In higher education institutions in the United States, there is a fear of subjecting Islam to criticism. This fear is particularly manifest in the work of liberal professors, who are afraid of being accused of “Orientalism” or “Islamophobia.” Ironically enough, this fear—rooted in a desire to be kind and good—has hindered the careers of reform-minded Muslim from the Middle East., of whom I am one. So how does this process play out? Let’s take a look.
With his 1978 text, Orientalism, which declared that Western commentary on the Middle East was motivated by a desire to dominate the region, Edward Said made a great impression on liberal scholars in Europe and North America. He prompted profound feelings of guilt on the part of scholars who felt shame over Europe’s colonization of large swaths of the world, and the Middle East in particular. These intellectuals forgot that prior emperors in the region, Muslims included, engaged in grand acts of conquest themselves. With Orientalism and other texts, Said rendered discussion of Islam’s history in the region taboo. In so doing, he hindered the prospect of progress in the Middle East.
As these guilt-ridden scholars write and teach in the long persistent shadow of Said’s text, they try to “have their cake and eat it too.” They want to promote modernity in Muslim societies without critiquing Islam and its impact on life in Muslim-majority countries. This contradiction is antithetical to rigorous scholarship that requires diversity of thought. It is also an obstacle to any hope for progress in the region. Only open, rigorous scholarship will help Islam—and the civilization it helped form—adapt to the modern world.
As an aspiring Muslim scholar studying in the United States, I have been criticized and accused of “Islamophobia” by some liberal professors for being too “presumptuous” about the Muslim world in which I was born, raised, and educated. In so doing, my professors, who ostensibly claim to value diversity of thought, dismiss my contributions as unsubstantiated assumptions—merely because I am making observations from my lived experiences in those societies. These professors, as well-meaning as they are, are engaging in the very act of dominance Said warned them against.
The irony is palpable. Western scholars, who feel guilty about Western dominance in the Middle East, silence me—a native son of the region—because of the guilt they feel. And in so doing, they obstruct prospects for change in the region.
Change will not occur in any conservative Muslim society unless we reform Islam. But the challenges Islam faces in the modern world is a taboo topic in much of the academy. It’s an unworthy topic of inquiry. That such a taboo exists in institutions of higher learning is simply preposterous.
In his 2006 text, The White Man’s Burden (Penguin), William Easterly argued against transplanting Western institutions into developing countries. I agree. Pre-existing institutions must be changed by the people who live in these countries. But liberal professors obstruct this process because they are unwilling to entertain alternative ways of doing, knowing, and being in the world of research.
When I point out that the more well-known fundamentalist Islam denies human rights and independent thinking; that the less well-known enlightened branch of Islam affirms universal human rights and independent thought; and that Islamism as a political movement attempts to install and enforce fundamentalist Islamic beliefs in a nation’s government—some liberal professors appear threatened by my approach, misinterpreting my way of thinking, apparently unfamiliar in their woke circles, as heresy.
“Islamophobia” has become the popular term for religious bigotry toward Islam. But criticizing Islam as a religion, and Islamism as a political movement, on the basis of informed reason and evidence—not ignorant religious prejudice—is not an act of bigotry.
If Muslim societies are to transcend their predicament with modernity, Islam, with all of its facets, must be subject to rigorous debate and criticism—even, or especially, in the West.
Islam has a predicament with modernity. Readers who disagree with this proposition can try to go and live in a Muslim country—not as a detached expert—but as an active participant in those societies as a native son of the region, as I have. In fundamentalist Muslim societies, people are trained and socialized to accept unquestioned the opinion of dominant religious and state authorities. People are encouraged to memorize these correct opinions and discouraged to think for themselves.
How can a nation or culture advance and join the modern world when so much of its accepted opinion is often feudal in origin, and independent thought and debate are regarded as socially unacceptable and strongly discouraged by social pressure? How is it possible that a traditionally raised and trained Muslim can be charged with ”Islamophobia?” This name-calling makes true scholarship impossible by forcing intellectuals to speak evasively as a matter of survival.
Like all major religions, Islam is complex, with aspects both beautiful and ugly, and I have experienced both. When scholars face with complexity, they can either shy away or scrutinize it. Calling reasoned criticism of Islam “Islamophobia” is simply name-calling—an attempt to stifle debate through the use of fear and demands of political correctness.
Whether at the personal or societal level, change comes from within. This is a principle enunciated in the Qur’an. Outsiders, especially liberal professors, will have great difficulty helping Muslim societies modernize because part of being a traditional Muslim is not to solicit advice from non-Muslims. That is a Quranic principle as well.
The best way for outsiders to help change Muslim societies is to help insiders who can promote change from within. And if they can’t help them, they can at least get out of their way. Such intellectuals may be able to promote enlightenment on the periphery of the Middle East. These countries could challenge the teachings promoted by the nations where fundamentalist Islam is dominant. If it happens, an intra-Islam dialogue of enlightened Islamic ideas and interpretations could percolate across the borders into the more fundamentalist regimes.
Unfortunately, too many liberal professors are busy converting their students to a program of “wokeness” that engenders great fear of being labeled as an “orientalist” or “Islamophobic.” These professors think they are doing good by indoctrinating students to their point of view. But with their inability to even listen to unconventional voices beyond their “woke” blinders, they are not doing good. They are stifling the very debate needed for Islam to become the dynamic religion and culture it once was 800 years ago, when it led the most advanced societies in the world and served as a powerful positive force at the dawn of the modern world.
Born and raised in Yemen, Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a PhD Student and ICGC Fellow at the University of Minnesota. Bindamnan earned a MSEd from University of Pennsylvania and BA from University of Miami. He is a contributing author at Psychology Today.