Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
Malcolm X: 2 students**
Scheherazade: 2 students
Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
Jasmine (Disney princess)
Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
Changez in TheReluctant Fundamentalist
Abu Nazir in Homeland
*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.
**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi). Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?
***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa. It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”
January 10th, 2013 marked one of the worst episode of Shia genocide in Pakistan when two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara Shia community, killed almost 200 people in a busy marketplace in Quetta. The Hazara Shias, who have been systematically and ruthlessly killed for almost a decade, refused to bury their dead and sat alongside with their bodies on the streets for three days and nights, through torrential rain and cold weather. This was a heart-wrenching protest, which drew an overwhelming nationwide response of sympathy from not just from Shia communities, but from Pakistanis of all religious affiliations. Protestors sought to highlight the injustices faced by the Shia community and the lack of state response, which can be judged from the fact that none of the perpetrators have ever been arrested or prosecuted in the last decade. One reason for the apparent inaction against the Sunni extremists seems to be a general confusion and a lack of consensus among the mainstream Sunnis themselves, regarding ways in which to respond to such incendiary vitriol spewed by such militant groups.
In the light of the imploding violence against the Shias and the atrocities taking place in the name of religion, it seems worthwhile to delve deeper into history to analyze the dynamics of Sunni militancy. Prevalent analysis on Pakistan continues to insist that the hatred Sunni militant groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological. In reality it has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of the times. Much is consequently being said about the need to accept and overcome religious ‘differences’ among both sects in Pakistan presently, but the exact nature or scale of these differences is hardly ever a point of reference in any meaningful discussion. In this sense, the very premise of such arguments seems intrinsically flawed, as it portrays the Shia as the ‘other’ with many commentators inadvertently aggregating them with non-Muslims as a ‘minority.’
Written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Mahmood Mamdani’s 2005 book Good Muslim, BadMuslim historicizes the violence of terrorism. It extricates terrorism from the narrow morality that arises from the convergence of ethics and national interest, and instead locates terrorism “first and foremost as unfinished business of the Cold War.”1 “Good” and “bad” Muslims, terms borrowed from former U.S. President George W. Bush,2 are descriptions not of religious adherence, but of utility to U.S. foreign policy. As yesterday’s allies become today’s antagonists, the labels change to morally denigrate American foes.
Reintroducing history to the violence, the book begins by tracing the broad contours of the relationship between nation-state modernity and violence. Mamdani rejects violence as a pre-modern phenomenon, asserting instead that there is an inextricable relationship between violence and modernity.3 This is the book’s central theoretical framework: violence is political, not cultural.
The first chapter builds on this history of violence, and offers an alternative account of political Islam. It exposes the caricatures of Muslims and Islam that are deployed to provide a moral veneer for expansionist imperialism. The subsequent three chapters offer a chronological account of the violence of U.S. imperialist policies, beginning with post-Vietnam American support for anti-nationalist militancies, and through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s terrorism, the book asserts, is a direct consequence of these policies. The final chapter of the book offers closing thoughts, exhorting a review of American policies that “consistently seem to erode support and generate opposition.”4
I was raised in Turkey in a practicing Muslim family dedicated to fighting against the Kemalist secular ideology of the state, and attended a public school where this official ideology was taught with a passion. I quickly learned to keep my critical comments about the regime to myself. At school, Kemal Ataturk was depicted as a brilliant commander of the national war of independence, who had saved the country and fashioned Turkey into a modern Western republic. At home, my beloved grandfather would speak about the manner in which “that apostate (kafir)” betrayed the only true Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire.
According to Foucault, the production of discourse in every society is simultaneously controlled, organized, selected and redistributed according to particular procedures. These procedures are meant to “avert its [the discourse’s] power and its dangers, to cope with change events, and to evade its ponderous and awesome materiality.”I Islamic feminist discourse is no different. Just like any other discourse, it contains internal and external systems for the control and delimitation of its discourse. But does this process actually serve to safeguard the proliferation and utility of Islamic feminist scholarship, or does it fulfill a larger purpose?
Many studies of Islamic feminist discourse have failed to address the historical moment in which the discourse emerged. Specifically, they neglect the influences of global feminist paradigms. Female scholars, who theorize sexual and gender equality as part of a larger Islamist paradigm, have been constant outliers within the production of Islamic feminist discourse since its induction into academic discussion. Their work is repeatedly contrasted to the ‘canon’ of Islamic feminist scholarship. Due to its discursive link with global feminism, Islamic feminist scholarship is unwittingly embedded within a theorization of sexual equality that hinges on secular liberal modernity. This article strives to understand the implications of power located within the process of marginalization of Islamist women scholars. It will also examine the larger political ramifications of the disputed label, “Islamic feminism.” Continue reading Politics of Labeling and Marginalization: Deconstructing Islamic Feminist Discourse→
While studying in Cairo in 2009, taxi drivers would often ask me if I studied at Al-Azhar University. Although I was conversant in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, several of my syllables strayed from native pronunciations. Sometimes I’d slip in some literary phrase if I couldn’t come up with the dialect, which made it plausible to the driver that I was some devoted Muslim boy studying at Al-Azhar. Nevertheless, on the outside, I looked as Indian to an Egyptian as Amitabh Bacchan. Even though I often played along with my Al-Azharite identity, to the disappointment of most taxi drivers, I have never been a pious student of Arabic nor a Bollywood superstar. I am not a hafiz though I can recite some well-known lines from Imru’ Qays, Mahmoud Darwish, and other poets through which I learned Arabic.
Satyagraha, loosely translated as noncooperation, was a non-violent “alternative to conventional rebellion,” that Mahatma Gandhi constructed in response to discrimination against Indian expatriate communities in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own words, “it is a movement intended to replace methods of violence and a movement based entirely upon truth” (Gandhi & Non-Violence, 19). The term was developed in South Africa in 1907. Gandhi, founder and editor of the local Indian publication Indian Opinion, announced a small prize for an alternative to the English phrase noncooperation, which described his unique methodology and distinguished it from similar methods of Passive Resistance organized elsewhere. His nephew, Maganlal “won with his suggestion of ‘sadagraha’ or ‘firmness for the good.’ Gandhi altered the prize-winning entry to ‘Satyagraha,’ or ‘firmness for the truth’” (Gandhi, 124).
Haji Habib was, in all likelihood, the world’s first Satyagrahi (practitioner of Satyagraha). On another September 11th in 1906, the Jewish-owned Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, was overflowing with South Asians. The crowd had gathered to plan resistance to new regulations, mandatory registration, finger printing, and papers that were to be produced on demand for all Asiatics eight years and older. Habib, a long-time elderly resident, stood up to a crowd of eager activists to make a passionate plea for faith: “We must pass this resolution with God as witness…. In the name of God, [we] will never submit to that law.”
Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.
“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.
The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.