Ihsan

Monday, December 27, 2004

Muslims & the Empire

Salaams 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.

Salaams


farid esack


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.

10 comment(s):

  • "e 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."


    Yes, yes, yes and more yes! These issues weigh heavily on my mind and each time they do Audre Lorde's quote surfaces. She said, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." I think that in many ways we have a new path to forge as Muslim activists. Right now, I'm not completely sure what that path is.


    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 12/27/2004 05:48:00 PM  

  • definetly. What Ninhajaba said.

    By Blogger Leila M., at 12/27/2004 06:47:00 PM  

  • So, Ninhajaba and Leila, what might this muslim activism include - what would the ingredients be? ... how about just some initial and tentative ideas? Maybe do a blog on this...? :) I know Leila and yourself, Ninhajaba, have expressed elsewhere how the activist/progressive talk appears to be despiritualized... perhaps that is also a "masters tool" thing... ?

    By Blogger altaf, at 12/28/2004 12:06:00 AM  

  • Salaam Altaf

    Well, to be honest, I don't think I'm anywhere near any sort of concrete analysis on the progressive movement. Personally, what I've witnessed is a lot of variation on what each feels the main issues should be as well as a wide disagreement on how they would go about implementing any sort of change-- and the methodology utilized as well.

    I remember when I was doing research several years ago during my undergrad on female genital mutilation. Viewing myself as a feminist, an interview also struck me as quite telling-- wherein an international women's conference was being held, and someone from one of the African delegations grew angry at some of the Western delegations' preoccupation with FGM. She told them, in summary, to "stay out of our pants."

    The point being is this-- while the delegates from the African nation were working directly to end FGM, the western delegates were in actuality being somewhat patronizing-- holding up the issue as a sort of freak show, or with some odd distant "White Mother" type of attitude of "we'll guide you."

    I think this is probably some of what I see-- whereas I may end up being named too relativistic, leftist, or accused of using the word "binary" (which yes, I do LOL), the fact remains that I think some of the issues Muslims in the west tend to have are far less extreme and urgent as many of the issues that the rest of the world is facing today (hunger, violence, health-related issues, economics, etc.)

    More later, perhaps...


    By Blogger Leila M., at 12/28/2004 10:14:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    I wholeheartedly agree, nay bellow a munificient 'YES!' in response to Farid's postcolonial analysis of the world. But neo-colonial global capitalist consumerism isn't just bad news for Muslims, it is a profoundly destructive force at both the political and personal level for all peoples.

    The thing is - as far as I am concerned, Farid's analysis is a given. And it's not those who are cooking the pot I care about or seek to deconstruct - let them live on the hill, snort coke and engage in endless psychotherapy. Its those who jump from the pot screaming for redemption that bother me. The isolated, mad, poor, the people crippled with kindness - those taught to live by the myth of Godless contentment screaming in rebellion.

    And being with them I say, be as one, and build a single, vibrant, loving, erudite, God-conscious force to oppose this hell being made on Earth.

    Have confidence that humanity can evolve beyond this shopping mall graveyard, where 2.7 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, where hunger and hunger related diseases kill 168,000 each week, where HIV and AIDS takes the lives of 8000 every day, where every hour an astounding 120 lives are senselessly snuffed out by the bullet of a gun.

    Have confidence that humanity can evolve by fighting this injustice, and by fighting our own demons, and finally walk together on the path to angelhood.

    That's not idealism, sisters and brothers. That's survival!

    Wasalaam

    Yakoub


    By Blogger Julaybib, at 12/28/2004 12:27:00 PM  

  • "So, Ninhajaba and Leila, what might this muslim activism include - what would the ingredients be? ... how about just some initial and tentative ideas? Maybe do a blog on this...? :) I know Leila and yourself, Ninhajaba, have expressed elsewhere how the activist/progressive talk appears to be despiritualized... perhaps that is also a "masters tool" thing... ? "

    I don't consider myself a progressive. So I feel a bit like an imposter. I just don't think that the way I see the world fits into those kinds of boxes.

    Not all progressive talk is despiritualized. The dialogue here is purposely (I think) Allah conscious. And my involvement in AMILA a lifetime ago was def. spiritual. I only think that the loudest voices in this Progressive Muslim movement (the ones we here on Fox etc.)advocate for a despiritualized Islam, one unrecognizable as Islam to me.

    Anyway I wanna refrain from posting for a while because I don't wanna knock Br. Fareed's post down. And my thoughts still aren't clear enough to articulate them well.


    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 12/28/2004 05:35:00 PM  

  • Salaams

    I should've just asked about "activists" rather than "progressives." Just as a by the way, for visitors - not all of the blog contributors here self-identify as "progressive muslims..." some do, others don't, and the rest are kinda inbetweenish.

    Giving a very general impression, and being involved with various not Muslim groups -i find one has to often leave one's spirituality behind. That one would need to also do so in a Muslim context would be very sad.

    The dialogue here has turned out to be Allah conscious - although it was not by design - just a reflection of folks who wanted to get a blog going...


    By Blogger altaf, at 12/28/2004 06:37:00 PM  

  • I should've just asked about "activists" rather than "progressives."

    Giving a very general impression, and being involved with various not Muslim groups -i find one has to often leave one's spirituality behind. That one would need to also do so in a Muslim context would be very sad.
    --------------------------------------------------
    this is something i've been struggling with and even led to me dropping out of the community orgaizsing work i was doing here in nyc for a few years....

    the choices seem limited to on one hand to secular groups who have an on-point analysis and hopefully actions but lacking in spirituality/bonds...and on the other are muslim/spiritual groups that are either reactionary or just stuck into spirituality with no action...

    something to think and maybe write about....(notes to self)


    By Blogger malangbaba, at 12/29/2004 12:13:00 PM  

  • This has also been on of my issues - I don't know why being an activist necessarily ends up meaning not being spiritual.

    Maybe part of this stems from old-school Marxism that was anti-religion, and so to have a belief, or an experience of the "unseen" is all
    considered "superstitious." But we ignore our spirituality at our own peril.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/30/2004 11:06:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    I agree that there is something profoundly 'aspiritual' with the animal that currently passes off as "Progressive Islam" and I am not sure if folks like myself contribute to it. Here in Cape Town for example, I often agonize on a Friday morning when I have to choose which mosque to go to. The 'progressive mosque' is the Claremont Main Rd" where the khutbah is reduced to a weekly seminar on Islam and the State of the World or Nation (occasionally by a woman.) Seminars is my fulltime job and I do not think that that is what I want from a mosque on a Friday.) Another option is the Azzawia where the khutbah is always enlightened and deeply spiritual but no women - except downstairs) and no common friends...

    I have a had a life long struggle to find deeper spirituality to my life. Sometimes, it feels like a loosing one. Yet, the my engagement with the South African liberation struggle has convinced me that the struggle to oppose the empire must have deeply spritual basis if it it does not want to become a carbon copy of that which it claims to oppose.

    I recently had a wonderful climb - four and a half hours up and two and half down - to the top of Table Mountain here in Cape Town and also found that a deeply spiritually enriching experience. I will post about that on another occassion.


    By Blogger farid esack, at 1/02/2005 12:38:00 AM  

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