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Islam’s Scholars for Dollars

Many Muslims do not have the financial resources or social clout to combat political and religious extremism. Such extremism is further enabled by scholars who let themselves be bought by the rich or powerful.

I’m tired of attending fundraisers. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the value in them. Sometimes I even speak at them. I remember attending a charity dinner for Kosovo in the 1990s, and I recently spoke at an event raising funds for the suffering people of Syria. A few days ago, I saw in my inbox yet another such invitation—to a session on Myanmar.

While I appreciate and applaud these efforts, I am also unsettled by their frequency. From Western Sahara to Kashmir, the Caucasus to Myanmar—why are so many Muslim communities the targets of persecution? And why can so few of their fellow believers offer assistance? Why are Muslims so constantly afflicted by crisis and in conditions of emergency?

When genocide began in the Balkans, first against Catholic Croats and then Muslim Bosniaks, few Muslims had many options other than to rage impotently at a television screen. For the majority of Muslims, poor and disconnected, there was little they could do. In societies that lack strong traditions of civic participation and activism, learned helplessness is an expected result. In such an environment, the few who promote any kind of “action” are extreme in their tone and content; the results are often extreme as well.

What, though, do we expect? Extremism does not emerge in a vacuum. In an August 2013 New York Times article titled “Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” David Kirkpatrick illustrates this point. One of the better commentators on Egypt, Kirkpatrick describes the controversial role played by some Muslim clerics, some of whom were senior figures in government employment, in defending the June 30 coup against Egypt’s elected government. Kirkpatrick points out how the Egyptian government has subsequently become concerned that soldiers and policemen may not be comfortable with its use of deadly force against civilian protesters.

One passage in particular leaps out. Kirkpatrick writes: “The military is now sending religious messages to its troops that sound surprisingly similar to the arguments of radical militants.” I accept his point, but take it one step further. There is no difference between the two messages. The coup against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which had won several elections in a row, was sometimes played as a ‘liberal’ reaction to Egyptian Islamism, yet it was anything but liberal. What is fascinating about Kirkpatrick’s piece is not only his description of the need some have to find a religious justification for the killing of one’s own people.

It is that many willing enablers can be found, including major “scholars” of Islam and leading figures of the Egyptian clerical establishment.

And here is the sad fact that the Muslim world must face up to.

Many of its “traditional scholars,” those who claim to represent the sacred heritage of Islam against its immature politicization and dangerous manipulation by extremists, have little if anything to offer other than rhetorical flourish. Not all of them, to be sure—but still, too many. In most instances, they are government bureaucrats whose livelihood depends on their toeing the line. By justifying undemocratic and even violent policies in the name of religion, these scholars do religion as much harm as extremists—perhaps even more. Major clergy have more credibility in the average Muslim’s eyes than a marginal zealot on YouTube.

One would expect better from a cleric with years of education than from a refugee in the Pakistani and Afghani borderlands, taken in by extremism and lacking any experience of a different, wider world. Yet one hears such supposedly august figures—including Egypt’s grand mufti, one of its chief religious authorities—present arguments so uncomfortable and awkward that one can see why extremism finds an audience.

In Egypt’s case, clerical defenders of what is obviously a counterrevolution claim that it is “forbidden to rebel against the state.” Really—that’s the argument?

If a “rebellion” comes to power, isn’t that then the state, and isn’t Sisi, the head of the Egyptian military, the rebel? I had hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood would finish its term in office, which it was executing with stunning incompetence, and then get booted out at the ballot box. By terminating their political project so early, Egyptians are denying themselves the chance to learn democracy—which can, like religion, only be learned experientially. All the books in the world do not a saint, or democrat, make. This is a point more Muslims need to make.

After the American Revolution, after all, it took us some years to settle on a constitution, and several decades before a bloody Civil War answered the great contradiction at the heart of our political project. That’s why we should support procedural and principled democratization as opposed to short-term political calculations. Not only is this in accord with our values, but also with our peace of mind and our security.

Egypt’s coup will increase extremism. For under the Egyptian military dictators (notice the trend?) Nasser and Mubarak, Egyptian prisons became factories of extremism. They will be so again. Part of the reason for that extremism was dictatorship, which we Americans rather unashamedly endorsed for many decades. That dictatorship, however, was supported not just by our dollars, but also by what American Muslims call “scholars for dollars”: a clergy that allows itself to be bought off by the wealthy and powerful.

When one forbids one’s own people the chance to learn from their mistakes, trust their instincts, and find their own way, one forbids them the chance to develop a religiosity adequate to their needs. And a religion that does not speak to the world, while also transcending it, will soon perish from the earth. I often say, half-jokingly but half-seriously, that we need an Ayatollah Khomeini of limited governance. What is the difference, after all, between a cleric who justifies suicide bombings on the grounds of “defending Islam”—God save us from such ignorance and hate—and the cleric who justifies mowing down civilians on the very same grounds?

Do not take me to be advocating a narrow, constricting secularity, which forbids the public invocation of religion and the social and civic involvement of the religious. To expect as much is practically to guarantee an undemocratic society. But there is a vast middle ground between religion that seeks power and aims to enforce its will and a religion that exists as a kind of rubber stamp, calling on God, and defaming His Name by easing the conscience of the powerful. Religion is called to do more than that, and so the religious, too.

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