By Tabish Khair
December 05, 2015
Vol - L No. 49
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris, a popular left wing argument highlighted the culpability of imperialism in fuelling this violence. This form of anti-imperialism ends up denying historical agency to Muslims, and people in the postcolonial countries as a whole, and often becomes an excuse for Islamic fundamentalism. This article argues for a politics which escapes this trap of speaking a truth that is also a lie.
There was the usual bandying around of accusations after the latest Islamist carnage in Paris on the night of 13 November 2015, when terrorists wreaked havoc in the city, killing around 130 innocent people, mostly left-leaning music lovers who traditionally stand up for refugees. Fingers of accusation were pointed at refugees and immigrants in some European quarters (though there were at least as many expressions of solidarity).
Some sweeping Islamophobic generalisations were inevitably made about Muslims, (in)tolerance and (un)democracy, which must be sweet music to the ears of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as they share an identical understanding of Islam. Valid points were taken by lazy politicians on the right and fashioned into a club to clout Muslims, immigrants, multiculturalism, etc.
But these are not my concern in this article: I have written about these matters in the past, and there are (thankfully!) many Europeans and Americans who regularly counter such xenophobic libel.
I am more concerned with some well-meaning answers, which have now been offered so often that they have become lame excuses. Take this Facebook posting, widely circulated over the next few days:
People killed in Paris: 120. People killed in Syria: 1,15,000. People killed in Afghanistan: 7,46,976. People killed in Pakistan: 95,000 since 9/11. People killed in Iraq: US killed half a million innocent people...
This was a well-meaning, factual posting; as far as I could see, it had been put out (at least in the earliest rendition I discovered) by a (white) American critic of American policies, and it included the heart-rending plea: “Don’t mistake national or political problems for religious. Muslims have nothing to do with any mass killing or terrorism. Extremists do.”
I could also see that it had been circulated by Muslim friends and relatives—who are staunch critics of Islamist terror and even of Islamic fundamentalism. But I found it disturbing that Muslims, even those who critique ISIS—actually I do not know any Muslim who supports ISIS—unthinkingly circulate a posting like this. If an American posts these facts, he is issuing a valid critique of United States’ (US) foreign policies and a defence of Muslims at the same time. But when a Muslim reposts it, he might be sending out another signal, inadvertently.
Because the fact remains that all those tens of thousands listed as killed in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan (we can add to the list)—as against a “paltry” 120 in Paris—were not mostly killed by the US or even by Western nations. Less than a 10th of the casualties in all these nations—except Afghanistan—may be attributed to direct US or European action. All the rest have been killed by other, yes, Muslims. A lot of them have been killed by various Islamist groups. To jam all these numbers together and shove them in an envelope under the door of the White House seems to be a mistake—or dishonest.
I say this and, immediately, a certain kind of Muslim—often quite left-leaning—stands up and starts quoting political tracts about colonialism and imperialism. By this account, in different ways, Muslims have been and are continuously manipulated by the US or, if the man is truly “left-leaning,” imperial Western capitalist powers.
This account makes Muslims sound like zombies, totally incapable of thinking for themselves and organising creatively: all they can do is be clubbed by “Western” imperial powers, after which they grunt, get up painfully and lumber, like zombies, after the nearest “Western” power, only to get clubbed down again. Centuries of this, and Muslims do not seem to have learnt. They stupidly let themselves be exploited and manoeuvred time and again! Aha, actually, these devious evil “Western” powers do not even need to do the clubbing themselves anymore: it looks like they can just programme various Muslim zombie-groups to kill one another.
There are good grounds for a critique of colonialism—something mainstream Europe has seldom faced up to—and imperialism. But, in some contexts, it is also just a weak excuse. If you look at the ground realities, it gets weaker. Take Iraq and Syria today: I would be the last person to deny that vested interests in the US initially allowed ISIS to thrive, to oppose Iranian influence in the region, and marginalise Russia. But (even if we momentarily look away from the ISIS claim to be “Islamic”) can the role of countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey be considered negligible?
If one wants to look at the problem honestly, one has to concede that the mess in Iraq and Syria today is the result of the mutual rivalries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other countries in the region—and the US, being a global superpower, is inevitably involved. Yes, the US looks after its own interests, and as is the case with all countries, half the time these are short-term interests with long-term drawbacks. Why should US play Mother Teresa to a bunch of squabbling Third World nations anyway? Every time Muslims put the blame for their problems on US or Europe or the past, they speak the truth, but only a half-truth—and hence they also utter a lie.
There is a trend in the tradition that I still feel closest to—Marxist criticism—that encourages Muslims (and postcolonial thinkers in general) to fall into this trap, the trap of speaking a truth that is also a lie. Let us look at a neutral description by John S Saul (2006: 1–2), an admirable intellectual, who has dedicated his life to the cause of global justice and Third World nations:
It is impossible to understate the significance of the economic breakthrough that occurred with the rise of capitalism in western Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries. It is, of course, particularly pertinent here to note what Europe did with the economic strength which the vagaries of history rewarded it: in fact, Europe chose to accelerate a process of world conquest that had begun with the exploits of Spain and Portugal in the very earliest days of mercantile capitalism’s dawn and that continued unabated as stronger, more fully realized capitalist economies emerged […]. To make a long story short, the rest of the world was subordinated to the economic requirements of expanding European economic and military might […]. A global hierarchy was thus formed, in geographical, class and racial terms that would have a profound, even crippling, effect on the economic and social prospects of the vast majority of the world’s population.
As was the case with the Facebook posting I looked at earlier, what John Saul says is legitimate and factual, and it behoves him, as a white Canadian, to have the self-awareness, intellectual integrity and sociocultural distance to assume such a stand. But the moment a position like this is automatically repeated by a Third World speaker, it changes shape—its truth becomes grained with many easy fibs too, and the exploitation of the non-West becomes a mechanical, almost non-agential matter. It starts smelling rotten like an excuse.
For one, unperceptively, it filters away any true cognisance of internal non-Western colonial and precolonial failures—caste exploitation, tribalism, educational deterioration, gender status issues, feudal structures, etc—with the sweeping broom of European capitalist colonisation. Now I know that things were not as bad as later European colonisers sometimes led us to believe (early European travellers were often much more positive—actually our myths of precolonial Golden Ages partly come to us from European sources too), but that does not mean that things were hunky dory either, before the evil European stepped in.
Also, let us face it, “Capitalism” did not descend on Europe as a boon from Jehovah. It needed centuries of slow accumulation of goods, information, knowledge, freedoms, skills and, above all, a critical attitude. Some of it came from the Arabs during the early Renaissance: it was accepted, resisted, discussed, employed, changed and developed in due course. Muslims—and Hindus too—regularly forget that Christianity itself came to Europe from another part of the world; it was negotiated and moulded in ways that refashioned it as a faith, slowly replacing (among other things) the centrality of a jealous patriarchal god with the notion of an all-loving, all-forgiving, almost effeminate Jesus.
The sheer adaptability of Europe tends to be forgotten, as well as elements, in the 18th and 19th centuries, that reinforced critical thinking and, within regions, a degree of egalitarianism. Rousseau could be openly atheistic in the 18th century; Bertrand Russell could write “Why I Am Not a Christian?” in 1957. Is it wrong or racist to ask: how many Muslim intellectuals will be allowed to do something similar even today in any Muslim nation? How many religious Muslims will be willing to stand up for Muslims who do so?
What all this highlights is a fact that Karl Marx saw very clearly and leftists have lost sight of in recent years: the bourgeoisie. For Marx the bourgeoisie was a “revolutionary class.” It was due to the creative, questing, critical spirit of the “European” bourgeoisie that, as Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto, “[a]ll that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Marx’s quarrel was not with this spirit, but with its material limitations and growing contradictions.
On the other hand, what we have in most Muslim nations (and increasingly in the putative “Hindu” nation of India these days) is a “radicalism” that believes in curbing the critical thinking of those few members of the postcolonial bourgeoisie who dare to think for themselves.
In West Asia, this is compounded by the fact that the bourgeoisie is largely missing (and in this sense the Free Syrian Army has no chance to stand up on its own against Islamists, and never did, despite Western enthusiasm). The easy, complicit wealth brought in by oil hides this by enabling an artificial economic betterment. But the bourgeoisie is not simply a matter of economic capital; it is also a matter of cultural and educational capital, entrepreneurship, personal freedoms and, what is indivisible from them, critical thinking. It is in the latter sense that Marx considered the bourgeoisie a revolutionary class; when the bourgeoisie gets reduced to basically its economic advantages, it ceases to be revolutionary. Unfortunately, the emulative paradigm in West Asia seems to be Saudi Arabia, a country where a tribal chieftainship has been turned into a powerful oil-rich monarchy, sustained with the help of a very narrow interpretation of Islam, which is now spawning even narrower radical “protest” groups, such as the Al Qaeda and the ISIS.
Let us stop then, in the light of what has been said, and look at another predictable reaction to the Paris atrocity: religious Muslims pointed out that acts of terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. Yes, they were right—but were they only right? Is it not time for them to ask themselves some other questions too?
I will frame some questions for them: Is there really no connection at all between fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, steeped in intolerance of “deviance” within the flock, and the act of fanatics who shoot and kill others in the name of Islam? Is there no connection at all between extremist, intolerant Islamism and the insistence of ordinary religious Muslims to regulate the dress of women, the behaviour of men, and so many other matters? I find it increasingly difficult to see how peaceful fundamentalist Muslims, who are convinced that non-practising Muslims will eventually burn in hell, are very different from, say, the ISIS, which is simply not as eternally patient as them?
Notice, what I say here of religious Muslims can also be said of some Hindus in India. But my concern here is Muslims. This is something my leftist friends in India or Europe often do not understand. Despite being atheists, they are willing to speak up for the rights of fundamentalist Muslims—because they believe in difference. They do not want to be intolerant about tolerance; they do not wish to be fanatical about secularism. I can see their logic. I agree with their logic to a large degree. But it also worries me; surely, one can claim the right to differ only if one allows others the right to differ too?
Fundamentalist Islam—like any other kind of religious fundamentalism (such as Christian fundamentalism in the US), like Nazism and Hindutva—does not do this, though religious Muslims might. My last novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, was, among other things, an attempt to show how a religious Muslim ought not to be confused with a fundamentalist, let alone a terrorist. There are many ways of not just being Muslim but also of being religious in Islam. But this is also a fact: religious Muslims tend to kowtow to fundamentalists because they cannot fully sanction these myriad differences among themselves. They can live them at times, but almost never legislate them.
One wonders whether many orthodox Muslims are not living a lie in their ordinary, domestic lives? Can you really justify the differential treatment of women, of wives and daughters, nieces and aunts, and claim that it has nothing to do with structures of power? Take the insistence of orthodox Muslims to cover “their” women head to foot, while they themselves flaunt their ill-clipped beards. In all possible terms of honest thought, this represents an inequality, an injustice—it can be accepted as a religious practice only with the assumption (implicit or explicit) that all humans are not equal. Here, I use “equal” in its basic democratic and secular sense—that, despite differences in ability, all humans need to be treated equally and be given the same opportunity to be human.
Choice and Proscription
When I objected to the veil once in public, a female Palestinian poet, dressed in a low-cut frock, responded to me with these words: “The veil is a personal choice, like the bikini. Why doesn’t France want to ban the bikini, which is just as derogatory to women?” Sounds convincing, does it not? Let me assure you, it is not. No Western country makes bikinis the prescribed dress for women (who can dress in a myriad ways, like men) even on a beach, while many Muslim countries and even societies insist on women being veiled in public.
As such, any Muslim who says that a veil is just a personal choice is lying to you or herself—as long as there are Islamic countries where the veil is not just a choice. If such a Muslim is seriously concerned about personal choices, he or she should work to make the veil only a personal choice in Muslim countries, societies and thinking—after which I would be willing to not just accept it but even celebrate it as a personal choice in a secular, democratic nation.
At the core of all such responses is the little domestic lie, and I am increasingly convinced that this germ of a lie is embedded in the duplicitous relations that sustain orthodox—and even plainly religious—gender relations in most Islamic societies. This is a serious drawback of many contemporary Muslim societies, and just because European racists use it as a club against Muslims does not mean that we need to dismiss it as valid self-criticism. To this is added (as among many in Hindutva circles too) an obsession with the “evil” of others and the past, which not just reduces one’s awareness of present possibilities but also creates a self-fuelling circle of resentment and grievance that finds its ultimate—and ultimately nihilistic—expression in the suicide bomber.
True, it is a sad world where all lives are not yet equivalent, where some can be killed without mourning because, as Judith Butler laments, they have already been filed as “dead.” And yet, our initial responsibility, in a pragmatic sense, is to our families and friends: when our Third World societies fail, our towns collapse, it is our failure, not that of Europe or America, no matter what their vested interests. We cannot put the blame on others or (Listen, O Bhakts!) on the past.
Saul, John S (2006): Development after Globalization: Theory and Practice for an Embattled South in a New Imperial Age, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.
Tabish Khair (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the School of Communication and Culture–English, Aarhus University, Denmark.