Essential Lexicon: Islam’s Center of Gravity

Word Count: 1,798


by Lenna

Every now and then, a watershed concept comes along that has the potential to cut through many layers of conversational fog. Professor Juan Cole wrote that every religion has a “center of gravity” that allows observers to identify when something is deviant. When I read this, an entire framework for discussion, depicted in the diagram above, snapped into place in my mind.

This framework seems particularly well suited to explaining why Maajid Nawaz and his ilk are so widely despised. A number of excellent articles on the topic have already been published, including this one by Nathan Lean, and this one by Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal, and this one by David Shariatmadari, among others. What I want to add to the mix is a closer look at Nawaz’s agenda and tactics using this conceptual framework as a point of depature.

Terms like “House Muslim” are meant to convey a dynamic, but much of the target audience remains oblivious. As a result, those denounced as “House Muslims” can play the martyr and imply other Muslims are attacking them precisely because they are brave liberal reformers standing up to extremists.

But if the problem were really their liberal advocacy, then all liberal Muslims who advance reformist arguments should be equally despised and smeared as “House Muslims.” They are not. Reza Aslan is someone I believe can reasonably be described as a liberal Muslim who advances reformist positions. He is also from the minority Shia sect. It’s true that Aslan is criticized and possibly even despised in certain quarters, but generally even Muslims who disagree with him are not inclined to denounce him as a “House Muslim.” He and Maajid Nawaz have openly clashed on Twitter, prompting Aslan to depart from his usual patient and polite demeanor in the following exchange:

Muscular liberals and “reformists” like Maajid Nawaz attempt to cast extremists not as extremists with deviant interpretations, but as the Muslim center of gravity. They also conflate social conservatism and religious piety with violent extremism. All Muslims on the Salafi path, for example, are generally smeared a violent “Islamist” terrorists, despite the fact only a tiny minority promote violence, and some of the most pious and conservative among the Salafis are apolitical (“Quietist”). By conflating social conservatism, religious piety, and violent jihad, muscular liberals and “reformist Muslims” like Maajid Nawaz can paint a broad swath of the Muslim community as “extremist” in the public imagination.

Muscular liberals attempt to thwart compromise by demanding radical reform that results in lockstep agreement with their own version of liberal secular values. Where the mainstream and Muslim centers of gravity are most at odds, muscular liberals and “reformist Muslims” use deliberate provocations to cause friction, whereas their liberal counterparts would attempt to downplay, negotiate and compromise in the interests of pluralism and social harmony. Liberals attempt to make space for Muslims, while muscular liberals seem to have taken to heart the words of their neocon idol Douglas Murray, who said, “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board…”

As a counterweight to the neocons, paleo-conservatives and liberals increasingly coordinate their efforts. They find common ground in their opposition to endless war, lopsided support for Israel, and the neoconservative stranglehold on Western governments in general. While “counter jihadists” often decry the alleged “leftist-Islamist alliance,” they seem to have missed the fact there is a conservative reclamation project that includes the non-interventionalist “old right” and some strains of libertarianism. There are conservatives, notably Christian Zionists, who are in the “counter jihadist” camp, but their influence seems to be waning. Unfortunately, I often see Muslims on social media decrying the “right wing” as if they are all more or less “counter jihadist” or white nationalists, but there are allies to be found on the right as well as the left. The excesses of neoconservatives and Zionists have made strange bedfellows, and they now face concerted opposition, which we can strengthen and leverage to our advantage.

Muscular liberals will accept only a toothless, apolitical version of Islam confined to the private sphere, and fully on board with both their domestic and foreign policies. Muscular liberals promote endless grand scale slaughter while demanding pacifism from Muslims, both as spectators at home, and as victims of neocon-inspired military assaults abroad. Maajid Nawaz downplays grievances against this lopsided, unfair narrative of monopoly violence, dismissing them as nothing more than weak apologetics aimed at shielding “Islamism” from proper criticism. Also ignored is the Western imperial strategy of starting fires and putting them out. The fact client-state Saudi Arabia has openly admitted to funding and controlling ISIS somehow escapes their attention, as they myopically focus on “Islamism” as the primary, if not sole culprit, behind the violent conflict we’re witnessing.

Muscular liberals who are vehemently opposed to an Islamic state anywhere in the world are nevertheless hardcore advocates of the “Jewish state” and its underpinning Zionist colonial-settler narrative. Maajid Nawaz also offers open support for Zionism, while simultaneously downplaying the Palestinian narrative and its importance to Muslims worldwide. Recently he has joined Benjamin Netanyahu in railing against the non-violent Palestinian advocacy group, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the alleged “global alliance of those on the Regressive-Left and Islamists on campuses across the West.”

Muscular liberals disparage true liberals as the “regressive left” and counter their efforts to achieve pluralism by thwarting compromise. Liberals still hold that individual rights extend to the point where they either infringe on someone else’s rights or are constrained by law. Muscular liberals want to encroach on that firmly delineated space by enforcing belief in a nebulous set of “liberal secular values,” which they police through harassment, shaming, and increasingly, the apparatus of the state. Their minions are in essence the same as the religious “morality police” they criticize in Muslim-majority countries, except they substitute their secular definitions of virtue and vice. Maajid Nawaz assists in their efforts by demonizing mainstream Muslims as a threatening and potentially violent fifth column, thus paving the way for muscular liberal strong-arm tactics.

Muscular liberals attract a few far right racists based on their shared hatred of Islam, but they have a shaky relationship with “counter jihadists” like Robert Spencer. Spencer occasionally criticizes Harry’s Place, and not surprisingly, also criticizes Maajid Nawaz. This intolerance toward muscular liberals and their pet reformers results from Spencer’s ideological purity and pristine logic. For him, Islam is an unmitigated evil. Therefore the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim, and the only appropriate disposition for Islam is eradication. Since Muscular liberals open up a tiny crack for supine sycophants who identify as Muslim and allow for some modicum of private religious expression, that puts them beyond the pale for Spencer. To appeal to Robert Spencer, Maajid Nawaz would need to announce his official departure from Islam and start playing the “ex-Muslim” card instead–a move many Muslims would find unsurprising.

Despite minor differences, there’s still considerable overlap between muscular liberals, “counter jihadists,” and “reformers” like Maajid Nawaz. They all seek to eliminate Islam as a competitor in the marketplace of ideas, but they differ in their final goal. Muscular liberals want to score a knockout blow against “regressive left” liberals and Muslims who oppose their domestic and foreign policies. Robert Spencer wants to effectively destroy Islam, at least in the West, if not globally. I’m not entirely sure what Maajid Nawaz wants, but possibly to pander to whoever will give him the spotlight and a fat paycheck.

Returning to the contrast between them, Reza Aslan has devoted his resources to fighting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry for many years. Some of his views are quite liberal, as evidenced by his appeal to Muslims to not only tolerate but “celebrate” same-sex marriage. While that particular appeal certainly garnered criticism in some quarters, he is by no means universally despised by Muslims in the same way as Maajid Nawaz–not even close. Promotion of secular liberal values *alone* is not what gets someone branded a “House Muslim.”

Genuine reform means either moving the Muslim center of gravity closer to the mainstream center of gravity, or negotiating a compromise when that proves impractical. Aslan was attempting to move the center of gravity with his appeal, but an alternative is to ask Muslims to respect the civil rights of those who identify as homosexual, even if they remain unwilling to offer a moral seal of approval. Maajid Nawaz attempts t0 thwart this compromise and cause friction by writing provocative articles, like this one asking why gay sex “scares” Muslims, complete with a lurid image of two men moving in for a kiss. Notice the article is published on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site, a New Atheist site devoted to demonizing Islam.

Another clue to Maajid Nawaz’s duplicitous nature is his curious flip-flopping. Nawaz told Sam Harris that there is no “correct” interpretation of the Qur’an as such, just different views of its meaning shared out amongst many people. As a reformist Muslim, we might reasonably expect him to propose this method of engagement. Yet when Mariam Hakim set out to counter ISIS’ religious justification for slavery, Nawaz responded by undermining her argument, pointing out, for example, that “all 4 schools” of Islamic jurisprudence agreed that slavery is “halal.” Nawaz asked Sam Harris to ignore the center of gravity when promoting himself as an effective “reformist Muslim,” but suddenly appealed to that very same center of gravity to effectively take the side of ISIS against Mariam Hakim. What could explain this incongruent behavior? 

Mariam Hakim was putting in jeopardy Nawaz’s unspoken objective of conflating ISIS extremism with Islam’s center of gravity. Her argument was that ISIS extremism is at odds with “the truth” according to the Qur’an. If Nawaz had really wanted to strengthen her case, he could have pointed out something helpful, like the fact that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his companions freed nearly 40,000 slaves! Instead he chose to portray slavery as religiously sanctioned by mainstream Islam. Not surprisingly, Nawaz’s arguments against Hakim’s piece echoed those of Robert Spencer and other “counter jihadists,” and I contend this is because their agendas overlap.

Maajid Nawaz is championed most enthusiastically by muscular liberals because his agenda is nearly identical to theirs. They are both waging war on the Muslim center of gravity.

It remains to be seen whether Muslims will be accepted on their own terms, as Muslims, within the classical liberal framework, or face a prolonged battle with muscular liberals determined to force surrender. My goal in introducing this conceptual framework is make it clear to everyone what we’re up against.

This post is part of the Talking Points initiative.


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