The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.

The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Today

Today was an odd turn of events that had the building which houses my office on UPenn’s campus, play host to a talk on Islam by one of today’s most darling Muslim pundits, Irshad Manji. A self-proclaimed Muslim reformist, activist, human rights lobbiest and lesbian, Irshad gave a talk to an attentive audience which was comprised of both Muslim and non-Muslim, old and young alike. Dr. Leonard Swidler, from Temple University, was also on hand to add to the discussion. But, unfortunately, like her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, the talk was filled with nothing more than drivel. And that’s just the good part.

So much of the dialog today regarding Islam is in how it can fit into the master narrative of Western discourse. This encompasses everything from morals, ethics, to aesthetics, such as standards and concepts of beauty. When Islam fails to authenticate a narrative that falls within the margins of the dominant culture, it and vis-a-vie, the Muslims, are condemned as being backwards, barbaric, and even morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt. And when a people are deemed barbaric or morally bankrupt, the slippery slope to subjugation, whether it be figuratively, psychologically or physically can never trail far behind. This process of brutalization bears striking resemblance to the types of psychological terror that have been visited upon various minority groups in the West, especially in America, when they failed to meet the criterion of a dominant force that often have a pattern of “moving the goal post” when it suited itself opportune.

A major portion of my critique on Manji’s arguments and positions as well as comments that Dr. Swidler gave, were that neither Manji nor Swidler are scholastically equipped to answer any such questions regarding the intellectual tradition of Islam. Manji is a journalist of questionable objectivity and Swidler’s expertise lies outside the fold of Islam. Manji often relies on crude reductionism coupled with a woefully absent basic familiarity with the Islamic Tradition. Buzz words like ijtihad, fatwah and of course, the crowd-pleaser, jihad, are tossed out to lend to her some Islamic academic credibility. In fact, Swidler’s presence is somewhat questionable as Temple University could have certainly offered up someone who would have been far better suited to the task at hand. In light of access to scholars like Khalid Blankinship, it remained a curiosity as to why Manji chose a non-Muslim religious professor to engage in talks about Muslim reform.

But to take things a step further, Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is guilty of the same crime that many of its contemporaries are: making the personal experience an ontological narrative. To help further explain my point, let me offer this explanation: because of the trials and tribulations that Manji faced as a child, because of the personal experiences that Manji had and the choices she’s made, she has taken the sum of those experiences and built the foundation of her argument around them such that they take on a scope that is completely inappropriate. That because they were or are issues for Manji they must be equally important issues for all Muslims in all times and in all places. A great deal of Manji’s contemporaries, such as Ayan Hirsi Ali to name one, frame their arguments in the same manner. But to reiterate, these criticisms of Islam do not simply stop at personal narrative, they apex again at how Islam falls short on a laundry list of items such as equality, human rights, tolerance and progression. In where Islam fails to be equal, tolerant or progressive in the “Western” paradigm that Manji offers up, Islam is deemed to have a problem. So this left me asking some simple but pertinent questions: are any of these issues true? And if so, how, and in what way? And again, if so, what would be the best way of looking for resolutions.

Before tackling any of the issues that Manji tries to speak on the, I have a few questions of my own. Namely, is she, or Professor Swidler capable of addressing these issues from both within and without the Muslim intellectual tradition. What are Manji’s credentials that would allow her to speak authoritatively on issues that Muslims today are facing. Indeed, it seems to be Manji’s modus operandi to completely leap frog the whole of Muslim intellectual thought and just, as she put it to me, bypass dogma.

Much of the holes in Manji’s arguments, and for pundits like her, is that because they are not conversant with that tradition and thus the judgments and rulings that it produces, they marginalize it under the assumption that because it is from the Tradition it is old, outdated, antiquated and has nothing to offer to modern Muslims in modern times. This could not be further from the truth. And aside from this stiff arming they also neglect why it is important and still speaks to Muslims today. This inadequacy is more than simple ignorance of the intellectual tradition of Muslim thought but also woeful negligence in being versed in simple creedal formulations in Muslim theology such as the rightful place of God as an authority, the rightful place of authority of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and how these authorities are negotiated.

During the talk, Manji made several quips about God being a “he or she” – the idea that God is neither masculine nor feminine is one of the primary principles in fundamental Islamic creed, yet Manji insists on using a language that is far from the spirit of what Muslim theology is all about. A similar stance is taken towards the sunnah, in that it is something that should be questioned, not in its application (as is how the Tradition does) but yet to question its validity as a whole. The result of which the Sunnah is seen as also a derelict of a by-gone era and thus should be tossed aside in favor of pure, so-called rational thinking.

For many Muslim/anti-Muslim pundits today, authority lies at the crux of their objections. In their arguments, Islam has suffered from an authoritative crisis, namely that the ulama’ — or religious scholars — have put a choke hold on religious interpretation and expression and therefore to avoid the risk of any further entrapment of religious authority, the baby is tossed out with the bath water. But no body or organization can survive much less thrive without an authoritative voice. And the sham to this is that in fact, most of these pundits, and Manji in specific here, seek to simply usurp the currently perceived authority for their own hegemonic voice. It is through this tension that Manji, and pundits like her, have with authority that the agenda of such said pundits becomes clear.

During the talk, the example of the fatwah that was issued against Salman Rushdie was used as a means of demonstrating the backwards, barbaric and even violent tendencies that this authoritative voice could foster. And yet, not once, either of negligence, ignorance or purpose, the fatwah that was issued by the Mufti of Egypt from al-Azhar University denying the validity of any such fatwah was conveniently left out. In light of its absence it would indeed seem that the Muslim world is not only monolithic but monolithic in its barbarity, an image that is often offered up from the hands of Orientalist scholars of Islam. In fact, when Manji’s research is examined a bit more closely, it is laced with Orientalist tendencies of understanding Islam and Muslims. This is far from the “fair and balanced” reporting that Manji would leave us to believe.

Manji’s axe to grind with authority extends even to basic tenants of Islam such as prayer. When asked about prayer she responded that she does not need anyone to tell her how to pray – that she can devise such a way on her own. Such thinking could not be further from the pale of Islamic theology 101. But the main issue with this line of thought is not that Manji wants to “find her own way” but in that she wishes to seek accommodation in the orthodoxy of the religion. Wanting to be homosexual and pray in your own way is completely a matter of personal choice but there is simply no way to justify it with the texts, traditions and methodologies in Islam. Expecting to do so shows not only a lack of intelligence but also immaturity on Manji’s part. This only further demonstrates Manji’s desire to influence and assert her own authority for if her way was sufficient and as she put it to me, “between me and my God”, then gaining an ascendant voice would not be necessary. No, it is indeed this ambition to flip the current and Traditional modules of authority on their respective heads that lies at much of Manji’s argument.

To continue to examine Manji’s theological constructs, one comment she made struck me dead in my tracks. When she spoke to her mother about praying to God in her own way she made a rebuttal that she offered up sincere words of gratitude and that she offered them willingly to God. It is not my focus to deconstruct Manji’s arguments solely on dogmatic grounds but she has completely missed the forest ‘fore the trees. One of the basic underlying principles dictating the relationship between God and Man is that God needs nothing from us. And that anything we offer up in the way of worship, orthodox or heretical, adds nothing to the dominion of God. Manji’s argument is typical of persons who have bones to pick with religion (legitimate or otherwise) and assume a posture of arrogance that is not befitting them. Hence in Islam, only God has the right to Arrogance (al-Mutakabbir) as God needs nothing and only One free from want can be truly arrogant.

A favorite target of these hybrid-Orientalists, as I will call them, is the use of the Middle-East as a criterion for the very possibilities of what Islam can and cannot be and specifically, where it fails to achieve the hurdles set up by the very same judges who also craft the questions, Islam and by proxy, all Muslims, are deemed to be inferior. In her documentary, Manji does extensive filming in Yemen, a country in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and as Manji put it, the birthplace of Islam (though I’d say her geography is off just a bit but who’s counting). As Manji takes in the sights of Yemen the camera displays for us the manifold women who walk the streets, head scarves covering their heads and veils on many of the faces. The critique is centered around the “sameness” of everything and that there is a stifled individuality. In its essence the whole film is a work of cinematic Orientalism. Two examples are offered to the viewer: an American woman who married a Yemeni man and now wears the hijab and veil and a Yemeni woman who has taken to adopting Western styles of dress. There was no interview done of Yemeni women who do wear hijab and veil and do so out of their own choice and not out of a 7th Century tribal (another argument of Manji’s that I will address in a moment) affiliation. Instead, we are encouraged to see how backwards the society is in how it hasn’t caught up with Modernity – Modernity in how the West has interpreted it. And it’s a steep and slippery slope from being backwards to being brutalized; both physically and psychologically.

Tribalism seems to be one of the central arguing points of Manji. That the entire Muslim world is in reality, a humongous body of worshipers who have been indoctrinated into a 7th Century modality of living. Anything that a Muslim does is not out of his or her understanding but rather in obedience to Arabian tribalism. This myopic vision is again, indicative of Orientalism, which willingly lacked the ability to look at Islam as an idiosyncrasy in the way in which white European Christians were an idiosyncrasy. Muslims were not a body of believers that had tremendous diversity in custom and in interpretation but a monolith – no variation. No individual thought. And more importantly, anything that any Muslim did or thought was inextricably linked and informed by their religion and was therefore part and parcel for Islam itself. This philosophy is still alive and well today and continues to inform a great deal of the scholarship on Islam in the West. Orientalism is not the only misgiving that Manji’s work is guilty of. Reductionist thinking is another characteristic that her work is ripe with. From the way in which she interviews small minorities of Muslims and yet offers what they have to say, think and feel, as capturing the majority spirit. Her critique that Muslim women who wear hijab are simply using fundamentalism as a moral compass is so woefully guilty of reductionist thinking that it is only because Manji offers an articulation of Islam that is appeasing to the dominant culture that it has not been cast out as completely devoid of any substance.

In the end, Manji’s work reveals bare, the bones she has to pick with authority within orthodox Islam. But instead of approaching Islam in a methodical way, she simply side steps the intellectual traditions, branding them as dogmatic, devoid of any life or creativity. And it is here that Manji’s assumptions are the same as the Orientalists: that the endeavor of Muslim history and its Tradition have nothing pertinent to say in the modern context. And it is through this adoption of Western normals and values, without a single shred of scrutiny, reveals Manji’s bias. Indeed, Manji’s critique of Islam is not in how it succeeds or impedes the pleasing of God and attaining a successful life in the Hereafter but in how it does not measure up to Westerness; a goal post that is wholly unachievable and nor should it be proffered as a desired achievement. The opinions and the histories that informed those Muslims and how they reached them are never acknowledged let alone tackled. Simply put, in each and every way that Islam and Muslims do not meet the articulation that Irshad Manji and pundits like her concoct then Islam and the Muslims are open game to be humiliated and brutalized, whether that be psychological or otherwise. And that’s not “tough journalism” – it’s sensationalism and deceit.

Perhaps in the future Manji might be willing to sit and discuss her work with a Muslim scholar or at the very least, a scholar of Islam. I found an intriguing curiosity that with a scholar like Dr. Khalid Blankinship at Temple University was passed over in favor of Dr. Swidler, who, while a professor of religion, is not a scholar of Islam. Until then I think that Manji will continue to loose face in the majority Muslim body, which is precisely where she wants to plant her flag. I for one am available for comment or discussion.

And God knows best.