The Current Context of the Islam, Democracy & Human Rights DiscourseA recent posting on ZMag and a more personal encounter with a friend that I have for long thought of as “progressive” and his decision to align himself with the new group which explicitly seeks to both market the USA to Muslims and market so-called Muslim interests to the USA administration has made me reflect anew about the importance of both the subjectivity, location and structural context of critical scholarship.
This is an importance widely acknowledged in post-colonial discourse, cultural studies, feminist studies and in liberation theology. In responding to these games of careerism – and as one also teaching in the academy here in the USA I am frantic about my own potential to be a more sophisticated cog in the same game of Butheleziism, or what one may describe here in North America as “house niggerism.” Perhaps now, “White House niggerism?” (Gatsha Buthelezi was a Black character – tribal chief – that the Apartheid regime had for years touted as the moderate answer to the ANC and Mandela)
For me, the question is “What is my context as a progressive African Muslim scholar?” Where is my authenticity located when I uncritically embrace the constructed intellectual and political categories and urgencies of others as my own and seek to re-define a fourteen hundred year old tradition – albeit an ever-changing one – in the face of external demands? (Even if these demands were generated by a complex array of factors wherein that tradition is not entirely innocent.)
As for my personal context, the questions of pluralism, gender justice, human rights, democracy etc, have for long been ones that I have been engaged with and with a sense of principled urgency that has its origins in a rather different context than the current dominant one. My own engagement with the South African liberation struggle and that of my comrades, my work as a Commissioner for Gender Equality for five years and my current work with Muslims who are living with HIV & AIDS have often infused many of those elsewhere who share our ideals with pride – a sense that Muslims can be part of a vision larger than obscurantist fundamentalism. It is, ironically, precisely this location of my own scholarship within a principled vision of a just world that makes me so profoundly suspicious of the dominant urgency to re-think Islam in ‘contemporary terms’.
We are witnessing – and participating in - an intense and even ruthless battle for the soul of Islam as the title of one of Gilles Keppel’s works “The War for Muslim Minds” (Harvard University Press, 2002) a ruthlessness that often escapes many of us who are keen to nurture and imagine a faith that is peaceful and compatible with the values of dignity, democracy and human rights.
For many non-Muslim Westerners who are driven by conservative ideological imperatives, Islam and Muslims have become the ultimate other. Many liberals, on the other hand, move from the assumption that “global harmonies remain elusive because of cultural conflicts” (Anouar Majid). Hence, the desperation to nudge Islam and Muslims into a more ‘moderate’ corner, to transform the Muslim other into a Muslim version of the accommodating and ‘peaceful’ self without in any way raising critical questions about that western self and the economic system that fuels the need for compliant subjects throughout the Empire.
Muslims too, are conflicted about their relationship with both “outsiders” as well as to the tradition of Islam and its ideals. The tensions of be-ing in a world wherein the vast majority of Muslims feel trapped between the demands imposed on them in their existences as subjects of the Empire on the one hand, and the violent convulsions of a fascist-like Islamically invoked response by the co-religionists on the other, are palpable. At every step of our encounter with our non-Muslim neighbours, colleagues, students and immigration officers those of us – committed or nominal Muslim, confessional or cultural - living or working in the West, have to justify our existences, our faith, our humanness and our non-violent intentions.
Declarations that Muslim societies must be democratised are fairly easy and there is no shortage of publications that argue against the idea that Muslim societies or Islam are inherently opposed to democracy or that Islam is compatible with democracy. The questions really are what does democracy really mean, what does the cover of democracy really hide, and what are the historico-political reasons for the “democracy deficit” in the first instance?
Islam, like every other religious tradition, is the product of both its heritage – itself the synthesis of ideas, beliefs and the concrete lived experience of the earlier Muslims and the way that heritage is interpreted by every generation. ‘Generations’ though is not a disaggregated, disembowelled, classless social category. It is thus impossible to speak about an Islamic synthesis for our age as if “our age” is valueless or interest-free. When we reflect on questions of democracy we must ask “for what and in whose interest?” The origins of the dominant urgency to re-articulate Islam in ways acceptable to the Empire must be interrogated if we are to come up with anything beyond adhoc accommodationist responses meant to placate the Empire or to smooth our existences or career advancement in the belly of the beast.
I am an African and, notwithstanding my own commitment to working with those living and dying with HIV & AIDS, it is not the reality of millions of deaths on this continent and millions more dying that forms the backdrop to my thoughts on some of the challenges facing Islamic thinking… My thoughts, instead, are shaped by a compulsion to ensure that all our theological questions and responses, all searches for an Islamic synthesis must be engaged through the prisms of the wounded Empire and premised on the culprit and his community’s - contrition. Democracy and accountability, human rights and gender justice … the urgency for all of these are palpable and the impression that it is all part of an attempt to humanize the barbarian is inescapable.
I am not suggesting that these are issues that have not been dealt with in Islamic scholarship before 11th of September 2001. I am concerned that the teacher with a formidable cane had sent all of us into a corner after one of our classmates sullied his new book or did something unspeakable in his coffee cup. Discerning a lack of complete and unqualified remorse – even some rejoicing – the entire class is now subjected to collective punishment. And so, all of us now have to write a thousand times, “I shall behave – I shall be democratic – I shall respect human rights – I shall be peaceful.” As it is, the class – Muslim societies - is a “remedial one” for “slow learners” and we are on probation. (Some of my classmates have successfully escaped into a much smaller but “real” class next door). Meanwhile, many of the other kids are dying around me. In the case of Africa and indeed in much of the Two-Third World, quite literally. We are living in a world where more than one 1.5 billion live on less than one dollar a half, where the gap between the lowest 20% and the top 20% of the word’s population has increased from a ratio of 1:30 in 1960 to 1:174 in 1997. Yet, my major project is to get into the good books of the teacher; to present myself as worthy of his acceptance, as different from the barbarian who did what he did.
Besides the immediate reality of the children dying around me, there are, of course, other realities around me including coercion, the irony of violence being used to impose a language of peace, the larger context of education and schooling which pretends to be ideology-less. Neither the elite nor the aspirant elites of our generation, so desperate to ‘succeed’ within the system, have ever been too interested to engage the works of thinkers such as Paul Goodman, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Too tantalizing is the promise of entry into the domain of the establishment - subject to turning a blind eye to its inherent injustice, the demand for uniformity, the reduction of human beings to empty vessels to be moulded to serve a particular kind of society with particular economic needs, the transformation of insan in to homo aeconomicus.
Both traditional – particularly those aligned to the power structures of Muslim states - as well as modern Islamic scholarship are under enormous pressure to ensure that the dominant Islamic synthesis that emerges is one that fits into the immediate demands of the teacher. Just a few days after 11th of September, the National Post newspaper had a story titled “Globalization Is So Yesterday”. The immediate demands of the teacher had nothing to do with hunger, poverty, exploitation, socio-economic justice, HIV/AIDS and affordable treatment. Instead we were compelled to deal with madrassahs, Wahabism, the clash of civilizations, terrorism, Islam as peace…
In many ways, scholarly elites are represented by the student who is desperate to outdo his fellow students in appeasing the teacher. For these students threats are unnecessary; the promise of acceptance by the teacher and the concomitant material advantages are sufficient incentives. Despite the protestations of benign objectives of advancing education and learning, the teacher is there as part of larger project – a project that is politically unwise to interrogate; in an authoritarian system any moment spending “valuable” time on challenging teachers means losing marks … it is “unscholarly, it lacks intellectual depth, does not have the sang froid of true scholarship”… (Majid Annoaur)
As with the learners, the teacher is also not a disembowelled human being. He comes from the city and it is a village school. There are larger civilizational and ideological issues at stake, including understandings of development and its price, culture, the commodity value attached to people and land and the supremacy of supposedly rationalist forms of thinking. The issue of the teacher’s sullied cup represents only the sharper edge of the frustration, anger and agenda, the rise and march of the Reconstituted Empire. The larger context of this is globalization for which we require the intellectual courage and political will to also historicize and unravel its implications when we consider issues of human rights and democracy in relation to Islam today.