MOST IDEALS ARE judged by their realizations. Supporters of globalization take worldwide agitation for democracy not only as a success for that political system, but proof of the increasing interconnectedness of the world. Prescient observers of American politics see in our corporatized democracy a sad regression: celebrations of militancy, reflexive nativism and uncertain interest in the ideals the nation once championed. But there is perhaps no ideal as contentious and uncommonly realized as Muslim unity. Practically speaking, the global Muslim community may be earth’s most fractious kinship, sobering news to those who never cease to champion Islam as the “world’s fastest growing religion” (In fact, in terms of conversions, Christianity is almost surely the world’s fastest growing faith.) But why does the ideal perform so horribly?
In all fairness we cannot ignore those forces which interfere in the Muslim world. The disproportionate power of capital and class to extract resources from compliant states is preserved through force of arms and divisive stratagems. Yet that is not enough to explain Muslim disunity. Such malicious efforts would be far more unsuccessful were Muslim societies more capable of dealing with their differences. We cannot blame Palestine for being occupied, nor Chechnya for being carpet-bombed. But we can accuse a system in which wealthy Muslim states raise no productive hue and cry over this-but more importantly and more curiously, do not even know how to.
Muslim states make very weak states because they overwhelmingly lack popular consensus or rational, equitable political systems. Their rulers are terrified of divisions, but their inability to deal with simple differences is the source of those divisions that grow to threaten them. From Algeria’s FIS to Sudan’s Christians to Pakistan’s Baloch, the Muslim world suffers as much internal oppression as external aggression.
The West’s Muslims would be wise to pay attention to this pattern: in light of the traumas of our co-religionists, we must be exceptionally cautious in establishing our institutions and preparing our agendas. What must we do to prevent the growth of Muslim infighting in our own nascent societies? Will American Islam, 20 or 30 years down the road, look like Pakistani Islam, with wholly separate Sunni and Shi’a mosques? (Hopefully, both mosques will still allow women in.) If so, what kind of reasons would be behind that outcome-principled differences or isolationism, hostility and mistrust? Our success, as a community in America, or elsewhere in the West, demands we question the ways in which we were raised as Muslims and even the meanings of such identifications. Perhaps the most damning of such histories is our experience in being introduced to Islam, and how hard that has made it for us to transcend those differences that today blacken and bomb the heartlands of the Muslim world.
When I arrived at New York University in 1998, I was eager to learn as much as possible about Islam under specialists who had dedicated their lives to the study of the Muslim world. But I must confess that what I learned profoundly challenged me. The vision of Islam that is commonly offered to Sunnis as well as Shi’as is constructed from bits and pieces of Islamic history, selectively and often lazily established, the equivalent of a public school history lesson. To give you a sense for the origins of such attitudes: how many Muslims will deny that members of their own community commit heinous acts of oppression and evil? We regularly deny that our own tribe is capable of acts of aggression (especially against itself), campaigns of ethnic cleansing like East Pakistan in 1971 fall off our radar. We hope that such deeds are the exclusive provenance of other communities. It would be pointless and rather murderous to allow ourselves to remain hostage to such blindness, however well-meaning it was in its origins. For it has skewed our sense of history, and our sense of what we, as a people, have been capable of. Both the achievements and the massacres.
A reliance on a skewed vision of the past means a distorted understanding of the present, and little meaningful capacity to act for the future. Until we admit where we have come up short, and understand the structural-in addition to moral-reasons for these horrors, we will not grow beyond them but will repeat them. We will not, like the early generations of American leaders, see how human nature perverts societies and exert ourselves to cope with such perversion. So I propose a vision of the next generation of Islam, in three broad steps. Firstly, we must have a leadership that is thoroughly educated in the history of Islam-so future leaders will not be manipulated or discouraged by the unsavory realities of our affairs. Secondly, we must have a leadership that is not satisfied with the status quo. To suggest that things are fine as they are is to suggest that we are perfect as we are, a baldly unMuslim pulpit to preach from. Thirdly, we must have a leadership that is encouraged to imagine new opportunities for cooperation and coexistence. We must accept the pettiness of many of our disputes and instill in ourselves a desire to not fall victim to those who clearly do not have our best interests in mind. For there will always be those who are opposed to the success of our community. But how sad it would be if we were their best allies.