The Future of the Faith
Who will represent the voice of moderate Islam in the 21st century?
June 13, 2008
Farhan Latif always knew it was only a matter of time before the slow-burning anger would erupt. His conservative Muslim enemies had made their intentions clear to him. They had sent threatening e-mails and left menacing messages on his cell phone.
In their eyes, Farhan’s ideas were criminal. The Western world might call him a moderate Muslim, but his foes thought he was an apostate, luring young Muslims away from the faith.
The day Farhan feared came in September 2004. As he was about to enter his modern apartment in Dearborn, about one mile from his university, three young men jumped him and pushed him to the ground.
They beat and kicked him without saying a word. Farhan recognized one of his attackers — the guy did not bother to hide his face under a mask.
“Why are you doing this?” Farhan cried, trying to shield his face from their blows.
The attackers did not reply. Within minutes, they got back into their car and tried to run Farhan over before they sped away. He managed to avoid the oncoming wheels by rolling away just in time.
As he rested in the hospital, nursing a swollen head, several cracked ribs and a broken arm, Farhan was depressed more than shocked over the beating. It was one thing to endure the daily blows from the non-Muslims who criticized Islam. But now he was in a battle with his fellow believers.
“I fight against everything people say against my religion every day, on television, on the radio, everywhere,” Farhan remarked, reflecting on the incident later. “I was not so much scared when this happened but sad that fellow Muslims would do this.”
Months before the attack, in the spring of 2004, Farhan was elected president of the Muslim Students’ Association at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus. In a short time, he revolutionized the association, making it more attractive to a majority of Muslim students on campus — many of whom had refused to join when the conservatives were in charge.
Farhan and the new leaders decided there would no longer be radical imams unleashing hate speech at Friday prayers. All lecturers would be required to follow certain rules. They lifted the ban that prevented women without headscarves from joining the association.
All Muslims would be welcome, no matter their political ideas or their sect — minority Shiites, often scorned for their separate ways and different approach to the faith, were just as acceptable as the Sunni student majority.
Farhan organized events to show how the three monotheistic faiths have much in common. A drama called “Children of Abraham” made its debut before the Muslim association.
None of this sat well with members of Dearborn’s Muslim Students’ Association who were either radical Salafis or affiliated with the Hizb ut Tahrir al-Islami — the Islamic Party of Liberation.
The movement — a clandestine, radical Sunni Islamic group that is banned in several countries around the world — advocates the replacement of individual Muslim governments with a single caliphate governed under a strict reading of the sharia.
The students who are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami share a common creed that calls for strict adherence to the Koran and the rejection of applying human reason and logic when interpreting the Islamic holy texts.
Before Farhan had arrived on the campus, radical students had turned the Muslim Students’ Association into a virtual training camp for conservative ideologues. Under the influence and guidance of an imam at a Dearborn mosque, the students believed their fellow Muslims were straying dangerously from the faith.
In their eyes, being a dedicated Muslim meant that men should work to pressure the U.S. government to change its policies in the Islamic world, Muslim women should wear headscarves and Muslims should have little to do with Jews and Christians.
This was the crux of the ideological battle the Salafi students and those belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami were determined to win against Farhan and his friends and allies.
Farhan’s parents pleaded with him to stop his activism on campus. Farhan usually listened to them. He had come to the United States alone in 2000 hoping to attend medical school.
A cousin in Dearborn offered to help him, so Farhan left his parents at their current home in Qatar. For years, his family had traveled from country to country, as his father pursued a career as a Pakistani diplomat and later a lawyer.
They were often strangers in a new land, and the bond among them remained strong even as Farhan became more independent. Farhan’s father’s expertise in sharia law offered Farhan a scholarly and enlightened view of the Islamic tradition, putting him at odds with the students from the Hizb ut-Tahrir — who blindly followed the ideas of a radical imam.
Other students, if beaten for their beliefs, might have given up. But Farhan and his close group of friends inside the student association wanted to press on with their ideas — no matter the cost. Together, they had been the leaders of the MSA at a nearby college for two years before enrolling at the University of Michigan in Dearborn.
During that time, they watched literally from across the street, the distance from their university to the University of Michigan, as the radical students drove more measured Muslims away from the MSA there. Farhan and his friends worked on a strategy for transforming the organization from a distance — even before they were elected to lead it.
They believed they had the support of a majority of Muslim students and others on campus, and they were not going to surrender to violence and intimidation. For many educated, upwardly mobile young Muslims, the student associations are defining how to live as a devout Muslim in a secular and often hostile society.
The racial politics at the core of black Islam and the isolationism of the early-twentieth-century prairie Muslims both ended in failure — a fate today’s believers are determined to avoid.
As this second generation of Muslims becomes more attached to their distinct religious identity, the student associations are rapidly becoming the main platform for debating religious and social issues — ranging from whether women should be veiled to how much contact Muslim Americans should have with non-Muslims.
The battle is being waged not only by schools of thought at either extreme of the ideological spectrum — but also among students who would not define themselves as either progressive or conservative Muslims.
Since September 11, Muslim student leaders have found themselves in great demand. They are often called upon to explain the basics of Islam to campus audiences of hundreds of students.
With the spotlight unexpectedly focused on what was a closed, sectarian world, when asked to explain publicly what it is to be a Muslim in the modern world, many young student leaders have risen to the occasion.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from MECCA AND MAIN STREET by Geneive Abdo. Copyright 2006 Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.
When asked to explain publicly what it is to be a Muslim in the modern world, many young student leaders have risen to the occasion.
Student associations are rapidly becoming the main platform for debating religious and social issues — from veiling to contact with non-Muslims.
Farhan organized events to show how the three monotheistic faiths have much in common.
For many educated, upwardly mobile young Muslims, the student associations are defining how to live as a devout Muslim in a secular and often hostile society.
The racial politics at the core of black Islam and the isolationism of the early-twentieth-century Muslims both failed — a fate today's believers are determined to avoid.
Foreign Policy Analyst, The Century Foundation Geneive Abdo is a foreign policy analyst at The Century Foundation, a Washington and New York-based think tank. Her current research focuses on contemporary Iran and political Islam. She was formerly the Liaison Officer for the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Before joining […]