A Dab of Adab
by Stephen Schwartz
Adab is a term most non-Muslims will never have heard of. It is an Islamic concept, referring to good manners and proper etiquette in dealing with one's peers, especially those with whom one might disagree.
Good conduct is a praiseworthy habit in any society, but among Sunni Muslims in the West – especially in the United States and Britain – the pretext of adab is abused by radicals to suppress dissent.
Such habits are a key to one of the most vexing challenges presently facing Westerners: the apparent silence of Muslims about terrorism. Why do so few Muslims step forward to denounce radicalism, extremist ideology, and violence committed in the name of their religion? Unfortunately, imposition of collective passivity in the name of politeness – a bogus version of "good adab" – is used by the radical leadership of Anglo-American Sunnis, to prevent Muslims from resisting terrorist incitement.
Add to this misfortune the realities of physical intimidation, group ostracism, and other means employed to maintain conformity, and a non-Muslim should be able to more easily comprehend why so many Muslims keep their mouths shut about terrorism. Immigrant Muslims, in particular, came to the West to improve their lives and those of their families – not to clean up their religion. Few of them realized that Islam in the U.S. and UK are under the control of violent fanatics. Many Muslims express shock when they arrive in the West and find out that the Saudi-financed Wahhabi sect – inspirers of al-Qaida – controls 80 percent of major Sunni mosques in America, while the Pakistani radical Deobandi sect – mentors of the Taliban – dominates British Islam.
Both the Wahhabis and the Deobandis are jihadists, and many immigrant Muslims left their birthplace to escape jihadism. When they go to a mosque in a Western city and hear hateful propaganda spread there, they are often paralyzed with fear. How, they ask, did Western governments let this happen? Who will protect them if they resist the radical leaders?
Adab as a means for suppression of dissidence also explains two aspects of Muslim life in the West that non-Muslims seldom grasp: that is, non-Muslims see these phenomena but do not recognize what they mean. The first is the peculiar fact that Arab and Pakistani Muslims living in the West are the first major group of immigrants who do not produce new leaders. The Anglo-American Sunni Muslims are as rigidly controlled, by a power elite, as were the old Communist parties. The same Wahhabi and Deobandi personalities have spoken for Islam in the U.S. and UK for some 20 years. Of course, this stratum of totalitarian theocrats puts forward younger faces from time to time – especially now when Islam is under intense scrutiny and Western non-Muslims want to hear the voices of youth. But the hard, bearded men continue to give orders from behind the scenes, obeying upper-echelon commands from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The same old organizations and names reappear again and again: the Saudi-founded Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Hamas-front Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and preachers Muzammil Siddiqi and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who were screeching firebrands before September 11, 2001, and now seek to remodel themselves as moderates. I have written frequently and widely on these groups and individuals, for five years since 9/11. The record is ample, easily accessible, and clear.
The other byproduct of "bad adab" in the West is that American and British Sunni Muslim believers have produced no serious intellectuals and almost no respectable clerics. They cannot do so because real intellectual inquiry and religious study demands freedom from interference by mental police of any kind. For this reason, American Sunni Islam is a curiosity to believers living in the Muslim-majority countries, but little more. American Sunni Islam has generated almost no new commentaries, insights, or traditions of significance for the Muslim world – notwithstanding the permanent desire of Muslims to come here.
Here is how the adab racket works: an opponent of someone like Hamza Yusuf Hanson, such as myself, is accused of lacking "good adab" for publicly calling him a fake moderate. Good Islamic manners, it seems, would require me to humbly go to him and ask him to teach me the truth as he knows it, before saying anything negative about him. But there are two reasons I need not do this. First, Hamza Yusuf Hanson's blazing denunciations of American society, before September 11, are a matter of public record. I do not have to ask for elucidation of them, because they are plain and direct, and are archived and accessible.
Second, why should I recognize Hamza Yusuf Hanson as an authority for me? He is a self-proclaimed religious leader, who pretends to be a spiritual Sufi but attacks the authentic Sufi orders. I do not ask him to become my student; indeed, I do not assume fancy religious titles or claim authority I do not possess. I am what I am – an American journalist first and foremost – and I know what I know; that's all And as far as Hamza Yusuf is concerned, I only ask that U.S. and British governmental representatives not be fooled by his post-9/11 posturing as a benign soul deeply concerned for the security of the West.
But the use of adab to suppress embarrasing questions can appear with much greater bluntness – indeed, many Islamist apologists who demand that dissenting Muslims act with "good manners" completely lack them.
This week the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), which I founded two years ago, made its first major appearance in British media. Dr. Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi is a British Muslim (note that – British first, Muslim second), a scholar and expert on Islamic cultural heritage. He is also a stern and active opponent of extremism in British Islam. He was recently appointed to direct CIP activities in Western Europe.
The Times of London, in its issue of November 27, published a major article on a highly- controversial proposal now under discussion in Britain. Tabligh-i-Jama'at or Call of the Community (TJ) is a fundamentalist Islamic movement originating in India, with theological links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. TJ has proposed to build a gigantic complex, known as the Markaz or Central mosque, next to the London 2012 Olympic park now under construction. The structure, with an ultramodern design, would accommodate up to 70,000 people.
Ordinary British Muslims oppose the giant mosque scheme, which they fear will aggravate already-existing tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. According to The Times, when Muslims in East London announced a petition drive against the project, they collected 2,500 signatures in 10 days.
Unfortunately, London mayor Ken Livingstone, also known as "Red Ken" and an unprincipled rabble-rouser and Jew-baiter, supports the Markaz mosque project. In response, CIP Western Europe Director Al-Alawi expressed his "extreme concern" to The Times, declaring, "Tablighi are not moderate Muslims, they are a separatist movement."
Then the "adab machine" went to work. The UK features an Islamic website, www.deenport.com, promoting the alleged benevolence of Hamza Yusuf Hanson and other "born-again moderates." But deenport.com also exists to slander and intimidate. Monday had not ended when Fareena Alam, a semiliterate Muslim scribbler and deenport commissar living in Britain, went on the attack. Alam preens her success in inducing Newsweek International to publish a feeble defense of the Islamist veil. Now she asked, "Can someone who has hosted Irfan Alawi… please tell us what he is like in person?" She continued, "Why is he aligning himself to Stephen Schwartz?... This is not a good sign."
The next commentator on the site reproached Alam for her lack of "good adab," writing, "I think your post is extremely provocative and is likely to invite people to say negative things about Irfan Alawi on a public forum which would be slanderous. Especially from people in the Tablighi movement."
To most Westerners, all this may seem too much inside baseball about Islam. But the internal controversies among Muslims result in throwing bombs, not baseballs (or, in Britain, cricket balls). A dab of adab will not suffice for Fareena Alam and her cohort at deenport.com, or anyone else, to shut the mouth of Irfan Al-Alawi. An end to the silence of moderate Muslims must come.