In the wake of this year’s MLK Day, a colleague shared with me a short sermon that was recently delivered in a church and asked what I thought about it. As I read the sermon, I realized that I had rather strong opinions about the ideas expressed in the sermon, and that I would very much like to share those opinions, not only with the colleague who asked for them but with anyone who might be interested in the topic. I also realized it wasn’t going to be enough to just say “I don’t like it,” but that I would also have to back up that judgment with some arguments and evidence. Hence this lengthy post.Read More
This post has been long overdue!
Even as I wrote “Iftar at the White House” (1) on August 11, I knew I wanted to write a sequel—for there were several things that needed to be clarified regarding the position I was taking. At that time, I was pretty sure I would be able to write the sequel over the next few days. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Now that more than two months have passed, I can barely recall exactly what I wanted to say!
Blogs usually contain commentaries on current affairs, and it is fair to say that my original topic is no longer “current.” For all practical purposes, the issue of American Muslims participating in a White House iftar is now ancient history. As such, I doubt that it is of much interest to anyone anymore. The topic is already obsolete by contemporary standards—like Windows 3.1—and therefore any further discussion would probably seem quaint and pointless to most readers.
Yet, there are larger issues at stake—issues that cannot be rendered obsolete or irrelevant by the passage of time. Instead of trying to recall what I had originally planned to write in this post, I would therefore try to say something useful about those larger issues.
Let me reiterate that I had no intention of issuing a fiqhi ruling when I wrote the original post, nor did I mean to condemn anyone for their participation; rather, I was expressing my sense that there was a deep-seated contradiction in the whole affair that somehow seemed to escape our attention. What I tried to do in that post, and what I am trying to do now, is to shed some light on that contradiction in order to make it more visible.
Why did I think there was something “wrong” with some American Muslims attending an iftar dinner at the White House? I promise I will answer this question, but I can’t give an honest answer without digressing for a little while. This is because I don’t think we can deal with this question in the best possible way without first dealing with another, more fundamental question: How does one know whether a particular choice is moral or immoral? There are many ways of answering this question, and I have no reason to reject any of those methods or theories. For my present purposes, however, I think it would be most beneficial to draw upon the approach that Max Weber described in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). According to Weber:
We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcomes in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the “foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.
In this passage, I think Weber is making the following points:
1. There are two types of actions: (a) actions that we do out of habit or routine, and (b) actions that we undertake consciously and deliberately, believing them to be justified on ethical grounds. Only these latter ones are “ethically oriented” actions.
2. There are two main standards that we can use to judge our actions on ethical grounds. These may be called (a) the ethic of ultimate ends and (b) the ethic of responsibility.
3. The ethic of ultimate ends can be summed up in the following principle: Always, and under all circumstances, you must choose only that action which you know to be right, and pay no heed to the consequences that may follow.
4. The ethic of responsibility can be summed up in the following principle: You must choose only that action which will lead to the most desirable results, for you are fully responsible for the foreseeable consequences of your actions.
5.In any given case, I can either follow the ethic of ultimate ends or the ethic of responsibility, but not both at the same time.
Take, for example, the issue of truth-telling vs. lying. In theory, everyone agrees that truth-telling is moral while lying is immoral. But what if I find myself in a situation where telling the truth will lead to an innocent person’s persecution or even death? Suppose, for instance, that I am a French Catholic living under German occupation during WW-II, and I am hiding a Jewish person in my attic to save him from arrest and deportation. If Nazi soldiers were to knock at my door and ask whether I am trying to protect any Jews, what am I supposed to do? If I believe truth-telling to be the right thing, then, according to the ethic of ultimate ends, I am obligated to tell the truth to the Nazi soldiers, regardless of the consequences.
As Weber notes, the ethic of ultimate ends is not “identical with a lack of responsibility.” Following the ethic of ultimate ends does not mean that I am acting irresponsibly; rather, I see myself as responsible only for my choices and not for the choices that other people make. Telling the truth or lying is a decision that I must make myself, and therefore only I am responsible for making that choice. What the soldiers do or don’t do is their choice, and only they are responsible for making it. From this viewpoint, I am not responsible for any harm that my Jewish neighbor may suffer at the hands of the Nazis; rather, the individual soldiers will be responsible for any such harm.
But if I follow the ethic of responsibility, I am going to view myself as responsible not only for my own actions but also for all the consequences of my actions—direct and indirect—that I am able to foresee. I know exactly what the Nazis would do to the man hiding in my attic, and so I see myself as responsible for the harm that he is likely to suffer as a result of my truth-telling. Since the foreseeable consequences are unacceptable to me, the ethic of responsibility requires that I ought to lie to the soldiers. Again, this does not mean that the ethic of responsibility is identical with a lack of commitment to ultimate ends. I do believe that truth-telling is a moral virtue, but in this case I am willing to act immorally in order to ensure a desirable outcome.
The above example may suggest that the ethic of responsibility is somehow superior to the ethic of absolute ends. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Weber, neither ethic is inherently better than the other. In effect, every individual person must make his/her own moral choices according to his/her own conscience. Whether a particular choice is based on the ethic of responsibility or the ethic of absolute ends is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the choice is “right.” A great deal depends on the nature of the particular circumstances in which the choice is made, as well as who is making the choice.
To clarify the last point, let’s take another example. Yasir and Summayya, along with their son Ammar, were three early converts to Islam. They were particularly vulnerable to persecution because of their low social status in Makkah. Islamic sources report that all three were brutally tortured, their tormentor demanding that they renounce their new faith and return to the pagan beliefs of their ancestors. Clearly, one of the highest moral virtues for these Muslims was to remain steadfast despite all the pain and suffering. After weeks of torture, Yasir and Summayya were killed by their tormentor while Ammar saved his life by renouncing his faith. A Qur’anic verse (16:106) later absolved Ammar of any wrongdoing, since he was forced to renounce his faith in God even though his heart was in the right place.
What is a person supposed to do in a situation depicted above? The conduct of Yasir and Summayya is no doubt exemplary, representing the highest possible standard of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness that any human being can demonstrate. In contrast, what Ammar did seems to fall short of that standard—and yet the Qur’an insists that he did nothing wrong when he renounced his faith only to save himself from torture.
This example shows, far more clearly than the first one, that the choice between the two ethical approaches is neither obvious nor unambiguous. Yasir and Summayya followed the ethic of absolute ends—holding on to their faith and refusing to lie, regardless of the consequences. Ammar followed the ethic of responsibility—lying about his beliefs in order to save his life. Since we can defend both approaches as ethically sound, it would seem that the individual person must consider his/her values and the particulars of the given situation before making a particular choice. Some times, for some purposes, and/or for some people, the “right” answer is found in the ethic of absolute ends. At other times, for other purposes, and/or for other people, the “right” answer lies in the ethic of responsibility.
With this background, I think I am ready to tackle the original question.
Should American Muslims participate in the civic and political affairs of their country? Yes, by all means. Should American Muslims maintain channels of communication with local and national authorities? Yes, certainly. Should American Muslims work with the White House in order to ensure that their civil rights are protected and that they have a voice in the policy-making process? Yes, definitely. Should American Muslims share an iftar dinner with a leader who is responsible for killing countless innocent Muslims, including children, and who is very likely a war criminal? Well ….
If you were to ask me, I would choose the ethic of absolute ends in this case and give a single, straight-forward, and unapologetic answer: no.
But if you were to consider the matter for yourself, in light of your own values, your own priorities, and your own assessment of the needs of American Muslims, it is certainly possible that you would decide to follow the ethic of responsibility. In that case, you may not see anything particularly problematic or questionable in enjoying an iftar dinner with President Obama and other dignitaries.
If you were to answer the above question with a yes, I can certainly understand your reasoning. But do you understand mine?
It started innocently enough.
It was late last night and I was looking at my Facebook news feed. I noticed a picture posted by someone who was attending the Iftar dinner at the White House. I knew this happens every year, and not seeing anything unusual in the picture (except the very large number of “likes”), I quickly scrolled down. Few minutes later, I decided to glance through my Twitter timeline, where I saw the following tweet:
I confess that I was shocked, but only for a brief moment. Of course, this was a valid critique. Why didn’t I think of this when I first saw that picture on Facebook? I felt a slight disappointment for not noticing the moral implications of attending a White House Iftar. I knew I had to atone for my complacency.
How would I respond?
First, even though I believed that the moral critique contained in the tweet by @irevolt was powerful and valid, I could also anticipate that at least some Muslims would become easily distracted by the quasi-fiqhi tone of the tweet and, therefore, they would fail to appreciate the real point. (I’ll have more to say about this issue in my next blog post.)
Second, I decided that I would not say anything too negative or harsh about the folks who attended the White House Iftar. I knew some of them personally, and I knew they were not bad people by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I knew that according to the usual criteria they were far better Muslims than I was. Clearly, I had no reason whatsoever to doubt their faith, and I was certainly not going to claim that I was somehow better than they.
Third, I thought about their possible motives. Why would they do such a thing? Since I had already decided not to attribute any immoral or hypocritical motive to them, the only option was to assume that they didn’t know the full implications of their choice. I had to assume they were sincere. I must be as gentle and generous with them as possible, because they couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. We all make mistakes while having the best of intentions.
Fourth, I tried to put myself in the shoes of those who attended the White House Iftar. What would I had done if I was in their position? I decided that the only justification for visiting the President would be to speak the inconvenient truth to him. But that required courage. Did I have that courage? I thought about a recent experience in which I had failed to speak an inconvenient truth in front of people who were far less powerful than the U.S. President; I had remained quiet out of sheer cowardice. I decided that I didn’t have the courage needed to speak the inconvenient truth in a formal White House dinner, where such behavior would also have required breaking all etiquette and protocols, leading to rather unpleasant consequences. I knew I had no reason to demand that other folks must have the courage that I lacked.
Fifth, if I didn’t have the courage to do the right thing, what would have been my options if I were actually invited to the White House? I could have attended the Iftar with the President, followed the required etiquette and protocols, and afterwards enjoyed a celebrity status among my peers. But this would have injured my soul and done serious violence to my conscience. Therefore, lacking the necessary courage to rock the boat but also wanting to preserve my soul and conscience, the only thing I could have done under those circumstances would have been to decline the invitation. Sorry, I would have said to the White House, but I can’t come to your dinner.
In view of the thought process described above, I hope that the tweets I sent out would make better sense:
To summarize, here are the main points I’ve been trying to make:
1. It was not a good idea for any conscientious American Muslim to attend an Iftar in Barack Obama’s White House during Ramadan 2012. The reasons for this should be obvious to anyone who has not been living in a cave, but I will list them anyway in my next blog post.
2. Without questioning the faith or sincerity of a fellow Muslim, the least that can be said about his/her participation in the above program is that it must have been the result either of ignorance or a lack of critical reflection.
3. Cowardice in itself is not a moral defect. If you lack the courage to speak the inconvenient truth in the face of the powerful, you can do the next best thing and avoid being in the company of the powerful.
Comments are welcome, as always 🙂