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From Kosovo to Oman

After a brutal firefight Monday morning, police officers in Linden, New Jersey, shot and arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami for detonating improvised explosive devices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and along the Jersey Shore two days earlier.

The media and political response was predictable. Willful naifs wondered aloud what on earth might have motivated Mr. Rahami. Suspect's Motive Unclear In New York, New Jersey Bombings, reads an embarrassing NPR headline.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s surrogates say it proves only he can save us by cracking down mercillessly on immigration from the Middle East and North Africa.

A lot of us find this exasperating. A person has to be willfully obtuse at this point to not see that Rahami was motivated by radical Islam. It is also obvious to some of us (but clearly not all of us) that Rahami is an extreme outlier in the American Muslim community.

As many as a million Muslims live in the New York City area. If Rahami were even remotely mainstream, Manhattan would look like Aleppo.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Muslims all over the world and interacted with thousands. I would not be alive if a large percentage of them were even remotely like Ahmad Khan Rahami. At the same time, we wouldn’t have to go through this polarized ritual on a regular basis if radical Islamist terrorism wasn’t a deadly serious problem.

Most Westerners only see or hear about Muslims after the likes of Rahami, Rizwan Farook, Omar Mateen, the Tsarnaev brothers, Major Nidal Hasan, Mohammad Atta, Osama bin Laden and other ISIS- and Al Qaeda-affiliated psychopaths murder innocents by the dozens, hundreds or even thousands. Hardly anyone else—least of all moderate Muslims—gets any coverage or attention whatsoever, and some of those who do, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are falsely described as moderate when they’re not.

So I asked Gökhan Balaban, an authentic moderate Muslim I know via email correspondence, if he’d like to have a public conversation with me about all this.

His parents immigrated to the US from Turkey and he was born and raised in New Jersey. He has lived and worked in Kosovo on a State Department grant, spent some time with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and today lives and works as a teacher in the Sultanate of Oman.

MJT: Let’s start with the argument that never ends.

In the United States, we’ve got Barack Obama on one side who is allergic to even using the words “radical Islam,” and Donald Trump on the other who has threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

Trump climbed down from his extreme position a while back and now only wants to ban immigrants and refugees from countries with a history of terrorism like Syria and Iraq, but millions of his supporters haven’t mellowed out in the least.

What do you make of all this?

Gökhan Balaban: I don’t think Donald Trump’s inflammatory speeches and policy proposals will help promote cultural reconcilation or bolster counter-terrorism, but mocking millions of his supporters as bigoted buffoons is unfair and inaccurate. Muslims need to ask themselves why there is so much unease and suspicion all over the world about Islam.

Islamic radicalism holds back development in Muslim societies, and it perpetuates the atmosphere of apprehension, unease, and hostility that non-Muslims have towards Muslims. As long as Islamic radicalism remains a strong force, we can be sure that it will be answered with the kind of reactionary politics we’ve being seeing from Trump and the far-right in Europe.

Fundamentalists ostracize, punish, and kill people who they think are criticizing Islam or weakening the Muslim community. They’re basically saying, don’t mess with Islam because Muslims will fight back. This may be why some Muslims seem indifferent to terrorist attacks. Perhaps deep inside they see terrorism as a statement by Muslims that they are strong and that it’s unwise to stir up trouble against them.

Behind the self-assured façade of strength and unity, though, lies a deep insecurity among fundamentalists and the searing conflicts Muslims have with each other. The insecurity stems from recognition that Muslim countries are behind other parts of the world and that they’re dependent on foreigners and foreign expertise to advance. They don’t consider that perhaps Islam’s pervasive chokehold is what impedes their societies’ advancement in the first place.

Muslims have to stop blaming the West and the media for their own problems, and they should refrain from joining in the culture of victimization in America. We shouldn’t call people Islamophobes for every little thing they say or do. In some cases, Muslims set themselves too far apart from mainstream American society and should strive more to assimilate.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Muslims like myself who turn to Islam for the same reasons people turn to other religions. My wife likes to remind me that we practice our religion for the well-being of our personal spiritual lives and that of our family and that I don’t need to be concerned about every broader social, theological or political isssue that involves Muslims.

There are sometimes considerable cultural differences between American Muslims and other citizens in the US, but it hardly is cause for alarm, and the difference is more about being religious versus being non-religious, rather than about being Muslim or non-Muslim. All you have to do is go to my home state of New Jersey and see how religious communities like the Orthodox Jews live, which is quite different from how my secular Jewish friends live, simply because of differences in religiosity.

MJT: You lived in Kosovo, and you live in Oman now, so you must have seen quite the range of Islam in practice. I spent a month in Kosovo and can hardly imagine a more liberal Islamic country. The Persian Gulf is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Gökhan Balaban: Kosovo’s Albanians do an exceptional job blending many cultural elements together: Western, Albanian, and Muslim. They’ve created a partly conservative and partly liberal cocktail that I find well-balanced and worthy of emulation.

There are people who keep up with their daily prayers and go dancing at nightclubs, though their behavior at these clubs is more conservative than what you see in the clubs of Western Europe. In Western Europe, it’s common to see people who’ve met for the first time dancing with one another. In Kosovo, people only dance with the friends and family members they go to the clubs with.

Kosovo’s Islam inspired me to study the Qur’an and learn how to perform the Islamic form of prayer called salah. Unfortunately, Kosovo, like too many other countries, has been plagued by Islamic radicalism. Countries like Saudi Arabia are going to great lengths to make Islam in Kosovo more fundamentalist. Among European countries, it has sent the highest per capita ISIS members to fight in the Middle East.

What makes up the social conservatism and religious piety in Oman is a reflection of what the society truly values and wants to uphold. Omanis see Islam as a primary source from which societal norms should be based. There are considerable numbers of men congregating and praying in mosques for the five daily prayers. Even so, Oman is the most relaxed and liberal of the Gulf countries, especially from the perspective of expatriates like myself.

There is a liberal and secular contingent in Arab countries, but it faces strong opposition from staunch Muslims and other authoritarian-minded folks. I often hear the latter ilk deride freedom, human rights and democracy as if these ideas were a sham or undesirable because they clash with their own beliefs, yet some of the anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment may have less to do with the values people hold and more to do with historical conflicts between Arabs and the West.

In the US we often hear that the terrorists hate us because we are free. Terrorists also hate the fact that many Muslims around the world love America because it is free. Many Muslims are happy to leave their strict societies and breathe the free air of the West, and it infuriates the fundamentalists.

There isn’t an incompatibility between being a pious Muslim and valuing democracy and liberalism. Just like other Americans, plenty of Muslims devoutly practice their religion and proudly support the freedom and rights the US stands for.

Still, some Muslims are so blind that even when they benefit from living in a Western country they will continue berating what they view as the degenerate nature of Western culture. Don’t expect a word of praise from these people about what the West has achieved. If you were to tell one of these characters that the Enlightenment enabled Western societies to advance—partly because of its critique of religion—and that perhaps Islamic societies may benefit from an Enlightenment-like movement, they’re the types of people who, rather than open-mindedly absorbing new information, will go on YouTube to find an Islamic lecture that derides the Enlightenment.

Most of these hard-headed Muslims are relatively benign and ignored by Muslims like me. We need to remember that the majority of Muslims move to the West for the same reasons as other immigrants—for freedom and prosperity. 

Muslim Americans contribute a lot to American society thanks to our strong family values and emphasis on education and hard work. Unfortunately, I suspect that some of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment comes from people who are resentful that they are not as successful as some minority groups.

Strong families create strong communities and successful individuals, but many Americans suffer from familial dysfunction. A year or so ago, The Economist published a really informative essay about how children born out of wedlock are becoming an entrenched feature of some communities in American society. Single mothers are working and caring for their children and distancing themselves from their children’s fathers who do not provide. Muslims, along with some other immigrant groups, avoid family problems like these because a tight-knit and stable family life is a strong part of our culture.

On the other hand, there are obstacles to assimilation that some Muslims face when they start a life in a Western society. I personally know a Syrian who has done an exceptional job of integrating into Europe after escaping the war in Syria, but an article in a recent issue of The Economist cites a Syrian-German man who immigrated to Germany in the 1960s. He recently spoke with 10 young Syrian refugees living there. The man said that just two of the young refugees speak German and are integrating well. The others told him, “Allah gave us Germany as a refuge, not the Germans”. What a mindset! Being accepted in Germany as a German is difficult even for people who master the language and who are well integrated, but why make your road to integration all the more difficult by not even showing gratitude to the people who have welcomed you to their land? Stubborn pride and unconstructive posturing is an unfortunate reality when cultures mix.

MJT: You zeroed in on something that’s extremely important. Terrorists hate the fact that many Muslims love the West because it is free. They view that as a threat to their religion and culture, don’t they?

I don’t think political liberalism is a threat to Islam per se, but it is a threat to fundamentalist Islam, or Wahhabist Islam or Salafism or whatever we want to call it. If enough Middle Easterners yearned to live like people in America and France, Middle Eastern Islam would become like Albanian Islam.

This whole business looks to a lot of Westerners like a war of Islam against the West, but it looks more to me like it’s primarily a civil war within Islam. ISIS spends 99 percent of its energy attacking and killing people over there, not over here.

Are we more or less on the same page here?

Gökhan Balaban: Nearly 33,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in 2014, and the majority of the victims were Muslims. The fundamentalists believe that their fellow Muslims in their own societies are not true Muslims, that their societies are not Islamic enough, that they’re too Western.

The fact that some Muslim societies suffer from horrendous political and economic crises also has led people in these societies to seek change, and a significant portion of the rebellions in failed Arab countries derive their legitimacy from Islamic foundations. ISIS justifies its barbarism by cloaking it within the religion that the societies of Arab countries value and practice. A lot of people lured to groups like ISIS are disaffected youth. When countries suffer from armed conflict, or political/economic instability to the extent that Arab countries are experiencing, some segments of those societies will be especially vulnerable to recruitment into groups like ISIS.

Part of the reason why the Sultanate of Oman doesn’t suffer from this problem is because the government has been modernizing the country since the 1970s and offers its citizens decent chances to prosper. There’s a stable functioning government here. The civil society is more conservative and religious compared with most Muslim countries, and I actually think that’s one reason Oman is a peaceful place. We don’t have to worry that radicalism will take hold here. I think we should be more concerned with addressing the problems of failed states rather than pursuing some kind of Islamic reformation.

MJT: What do you think about the darker passages in the Qu’ran and Hadith that ISIS uses to justify mass-murder and terrorism?

Gökhan Balaban: Various groups throughout human history have justified mass murder by citing whatever source or inspiration they thought was useful. It doesn't seem fruitful to debate whether more mass murder has been committed by one group or another. People in general point to another group's actions and values as worse than their own in order to sanctify themselves and denigrate others.

Anti-religious people condemn the Crusades and other atrocities committed in the name of religion, and religious people respond by pointing to the horrors inflicted in the name of Godless communism. Which group is responsible for worse? Does it really matter? Maybe we should just acknowledge that any group of people at any time is capable of doing cruel and horrible things.

MJT: Do you personally argue with Islamic hardliners about this stuff? And if so, what do you say? Westerners almost never hear the arguments that Muslim liberals and fundamentalists have with each other. From our standpoint, it's as if that conversation takes place on the dark side of the moon.

Gökhan Balaban: I don't argue with Islamic hardliners for the same reason I don't argue with any other hardliners. It’s pointless. It’s fairly easy to tell when a person is not considering information that’s critical of their hardened views and beliefs. They claim to have found the “complete” way of life, embodied in the Islam they embrace, and strive through proselytizing to make it the complete way for others too. In this complete system, everything from how to urinate to how to appropriately laugh in public is covered. Deviation from their norm is not to be tolerated. Thankfully, I don’t encounter such people often, not even here in Oman.

MJT: Okay, fair enough, but let’s go a little deeper than that. What, in your view, is the Islamic case for liberal as opposed to fundamentalist Islam? What do you do with the darker passages in the Qu’ran? Do you ignore them? View them as outdated? Do you think the peaceful passages overrule them?

I don’t mean to give you a hard time about this. Christians and Jews have to answer the same questions.

I’m asking not only because ISIS is my problem and yours, but also because lots of non-Muslims think Islam itself—and therefore all Muslims—is potentially dangerous. It doesn’t help when people like the Turkish president says, “The term ‘moderate Islam’ is ugly and offensive. There is no moderate Islam. Islam is Islam.”

I asked a Moroccan scholar about that quote a couple of years ago and he gave me a great answer. “Islam is not absolute,” he said. “It is yoked to the human dimension. It is we humans who understand Islam. It is subjected to my reason, my way of understanding the world, and my analysis. Religions encounter previous cultures, previous religions, previous visions and cosmologies. It merges with all of them. No religion falls from the sky onto bare ground.”

Gökhan Balaban: I’m not an expert on the Qu’ran, nor am I an Islamic scholar, so I can’t speak with authority on it, but from my amateurish study and understanding of what some scholars say, it is an extraordinarily nuanced and complicated book that has elicited a huge range of interpretation and behavior throughout the centuries.

I’m personally drawn to a lot of the metaphysical and mystical ideas in it about the nature of the divine. Some Muslims look to the Koran for guidance on anything and everything. They see Islam as a complete way of life. Others incorporate certain aspects of Islam into a life that includes a constellation of other influences as well.

There’s a lot in the Qu’ran that isn’t relevant in my own life, so sure, I ignore those parts. And as a person who thinks that a fuller development of society should come not only from religion but also other sources like the arts and democratic liberalism, it doesn’t bother me if some Muslims think I’m not Muslim enough because I think that music and literature are integral to life and society. We all live with contradictions in our lives, and if the fact that I like punk rock and also happen to pray five times a day irks some people, so be it.

We should differentiate between reforming the Islamic religion and reforming Islamic societies to change the role of religion. Reforming Islam as a religion is a tricky and complicated endeavor, and I think the Islam analyst at the Brookings Institution, William McCants, offers several important points worth considering.

He points out that a liberal reformation of Islam as a religion has been ongoing for two centuries, but it has faced formidable opposition from groups like the Salafists and the ultraconservatives in the Persian Gulf. But even within the liberal reformation movement, I wonder to what extent its members are truly what we could call liberal. I agree with McCants when he says that liberal reformers in Islamic societies don’t believe that conservatives and liberals should compete with each other for shares in the marketplace of ideas.

Both liberal and conservative Muslims want the other locked up or legally prohibited from promoting their ideas. McCants points to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and says that liberal reformers are to willing to overlook his excesses as long as he promotes Islamic reform and suppresses Islamic activists and political parties. “This is not liberalism” McCants writes, “this is intolerance dressed up as liberalism.”

Despite differing practices and views among the various Muslim sects and schools of thought, we all agree that some foundations of the religion must never be changed, such as the obligatory five daily prayers. I’m impressed by how Muslims have preserved and cherished their scripture and their main practices for more than 1,400 years.

Political theorist Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame argues that the West is committing a kind of civilizational suicide, and in a way I agree with him. My students in Oman are overwhelmingly united and clear about who they are and what sources they should tap for guidance and purpose in their lives. They get it from a societal and individual commitment to their religion and local customs. Of course, some young Americans are grounded in a foundational set of beliefs and practices, and they come from a variety of religious backgrounds, but there are a lot of lost and aloof youth in American society too. Ask them about their purpose, what they think the meaning of life is, or who and where they get their inspiration and moral guidance from, and many have no coherent answer or are indifferent to the questions entirely.

MJT: I can't imagine that radical Islam will be a problem forever. There will always be extremists, sure, but even a couple of decades ago radical Islam wasn't such a potent force in the world. Cultures aren't static and history is always moving. If things can get worse, they can also get better. The question, though, is how. How does this end and what do you think it will take?

Gökhan Balaban: Some people assume that Islamic radicalism is a force that people in Muslim-majority countries encounter frequently, but it’s not. I’m confident that radicals won’t get far in the long run because the majority of people in the world, no matter where they live or who they are, simply don’t want anything to do with the radicals’ nonsense.

What we need to worry about is the kind of destabilization experienced in Iraq, Libya and Syria. ISIS is able to launch attacks in relatively stable Tunisia, but only in unstable countries like Libya can it build up a strong presence.

Everyone has to take responsibility for what they are accountable for. Saudi Arabia’s leadership must do something about the fact that their country exports a version of Islam that leads to militancy and terrorism around the world, and America’s leadership must be very careful about how it intervenes militarily so we avoid disasters like the one we’ve seen in Iraq.

In the meantime, there are significant differences between the Muslim world and the West that we’re just going to have to live with. One of the biggest is how secular the West has become and how religious Muslim societies have remained.

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