Progressive activists in the ‘critical Muslim’ movement are growing in strength and number
Friday 13 January 2012
When I last logged into Facebook, I was delighted to see a surge of posters featuring a Muslim woman with the tagline “Occupy the mosque”. This does not mean I support the physical occupation of prayer spaces across the UK (especially not when people are praying), but because I believe in dismantling the status quo – a status quo that many British Muslims, especially women, have had to pay a bitter price for.
A series of declarations were listed above the poster, including “Women have an Islamic right to hold leadership positions and as members of the board of directors and management committees”, and “Women have an Islamic right to be full participants in all congregational activities.”
As trivial as these rights may sound to the average secular ear, a fast-growing group of Muslim activists have proved their determination to fight for every single one. Campaigning sentiments are slowly spreading beyond the realm of private whinges, and into community centres and Twitter feeds. It goes without saying that progressive activists are still met with stiff resistance, which extends to threats and intimidation in some cases. Kalsoom Bashir, of Muslim women’s consultancy Inspire, related that extremist films were published about her on YouTube after the Guardian documented her struggle for women’s empowerment.
What is new about these critical voices is their level of organisation, and their willingness to collaborate with diverse groups. A prime example is the coalition of religious and non-religious groups who organised a counter-protest against the poppy-burners of Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) on Remembrance Day 2011 (MAC was banned the night before, rendering the counter-protest unnecessary, but that is a moot point).
This week I attended the launch of the Muslim Institute’s new quarterly, Critical Muslim, which promises to usher in a new era of organised critical thought on issues relating to Islam and Muslims. Crucially, this criticism is constructive rather than personal. It is underpinned by values such as truth, justice, compassion and wisdom – values that are both Qur’anic and secular.
At the very least, contributors share a deep concern about the problems that 21st-century Muslims find ourselves mired in. There is often dissatisfaction with the lack of nuance and insight in traditional religious leaders’ responses, but this is accompanied by a keen awareness of the numerous agendas that often hijack this discussion. While it would be too crude to label them all as “Islamophobic”, many external hijackers do not necessarily have the best interests of Muslims at heart. Social media interactions have the advantage of making these respective intentions clear, sifting the sincere people from the obscurantists.
This brings me to another unique feature of the critical Muslim movement: we are taking control of our own destiny, without allowing external forces to dictate the terms. For example, the recent “Happy Christmas 4ALL” Facebook campaign was an organic response to the frustration of seeing “Muslims ban Christmas” fabrications in the press. It turned into a celebration of the diverse ways in which people of all faiths and none mark the season. One Muslim friend even shared a picture of her Christmas tree, with a twist – it was festooned with the “Ninety-nine Names of Allah”. Actions like these are a testament to the values of the critical Muslim movement. Let us hope that journals like Critical Muslim further entrench open-mindedness, humility and mutual respect.