In the Age of Trump, Muslims Must Learn How to Communicate Again
by Muddassar Ahmed
President Donald J Trump has not only changed politics, he has changed how the world—particularly the Muslim world—views America. But the most significant change is something more subtle, yet potentially much more transformational for all 1.9 billion of us. Trump has changed how we see ourselves. As well as challenging America—and by implication the West’s—assumptions about itself and what it stands for, he has acted as a mirror for all our issues, faults and hopes.
Much is said by those appropriately qualified (and sometimes the less qualified) about how Islamic systems of Theology, Jurisprudence and Law cannot be allowed to stagnate in a 21st century, world. This is true: not only do we confront different challenges than the Companions, we also face different issues to Ottoman Caliphs. As the Prophet Muhammed said: “Surely, Allah will send for this Ummah at the beginning of every century a person (or persons) who will renew (mujaddid) its religion for it.”
But it is not only our religious tradition that must be infused with the spirit of Ijtihad and Tajdid (independent reasoning and renewal); it is our ability to communicate, with the wider world, with each other, and even within our own selves. I’m not just talking about Public Relations (my chosen profession) although this is the most obvious manifestation of the ability to communicate at the macrocosm. The “communication revolution” must begin at the microcosm, with how each one of us relates to our religious inheritance.
After all, the Qur’an (49:13) tells us: “O humankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another.”
How then do we go about this core Islamic principle of ‘knowing one another?’
The primary struggle for any Muslim is to understand, at the personal level, what being a Muslim means. What are the spiritual, moral and intellectual tools our ancestors in faith developed? Who are their present-day guardians? And how can we learn them and apply them today?
It is these tools—the teaching of not necessarily what to think, but of how to think—that many of us are in need of. And our educational institutions, whether they be religious or secular in declared purpose, must protect these tools, rather than merely transmitting an ossified tradition by rote learning or blind following, a habit repeatedly condemned by the Qur’an. But the individual level is just the beginning of the “Muslim Comms Revolution”. One of the most damaging faultlines in many Muslim societies is the generational divide. The Muslim world is the envy of more atomised, individualistic societies for its extended familial and communal relationships that transcend age. It is common in Cairo or Karachi to see three generations of a family sat together in a cafe; less common in London or Los Angeles.
But new media has started to change this. Across many Muslim-majority nations, a generation has emerged immersed in a parallel online culture that is completely alien to their parents. At worst, some of them are at risk of being radicalised online. This has led to the idea the Muslim world’s “youth bulge”—a somewhat negative term for what should be the source of optimism and hope in societies with young, ambitious populations. And that source of optimism can be preserved if within families, efforts are made to bridge the intergenerational divide. And once families can communicate within themselves, they need to communicate with each other—including across sectarian boundaries. One of the tragedies of the last 15 years is that sectarianism has become an article of faith for too many Muslims, particularly in the Middle East. Following a particular school of thought or spiritual tradition has been weaponised as part of cynical geopolitical strategies. Within the new generation, there are some who know nothing other than virulent hatred of fellow Muslims who come from a slightly different background.
This is even true in countries like Iraq and Lebanon where intermarriage between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a norm. It is only through an awareness of the nuances of each school of thought, and an ability to communicate them beyond the shallow tribalism of identity politics, that Muslim societies can rebuild.
While it might seem attractive to hope that the Muslim Comms revolution is just about Muslims talking to each other—it is about much more that: it is about us communicating effectively to those of other faiths. This need is most pronounced in countries where Muslims are a minority, like those in Europe and North America, whilst not forgetting the less media savvy Muslim minorities in Russia, India and China. Although the experiences of Muslims in Detroit are in some ways very different to those in Delhi, there are some important shared needs between all Muslim minorities, and indeed all minorities.
That is why we need more forums (such as the OIC) for those different communities to meet with each other, and to meet with host majority communities. Although it is important for Muslims, wherever they are located, to be allowed to simply get on with their lives, there is an important “comms role”, especially for minorities, which cannot be ignored.
The reality is that every Muslim living in a minority community has an ambassadorial role. Indeed, globally speaking, all Muslims are in a minority community of 1.9 billion, in a world of 7.6 billion. So we are all in a civilisational discourse, and it is within this grand context that the Muslim Comms Revolution is urgently required. Although the hypothesis of the “Clash of Civilisations” has been disproved (as the largest conflicts in the world are, once again, wars between nations with fundamentally similar ideologies and even comparable cultures) there are still basic psychosocial needs of identity, competition and territory. These needs are being skilfully exploited by populists of different stripes, including the self-declared Islamic ones.
This is one of the things holding back Muslim world communications. As individuals, we can only communicate effectively with friends, family and co-workers once we know ourselves. Likewise, the global Muslim community can only tell our story to the world once we know our own strengths and weakness, opportunities and limitations. Too much time is spent in the Muslim world either fantasising about a utopian future or idealising an imagined past. The Muslim fetish for historical dramas and populist eschatology—with or without scriptural basis—are both manifestations of our denial of reality. This comes at a cost. When Muslims—either individually, or at the governmental, or even intergovernmental level—communicate, we never do it as effectively as we could. Various Muslim governments have spent millions setting up news organisations with little credibility, or paying for broadcast advertising campaigns that are so one-sided that they violate broadcasting regulations in the countries they target.
We cannot respond to President Trump if we are guilty of the very excesses and distortions of which his detractors accuse him.
Muddassar leads Unitas Communications, where he’s lead on projects for the United Nations, the Arab League, US State Department and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), amongst others. He also founded, and is the currently the President of, the Concordia Forum, an annual retreat for Senior Western Muslim leaders.