about, a country which the West does not consider a part of the dark-skinned Third World, Netanyahu's effort to take Israel toward a more authoritarian turn was met with all types of obstacles set by Western countries. So, for the time being, Netanyahu put his plans to change the constitutional system and the court system in Israel on hold because of the local protests and the reaction of Western countries.


As most of us know, however, in order for Netanyahu to come to power, he entered into an unholy alliance with a number of extremist, militant, and outright racist Israeli political movements. These political movements are led by people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, who have a long record of racist diatribes against Arabs and Palestinians, and a long record of Islamophobia, including the “Day of the Flags,” in which the parties of these figures engage in slurs against the Prophet Muhammad and against Muslims at large. Recently, Ben-Gvir has even insisted that Netanyahu's government must go back to the policy of extrajudicial assassinations, or extrajudicial killings, against Palestinians. In fact, Ben-Gvir recently refused to attend cabinet meetings and threatened to pull out of the alliance with Netanyahu’s government if they did not take military acts against Palestinians. In other words, if Netanyahu’s government does not wage an assault against Palestinians in Gaza, Ben-Gvir will refuse to engage with them. 


What complicates the picture further is that both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, with Netanyahu's blessings, have been engaging in regular assaults against the al-Aqsa Mosque, trying to change the facts on the ground to force Muslims to share time with Jewish extremists in the al-Aqsa Mosque. This is so that Jewish extremists will have a claim over the al-Aqsa Mosque at least equal to, if not superior to, Muslims. These violations of the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque have been regular and ongoing. This all leads up to this latest round.


Ben-Gvir is not only violating the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque with the blessings, affirmative aid, and help of the Netanyahu government, but, once again, Ben-Gvir is demanding military escalation against Palestinians. Otherwise, he will pull out of Netanyahu’s government, which would then mean that Netanyahu’s government would lose power and Netanyahu would have to confront the reality of charges pending against him. Of course, it is no surprise that once Netanyahu heeded Ben-Gvir's call and started military action against Gaza, Ben-Gvir happily announced that he will now recommit to attending cabinet meetings and will stay in Netanyahu's coalition.


So what precisely did Israel do? Sisi's government contacted the Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza and told them that the Israelis are interested in holding talks for de-escalation. The Egyptian government guaranteed the safety of the Islamic Jihad’s representatives and assured them that the Israelis were serious about talks. So these representatives were invited to go to Cairo to meet Israeli officials to hold talks on de-escalation. The trip to Cairo was set for 9:00 in the morning, and because of Egyptian assurances, guarantees, and promises, three leaders from the organization came out of hiding to have talks with the Israelis in Cairo. Normally, part of their security protocol is that they never sleep in their homes and they constantly change their location. But because of the Egyptian assurances, these three leaders went home to sleep with their families and woke up the next morning to go to Egypt for the talks. As they slept in their homes, however, among their wives and children, the Israelis struck.


The Israelis did not try to arrest these leaders. They did not even try any type of operation that would have avoided civilian casualties. They simply tracked these three as they slept in their homes—again, because of Egyptian assurances and guarantees—and 40 Israeli airplanes took to the air and simply fired missiles into their homes. If anyone else did this, you could imagine the world's reaction. Obviously, it does not take a genius to foresee that if you are firing missiles at 3:00 am into homes in which there are women and children sleeping, civilian casualties are entirely predictable. Not only were the three leaders killed, but so was each of their wives and several of their children.


For reasons unknown, the Israelis also attacked a doctor called Jamal Khaswan. This doctor had no known associations with Islamic Jihad. He headed a nonprofit organization that raises money to take care of the widows and orphans of people who have been killed by Israel. Yet he was also targeted, and his family had a missile fired at their apartment. Not only this, but the Israelis fired at the entire floor of the building. So, obviously, the four targeted men were the three members of the Islamic Jihad and the medical doctor who heads a nonprofit organization, but killed alongside them were women and children. Scores of children have been injured, some of them in critical condition.


I have been tracking what the Israeli media is saying and what the world media is saying. As to Israeli media, no one knows if the Egyptians conspired with the Israelis. No one knows if the Egyptians gave these folks assurances and guarantees knowing fully well that they were tricking them so that Israel could assassinate them. No one knows if the Egyptian intelligence did this intentionally and knowingly or whether they were tricked by Israel. But what is interesting is that all commentators in Israeli media casually entertain the possibility that Egyptian intelligence conspired with Israeli intelligence. Many commentators also say, "Even if the Egyptians did not conspire with us, and even if Israel fooled the Egyptians with false promises, we have nothing to worry about because it does not matter if we trick or betray these people, they will never dare to take any type of action against us. We can trick, lie to, and deceive these people as much as we want and they will always grovel to maintain our approval and maintain a relationship with us.'" This is treachery without a cost.


In the rest of the world’s commentary, especially in the Western world, no one talks about the occupation. No one talks about the right to resist an occupation. No one talks about treachery. Imagine if this treachery was committed by a Muslim party. I want you to imagine if it was Muslims who made promises and gave guarantees only to betray and murder. Imagine how this act would have been taken as an indication of the morality of Muslims at large. How talking heads would have appeared everywhere to pontificate not just about the morality of Muslims, but even about the immorality of their Prophet. All of this would have been taken as a sign of a deep Muslim crisis with ethics, morality, law, and civilized values. But because it is the Israelis and because it is committed against Muslims, no one entertains the thought that this is treachery or betrayal. No one even mentions the fact that the Israelis fired missiles into residential homes packed with women and children. One of the children died from fear. This child was not actually hit by anything, but died from sheer terror and fear. And Israel knew full well that after having done what they have done, the Palestinians would have no choice but to respond.


What everyone knows in political circles is that this is not about an actual campaign with any type of military goals. This is simply to satisfy Ben-Gvir and Smotrich so that they can remain within the Netanyahu coalition, and that the coalition needs violence against Palestinians so that it can stay in power and avoid criminal charges. Although everyone knows this, no one in any serious moral engagement says, "What is the price for the children? What is the price for these innocent civilians? Why should they die because a corrupt politician does not want to go to prison? Why should they die because of political leaders who have well known track records of being Islamophobic, racist, bigoted, and extremist supremacists?" No one is seriously talking about that at all.


Meanwhile, Israeli forces continue to kill Palestinians far away from Gaza in the West Bank. Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in a West Bank raid, Ahmed Assaf and Rani Qatana, in the town of Qabatiya. Israel demolished a Palestinian school funded and built by the European Union. In another news item, Israeli settlers destroyed 5,000 Palestinian trees in the past five months alone. It is clear that not only does Israel act as an apartheid state by regularly subordinating and abusing Palestinians, but Israel uses violence against Palestinians and the language of security and the “war against terrorism” in a way that violates every human rights standard known to humankind.


God invites us, in every situation of crisis, to ponder and reflect upon injustice not so that we can feel diminutive or bitter and broken, but so that we can turn every occasion for hurt and pain into an opportunity for reflection and growth. Let me expand upon this further. Yes, Israel tricked three Islamic Jihad leaders into a situation in which they could slaughter them. Yes, Israel uses its overwhelming military might to unleash yet another slaughter against Palestinians and Gaza. We know that Gaza is the perpetual punching bag of the Israelis. They punch that bag whenever it serves their interest to do so. But what is happening in that larger, broader context? 


Remarkably, just days ago, before Israel launched its assault against Gaza, the Israeli Embassy in the Emirates held the first ever celebration for Israeli Independence Day in an Arab state and in a Muslim country. The Israeli Embassy in the Emirates invited some 600 Emirati dignitaries. The Emirati Government celebrated Israeli Independence Day with the Israeli Embassy. Emirati singers joined Israeli singers in singing the Israeli national anthem and other Israeli nationalistic songs. The Emirates sent the unequivocal message: "It does not matter to us that you are an occupying state, it does not matter that you have been condemned by a million different United Nations resolutions for your violations against international law, it does not matter that you subjugate, dominate, and brutalize Palestinians. It does not matter. What matters to us is that you support our autocratic despotic state and because of that, we will celebrate with you regardless of the cost to our fellow Muslims." This is the same Emirates in which, ironically, just two weeks previously, in one of the most remarkable commentaries about our modern state, Mohamed bin Zayed traveled to the Eastern Cape and spent a whopping $320 million on a party. He flew in 30 Russian and Asian women, all models, according to the article. What these 30 women had to do is not known, other than they were there to entertain and keep Mohamed bin Zayed and his guests happy. The same country that has spent millions of dollars supporting Islamophobic organizations all over the world, celebrates Israeli Independence Day while ignoring the fact that Israel is a systematic violator of international law, will almost simultaneously spend $320 million on a party that, ironically, was held right after Ramadan.


We find a world that is so morally imbalanced. The affairs of Muslims are so abysmally ugly as to defy description. Yet there is another news item to add to this picture. Most of us have heard of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi woman who was abducted in the Emirates, extradited to Saudi Arabia, and imprisoned and tortured in Saudi Arabia because she was fighting for the rights of women to drive cars. The irony is after she was arrested and tortured, the Saudi Government did what Loujain al-Hathloul was advocating for. The government allowed Saudi women to drive cars, but in no way did they mitigate or alleviate the hardship for Loujain al-Hathloul. After protests by numerous human rights organizations and some pressure by the U.S. government, Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison, but she is still not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia.


It surfaced that an American company and American operatives were involved in the process of spying on Loujain al-Hathloul, breaking into her electronic media, and transmitting the information obtained to the Saudi government. So an American company and American operatives were involved in the process of arresting and imprisoning Loujain al-Hathloul, setting off the events that led to her torture and mistreatment. Loujain hired lawyers in the United States who have been trying to bring a lawsuit against these American entities, to hold them responsible for the role in her apprehension and mistreatment. I will not get into the technicalities of the lawsuit, but, yet again, we find that the way the world relates to Muslims is not at all from the point of view that Muslims are human beings who, like other human beings, are entitled to rights, dignity, and decent treatment. Instead, we enter this bizarre world of exceptionalism and suspended reason.


When Muslims are involved, American companies help trap a Muslim activist. The world sees the slaughter of Muslim children and decides to sit to the side and say nothing. The world sees an autocrat who is openly engaging in human trafficking, flying women internationally to do God knows what, splurging millions of dollars just to entertain himself and his guests, most of whom are from the Western world. It paints a remarkably ugly and grim picture that does not have a hint of moral sense, decency, or goodness.


Recently, it came out that the biggest supplier of arms to dictatorships and autocracies in the world is our own country, the United States. In fact, 58% of our weapon sales goes to bolster dictators and autocrats, like the King of Saudi Arabia and the ruler of the Emirates. This does not even include all our military sales and gifts to Israel, which are then used without accountability or any real moral limits. So the biggest supporter of autocrats in the Muslim world is not China or Russia, but it is, indeed, the United States. This is the same country that is responsible for a large share of the Islamophobia about how Muslims do not understand human rights, democracy, or moral values. And this very same country shores up Muslim dictators, Muslim autocrats, and the logic of Muslim exceptionalism all around the globe.


This is a picture of inkisaar (defeat), a picture that unless the Muslim soul invests in the art of dealing with trauma and processing trauma to positive ends, will ultimately leave the Muslim soul broken, broken, and twisted in a way that will inevitably result in pathologies of thought and action. In other words, if this anarchic, grotesque, and overwhelmingly ugly picture is not properly dealt with, it will result in a Muslim psyche that is incapable of producing beauty, because everything it absorbs is indeed ugly and overwhelming. In the next khutbah, I will talk about the processing of this trauma.


None of us can change the reality of Muslims in one fell swoop. This age for Muslims is not the age of great leaders and great commanders like Khalid ibn al-Walid, Salah al-Din, or the like. This age is an age in which the balance of power is so stacked against Muslims that any grand thinking will very quickly be challenged by micro-complexities that are truly overwhelming and that will always lead to a sense of frustration, futility, and, ultimately, apathy. Why apathy? Because time and again, you may look around and find that things are so wrong but that you are incapable of changing anything. Collectively, Muslims are truly vulnerable. Time and time again, challenges confront Muslims, including challenges by rulers like those in the Emirates or Saudi Arabia who do everything in their power to manufacture Muslim futility and Muslim vulnerability throughout the world. When you know that acting collectively is a failed project, what is the most logical thing? You do not want to surrender to failure, so what do you do? You cannot change things at a macro level. You cannot change things through major strategic moves that alter the reality in big steps. 


This only puts a greater emphasis and importance on the role of the individual. This is not the age where sloganisms about “Allahu Akbar” and “Victory to Muslims” are going to lead us anywhere. What will change our reality is an ethic of individual excellence. What will change our reality is that we raise our children with an ethic of individual excellence, but that we also teach our children that, as individuals, they embody the entire Ummah. Their success is the success of the Ummah. Their excellence is the excellence of the Ummah. Their prosperity is the prosperity of the Ummah. Let me put it even more directly. In an age in which we see a corrupt autocrat throw away $300 million to indulge in an orgy while we struggle to find a few thousand dollars to support a Muslim cause, you are not going to be able to change the geopolitical reality that maintains this autocrat. But your victory is to excel as an individual Muslim, to become wealthy as an individual Muslim, and to spend the money you make as an individual Muslim in moral causes as opposed to immoral causes.


From the 1800s until this very day, a large percentage of the greatest artists that Europe has seen—the greatest musicians, pianists, violinists, cellists—were Jewish. Jews prevailed over their persecution. They prevailed over the stark reality of antisemitism and persecution through an individual ethic of success and excellence. Every Jewish mother would look at her child, if that child was gifted in music, and say, "You owe it to the Jewish people to be the best you can be. Go be an Itzhak Perlman. Go be any of the great Jewish musicians of the past or present century. But remember, wherever you go, that you are an ambassador of the Jewish people."


People have no clue the extent to which this process of ambassadorship can make waves. Today, you cannot be a part of the artistic world of classical music, for instance, without having to deal with and enjoying good relationships with the musicians of Israel, the Israeli symphony, and all the art that goes through the richness of Jewish identity. We must raise our children to say, "You see, we are a broken people. We are a subjugated people. We are a disempowered people. Please understand that Mohammed bin Salman does not represent Islam. Mohamed bin Zayed does not represent Islam. They are not even Muslim. The ugliness that you see is not Islam."


Islam is you. It is your excellence and your success. Do the best you can and be the best you can be, but do it for the sake of Islam and the Muslim people. This does not mean that you have to join any larger cause, but you do have to retain and remember within yourself that you are the embodiment of the living Islam. If the day comes in which there are millions of successful Muslims wherever you turn, in every field, then our reality as Muslims will change. If the human rights field today was populated by pioneering Muslims in human rights thought, then the travesty we witness in Gaza and all over the Muslim world would not exist.


This is a subtle but critical point. When we project our success onto a larger community symbol, when we say, "As an individual, I am not important, it is the Ummah that is important; It is the collectivity that is important," then we doom ourselves to frustration and failure. For we are saying that the collective entity must succeed, and when we see that there is no path forward for that collective entity, for the Ummah, and that the Ummah keeps getting subjugated, dominated, and abused without recourse, then the individual loses heart and, indeed, loses faith. The individual starts putting all their energy into minutia and triviality because they believe in a cause that is unwinnable. Imagine, instead, if you focus on the individual. Imagine if you recognize that you, individually, are the representation of Islam, and that you have an Islamic and moral obligation to succeed and excel—and to do so as a Muslim, not despite being Muslim. Forget the larger causes. Forget what you can do with the MSA. Forget what you can do with this or that organization. Forget it. Just be successful and influential in your field, whatever your field is, and commit to promoting and helping the cause of Islam at large as a successful individual, not as a broken and powerless individual.


In recent decades, you cannot think about the world of art and creative thought without being well versed in the contributions of Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese artists. In the past few decades, whether in the sciences, the creative arts, or music, South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese individuals have made substantial and remarkable contributions. Fifty years ago, you could hardly find anyone from Japan, South Korea, or China who had any role to play in the world of classical music. Today, people from these cultures play a huge role.


What makes a successful people? I am always struck by the role that mothers play. It is mothers who instill a powerful work ethic in children. It is mothers who give children a sense of pride in work and excellence. It is mothers who imbue children with the sense of a mission, a sense that they represent their people or an entire people, and that my success is their success. But alas, in my experience, Muslim mothers are woefully inadequate. Muslim mothers raise children to value material possessions and material enjoyment. Somehow, we are among the destitute and oppressed people of the world, and it is time to wake up to that reality. We are not among the leaders or the dominant forces of the world. We are subalterns. We are oppressed. But among the oppressed people of the world, time and again, I find Muslim mothers raising their children on the principles of material consumption and material enjoyment. “What is important is that you find a husband and that you can enjoy material support and material stability.” The focus is on the pleasure and luxuries of life.


I do not know what will change this reality. I do not know what needs to happen so that our mothers have a different outlook on the world. You are raising a soldier of Islam. Not a soldier who holds a weapon or fires a gun, but a soldier of Islam through excellence, hard work, and perfection. How do we bring that change in the ethos of motherhood in the world of Islam? Remember that the ethos of safety and security is consistent with the ethos of defeatism and ineffectiveness. If mothers raise their children on the ethos that your first priority in life should be to just be safe, instead of innovative, creative, and inventive, then we will never change. The ethos of safety and security is a cowardly ethos, yet the ethos in safety and security seem to be prevalent among the mothers of Islam. I hedge what I say because I wish that I am wrong and I hope that someone can convince me otherwise, because that is really the heart of the problem.

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