Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Open Letter to As'ad Abu Khalil

An open letter to As’ad Abu Khalil (aka Angry Arab)

by Farid Esack, Islamabad, Pakistan

July 23, 2007

Farid Esack here (that Muslim guy from South Africa). I am still around in Islamabad --my last few days, and I am still enjoying it as my two-month sojourn here draws to a close. Islamabad is not quite Pakistan, certainly not Karachi, where I lived for eight years as a madrassah student. But then, it is the best that this country can offer “Distinguished Visiting Scholars,” a title conferred upon both of us by the International Islamic University and which we graciously accepted by coming here, business class, and getting paying paid a princely sum by the standards of the people who clean our toilets, folks who have to deal with the consequences of our shit.

I just got in from Karachi and Lahore, and on my way to class I stopped at the office of Faruq Terzic (the tall Bosnian guy), who moaned about your blog. I am not really into blogs and was somewhat irritated at how he was curious and upset at what you had to say. Normally, I pay very little, if any, attention to what people have to say about me and would rarely, for example, read news reports on something that I have said or done. So I was kind of annoyed that he was so defensive about the International Islamic University. “OK,” I argued with him, “if you are so pissed off with As`ad Abu Khalil, why don’t you write to him?” Then he read some of your stuff to me, and I was troubled enough to come to my room here -- the same place that you fled from 10 minutes after your arrival -- and read your blog for myself.

Please allow me to be a bit blunt here: Although I’m not in the business of spending my time critiquing fellow left academics or intellectuals, I still live in a -- possibly bygone -- world of comradeship. After going through and reading the posts for myself, I couldn’t help but think how sadly irresponsible and utterly unprincipled you are. Going on and on about the supposed pathetic state of Pakistan by focusing on your lack of comfort at some hotel, your aversion to lizards, etc., may be just foolish and a sheer waste of time (I keep thinking to myself if I know any left/revolutionary intellectual that would do this?), but the clear condescension displayed toward your audiences and the Muslim nature of the events/peoples was utterly contemptible. Again, what befuddles me is how can someone so well-versed in the politics of social change and grassroots activism write so irresponsibly. Where is the accountability to any sense of “real activism” on the ground?

It was rather disturbing to see you post publicly what a fellow activist had reportedly told you in confidence about strategies for approaching audiences here.

Your posts could damage the legitimacy this whole program in the eyes of the IIU students and faculty. I know for a fact that Junaid Ahmad tried hard to manage the situation for you here in Islamabad as best he could. But nothing Third World is good enough for the great As’ad Abu Khalil! How any character with leftist or progressive pretensions can speak of what essentially amounts to the “backwardness” of Pakistani society in a manner comparable to the worst of the neo-cons is beyond me.

You ramble about the advice given to you before your visit by a comrade (Junaid) -- who it now turns out was rather mistaken in viewing you as such -- about what of your ideas you should preferably not highlight was simply intended as such. Wherever I go, I identify some of the local activists and ask for advice on how to approach my audience. It is something that I learned in my days in the trenches of the struggle against the apartheid -- accountability and comradeship. And no, it is not synonymous with Stalinism, but instead simply understanding that there is something more to our struggles than blowing of steam and ego trips. If I do not like the advice offered by my hosts, particularly if it is offered months ahead of my visit, then I would simply call off the trip. Why go along with the supposed comradely advice for months and wait until you have collected the reimbursement of your business-class ticket to another exotic Third World destination and your honorarium? And as soon as you get into your $145-for-five-hours hotel you rant about how your style was cramped?

Ah the great jetsetter visits the Third World and becomes even more illustrious as he pisses on his own people.

At the end of the day, you have to decide whether you want to be a Christopher Hitchens/Irshad Manji lone ranger who just wants to be a contrarian for contrarian’s sake, or whether you want to have some purpose, some accountability to real people in real movements that you say you support. If you want to be contrarian, then that’s fine too, but you should choose your battles and not piss in the containers that feed you. Activists like Junaid are in the vanguard of actual struggle involving real people and real institutions -- however inadequate these may be -- who provide intellectuals like you and me some space to speak to our people, “our” people as being not citizens of the Empire but its victims.

As’ad, my brother, we who for many reasons, have “made it to” and “made it in” the world of power need to reflect a bit more on the supposed backwardness of the “Third World.” People here die of undereating because some of us who have made it to the “First World” die of overeating. There is a connection here. Let us not piss on people who pay the price for our comforts and for our “development.” They are our people.

Farid Esack, a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism and On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today. A former national commissioner on gender equality appointed by President Nelson Mandela, Esack was active in the struggle against apartheid in the United Democratic Front and the Call of Islam. His current major field of research and activism is the response of Islam to AIDS; he founded Positive Muslims, an organization working with Muslims who are HIV positive in South Africa.

12 comment(s):

  • Wow. Very good letter and post. Thank you for saying what some of us don't have the guts to say, and what some people just cannot see. I used to be one of them. It seems he hurts a lot of people...sadly, and just moves on blithely as though he is never wrong.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/28/2007 07:45:00 PM  

  • I think the importance of this letter, is not the focus on As'ad, but rather am emphasis on the issues the letter raises on a larger scale and the role of "academics" and "intellectuals," particularly those in the (but not necessarily from) the West.

    No matter how radical the political leanings, these individuals must remain conscious of the privileges and comforts that they enjoy, and eventually become used to. This comfort would not be so problematic, if these individuals did not continue to speak so arrogantly and self-righteously about people, conditions, and movements in the Third World. More importantly, no matter how anti-imperialist or revolutionary one is, the mere fact of being located within the Empire lends great weight to the words and actions of these individuals, with which one would expect an equal amount of responsibility. For someone who is not engaged in any movements or struggles (even daily struggles for life), to sit in comfortable chairs in the safe confines of academia, and feel entitled to criticize people who are engaged in movements or struggles is highly arrogant and irresponsible. No matter how politically astute your views are, if you cannot relate and feel for the oppressed peoples of the world with spirit and grace, those views are "worth less than the sneeze of a goat." And if you cannot even handle the material conditions of an oppressed peoples, you probably should not be commenting their modes of life, politics, and resistance.

    By Blogger malangbaba, at 7/28/2007 08:25:00 PM  

  • A bit of an overreaction to the professor's Pakistan posts which, more often than not, really poked fun at himself and his quirks. What kind of nonsense is this anyway? Are there people and places that are off limits for comments? There was absolutely nothing in the professor's posts that demeaned the Pakistani people. This reminds me of the same mentality behind those goofy laws in Turkey, Egypt, etc. where you can be arrested for "insulting" the reputation of the country.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/28/2007 09:14:00 PM  

  • As'ad, and others on the liberal-left have an erroneous belief that if you insult everyone, then that makes the insults OK.

    And so, he, and others of his political persuasion think that, for example, insulting Islam is perfectly OK, so long as one is also putting down other religions.

    Even if one did not have a belief that one must have a respect for that which is sacred, there is another way of looking at this:

    Putting down an oppressed people, or, the victims of empire, is not the same as making a joke or two 'bout those who hold power. This is basic elementary racism 101 - that anyone who considers themselves to be a "leftist" should know and understand.

    Unfortunately, the definitions of what it means to be on the "left" is fluid especially when it comes to Islam and Muslims. Somehow, it is perfectly OK, and acceptable to trash Muslim beliefs and Islam. There is no way that the liberals, who get a kick out of As'ad's blog, would tolerate such nonsense, if he was talking about African Americans.

    This high level of "tolerance" that the liberal-left has for anti-Islam/Muslim rethoric, is just another manifestation of Islamopobia.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 12:14:00 AM  

  • I never cease to fear delivering my autistic son into the hands of strangers, however well qualified they may be, but if Farid popped round and agreed to watch him for an hour, I'd not worry one jot.


    By Blogger Julaybib, at 7/29/2007 04:49:00 AM  

  • absolutely brilliant. Thank you Farid Essack for this. Finally someone else has managed to see through the conceit, phoniness and narcissism of this idiot Abu Khalil

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 06:29:00 AM  

  • Brilliant letter . This needed to be said , to that arrogant so called professor who never fails to criticize Muslims and Muslim clerics and only show the negative side of some of them. I have yet to see a positive thing about Muslims on his site. Shocking blog from a "Professor" .

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 09:39:00 AM  

  • I'm not saying I know the guy personally, but, have you never experienced humor before? Nor sarcasm? Nor, egads, honesty?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 01:58:00 PM  

  • This is the lamest critique I've ever read in my life. He's not a real leftist because he doesn't like lizards in his room? Who the hell are you anyway? He revealed the "strategy" (?) of not saying the word atheist or communists? If that is the highly secret strategy, then your cause is failure from the start! Garbage you speak, and a hollow complaint that smacks of the desire to be seen and heard, like an unloved stepchild...whatever, dude. If you don't like him, fine. But you should be able to come up with a better argument than this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 04:26:00 PM  

  • This letter reads like an April Fool's joke.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/29/2007 04:41:00 PM  

  • This is a misguided critique. It is one thing not to appreciate a country's hospitality. It is quite another to criticize the substandard service (lizards and roaches) in a hotel that, amongst its cost cutting measures and greed for profit is anti union, ant labour (which most hotels in Pakistan are) and unable to meet proper standards. Asa'd is not abusing the millions of hard working working class Pakistanis who have prevented the country from falling apart but the service of a hotel that is owned by some blood sucking creep. Also, since when did using the words "communist" or "secular" become so provocative? The person censoring Angry Arab has much to be ashamed about making it seem that people will not be able to tolerate it. If anything people in Pakistan need to hear about diverse ideologies and are very willing to be open minded. I think this open letter really misses the point.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/30/2007 06:20:00 AM  

  • The problem with Dr. AbuKhalil is not so much his philosophy but what I think the letter writer is referring to is Dr. AbuKhalil's INTEGRITY. Which he has every right to offer his opinion on. And I personally agree with that opinion. While we are all hypocrites to some extent or another, Dr. AbuKhalil definitely exudes an air of arrogance, superiority, and elitism, and careless disregard for how his words and his behavior may be perceived or may affect others whom he claims to respect, care about, etc. Being the "absent-minded" eccentric professor does not excuse this behavior. The points that the letter writer makes here are valid. If As'ad's intention was not to disrespect or denigrate, then it was clearly perceived by some that he was in fact doing just that. Maybe he should choose his words more carefully. In many instances. WORDS MATTER. Of all people, he should know that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/30/2007 07:47:00 AM  

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