February 24, 2019

A Different Take on American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics

A response to a Medium post, "On American Muslim Progressivism and Identity Politics", by Mobeen Vaid: 

This is a thought provoking piece that I disagree with. By way of opening up a line of critique, consider this short passage from the author: "This recalibrated politics represents a radical departure from the American Muslim community of yesterday that spoke with pride of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, not as cultural symbols who shared an overlapping “identity” with themselves, but as people who contributed in positive ways to society, lived admirably, and embodied the ethics, morals, and values that — and here lies the crucial difference — emerge from a life informed by God’s instruction."
Now I have no doubt that many American Muslims did just that. But to reduce of the history of the 'American Muslim community'-- replete with personality disputes, insane theological hair-splitting, cult-like thinking, ethnic/racial tensions, and a number of prominent spiritually abusive figures-- to a simple group of united pious folks, and to then contrast that putative piety of the past in such a way that subtly communicates that today's activist and progressive Muslims don't seek to live a life informed by God's instruction, is not an argument grounded in actually existing histories. It is a form of cultural anxiety dressed up in the clothes of nostalgia.
It is worth noting in passing that today's focus on sexual autonomy as the far boundary point between 'what Islam believes' and the alleged degeneracy of modern culture, sometimes obscures a useful fact to remember: that Muslim communities of the past argued just as passionately, with plenty of Quranic justification, over issues Muslims today view as relatively minor. In all likelihood in a hundred years or less, controversial issues we now consider pressing will have been definitively resolved and the consensus will be incorporated into religious discourse, through strategic forgetting.
The author asks: "Will we stand by idly and preside over the effective secularization of American Muslims and the reduction of “Muslim” to a mere social identity marker?"
Assuming for a moment that this reduction is what is actually happening, what would *not* idly standing by look like? The author provides some clues about how he thinks about these things in another essay (https://medium.com/…/on-gender-wars-metoo-and-building-a-pr…):
"Muslims need to speak forthrightly about the sex-specific obligations of the Shari’a, even when they are inegalitarian. Obedience to one’s husband in matters of good is necessary for a healthy household (with due recognition to the typical machinations of household disagreement, of course). Non-maḥram men and women must maintain reasonable separation within parameters established in the Shari’a, and both should lower their gaze with the other, particularly when shahwa is felt. Khalwa is impermissible and should not be disregarded absent dire circumstances. Men must retain their responsibility as qawwām over women — providing financially, guiding spiritually, and protecting socially (even — and especially — against those malefactors in our midst)"
These are confident assertions of the necessity of patriarchal control. But unless Muslims are in a position of majoritarian political power, most of these ideas cannot be practically implemented without causing massive social chaos and fitna. The answer often given in response individualizes the response; Muslims 'should want' to implement these things in their own life to protect their piety. There ought to be space for such patriarchal piety to exist; you cannot legislate it out of existence as it forms a deeply held part of the psyche of millions of people. But let us imagine the implications of implementing some version of this vision in a public sphere.
Mobeen Vaid, like many neo-traditionalists, is relatively naive to the pitfalls of that implementation. In the current political climate, most of these proposals would mean instantiating a millet-like form of internal religious government in which 'Muslims' as a bloc govern themselves as Jews did in the Ottoman empire or as Copts do in modern Egypt. Is Vaid prepared for what this entails: the abandonment of the struggle for equal civil rights in a secular public sphere? Vaid completely ignores that many religious people have confidently balanced a set of private conservative beliefs with commitment to a more robustly liberal public sphere. In Vaid's model, it appears that, unless patriarchal piety is publically implemented in the Muslim community, it does not deserve the name of Islam. He quotes Dr. Sherman Jackson, but does not engage with Jackson's concept of the "Islamic secular".
A self-governing Muslim community in the US under patriarchal law would basically look a lot like Mormonism. In fact, many Muslim communities have attempted to replicate the model of Mormons. Very few succeed in overcoming the inherently cult-like dynamic of that kind of formation. The further danger these strictures represent to faith can be understood by imagining what should happen when Muslim parents, like well meaning religious parents in many contexts, attempt to 'crack down' and 'enforce' this hyper-patriarchal model on their children. In societies where patriarchal piety is enshrined in law, private sexual morality is a matter of public anxiety and concern. More often than not, one can observe the spiritual rot this authoritarianism produces. In fact it is rebellion against the harshness of these strictures that is the main producer of atheism in religiously authoritarian states. Progressive Muslim culture, for all its foibles, acts as an invaluable safety valve for critical questioning of internal community dynamics. I want to ask Vaid if he think issues like the imam grooming underage girls in Texas, or Mawlana Saleem in Chicago would have come to light without a critical lens on patriarchal piety, by which to hold the community accountable and shine a light on its processes of governance? The anti-authoritarian impulse of progressivism gives a huge fillip to struggles against the abuse of this patriarchal model. Right now, there are a number of morally upright liberal/left alternatives in the American counterculture that don't come with the heavy baggage of patriarchal purity culture. Vaid would have you believe those are a liability to the Muslim community and an affront to the ummah's piety as a whole. I regard this as an immature view because it does not realistically address the implications of implementing patriarchal piety in governance and law, nor the positive aspects of having a spectrum of thought on social issues without resorting to false universalism.
The emphasis on reviving patriarchy as the route to reviving piety raises some interesting questions as to which of the many Muslim social issues should take precedence for the US-based ummah, for Vaid's is not the dominant model of public engagement. Modern Muslim social justice orgs in the US have rightfully given precedence to liberation theology as the entry point for Islam into the public sphere. But perhaps Muslims should focus more on sexual issues, as Vaid suggests. What about allying with right-wing evangelicals and Catholics on abortion? Or joining evangelical Christians in advocating for a reversal of same-sex marriage equality? This tactic has to be considered very carefully in a climate of Islamophobia. Do Muslims in the US have sufficient institutional power to wage these battles? And at what cost?
Finally, what about socio-religious issues where Muslims would stand alone? How much priority is it prudent to give to issues that were once an integral part of the tradition? Should the Muslim community advocate the government to have the right to punish apostates, as is mentioned in the tradition? Should Muslims advocate for all women who are unmarried to travel with a male companion? Should they endorse the Prophetic sunna of holding slaves and taking concubines? Vague resorts to imagined ideals of 'sacred activism', 'Quran and sunnah', 'ultimate commitments to God' are simply not cutting it. They will all ultimately fail to stem the tide. And in spite of the tone of that essay, not all of that tide is negative. Allowing people to think of themselves beyond and outside of Abrahamic religious identities, esp the globally hegemonic ones of Christianity and Islam, is a positive development overall for religious faith.
The anxiety that many people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, feel at modern statist liberalism is authentic and must be acknowledged and mitigated as much as possible. In many cases the deeply rooted beliefs of religious communities provide some of the best critiques of injustice, tyranny and greed. But religious commentators shouldn't just get a pass in the name of infusing the public square with piety. Instead, anyone within those traditions who is interested in critical thinking ought to scrutinize what is being offered as an alternative to overcome this anxiety. Most of the times the rhetoric of these alternatives far outruns the practical reality of their implementation. Many times there are extremely compelling reasons for rejecting these alternatives, and not all of them need to have some explicit scriptural justification. Some of them are pragmatic, others are deeply rooted in prophetic akhlaq, others in general understandings of the fragility of knowledge, others in a spiritual discipline against religious ressentiment.
postscript: It ought to be noted that this nexus of anxiety-nostalgia I describe also underlies a great deal of modern Hindutva discourse about liberalism. Although tempered in the US by Muslims being a minority, today's global neo-traditionalism shares some profound similarities with the Hindu right wing, in its nostalgia for an imagined social unity, its anxiety about changing forms of sexual autonomy for women, and its antagonistic relationship to modern science. Like the Hindu right, neo-traditionalists are wont to discuss Islam primarily as an aggrieved and victimized subject who has been betrayed by modern liberalism, even in societies where Muslims are an overwhelming majority.


August 30, 2018

Book Summary Excerpt: by Nathaniel Mathews: An Afrabian Diaspora: Swahili-speaking Omanis recall their pasts in East Africa


Across Africa and Asia, governments are increasingly concerned with recruiting capital investment from overseas diasporas as a solution to domestic revenue troubles. From India’s overtures to ‘non-resident Indians’ (NRIs), to the Kenyan state recently declaring its Indian community a recognized ‘tribe’, states utilize their diasporas as a source of remittance and investment.1 Their appeals to the diaspora are often couched in the language of heritage, ancestry and ethnicity. But what happens when appeals to that heritage collide with memories of the violent ethnic trauma these diasporas experienced in leaving their country of origin? And how do those tensions influence how a diaspora produces its history and identity? My book manuscript, “Children of the Lost Colony: Memory, Empire and the Making of an Afro-Arab Diaspora”, excavates the forgotten journeys of a group of Afro-Arab refugees from a 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, historicizes their transformation into a Swahili-speaking ‘Zanzibari’ community in modern Oman, and analyzes the contemporary work they do remembering their displacement and migration.
Oman may seem rather distant geographically from East Africa, but the cultural highways of the Indian Ocean have long knit the two regions. Omanis have been traveling to East Africa and intermarrying with its inhabitants since the fourteenth century, and the island of Zanzibar was the capital of a nineteenth century Omani empire. In fact, nationality on the East coast of Africa dates to the establishment of this independent trans-oceanic empire by an Omani sultan. His successors were what the late Ali Mazrui called “genealogical Afrabians”, descended on one side from Omani Arabs who arrived in the eighteenth century, and on the other from various lineages of locally born Africans. Zanzibar and parts of modern Kenya and mainland Tanzania were once part of the domains of these sultans. They were eroded and then ‘protected’ in the age of the scramble for Africa by European powers, foremost among them the British. What is unique about the case of Zanzibar and Oman is that the Omanis, like the Tutsis in Rwanda, had been king and rulers, while many contemporary Zanzibaris are descendants of Africans brought as their slaves.
The revolution of 1964, despite having only a small socialist participation, led western powers to label Zanzibar ‘the Cuba of Africa.’ The revolution helped influence a pan-African union of Zanzibar in April 1964 with mainland Tanganyika, creating modern Tanzania. Since 1985, declining state revenues have shifted Tanzanian state policy towards a more pro-business and pro-corporate strategy of seeking overseas investment Zanzibar’s political leadership now have a vision of the island as Hong Kong, Dubai, or Singapore-- a wealthy city-state sitting at the center of the global economy. To accomplish this, Zanzibar’s government made and continues to make frequent and repeated overtures to the Afro-Arab exile community in Oman, a group it once feared as counter-revolutionary. Zanzibar’s leaders couched these appeals in terms of the permanent and unbroken ties of religious, cultural and ancestral heritage between Oman and Zanzibar.
In this twenty-one-year period from 1964-1985, thousands of Zanzibaris made refugees by the revolution negotiated a path to citizenship in modern Oman. At the eastern end of the Gulf, Oman in the 1960s was poor and isolated, ruled by a sultan who shunned the outside world. With the development of an economy based on oil and gas, and the ascendance to the throne of a new sultan in 1970, Oman entered a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. The one-time refugees from Zanzibar were one of the few population groups in Oman to have received a modern colonial education, thus they were appointed to lead key ministries and played a formative role in the making of modern Omani national institutions.


May 2, 2018

Monotheism, Secularity and Disenchantment

The 'disenchantment of the world' thesis, states that capitalist techno-modernity devalued older ways of knowing associated with religious belief, by asserting that there is no evidence that praying to an invisible God had any effect on reality, and that ordinary people were only fooling themselves and believing in an illusion.
This type of transformation is often considered new, but it has deeper roots in the iconoclastic monotheism of the Abrahamic variety. 'Monotheistic' or 'Abrahamic' faiths (both contested terms to be sure) devalued previous ways of knowing in virtually the same way, by asserting that there is no evidence that praying to God-embodied-thru objects (rocks, carved wood, trees, mountains) had any effect on reality, and that ordinary people were only fooling themselves and believing in an illusion. (look at the story of Abraham in Qisas Anbiya, for example).
Although both modes of thinking contain important and vital critiques of the arrogance of human conduct, they tend to reinforce a certain conceptual arrogance of their own in their approach to the mystery of reality. In a rough epistemological sense, the arrogance of much iconoclastic thinking is the ideological precursor to the arrogance of disenchanted secularity.


April 25, 2018

Violence, Racism and Dubois: the Relevance of Africana Studies

a short post I wrote for Binghamton University's ASO newsletter:

We live in an age of resurgent and wounded white supremacy. As a scholar of Africana Studies and History, I understand Donald Trump and his followers not as the aberration from the supposedly civil political norms of a previous age, but as the return to a mode of political discourse all too familiar in United States history, what the great scholar of Africana, Dr. W.E.B. Dubois called in his magnum opus Black Reconstruction, “the wages of whiteness.”

            We live in age where forms of toxic masculinity, alienation and white racism can combine to fuel destructive form of mass violence. I understand the ever increasing incidence of mass shootings not as the aberration from a previous age of peace, harmony and security, but as the result of our continued use of a mode of violent political action globally, and the inability to ‘wall off’ violence out there (Iraq, Afghanistan), from violence within US borders. 

            We live in an age where a resurgent xenophobic nationalism promises to deal with the ongoing economic catastrophes wrought by the 2008 financial crisis, by building a wall and keeping out Muslims, Mexicans and non-white people in general.   I understand this anti-immigrant sentiment not as the decline from a golden age of tolerance, but as the return to a time-honed mode of racist populism in our collective political discourse. While fascism and racism are common responses to economic anxiety, they only perpetuate the problem of violence, and eat deeply into the spiritual resolve of people who foolishly adopt them.

            In 1915, the great scholar W.E.B. Dubois published a prescient and prophetic piece in The Atlanticcalled “The African Roots of War.” In it, he located the roots of the destruction of Europe in World War One in the violence and genocide of European imperialism in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Dubois’s central contention, still relevant today, is that “We, then, who want peace, must remove the real causes of war.” Those causes, which Dubois identified as racism, greed, and despotic unjust rule, are still with us today; in fact they define our present global condition as clearly as they did in Dubois’s time.

            Under these conditions, scholars and students of the Africana experience have an opportunity to speak and raise up the truths of Dubois, as well as many others—from ancestor Winnie Mandela to the martyr Marielle Franco—to a new generation. Their writings and their lives are a powerful legacy bequeathed to us, and we speak and analyze and do the work of Africana studies as witnesses to and heirs of their vision. It is up to us, to use these tools to trenchantly analyze and critique the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, violence and general callousness of the powerful we see around us. The problems we face as a society, whether here on Binghamton’s campus, nationally or globally are not insurmountable. But their solutions require courage, careful analysis and a steely, clear-eyed determination about the kind of future we can sustainably build together. In that perpetual quest, Africana studies has much to offer to knowledge-seekers and builders of all kinds.


April 3, 2018

A Brief Commentary on Imam Zaid Shakir's khutbah, "Defend Your Faith, Tradition and Legacy"

This khutbah by Imam Zaid Shakir has been making the rounds. I can honestly say I have heard many lectures like this, in both Christian and Muslim circles. I realize that for some, the observations made therein ring with the truth of well-spoken clarity.
As I listen, I hear something different. I hear unaddressed bigotry, sweeping generalizations, and a logic that is profoundly misogynistic. That is how I hear what others hear as a ringing defense of the deen.
That hearing is not simply based on emotion. In what follows, I want to briefly explore Imam Zaid's arguments from a critical perspective. I have tried to provide time stamps for everything, but they may be off by a few seconds.
~3:00 "They're Muslim, but its not that big of a deal....it might even be an inconvenient truth for some because it gets in the way of their lower aspirations."
Imam Zaid and my history is not the same. But it bears mentioning that in my experience not all or even the majority of young believers who struggle with the faith of their parents do so because they want it out of the way to fulfill their lower aspirations. This is a gross oversimplification of a very sensitive and complex psychological state.
~4:45 "One of the responses to this idiotic behavior is you find a lot of Muslim women becoming feminists....but feminists along the western line. Where the woman is abstracted from her family, abstracted from her community, and even her religious context and her problems are viewed in isolation."
There are plenty of non-western 'feminisms' that may not take that name. And certainly the struggle of women in the west should not be falsely universalized. But this point is primarily a problem of reading: either Imam Zaid not reading, or simply willfully misrepresenting what has been read. Self-described Feminists have long been focused on the very material issues of their survival: the right to vote, the right to work, the wages they are paid, family leave, healthcare for women, etc.
5:49 "One of these Muslim feminists said Ibrahim (AS) was a deadbeat dad....she finds nothing problematic about that statement....but its disgusting because it is a total adoption of a secular framework."
Don't really have much to add to this. It has already been debated and commented on. It is worth pointing out that it does not follow logically that saying the statement is a total adoption of a secular framework.
9:32 "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women." "Some people might say that's a paternalistic statement they want no part of. And that's one of the roots of the problem in our society. It is one of the reasons men aren't marrying women. Because too many women are saying, 'I don't need a man to take care of me.' ...then the men say, 'Forget it, I won't even try.'
I don't know where to start here. It is one thing to quote the Quran; it is quite another to argue that rejection of that statement by women is the reason men aren't marrying them. I don't think men or women are that fragile, and I certainly don't think it is a wise move to be engaging in broad social psychological generalizations without some empirical basis.
10:28 "That is why you have your thirty year old sons living in your basement."
I mean women cannot catch a break. If they don't want to get married, it is their fault. Not only that, but their rejection is the reason 30yr old man-babies are living with their parents. I find the misogyny here jaw-dropping and all too familiar.
10:55 "One of the reasons many Muslims fall for it is that they don't have confidence in Allah. And they don't have confidence in their Islam."
Honestly, if this was how Islam was being delivered to me as a young 16/17 yr old woman, I wouldn't be able to have much confidence in Allah or Islam. As a young Christian man, this sort of casual misogyny from preachers used to drive me crazy.
11:15 "Don't complain that men are a bunch of losers, about school shootings, about the opioid crisis, about men wanting to be women because they just think they should be women..."6'5", 300 pounds, should be playing on the Oakland Raiders...don't complain about the problem if you're not willing to defend the solution."
Imam Zaid is getting emotional. Which as we all know is a female trait...sooo...don't complain?? Again, I was not rallied by this. I was insulted. For one thing, he appears to be blaming feminism for bringing on these diverse crises. Feminism invented trans issues? Come again? How many times must it be said READ UP ON A TOPIC BEFORE SPEAKING!! May I suggest that the deliberate ignoring of writings on the issue in favor of some folksy b.s. about an Oakland Raiders lineman is deliberate and strategic.
12:02 "Prophetic Guidance has protected humanity from the degeneracy we see today for thousands of years."
You mean, like the prophetic guidance where ancient Egyptians married their brother and sister? Or the legalization of concubine-hood by the elite members of the Islamicate? Or the outsourcing of eunuch-hood to Christians so Muslims could plausibly say 'we don't do this', while relying on their services? Even a cursory perusal of the historical record will demonstrate that Degeneracy AIN'T NEW. And feminism is not its source.
12:50 "The three great religions that have been the foundation for Western civilization...."
The idea of 'Judeo-Christian'; civilization is a recent (post WW2) phenomenon. And 'Western' civilization at least from post-1200 was based on aggressively and violently differentiating itself from Islam, and appropriating Roman symbols of imperium.
13:00 "What will they build? Besides liberating people from their nafs...or to make them slaves of their nafs."
There is no hard and fast line between a religion and a cult, just as there is no hard and fast line between your nafs and a higher purpose/feeling. The nafs can tell you lies as well as it can tell you hard truths. People need religious AND secular thinking. And they sometimes need space between religious paradigms to not be religious. The reason they need it is because there is no hard and fast line between a religion and cult, and people often need secular thinking to help liberate themselves from cults (it is the only way to be truly free of the controlling discourse of a cult). That is the great accomplishment of secular thought, in my very personal experience.
13:31 "in the social chaos," (caused by the liberation of all from all), "we'll be running around mopping up buckets of blood."
For some reason all I could think about was Enoch Powell's quote about non-white immigration to Britian: "Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood.""
13:50 "The reigning and dominant philosophical discourse of deconstruction."
Deconstruction is not a reigning or dominant discourse. Not even in the academy.
16:01 "Islam saved my life."
I want to hear more about this. Because here Imam Zaid is speaking of what Islam has meant to him personally. And that is undeniable and powerful. But it is neither logical nor wise to make that the basis for social prognostication. Imam Zaid, at various times: Islam, Christianity and secular thinking have changed my life! There are many types of experiences in the world. You share yours with many others, but no one social experience is paradigmatic.
16:23 "all of this freedom and liberalism and freethinking and do your own thing....is what put all these young men in these prisons."
NO, a combination of political reaction against black militancy, a lack of jobs, the criminalization of nonviolent drug possession and and the profits to be made off the prison industrial complex put these young men in prison. LET US BE CLEAR.
~17:20 "Is that the alternative, matriarchy?"
My feeling is that patriarchy was a compromise of sorts, where men participate in child care and rearing in exchange for control over women's labor and sexuality. The critiques of it as a hegemonic global system are meant to highlight women's vulnerability, but there is no parallel centrally controlled global system of patriarchy as there is a global system of capitalism, since patriarchy takes culturally specific forms and predates modern capitalism by millenia. Interestingly enough, colonialism and capitalism seem to have accelerated forms of hyper-patriarchy in Africa. Imam Zaid is not interested in that though. He wants you to think feminism is a form of anarchy.
17:57 "Wearing pants is a social construct"
Imam Zaid getting emotional and as we all know, emotions are not rational proof.
18:27 "Why is the reconstruction along the same patriarchal lines as the critique?"
If this wasn't delivered after 17 minutes of error filled, emotional bumbling, I would say that this is a thoughtful and important point.
18:45 "The alternative isn't matriarchy, it is anarchy!"
George Wallace, in his 1968 presidential campaign, tried to convince Americans that civil rights protestors were nothing more than anarchists who didn't understand the Constitution. Imam Zaid tries that tactic here, with feminists.
20:40 "all these movements...that make women mad at men."
yeah, its the MOVEMENTS that did that! Just like the Civil Rights Movement got all those Black people mad at white people! Why should women be mad that some men in authority and power harassed, abused, raped and molested women?
20:55 You have these movements...the Red Pill...so women are upset with men and men with women. 50% of men want to be women and 50% of women want to be men.
You know, I could actually get down with someone talking about the genuine animosity that exists and how to find ways to heal it. Men and women do have to learn how to talk to each other, to coexist and to cooperate. We really do need each other. But I can't co-sign that idea when it is linked to blaming feminism, and the idea that the real problem is everyone is just mixed up as to their proper and traditional gender role.
I pray this post will be of some benefit to someone, and I apologize if I have offended anyone with my comments.


September 28, 2017

Omar Suleiman on slavery in Islam

Great lecture by Sheikh Omar Suleiman.

I post it here, because it shows how brilliant people like Omar Suleiman can still be led into cognitive dissonance and unsustainable claims on this explosive issue. They know the Islamic sources with incredible erudition and expound them with clarity, but frequently go astray when engaging in comparative historical analysis.

 Here are some brief comments on the talk:

At 1:11:13 he states there were no ethical systems, before, during, or even for 700 years after the Prophet that, encouraged freeing slaves. Actually the Druze (a group which I doubt Omar Suleiman would claim as Muslim) abolished slavery in the 11th century. Also, the Sassanids (under the influence of Zoroastrianism, I believe) had before Islam elaborated a series of laws regulating treatment of slaves, and encouraging emancipation. Gregory of Nyassa, going much further than the Prophet Muhammad, and several hundred years before he lived, says: "...God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?" Because of these overlooked examples, I don't think Sheikh Omar Suleiman's particular historical claim can be sustained.

 Right after that he says, "we [as Muslims] only expand within permissible bounds." But if you apply that universally, there is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the Quran or hadith. There is only 1)limits on treatment of slaves & 2) encouragement of manumission. There is nothing absolutely prohibiting slavery in the original sources of Christianity by the way.

 I am not convinced by his 'abolitionist' trajectory and invoking of the 'sunset clause' around 1:16. Presentism on this issue is fairly rampant in our community, and I think he is engaging in it here. Slavery didn't wither in Islam, after the death of the Prophet. In fact it grew as Islamic civilization grew. And its death was hastened not by the Prophet's call for manumission, but by radical abolitionists, western and non-western.

Suleiman's discussion of zakat immediately after thoroughly confuses the issue. He then follows up with an allusion to the world economy of the time being dependent on slavery, implying that Islamic civilization somehow ended that dependence. But the historical record is pretty clear that Islamic civilization increased the dependence of the world economy on slavery and significantly expanded the slave trade.

Finally, a word about the practice of manumission. We often view it as a liberal practice. But manumission also sustains slavery. It doesn't solve the root cause of inequality between people. More importantly, it can subtly encourage people to think that slaves will be a permanent part of the moral landscape, and thus divert more radical approaches to human equality by the enslaved themselves by saying that Muslim or Christian virtue is already attainable for slaves...ergo no need to be free! Nevertheless, I appreciate Sheikh Omar's attempt to sincerely deal with a difficult topic.


April 27, 2017

Happy Thursday from Jose Chameleone

Years later, and this song still cranks. I'd put it up there with Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" as one of the greatest pop songs of all time. It has the same joyful and infectious feel of Jackson's best work.


March 31, 2017

Tradition and Change in the Encounter Between Islam and Secularism

One interesting aspect of the modern struggle for freedom for Muslims to practice their faith in the USA and Europe is how that struggle changes all the parties involved, in unexpected ways. Americans can fret about 'creeping sharia', Europeans can rail about secularism, and even ban the headscarf in the EU, but they can't keep more and more Europeans and Americans from converting to Islam, and indeed it seems, the more they rail, the more attractive Islam seems to free-thinking Europeans and Amricans, who wish to discover the religion for themselves. In other words, the kind of exclusionary hardcore secularism promoted by many Europeans and American atheists is precisely the kind of ideology more likely to drive people towards committed religious belief as a countercultural move (especially when they see the connection between Islam and the Black Freedom Movement in the US). And if anything the struggles over Islam expose how secular atheism can be just as much an exclusionary, hateful and doctrinal ideology as what these same atheists imagine Islam to be. Secular atheists of the left will try desperately to argue that the secular right in Europe and the US is not the 'true' secularism, but the fact is that secularism itself is being reshaped by struggles around Islam, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. On the other hand, traditionalist Sunni Muslims seeking the freedom to practice their faith in an American context can rail against liberalism and secularism all they want, but they will have to tolerate Ahmadis, Shias and other Muslim religious dissidents who would be persecuted and killed with nary a peep about human rights in majority Muslim countries (countries they often travel to because that is supposedly where the faith is the 'purest'). They will have to share religious space along LGBT communities who are politically mobilized in ways unfamiliar to those immigrating from majority Muslim countries. They will have to reckon with the close association between Islam and hip-hop in the US, while the scholars they learn from regard music as haram. Most importantly, they also have to share space with atheists, who are, along with Muslims, the least popular religious group in America. In advocating for religious space in America and Europe, using secular principles, Sunni Muslims are already beginning to shift, fudge or simply reject the faith's basic attitudes toward atheists, who the Quran condemns in the strongest possible terms. No doubt there will be a considerable amount of double think around this shift, but it is happening and it is already changing the practice of American Muslims I know (Europe I am much less familiar with). As much as this horrifies the likes of certain Muslim bloggers and preachers, Islam itself is being reshaped around its struggles with liberalism and secularism, and will continue to evolve in unexpected ways as a result of this encounter. What I personally take from this: Don't let anyone tell you that a civilizational clash is occurring, or that either Islam or the West has a superior moral code. Study civilizations and beliefs from the perspective of insiders, but don't assume the insider's beliefs are always valid. Don't let anyone convince you that secularism or Christian values or civilization or Islam "must be defended." Don't let anyone tell you not following a particular Abrahamic book means you have no metaphysical or moral foundation. Defense of abstractions, whether they be books or ideologies, can be necessary. But these same defenses can also quickly turn into a willingness to sacrifice others for the sake of your book or your ideology. There is an African proverb, "when two elephants fight, the grass gets crushed". Today's violent struggles are manmade fights for geo-political and worldly power that have brought untold horror to "the grass" (the people). At this point it is of little utility which elephant crushed whom. Some of us need a more limited focus on local principles of reciprocity and treatment of our neighbor. Some of us need education on what Islam is and what Muslims believe. Some of us need to remember that black Muslims were in America before most white Christians or atheists. Some of us need to stop assuming that a man with a beard and a thobe hates women and gays, or that a woman with a hijab was forced to put it on. Some of us need to be as outraged by violence in Mosul as we are about violence in Paris. Some of us need to stop implying that liberal Muslims are insincere goons and toadies. Some of us need to stop believing that all unbelief is just ingratitude. Some of us need to learn more about our own beliefs, and acknowledge both the good and the bad in them. Some of us need to look within at ourselves and our own civilization before we criticize. Some of us need to remember our debts to atheist freedom fighters like A. Phillip Randolph and W.E.B. Dubois before carping about the evils of atheism. #dailyrant #rantover


February 14, 2017

Hope and Pessimism

Hope and pessimism are dialetically related, twins of the same womb of human frailty, and counteracting medicines for the human soul. In an ideal society they exist in a tenuous balance. I have come to the conclusion that the modern America I live in is addicted to an idea of hope without pessimism. We want to believe that it is already possible to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without constraint. This is the hope of fools, blind to history, the hope of addicts and hedonists blind to the limits of pleasure, the hope of utopians blind to tragedy. It is the hope of settlers blind to others in the landscape, seeing in that land only reflections of their dreams and nightmares. They thus interpret the land, and its peoples resistance to settler attempts to impose those dreams, as willful evil or primitive savagery. Similarly, they interpret the failure of these dreams as a personal moral failing, rather than a permanent feature of existence. Hope thus unconstrained by its opposite naturally devolves into amnesia, fantasy, and a desperate drive to feel and appear happy. It manifests itself in more extreme versions as a morbid fear of death. It looks anxiously to the future when all human limits will be removed, while manifesting a contempt for the past and an inability to remain present. I do not mean to condemn hope outright. Without it we perish, for it enables visionaries to dream of better tomorrows. But the way it manifests itself in American political discourse is as an unbearable and unsustainable naivete, a belief that one can have progress without sacrifice, patriotism without tragedy, and prosperity without end. On the right, it manifests itself as the manifest destiny of white christian america, the alleged culmination of history and humanity. All others are considered savages, primitives, expendables, terrorists. White prosperity comes to be seen as the ultimate moral good, and anything that threatens it induces a series of moral panics. On the left it bubbles up as the idea that we are all progressing easily and naturally towards a liberal ideal, and that all we need do is tinker with a few things and wear a few safety pins to get there. The left's fetishism of King as a prophet of this liberal progress ignores King's own well-developed sense of struggle, tragedy and pessimism. In conclusion, I would like to see Less false hope and More hopeful pessimism.


February 4, 2017

American History X

Part of the difficulty of having real political conversations in the United States is that many of us learned our own history so poorly. For all those looking to know more about American history, I would suggest starting with Howard Zinn. A People's History of the United States. Here I've written a brief primer, from Reconstruction to Trump: After the Civil War, the first genuine democratic experiment in this nation's history began in the South, with blacks and whites holding office on an equal basis, combined with an attempt to make amends for slavery and to institutionalize (make permanent) equality under the law. This era was called Reconstruction. This progressive era was brought to an end by southern whites angry over how 'politically correct' abolitionists had run all over their right to own slaves. Northern whites were mad that the government was spending too much time helping the ex-slaves, and not enough time on them. While northern whites looked the other way, southern whites violently 'took back their region' in a movement known as Redemption. They helped sweep Andrew Johnson into office with promises to clean up the 'corruption' allegedly caused by northern 'carpetbaggers' in league with southern blacks. Andrew Johnson later became the first American president to be impeached. 'Redemption' was made possible because at the time whites in the United States were weary of the 'Negro problem' and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the vulnerable. After Brown v. Board, in 1954, a new democratic experiment began, culminating in the overturning of 'separate but equal' and the institutionalizing of protections of the right to vote, especially for blacks in the South. This progressive era was brought to an end by southern whites angry over how 'politically correct' civil rights activists had run all over their right to have segregated schools and other institutions. Northern whites were mad that the government was spending too much time helping blacks (the Great Society, Head Start, etc), and not being 'firm' enough with black protestors, who many whites believed were agents of chaos, crime and Communism. Southern whites and disaffected northern whites helped Richard Nixon into office, in a 'backlash' against the establishment candidate, liberal Hubert Humphrey. Nixon later resigned rather than face inevitable impeachment. The 1968 backlash was made possible because at the time whites in the United States were weary of the 'Negro problem' and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the most vulnerable. After Barack Obama's election in 2008, a new era in our democracy began. For the first time in our country's long and sordid history, a person of color held the highest office. A new era seemed imminent. No more would racial dog whistles be able to win elections. While Obama's election was nowhere near as momentous in its legal implications as the first two movements, it did help spark a national conversation on race, and under his presidency a new wave of activism emerged against police violence. This (relatively) progressive era was brought to an end a few days ago, by (mostly) whites angry over how 'politically correct' liberals had ignored their concerns and their pain. Northern whites especially were mad that Hillary had done nothing to address decaying conditions of white working class life in de-industrialized towns across the Midwest, and she was seen as catering to BLM activists while ignoring their economic concerns. Fueled by the rise of a new alt-right (all white) media sphere , whites helped Donald Trump into office, in a backlash against the establishment candidate, liberal Hillary Clinton, who ran a tepid campaign marred by allegations of corruption. Some have predicted a Trump impeachment, because he enters office with a hitherto unprecedented number of outstanding legal cases. This 'whitelash' was made possible because many whites were tired of the 'black lives matter' problem and felt the dual pressure of economic stagnation and declining demographic significance, and put 'national unity' ahead of human rights of the most vulnerable. Others, while not explicitly motivated by racism, ignored or overlooked Trump's history of racist dog whistles against our current president, including an eight year history of suggesting that Obama was a Muslim born outside the US who didn't love America. #election2016 #Americanhistory


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