Can Biden get a Muslim lad mad?

by Mustafa Malik
Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2020 Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) Legislative Conference at the Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel in West Des Moines, Iowa.

SEVERAL AMERICAN MUSLIM friends, spooked by President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” shift of America’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and other anti-Muslim acts, are getting excited about Joe Biden’s steady lead over him in the polls. I am trying to douse their enthusiasm for the Democratic presidential nominee for several reasons, especially because Islam and liberalism, the creed of the West, are evolving fast.

Electoral polls can be notoriously misleading.  About this time four years ago Hillary Clinton was way ahead of Trump in the polls. Yet on the early evening of Election Day, Trump’s winning numbers on delegate count boards got Clinton’s victory parties to disperse quietly and had her slump into bed, crying. But as Trump now begins to lose white voters without a college education, his core support groups, I am inclined to think that he is facing a bigger hurdle against Biden than he did against Clinton.

The second reason I am advising Muslims to be cautious about Biden is the mixed signals he is sending on Muslim issues. In July he delighted American Muslims by becoming the first presidential nominee from either political party to address a large Muslim gathering directly, and moreover, express his desire to see Islam taught in American schools. In that online engagement he also told 3,000 or so members of Emgage Action, a Muslim advocacy organization, that he would abolish Trump’s Muslim ban “on Day One” of his presidency.

But a month later the Biden campaign publicly and loudly castigated Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim activist, as an “anti-Semite.” Sarsour has been an effective advocate of the global campaign to boycott Israel, citing its colonialist and apartheid policy toward the Palestinians. By denouncing Sarsour, the Biden campaign obviously was trying to appease American Jews, a key voting bloc and source of campaign donations.

Biden is, in fact, following the parameters of relations with Muslims created by his former boss, President Barack Obama. Obama fired up Muslims everywhere by going to Cairo and giving a soaring speech, calling for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” That relationship, he said, would be based on America’s appreciation of the Islamic civilization and Islamic values. Obama also boldly criticized linking Islam to terrorism, as had been done by Republicans and a host of American media outlets.

And yet Obama escalated America’s thoughtless and pointless drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and other sovereign Muslim countries, blowing up countless innocent women, children and men; and maintained a “kill list” of mostly innocent Muslim “terrorists.” The Obama White House persistently turned down Muslim job applications. Obama’s election campaigns made sure Muslim activists didn’t show up on platforms with him. In Chicago, two of Obama campaign’s Muslim activists in hijab had managed to step on to a platform with Obama, only to be pushed out. President Obama, too, brushed aside Muslim invitations to visit a mosque until the last year of his presidency.

Moral desert

Biden and Obama remind me of the late Republican Senator Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland, a moral tower and one of two American politicians I admired most those days. The other was Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. During a November 1985 interview with Mathias in his Senate office in Washington I reminded him of his description of U.S. senators’ slavishness toward Israel in an article he had written in Foreign Affairs magazine (Summer 1981).  He had narrated how the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had got President Gerald Ford to scrub his decision to “reassess” U.S. aid to Israel after Israel had backed out of its Sinai disengagement talks with Egypt. When AIPAC representatives hit the Senate with a letter to the president opposing his decision, 76 senators signed in on it “promptly,” Mathias had written, “although no hearings had been held, no debate conducted, nor had the Administration been invited to present its views.”

“Why?” I asked.

“We need the backbone to stand up for what is right, to do what is in America’s best interest,” he said. “We need moral courage.”

During the 35 years since that interview (my last with Mathias) Congress and the White House have become more of a moral desert. American politicians have become more dependent than ever on campaign contributions from big corporations and special interest groups. Moral stands often rub up some of these entities and groups the wrong way. Biden is spineless and wishy washy on many issues. How then would Islam and Muslims fare under a Biden presidency, if there is one?

To begin with, Biden would generally, but not always, follow the wind, and the anti-Muslim wind that roiled America in the wake of 9/11 has abated greatly. His comments to Emgage apparently reflects that. He will also be dealing with a more hospitable Islam. Muslim societies have all but moved past “Islamism,” the movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia, and other organizations, which sought to pit Muslims and Islam directly against the West. Muslim societies are modernizing fast and becoming “secular,” in the sense in which “post-Islamist” Islamic activists use the word.

In August 1998 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president of Turkey, told me in an interview that he was a “secular Muslim,” I thought he was lying. I was conducting fieldwork in Turkey and several European countries to explore the prospects for Turkey’s accession to the European Union, and Erdogan, just sacked as mayor of Istanbul, was getting ready to serve a prison term for reading out an Islamic poem at a public meeting in what used to be ultra-secular Turkey. I thought that he was pretending to be secular because, having been stung by his recitation of an incendiary Islamic poem,  he did not now want me to describe him as an “Islamic extremist” in American publications.

But from his subsequent words and deeds and those of his colleagues in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) I realized that he genuinely believes that Islam does not require a modern state to be “Islamic,” or curb the freedom of non-Muslims or discriminate against them.

The same policy is followed by the Ennahda party in Tunisia, Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco and the Center Party in Egypt. These groups don’t associate Islam with the state of state policies, or favor Muslims over other faith groups in access to public institutions, as Islamist groups would. Secular Islamic activists do not disown Islamic traditions or ban Islamic values and symbols from the public sphere, which Western secularists do.

In the Muslim world “secular Islam” marks the faith’s evolution under the impact of the spread of education and modernization. On the eve of his December 10, 2002, meeting with then President George W. Bush at the White House, Erdogan explained his and the AKP’s secularity in a wide-ranging speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “We are learning from experience,” said the soon-to-be prime minister of Turkey, and becoming “secular.”

What “experience” had been secularizing the AKP? I asked the visiting AKP leader during an interview following his CSIS talk.

“Experience of living in the world, modern world,” Erdogan replied.

Mass education

Islamists are also modernizing, but they view the West, the source of modernity, with hostility. Secular Islamic activists, in addition to being avid modernizers, have no qualms about engaging the West and doing business with it. This was a basic difference between Erdogan and his Islamist mentor Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the Islamist movement in Turkey. Erbakan missed no opportunity to rail against the West, proposed to create an “Islamic NATO” and scorned the European Union as a “Christian club,” which he did not want Muslim Turkey to join. Erdogan tried hard to join the EU (He initially dismissed my suggestion that that was a futile exercise) and courted the United States at every opportunity.

Islamists view Islam as a faith and Muslim societies as its own home in which non-Muslims should be welcomed and tolerated, but not treated as equal citizens. Secular Islamic activists view Islam as a civilization and set of cultures in which all faiths and their adherents should have equal rights, but in countries where Muslims are the majority community, Islamic values would form the moral and cultural bedrock.

Muslim exposure to modernity, which has accelerated at a breathtaking pace, has been speeded by mass education. In the mid-1950s I was one of only four boys attending high school from Balaut “pargona,” or county, in what is now Bangladesh. Three years ago, I was taking a morning walk from my farmhouse in Mujahid Khani village in that county.  My eyes were gripped by a fascinating scene of droves of pupils, male and female, scampering along a dirt road through rice fields to a high school that my brother, Abdul Mukit Tafader, helped to build. And there are other high schools in that county. Some of these students were also going to the nearby Harikandi Madrasa, which I had attended for two years, when its curriculum was confined to subjects relating to Islamic scripture and faith, excluding any secular subjects. Today math, social studies and other secular are taught in Harikandi Madrasa, along with, of course, Islamic subjects.

Lumbering back to my centuries-old ancestral home, surrounded by mango, jackfruit and betelnut trees that were buzzing with a bazaar of chirping birds, I remembered an essay written by Dale Eickelman of Dartmouth College in which the anthropologist depicted how mass education has catalyzed the rapid transformation of Muslim societies.

“Like the printing press in sixteenth-century Europe,” the article began, “the combination of mass education and mass communication is transforming the Muslim-majority world, a broad geographical crescent stretching from North Africa through Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Indonesian archipelago.” Modernization, he adds, is “dissolving prior barriers of space and distance and opening new grounds for interaction and mutual recognition” of Muslim and non-Muslim societies and cultures. “Quite simply, in country after country, government officials, traditional religious scholars, and officially sanctioned preachers are finding it very hard to monopolize the tools of literate culture. The days have gone when governments and religious authorities [in Muslim countries] can control what their people know and what they think.”

Historically, a main source of liberal Westerners’ antipathy for things Islamic has been their hostility to religion per se and the religiosity of Muslims in general. Since the last decades of the last century that antipathy has been diminishing in the West, especially among intellectuals. Most of the West’s major philosophers, sociologists and social anthropologists (Jurgen Habermas, Martha Nusbaum, Peter Berger, Grace Davie, Daniele Harvieu-Leger, Richard Martin, to name just a few) now appreciate the role of religions and religious values in lending people meaning and priorities of their lives, which liberals of earlier times refused to acknowledge. Liberals as they remain, these philosophers and sociologists are prone to harnessing the nourishing and humanizing values of religious traditions. This valuation of religions, and hence religious communities, has been seeping through to Western social mainstreams. America is fast shedding Islamophobia, spawned after 9/11 by neoconservatives, nativists and out-of-work Cold War jingoists.

The next U.S. administration faces a confident Muslim world, better informed than ever before, which is eager to engage, rather than fight, America and the West. A Muslim lad in my Mujahid Khani village in Bangladesh, or in the Turkish megacity of Istanbul, laughs, rather than gets mad, at Trump’s hysterical scream: “Islam hates us!” A President Biden, if there is one, would have to be a reckless rascal to incur his hostility.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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