Tawfiq Ali

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“Fear is the mind killer.” From the first week of class, I remember Professor Nesson flashing this message on the screen. He had asked a question. I remember nothing about the substance of the question that made it fear inducing. Yet we were afraid to answer. Professor Nesson was referring to the pervasive fear judgment and self-expression that is common when we raise our voices. I am among that category of the fearful. CyberOne was part of my journey and struggle against fear.

My final project has caused me much fear. I am arguing that Muslims should apply a democratic process to determine the Islamic legal and ethical principles that should govern our individual, social, and political lives. This belief is one I have secretly held for many years, but never before dared to tell a single soul. Some Muslims, will see my argument as blasphemy, as disbelief. Some of these Muslims are, in fact, my close friends.

I often imagine my meeting with my Creator—imagine how He might judge me. Until I hear about it straight from God, if he truly exists, I will not know whether I have made the right decision in choosing this argument. By then, it will be too late, for I will be dead, and will be facing His judgment. In my attempts to persuade other Muslims, I am well aware that my arguments should be addressed to God as well. But for all the feedback I will receive from Muslims in response to my project, I will never know whether persuasive empathic argument is possible with God.

My empathy with my human “opponents” has derived from this fear of God. I describe my fear in my first podcast as one shared by other Muslims, including Islamic scholars. The fear is of God becoming displeased with us. The fear is genuine. But I suggest that there is no running away from the fear. No matter what course we choose, we will never be certain that we have it right, even if we continue to rely exclusively on scholarly opinion. I hint that our fear unites us, and so we should support each other in confronting it, and in confronting our challenges to understand truth.

By expressing our shared fear, it has weakened its hold on me. With our shared fear clearly in view, I argue that we can move forward cautiously. I have begun describing my project and its various elements as “experiments,” and the rhetorical spaces for our discussions as “laboratories.” These metaphors are meant to motivate our participants to take small steps to test whether the potential dangers we fear are real, or whether the benefits of personal expression and collaboration from multiple viewpoints outweigh the dangers. I want our participants to embrace trial and error, even though we are so afraid of error. I suggest, cautiously, that it might be safe to accumulate minor sins as we explore the exciting possibilities of an Islamic democracy.

Beyond the fear of divine wrath, I still face the fear of expressing myself--the fear of owning a position, the fear of presenting it poorly, and the fear of what people will think. It is the fear of rejection. In my case, I am afraid that Muslims who disagree with me will abandon me.

But some level of personal expression has always been essential to my project. While the intent of my project is that it be a collaborative undertaking, I have deliberately chosen that my invitations and arguments be personal, because the basic unit of my imagined Islamic democracy is individual expression. I want all Muslims to express themselves--to really bring their personal perspectives to bear on the questions of Islamic interpretation and governance. Only once their perspectives are expressed, are we in a good position to discuss and debate them, and to finally develop broader solutions that will incorporate them. We discussed in class how the medium is effective insofar as it resembles the message. I hope the participants in the Islamic Democracy Project will take my blog as inspiration for expression of their own personal views.

Yet, through my blog posts and podcasts, I have tried to avoid simply speaking my mind as if I were talking to an empty room. Empathic argument is precisely what I want to promote. I have nothing to gain in attempting to persuade people by mere presentation of great knowledge and reasoning. Where I have introduced my limited knowledge of the Islamic tradition, I have tried to offer it as a conversation starter, rather than as conclusive evidence of the rightness of my position. Of course, I hope that people will be persuaded. But more importantly, I hope that people will respond in such a way that will sustain discussion. I want to demonstrate that healthy discussion is possible, even in the context of disagreement. Such discussion is the essential reason for participatory democracy, as I envision it.

The method of empathic argument has also helped me deal with my fear of personal expression. On the last day of class, I spoke with Professor Nesson about my first jury trial, which I faced earlier this week. I told him that I was afraid of what the jurors would think of me. And he said, “yes, but just love them.” He told me to speak to the jurors directly, to empathize with them individually, rather than to give a speech as if I were standing in front of a mirror looking at myself. And with that, he said, the nervousness would disappear. I took that bit of advice to understand not only how to speak to a jury, but also why my self-expression through blog posts and podcasts did not cause the level of fear I have suffered in the past. I have tried to speak directly to the people I want to understand and persuade, whether they are the scholars, Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison, or lay Muslims. I felt a personal connection with them. If you listen closely to my voice in the podcasts, you will still find hints of fear. I need much more practice, but these exercises in personal expression have changed my life.

I see the entire CyberOne enterprise as a collective act of courage. Nothing like it has been done at the law school before. I remember the great uncertainty early on about the path the course would take and what would be expected of us as students. Uncertainty is inherent in any collaborative enterprise, and in this case, it was positive.

I had little interaction with the at-large audience, but the evolution of participation inside the classroom was apparent. Our classes, while originally predominated with fearful silence, opened up very quickly. Discussion was lively. Personalities were revealed. I revealed myself more openly.

It became clear early on that the success of the course would depend on our collaborative participation. Soon, there was the feeling in the air that the course was to be what we made of it. The instructors steered us well, but left the details to us. I hope the instructors and the remote audiences find that we filled in the details well.