When I measure myself up against the activists of our community, I see them as giants and myself as nothing. Before us, they seem so resolute, so defiant in the face of criticism, so principled and self-assured. When they speak, their conversations are filled with religious terminology. They quote from the sira at ease, and rattle off verses of the Quran to emphasise their point. Looking back at them, I feel empty, my simplistic faith so wanting beside their confident orthodoxy. If only I was like these defenders of faith, I often think to myself, so brave and strong and knowledgeable.
But every so often a crack appears in the space-time continuum, when everything that seemed apparent is suddenly thrown into doubt. Such a chasm opened up a week ago, when apparently stalwart defenders of God’s law released a celebrated interview in which they threw their religion under the bus in order to cover for a friend. In defence of a friend, they redefined Islamic morality. In defence of a friend, they changed the meanings of words. In defence of a friend, anybody who recalls God’s law was rendered a traitor, who let down their friend in his hour of need. Here, solidarity was invoked in place of the pursuit of truth. Here, one man became the end of all: to defend him is to fight oppression everywhere. And the bearded ones did all of this with straight faces (well most of the time, anyway).
The interview, already viewed over ten thousand times, and liked and shared by hundreds across multiple platforms, is long: very long, and pretty boring too. At first, I skipped through it, but I knew that to judge it on mere snippets would be unfair, potentially depriving their conversations of context. So it was that I set aside an evening the following day to listen to the interview in full, from start to finish. Persevering, I would afford the novice broadcasters the opportunity to impress me with a balanced and challenging interview, dealing with issues of real importance. It began with humour and a little tomfoolery, intended to put their interviewee at ease. It worked. He laughed and so did they.
What followed was forty minutes of conversation, on topics ranging from the impact of tawhid on our daily lives to the politics of identity, and from Muslim integration in non-Muslim societies to post-colonial struggles in Muslim majority lands. None of these conversations were particularly deep, but nor were they completely trite. Their interviewee is a very intelligent man, thoughtful with some insight. Occasionally he would get annoyed with the shallow interruptions of the hosts, who would interject with questions and observations that would completely miss the point he was trying to convey. But nothing in these discussions was new or particularly interesting for anyone who has pondered on their faith or their place in the world at any length.
That is not to say that I am ardent opponent of the thinker, dismissing his arguments out of hand. Quite the opposite. Often I agree with the sentiments he fluently articulates, with so much more eloquence than I ever could. Furthermore, in our mutual struggles with the inner self often commanding to evil, we could be kindred spirits. He speaks of truths about the journey of the soul that are impossible to deny, although of course none of this is new either: a wise sage struggling with his own ego articulated the same prescriptions a thousand years ago. It is the message of the Qur’an after all.
But at the 45 minute mark it was time to draw breath. The conversation so far had rolled on unscripted, jumping from topic to topic as the learned one freed thoughts unheard for all too long. Contradictions permeated these discussions. In an exchange regarding perceptions of the moral superiority or inferiority of the West in the global south, he challenged his hosts with commonplace ideas regarding the meaning of success. Success without morality is not success, he said, echoing virtually every spiritual teaching on earth. On the contrary, success without morality is to be lost. He was talking, of course, about society. As for the individual, well it turns out that this is far more complex.
We had reached a juncture in the rambling discussions, and it was time for a eulogy, planned but forgotten about, as humorous banter merged into serious conversation. Shuffling through his notes beneath the table, the co-host remembered to properly introduce their guest, returning to script. Glowing praise followed, great titles. A moment of pride. He is head of a long list of institutions and research centres too numerous to mention. He has been considered for many years one of the top 100 thinkers in the world. He has so many achievements. He is an icon, followed by masses of individuals.
These tributes were leading somewhere. They presaged a change of tack, and a change of tone: we had pondered long enough on abstract ideas and it was now time to meditate on specifics; to migrate from the universal to the personal. The time had come to shed light on the ordeal their guest had been through, having fallen victim to the #MeToo movement, which aimed to expose the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault still faced by too many women worldwide.
Against a backdrop of great personal suffering, maltreatment and oppression, noted the co-host guardedly, their guest had made certain admissions and confessions. What these admissions and confessions were, we are never told, and if you hadn’t been following the saga in detail you would never know. No, they are never spoken of openly in this interview; the guest does not elucidate, and nor do the hosts.
If the admissions had anything to do with the #MeToo movement of which he was apparently a victim, we are not told. There will be no discussion concerning sexual harassment or sexual assault in this interview. Indeed, except in passing, there will be no mention of women at all. The most that we learn is that the interviewee did something wrong in the past, just as we all have done.
At most, we learn that his own life is like a book filled with lessons and teachings for others, as he faced the same challenges as any other Western Muslim. Never will we learn in this interview what those challenges he faced were. Never will we learn why he thinks people might judge him or think he was being punished. Never will we learn what it is that he has had to apologise for, or what it is that he believes God has forgiven. None of this is ever spoken of, in the name of covering our brothers’ sins, just as God, Al-Sattar, veils our own.
And all of that is fine, I suppose. Only, there is a difference between covering your brothers’ sins, and in openly covering for them, participating in their rehabilitation and lying to your audience. Because, for sure, the hosts know what those admissions and confessions were, and what he has been accused of, and the seriousness with which those deeds are viewed in the Islamic morality they normally champion, but which for the purpose of this interview they set aside. Or if they don’t — to be charitable — then they have seriously failed in due diligence whilst doing their research in preparation for their interview.
Despite admissions of mistakes, what comes across most strongly in this interview are the faults of everyone else. Of Muslims leaders taking a stand on moral issues, when they should have been silent. Of ordinary Muslims judging by their Book, instead of taking care of their own sins. Of Muslims falling into a political trap, utterly compromised and undermined by their insistence on personal piety in the face of their oppressors. Throughout the interview, everything is diluted, the teachings of our religion made subservient to the demands of unity and solidarity.
If only these characters could place their words in the mouthes of their enemies, and then listen back to themselves, they would hear what they had said. If they cannot listen to their own words, perhaps they could at least recall their Book.
So remain on a right course as you have been commanded, you and those who have turned back with you, and do not transgress. Indeed, He is Seeing of what you do. And do not incline toward those who do wrong, lest you be touched by the Fire, and you would not have other than God any protectors; then you would not be helped. — Quran 11:112-3
But in an interview in which they laugh at their own hypocrisy, and redefine their morality in the name of expedience, don’t expect that much.