In a 2008 article, I expressed the intuition that the conditions of post-colonialism make it impossible for modern Muslims to articulate credible political stances without accusations of either betrayal of their essential Muslimness, or of engaging in duplicitous interpretations of Islam inviting charges of dissimulation (taqiyya). The recent controversy surrounding the International Institute of Islamic Thought’s (“IIIT”) decision to cancel its annual Al-Fārūqī Memorial Lecture at the 2019 meeting of the American Academy of Religions serves to remind us of the high stakes facing Muslims when they attempt to act as public intellectuals on topics at the intersection of law, religion, and national security.
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The IIIT had invited Dr Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, to deliver a lecture titled “Islam and Good Governance.” Presumably, that lecture would have tracked the content of Dr Khan’s recently published book with the same title. Despite the fact that his book expressly attempts to articulate an Islamic political theory that rejects the primacy of law and identity, Islamophobes nevertheless targeted him for attack, essentially accusing him of duplicity. Nonetheless, Dr Khan did not hesitate to deploy the “dangerous Islamist” card in his critique of a lengthy essay by a fellow academic and Muslim, Ovamir Anjum, and the Yaqeen Institute, a web-based platform that provides a forum for Muslims to act as public intellectuals on a broad range of issues facing Muslims. While the content of Dr Khan’s critique might or might not be persuasive, the fact that Dr Khan tagged various national security officials in his tweet, in an obvious attempt to alert them to his critique of Anjum and Yaqeen, expressly framed his disagreement with Anjum not as a scholarly debate, nor even a policy debate, but as a question of national and international security: the dangerous Dr Anjum and his sympathetic platform, the Yaqeen Institute, versus the reasonable Dr Khan on the other side. Unsurprisingly, Dr Khan’s decision to securitise what might have been a productive debate among Muslim public intellectuals triggered a backlash so severe that the IIIT felt compelled to rescind its invitation to him to deliver the 2019 al-Fārūqī Memorial Lecture. Indeed, even the Center for Global Studies, of which Dr Khan is a senior fellow, felt compelled to distance itself from his tweets.
In a thoroughly predictable turn of events, the very same Islamophobic Middle East Forum that had previously attacked Dr Khan as a duplicitous Islamist for his book, “Islam and Good Governance,” now saw the IIIT’s decision to rescind his invitation as just another example of Islamist intolerance. It even seemed to be willing to give Khan some legitimacy by associating him with the positively-valenced term “dissent,” which of course Muslims – “genuine” Muslims in the view of the Middle East Forum and its ilk – cannot countenance. Ironically, Dr Khan himself complained that the backlash his tweet triggered reflected, in part, white privilege, without addressing the primary issue that prompted the backlash: his attempt to securitise Muslim public intellectuals discussing theoretical questions of political philosophy.
Dr Khan’s critique of Dr Anjum’s piece, and his subsequent defence of his actions, were a virtuoso performance of the Islamophobia that strives to make it impossible for Muslim intellectuals to engage in public discourse. He defended himself publicly by invoking the “good Muslim” “bad Muslim” distinction: even as Dr Khan claimed, unironically, that Dr Anjum’s piece encourages others to believe that Muslims systematically engage in duplicitous public discourse (taqiyya) – even though Anjum’s piece was published on a publicly available website, available to anyone with enough web skills to do a Google search – he accused most Muslims of seeking to hide their true opinions from the government, while praising himself as the “unusual Muslim” who hopes that the government will read his work. His critique of Anjum’s piece is almost entirely based on his claim of how Muslims will read it, or more perhaps, how Muslims will not read it, not what it actually says.
One can boil down his critique of Dr Anjum’s essay to the following: invocation of the idea of the caliphate – no matter what its substance – can only have one result, namely, the promotion of apocalyptic political violence. Any reasonable reading of Dr Anjum’s essay would lead to the conclusion that Anjum’s essay is designed precisely to counter apocalyptic understandings of the caliphate. But more than that, Anjum’s argument seeks to subvert understandings of the caliphate that reduce it to some kind of universal superstate that seeks plenary jurisdiction over all of humanity. It engages a broad body of scholarship, Muslim and non-Muslim, historical, theological, normative political theory and positive political theory. Dr Anjum’s essay touches on so many topics that it is inconceivable that anyone, even someone sympathetic with his argument, could agree with every one of the theses he articulates there. What is inconceivable, however, is the notion that sentient human beings would read this essay as an ISIS recruiting manual. But that is precisely the inference regularly drawn by national security officials and what informs the popular but highly-problematic “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation that undergirds so much of domestic counter-terrorism policies in western democracies. Dr Khan seemingly embraces the notion that public discussion of specifically Muslim political concepts, such as the caliphate, functions as a gateway drug to terrorism. Accordingly, there is nothing valuable or useful that can be recovered from the entire history of Muslim learning because Muslims will always understand its teachings in an apocalyptic fashion. One wonders, given the belief that Muslims are incapable of rational political thought, why Dr Khan believes the Medina Charter can function as some kind of magical elixir to wake Muslims from their political irrationalism.
Ironically, of course, the attack on Dr Khan as a duplicitous Muslim, and his subsequent attempt to rehabilitate himself, not only by distancing himself from plainly transparent Muslim political theorising, but also by securitising it, exemplifies perfectly the dilemma facing would be Muslim political theorists today: one is either inauthentic and duplicitous, or one is a dangerous Islamist. There is still no public space for Muslim political theory. And if national security folks are listening, my advice to them is to secure for Muslims the right to participate fully and equally in the public sphere. Unless Muslims can safely and articulate political theory without the threat of government persecution, we should not be surprised if apocalyptic political theories gain currency among Muslim populations.
 Mohammad Fadel, “The True, the Good and the Reasonable,” n. 36 (available at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/89231/1/Fadel%20The%20Good.pdf) (last viewed, Dec. 5, 2019).