When #HajjIsNotSafe and the Jihad (Hard Work) of Moral Deliberation

We all know, or should know, that a core concept throughout the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet is that when you become a Muslim, when you have iman, you also commit to jihad. Jihad, quintessentially, is that you commit to a struggle. Put simply, you commit to working hard, to the exertion of an effort. Not the exertion of a modest effort, but the exertion of a sustained, diligent, and deliberate effort. God tells us that the path to God is a jihad. God tells us that you cannot have any real understanding of what faith is about, what God is about, what a relationship with God is about, or of your very existence and moral purpose in this life, as a Muslim, without jihad. 


To be a Muslim, you must commit to a jihad. You must commit to hard work and a deliberate effort. If you sit back and turn off your deliberative tools, if you practice Islam and practice iman as if it is a pastime, then you are deluded. If your attitude toward God, toward Islam, and toward iman, leave alone your attitude toward virtue and morality, is one of, “I will make an effort to achieve my goals in life. I will make an effort to finish college. I will make an effort to get a job. I will make an effort to even get a driver's license. With anything in life, I will make an effort because without an effort, I will not attain, but I expect that God, Islam, iman, and ihsan will just magically fall into my lap,” then you are deluded.


God told us clearly that your jihad in the path of God, when all is said and done, is for you. God does not need your jihad. God is completely sufficient (Q 29:6). God does not need any of what we present to God. It is all for our own good. The very idea that your life should be a deliberate effort for a higher attainment is the core of jihad. Put differently, if God says “Worship Me,” but does not anchor into you the idea of jihad, the idea of a deliberate effort, then, psychologically, you live a life without a higher moral goal. Living life without a higher moral goal is a moral vacuum, and a moral vacuum will always be filled by the demonic. 


Morality, beauty, and ethics are only attained through deliberate effort. These are higher attainments, and all higher attainments require a sustained, deliberate effort. We live in an age in which this has become so clear. The wisdom of the Divine, the wisdom of the Qur'an, warns us to live a life of deliberate effort. For without conditioning yourself to live a principled life, a life in which you exert a sustained effort to pursue the moral path of life, to pursue al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Q 1:6), then the hedonism, the egoism, and the narcissism that otherwise results is astounding.


I submit to you that the word and concept of jihad has been demonized. Colonial powers, through the mechanisms of Orientalism, have drilled into the Muslim mind that jihad is a threat to humanity. Autocrats, despots, and dictators that rule over Muslim lands and Muslim populations abhor moral deliberation and principled, purposeful lives. I submit to you that this has made the Muslim consciousness deeply confused about the simple idea that faith is about a commitment to moral deliberation. Faith is about a commitment to sustained moral effort to attain higher ethical goals.


Life itself is an education. Life itself, if reflected upon, is a constant teacher. This week, I received several messages—sadly, these have become quite common—from Muslims who are having a crisis of faith. Usually, they will ask questions. Unfortunately, the questions are often lazy. They are questions that I have dealt with and answered repeatedly, if only if they would put in the effort of looking up how I have covered these questions in khutbahs, halaqas, or elsewhere. But this past week, a couple of these messages referred me to Islamophobic sites. The sites they referred me to do not self-identify as Islamophobic. Rather, these are sites by so-called “ex-Muslims” or “former Muslims,” which, in one form or another, raise questions and exhort and encourage Muslims to abandon their faith.


As I was watching these sites, I immediately noticed the high production value. These were not sites where someone like myself just talks. These sites were professionally produced. There is imagery. There is music. There is production. Intellectually, the sites are infantile. They make the same infantile claims always raised by those who do not want to believe in God. There is hardly anything new. You do not, in fact, even need to read Islamic sources to respond to these claims. You can read plenty of literature that was published by Jews and Christians about intelligent design and about how science supports the intelligent design thesis. There is a very advanced debate between those who believe in intelligent design and those who do not, and you can engage this debate. In the Islamic context, however, these websites are infantile. 


But these websites do draw upon an emotional, epistemological, and subconscious association. These websites try to remind you that the world of Islam is replete with ugliness. If you break down all the claims, what these websites are doing is trying to remind you that when you talk about Islam, you are immediately talking about a world full of tragedy and pain. But these websites do not differentiate between the victim and the aggressor. So, yes, there is a world of pain, but they do not talk about Hindus who persecute, target, and torture Muslims in Kashmir. They do not talk about Chinese authorities that put Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps and harvest their organs. They do not talk about Buddhist forces that raped, murdered, imprisoned, and tortured Muslim Rohingya. They do not talk about Israel as an apartheid state that consistently targets Palestinians. They do not talk about the autocrats that rule over the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina. They do not talk about the institutions of autocracy, despotism, repression, and ugliness that perpetuate one ugliness after another. They simply associate  life under the umbrella of Islam with hurt. 


But this is where we truly need a pause. In this same week, one of the leading hashtags in the Muslim world on Twitter was #HajjIsNotSafe. In five different Muslim countries, this was the leading hashtag on Twitter. The reason for this hashtag is that, once again, Saudi authorities are using hajj as a trap to arrest people whom they consider political opponents or political dissidents. Several people during hajj have disappeared. Several people have been arrested and turned over to authoritarian states. Uyghur Muslims, again, were arrested and turned over to China. Egyptians were arrested and turned over to the Egyptian government. Syrians were arrested and turned over to the Syrian government.


You look at the hashtag #HajjIsNotSafe, and you then look at the moral discourse that should accompany such a hashtag. Is there a Muslim discourse exhibiting deliberate, moral work in raising awareness of the implications of hajj not being safe for the Muslim Ummah? Is there a moral discourse about what it means for God to tell us that whoever enters the Haram in Mecca is safe (Q 14:35)? Is there a moral discourse on the Prophet telling the Muslim Ummah, in his final testament, that this land is sanctified and that whoever comes to it is assured of a sanctuary and safety? What does it mean when our holy sites are ruled by an immoral political force that gives promises to people, assuring them so that they will come and put themselves under the authority of these forces, only for these same forces to betray them and hand them over to their death and destruction?


Jihad is a moral deliberation. It is the exertion of a sustained effort in moral consciousness and moral awareness. Do we have that moral awareness in the Muslim world? 


Let me approach this from a different angle. Recently, I read a very important article that every Muslim should read. Written by Jon Hoffman, it is titled “Middle East, Autocrats, Islamophobia, and ‘Reverse Orientalism.’” The article points out something that should be obvious for Muslims, namely, the clear alliance between Muslim autocrats and the Islamophobia industry, and what both Muslim autocrats and Islamophobes are committed to is selling the thesis that democracy, self-determination, autonomy, and moral choice is not good for Muslims. Instead, Muslims should be ruled by autocrats. 


Pause and think. What are autocrats, and what is autocracy? An autocrat is a superior who exercises moral choice for you. The very nature of autocracy is to tell you, “Do not bother with jihad. Do not bother to work hard to attain moral consciousness, to know what is right and wrong, to exercise the right moral choice. Leave it to us. We are your superiors. We will exercise a choice for you, and you just bother yourself with living.” In the article, Jon Hoffman points out how Bernard Lewis, the famous Orientalist, argued at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 that democracy is a political concept that has no history or record in the Arab world, and that Arabs and Muslims are simply not ready for free and fair elections.


The article goes on to explain how Mohammed bin Zayed, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, urged the U.S. government to oppose the Arab Spring and any democratic system in the Muslim world, saying, “The Middle East is not California. While members of the U.S. Congress and Senate are loyal to their states and their constituencies, the masses in the Middle East would tend to go with their hearts and vote overwhelmingly for the Muslim brotherhood and jihadists represented by Hamas and Hezbollah.” Similarly, Rashid bin Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, told CNN, "We have our own democracy. You cannot transport your democracy to us."


The article goes on to explain how many rulers in the Muslim world reacted to the Arab Spring by agreeing with, affirming, and supporting a well-known Orientalist like Bernard Lewis. “No, democracy is not appropriate for Muslims. The only system that Muslims can live with is autocracy.” MBS, speaking to TIME Magazine, said, “Democracy is dangerous because Muslims will use their democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates. That would transform into a real Muslim empire.” So autocrats in the Muslim world want to affirm the boogeyman in dealing with the West. “We are protecting you from the rise of democracy in the Muslim world, because if Muslims exercise their own moral judgment, if they exercise that solemn duty of jihad, of moral deliberation, what they choose will be disastrous for the West. So support us, because we do not give these Muslims a moral choice. We do what we do at hajj. We arrest, imprison, and torture whoever we want. We do whatever we want, but it is necessary to protect the rest of the world from the evils of Muslim moral deliberation and Muslim choice.”


What is most dangerous, disastrous, and evil are not the rulers of Muslim countries. What is even more dangerous than these rulers are the so-called “religious scholars” whose job it is to legitimate and theologically defend autocracy. They exert their jihad not in telling you that life is about a moral choice, that the essence of life is a jihad toward the art of differentiating right from wrong. 


The reason our children attend classes in schools and go to college is to exist in a civil society. We do not want our children to be barbarians. But what does it mean to exist in a civil society? It is to train our children to exercise choices that are consistent with maintaining a civic order. Because if our children grow up unaware, unpracticed, or inexperienced in exercising these moral choices, they may well think that you could get ahead by stealing, killing, and raping. This is what we call antisocial behavior. Why is it antisocial? Because it is inconsistent with maintaining a civic order. A huge part of the institutional mechanism of sending our children to schools is to get them to practice moral choice, civic choice, and the boundaries of what is proper behavior, or what we call abiding by the law. And what is all of that? It is the art of moral choice. Now imagine if our school systems and our parenting did not train children in moral choice. The first time they are presented with a choice, what results is confusion and a vacuum. 


More dangerous than the rulers, then, are the ‘ulama of autocracy. As Hoffman explains in his article, the autocracies of the Muslim world have their army of scholars who defend, justify, and philosophize autocracy. As the article notes, Shaykh bin Bayyah, who is entirely bought and in the pocket of the UAE. said that Muslim societies “are not ready for democracy” and that “the call for democracy is essentially a call for war.” Bin Bayyah goes on to describe the uprisings in the Arab world, uprisings that demanded democracy and dignity, as having “deviated from reason, human dignity, morality, and societal benefit.” His sidekick and student, Hamza Yusuf, described the Arab uprisings as “representative of a loss of reason, morality and human dignity, and led to widespread chaos, confusion, and civil wars.” The autocrats of the world have an army of scholars whom they have bought. Habib Jiffri has an organization headquartered in the UAE. In Yemen, there is Hani Bin Breik, about whom there is a whole story. Or, in Egypt, take someone like Ali Gomaa, who justified the massacre of unarmed civilians in Rabaa. And, of course, there are people like bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf. 


But what is the danger of such scholars? Put simply, they make the very concept of jihad, a concept that God has told us is core to our moral awareness and moral consciousness, entirely vacuous and meaningless. Ultimately, they tell you to leave moral choices to the autocrats in power. The Arab League just visited China, went around the Xinjiang province, and, at the end of their visit, praised Chinese efforts in fighting “terrorism” and announced to the world that there is no genocide in China. In so doing, they have discounted the testimony of thousands of Uyghur Muslims.


What people like bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf tell us is that there is no moral choice here to be exercised. Our only choice is to believe and obey the rulers. And if they tell you to discount the testimony of your fellow Muslims who claim to be suffering from a genocide, then you have to say, "Yes, sir, I obey. You have exercised the moral choice for us. Your choice is that there is no genocide, so we believe you and obey.” The Saudi authorities may be arresting people and sending them to their deaths, using hajj as a trap, but these scholars are telling you that there is no moral deliberation to be had. There is no moral choice to be made. You must ignore it. You must say, "I obey," and go on with your business. No moral consequences. No moral choices.


There is a very well known critic whom I do not always agree with, but who is a brave soul nonetheless. Dr Abd al-Aziz al-Khazraj al-Ansari had a YouTube channel in which he would talk about all types of issues. What is respectable about him is that he clearly abided by the duty of moral jihad. He would consistently use his faculties to attempt to understand moral issues, to make moral choices, and to express these moral choices on his YouTube channel. Suddenly, he disappeared. Qatar, the same country that established the Al Jazeera channel, made a well-known citizen like Abd al-Aziz al-Ansari, who has a million followers on YouTube, disappear. His family knows nothing. The security forces told them that they needed to talk to him, and he never came back. As I follow what people are saying, sadly, only a minority are saying, "How can we be silent? This is a brave man. This is a well known Muslim scholar. This is a man who speaks his mind and constantly tries to raise moral awareness about moral issues, and he just disappears.” But the majority, sadly, is saying, “It is none of our business. Keep your mouth shut. Talk about what is important.” 


What, then, is important? The Uyghurs are suffering from a genocide, but that is appparently not important. The fact that Israel keeps violating the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque is not important. The constant murders that Israel commits is not important. Again, what is important? Well, what is important is that the women understand their hijab obligation. What is important is whether the voice of a woman is ‘awrah as she does the adhan. 


The end result is a space that becomes so accommodating to Islamophobic efforts. The end result is a people who are not practiced in the art of deliberate judgment and moral deliberation, for they have not been trained in how to recognize what is wrong, denounce what is wrong, and construct an argument against what is wrong, because they are told that the only thing that is good for them is to remain infantile, incapable of exercising moral judgment. These apostate channels are able to easily prey on Muslims of weak faith and weak judgment by simply associating the world of Islam with everything that entails suffering: deconstruction of identity, lack of dignity, lack of pride. They are able to gain an enormous mileage that they would not otherwise have gained if we had just listened to our Lord, who, from the very beginning, told us, "Life is not just existing, life is about moral deliberation and a deliberate moral choice."


Too many Muslims have internalized the precepts of Orientalism and Islamophobia, so much so that they effectively tell the world that our religion wants us infantile; our religion does not trust us to become autonomous people who exercise self-determination through freedom of choice in a democratic order; our religion wants us subordinated and dominated by corrupt autocrats.


You read that Israeli exports have reached an all time high this year, with one quarter of Israeli exports going to Arab Muslim countries. Meanwhile, Israel blows up a home and kills this nice looking kid. Meanwhile, three hundred and thirty-seven Palestinians, including four children, were wounded by Israeli bullets and inhaling Israeli gas. The news is endless about Israeli assaults against Palestinians, including a well known Israeli unit called the Netzah Yehuda unit. The Netzah Yehuda unit is known for a string of human rights violations and, more recently, was responsible for the murder of an American Palestinian, Omar Assad, a 78-year-old man whom the unit detained, gagged, and bound. He died in their custody. The Israeli investigation of the killing, as we are now so accustomed to, was a whitewash.


Simple moral consequences would say that if a country is treating Muslims badly, you, as a Muslim, must affirm the principle of consequences vis-a-vis this country. So, if Israel continues butchering Palestinians, colonizing Palestinians, stealing their lands, displacing them, torturing and murdering them, and what you do vis-a-vis this country is increase trade and strengthen ties, the message is quite clear: there are no moral consequences when you deal with Muslims; Muslims simply do not care about fellow Muslims. But why? It is well known that Israel raises hell whenever there is persecution of Jews, anywhere in the world. It is well known that the State Department raises hell whenever there are Christians persecuted in the world. There is no such dynamic for Muslims. 


But what is even worse are those so-called scholars that tell you to not bother with moral consciousness or moral deliberation. So, is there no jihad at all? “Well, your jihad is to obey God and get closer to God.” But what is God if God is not about moral choices? What does my relationship with God mean if I am supposed to believe that my relationship with God can grow while I abandon the world of moral choices and moral consciousness? Nothing then makes sense.


I am telling you that these ex-Muslim sites exploit the world of moral incoherence that Muslims suffer from. We cannot pretend that these apostate sites are not effective. Unfortunately, they do affect a good number of young Muslims. But the thing that really kills me, the thing that breaks my soul, is that these sites clearly have supporters. It is clear that there is money invested in these sites. It is clear that these sites find sufficient financial support. It is clear that they are propaganda sites established by Islamophobes with a very clear program. We then look to the other side, to those who tell us, “Do not exercise moral deliberation, do not make moral choices.” Are they even busy at least responding to these Islam-hating sites? No. We do not have a single site that is backed up financially, professionally, or artistically to respond at the same level to these Islamophobic sites. 


Again, I sit and I wonder. Where is Muslim wealth? Where are the rich Muslims? Why are they not funding professionals to respond to these sites that are clearly misleading and miseducating Muslims? 


In order to respond to these sites, we must commit to the jihad of moral clarity. We must be able to say, with the loudest voice, that what the Saudi government is doing with the pilgrims of hajj is un-Islamic. Autocracy is un-Islamic. Imprisoning people without charges is un-Islamic. Oppressing people is un-Islamic. Injustice is un-Islamic. Every ugliness that you see in the Muslim world is, indeed, un-Islamic. We must be able to say this if we have any hope of responding to these grotesque anti-Muslim sites. I continue praying that I will see, in my lifetime, a decent Muslim millionaire who commits his or her wealth, but I know the problem is not just money. The problem is that we, as Muslims, have become morally cowardly, so we fail to respond. The sin of every Muslim who listens to these sites and loses their faith as a result is upon us all. 

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