Normalized Domination

“Why is Mindy Kaling only shown from the chest up?”, asks the article, regarding the cover from January 2014 cover of Elle. At first blush, one is tempted to concede the argument has been fully articulated. Once again (and perhaps justifiably accused), the media has reinforced unhealthy stereotypes and social pressures regarding women, image and self-worth. What isn’t interrogated in this article is, quoting Dr. Sherman Jackson, the “normalized domination” of women, white western women in particular, revealing themselves. For in the end, as I see it, there is more than one crime here being committed. In summary, the converse of this situation is that no one’s interrogating the presumed value of exposing oneself. As this social norm goes, the more a woman is perceived to be desirable the more she is enticed, encouraged, cajoled and even coerced, into exposing herself. So while Mindy Kaling’s photo may indeed represent body-image issues, it also represents a number of other issues worth discussing as well. The idea that a person’s, not solely a woman’s, sexuality should not be available for public consumption, is foreign to  popular wisdom.

I am reminded by two passages from Dr. Sherman Jackson’s article, Literalism, Empricism, and Induction: Apprehending And Concretizing Islamic Law’s Maqasid aL-Shari’ah In the Modern World which uses the discussion of race as a point of departure:

“In a real sense, blacks in America, like all other orphans of modernity (‘Third-Worlders,’ ‘primitives,’ or even ‘Middle Easterners’) were ‘created’ by the forces of white supremacy and the theoretical disciplines of the (French) Enlightenment. This ‘second creation’ had the cumulative effect of placing between blacks and primordial knowledge a normative regime of sense that was sponsored and controlled by the dominant group. At the same time, the invisibility of whiteness (only non-whites were raced) placed whites in the position of being ‘just people,’ who could speak not only in the name of their specific group, but also for humanity as a whole. This had the effect of conferring upon their fears, assumptions, proclivities, prejudices, and specific genius, the status of ‘normal.’ In effect, this reflected a transcendent natural order, whose validity was obvious to all, save the stupid, the primitive, or the morally depraved.”


“The tacit (or in some instances, not so tacit) requirement that blacks recognize and conform to this normative regime of sense and ‘normal’ behavior translated into a socio-cultural order I refer to elsewhere as ‘normalized domination.’ Normalized domination occurs when humans are reduced to such a state of self-doubt and or self-contempt that they internalize the vague but inextricable feeling that they can only redeem themselves by living up to the norms and expectations of those who seek to exploit them. When this happens, their ability to engage in reasoned critiques of the prevailing order is drastically reduced, because the feelings of triumph that occur as they approach redemption tend to obliterate any recognition of the provenance or falseness of the criterion upon which their redemption is based. In this context, ontological and even meta-cognitive truths that contradict the reigning paradigm are confronted agnostically, and one is given over to formalized ideologies, popular morality, or simply ‘the ways of the forefathers’.”

Preservation of Reason – Moving Beyond Lexical Empiricism

“To the extent that regimes of normalized domination exist, clearly the preservation of ‘reason,’ [حفظ العقل] or ‘the ability to know,’ would have to go beyond the mere proscription of drugs and alcohol. For the ability to know is clearly affected by more than the essentially private acts of self-administered corruption of the mind. Indeed, regimes of normalized domination corrupt reason on a far grander scale and provide in many instances the very incentives for drug and alcohol abuse. In this context, hifz al-‘aql, if it is to be effective, would have to deal not simply with individuals but with political, social, cultural, educational, and economic institutions.” Sherman Jackson.

One of the great developments of Muslim thought has certainly been the system of classification known as maqasid al-Shari’ah, or roughly translated as the “broader aims and objectives of divinely-inspired law.” While not without its  contentions and controversies, it nonetheless has persevered to the present day and still manages to inform Muslim thought to a great extent. In the above quote from Sherman Jackson’s Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction, Dr. Jackson points out a key insight into the issues that challenge, and perhaps even plague, modern Muslims. Having been coerced into accepting textually- or scriptural-based rulings on a Muslims ability to navigate and understand their environment, this tendency has left many Muslims defenseless and agent-less against systems of “normalized domination.” It is no wonder that Muslim youth and those new to the religion continue to struggle in carving out dignified existences as Muslims. Their failures to do so are often chocked up to living in “kafir” societies and the like. Seldom are these conditions examined whereupon Muslims themselves may actually be the culprits as to why they fail to get their Islam up off the ground (not to speak of the centuries-long failures of Muslim societies and states to provide any real alternative to the Western status quo).

It’s this and other urgent subjects I hope to bring to light and discuss at the 2012 Winter Retreat in Boston: Divine Remedies, Islam’s Answers to Contemporary Issues. Register today.