American BeautyThis short essay is an attempt to elucidate on a concept in social theory in a way which makes sense to people who are not social science students. Tackling this concept has led me to think about progressive Muslim discourse – most notably, the writings associated with the Muslim Wake Up website, the Progressive Muslim Union of North America and their allies - in a new way. There is an assumption I am opposed to MWU/PMU, which is erroneous. However, in the months following the foundation of PMU, I felt myself following a very different road to the one currently being pitched by the Fateh/Nassef collective. I hope this post will go some way to explaining my concerns.
The concept from social theory which interests me is ‘embodiment’. I’m fairly sure I am not the only one who finds this concept difficult to explain or understand. Personally, I blame the gender theorist Judith Butler, whose writings first brought this concept to my attention. Like that other notable social theorist Homi Bhabha, Ms Butler has a way of putting things that might have taxed the king of obscure sociological terminology, Talcott Parson, were he still with us. Sadly, I have yet to find a modern day C Wright Mills, who famously ‘translated’ several pages of Parson’s verbiage into a single, short paragraph of intelligible prose. But there are a few books introducing gender theory which try to make Butler’s babble comprehensible to mere mortals like myself.
What makes Butler different from Parsons, who was basically a misogynistic social conservative hiding behind sententious theories, is that her ideas are ground breaking and counter-intuitive. Like string theorists, those physicists who claim our Universe is a slice of bread inside some huge cosmic loaf, Butler challenges us to think about everyday reality in a completely different way. So what does she actually say? Well, I can’t claim to be an expert – I haven’t even finished my PGCert in Social Sciences yet, but this is what she seems to be saying to me.
Most people look at their bodies and say things like, ‘I’m going bald’ or ‘my breasts look like a couple of used tea-bags’. However, Butler would argue that even the most empirical statements about your body are not facts at all. They are expressions of social meaning. In fact, bodies are ‘socially constructed’. You thought you had an arm – you are wrong. That arm is only ever understood in terms of how society has taught you how to see arms. And Butler has a point. You only have to glance at the media, especially women’s media, to see that social meaning is crucial to how we make sense of our physicality, from our eyelashes to our toenails and everything in between.
When I first heard this idea, I thought, ‘Come on, Judy, this is going a bit far, isn’t it?’ I was reminded of the story of the philosopher who once claimed the entire world was an illusion which only existed in God’s mind. An opponent of this view responded by kicking the nearest wall, and pointing to the pain in his foot. Of course, one could claim the pain was an illusion, too, but we are talking social theory here, and kicking the wall would seem to be a valid response to Butler’s arguments, albeit a rather inarticulate one. Surely, it seemed to me, there are facets of our physicality, or at least our personal understanding of it, that are largely outside of the social domain.
Thankfully, a thinker came to my rescue in the person of Bob Connell, a gender theorist who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on masculinities. Bob, who is an Australian, had been studying male sexuality when he came across a heterosexual man who starting exploring gay sex after his girlfriend poked her finger up his bum! Hang about - thought Bob (who isn’t the squeamish type) - this man actually changed his understanding of his own sexuality on the basis of a physical experience. Of course, thought Bob, the way we directly experience of our own bodies is also important to the way we make sense of them. Judy forgot that – we are not simply social entities floating around in the ether.
Embodiment is important in thinking about a topic that has recently raised its head on this blog and elsewhere, the issue of colour. In researching this topic, I was reminded of the various ways some people in the developing world try to mimic Westerners, to the extent that they actually have their physical appearance altered. In the Philippines, plastic surgery to get rid of that ‘oriental’ look is all the rage amongst those that can afford it. In Ladakh in Northern India, and in other places around the world, people purchase powder that ‘whitens’ their skin. And in China, very short people are actually having their legs lengthened to conform to the Western norm.
Why do people want to do these things to themselves? Well, there is another social concept about to pop up here – cultural imperialism. From Hollywood to Humbees, the world is awash with America’s greatest export - its culture. And it is an export backed up by a politically regime doctrinally aligned with the Project for the New American Century, which tells us that the USA won the cold war and now has a duty to act as global policeman so that the American economic and political vision can become universal. This is the America the world sees, love Bush or hate him. The surgery, the whitener, those Chinese legs braces – all this is because people want to look American. They want to look like the people they believe now rule the world.
And this is where the discourse of MWU/PMU comes in.
You see, some Muslims outside the USA have been asserting that MWU/PMU is effectively ‘Americanizing’ Islam. And they see that as a threat. After all, if American hegemony is so powerful that people feel the need to physically alter their appearances, then what is to stop an American version of Islam becoming the presiding one? Oddly enough, American progressive Muslims don’t entirely deny this Americanization claim, but rather argue that cultural variety is intrinsic to Islam. But this would seem to be a rather disingenuous and insular response, given that events in America, like Amina Wadud’s mixed-gender Jumma, are now being discussed around the world. The issues of cultural imperialism are either downplayed, or ignored entirely.
Prior to 2001, when I use to frequent the more conservative British Muslim chatrooms and forums, I was extremely disturbed by the crisis in confidence that many young Muslims were experiencing in regard to their faith. It’s not that they thought Islam an old fashioned or backward faith; rather, they felt like victims, born onto the losers side, subjected to prejudice in education and jobs at home in Britain, whilst in the wider world – in Palestine, Chechnya and Bosnia – Muslims were the victims of grave injustices, with crimes against them either ignored or even sanctioned by Britain and the USA.
Today, I sense a new confidence amongst British Muslims. There is a growing belief in our ability to bring about political change at home, and a new confidence in Sharia Islam as an alternative to the rapacious and puritanical Salafis and Wahhabis. Islam in the West, not Westernized Islam, is beginning to look plausible. There are campaigns for places of worship in schools and workplaces. Issues, such as the validity of some of the hadith about women, are being discussed openly and intelligently. It’s a far cry from the frenzied, reactionary and fearful tone of discourse that was prevalent just a few years ago.
Europe and the USA are vastly different religious landscapes. Whatever blind statistics about faith membership and belief in a deity might lead you to believe, religious commentators like Karen Armstrong are absolutely right in stating that most Europeans are simply not interested in religion. There is surely a moral imperative for Muslims to challenge this, but the colonial history of Europe has left a wall of racism which prevents Muslims from penetrating the European spiritual torpor. The last thing we need on this new frontier, in my view, is a gum-chewing, Disneyfied Muslim faith further undermining the confidence of those who see no contradiction in cherishing traditions and questioning them.
This does not mean I am opposed to progression within Islam, or indeed ‘airing dirty laundry’. Rather, in consolidating its ideological norms, I am concerned MWU/PMU will lead some Muslims to think they need an entirely new wardrobe, an Islam tailored to fit comfortably inside New York's hip, secular, metropolitan values. This will then became part and parcel of the American cultural export that has seen white skin, straight eyes and tall stature become the ideal of human beauty for millions. No discussion, no thinking, just mimicry. And surely, if there is a fault with some ‘traditional’ Muslims, it is that they have forgotten that ours is a religion for ‘people who think’.