The “Activists” and the “Practicing”: Toxic Divides and Antidotes

As my good friend Huey Freeman said: “…vexed by the behaviour of my people…but, they’re our people, and we gotta love ‘em regardless”.

I’ve come to realize, as I’ve grown, that if I don’t work with my people and for my people, to make my people better and allow them to make me better then there is no way forward. This is article has blossomed from love and for strength.

Young Muslims are thrust upon a compartmentalized world view. Two types of being Muslim that are somehow by nature in contrast and you will never shake the type you are. There is the “practicing” type and there is the “activist” type. I detest the language I’m using if I’m honest but that’s part of the problem – I don’t know what else to call them and I can’t really define the “types” because they don’t exist. They are like two giants in the hills who no one has ever met but somehow everyone seems to know exactly who they are, what they look like, how they speak and who they associate with. Perhaps as we lay out my thoughts together better words will illuminate themselves, insha’Allah. Or maybe none will and that will be the lesson, maybe removing labels and allowing people the courtesy of being complex humans with unique experiences is the way forward. I say that because I feel this over-arching dichotomy has only served to propagate the divide that it itself created.

I have concluded two reasons for this divide. The first is elitism. We have a habit of one-upping one another’s “religiosity” (don’t get me started on that word) – which tends to make us classify people according to how “religious” we think they are. The criteria for classification range from how short one’s thobe is to how many classes one attends at their local mosque. We become a nation of “practicing” and “non-practicing” Muslims – both mythical. Honestly, who can even tell me what those mean?

That being said, elitism exists in any camp with specialized knowledge and unfortunately, we are all guilty of it on some level. It’s tough to break into certain circles without prerequisite knowledge or somehow an already well formed and relevant worldview to the circle you are trying to break into. But that’s nonsensical. You learn from the circles you join and everyone’s journey to knowledge must be recognized. We must not hold people accountable for not knowing what we do because we are the source of their education, as they are ours. That’s where I believe I have failed as an activist. Although I do not believe it is always my responsibility to educate and debate because it can be incredibly taxing, especially when it’s demanded over and over again, it is nonetheless part of my responsibility. I must learn how to communicate what little knowledge I have in a more accessible manner because the object of my work is to bring people together and to organize for a better world – not to be right. Though it does feel good when I am. May Allah guide me.

The second reason is Muslim activists facing uncharted territory. I want you to keep this in mind and I will try to reference it again: young Muslims expected to face the world with inadequate tools and then held accountable for the way they carry themselves.

Muslim activists often find themselves in Leftist circles. And for good reason. Leftists are anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and lots of great things. Leftism is about giving poor and working people control of society’s resources and is vehemently opposed to profit-maximization as a driving force for society. What’s not to like? Profit-maximization has been the cause of almost every institutional disease the world has today and every war in modern history, to my limited knowledge. So, it would make sense that Muslims, who have a duty to uphold social justice, would gravitate towards Leftist thinking. But there are aspects of Leftist thinking that clash with Islamic teachings and that’s where young Muslims find a challenge.

But, sometimes there is little for them to turn to.

For example, the Islamic reference is hard to find when discussing gender and sexuality. How do young Muslims support the oppressed and marginalized while not compromising their faith? Especially when the oppressed and marginalized are also Muslim? Another challenge is the language in Leftist circles being incredibly secular. It is so because it is understood that the human condition is a product of material, tangible interactions – relationships with power and privilege; that is, if you remove material inequality most problems in society would go extinct. While for Muslims it is, in addition, highly influenced by the metaphysical: by relationship with Allah. Spirituality features little in the Left. But, where else will young Muslims go to learn about revolutionary ideas if Muslim political thought and contemporary Muslim revolutionaries are nowhere to be found in school curriculums, khutbahs, halaqas, you name it?

Who talks about Jamal al-Din al-Afghani? And his student Muhammad Abduh? Both resistors of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century, and champions of Islamic political thought and social justice. Who discusses Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun in their everyday circles? Why do they not feature more in the education of our young people? How do we navigate the modern world without strong references to our teachings that help us develop a modern reference for today?

Muslim activists find themselves in very challenging spaces and that must be acknowledged. They must not be thought of as people who have compromised their faith to fit in and our Imams have to be very careful every time they advise activists to “not forget that they are Muslim first”. They are activists because they are Muslim and that advice if not delivered carefully can perpetuate a dangerous idea: to be an activist, to uphold social justice, means to compromise one’s faith.

But, in a lot of cases there is no accessible reference from the faith to help Muslim activists navigate: young Muslims told to face the world with inadequate tools and then held accountable for the way they carry themselves. For example, The Lamp of Kings by Abu Bakr Al Turtushi, one of the most important works on political theory by a Muslim scholar, was published sometime in the 11th or 12th century. I have searched far and wide for that book only to find one online copy in the original text. No commentary, no guide. It’s not a very easy book to grasp and that is coming from someone whose first language is Arabic. This must be recognized and appreciated as a major obstacle.

At the same time, activists must know that we have to put in the work. No one will teach us of these works and of these revolutionary people in our history if we do not seek it and demand it. It is now our responsibility to compile and shape the Islamic reference for today’s world for our fellow young Muslim activists to turn to. It will take time and it will be the most challenging thing we will ever do but it will also be the most rewarding.

Have you noticed? The mythical “activist” and “practicing” Muslims are blending into one another? No longer giants in the hill but now an ocean of unique and complex carbohydrates?

Ps. I wrote this article while I was fasting and that last line is a fasting joke. This probably ruins it.

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