by Azher Quader
Earlier this month our country celebrated its 241st Independence Day. That same weekend ISNA had its 54th Annual Convention too, here in Chicago, which was unusual for it as its normal schedule for Labor Day weekend was conflicting with Eid-ul-Adha this year. The confluence of these two events had some special significance and relevance for us. One celebrated the Quran, the other celebrated freedom.
We, Americans take great pride in the freedoms we enjoy. Our founding fathers included freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the document we revere as our constitution. At a later date President Roosevelt added two more freedoms as goals to pursue: freedom from want and freedom from fear.
The Quran emphasizes another freedom: freedom of choice, given to all humans.
As is often the case with such a far reaching document as a constitution, which is meant to guide individuals and societies over perpetuity, the original intentions of the creators are subject to the way such directives are interpreted and implemented by subsequent generations, that determines their outcomes over different periods of time. Such is also the case with the Quran where its guidance, intended to produce successful outcomes for individuals and societies, by its Creator, has sometimes not done so, frustrating individuals and societies due to their particular interpretations and implementations of its guidance.
Our genius as American citizens today as well as members of our faith community, therefore we may surmise, face similar challenges. If we are experiencing as Americans, divisions within the country that are unprecedented in our times and if we are suffering as Muslims, the agony of terrible turmoil abroad and insecurity at home, should we not perhaps question our interpretations of our revered documents as well as our sacred texts?
In addressing the issue of freedom to choose, the Quran accepts the premise of human reason and intellect as valid instruments to choose with, but says it has provided some help through revelation from time to time, just in case we humans, in our pride and arrogance would choose to conclude our reason and intellect can never go wrong.
While all other freedoms we cherish are dependent upon the benevolence of a state or the will of another entity, freedom of choice, the Quran declares, is personal and independent of any external authority. By exercising this freedom over issues of our daily life, using the guidance from reason bolstered by revelation, the Quran makes the argument, a more “just and compassionate” society can be established. Furthermore, where reason and revelation appear to contradict, we can and should observe outcomes to determine if the choices we make are appropriate or not.
From the sobering stories of history, the Quran repeatedly reminds us that when societies failed to pursue a code of ethics, upholding the centrality of “justice and compassion”, they suffered the inevitable misfortune of decay and self destruction. The rise and fall of nations and civilizations it contends has little to do with their economic prosperity or their military might during their times, but everything to do with the pursuit of this moral code. The boomerang of cause and consequence, dictated by the choices we make, never fails to bring home the inevitable results, regardless of what our wishes may be.
So how does all this stack up on the issue of our freedoms in America. Famously the freedom of speech, for instance, guaranteed in our constitution that we celebrate so much. How well have we interpreted and implemented it through the course of our history? Have we always done a good job? Not very convincingly, it seems if we are to look dispassionately on the record, at many times.
Why then we should wonder young Snowden is living in Russia for spilling the beans on our government’s secrets. What about a preacher from Georgia who was preaching non violent means for ending racial segregation, but met with a violent end in Tennessee? What about a truth teller named Malcolm, who spoke a bit too harshly about the hypocrisy of white America’s claim for equal rights and we silenced him for good as well? Or should we forget the four who raised their voices against the war in Vietnam on the campus of Kent State and we sent the National Guard to shoot them down? Who decides when the freedom we cherish is the freedom to crush? Do we really permit people to speak their minds or do we disallow the kind of speech that speaks truth to power? Are we truly free to speak our minds or are we warned through these examples to hold our tongues? As, Iqbal, our poet philosopher of the East would say:
“Ye Dastoor-e-Zuban Bandi Hai Kaisa Teri Mehfil Mein
Yahan To Baat Karne Ko Tarasti Hai Zuban Meri”
Why does this tradition of silencing exist in your place?
My tongue is yearning so much to speak over here
The Quran too promotes free speech, open debates and discussions, encourages us to listen and learn, to reason and reflect, to understand another’s point of view. But is that how we have interpreted its guidance in our communal life? What is our reality?
Try making a case for the permissibility of interest within orthodox circles and see what happens. Or question the infallibility of Hadith and see the verbal lashing you receive. Or mention adjusting the rate of Zakat, heaven forbid arguing against the payment of Zakat. Or speak about the futility of memorizing the Quran without understanding its meaning. Or talk about women’s empowerment at home, the workplace or even the masjid, much less raise the concern for gender equity in matters of inheritance. Or render an opinion on celebrating Milad within a crowd of Wahabi patriots. Try rocking the boat any and you will drown in the puddle of your audacious free speech. Yes freedom provided by the Book, yet denied by the mullah, who chooses to interpret the text much differently, is the way the argument ends.
The Quran regularly insists for us to share the abundance, to serve the other, to be engaged, to be good neighbors, to be bridge builders, to be action oriented, to speak up for the oppressed, to stand up for justice. But look what so many of us choose to do? We choose to collect and not give, to be isolated and disengaged, to be meditative and aloof, to be silent and voiceless, to be indifferent to the needs of the other, to be strangers to our neighbors, to be consumed with our self interest. We repeatedly choose the easier ways, the ones less painful, more comfortable, less demanding of any sacrifices. We choose rituals over service, dialogues over dynamism, mediocrity over excellence, conformity over change. When asked to climb the steep path, we choose to travel the level road. Need we question our interpretations and our implementations of the Divine writ? Are we making the prudent choices for our salvation?
Let us check out another freedom we celebrate as American citizens so very much. Our cherished freedom of religion. When we are told of this freedom we are regularly reminded of the separation of church and state. That we can have our churches , our temples , our synagogues and our mosques; build them, worship in them, practice our rituals, recite our sacred texts, sing our praises of the Lord and congregate there with complete freedom. No government body, we are comforted, will interfere and impose any restrictions upon our religious practices there. We are told we have the freedom to observe our holy days and our religious festivals. We can wear our yarmulks and our hijabs, our kufis and our turbans, observe our fastings and our sabaths.
But sadly that is where the case for religious freedom ends. Is there nothing more to religion? Does religion not have a say in the way we are to live? The larger domain of ethics and morality which is really foundational to the understanding of religiosity, is carved out from this freedom on the grounds of domain. When we draw a line between the practice of rituals and the foundations of faith where “justice and compassion” abide, and say this freedom you are guaranteed but not this other one, what freedom do we really celebrate?
The pilgrims did not come to America in pursuit of rituals to practice but a life of ethics and morality to live. That freedom is what they sought. That freedom today we no longer possess. The values for which they journeyed across stormy waters, risking their lives, are all but lost. Today we worship the secular life, which has redefined marriage, idolized adultery, institutionalized racism, legalized abortion, commercialized pornography, corrupted our democracy with money laws declared constitutional and given us a new religion to claim as our own, and a new freedom in its name to cherish. Yes we have freedom of religion and the religion we have now adopted is called ‘secularism’.
There was another place and time in history when our favorite poet [Iqbal] again alluded to this mistaken understanding of religious freedom, when he cautioned his people in his own special way:
“Mullah ko jo hai Hind mein sajde ke ijazat
Nadaan yeh samajhta hai ke Islam hai azaad!”
The mullah in India is happy to have the freedom to pray
The foolish one believes his religion (Islam) is free
To be sure we have freedom of religion in our country, but the religion that celebrates freedom here today is unfortunately not the religion originally prescribed for us by Moses or Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad (Peace-be-Upon them all).
What about FDR’s vision of a country and world someday enjoying freedom from want and freedom from fear? Ignore the world for now. Let us see how far we have succeeded in our own country in eliminating want. Here are the sobering facts.
- 45 million Americans live in poverty (poverty line defined as individuals making less than $12k a year; or a family of four making less than $24K). An additional 97 million earn less than twice the poverty line. Translation: nearly half of the population in America is poor or of low income.
- 42 percent of our workforce makes less than $15 an hour. In 23 of our 50 states the minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 an hour. Two earner families is not an issue of choice today, but a matter of necessity, and even then millions work more than one job and still live paycheck to paycheck.
- 47.5 million are on food stamps.
- 51% of public school students depend on free or reduced-price lunches for their only decent meal for the day
- 3.5 million people become homeless each year and 39% of them are children
The war on poverty that President Johnson launched in 1964, gave us Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and College Loans for sure, but failed to free us from our wants. 28 million still lack health insurance, not counting another 11 million undocumented who remain invisible to the system. Medicaid is under assault by the present bunch in congress. Without it millions will lose long term care and disability benefits. Our student loan debt has mushroomed to $1.2 trillion with no relief in sight for the 40 million young people struggling to repay it. We have neither eradicated poverty nor overcome our wants, but arguably created, as some would say, a culture of dependency in our society. Clearly we need to rethink our strategies if we are to ever find cures for our wants.
Lastly the issue of freedom from fear needs little discussion. Since 911 fear and worry has become a quiet accompaniment of our daily lives. Terror hides in ambush at every corner, to maim and murder, in malls and markets, in clubs and classrooms wherever people come to meet and enjoy their freedoms. Gangs play shooting games on our neighborhood streets, while neighbors live in mortal fear, hiding in their unsafe homes. Law enforcement terrifies a whole community with their open distrust and profiling of them. Millions live in the shadows without status, fearful of that knock on the door, when they can be deported and separated from their loved ones. Thousands of kids brave going to school every day, painfully afraid of the bullies they have to face in their class rooms. And so many live in fear of bankruptcy form medical bills they could not pay if they fell sick or hurt and have no coverage. Our political class delight in hate speech to win cheap votes and spread fear among the people. Our money managers steal the workers pensions, robbing them of their life savings, leaving them fearful of their retirement years. Hate crimes, road rage, sexual assault, worker abuse, have all become normalized in a world where passions fly high while patience runs low. How then can there be freedom from fear?
Such is the state of freedoms we live in and celebrate. Freedoms we have all been told are exceptional and to be proud of. We are often reminded, that our journey “for a more perfect union” as written in our constitution, is ongoing. But it is our journey for justice on which we have been stumbling all these past two centuries or more that should concern us. Without learning to stand tall and walk straight on this journey, our goal for perfection will remain elusive. When freedom is worshiped and justice ignored, that freedom is wanting and offers little to celebrate. Our love affair for freedom without a passion for justice, will forever frustrate us to overcome our wants and find peace, security and happiness.
May His guidance show us the way and help us travel the path which will lead us to celebrate real freedom.