Before departing for the launch of “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular,” I got another one of those random emails: “Tony Blair’s Sister-in-Law Converts to Islam,” apparently after having a spiritual experience in Iran. A few years ago, Tony Blair announced his own conversion to Catholicism. This prompted me to reflect that one never seems to hear announcements of anyone’s “conversion” to “secularism.” In considering Catholic, Muslim, and secular modernities, it is relevant to note that the “secular” is often taken for granted, pervasive, and unshakable. It seems that it’s natural to be secular—the default option for modern people. As such, it enters the conversation as a “contender” with a distinct structural advantage over Catholicism and Islam. On the opposite end, one might say, are the underdog Muslims, who seem to enjoy a whole host of structural disadvantages. Perhaps this is because they must constantly adjust to the expectations, terms, forums and frames of others, at least in an American context in which they are a small minority. However, in spite of these structural inequities, the Contending Modernities launch managed an excellent beginning to a potentially awkward conversation.
An Uneven Playing Field?
Things seemed more than a little awkward when I pondered the details of one of the Contending Modernities launch events, a luncheon held at noon on Friday, Nov. 19th. The invited guest was a confessedly secular Muslim, not a practicing Muslim, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, and the event was scheduled at a time usually reserved for the weekly congregational prayers of practicing Muslims!
I was even more uneasy when I considered the line-up of keynote speakers for the first launch event on Thursday evening, Nov. 18th. On one side were two powerhouse Catholic academics, Jane Dammen McAuliffe, an expert on Islam, and John McGreevy, an expert on American Catholic history, both in a familiar setting and in the company of friends and colleagues, including a large number of Notre Dame alumni. On the other side was one poor Muslim cleric, to be flown thousands of miles away from his native Egypt to speak to an unfamiliar audience in an unfamiliar setting in a foreign language while wearing strange clothes. To make matters worse, he was unable to make it to New York and had to engage via an awkward video link holding on to an archaic looking telephone.
So I began to think: “The match was uneven! It was a set-up!” In light of the much anticipated Army-Notre Dame game on this past Saturday at Yankee Stadium (which the Fighting Irish won, if you haven’t already heard), a few football analogies came to mind. From the onset, the underdog status of Muslims was on full display. The main players were John “Mc”Greevy and Jane “Mc”Auliffe, with Shaykh Ali Gomaa (Grand Mufti of Egypt) as an exotic half-time show. Given that a large part of Kroc’s funding has come from “Mc”Donalds, I expected an evening of “McFootball” in which the likely winner was pretty obvious.
A Vigorous Exchange
Contrary to my expectations, the great Shaykh from Egypt was no sideshow—he showed up to play ball. The Muslims kicked off in the first half with an excellent speech, delivered by an assistant to the Shaykh, Ibrahim Negm, who was present at the venue in person. Looking dapper in a Western suit and tie, Negm spoke in English. Following the speech, he facilitated an exchange between the Shaykh in Egypt and the audience in New York. The second half belonged to the two “Mc’s,” who delivered as promised.
What follows are a few compelling snippets from each speaker, insofar as they relate to Muslim issues.
The thrust of Shaykh Ali Gomaa’s comments was that traditional Islamic law has within it the tools to contend with modernity. In fact, he cogently argued that the problems of the Muslim world have stemmed from a marginalization of the voices of traditional Muslim scholars. The Shaykh hinted that the West should engage these scholars, pay attention to their institutions (such as the Dar al-Ifta in Egypt, which the Shaykh represents, and which issues innumerable fatwas on a wide range of modern problems), and cooperate with them for the betterment of humanity. In a nutshell, Shariah is the answer, not the problem. This is a fascinating position, given that it goes against everything that we in the West have come to believe. I am not sure that the implications of the Shaykh’s position were immediately apparent. The Contending Modernities project will have a good time contending with it in the years to come.
But there is also a question for the Shaykh, which emerged from comments made by Jane McAuliffe on the Qur’an. What does one do with Muslims who have positions that diverge from those adopted by “traditional” Islam, not merely in substance, but also in method? What place do Muslims who engage in historical criticism of the origins of Islam and its sacred texts have in the modern world? Are they acceptable members of the umma, or must they be shunned? How does a project such as Contending Modernities bring Muslims, traditional, progressive, revisionist, to the table together? Will the project engage or privilege one kind of Muslim over another? Which kind of Muslim is more or less representative of the “Muslim world?” Are Western Muslims a part of the Muslim world, or separate from it?
Similarities and Differences
These are difficult questions that McAuliffe alluded to—though not precisely in these words—in her remarks. She spoke of a phenomenon of “subtle exclusions” that is familiar to all of us who operate in the academic world. Where will Contending Modernities draw the line of inclusion and exclusion, and how will it mediate between those who end up being included? Speaking of inclusion, John McGreevy drew parallels between the experiences of Catholics in the 19th century and those of Muslims today. Catholics were able to overcome prejudices against them by building institutions that gave them a sense of internal solidarity while simultaneously benefiting American society at large. Muslims, in all likelihood, will also overcome opposition to their presence by building institutions such as schools, cultural centers, mosques and charities that will perform the same dual purpose of solidarity and integration.
McGreevy’s analysis is compelling, but a few critical differences between the Catholic and Muslim contexts come to mind. For one, Muslims have no Pope that could serve as an anchor and focal point of their theological universe. Second, technology tightly connects Muslims in America to Muslims “back home,” which perpetuates their detachment from local concerns in favor of attachment to de facto communities of origin afar. True, the problem lessens with second-generation Muslims, and is altogether absent from historically American Muslim populations. However, this group of “indigenous” Muslims experiences a disjuncture because of the absence of a healthy American Muslim identity and the inexorable portrayal of the Muslim as foreign. Third, Muslims today may be attached to what has been called hermeneutic communities in virtual worlds. What impact do such developments—direct byproducts of modernity—have on institutional development, solidarity, and integration? Fourth, America is involved in costly conflicts in the Muslim world that have no parallels in the 19th century Catholic experience. To what extent does the development of a normalized American-Muslim hinge on an end to these apparently never-ending wars?
What Modernity Needs
In his introductory blog, Scott Appleby refers to modernity’s multiple “complexities.” One of these complexities, for me personally, is that of multiple identities. I am an American Muslim of Pakistani origin who studied Islam in the West with Muslim professors at a Protestant Seminary, and with a Jesuit at a secular university. I married a girl from Seattle who was born in Minnesota to parents whose parents had emigrated from Germany. Now we have three beautiful children who live with us in South Bend, where I teach Arabic and Islam at a premier Catholic university, with a Chinese supervisor, while attempting to get along as a member of the local Muslim community, which is populated by South Asians, Arabs, Bosnians, and American-Americans!
When people ask me where I am from, I no longer have an easy answer. Who am I? If Contending Modernities can help me to better approximate an answer to this basic question, I would consider the project a success.
Yet, unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of secular modernity and its handmaiden of secular scholarship is a conscious and deliberate de-centering of the self. We are trained well to write about the ideas of others, to classify groups and peoples, to coin categories. But we are seldom encouraged to discover or write cogently about “what I believe.” If I may quote from the Qur’an: “Be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget their own selves.” Is this where modernity has brought us? Brought me? Is a modernity possible that embraces God, as understood by the shared heritage of two of the world’s great religious traditions, Catholicism and Islam—pluralism within them notwithstanding? What are the contours and consequences of such an embrace?
If the play-by-play in New York is anything to go by, it promises to be an exhilarating season. Not least because it made clear that Contending Modernities is a sport in which none of us is just a spectator. Game on!