Muslims and Liberal Pluralism — are they at odds with each other?

The juxtaposition of Islam as the polar opposite of the values held dear in the West — freedom, equality, and tolerance — is not consistent with history.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

U.S. citizens living in Japan and others in the international community protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban near the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan.

Arif Rafiq Arif Rafiq is a fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He is writing a book on the history of Muslims in New York City. @arifcrafiq

The “Muslim question” is one strand that unites the new wave of intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic. Brexit, Trumpism, and the resurgence of the far-right in Europe are enterprises built on fear. Fear of the Muslim migrant or refugee, flooding into Western cities and towns and changing their way of life. Fear of the “Muslim terrorist”, with grand designs of bringing down the West by a thousand cuts.

But amid this rising xenophobia, another fascinating trend is emerging. There’s a new generation of progressive, practicing Muslims who have become the torchbearers of western, postmodern pluralism.

Last June, London mayor Sadiq Khan, while observing the Ramadan fast, led the city’s gay pride parade and slammed the pro-Brexit vote. He reassured Europeans living in the city that they “are welcome” and their presence in London “will not change as a result of this referendum.”
While white English and Welsh hyper nationalists aim to pull Britain away from Europe, Khan, and many other sons and daughters of former colonial subjects, are defending the postwar idea of an integrated Europe. Khan, in fact, aims to build bridges in all directions. His first act coming into office this year was to participate in London’s annual Holocaust memorial.

Something quite similar is brewing in my home of New York. The old vanguard of the Muslim community leadership in New York City is being replaced by a younger lot that has endorsed uber-progressives like Bernie Sanders, Bill deBlasio, and Zephyr Teachout. They include hijab-clad Muslim women who support abortion rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and LGBT equality.

Last year , I followed Ali Najmi, a Queens lawyer and activist, as he ran for the Democratic nomination in an open New York City Council seat. Najmi campaigned as an ardent supporter of Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights — to his own detriment. While his district is heavily democratic, it is also socially conservative. Najmi’s opponents used his support for both police reform and gay rights against him, contributing to his loss.

As we drove through the leafy streets of eastern Queens, I asked Najmi why he supported LGBT rights when it served no political benefit in his part of Queens. He said that the LGBT community has stood by the side of the city’s Muslims as they faced threats to their civil liberties from local and federal law enforcement.
 

Najmi listed Daniel Dromm, a gay man and city councilman from the heavily Muslim and South Asian Jackson Heights, as one of the most vocal defenders of New York’s Muslims. He recalled Dromm holding a sign that proclaimed, “I am a Muslim, too!” at a protest against the McCarthyite hearings held by Congressman Peter King on “Muslim radicalization” in 2011.

For Najmi and others like him, the path toward progressivism began with these post-9/11 alliances to defend Muslim civil liberties. And it has since evolved into a broader struggle for equal rights for all.

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