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 14, 2017
February 4, 2017
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
Religions that shift veneration away from accomplished and wise ancestors to more abstract, anti-iconic notions of divinity are most successful in times of social crisis, when elders fail in their duties and the collective wisdom of past ancestors seems unable to address the complexity of interpersonal conflict, ecological crisis or the breakdown of political order. In such moments the idea of calling on a force/idea that transcends local ancestral wisdom (a High God) becomes more and more powerful. Originally the High God and the Ancestral traditions could coexist in mutual harmony. But social crisis has tended historically to weaken the ancestral tradition and strengthen the High God tradition (who is seen as above it). This is at least part of the explanation why the original Egyptian religion was weakened over time and eventually abandoned. The reasons for this gradual shift are something I am still studying. Historically, the vulnerability of ancestral transmission as a form of active wisdom, has been replaced by the idea of wisdom as coming in the form of 'revelation' from a High God. An exclusivist 'High God' paradigm has become the new 'norm' of religious practice, condemning the older tradition of ancestral transmission as paganism, shirk, idolatry, kufr, superstition, etc, and projecting itself as ancient and unchanging and true, over against the false idolatry of the ancestral tradition. When believers in the exclusivist High God tradition complain about the anti-iconoclasm of the Wahhabis, they are really complaining about the epistemology at the very core of their own professed tradition, taken to its logical extreme. My own opinion is that the healthiest belief systems have to make room for both communication with ancestral traditions, broadly conceived (an open question is: what does it mean to communicate with ancestors in 2016, when those links were severed in past generations?), and the High God tradition as a form of transcendent 'outside' knowledge. The old ways are not always the best ways, nor are the new ways necessarily an improvement on the past.
Remember, If there is one thing worse than national division post-Trump, it is a false national unity imposed by the dominant. America is....a complex political space. It is at once an independent democratic republic and a white settler colony, both a slaveocracy...and the land of the free. It is land that was stolen/taken from one group, and made into the manifest destiny of another group. White America is that sector of the electorate identifying as white and with the historical experience of 'whiteness'. This historical experience is its common currency, not genes or phenotype or even skin color. It is the historical experience of believing oneself immune from the humbling imposed by history, of being uniquely chosen by God, of being the 'best'. Of believing itself deserving of owning land and people. Of itself as refined, civilized, cultured, etc. White Americans are not the first group to believe this about themselves. But they (we, I am a part) define this attitude in America today. At its worst this attitude is the ultimate form of Satanic pride and hubris. Though White America is not a monolith, for good or for evil, it does have a history regularly marked by violent exclusion and fear of the non-white other. It is that history which must be confronted today more urgently than ever before. In spite of what Lincoln said and Obama recently quoted, don't underestimate the worse angels of America's nature. The worst elements have historically dominated American history. Brief interims of hope don't change that. As the dominant demographic of the American electorate, white America still has the overwhelming power to determine cultural norms and political futures. As we saw in this recent election, this power is especially dangerous right now, because we are living in a time where that once overwhelming dominance has decreased, at the same time that a unified front to defeat climate change is more necessary than ever, and the challenges of living in a global world are ratcheting up in intensity. There is nothing like the anger of a group who honestly believes its hard earned gains are being threatened and eroded by other races, religions and demographic groups. There is an old saying (often attributed to Malcolm X), "when white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia". The meaning of the statement is that when economic and social indicators get worse for whites, they will get catastrophically worse for blacks. But today white America has a cold, and believes it is pneumonia. We are now living through a period where the one time privilege of being white is being gradually eroded. The brutal reality is that the global economy will sacrifice any and all but the super rich as its victims. White nationalism taps into those grievances, offering whiteness (a form of cultural nationalism) as the answer. The work of internal community anti-racism/dismantling white supremacy is a form of spiritual work our community must undertake, and it is key to addressing the appeal of white nationalism and white supremacy. It is a form of acknowledging and confronting, but not validating white supremacist perspectives both overt and covert that exist around us. These perspectives (a form of false consciousness) are found among family members, coworkers, and church members. The goal is to help to cultivate patience, fortitude, forbearance, and compassion among our fellow whites who believe they have pneumonia when its only a cold. Many of them are very fragile when it comes to these issues and that fragility has to be respected, but not validated. They and we as a community have to learn how to live as non-supremacists in our everyday interactions and viewpoints.
To understand the concept of "illegal immigration", used to justify this administration's recent #MuslimBan, it may be helpful to revisit the history of slavery in the United States. 1776-1863 "Slaves should only be able to get their freedom legally" 2017 "Immigrants should only be able to get their citizenship legally" Lesson some of y'all Christians need to learn: Legality is a relative concept. Human rights are not. Legality comes from man-made states. Human rights come from an eternal God. I'm not going to look down on any person seeking to get citizenship in the united states of america, when citizenship in a state is the only mechanism for accessing human rights. Some of you advocating deportation of immigrants need to think about this. You wouldn't dare claim now that the freedom of an enslaved human being in the USA was dependent on them getting freedom legally, yet you have the gall to act like you have the moral high ground when it comes to immigration because of "legality." Would you have turned in a fugitive slave in 19th century America because they were seeking to get their human rights through illegal means? If the answer is no, then why would you insist on this legality when it comes to refugees seeking citizenship in 2017? People have a right to use whatever means necessary to access their basic human rights. Setting up fortress-like enclaves based on fictions of manmade legality, in the middle of the largest migration crisis in world history, is like gluttonous feasting in a glass house while surrounded by famine victims.
Although I don't really consider myself a conservative, I have a few thoughts on modern conservatism. Conservatives basically believe in the unchanging preservation of legacies, moral, cultural and spiritual, from the ancient past. They look to these legacies as sources of guidance, and believe they are better guides to what is right and true than contemporary moral attitudes and ideas. Studying the Ancient Egyptians, I am deeply sympathetic to conservatism as a necessary corollary of cultural and religious preservation. When you've created a just society that has stood the test of time, there is something therein worth preserving. This is one reason why the Ancient Egyptians were so conservative. This is also why I respect those who choose to live according to conservative religious traditions, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Conservatism free from attachment to state power or ethnic exclusivity is a powerful vehicle for preserving valuable moral dispositions. But modern conservatism doesn't deserve the name. It is mostly, if not solely, a form of ethnic nationalism based on the supremacy of European white Christian identity. It is not based on the preservation of old virtues, but on the spreading of new diseases of the heart, based on the lust for power. Perhaps there are a few strands of modern American conservatism that meaningfully connect to the universalist spiritual traditions and disciplines of medieval Christianity, but these are largely secondary to the preservation of group power of Euro-Americans in the space of a settler state. In its nationalist garb, this conservatism is basically the national and cultural expression of white supremacy. When a white nationalist like Jared Taylor talks about preserving white culture, he is articulating a conservative white nationalist critique of American liberalism. Listening to Taylor makes me think about how the founders of this American settler republic would react to the contemporary social scene. Arguably they would be more sympathetic to Jared Taylor than to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Which makes me think that Dr. King didn't represent an "American" tradition, nor a conservative one. Rather his work was an attempt to decolonize that American tradition, a herculean effort to reshape America into a more inclusive space. Whatever battered remnants of political virtue we cling to today are legacies of his and other's sacrifice, not the unchanging and hallowed traditions of this nation's checkered history. #BlackHistoryMonth #MartinLutherKing #Conservatism
I find it remarkable that we've reached a point in history where elements of White House leadership are basically anti-Semites or linked to anti-Semites, yet are praised by Israeli leadership because they give more money to the Israelis to build walls and buy guns and "fight terror." The implications of this apparent contradiction are consistent with the views of Bannon and other's ethno-nationalists in Trump's administration. What is ethno-nationalism? Ethno-nationalism basically believes that each ethnicity or race needs their own nation. This belief is a big part of the underlying worldview of Trump and other right wing populists. The message? : "The other" is raping, murdering and taking "our" jobs. This country belongs to "us" and we're taking it back. In the olden days international socialists correctly called this "the socialism of fools." The policy that proceeds from this thinking is as follows: Bannon, Miller and his crew will deride Jewish accomplishments for human rights and civil liberties in the US, while encouraging the racist fortress mentality of right wing Israeli leadership. Lest you think this tendency unique to Israel and its diaspora, the current leadership will also racistly denigrate Muslims as non-Americans while courting the authoritarian leadership of Muslim countries. Contrary to some people in my circles, I do believe Zionism was originally a movement with a deep moral core, as many diasporic movements for nationhood are. But ironically the success of becoming a nation has damaged the moral authority of Zionism, because it had to displace a whole other people in the process of fulfilling its destiny. Israel today, in my opinion, is little better than any other state that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity and religion. "But Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," you say. The US is a democracy too, but that hasn't stopped it being a state based on the once explicit, now implicit dominance of a single group. Democracies can develop a kind of autocracy of the majority, just as pernicious as dictatorship or theocracy. The struggle for universal civic rights, that is, the struggle for governments to transcend the tyranny of BOTH majority and minority, is the most significant unfinished struggle of the modern era, encompassing everything from the Haitian, French and American Revolutions, to the civil rights movement, African decolonization and the fight against fascism. To see the current administration walking that struggle back ought to be deeply concerning for those who have seen where this has led in the past. Hannah Arendt is rolling over in her grave.
November 22, 2016
Some thoughts on this thoughtful presentation from probably the most prominent Muslim traditionalist in America. I very much respect his attempts to engage this serious and important issue. Here are some points where I agree and where I disagree:
1. I appreciate how he tries to contextualize slavery, the terms for it, and the meaning of it in the context of different times. This is an important first step.
2. He is right that slavery (broadly understood) was a universal practice across many cultures globally.
3. He is incorrect that Islam was the first belief system to create rules about slavery. Not sure how he could claim this. He later claims that many other cultures had no 'rules' about slavery. Also incorrect.
4. He is also slightly in error about the 'legitimate' source of slaves in Islam. I think that is probably because he's focused on deriving notions of 'legitimacy' from text, rather than from actual practice. That is a long side debate which I will not take up here.
5. The virtues of manumission are frequently mentioned in the books of law. The interpretation we give to this practice, however, is KEY. See point 7.
6. I find the argument that, because there is no specific law legislating FOR slavery, therefore Muslims don't need it and can preserve the tradition intact...interesting. I'm not fully convinced, mainly because I don't think Qadhi has fully faced the historical and epistemological difficulties of this position.
7. I'm glad to see he raises this past disagreement among the ulama. But he studiously avoids the colonial context of abolition (I am sure he is aware of it, as he has spoken out on the impact of colonialism on Muslims before). This silence is curious. If Qadhi is a traditionalist, and he follows the pious ancestors, then what right does he have to call abolition 'more humane' than previous practices? How can he avoid that abolition was almost always and everywhere forced on Muslim countries by colonial invaders? Finally, we should ask ourselves, how does Qadhi know the INTENTION (his word) of Allah apart from The Quran and the actual practice of the early community? The companions took female captives as slaves or sex slaves (there are plenty of documented instances of this in the hadith tradition). By most accounts, even the Prophet practiced this. Isn't Qadhi saying that the generation of Muslims now who have gotten rid of slavery know better than the early Salaf and the Prophet did, since the later generations were the one to fulfill what he claims is the internal logic of the tradition? I would like to know more about how Qadhi would square this with his veneration for the early companions, and the Prophet himself.
8. I will say it once, and I will say it again: The abolitionist hermeneutic is a modernist hermeneutic. And once you have accepted a modernist 'logic' of history where you believe (as Qadhis seems to here, though implicitly) that history has moved progressively towards abolishing a practice that the early companions openly practiced without sanction, then you have rendered most articulations of traditionalism anachronistic. Progressive history makes a lot of traditionalists nervous, because it seems to undermine their 'ethical ground'. Keep this in mind whenever traditionalists accuse liberals of undermining the basis of a 'traditional' Islamic ethics.
9. I say all of this, not to beat a tired old dead horse, but because I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and emotional polemics on both sides of this issue. We need more clear sighted analysis. I think Qadhi himself might benefit from a serious engagement with scholars working on the links between slavery and law, both in Atlantic and Indian Ocean contexts.
November 11, 2016
October 16, 2016
Some Further thoughts on islam and Feminism after reading Daniel Haqiqatjou's post:
A lot of Muslim traditionalists rightly point to tensions between Islam and feminism. There is plenty of real tension between the two, otherwise there wouldn't be such a vociferous debate about their compatibility. One recent blogger on this issue even called Muslim feminism an oxymoron. It is his position that Islam has a secure methodology for finding the truth, and is in no need of reform from feminists. (https://medium.com/she-zaadi/islamic-feminist-oxymoron-level-over-9000-3c15f773d975#.z0py6a74t)
One of the ways that Muslims who argue against feminism have been able to argue is through the powerful idea that they are the stewards of something sacred and unchanging. Yet many traditionalists I've dialogued with seem unaware that the tradition has in times past absorbed many many foreign ideas and made these ideas its own. This absorption did not proceed through a strict methodological logic. Rather most of the absorptions were the product of historical contingency. And yet the tradition survived.
The abolition of slavery was one such foreign idea. A good analogy for the debates currently roiling the ummah around feminism are the debates around the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. Then, as now, the issue was the relationship to a powerful bundle of discourses about human rights emanating from the West. The question was: is abolishing slavery legally justifiable?
Scholars were divided into two camps at the time. One camp, the traditionalists, rightly pointed out that there was no legal basis for abolition in the fiqh tradition, that the meanings of Quranic verses around slavery were unchanging and not to be abrogated, and that to follow the European countries in abolishing slavery would be a reprehensible innovation. One of the 20th century's most illustrious Sufi Sunni scholars, Yusuf al-Nabhani, held these views. al-Nabhani doubted the sufficiency of human reasoning to abrogate that which God in his book did not prohibit. He and others believed that the abolition of slavery was a doctrine aimed at weakening Islam. The textual criterion was self sufficient, and one could only err in assuming an independent standard for moral progress. In short, the traditionalists then were making the same arguments against abolition that many Muslims now make against feminism.
The second group were the Muslim modernists/reformers. They argued that the new circumstances of the time called for new rulings and new interpretations on issues previously thought settled, such as the role of women, and the legality of slavery. They argued that abolishing slavery was the right thing to do, Islamically. They used Quran and Hadith, but more abstractly, since there was no clear statement about the evil of slavery therein. But to them, freedom was the essence of the teachings of Islam. Their arguments were premised on the idea that Islam, as a vehicle of human progress, has the capacity to accept change, if it leads to beneficial moral progress, thus assuming that the standard for progress exists independently of the textual criterion. (Amal Ghazal "Debating Slavery and Abolition in the Arab Middle East")
Something strange seems to have happened in this divide on the way to our present moment. The modernists are still the modernists, still arguing from moral essence, often using an implicit societal standard. But the traditionalists by and large accepted the modernist view about abolition, and made it their own. And they did this without much sound traditional Islamic legal reasoning to support it. Although this was the right thing to do, it also, In my view, fatally undermined any authority the current conservative argument from Islamic tradition has in the contemporary world.
Muslims the world over, of all ideologies, rightly regard all kinds of slavery with a moral repugnance. Their attitude shows to what degree Muslims are inheritors (and even champions) of Western abolitionist assumptions about modern human rights. A true empirically sound traditionalist position on Islam is extremely rare in our modern world, because a true empirically sound traditionalism would have to acknowledge that abolition of slavery has no unequivocal textual and legal basis in Islam. In other words, a truly consistent traditionalist could still potentially regard slavery as something to be practiced within the limits set out for it in the Quran and Hadith, not as a morally outrageous anachronism. Most if not all Muslims are modernists, even many Salafis, because they accept the assumption that slavery is inherently immoral. Once you start extracting the idea of 'moral essence' separate and above the clear meaning of the text, you can no longer call yourself a traditionalist.
I wrote all this because, if you're Muslim and feminist, there is little need to spend a lot of time worrying overly much about contradictions that alleged traditionalists point out between feminism and Islam, from an empirical standpoint. Most, if not all traditionalists themselves have their own empirical contradictions to deal with in the way they formulate tradition. Next time a traditionalist asks 'why, if feminism is so important, there is no mention of it in the Quran?', ask them 'why, if abolishing slavery is so important, is there no mention of it in the Quran?' The abolitionist hermeneutic IS the feminist hermeneutic. The Islamic tradition has survived inconsistencies greater than this, and it will survive traditionalist hostility to feminism, and feminism's alleged contradictions to Islam. It will survive, not because of human vigilance, but because of our nearly boundless ability to keep changing, all the while imagining we inherit our moral code from an unbroken chain of tradition.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, abolition also became accepted because the formerly enslaved struggled for knowledge, rights, and attained positions of religious authority. Similarly, a true and profound synthesis between Islam and feminism is already occurring because women are struggling for knowledge, rights and for attaining positions of religious authority. Each and every tradition is an arena of social struggle. The tradition itself will change as a result of these struggles. Accepting those changes will be difficult, especially for men. But I am confident the changes themselves will strengthen Islam and make its conceptions of equality more and more robust. (Bernard Freamon "Conceptions of equality and slavery in Islamic law")