On October 7, 2019, Muslim American and veteran Mansoor Shams tweeted out a list of people titled, “Who NOT to learn Islam from.” On November 26, 2019, he tweeted the same list. The tweet received mixed reactions, including my own.
Who NOT to learn ISLAM from. To name a few:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
— MuslimMarine (@mansoortshams) October 7, 2019
The first time I supported the tweet on the premise that unless Muslims themselves brave speaking critically of our theology, others will do it for us. Seeing the tweet again, it’s time to unpack the question of who not to learn Islam from.
Both times, the list is simple, and there is no follow up thread. It doesn’t offer any more conversation that distinguishes one person on the list from another. It’s an incomplete conversation, and it was my mistake to support the initial tweet without taking the time to unpack it in my own thread. So, I will do that here.
To tweet that same list twice now (two unique tweets instead of simply a retweet of the original tweet) without further context, makes the list less of a confessional Muslims can align with and more of an attack. Let’s talk about the people on the list.
How the List Misses the Mark
The people who drive these conversations are just as important as the conversations themselves. We’re not just looking at what Islam is or was, we also need to look at who we are.
And if you’re not interested in people (like the ones on the list), in understanding and humanizing them, then I’m afraid you’re missing what’s really important here. What’s really important here isn’t religion; it’s people. Are we looking at how people are changing over time, or have we boxed them in the same way we complain they’ve boxed us or their interpretation of our faith in?
I would argue that it is more valuable that we understand and humanize each other, that we start learning how to get along and work together, than it is to shield Islam within some forcefield. Something that isn’t challenged, cannot evolve and thrive.
I would argue that Islam is an organic idea. It (and we) do better when challenged than when kept in some bubble, like some insipid organism that cannot survive a contagion called the 21st century.
Some people on that list have shown depth, inquiry, and journey — and it’s deeply unfair to paint them, carte blanche, in a the broad stroke of a collective.
As Muslims, we don’t like it when it’s done to us; why do it to another?
Let’s look at some of the people on that list who were treated unfairly.
Sam Harris –– While I don’t agree with everything Sam Harris says, I do respect his own story of inquiry that led him to become who he is today. The type of questions Sam raises, the type of guests he brings on, tells us that’s someone who isn’t resting on the laurels of celebrity. He’s still very much asking questions. He’s still very much searching.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Ali is another name on that list of someone that deserves being looked into. While I don’t agree with some of her views, and I don’t think that poor personal experience is the totality of a faith, she has shifted her views over time. She has softened her stances. She went from someone who didn’t believe in reform to someone who did. I am more aligned with who she is today than who she was even just five years ago.
Robert Spencer — Spencer doesn’t seem to have changed from the first time I learned of him over 17 years ago. Yet, when I first started asking about Islam, there was nothing out there that I could dig into that let me look at Islam with a critical eye. Social media hadn’t yet become a portal for learning and connectivity. But there was Robert Spencer’s work, which throws you into the deep end of Islam. There wasn’t anywhere I could go to at that time in the so called “Muslim world” that would be honest with me about the shortcomings of our faith. Robert Spencer also presents Muslims with a foil, a character so immersed in a rigid narrative that that narrative can be leaned on to build the counter-narrative.
Steven Emerson — Emerson might not be the person to learn Islam from, but he’s the person to understand the complex structures of the dark underbelly Islam has given rise to: the terror networks. His website, The Investigative Project on Terrorism, is one of the best sources for in-depth analysis on issues that impact Islam. You will never learn about that through any traditional Islamic study or through anyone who can otherwise teach on the theology in principle.
(Here’s a vignette of Emerson and my mother at a wedding. My mom has zero interest in my work and no understanding of our world, but she’s a Pakistani woman who loves cooking. Emerson was trying to navigate the Pakistani cuisine at the buffet. Here’s a 6-foot something, white-haired man next to a four-foot nothing Pakistani woman who delighted and took pride in being able to lead the conversation. And he stood there, engaged her and listened respectfully. I watched. It was beautiful and human. We forget that every single one of us is human; we’re not superheroes and supervillains. We are human first.)
Laura Loomer — Loomer is another person who has to be looked at through multiple lenses. I don’t agree with her on a lot of the basic principles of Islam, but I do respect her as a voice with incredible courage who tries to draw attention to Islamist figures. Loomer and I have gotten to be friends over the last year, and in every single act of engagement, we have been very supportive of the other. If in a call, for example, she shares some inconsequential details that I don’t necessarily agree with, I don’t need to fight her on it. I listen. On the same note, if I say something she might not agree with, she listens. There is no need to be combative and defensive, but there is a need to start listening to each other.
These Issues Deserve to be Led With Humanity
As a Muslim Reformer, my role is to stand on the horizon of human experience and look at things as objectively as possible. As Muslims with some legitimate frustrations in how Islam and Muslims are talked about, it doesn’t help if we start marginalizing and labeling other people without looking to have a conversation with them, understand them and find their value.
And above all, we have to take off our armor. We have to start being willing to feel. Just like our skin responds to the warmth of the sun or the piercing sensation of cold, in the same way we have to be able to feel each other, to give pause and observe our own reactions, our thoughts, the process of how our mind resists or envelopes a new thought. We can’t do that if we’re only working from within our own silos.
In a follow up tweet from the public asking who we can learn Islam from, Mansoor directs the tweeter to his website where he shares resources. Unfortunately those resources lean toward Ahmadi Muslim publications mixed with propaganda reports attacking the conservative right. I’m deeply disappointed: The response to feeling like you’re not being heard or seen isn’t to not hear or see another.
We don’t shift the needle by mirroring the same behavior that frustrates us.
We have a duty to do better, which I feel Mansoor does understand, considering he routinely leads with integrity on discussing the American Muslim experience, especially as a veteran and a member of an oppressed minority in the faith.
Real question: where can I learn Islam from? I'm nonreligious myself but I know next to nothing about it and would like to educate myself
— Vlad Pooty (@vladpooty) November 26, 2019
Islamic teachings tell us to condemn behavior, not people. However, shooting out an attack list without any further context is a form of condemning a list of people without (I’m guessing) ever having had a real conversation with anyone on that list.
Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project’s National Correspondent.
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