Muslims & the EmpireSalaams folks
My name is Farid Esack. I live in South Africa and teach at Xavier University in Ohio. I am currently working on issues of Islam and HIV/AIDS, a progressive Islamic response to the empire and an introduction to Contemporary Islam. I shall be blogging once a month on a range of issues. Perhaps testing out ideas that I am preparing for publication.
Shortly after the events of 11th September 2001, I had a chat with an African American Muslim woman at an inter-faith gathering. She lamented the disunity of the local (i.e., USA) Muslim community, “Brother”, she said, “if only we could be as united as the Jews, then we can be a guide and leader to the entire world Muslim community in the war on terror and to bring enlightenment to the Muslims.” “Gosh!”, I thought to myself, “on the margins of society because you are black, because you are Muslim and because you are a women, and still you have internalized the discourse of the empire!”
And so we – the Muslims who are inhabitants of the empire – presented as ‘the West’ - are landed with this responsibility to civilize our co-religionist who inhabit the dark lands of suicide bombings wearing dishcloths as substitutes for proper head gear…
Underpinning much of the discourse on “Islam and the West” is a belief that there are some essential “cultural” characteristics of the two civilizations which are radically at odds with each other. What, in this view, prevent the Muslim world from improving its lot along the lines of the advanced Western industrial nations is the intrinsic anti-democratic, anti-rational, anti-freedom, and misogynist impulses of Islam. (All the while we ignore the mirror images of the same “traditional and moral Islamic” values” that characterizes Vatican traditionalism, USA Christian conservatism and ACDP moralism here in South Africa.)
Omitted in this analysis is any attribution of responsibility to the political machinations and economic robbery of the Western powers, at least since the 18th century, when Muslim-ruled India and Egypt began to face their direct wrath and violence. The way that these two centers of Muslim culture and power, in addition to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, were besieged by the West, the subsequent socio-economic regression and the repression of successive local political experiments with democracy and popular sovereignty are common cause.
Any discussion of Islam that fails to identify the West’s culpability in perpetuating neo-colonialism and authoritarianism in many countries in the Muslim world (and, of course, much beyond) throughout the 20th century up till today can be rather misleading. Chris Harman, in his essay The Prophet and the Proletariat, documents how the, “oil wealth of the Arabian peninsula is in the hands of Western multinationals, which share some of it with a narrow stratum of local rulers while the mass of the population live in poverty. (Black Economic Empowerment, here we come!) The IMF and the World Bank still dictate economic programs to countries such as Egypt and Algeria, much as Lord Cromer did when he ran Egypt for its British and French debtors in the 1880s.” One could add to this the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq and the crucial U.S. support that undemocratic and authoritarian regimes such as the ones in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan rely upon to stay in power. The 'resistance to democracy' in the Arab world even today, as scholars such as Shahid Alam have pointed out, “does not come from their population. It comes from neo-colonial surrogates - brutal military dictatorships and absolutist monarchies - imposed by a United States determined to safeguard oil and Israel.”
The contours of this discussion do not even begin to address the problematic and narrow comprehension we are compelled to accept of concepts such as “freedoms” and “democracy.” That road would lead us to interrogate what Anouar Majid identifies as a “liberal discourse where the individual was constructed as a bundle of rights and the new society was seen as an arithmetic sum of individual aims.” An examination of the nature of these virtues as they are practiced today would reveal their non-application in much of the socio-economic realm and their ability to bound social inquiry and debate within very narrow parameters. Freedom, for the majority of working people in the so-called developed world, becomes something to be experienced solely on the market with our cash, our freedom to choose between McDonald’s or Burger King, Ford or Toyota, and so on. Are we ever allowed to ask for freedom from the dehumanizing institutions of the market such as corporate private tyranny with its dominance over all facets of human life, for freedom from market effects such as poverty, unemployment, lack of access to health care? Can the term democracy extend beyond a formal political category employed at home to dupe the masses in believing there is substantive participation where there is none, and used abroad as a pretext for maintaining and expanding the power and wealth of elites?
Of course, these questions touch upon only one feature of the troublesome talk of the West’s “greatness.” What is absent from, yet so profoundly important for, analysis on these issues is the re-calibration of a progress narrative that fails to discern its winners and losers. While there were significant and influential sectors of European society supporting Enlightenment values and making important social, political, and economic concessions to their toiling classes, these same European elites drew the sharpest edges of their swords and weapons to brutalize non-white peoples of the world, preventing them from experiencing even a modicum of the “freedom” and “democracy” with which the West was beginning to flirt. It is claimed that incessantly harping upon the past is like beating a dead horse, and this will do us no good today. The point of raising awareness of a history of injustices is so that the collective conscience of the present can take concrete steps to remedy that past. And if the belief is “that was then, and this is now,” and that sordid historical period has no bearing on the present dire straits of the majority of the world, then there still do remain a couple of explanations to fall back on, albeit all of them being racist to the core, attributing “differences” to either cultural or mental/psychological deficiencies or to biological/genetic inferiority.
Muslims in the West struggling to articulate and actualize progressive values in our communities need to be keenly aware of our own location vis-à-vis the global Muslim community. We are but one small segment, albeit a highly privileged one, of the world’s Muslim population. We must not replicate the habits of an Empire that arrogates to itself the right to re-write Islamic education of Muslim countries, stage-manage their elections, and formulate their laws and economic policy without ever interrogating the appetite and greed of the monster whose appeasement determines our survival or destruction.