Thursday, September 21, 2006

Secular Muslims, Say What?

Stereotyping Rankles Silent, Secular Majority of American Muslims

Khalid Pervaiz is an American Muslim, an investment banker in Los Angeles with two young daughters. On the door of his home is a Christmas wreath made by his 7- year-old, and in the living room is a Christmas tree with an angel on top. His daughters go to the mosque, or masjid, on Sundays for classes in the Koran, but Mr. Pervaiz himself goes once a year on the major Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr.

"I had the privilege of being exposed to other religions from the very beginning, so I wasn't so fixed on the idea that Islam is the only way to live," Mr. Pervaiz said. "Every once in a blue moon I will go for my Friday prayers, but I still think I'm a good Muslim. If I don't go and pray five times a day, I don't think I'm less of a Muslim. I'm just not a practicing, going-to-the-masjid Muslim."

In behavior and belief, Mr. Pervaiz is among an overlooked silent majority of Muslims in America. They call themselves moderates, but another way to describe them is as cultural Muslims, akin to the assimilated cultural Jews who identify as Jewish, eat gefilte fish and celebrate Passover, but are for the most part not observant and not affiliated with a synagogue.

The cultural Muslims may attend prayers in mosques once a year on Id al-Fitr, not unlike Christians who make it to church only on Easter or Jews who attend services only on the High Holy Days. They may fast intermittently in the monthlong holiday of Ramadan, but they do not pray regularly. And yet they consider themselves good Muslims.


Generally, a Muslim is defined by faith in the religion of Islam; however, in the modern world there are religiously unobservant, agnostic or atheist individuals who still identify with the Muslim culture due to family background or personal experiences. This group is best described as cultural Muslims, since they are identified by association with a Muslim community rather than Islamic faith or rituals. Malise Ruthven discusses the term in Islam: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000) as follows:

There is, however, a secondary meaning to 'Muslim' which may shade into the first. A Muslim is one born to a Muslim father who takes on his or her parents' confessional identity without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with the faith, just as a Jew may describe him- or herself as 'Jewish' without observing the Halacha. In non-Muslim societies, such Muslims may subscribe to, and be vested with, secular identities. The Muslims of Bosnia, descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, are not always noted for attendance at prayer, abstention from alcohol, seclusion of women and other social practices associated with believing Muslims in other parts of the world. They were officially designated as Muslims to distinguish them from (Orthodox) Slavs and (Catholic) Croats under the former Yugoslavian communist regime. The label 'Muslim' indicates their ethnicity and group allegiance, but not necessarily their religious beliefs. In this limited context (which may apply to other Muslim minorities in Europe and Asia), there may be no contradiction between being Muslim and being atheist or agnostic, just as there are Jewish atheists and Jewish agnostics... It should be noted, however, that this secular definition of Muslim (sometimes the terms 'cultural Muslim' or 'nominal Muslim' are used) is very far from being uncontested.

Secular Muslims? Cultural Muslims? Skeptical Muslims? Atheist Muslims? Who knew?

Maybe we really are cousins.

I wonder, is there a Muslim Reconstructionist movement in the works?


Resh Lakish said...

There was also a massive kerfuffle when an egalitarian prayer service was held at the big mosque at E. 96th St. in NYC a couple years back, where there was a female muezzin. This led to terrible backlash against the "reformers", including threats of violence.

Do you think one day there will be peaceful, "tikkun olam"-style Reform Muslims?

Mikha'el said...

There are a lot of Muslims and Muslim-Americans who fit this profile (I know quite a few), some are simply like "cultural", "three time a year" Reform Jews who do not delve or think deeply about their religion, neither its positive nor negative aspects, but still have a Muslim identity, in other words, they are neither particularly "engaged" with their "Muslimness" and there main concern is getting ahead in life and succeeding in AMerica, focused on professional success and family and their kids' education, like a lot of middle-class Americans of all backgrounds,however, its my observation that many of those in that type of Muslim group, while not strictly religious in terms of following Shari'a in an "Orthodox" way nor even very knowledgeable about the intricacies of their religious doctrine, in terms of knowing what the Koran and Hadith says will give "lip service" to saying acknowledging that the Koran/Sunna/Hadith as interpreted by the traditional clerics is the "correct way.". I think these types of assimilaited North American Muslims are more similar to "masorati" Israelis of Sephardic and Mizrachi background who are not shomer mitzvot, but still acknowledge Orthodox rabbinic authority as "authoritative" and "correct", than to secular or nominally Conservative or Reform American-Jewish laity, (usually Ashkenazi) who are cultural Jews with strong Jewish identity like their Muslim counterparts, but will take great exception to the idea that Orthopraxy or Orthodoxy is the way to go. You know, those people are Jewish because they go to Zabars and read the Times and live on the UWS. On the other hand, I have an Egyptian friend who is pretty well-versed in Islam (as far as I can tell) and hwo sees himself as sort of a reform Muslim, he is not an "am haaretz" (in Muslim terms-at least as fas as I can tell) and he reads the text critically and is a serious Muslim who espouses "progressive" values. People like him are rare. People who think like him are rare, one famous case is the Egyptian prof. Nasser abu Zeid (who my friend corresponds with) and who was tried for heresy by an Islamic court in Egypt because he used a modern textual criticism of the Quran (apikorsut) and then there is Irshad Manji, who is a Muslim lesbian feminist (and very pro-Zionist by the way). I don't think she has the clout of being considered a serious Muslim thinker for her ideas ot get any sympathy in the Muslim world. The problem is, even if there are a lot of Muslims who are moderate and peaceful and placid by inclination, they always get shouted down and/or threatned by the militants. Even if we have our own mishigoyyim, most of the worst that they do is write pashkevilin and ask for a cherem on someone, they don't want to chop off your head!

Baal Habos said...

OrthoPrax, Do you think there's also a blogger who calls himself Shariaprax?

Gadol HaDoros (Yisrael Asper) said...

This isn't really surprising. In Spain Jews were converted to Catholicism by the edge of a sword. In Portugal the King shlepped everyone to the water. He wanted to have it both ways to become the soninlaw of King Ferdinand (who had Jews in his family ancestry way back when) and Queen Isabella and to have all those Jews in his Kingdom so those who would leave he simply shlepped to the water. That didn't mean anything in terms of an actual conversion of heart. Religion is also an official labeling system. To the extent that the only moderates in all this terrorism stuff are people who don't take their religion seriously to that extent it's not good.