Category Archives: Notes and Reflections

In this section I share my own personal reflections on a host of issues, as well as notes from programs, events, panels, and conferences I have attended. I may also write about articles I find interesting in this section.

On Islam and Reform

A question that I am asked to engage with often, by non-Muslims but even by Muslims, is about Islam and reform, with various iterations of the question asking whether Islam is reforming, if it needs reform, or even if it can reform. The questioners are usually genuinely curious as opposed to malicious, but it nonetheless always discomforts me, not because I think it isn’t worth exploring, but because it carries implicit assumptions about religion and religious development as a whole and perpetuates simplistic characterizations of the Islamic tradition and of Muslim societies more specifically.

To start, the question assumes that Christianity is the normative religion and that all other religions must be viewed through its lens; that Islam is inherently backward until it develops a counter-current to serve it in the same way Protestantism served Christianity; that the problems Islam and Muslim societies encounter today mirror those that were encountered by Christianity in the 16th century; and that the wide array of cultures, beliefs, practices, histories, and politics of dozens of Muslim societies around the world can be exclusively attributed to, or even reduced to, an essentialized “Islam.”

Signature recently interviewed Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, about his thoughts on Trump, Islam in America, and the ‘War on Terror,’ and one of the questions the interviewer posed was about this very topic.

I was first exposed to Bayoumi when I entered college as a freshman and was required to read his book ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.’ It was an incredibly illuminating reading for me because it chronicled the everyday experiences of Muslim and Arab youth who were only a few years older than me (I later learned that I actually know one of the seven stories!) and how they grappled with their identities in post-9/11 America. It should be read by anyone interesting in gaining a glimpse into the real lives of young Muslims and Arabs.

In one of the chapters of his new book, ‘This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror’, Bayoumi critiques a theory put forth by Reza Aslan (though the theory itself is not exclusively Aslan’s) that Islam, like Christianity, is going through a reformation. Bayoumi was asked to expand a little bit on his thoughts as they pertained to his critique of Aslan and this theory.

The exchange is worth reading here:

SIG: In the chapter titled “The God That Failed,” you address one of the theories that Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God: Islam is going through a reformation much in the same way that Christianity is. That book was published in 2005. Your commentary appears in your book This Muslim American Life, published ten years after that. Now, a year-plus later, do you think that there are still very definite parallels between these two reformations happening?

MB: I was (and remain) critical of this idea that Aslan and many others have put forth that Islam is going – or must go – through a “reformation.” For one thing, this idea places the history of Protestant Christianity as the model of all religions. Then it assumes that Islam (or any other religion) will or must follow suit, but none of that is intellectually tenable. The history of Islam is different from the history of Protestantism, which is different from the history of Hinduism, etc. Religions are born, develop, and change in our world due to a series of reasons that have to do with human society, and they won’t all travel down the same linear path.

Yes, parts of the Muslim world are in crisis today. But we would be better served by looking at the specific histories of nations and regions, understanding the legacies of colonialism and foreign interventions, examining the roles of resources and their allocations or misallocations, and more. Thinking that the problem today is that Muslims lag behind Christians in their development is much easier to do, but I think it’s just wrong.

In fact, there are so many different versions of Islam in the world, and Islam has no single central authority (such as the pope for the Roman Catholic Church) to define doctrine, so it’s also very difficult to talk about Islam as one single thing, which leads me to my other reservation with Aslan’s way of thinking in his book. It assumes that Islam is the main or sole reason Muslims act in the world, but that’s also ludicrous. When we are looking to understand other people’s motivations for their actions, we will consider politics, history, economics, psychology, and the whole panoply that makes up human behavior. But when we talk about Muslims, we reduce everything to Islam. The concept that Islam is the sole motivator of Muslim behavior is not only wrongheaded but is also simplistic, leading us to bigoted ways of thinking and not providing us with any useful answers to our questions.

Bayoumi acknowledges that parts of the Muslim world have some soul-searching to do, but that in order to find the answer to their crises, we need to take a multidisciplinary approach that sees Muslim societies through their own unique circumstances, as opposed to trying to understand them by  situating their situation(s) in relation to Christianity. His incisive answer does not only aptly elaborate as to why Aslan’s theory is problematic, but also goes further by demanding of us to be more critical of our approach.

I would still suggest reading Aslan’s ‘No god but God’ nonetheless. I think it is an important contribution to the conversation and serves the purpose of enriching the dialogue around this issue. A final additional reading which explores the nexus between religion and violence (or lack thereof) is Karen Armstrong’s ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.’ I haven’t finished this one because it is quite dense, but because it dramatically transformed the way in which I viewed religion in relation to the modern world, I think it’s also worth delving into.



Syria Is Not the Antithesis of “Never Again.” It Is the Embodiment of “Never Before.”

The unfathomable horrors unraveling in Syria can only be described as a theater of destruction in the most literal definition of the term. An entire country’s population has been largely uprooted or displaced, millions of lives have been irreversibly damaged, and an entire civilization has been erased. The people of Aleppo have begun to make their final pleas for help from a numb, indifferent, and complicit international community, and every time you think the depths of barbarity and violence cannot possibly get any worse, a new episode of the civil war proves you wrong.

Humanity once again grapples with the question of how we allowed this to happen on our watch, with so many concluding that the slogan “never again”- coined after the world shamelessly witnessed or stood idly by in the face of one too many genocides – has now been rendered meaningless.

When we look at Syria, it is true that “never again” seems like nothing more than retrospective posturing.  The phrase is now commonly invoked ironically, to expose the world’s incapacity to learn from history, or to make an indictment against the notion that the trajectory of humanity is one of moral progress. It is easy to take morally unequivocal positions on humanitarian crises, ethnic cleansing, and genocide when you’re decades detached from them and do not have to go up against the prevailing political and ideological zeitgeists of the time.

But to describe Syria as proof of the vacuousness of “never again” cheapens the unprecedented circumstance that the world find itself in today.

The following words by Syrian activist Rime Allaf on Facebook have forced me to fundamentally refocus how I view humanity’s relationship to the Syrian crisis:

No, actually, Syria is not an “again” but an absolute first. It is nothing like Bosnia or Rwanda or Chechnya or any other “never again” genocidal event in history. It is a macabre Truman Show, an uninterrupted 6-year long live reality TV program watched globally 24/7 on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, on Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.

“Never again” doesn’t apply to us, for what has been done to Syria has never been done before. Our tragic fate is to be the modern age’s “never before.”

Never before has the world been able to observe – in real time – the destruction of a nation and the extermination of a people who dared to demand freedom. Never before has a civilian population been filmed under attack with Scud missiles, barrel bombs and chemical weapons by its “own” illegitimate authorities. Never before have starvation sieges and old-fashioned barbaric massacres been so documented as they happened. Never before has mass torture been so evidenced. And never before has the world’s indifferent silence been so loud, save for perfunctory condemnations and erasable red lines.

Indeed, never before has the mightiest superpower the world has ever known shamelessly pretended to be impotent, and never before has it had the temerity of falsely pleading with the Syrian people’s executioners for grace and mercy, the same grace and mercy it denied Syrians by rejecting their desperate appeals for protection.

Never again? You mean never before. Hell of a legacy.

This is a uniqueness to the Syrian tragedy that the world has never seen, and one that it can only hope to never see anywhere else. Indeed, Syria is not the antithesis of “never again.” It is the embodiment of “never before,” and that is to our eternal shame.


Are liberal democracies dying?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot on liberal democracy, a form of government where rights and freedoms are protected, government officials are elected, governing powers are separated, and institutions are open. These are characteristics embedded within the fabric of a liberal democracy and are enshrined as values to be upheld and celebrated. In a post-World War II era, these characteristics have more-or-less been the norm and have apparently, up until now, been taken for granted.

I recently came across an article in the New York Times titled ‘How Stable Are Liberal Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’‘ written by Amanda Taub. It highlights the findings of a Harvard lecturer and author named Yascha Mounk, who suggests that liberal democracies have begun to show signs of decline. Mounk, who has written a memoir about growing up as a Jew in Germany, teamed up with a fellow researcher from the University of Melbourne named Roberto Stefan Foa, to pinpoint three ‘warning signs’ that indicate the decline of a liberal democracy.

From the article, the three signs are:

  1. Public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic?
  2. Public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, like military rule.
  3. Whether “antisystem parties and movements” – political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate – were gaining support.

These three signs presuppose that it is possible for liberal democracies to actually decline, thus going against a commonly held theory in political science called “democratic consolidation” which simply means that democracy becomes secure in a country if it possesses a certain set of attributes like democratic institutions, a robust civil society, and a certain degree of wealth. Mounk and Foa believe that if democracies show the three aforementioned signs, they’ve begun a process of “deconsolidating.” Think of the fever you get right before the flu.

The article then gives examples of Venezuela and Poland, recognizing how they once appeared to be flourishing democratically only to show signs of “deconsolidation” and a subsequent precipitous diminution in democratic characteristics.

It’s something to think about when observing the unique juncture we are at in the United States, a country where the idea of existing within an ‘illiberal democracy’ (a term first coined by Fareed Zakaria) seems impossible. Most Americans are well aware of illiberal currents in the country, but these currents were widely regarded as fringe elements that had little to no influence in the broader society, and their ideas were regarded as vulgar and unacceptable. With the election of Donald J. Trump, our political imaginations have never been so drastically ruptured. How did we reach a point where the Overton Window was pushed so far that headlines asking if Jews are human beings became okay? Where do we go from here to prevent things from getting worse?

There is one factor about liberal democracies that is severely overlooked, and I believe it is the single most important factor to guarantee their preservation and proper function, and that is the good faith of the people. Yes, democratic institutions exist, but they cannot protect themselves, and the mechanisms designed to protect them only matter insofar as there are individuals willing to enact them. There must be human beings with good faith; rational, free thinkers acting, pushing, demanding, that these institutions remain preserved and that any violations against these institutions be challenged. Up until now, the good faith of people has merely been assumed, thus causing it to be neglected and taken for granted. Instead, we began to depend on our institutions, in effect granting them imaginary powers while relinquishing our own agency as actors who enact and enforce these powers in good faith.

The faith must be in the people, not in the institutions. If liberal democracies are on the decline, then it must be the people who work to ensure they recover. As long as we remember this, we will never be given in to complacency or passivity with a Trump administration and the fringe elements that it has empowered. We must repeat to ourselves that what is happening us unprecedented and not normal.

This is not normal.

This is not normal.

This is not normal.

I end this post with a quote from Matt Levine (Bloomberg View):

I thought about the fact that those principles can’t automatically enact themselves, that they only work if the human actors in the system choose to follow them and to demand that others follow them. They persist because the people constrained by them believe themselves to be constrained by them. The Constitution, separation of powers, religious liberty, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, equality of all citizens: There is a complacent sense in America that these things are independent self-operative checks on power. But they aren’t. They are checks on power only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; they require a governing class that cares about law and government and American tradition, rather than personal power and revenge. Their magic is fragile, and can disappear if people who don’t believe in it gain power.


Reflections on the Election – “Looking Forward”

Donald J. Trump is the President-Elect of the United States of America.

These are words I never thought I’d write. In fact I was looking forward to seeing him lose so humiliatingly that by the time I wrote this blog post, he would be remembered as nothing more than a horrible nightmare that plagued our country for a year and a half; the damage of which we would deal with without having to deal with the man himself.

I was looking forward to healing as an individual, along with my community and my country, from the trauma caused by the unrelenting and insufferable drivel of a racist, sexist, misogynist, bigot who cared for nothing and for no one but his own ego.

I was looking forward to the short sigh of relief that would come with knowing that bigotry was not granted a platform in the highest office in the land, and that the forces of good won the battle for the day despite the long road ahead.

I was looking forward to working with allies to push further toward justice and equality, holding Clinton’s feet to the fire, calling her to account at every corner and every turn, and making it clear to her administration that they should not take their victory for granted, and that liberals and progressives should not fall into passivity simply because Trump had lost.

I was looking forward to reflecting on how far America has come; being conscious of where the country was, celebratory – but critical – of where it is, and optimistic about where it can go.

I can no longer look forward to any of these things because the outcome was not as I expected, and now I must recalibrate what I look forward to.

Words cannot be minced. We must not be charitable with how we describe the man or his campaign. Donald J. Trump was, is, and will likely be, an irreparable monster. His systematic denigration of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, from Latinos to blacks to Muslims; his callous mockery of a disabled journalist; his blatant disregard for the integrity of democratic institutions; his venomous threats to prosecute his opponent and to target the media; his calls to rupture the global political order that has preserved important alliances, trade deals, and treaties and prevented a major catastrophe like another World War; his bold denial of the existential threat of climate change; his courting of autocratic leaders and his own embracing of fascistic tendencies; his borderline-treasonous  encouragement of a foreign power to meddle in domestic affairs; his demonization of  refugees fleeing a brutal war; his incitement against marginalized groups and his blithe dismissal of the subsequent violence happening in his name; and his documented and demonstrated history of business fraudulence, racist practices in the workplace, and sexual abuse; should all have sufficed as categorical disqualifications that clearly indicated not only his incapacity to govern, but his disgusting character as a human being. He was an indictment against himself, unfit, unqualified, and unprepared to lead.

And yet.

He is now the President-Elect, and if he is not impeached or removed from power through legal mechanisms, he will remain with us for at least another four years. The atmosphere he has created – or rather, revealed – may remain for decades to come, and if we are to respect democracy, this outcome must be accepted. Does this mean normalization of Trump? No, it absolutely does not. Respecting a peaceful transition of power and accepting democratic results does not preclude resisting against what is to come. Any homily that argues for preserving the institution of democracy should be coupled with the imperative call to action; the two are inseparable. We must now, at this critical moment in time, engage in a sobering reflection about where we are, and with a renewed impetus, recognize our responsibilities as citizens to push back against what is to come.

What that entail?

Before anything else, we need to understand how we got here.

Trump’s campaign has unleashed a cavalry of the most dangerous, menacing, and fringe elements of our society, and his tremendous display of hubris throughout has emboldened and empowered them to openly proclaim their virulently racist, supremacist ideologies. This cannot be overlooked and must be fought against. There are definitely those who deliberately voted for him because he enabled and normalized the racism they secretly espoused, but it is difficult to calculate statistically how many people voted for him because they possess a conscious or subconscious racism. But are all Trump supporters brazen racists and unfettered bigots? Likely not. They did however, find his messaging resonant enough to overlook these concerns and vote for a bigot, and we need to ask ourselves why.

As difficult as it may be for democrats, liberals, progressives, and leftists, they must accept that millions of Americans, particularly rural and working class whites, who may lack a college education and are employed in industries that are on the decline because jobs have been moved overseas; who may work in farms and factories in the Rust Belt and in the Midwest, where they may not have benefited from the fruits of globalization; who may live under poor conditions in the South, deprived of opportunities for economic advancement; all truly believed that Trump was the best candidate to run this country because they felt that he would provide the safety, security, and economic mobility that liberal elites have failed to. We will have to recognize these legitimate concerns without accepting the illegitimate bigotry and ‘otherization’ that may sometimes be attached to them.

Donald Trump has tapped into a dark underbelly of America; an underbelly that polite society in our country often pretends does not exist, because the reality of confronting it is too burdensome or shameful to bear. He has now removed that veil and laid bare the reality that is America. As a society we will have to have some frank, open conversations about the causes and consequences of the “Trump phenomenon.” This necessitates stepping out of our insulated friend circles and social media bubbles that reinforce what we already believe and grant us the delusion of having a diverse audience. Let us express our concerns but also be willing to hear out the concerns of those who differ from us.

And herein lies the challenge: demarcating the fine line between acknowledging concerns of ‘the other side’ and normalization of Trump.

And thus, at every step will make it unequivocally clear that we will not allow bigotry to become normalized; make it clear that even when we are not surprised by what Donald Trump says, that we will still remain outraged; make it clear that we will not flinch for a second when we are asked to stand up to the powerful forces of bigotry, hatred, racism, and oppression. We will do what we must, using every mechanism and means at our disposal, to confront these various threats, and we will not be fooled by fleeting, ephemeral semblances of normalcy, as if this man did not gain ascendance with an unprecedented disregard for societal and institutional norms.

With a renewed sense of urgency, we will push for more just laws, organize protests and teach-ins, build cross-community coalitions, attend town hall meetings, create petitions, lobby local, state, and federal lawmakers, and continue to build our power through education, empowerment, and organizing.

And to this, I look forward.

I look forward to organizing locally with a strengthened resolve, among family, friends, and community, to build power that will defend the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the targeted.

I look forward to using my positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those who may not have access to the same platform as me. I will offer my platform to them and I will stand as an ally to all oppressed individuals, communities, and people.

I look forward to fighting back against any and all harmful legislation that the Republican-controlled Congress attempts to pass, whether it be unlawful profiling and surveillance, the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, the evisceration of health insurance for millions of people, the loosening of gun restriction laws, and more.

I look forward to supporting organizations and institutions working to make the world a better place. I look forward to reading, writing, educating, and sharing whatever knowledge I have that will contribute to making the world a better place.

I look forward to punctuating my mark in history by fighting and resisting against all forms of oppression with every fiber of my being.

Count me as part of The Resistance.

I look forward to it.