Common Cause and Escaping from ModernityThe way in which identity is discussed, as much as who we are and who we say we are, depends upon our life paths. Writing about identity in a peaceful village in West Yorkshire is bound to raise different concerns to the identity discourse of a Palestinian refugee, or a Chechnyan mother living under Russian tyranny. But despite the fault lines separating the minority who are able to cogitate in comfort over something as abstract as ‘identity’, and the majority for whom physical, psychological and spiritual survival is paramount, both live in a world increasingly dominated by a single logic.
Both identity discourses are forged under Empire. This dominion is quite different from the imperialism of old. It has not driven by princes or parliaments. Instead, the focal points of power are more diverse, more dynamic, more fragmented, but its logic is singular. In this Empire, wealth is created by “biopolitical production” (Hardt and Negri, 2001, p.xiii), in which economics, politics and culture increasingly overlap, and the production of goods and services is subservient to the production of social life itself. It seeks not to rule nations, but to pervade every level of social life everywhere.
Its origins might have been in the United States and Europe, but today Empire is global. It is the new absolute, having emasculated deity, leaving only a personal, literal, subjective God for the hungry spirit of humanity to chomp anxiously upon. Empire is ‘civilization’. All history points towards its fruition, which has already come about and will be forever more. Its mastery of everything is its potential to know everything, including human nature, which it defines and regulates without coercion, even though its boundaries are ravaged with war and violence. This is one of the great contradictions of Empire: it is perpetually soaked in blood, yet dedicated to peace.
Making sense of this Empire and working for its demise is part of my identity quest. As a cultural entity, it is primarily discursive and hence guns and bombs are useless against it. My common cause with suffering humanity is cultural subversion. I am here to help deliver Empire from its subjective gods and whims, reinstate Asma al-Husna as the ultimate expression of deity, and throw open the doors of mosques and synagogues and churches and Gudwaras and temples to those who are oppressed and marginalised through no fault of their own. Allahu Akbar!
The only way to resist Empire is to get out of modernity. The only way to get of modernity is to get modernity out of your head, and replace it with the local alternative. There are thus three stages to getting out of modernity. First, identify modernity inside my head. The second stage is to identify and develop the local alternative. The final stage is to become the local alternative, in thought and action.
What do I mean by the local alternative? This is the local religio-culture that modernist knowledge systems are intent on reshaping in their own image, such as Muslim culture. Like most local alternatives, modernity has succeeded in retarding Muslim development. Seeking to embrace Islam, it sometimes feels like stepping back in history. This is because modernity has abolished history and hence everything that is not modern feels archaic. Developing local alternatives returns them to a history that has a past, present and future, and abolishes the illusion of modernity’s infinitude.
Modernity justifies itself by appealing to an improvement in material conditions, but in reality it has delivered an appalling level of impoverishment and exploitation to the majority of people throughout the world. Its utopia is an economically and environmentally unsustainable embourgoisement that far exceeds the human need for food, clothing, shelter and security. For higher needs, see your local alternative.
Rose (1989) has attempted to explore the genealogy of the modern subject. He defines it as the autonomous subject of choice and realization, its universal logic manifesting itself uniquely in different social spheres, such as war, work, education, parenting and leisure. Once we were humans, now we are consumers. We are born, we consume, we die. Life is a playful distraction from the absurdity of death.
The Muslim subject is a descendent of Adam and Eve, whom God fashioned with Wrath and Mercy, and imbued with spirit, that their souls and the souls of their descendents might move closer to God through love of The One. The Muslim may experience a visceral fear of death and the pain of loss, but her/his existential understanding of death is defined in a life viewed within the path from Creation to Judgement.
Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2001) Empire (Harvard: Harvard University Press)
Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London: Free Association Books)