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.”

And:

“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’.”

A Wakeup Call – This Time For Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd – White Person Extraordinaire

I have written two articles (1 and 2) on the phenomenon of Muslim pundits. To be more precise, the articles were about Muslim Muslim pundits, those few self-elected personalities that have made careers out of irresponsible critiques against Muslims and Islam, especially when Muslim do not meet their expectations. And it is the latest article from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Maureen Dowd, that provides an example of a non-Muslim Muslim pundit. In her New York Times article, Ms. Dowd uses 911 words (coincidence? You decide…) to inform us just how short her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the “cradle of Islam”, fell in how it failed to educate her about the religion that, “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”. Dowd’s article, despite its obvious lack of respect for the subject, does manage to bring to light a glaring tendency in popular discourse, namely the general acceptance of attacking Muslims and by proxy of them, Islam, through one, convenient scapegoat: Saudi Arabia. According to Dowd and those who follow this mode of logic, to reproach Saudi Arabia is to reproach Islam in its entirety.

In one of my recent articles, I talked about the phenomenon of American Muslims and their need to travel abroad to the Muslim world in order to feel validated. Dowd has in many ways followed the exact same line, albeit for a different end goal: to denounce Islam. However, the two parties both have a misguided perception that Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are symbiotes of the same host: the religion of Islam. As we have seen in recent events, this could not be father from the case. Saudi Arabia is a country, a Muslim country no doubt, but hardly representative of Islam itself in such a way that all other expressions of Islam outside of the Arab Kingdom are merely simulacrums of Islam.

Dowd’s article, Pilgrim Non Grata In Mecca, is problematic even in its titling. From the very get go, Dowd ascribes to herself a status she does not possess: that of a (Muslim) pilgrim. A play on the Latin persona non grata, a close translation being “unwelcome person”, Dowd assumes that she is indeed on a pilgrimage (perhaps she was making ‘Umrah?), Dowd places herself within her own narrative in a role she never possessed from the start. Dowd repeatedly misses the very Muslimness of Mecca and Madīnah, especially as it relates to the necessity of those would visit the Ka’abah. Dowd fails to realize or recognize the need to be a Muslim to not only visit these places, but to perform the ritual acts for which they solely exist for. This deliberate intention, on the part of Dowd, to ignore such an overarching fact concerning the Two Holy Mosques only further demonstrates the utter lack of respect that Dowd had for her subject matter from the beginning. It is not that Dowd is an unwelcome pilgrim but that she is not a pilgrim at all.

Pilgrim Non Grata continues its bull-in-a-china-shop critique of Islam by attacking not how Islam views sacredness, but in how Islam is not Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Dowd’s smug rant about how Mecca is not as open as the Vatican or how one can have their picture taken with the Dalai Lama only further illustrates how absolutely biased and ignorant Dowd is on the subject of Islam. By holding up Islam to a fit it was never meant to wear, Islam can only but fall short of appearing to be “civilized”. In essence, Dowd’s main axe to grind with Islam (which during the course of Dowd’s article is difficult to discern where she’s more concerned with getting access to the country of Saudi Arabia or learning anything in particular about Islam the religion) is how it’s not Christian, or Buddhist, than it is about understanding how Islam views the sacred. Here, Dowd reveals her true colors (literally) as a white, western woman, whose only particular historicized notions of freedom, access, equality, etc., are theorized into ontological truths that can be used to demonize Muslims (by proxy of Saudi Arabians) and Islam as a religion as a whole. I must admit I am sorely disappointed that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could either be so woefully ignorant or so unabashedly crude. Perhaps that prize, along with western white privilege, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It would seem that much of Dowd’s ignorance stems from a complete lack of understanding of Islam on its own terms as well as the few, highly questionable sources she draws upon. Aside from her own trumped up cosmology, Dowd refers to Sir Richard Burton, the British “adventurer”, who translated “The Arabian Nights”, referring to himself as a “amateur barbarian”. Perhaps if Dowd had done some research she may have found that the Arabian Nights in no way shape or form has any relation to the religion of Islam. No all things Arab constitute a running commentary on Islam. Perhaps if Dowd had simply talked to a few recognized, educated and reputable Muslim figures on the religion, she may have accomplished her goal of trying to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”.

Part of understanding Islam on its own terms would entail learning how Islam views the sacred. In fact, it is perhaps in Islam’s view of the sacred that continues to distinguish itself from other religious expressions in modernity as the quintessential pre-modern religion. In other words, the sacred, for the main body of Muslims, was never rendered into the profane; the secular. Aside from the anomaly of modern thought as expressed by a few pro-modernity Muslim thinkers, there has never existed the concept of Les Belles Lettres. Beauty, in the body of Muslim thought, has always been connected to the Divine. It is even one of the Attributes of God in Islam, where all other emanations of beauty only point back to the source of Ultimate Beauty. This notion of sacredness extends to the mosque – any mosque, not solely the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Madīnah – as well to the Qur’ān. Art in the Muslim world (and in pre-modern Europe as well) was viewed as religious: the decorating of mosques, the illumination of the Qur’ān and other classical texts and so forth. These artistic endeavors were done not out of a desacralized sense of beauty, but rather as a mode of religious devotion. In fact, if Dowd had spoken with a body of Muslims before hand, she may have heard voices from the Muslims who dismay over the very secularness of the Blue Mosque, in that what once used to be a place of worship has now been reduced to a museum of historic architecture; the belle lettre of buildings. So when Muslims wish to keep and preserve the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madīnah, perhaps Dowd could see that this decision is informed by a very specific thought process that has very specific goals, namely the preservation of the sacred for all Muslims.

As for the three faith traditions that Dowd lists, she misses a key point: you may not have to be Catholic to go to the Vatican, but you may have to be Catholic to really understand what it means to be Catholic. You may be able to learn some very interesting facts about Catholicism as a non-Catholic, but without having the experience of being a Catholic, especially in a modern mindset, you will only have accumulated a collection of details that may or may not have the same meaning for the viewer as it does the object of their viewing. Similarly, as above, simply because Catholics have chosen to open up the Vatican does not mean that Muslims should open up Mecca. The Vatican is not Mecca, nor vise versa. Perhaps Dowd should consider doing some research on her topic before flailing about wildly with her pen.

Finally, I will depart with commenting on the methodology of Dowd’s inquiry. In her own words, Dowd stated that, “It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam”. Another in a long line of presumptions, I would challenge Ms. Dowd on just how she arrived at this observation. Much akin to Africa being the cradle of civilization, going back to Kenya and walking around the dusty streets of Nairobi will not, cēterīs paribus, give me any epiphanic understanding of what life is like in New York City. Further, the analogy of a “cradle” is also not without critique, as a cradle, according to the dictionary, is a small bed, often for infants, during which they are nurtured in their early existence. Islam was born in Mecca, but it grew up and moved out the house, expanded in Madīnah and eventually flew well beyond its borders. While learning about Mecca will indeed teach one about certain aspects of Islam, but it cannot give the whole picture. In the end, my advice to Maureen Dowd would be: if you want to learn about Islam, become a Muslim. If you wish to know some “facts” about Islam, well, you could visit Wikipedia. Or for that matter, continue reading this blog.

Clash of Globalizations: Western and Islamic Utopianists

It seems that Islam and more specifically Muslims just can’t stay out of popular discourse these days. The so-called rise of Islam in our Modern Time has scribed such sloganistic terms as Clash of Civilizations. Additionally, Islam has fostered a entire profession of self-loathing, self-serving arm chair apostates, who, having left Islam, crown themselves as self-proclaimed ex-Muslims, make a living off of an odd mixture of bashing and faux-reformation, supposedly aimed at rectifying the masses of Muslims, who they have deemed as having succumbed to the innate barbarity that is at the very heart of Islam.

What is often left out of this elitist discourse is that many of these pundits are not part of any community of Muslims [how could they – they’ve left the religion]. Nor do they have any vested interest in these communities successes or failures. To the contrary, they have an interest in the “failures” of these Muslim communities, without which they would have to procure honest employment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji are two such critics and reforms that come to mind. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Ali sited Manji as a, “genuine Muslim reformer”. I would have to ask Ms. Ali how she came to such a decision, being that in Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is mainly a self-aggrandizing rant of one person’s experience growing up in an ethnic Muslim family. As woeful as Manji’s childhood tale may be, it is precisely just that. I am constantly awestruck by the arrogant and lapdog mentality of these “experts” in how they make their personal experiences an ontological criterion from which all Muslims and all of Islam, outside of time and space, can and will be judged. Manji’s book is as transparent as it is of value: she extols all that is white, Christian and Western [any such faults, as she fails to mention, would be presumably by accident] and defames all of Islam by the actions of her father or of her surroundings. In a sense, Islam is in need of reformation not because of any real issues, but because Manji was personally treated badly at the hands of some Muslims. A self-proclaimed homosexual, Manji objects to her exclusion from the Muslim community because of this stance. It is here that the arguments of these pundits fall apart. They will only see value in Islam as in how it fits neatly into a pre-packaged Western and yes, white ideal. Human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, are all sifted through the white, Christian sieve of upper middle-class white women. That which passes through is deemed admirable. That which does not – backwards and worthy of critique. In the following paragraphs I will share some sentiments on how the philosophy of globalization has infected the discourse on everything from economics to cultural dialog to how we go to war. But first, a few words about modern Muslim ideologies as well.

If Ali, Manji, and their contemporaries are guilty of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has dubbed, the “false universal” [or what I will refer to here in this post as globalization] then many modern Muslim ideologies also stand charged of the same crime. Much of the efforts of many modern Muslim religious thinkers has been to try and reduce, dilute or unify Islam into a single entity. That which does not fit this mold is tarnished as bid’ah [innovation] and is only a stone’s throw from being tossed in the refuse basked of kufr [disbelief]. Indeed, in my fifteen years years as a Muslim, I have often heard from various imams and preachers that Islam is a universal religion that neither sees nor quantifies race. And yet I can say with certainty that the common experience, especially on behalf of many indigenous American Muslims [convert or otherwise, who’s families do not hail from the “Muslim world”] would give stiff contradiction to the latter. In a recent post on the blog, Black American Muslim Political Scientists, Charles Catchings points out in this piece, I Am Not Alone:

“…the fundamentalist pretends that no issues of racial prejudice exist while advocating a very race and culture-based interpretation of Islam.”

Here, I would change fundamentalist part and parcel for the ethnic Muslim preachers [fundamentalist to me is a carpet bombing word that has no real meaning. It can be used to defame or slander anyone that at once practices the basic tenements of the religion that others may object to, assassinating his or her character simply because they disagree with them] I and many other fellow indigenous American Muslims have encountered. Here I wish to place special emphasis on the negation of the Blackamerican experience by ethnic Muslim preachers. Often it has been that myself or many other fellow Muslims have heard the kumbaya’ism, “there is no racism in Islam”, or that “Islam does not see race; it sees the individual”. Any yet, God speaks in the Qur’an often of variance and diversity that God has created, “in the Day and Night”. Indeed, as Dr. Khalid Blankenship pointed out in a lecture he gave last year here in Philadelphia, diversity is something that should not be removed but, in truth, celebrated. The irony to this is that many of these same preachers themselves use their own racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds in interpreting Islam. This is not the issue, however. The issue is when one thinks one’s culture is Islam itself, and seeks to unify other histories [or in reality, obliterate them] under the unifying banner of “true Islam”.

Islam is not alone in that many of its teaching and concepts have the potential for universal appeal or interpretation. History has shown this to be the case as Islam can be found, in an indigenous state, on every continent and by almost all peoples. In Malaysia, Islam is a bone fide Malay religion. In Ghana, the same. It is a bona fide African religion. What works to make this process of assimilation by the indigenous peoples is their method of appropriating the religion, such that it speaks to them and to their history. This continues to be the primary limiting factor of Islam’s success in America, specifically amongst Blackamerican Muslims. Instead of appropriating Islam to address and speak to Blackamerican history, proclivities and social conditions, many Blackamericans have lost sight of the forest ‘fore the trees. In the words of one Blackamerican critic of Islam, other fellow Blackamerican Muslims are perceived as going from the back of the bus to the back of the camel. That blacks have, “out Arabed the Arabs”. Indeed, there is a certain amount of truth to this critique. The manner in which many Blackamericans encountered and entered Islam was through the prism of a foreign, ethnic understanding and agenda. Hence, to this day, large populations of Blackamerican Muslims are content to live in abject crime and poverty, even though, from a religious viewpoint, they have an obligation to fight it! While this subject is worthy of another post in itself, I will not go further into other than to illustrate how the version of Islam that is being practiced by Blackamerican Muslims is out of touch with their reality. A version that was propagated to them from universalist, Utopian Muslims.

With the tone set for both sides of the firing line, I will attempt to illustrate some points on the impact of globalization, or more specifically, the ideology of globalization on modern thought processes.

America and her culture make for a peculiar dance partner. If one were to simply step back, you might see someone’s shoes peeking out the bottom of the Wizard’s curtain. And yet, American culture proclaims mightily that it is indeed, the Great and Powerful Oz. For all of its rhetoric, America falls painfully short of any real manifestation of diversity. Instead, one particular group along with its history, values, proclivities and inclinations, is foisted upon a pedestal as an invisible criteria, circumscribing normalcy and proscribing that which does not fall within the its lines. As Roberto Bissio writes in Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature, “in all the corners of this diverse world is a systematic aggression against diversity, both natural and cultural – a destructive and impoverishing trend towards uniformity, which hides its threatening face behind the name “globalization.” [Anton, Danilo J. Diversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature. Ottawa, Ontario: International Development Research Centre, 1995. Pg ix.]. This act of circumscribing/proscribing is make even more potent by the increasing global influence of American culture. As the dominant economic and military power in the world, American sensibilities of right and wrong, just and fair, or even what constitutes beauty are carried far beyond its border with incredible efficacy. This allows America, and by American I mean white Americans, to wield tremendous power as both judge and executioner. The cultures that come in contact with this phenomenon are often “shocked and awed” into complacency, and in an attempt to save face and not be left a seat at the table of Modernity, they jettison their own historical proclivities for a chance to appease the master. This cycle of globalization in cross-cultural exchanges only [mistakenly] reinforces America’s belief that it is the pinnacle of social achievement. Dr. Jackson’s erudite assessment that the Twenty First Century is the century of the false universal, whereas its counterpart, the Twentieth Century, was the color line. Modern Muslims have taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

The great British historian, Arnold Toynbee, stated, “Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.” The state of Muslims in this time and age are most certainly in a state of decline. I do not wholly come to this conclusion because Muslims are not just like the West [because, well, in fact, this Muslim is just like the West in that this is where I’m born, raised, and live!]. Aside from the fact that many Muslims are 100% western [whether they choose to admit it or embrace it is another matter], I reject that in order to be morally upright, socially progressive and the like that is can only be done in accordance to white, Western values. This having been stated, Muslims around the world have fallen into the great pit trap of the Twenty First Century: the trap of globalized ideologies. As has been stated above, Islam has many universal ideals. I will not attempt to lay the blame for such ideologies solely at the feet of Western culture but the impact and influence of the West on Muslim thought cannot be discounted in its current manifestation. I will even go so far as to suggest that in many ways, the globalized vision of many Muslims would not be as vehement if there were not a counter ideology coming from the West. But to escape polemics, Muslims are going to have to look critically and intelligently at their respective situations and act accordingly to them. No longer can a cardboard, brand-X, our-size-fits-all mentality be acceptable. This endeavor calls for real soul searching.

History cannot be evaded. And only at one’s detriment can it be ignored. Aside from Native Americans, Blackamericans are suffering the ill effects of doing just that – ignoring the fact that they are black and live in America [I would add that perhaps Native Americans are not ignoring their past but America as a whole, having dealt them a killing blow, has forgotten all about them]. If Islam is to become something other than a foreign culture activity, something to give Blackamericans identity and [false] esteem, then Islam will have to be appropriated and steered both towards our history, addressing our present, so that a trajectory for the future may be charted. A triage will have to be performed on the body of Blackamerican Islam, assessing its health, wealth, and faculty for moving forward. What parts can be kept, what parts can be modified and what parts need be amputated, these are the questions for the surgeons of the future of Blackamerican Islam. And while I have chosen to emphasis Blackamerican Muslims for this example, I believe this is the process that needs to be done by any and all Muslims, both those abroad but most immediately those here in America [black, white or otherwise]. Community independence will need to be established, lead by an energetic youthfulness, tempered by the wisdom of its elders. A word of caution – there are those of the old guard, good intentions or otherwise, that will seek to retain authority and control of these communities. While the advice of the elders should always be sought and taken into consideration it is painfully apparent that current leadership in the American and yes, Blackamerican community, is far out of step with the realities of the times. Muslims are going to have to put aside differences and even learn to celebrate real differences as the strength of their communities and not the false diversity that is presented today [“…you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re just like us…”]. This was a process and a wisdom of the Classical Tradition, that agreed to disagree. If this concept can be grasped, Muslims may be able to carve themselves out a functional, harmonious, and dignified existence both in this part of the world and abroad as well.

And God knows best.