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 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 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 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.


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