Najm al-Din argues that Muslims should follow the example of non-Muslim whistleblowers who expose tyranny and injustice. Recently, the very high-profile and respected Muslim theologian Sheikh Yasir Qadhi took to Facebook in praise of Noam Chomsky’s dissident scholarship.
Qadhi paid tribute to Chomsky for being one of the most leading critics of US foreign policy in recent times and congratulated the polymath’s scathing critique of imperial democracy. The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald was also earmarked for praise, particularly in relation to his objective and lucid analysis of events in the Muslim world and among other things, the journalist’s role in uncovering the grim extent of the US government’s domestic spying powers.
According to the Sheikh – whose erudition I greatly admire and have benefitted from – Muslims owed a debt of gratitude to the likes of Chomsky, Greenwald and other heroes of conscience who followed in their fearless tradition of provocative activism.
Noam Chomsky & Glenn Greewald
I couldn’t agree more. Many Muslims I’ve spoken to are huge admirers of Chomsky, once described by right-wing conservative David Horowitz as an “Ayatollah of anti-American hate” for his almost religious defence against American Islamophobia. Time and again, Glenn Greenwald uses his platform as a columnist on US National Security and civil liberties to blow the cover on secret surveillance programmes of US Muslim minorities and applies his investigative reporting skills to unmask the ugly face of the government’s drone wars-arguably the most important foreign policy scandal of our times.
As a journalist deeply affected by events in the Muslim world, I pretty much make a habit of sharing the latest Greenwald piece or Chomskyite wisdom with Muslim friends and colleagues. And it’s not simply to mull over the grisly details of an illegal drone strike in North West Frontier Province, or express resentment over the extra-judicial operations of Obama’s secret JSoc assassins. Rather, I feel in their willingness to bring the Constitution and Bill of Rights into the open is a lesson which Muslims could take heed from. Simply, there’s a greater need now more than ever before for Muslims to reclaim a politics of dissent, the type which the late Edward Said described as “speaking truth to power”, particularly in the wake of such repeated horrors visited against them.
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Unfortunately, and to my surprise, I could not get Sheikh Yasir Qadhi to share my enthusiasm. According to the Sheikh, if a Muslim was behind the largest leak of classified information in US history, or if a Muslim had reached the public profile of a Chomsky or Greenwald and sparked a nationwide debate on America’s abuse of power, they would automatically be blacklisted by the government and face reprisals. Instead, they would be serving the public interest better by exonerating themselves from the kinds of activism so laden with trials and tribulations, and leaving this void to be filled by non-Muslim campaigners under whose patronage Muslims could swim safely.
The trials of Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond as well as the pursuit of ex-NSA spook Eric Snowden most likely formed the backdrop to Qadhi’s caution to his thousands of followers, that facing the sledgehammer against dissent was a price not worth paying for the Islamic cause. To be fair to the Sheikh, he has appealed to his audience in the past to take governments to task for their human rights violations and injustices, but expressed serious reservation at the prospect of a whistle blowing culture becoming the norm in Muslim scholarship. In his words, “A lot of people criticize Imams and scholars (myself included) for not being as ‘bold’ or frank as Chomsky, Greenwald, Pilger, and others of that paradigm. My philosophy is simple: why re-invent the wheel, when doing so will backlash on us?
Although Qadhi insisted he was not promoting a culture of political passivity, I think this mindset is responsible for unwittingly putting the lid on dissent and imposing restraints on efforts to produce a politically bold Muslim populace. Anyone who listens to the Sheikh’s sermons will know that Qadhi is very well versed in the various historical biographies of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and takes an active scholarly interest in the lives and journeys of God’s Messengers (as), revered in both the Islamic and Judaeo-Christian traditions.
And forgive me for pontificating to the learned, but neither Abraham, Moses, Jesus nor any of the Prophets which Muslims hold to the highest standard would have passed on the opportunity to “re-invent the wheel”, simply due to fear of prosecution. Abraham’s crusade against idolatry placed him on a collision course with the arch-nemesis of his time-Nimrod, and God praised him for provoking a strong public reaction. Moses is credited for liberating the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh and thumbing his nose at a system which thrived on oppression and intimidation. Jesus and his disciples ran the risk of targeted assassination for calling out the Pharisees on their waywardness and championed the cause of social and economic justice, a far cry from those who feel he was a meek and mild servant of the status quo.
And of all God’s messengers, the Sheikh is in a better place than I to elaborate how Muhammad’s propagation of Islam forced him and his companions (ra) into a mass exodus from their small trading town in Mecca to Medina and how they would risk life and limb to unveil the corruption of the powers that be, despite being threatened with exile. The history of religion offers this David and Goliath dialectic, a kind of extended metaphor for a timeless head on confrontation between the forces of good and evil.
Whistleblowing – Reviving a prophetic tradition
Although as Muslims we fall woefully short of re-living this prophetic experience, whistleblowers offer a model of behaviour which conforms to the prophetic ideal. I would expect our scholars-described in a famous tradition as being “The inheritors of the Prophets”- to rally the faithful in embarking on a similar struggle of uprooting oppressive and corrupt bureaucracies and not be cowered by the thought of The Department of Homeland Security being hot on their heels.
This means cultivating a mindset where no subject is out of bounds and no government immune from public scrutiny. It also requires nurturing a patient resolve where careers, reputations and personal wellbeing are all put on the line for the sake of principle. After all, disclosing the malpractice of those in authority was not simply a trend set by a cable gone public via Wiki Leaks. Rather, the idea that power and truth are seldom comfortable bedfellows has much traction throughout religious history and being as it is a Quranic motif, a Muslim does no justice to the legacy of Prophets by abdicating this very responsibility which featured so considerably in their lives and for which God promised them endless bounties and rewards.
At a time when whistleblowers have placed the very notion of government and corporate secrecy on full blast, Muslims can definitely take cue from Bradley Manning’s pre-trial statements, from Jeremy Scahill’s harrowing description of the War on Terror’s undeclared battlefields, from Glenn Greenwald’s indomitable will to never slant public stories in favour of corporate interests and from Chomsky’s non-conformist intellectualism.
All of the above would gladly be labelled fifth columnists for exposing light on government cover-ups and false flags, instead of being a mouthpiece for received opinion, led around like a fish with a hook in its lip. The very suggestion that if a Muslim was behind these kinds of disclosures, they would somehow place the wider Muslim community in harm’s way and imperil God’s cause smacks of a self-serving piety and will only cause the generic masses and their unthinking genuflections to either look on at oppression as detached bystanders without the slightest remonstration or give it a mere passing mention in their circles.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: “The best Jihad is the word of truth against a tyrant ruler”. (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Ibn Maja).
If there was ever a tradition to revive, this would be it.