At a time when Islam is often equated with violence, attorney and author, Arsalan Iftikhar, is trying to shift the discourse with his new book, Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era. Waving high the flag of non-violence, Iftikhar aims to equip a new generation of Muslims with the tools and ideas that promote pacifism within Islam.
This is what Iftikhar had to say about the rich history and peacebuilding power of Islamic Pacifism.
You have committed yourself to the movement of Islamic Pacifism, and you wear the “Islamic Peacenik” badge of honor. What is this philosophy and how exactly do you define “pacifism”?
Arsalan Iftikhar: The basic ethical concept of pacifism is more than just ‘nonviolence’ and is something embodied quite perfectly within ‘The Golden Rule’ teachings of every major world religion today. Just like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi promoted pacifist teachings based on the central ‘Golden Rule’ teachings of their respective religions, I want people to know that Islamic Pacifism is a Muslim manifestation of that same pluralistic phenomena which can be found at the heart of every religion that teaches ‘The Golden Rule’ principle.
You are a human rights lawyer, author, radio commentator, public intellectual, and an American Muslim. How have these various capacities shaped your understanding of Islamic Pacificm?
Arsalan Iftikhar: Mahatma Gandhi once said that, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” Sadly, for many people in the world today, the concept of ‘Islamic Pacifism’ seems to be a paradox based on the newspaper headlines that we see in the global media every day. Since much of our modern global discourse around Islam and Muslims currently revolves around violence and extremism, I am hoping to shift the meta-narrative on Muslims by showing that Islam is not a monolithic entity and that there is a vast diversity within modern Muslim thought that is growing more vibrant each and every day.
You speak of a “Muslim Malaise” that has pervaded the Muslim world. What do you mean by this phrase?
Arsalan Iftikhar: As many Muslims know, there is a very famous verse from the Holy Qur’an which states that “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves.” (Chapter 13, Verse 11). In the general abstract, the basic concept behind the French word ‘malaise’ is usually understood to mean a general sense of ‘depression’ or ‘painful unease.’ Just looking back to the 20th century alone, it does not take a rocket scientist to see quite clearly that we Muslims have been the political laughing stock of the world (in terms of geopolitical issues) for most of recent historical memory. Sadly, we have passed along the ‘Muslim Malaise’ in terms of geopolitical baggage, unspeakable poverty, internal extremism, pandemic illiteracy, sectarian violence and astronomical infant mortality rates across the Muslim world. As the Qur’anic verse above states, we must change our own condition first by accepting our own shortcomings (and not simply blame orientalist colonial arrogance) before we can ever successfully advance forward as a global community into the 21st century.
Of the many sweeping reforms you push for in Islamic Pacifism, what practical steps do you recommend for gender equity and women’s rights?
Arsalan Iftikhar: Well, many Westerners are usually surprised to learn that four major countries (Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia) have already elected a female head-of-state. Secondly, we have to ensure that the legal systems of all Muslim-majority nations help to better protect the sociopolitical rights of women (and all other minority groups) in a much more comprehensive manner as well.
Religious freedom is a focal point in the peacebuilding discourse today. What are your hopes for achieving true religious freedom? Can you comment on the “Religious District” that you imagine for the world?
Arsalan Iftikhar: As a human rights lawyer, it is my belief that an attack on any house of worship should be considered to be an attack on all houses of worship. Many Muslim countries are doing a terrible job in protecting the rights of religious minorities (ie Christians in Pakistan, Bahai’s in Iran, etc) and it is absolutely imperative that all 57 Muslim-majority nations on earth adhere more strictly to absolute religious freedom as codified under international law and the United Nations Charter of 1945.
Web magazines like AltMuslimah work on encouraging dialogue and discussion from both internal and external lenses. How do you see us participating in Islamic Pacifism?
Arsalan Iftikhar: I think that AltMuslimah is doing a wonderful job of helping to shift the narrative on what it ‘means’ to be a Muslim woman in today’s 21st century global village. Just like my book seeks to dispel stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, I truly believe that places like AltMuslimah show the amazing diversity of female voices within the Muslim community as well. Whereas many Westerners have this silly notion that Muslim women are somehow ‘silent citizens’ in their communities, the wonderful work all of you are doing at AltMuslimah shows that it is our next generation of young Muslim thought leaders of all backgrounds who are going to claim our own narrative moving forward.
This book is not just purporting a thesis, but trying to persuade people to join a movement. Do you see it as a manual or a guide?
Arsalan Iftikhar: The purpose of my book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era is meant to start conversations everywhere. Within our own Muslim community, I want young millennial Muslim girls and boys around the world to know that you can proudly practice your religion while maintaining an ethical platform of nonviolence towards all other human beings. Similarly, for non-Muslims, I want this book to help shatter some stereotypes that people might have about Islam and Muslims. Even for someone who might associate Muslims with extremism, after reading this book, they will have to admit that they know of at least one Muslim pacifist as well.
You are currently a commentator on NPR’s “Barbershop” Segment on Fridays. It’s a roundtable on society, politics, and pop culture. What are other topics you discuss?
Arsalan Iftikhar: Working for National Public Radio (NPR) for the last five years has been one of the most amazing professional experiences of my life. The great thing about being a weekly NPR commentator is that I get to discuss the ‘news of the day’ and not only talking about ‘Muslim’ issues relating to religion and/or terrorism. So on any given week, our national broadcast discusses a wide range of topics, from the 2012 presidential election to our NBA playoff predictions to the silliness of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage.
There is, currently, an accepted profile of potentially radicalized males: Arab/Middle-Eastern looking, educated, and between the ages of 18 and 35. Even you, as the antithesis to violent radicalization, have been cast as such. How do you address this potentially dangerous label with regard to society and public policy?
Arsalan Iftikhar: Again, I think it is very important that people reclaim their own narratives in every regard. In terms of ‘racial profiling,’ we have to understand that the ‘flying while Muslim’ phenomenon was preceded by the ‘driving while black’ racial profiling adage during the 1980s. It becomes the responsibility of young Muslim men to help dispel this notion by committing to public service, bettering their families and maybe even writing books about global pacifism to help shatter these silly stereotypes that people have about Muslims in general.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, global media commentator and author of the book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era. You can LIKE his Facebook page: ArsalanIftikharFanPage and follow him on Twitter @TheMuslimGuy.