The “Muslim question” is one strand that unites the new wave of intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic. Brexit, Trumpism, and the resurgence of the far-right in Europe are enterprises built on fear. Fear of the Muslim migrant or refugee, flooding into Western cities and towns and changing their way of life. Fear of the “Muslim terrorist”, with grand designs of bringing down the West by a thousand cuts.
But amid this rising xenophobia, another fascinating trend is emerging. There’s a new generation of progressive, practicing Muslims who have become the torchbearers of western, postmodern pluralism.
Last June, London mayor Sadiq Khan, while observing the Ramadan fast, led the city’s gay pride parade and slammed the pro-Brexit vote. He reassured Europeans living in the city that they “are welcome” and their presence in London “will not change as a result of this referendum.”
While white English and Welsh hyper nationalists aim to pull Britain away from Europe, Khan, and many other sons and daughters of former colonial subjects, are defending the postwar idea of an integrated Europe. Khan, in fact, aims to build bridges in all directions. His first act coming into office this year was to participate in London’s annual Holocaust memorial.
Something quite similar is brewing in my home of New York. The old vanguard of the Muslim community leadership in New York City is being replaced by a younger lot that has endorsed uber-progressives like Bernie Sanders, Bill deBlasio, and Zephyr Teachout. They include hijab-clad Muslim women who support abortion rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and LGBT equality.
Last year , I followed Ali Najmi, a Queens lawyer and activist, as he ran for the Democratic nomination in an open New York City Council seat. Najmi campaigned as an ardent supporter of Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights — to his own detriment. While his district is heavily democratic, it is also socially conservative. Najmi’s opponents used his support for both police reform and gay rights against him, contributing to his loss.
As we drove through the leafy streets of eastern Queens, I asked Najmi why he supported LGBT rights when it served no political benefit in his part of Queens. He said that the LGBT community has stood by the side of the city’s Muslims as they faced threats to their civil liberties from local and federal law enforcement.
Najmi listed Daniel Dromm, a gay man and city councilman from the heavily Muslim and South Asian Jackson Heights, as one of the most vocal defenders of New York’s Muslims. He recalled Dromm holding a sign that proclaimed, “I am a Muslim, too!” at a protest against the McCarthyite hearings held by Congressman Peter King on “Muslim radicalization” in 2011.
For Najmi and others like him, the path toward progressivism began with these post-9/11 alliances to defend Muslim civil liberties. And it has since evolved into a broader struggle for equal rights for all.
Muslims and Public Policy
Increasingly, Muslims are sidestepping their religious beliefs as they relate to public policy. Daniel Dromm has been voted into office twice by his many Muslim constituents. Similarly, in Toronto, the openly gay parliamentarian Rob Oliphant was elected by Canada’s largest Muslim community. What we are seeing is a secularisation of Muslim politics in the West — a secularisation not forced by laïcité, but born by coalition building to defend the freedom and inclusiveness of Western societies that may want to close their gates or reduce liberties for minorities.
Now, over a decade after the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, London and New York are the new outposts of Muslim progressivism. Brooklyn — once home to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and the jihadist cell that planned the first World Trade Center attack — is now represented by Linda Sarsour, an outspoken Muslim progressive activist seen one day next to Mayor DeBlasio, and the next day at a Black Lives Matter protest in some other American city.
The Muslim youth scene in London, and to some extent, Queens, NY, was once dominated by Al Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, radical groups working to reestablish the caliphate. Al Muhajiroun, in particular, has inspired scores of American, British, and other European Muslims to wage jihad across the world, including in the West. But the face of London’s Muslims is no longer the hook-handed jihadist Abu Hamza al-Masri and his radical Finsbury Park mosque.
London’s Muslims, and indeed, all Londoners, are represented by a progressive mayor who happens to be a Muslim and is the greatest symbol of the city’s 21st century brand of inclusivity.
A progressive history of Muslims in the US and the UK
The juxtaposition of Islam as the polar opposite of the values held dear in the West — freedom, equality, and tolerance — is ahistorical. America’s earliest Muslims were the victims of white supremacism, an ideology that restricted the benefits of those “universal” values to individuals of a single race. Roughly ten percent of the slaves brought to the United States from west Africa were Muslims.
Muslim progressivism in the West is not something entirely new. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Muslim converts and immigrants served as the harshest critics of white America’s racism problem.
Early 20th century New York was home to what we’d now call a black-brown intersectional alliance against white supremacism. In London and New York, the great black nationalist Marcus Garvey was mentored by Duse Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian-Sudanese Muslim. In New York, they were supported by Maulvi Barakatullah, a madrasah-educated Indian Muslim freedom fighter campaigning against British colonialism.
In a 1903 letter to the New York Tribune, Barakatullah responded to the paper’s depiction of the “dusky Moslem” as hateful toward the “white Christian.” He defended Islam as “a universal religion” that “does not at all admit of either racial or color prejudice.” Not mincing his words, Barakatullah asserted:
“The color problem and the question of the superiority and inferiority of races is the creation of the Anglo-Saxon race, which appears in different guises in different parts of the globe, and is accentuated to the highest pitch in the United States of America.”
“Islam,” Barakatullah claimed, “in its pristine purity was democratic and progressive.” Should “the negroes of the United States democracy” adopt Islam, Barakatullah wrote, they would “become a model Moslem community in the world.” In the same letter, the visitor from India, in one of America’s most widely circulated newspapers at the time, had the gall to posit a future in which educated blacks would be the teachers of whites.
What Barakatullah foretold was the rise of the Nation of Islam and the emergence of giants, like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali — men who would show a mirror to white America’s face and expose its hypocrisy. Both men later left the Nation of Islam and embraced orthodox Islam, which rejects notions of racial supremacy. Ali, with his passing, taught America that his Islam offered America a radical humanism and a path toward universal brotherhood. The great pugilist was so perfectly eulogised by former President Bill Clinton as “a free man of faith.”
In this era of jihadist terror and the radical right — two forces that rail against cosmopolitanism and pluralism — we must recognise that this too is Islam’s contribution to America and to the West: free men and women of faith, who seek the freedom of all.