Martin Luther King Jr. – The Ideal American Negro

This is a short piece that I wrote in 2018 for Martin’s national “holiday”. My feelings have not been altered one iota in 2019.

Martin Luther King Jr. is now the ideal Negro in American consciousness, especially in the mind of the State, not because of his religious voice which condemned state-sponsored violence against African-Americans and American imperialism with equal erudition, but quite simply because his is dead, and thus just as dead men “tell no lies”, neither do they “start no revolutions”.

Martin is no longer here to speak for himself, and the State along with the powers that be, are more than eager to eulogize him, sing his praises despite the glaring fact that both did all within their considerable powers to silence him; forever. And therefore today, if Martin meant anything to me — and I daresay, to you — then let us not participate and aggrandize the myth of Martin but remember what he so humbly stood for: a God-centered cry for justice.

I leave these words of the Vincent W. Lloyd, scholar of race and secularism, from Race and Secularism in America, for reflection,

“Thirty feet high, arms folded, with a steady, piercing gaze, Martin Luther King Jr. now stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Completed in 2011, the King memorial seals the embrace of the once controversial leader by those across the political spectrum. Barack Obama presided at the memorial’s opening, but it was Ronald Reagan who signed into law a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday after it passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Ornamenting King’s tall figure are fourteen engraved quotations from his sermons, speeches, and writings. Justice, love, and peace are recurring themes. ‘We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’ ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.’ Amazingly, nowhere among these quotations is there mention of God, sin, Jesus, heaven, or hell. King the Christian preacher is absent. Even more astounding, there is no mention of the plight of the African American community for which King so vehemently fought. The only mention of race is in a quotation suggesting that King advocated forgetting it: ‘Our loyalties must transcend our race.’ King’s mainstream success, it seems, has come at the cost of his own religious and racial identity. Or, put another way, the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure. That there is significance to the pairing race and religion, managed together, is the thesis probed in this book.”

Martin Luther King Jr. did not speak in secular, race-neutral language. He preached, and he preached from his position as a black American. He preached about the law of God, the damnation of sinners, and divine omnipotence. He preached and spoke from the Bible. In his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King imagines a conversation with God, invokes the classical American form of the jeremiad (troubles today, possibilities tomorrow), cites Amos, describes his miraculous survival from an assassination attempt, prophesies his own death, and concludes, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’ King speaks in the first person plural about black Americans: ‘We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world…. We are saying that we are God’s children.’ In short, from his days as a young preacher coming up in the Baptist church where his father ministered to his last days supporting a public-sector union, King’s critical voice was not just a moral voice. It was a theological voice, a black theological voice. This is the voice muted and managed by the secular and postracial regime of America in 2011.”

The following is a 30-minute video in which I discuss Martin and MLK Day in light of Lloyd’s book.

#ReadingNow – “Levianthan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood” by Charles S. Maier

The following is an excerpt from Charles S. Maier’s Levianthan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. It paints a painful but unflinching account of what the history of this country—this civilization—has been built on: the erasure, or as he puts it, “success stories” of European/American settlers, not simply the defeat of those indigenous peoples.

“Communities we used to label casually as nomadic or tribal—whether (to cite only a few generic cases) of desert Bedouins on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, the villagers of the Causasus or the highlands of Central Asia facing the tsar’s administrators, the Indians of North American arid lands, and the peoples of the African savannas—were slowly but inexorably subjugated. Their long and difficult retreat, of course, had started well before the late nineteenth century: when Europeans reached the Americas, the Portuguese and Dutch pressed inland from the coasts of Southern Africa, the French and British sought to control the North American Great Lakes, or the Qing and Romanov dynasties established adjacent imperial control over Xinjiang and Mongolia. By the twentieth century they survived as depleted units, allowed legalized or de facto tribal habitations, sometimes even subsidiary states within the empires, but their earlier confederations and international roles were just a memory— often neglected by the later anthropologists who studied their local customs and family structures but not their politics, or ignored by historians who were encouraged by all the resources of the victorious states to focus on their nations’ success stories.”

Now all we are left with are the “noble” depictions of defeated peoples. Something tells me they weren’t considered “noble” when they were having war waged against them and being slaughtered.

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Ayan Hirsi Ali — “Islamic Scholar” at Prager University

So Ayan Hirsi Ali “knows Islam” from the inside and outside. I wonder if Prager University would allow an actual authority on the religion to teach about Islam vs. one who attempts to pass off personal experience (which I’m not questioning her personal experiences) as religious fluency and authority.

Typical in these arguments is a claim that (a) Islam is inherently violent and (b) violence, as seen either in the Muslim world or coming from Muslims, is self-explanatory. Simply put, from Ali’s perspective, there is no history of that violence. However, if Ali were to examine that history the conclusions would also indict her beloved West as being guilty in contributing to that violence, even in some cases, instigating it.

Clearly Prager University’s academic rigor is as laughable as it is political and polemical. They could easily have found someone who could teach Islam from a more neutral position, one which doesn’t whitewash violence committed by Muslims but also not enforcing imperialist objectives by suggesting violence, as it pertains to Muslims/Islam, is a closed-loop discussion.

 

The Imperialists New Clothes

Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:

أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.

Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.

There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.

There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.

All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).

Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:

والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].

The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).

If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.

At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.