It has been pleasing to see Muslims as of late challenging previously held notions of what food represents to Muslims: the “Beyond Halal” movement if you will. And while I have been an advocate of this myself, there are other aspects of the organic food movement that leave me troubled. From urban agriculture to farmer’s markets, food seems to be on everyone’s minds these days and yet the spectre of race and racism still manages to rear its (nearly invisible) head when it comes to these food movements. NPR featured a piece on the alleged land-grab by a white landowner (John Hantz of Hantz Farms) in Detroit, Michigan, who is buying up vacant lots, much to the chagrin of some local black food security advocates. I say all of these because like most important issues in American, Muslims are more often then not irrelevant, due to their agnosticism (what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls racial agnosia) when it comes to race. Ironically, because of Muslim Americans inability to deal with, address and come to grips with the reality of race (which is different than advocating for a racially-hierarchical society), Muslim Americans continue to be cut adrift socially, when in fact, it is one of the primary tools by which they could become anchored and relevant.
While perusing the book store today I came across another title by the prolific “Muslim” apostate, “Ibn Warraq”. Mr. Warraq has made a career out of not being Muslim. His latest title is Why the West is Best. Here’s a sample of the uncritical bias Ibn Warraq often exhibits:
The great ideas of the West—rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law and equality under the law, freedom of thought and expression, human rights, and liberal democracy—are superior to any others devised by humankind1.
While Ibn Warraq may feel very comfortable with his trump card of values, I notice one disparaging absence in his thesis, one often left out by Islamophobes: racism. The legacy and continued perpetuation of racist attitudes by the dominant white culture in America (i.e., the progenitors of Western culture) are woefully absent from their so-called “disinterested search for truth”. For the likes of Mr. Warraq, Pam Geller and their colleagues, America’s dirty little history of slavery and its continued legacy in American society goes untouched by their rational, self-critical pursuit of equality. How is it that America can be “the best” (an absurd notion that countries can be “ranked” somehow) and not a single critic of Islam—apostate or Right-Wing Christian—has addressed this topic. It is clear the reason why: America’s troubled past regarding slavery (and present!), in the eyes of Islamophobes and the proponents of white supremacy, is merely an inconvenience or unfortunate occurrence in the inevitability of American greatness. For me, this is the very definition of Western exceptionalism.
The issue at stake here is not merely Ibn Warraq’s racial agnosia (see Sherman Jackson’s piece on racial agnosia as well as a short article I wrote on being socially relevant) but the manner in which he casually essentializes the West and Islam: one is the transcendent bastion of all that is good, the other an ahistorical monolith that encapsulates all that is retrograde, defunct and barbaric. Reductionism at its best, Ibn Warraq’s truck with Islam is not with its “Muslim-ness” but in how it is not western (an idiom that falls in on itself as this author is both “western” and Muslim”). But perhaps most revealing is Ibn Warraq’s narcissism: Islam is bad, not because “it doesn’t work”, but because it didn’t work for Ibn Warraq. This line of thinking is similar to Irshad Manji’s, and thus my criticism is also similar. Despite Ibn Warraq’s claims to the contrary, Islam is more than capable of withstanding criticism from individuals as well as from other religious or civilizational traditions. Perhaps if Ibn Warraq were to approach his apostasy from that position: that Islam didn’t work out for him, then his criticisms would have more weight instead of sounding like a whining, snotty-nosed sore loser.
My point here is not simply to play the race card but rather to illustrate how those who claim, uncritically, that America or the West “is the best” often do so through myopic vision and reckless abandon. How do the likes of an Ibn Warraq justify their stance of “the West is the best” when examining the injustices that are rampant in American society? How would Ibn Warraq justify the claim as “best” when we look at the penal system in America and the vastly ill-proportioned number of Blackamericans who are in jail? How would the West be defined as “best” in light of the fact that the last one hundred years of war alone have been at the behest of Western powers? How can the West maintain its status as “the best” when it was responsible for the largest genocide in the last hundred years (yes, I’m talking about the Holocaust)? And yes, how does Ibn Warraq justify the West’s immanent “goodness” in light of a continued theater of aggression throughout the world? These are just to name a few (the list could go on and on):
- The invasion of Granada.
- The Bay of Pigs incident.
- The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
- The scientific experimentation of America on its own subjects (Tuskegee).
- The Guatemalan syphilis experiments.
If I didn’t like living in America I would move. It’s a simple as that. The West in general and American in specific are my homes. I don’t know any other way of life other than being a Westerner and an America. However, neither of those precludes being Muslim, ensuring America’s “goodness” or simply doing away with America’s and the West’s un-glorious history. Instead, I would settle for America (and the West) are as good as its people, as good as it wants to be. America’s greatness cannot be achieved by glossing over its history nor sweeping under the rug the injustices it still commits in the name of “freedom”. And yet it would seem that Ibn Warraq applies a strange brew of logic when determining “best”: it appears to have nothing to do with history.
- Why the West Is Best – My Response to Tariq Ramadan, from City Journal.
The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.
In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.
As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.
In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,
“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”
Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.
Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:
“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”
If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.
- White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
- More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
- Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.