We have published quite a bit in recent months about the changing face of American Islam. As David Swindle points out in his recent Islamist Watch article on Islamic seminaries, a new network of Islamist clerics, who have managed to put aside powerful theological divisions, have been busy establishing new institutions and training the next generation of Muslim youth.
Many of these clerics, whose own teachers were known for their asceticism, now command enormous social media followings, run highly-stylized YouTube campaigns, and take Instagram 'selfies'. And while they continue to advocate ideas as radical and dangerous as those offered by previous generations of Islamists, they have also accepted a curious infusion of progressivist ideas into their activities and rhetoric.
As we explained in an essay several months ago, these changes have alarmed extant traditionalists within American Islam, who fear that the decision by some prominent clerics to embrace sections of the Left is deeply self-destructive, and that these modernists risk convincing many young Muslims that progressivist social justice causes, based around gender and sexuality, are somehow an acceptable component of the Islamic movement.
Islamist clerics in the U.S. increasingly incorporate self-help into their activities and rhetoric.
There is, however, a third peculiar phenomenon of the new American Islamism: vacuous self-help rhetoric.
A recent example comes from the leading cleric Omar Suleiman, who, on behalf of AlMaghrib Institute, is advertising a course on "Finding Your Purpose and Maximizing Your Spiritual Potential." Suleiman and AlMaghrib officials will be joined by clerics and preachers including:
- Suleiman Hani, on the "role of death in self-actualization";
- Omar Husain on "your spiritual personality";
- Nasser Karimian on "living the moment"; and
- Mariam Amir, on "angels in your corner."
Admittedly, every religious sect, of every faith, includes preachers who offer similar hackneyed sermons. But AlMaghrib and Omar Suleiman are leaders of the modern American Salafi movement. They are are the most recognizable names within American Islam, and they work with some of the most important Sunni clerics from around the world.
Just a few years ago, AlMaghrib and Omar Suleiman's lectures were more often centered around more serious theological lectures about the "evolution of fiqh [jurisprudence]" or discussions of the intricacies of sharia banking and the issue of usury.
It is important to note there is no evidence that their embrace of bromides is also an embrace of moderation. Despite all the public self-help seminars and progressivist activism, in more private settings, the extremism remains.
One of the seminar speakers, Suleiman Hani, has claimed that "freedom of speech" is a "facade of a tool" used to stifle "objective discussion" of the "Holocaust or Jews."
As for Suleiman, in recent years, he has denounced homosexuality as a "disease" and approvingly cited the punishment for the "people that practiced sodomy." He has warned young women, without condemnation, that if "you make yourself promiscuous or you open yourself up to a relationship," then a "jealous Dad ... kills you and he kills the guy."
Suleiman's other organization, the Yaqeen Institute, recently published a curriculum for private schools that manages to mix lessons about a "roadmap" for "eating and drinking mindfully" with more familiar Islamist warnings that civilizations which permit fornication will collapse amid "incest, bestiality and necrophilia."
Meanwhile, AlMaghrib founder and head Muhammad AlShareef has written a paper titled, "Why the Jews Were Cursed," in which he claims Jews control the media and murder prophets.
The very same Alshareef is currently also spending large amounts of money on Facebook advertisements promising a "secret formula" for prayer to help Muslims "find the spouse of their dreams."
It is certainly possible we are reading too much into this. After all, the complaint is not limited to Muslim communities. Even serious news media is today prone to harmless trite. And so if CNN's Business section can publish articles asking "which Disney character are you on Instagram," why shouldn't Omar Suleiman offer a course that promises a "bonus" session in which attendees have their personalities matched to the personalities of the Prophet's companions?
But as we have previously documented, a number of more serious-minded clerics within American Islam have expressed alarm that these modernist Islamist clerics have introduced progressivist ideas into their rhetoric. New divisions are beginning to show, with leading hardline commentators such as Daniel Haqiqatjou denouncing Suleiman and his associates on American Islamic opinion websites and social media almost every other day.
These same traditionalist criticisms are also beginning to be applied against the Islamist-led self-help fashion, with Haqiqatjou mockingly concluding: "If trends continue, the anti-Christ is going to match up against a Muslim generation that has been led to believe that jihad is either a self-help regimen or a pacifist social program for LGBT normalization."
Although Suleiman and the other self-help Salafis may be the face of American Islam today, their future dominance is not assured. Rival Islamists - including those who more strongly embrace or reject progressivism - along with conservative and reformist Muslims, are all competing for the leadership of American Islam. Attempts to dilute and adapt Islamism to appeal to a new generation of Muslims may well drive away as many followers as it recruits. However, it's impossible to be sure - the politics and circumstances of Muslims in the West are changing too fast. The future of American Islam and Islamism is fascinating, complicated, and unknowable.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.