Wajahat Ali and the Doha Debates

While we were in Doha for the MLT Conference, we were able to attend a special session of the Doha Debates. The topic was “Motion: This House believes that political Islam is a threat to the West.” Wajahat Ali, of AltMuslim and Goat Milk, has done a nice write-up of the issues discussed. He was also gracious enough to make me sound intelligent. I have his permission to include his original questions, and my responses, below.

1) How would you personally define “political Islam” and “the West?” Do you think the debates adequately defined these two terms?

The problem with the debates was that neither side really defined what they meant. M. Nawaz did a good dance as to what it wasn’t – Muslims involved in politics – but didn’t say what it was. S. Hamid conflated so many different groups together, I am not sure he was clear in his mind either. S. Joseph and Y. Pallavicini followed along the tone that was set in this regard. The term “political Islam” as an analytic category is meaningless. Is a Muslim who pushes for freedom of religion, as an act of faith, practicing “political Islam?” Yes. Is a Muslim who brings food to war ravaged areas of the world practicing “political Islam?” Yes. The term is designed as a short-hand to describe movements of Muslims that non-Muslims find disturbing. Rather than looking at the politics involved, it ascribes the actions of these individuals as being related to Islam. The term posits that there is a theological problem in “Islam” that results in odious political practices. One thing to keep in mind is that “Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do.” It is Muslims who define what Islam says and does, within broad parameters. The actions of Muslims, as defined by their beliefs, cannot be separated from their political realities. However, rather than deal with difficult and nuanced question of politics, it’s easier to say “those people” are incapable of dealing with the world around them.

2) Were you surprised the final result was so close? 51 to 49? What does this result say – if anything – about the new generation of Muslims and their attitude towards religious and political extremism?

No. With the ill-defined term “political Islam,” I am not surprised by the result at all. I think it demonstrates two concurrent strands: the first is that many people voted along their pre-conceived notions as to what the terms meant, and the debate really didn’t sway anyone’s opinion. Second, being in the MLT room, the motion overwhelming failed, so I think the new generation realizes the task before us is far more nuanced than the term “political Islam” would allow us to deal with. The new generation is engaged, informed, and articulate. It scares the Islamists, because they won’t fall for the ideologues. It scares those who would speak for Muslims, because they can no longer be represented, they want representation.

3 )Do you believe those who are afraid of “political Islam” unfairly equate all forms of Islamic political expression as reflections of “terrorism” and “extremism,” such as Al Qaeda and Taliban? Is this overreaching assumption rooted in paranoia or is there some honest legitimacy to it?

It is a huge leap in terms of what Islamist groups are and do. What does a local group in Sudan have to do with a transnational nihilistic movement like Al-Qaeda? Nothing except that they are all Muslim. By not understanding the differences amongst the groups, in terms of goals, methods, and locales, you make awful connections, like between Ba’athist Iraq and Al-Qaeda. What is at play in these broad generalizations is fear of the Muslim boogeyman.

4) Do debates such as these allow for a positive dialogue between Muslims that will lead to actual, tangible change? If so, how? Or, are they just a lot of empty “talk”?

Some of these debates are good not only amongst Muslims, but in an inter-faith setting. It’s good to have some other Muslim on TV other than the spitting mullah. In terms of content, there is only so much you can convey in both the time and format.

5) How do conferences like the MLT help push things “forward” for Muslims worldwide? Is there anything positive or tangible that results from such endeavors, or is it simply an excuse for lavish social networking and dining on buffets?

Nice buffets, but repetitive food, don’t really make for an ideal setting. Speaking as a 2006 alum, there is something positive that comes from these gatherings. As Jihad Saleh said, none of us is sufficient by ourselves. The 2006 cohort in the US has really come together for programs, messaging, and force multiplying. We are constantly referring each other for events, speaking the same broad general points, although we may disagree on specifics, and generally presenting a more diverse face of Islam in the US.

6) After spending a weekend with 300 diverse Muslims worldwide, what gives you hope [or not] that the new generation will be visionaries in inspiring proactive “change” within our respective communities?

We were there because we are already affecting change. Despite the title of the conference, we are already leaders. What gives me hope is that I am not alone. Sharing best practices and making connections that can improve my work will only strengthen what I do.

7) What do you believe are two of the major problems affecting Muslims worldwide that can be successfully combated and remedied by using the collective MLT resources, intelligence and talent?

I do not think I can answer that answer worldwide. Although we theoretically belong to a worldwide community, the reality is our concerns are mediated by the local. The two things I think that the network can be leveraged to accomplish in the US are to present the disciplined, believing, faces of American Muslims that represents the vast majority of Muslims in the world. That is, the US should not be afraid of Muslims as a default position. The other is to enmesh Muslims in the civic life of America. Although the African-American Muslim community has made great strides in this area, immigrant Muslims, the Muslims most feared by Americans, has not. We can change that.