ON A COLD, windy Saturday afternoon in late February, I joined hundreds of mostly young British Muslims as they crowded into Westminster Hall in central London to listen to an impressive line-up of Muslim scholars. The program was sponsored by the Radical Middle Way (RMW), an independent grass-roots initiative that receives limited funding from the British government.
In the year since it was launched, RMW has organized a variety of public forums across the UK. Often dubbed “The Scholars Road Show,” these forums have featured speakers such as Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, Al Habib Ali Al-Jifri and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. With eye-grabbing titles such as “Between Ignorance and Extremism” and “Is Islam in Need of a Reformation?”, the organizers have had no difficulty filling venues. RMW’s message has reached an estimated 60,000 British Muslims.
The London program was titled “From Protest to Engagement,” and as the evening progressed, a consensus started to emerge among the speakers. Engagement, or more specifically, ‘faith-based civic engagement,’ is the most sensible response to the challenges Muslims are currently experiencing in the West. It also conforms to the character of the Blessed Messenger, Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings.
As I listened to Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s talk, I came to the realization that in his own inimitable style, he had put his thumb on the fault-line of Muslim reality in the West. Caught in the schizophrenic tug-of-war between nationalist identity and loyalty to the Ummah, Muslims have unfortunately embraced a logic of the left and adopted protest as a counter-hegemonic political strategy.
Over the years, protest has invariably resulted in the entrenchment of a now dominant paradigm among Muslims of an “us (Muslims) versus them (kafirs)” Protest arises from a false assumption that “the dominant system” will eventually collapse in the ashes of its own inherent logic. From this perspective, protest is the alternative movement’s best strategy to speed up its demise.
Protest breeds resentment and when infused with religious zeal, it often leads to sectarianism, and in many cases, violence in the name of faith. In the cauldron of protest politics, religious extremism has found fertile ground to germinate.
Making a shift from a discourse mired in the politics of protest to an action plan grounded in social engagement, I realized, was going to require more than a sound niyah (intention). The seismic shift from protest to engagement will require all stakeholders among Muslim communities in the West to set aside their titles and ideological platforms and embody an ethic based on the values we hold in common as human beings.
That was the message of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. He elucidated the efficacy of engagement over protest by citing a narration attributed to the Messenger of God, upon him be peace and blessings. The Prophet compared two kinds of passengers on a ship – the people on the upper deck and the people lodged in its hull. As the ship sets out, those in the hull decide to drill a hole in the boat to gain access to badly needed water. Witnessing this, those on the deck must decide whether they should shout slogans and organize a demonstration with banners that scream for attention, or engage the drillers in a meaningful dialogue in order to save the ship from sinking and causing the death of all on board.
“When you have a fire to put out,” Shaykh Abdallah said, “you are not concerned about who is standing with you to put it out.”
“Muslims in the UK,” he continued, “need a group of firefighters to pick up a bucket and come to the rescue of societies that are burning.”
The first indication that some segments of the British Muslim community are struggling with this message, if not rejecting it outright, came at the very end of the program when Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, executive director of Zaytuna Institute in Hay ward, Calif., delivered the closing remarks of the evening.
He forthrightly dismissed any accusation leveled at RMW that because it receives government funding, it means that the opinions of the scholars who speak on its platform must be government propaganda.
“Who do you think this government is?” Shaykh Hamza asked. “They are called civil servants. Who do you think pays them? It is from the pockets of the people. There are nearly 2 million Muslims paying taxes in this country, don’t they deserve a little refund?” Loud applause.
“This is not Rawalpindi, Cairo or Karachi, where if you criticize the government, you suddenly disappear. In this country you are not only subjects of the Queen, but you are citizens as well.” Loud and approving applause again.
Clearly, the protestors were not present in Westminster Hall.