July 15, 2019

Zombie Faith and Our Global Crisis

You hear a lot in religious studies about the 'return' of religion, how people, contrary to secular modernist predictions, didn't abandon faith, but returned to it, revived it. Of course, I agree, but many types of faith were revived, in many different religions. I've been studying some of these expressions, and I think we need to talk about one type of faith that has made a 'comeback' today in global religious communities of all kinds.
I put 'comeback' in scare quotes, because, in spite of its hyper-emphasis on fidelity to tradition, this isn't the same faith of the believer of old, in which a person's conviction made them into a better person with other people of all kinds, and gave them hope that the world in which they were oppressed was not the only world. This was faith as vital life force, faith as the 'substance of things hoped for'. This new faith is more like Gage, from Pet Semetary, a sort of undead changeling. It is zombie faith.
This new zombie faith is methodologically nationalist in orientation, characterized by ressentiment, filled with huffy irritation, envy and a sense of victimhood. Zombie faith is always petulantly demanding that one cannot claim they are a person of said faith unless x x and x characteristics are met. It is anxious about its own dissolution, and about what is perceives as its declining relevance. It muses violently at those who reject it. It snarls at information and critical evidence as 'harmful' to faith. It demarcates a strong line between a faithful self and a non-faithful other, and then sees knowledge emanating from the non-faithful as threatening. It identifies itself as the only and supreme epistemological foundation. It identifies itself completely with what public morality should be. Zombie believers sometimes debate about permissibility and the boundaries of faith in ways that personally have always terrified me, as if they were the admissions committee to the pearly gates themselves.
Zombie faith is extremely self-conscious about some of the more obviously bizarre 'unseen' things it is required to believe to maintain its faith, and will defend them as essential to faith. Yet this self-consciousness stems from the knowledge that it insists on the belief in unseen things foundationally, while rejecting out of hand naturalistic conclusions that have been the subject of decades of detailed study and evidence compilation. Like nationalism, this denial of the 'other' is not rational, but rooted in fear and anxiety. In its more reflective moments, zombie faith is uneasy about the many low information suppositions that make up its intellectual apparatus, while regarding things which methodological naturalism has high information answers for (biological evolution, for instance), as conspiracies to take one away from belief.
Zombie faith will try to make that information liability into a strength, by turning to post-modernist individualism, specifically the idea that no one has a right to challenge my fundamental conception of what I believe or what I use to arrive at that belief. ("You don't know me!") Another strategy used to cover the information deficit is to insist that people of zombie faith have a unique insight, a sixth sense, that others just don't have the ability to get, because they're blinded by scientism or arrogance. Zombie faith may also give itself the imprimatur of intellectual respectability by turning heavily to scholastic theology, preferring to have intellectual conversations with the dead, who they can exalt as an obviously superior type to the 'atheist' philosopher of today. In this way they can avoid having to confront the epistemic revolutions of the modern age. Zombie faith will tell itself that the reason people are critical of its faith is that they have insufficient grounding in these sources they use.
Today's zombie faith has absorbed some of the worst qualities of nationalism, and yet, like nationalism, it still offers an invaluable succor to the average person on the street. In the absence of the old faith, the people turn to zombie faith, as a sugar lover would turn to stevia, because it appears to offers a 'sweetness', a certitude and ethical orientation that ordinary modern life, with its runaway global political corruption, its hierarchies of extreme wealth and poverty, and its degradation and destruction of the earth, is unable to.
None of this should be read as an attack on the ethical dispositions of compassion and care which faith (yes, even zombie faith) can provide. Nor should it be read as a vindication of today's scientific consensus. The challenge for critical decolonial thinkers on the ground today, when engaging with religion, is to engage the psychological need many people have for this zombie style of faith, to cultivate a sense of wonder and mystery that draws on the old faiths, and to use the high-information contexts of empirical observation that come to us from detailed naturalistic study of the world to fuel the urgently needed and revolutionary changes required to address the current climate crisis, among other urgent issues in global civil society.

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Anti-abortion Muslims and the Christian Right in America under Trump

Relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but the thing that vexes me about this emerging Muslim right wing partnership with Never-Trump Catholics on abortion is not so much that Muslims are allying with people who hate them. Actually many Catholics respect Islam for both what it has that Catholicism has, and also what is has that they feel Catholics have lost (Jeremy McLellan made a career out of it). No, what I dislike about such efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade are their quixotic nature.

I understand and respect those who feel abortion is wrong. But Roe v. Wade wasn't about mandating abortion, and the point of making abortion legal wasn't to criminalize unborn babies, but to reduce suffering in the world by giving the mother final and absolute say in ending her pregnancy. This is not the place to get into all the ethical complexities of the why of that decision. It is a guaranteed right, according to the Supreme Court. With respect to the priorities of Muslim Americans, unlike abortion, alcohol is explicitly haram in the Quran. Why doesn't one see Muslim Americans joining a prohibition bandwagon, or creating one? Why are some Muslim Americans jumping on the ethical bandwagon of extreme Catholics?

Those few Muslim Americans salivating about overturning Roe v. Wade havn’t paid attention to the larger history of how abortion was established as a right in the first place in America, and who accomplished it. Abortion wasn’t legalized through the fiat of a corrupt ruler. The last seventy years have seen popular movements completely transform the legal and social landscape with regard to gender, sexuality and civil rights. These transformations were painful, they came from below and they were an extension of the Black civil rights insurgency of the 1960s. Now a small group of right wing Muslims comes along and wants to ally with arch-Catholics to roll back these protections. Both groups don’t seem to realize that many of those they are allying with don’t want to stop with abortion or LGBT, but will continue onto the 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, labor laws etc. Jumping on the anti-abortion bandwagon in the current political climate is the height of foolish naiveté.

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April 1, 2019

"Hang On" or "Antonia's Dream" (a brief foray into fiction)

Based on a true story...

I knew this old woman by the name of Antonia who was my neighbor when I lived in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. She was a lovably eccentric but strangely wise soul. She used to come to my apartment on Saturday mornings, to say hello, in her awkward but disarming way, bringing some store bought pastries, a tradition she began soon after I moved into the apartment on Ashland. I invited her in; we would usually sit and she would simply ask after me and my life. After exchanging greetings that day, she made tea and sat at my table, regarding me with a quizzical but slightly humorous gaze, or so I thought.
She told me she had been raised Baptist and I related to her my experience of various sects and denominations of both Christian, Buddhist and Muslim belief. We often spoke of the days news, and the books we were reading. She had unusual reading habits and an extremely large library with books pouring out into her whole house, in a state of organized chaos. Sometimes in our conversations, she would ask me if I had ever dreamed of flying and would often stare at me with the most dispassionate yet serene gaze as I stuttered that I hadn't. I also frequently poured out my heart to her, about my failed relationships, my struggles with faith, and my relationships with my family.
This has been nearly ten years ago now, but I still remember the remarkable story she told me that day. In one of the comfortable silences that often pervaded our conversations, she told me matter-of-factly: “Donnie Hathaway came to me in a dream when I was 12 years old.”
We both shared a love of this amazing musician, who had tragically taken his own life in the midst of a brilliant career.
Still it was an unexpected thing to hear. I didn't know what to say, so I simply said, "what happened in the dream?"
She continued, “Well, I only knew him from my parents record collection. But one night in late April 1980, I was listening to "A Song For You", with my father on his record player, before bed. Later I fell asleep easily."
Antonia continued, "I found myself on the edge of a canyon in a dry landscape dotted with green. Looking around, I began to climb to the top of a large pine tree on a ledge midways above an enormous canyon. Sheltered in the pine's branches, I emerged eventually into a sky of intense blue. The wind whistled by my face and I looked down over an enormous green valley filled with trees. As I looked around, I saw to my surprise, Donnie Hathaway appearing out of the trees of the valley below, flying upwards without visible effort or support, while playing a chord on an instrument seemingly made of a living plant. I sat transfixed.
He held my throat in hand, cradling it. I opened my mouth and he spoke directly into my gullet. It was as if I was digesting his utterances into my stomach. He spoke the following words:
""There is no such thing as ‘religion. There is only something called ‘knowledge of the world’ which encompasses that which is seen and unseen.
We know we are made up of chemical compounds, molecules, atoms, and neutrons interacting in highly complex ways that enable our brain to function. You must integrate the full sensory and motor apparati of the body, including the brain, to learn to 'taste' and subtly evaluate your own experiences of yourself and others. The most relevant context for achieving true wisdom is an understanding of the patterns of behavior of human communities, developed through this evaluation. In college settings, the pedagogical approach to this pattern evaluation is called ' the humanities'. But you can and must also learn such things from navigating the college experience itself. You can also learn it outside of college. You can learn these patterns in a variety of ways, first and foremost by listening closely to what people say, observing what they do and developing a basic empathy for their experience as you naturally have for your own.
Most people have a carefully calibrated mix of 'theist' and 'atheist' assumptions about reality, based on what they think is sinful or shameful. These ideas are frequently in flux. This flux can seem like the arbitrary and inconsistent wind of the fickle mind, but it is in reality an appropriate response to the complexity of existence, though often seen by extremists on both sides as being either insufficient faith or too much superstition. No one can appoint themselves an ultimate guarantor of an unseen reality, nor an arbiter of conscience of the ultimate validity of the sometimes abortive processes of faith and doubt in the individual.
Most important for children is to instill a deep sense of security and love in the child by setting boundaries for it, that must also evolve to meet the growing capacity of the child's sensory, motor and higher brain functions. Ideally parents provide a degree of stability that will allow the child to forms and inform their identity while incorporating flexibility, questioning and a rational autonomy that helps insulate the child from vulnerability to cults, which often prey on misplaced but sincere faith.
The messages we need to live together, to extend the life of the human species in a sustainable manner, and to live in balance with all the seen and unseen forces, is transmitted all around us by reality itself. There is no need to debate who is and isn’t correct about such abstractions like theological conceptions of God. It is strange and contradictory that the messengers of a supposedly all powerful God come every thousand years or so and to a limited swath of humanity, in a particular language. Some civilizations actually do not appear to have a theistic conception of the ULTIMATELY REAL at all. Study the messages of the tradition of your parents, as well as other traditions, whether theist or non-theist, but do not only rely on words spoken or written by someone else in the past to make your judgements. You must also independently evaluate the character of the adherents of these traditions through the power of your own sensory apparatus and intuition. You must purify this intuition to use it well; it can also be a deeply creative source. How do you think I made the song "Giving Up"?
But you must remain humble of your own inherent limitations. Please learn early on and deeply that your experience is a combination of many different inputs, including that which goes by the name of ‘tradition’. You are also a mammal, and a complex organism with many unconscious desires. If you choose the language of God to understand this truth, then: God speaks in words, but more importantly God generates new experiences and new reality every moment. Listen to the world in silent contemplation, listen to humans in compassion, and you will eventually find the wisdom you need to survive a variety of challenges.""
In her dream, the old woman told me she was surprised to find herself speaking the following words to Donny Hathaway, as if in a trance. Actually, she said, it was as if she was singing the words together with him, as if it was a duet:
""Human life and human history is largely just a string of pointless miseries, fruitless endeavors, and civilizations that failed because of human hubris, greed and unsustainable inequality. There is beauty there too, amid the detritus of our repeated and arrogant ruin, of history repeating itself. In their ultimate failures humans managed to form social units and communities to cooperate for common good, and have at times treated each other with remarkable sensitivity and real love, which in turn contributed to a humanly obtainable model of excellence and human flourishing. Some say, if you want wisdom, do not endeavor. But do not neglect to fulfill the obligations immediately in front of you. Often larger truths emerge from this prosaic mosaic.
Look around you at what the people believe; they are mired in ignorance. Do not be too harsh with anyone, except for those who come to you and engage in obviously bad faith. Among all peoples of the world, there are those who have a deep and beautifully profound faith in a good God or a good Force that governs, guides and sometimes rewards their life and accomplishments.
The concept of God is often treated psychologically as a fetish object by some monotheists, in spite of their denigration of its material manifestation as idolatry. This is not only a 'theist' family affair; non-theist 'religions' such as Buddhism also condemn practice, of the other from their limited psychic viewpoint.
God is neither good nor bad, in any conventional moral sense with meaning to human social life. God is sometimes referred to, misleadingly, as our ‘father’. But a father is supposed, even obligated, to protect his children from danger. God knows the future and so allows human evil to happen to these so-called children, including mass killing. He listens to the cries of today’s starving in Yemen and weeps, or laughs, but doesn’t intervene in any rationally comprehensible way we can understandor communicate about. And on goes the killing, fueled by human greed, not Godly punishment.
There are many Gods, there is only one God, there is no God. All of these statements are true and false at the same time. Don’t accept any of these contradictory statements as ontological. Debating whether non-theism or theism is true is like debating whether light is a wave or a particle. The fervency of the true believers ontological preference bears very little relation to the ULTIMATELY REAL or to the hearts of those who hold fervently to it.
‘Belief' is not measurable or ultimately definable in any consistent unitary doctrinal fashion. Although there have been many attempts. it is frequently so subtle that an orthodox believer will totally lack faith, in spite of his rhetorical affirmations of the same. Meanwhile the most ignorant “kaffir” or unbeliever may have iman enough to move mountains. The ways of this quality are indeed ultimately mysterious. Avoid judging in spite of a preponderance of evidence one way or the other. For non-theists, faith would be closer to an idea of an 'unveiling' of the senses', which drills a deep insight and deliberation into one's daily practice and existence.
Atheists will sometimes put on airs of superiority, rooted in the faith they have in limited human rationality. Yet take away their material comforts, take away their faith that the world is rationally ordered, and you will see their true character many times emerge. Religious leaders and atheists share one main quality and that is hubris.
To judge anyone, look at how they treat children, orphans and widows. Pay less attention to words and more to human action. which are easily ‘prettified’ by the intelligent.
Education can be a path to truth or a path to ignorance. Many words do not always bring clarity.
Don’t be in a hurry to express truth in words, for the more this something is talked about, the further the experiential intuition gets from it.
There are many spiritual teachers today, promising an easy path to prosperity or knowledge. They may have the right words, the right robes, the right instruments of mystical communion, and yet their heart may well be as hard as a mountain of granite.
There are many political leaders today, promising the kingdom of God on earth. Remember that material inequality always generates the conditions for social upheaval. But do not expect a political messiah. Power is something humans have inherent difficulties handling in large quantities.
Our species has demonstrated at times a remarkable ability to live together and spontaneously organize itself with ingenuity and originality. One doesn't need a Harvard degree or any other fancy piece of paper to know how to do this.
Beware of painting the self-organizing tendency in human communities as primitive or chaotic and beware of those who label it so. Many times the proposed western alternative is the exertion of violent coercion to carve out an arbitrary and damaging concept of sovereign ownership so as to be able to impose a usually highly abstract and violent notion of order. The wealthy will try to use the barrier created by this violence to insulate themselves from uncertainty. Eventually the quest for total security rots the hearts and brains of these people.
Don’t be in a hurry to make a name for yourself. Be in a hurry to listen to everything and everyone.
Reading is the habit of listening to the dead. Use it to relate empathetically with the living. Engage in it daily."
Antonia said at this point her whole body began pulsating with some heartbeat that appeared to be within the intricate structural body of the sky itself. She could hear the chittering sound of sparrows somewhere below her in the tree. Donnie Hathaway spoke again: 
""Remember if there isn’t a God, then anything is permitted to humans in an ultimate sense. This is the most monstrous idea imaginable. Therefore we need God. Human beings as a species cannot live totally without some concept of the ultimately real. It informs our actions and generates both useful prohibitions and a vital survival energy.
But if there is a God, this raises probably the thorniest and most irrational problem in theistic thought. God is good, but God permitted/allowed/intended for millions of humans to die at the hands of diseases, millions of others by the instability of the planet he created, and millions more by their fellow humans. He threw his 'children' to their own devices in the most cruel and calculated manner imaginable. If there is a God (and herein lies the controversy, he is truly a sadistic monster of the worst kind. Instead of imprinting a guide to conduct in his creation, he divided humanity into languages, taught them contradictory philosophies, and then set them against each other to debate and fight about the meanings of words he allegedly spoke 1000s of years ago and which are frequently not even in their first language. God cannot be 'good' and still be God, unless God intends and also creates and actually is the source of, evil itself.
To hold these two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time is the path to a profound and indescribable truth. This is why it is better to root the idea of good and evil in the consequences of human conduct, in individual terms, but also in terms that minimize the destructive tendencies of hubris and hierarchy, that in turn give birth to material inequality that generates violence and instability.""
The old woman said that by the time the musician had finished saying this portion, his head was glowing like polished brass, so that she could see her own reflection in pure outline in the shape of his brow. He was smiling gently at her.
Her head was spinning and her palms were sweating onto the fragrant needles of the pine tree. She was aware of her heart beating rapidly in her chest. High in the sky overlooking the verdant valley of her dream, she suddenly felt more deeply grounded and at peace with her own body and self than she ever had before.
Donnie stopped playing the plant-like instrument, and was gradually now surrounded by millions of piano keyboards, seemingly made of clouds, and looping around him like double helixes. She began to hear the following words--"Allahu La ilaha Ila Huwa al-Hayyul Qayyum"--recited from the mouth of a glowing Donnie Hathaway as he seemed to float away from her on the updraft of some powerful current from the valley below, though she could feel no wind. The phrase of what she only later learned was the Quran resonated and echoed for some time off the walls of the canyon.
"And then I woke up," she told me. She fell silent as I sat totally absorbed by her remarkable story. Slowly the profound and mystical impression of the narrated dream faded from the atmosphere of the room. She pulled something from a small black backpack next to her chair. "I wrote everything down that we had said together." She produced a plain blue spiral notebook and laid it on the table next to me. "You can read it if you want."
She passed me the book, and I saw her neat handwriting, in elegant thin lines of dry ink curling across the page, a written account of the dream she had just related.
As I perused the notebook, Antonia received a call from another friend and had to excuse herself. As I read her words from the notebook, I still had so many questions. Her story of her dream seemed quite surreal, and yet it was a dream, so what else did I expect? As I turned further in the notebook I saw more entries, many of them quite ordinary for a twelve year old girl, like her excitement going on a field trip to Brookfield zoo and seeing giraffes for the first time. There were also lists: like goals she had for herself by age 50, or all of the different kingdoms and phylae of life. She had also written down other dreams, though in no other one was she ever visited by anyone else.
When she came back from her call, I asked her If could make a copy of the dream from her notebook and she told me that I could, but that if I wanted to publicize the dream-advice, she did not want to have her name associated with it. She told me, "write it in a fictional story, change my name, and wait ten years before sharing."
The next day, as I copied the dream notebook into a Word document, a feeling of unease flickered back into view after the pleasant shock of discovery of the remarkable dream. I was mired in debt and my job was stressing me out. I had been feeling on edge, and my grad school routine, with long hours of solitary study, had left me feeling ever more frequently isolated and lonely. Yet the old woman’s words had lodged deep within my body and I turned them over in my mind constantly over the next few days.
...
Ten years later, as I re-write this into the emerging space of social media networks, I have still never dreamed of flying. But I never forgot the wisdom of Antonia's dream. Whenever I get into a state of deep anxiety, whenever I feel overwhelmed, whenever I doubt, whenever my spirit is troubled I think of the lyrics of the timeless song, “Someday we’ll all be free”, by Donnie Hathaway:
“hang onto the world as it spins around, just don’t let the spin get you down."
the end.
(written by Nathaniel M, March 2019)

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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.

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August 30, 2018

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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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