June 25, 2020

Teleologies of abolitionism in modern popular understandings of the history of Islam and Christianity

There are a lot of misleading teleologies in the modern appropriation of abolitionism by contemporary Muslim and Christian faith communities. In the eagerness to uncover an 'abolitionist' impulse in their religious past, one frequently observes scholarly and popular efforts to 'prove' that some Muslims or Christians abolished slavery before it became a global norm. There have also been many efforts to portray the founders of these religions themselves as abolitionists. This is complicated by the long history of warfare on the frontiers of Christian and Muslim states, which produced many slaves.

 While I appreciate efforts to uncover these 'lost' histories, I also think it is helpful to define what 'abolitionism' is and what it is not, in the interest of greater clarity about the past. Most Christian and Muslim faith communities have historically had strong prohibitions on enslaving co-religionists. This attitude had long coexisted with a tolerance of enslavement as punishment for being captured in a battle or a war. Prohibiting the capture and sale of co-religionists is not functionally equivalent to an abolitionist viewpoint, although it may have helped in certain ways and at certain times, to stimulate abolitionism's more universalist vision. The prohibition against selling or enslaving co-religionists did not extend to those outside of the 'civilization' created by these universalist faiths, or to the idea of slavery, ownership by another, as being inherently immoral.

 If prohibiting capture and sale of co-religionists was functionally equivalent to abolition, In fact the impulse to extend the name 'abolitionist' to anyone who tried to curtail or regulate the slave traffic of co-religionists, leads to logical and historical absurdities. Are we to regard Bathilde, wife of Clovis II, as an early abolitionist because she outlawed the traffic in Christian slaves in the Merovingian state? Is the Ethiopian emperor Gälawdéwos an abolitionist, for propagating an edict against the illegal slave trade in Christians in 1548? Were the slaveowning founders of the United States 'abolitionists' for banning the slave trade from Africa? I have similar doubts about labeling West African Muslim leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries who similarly tried to curtail the TRADE in CO-RELIGIONISTS, as abolitionists. I would distinguish between people who wanted to end the slave trade or who were outraged by its excesses, from the militant position of abolitionism. Perhaps this makes me a bit out of step with recent scholarly trends, which have tended to take a 'lumping' approach to the phenomenon of abolition, rather than the 'splitting' approach I favor.

 I have argued in the Journal of Global Slavery that abolitionism is a modern discourse with origins in the brutal regime of trans-Atlantic slavery and can only with great difficulty and inconsistency be mapped onto the further past of most faith communities. There is a nonviolent wing exemplified by Quakers, the Great Awakening, and the anti-slavery efforts of people like Olaudah Equiano and Otto Cugboana, as well as an armed resistance wing exemplified by Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Sam Sharpe, the Haitian revolutionaries and the Bahian Muslim rebels. Abolitionism was not the natural working out of the 'inner logic' of the Abrahamic faiths, but a modern response to the contradictions in those discourses which had allowed slavery and the slave trade to continue to flourish. I think it is valuable to make these distinctions so we can gain a more sophisticated historical sense that, just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged as a response to, and was influenced by the Holocaust, the modern human rights revolution of abolitionism was a response to the brutalities of forced migration of Africans across the modern Atlantic, and was first and foremost a diasporic phenomenon of the Americas. My JGS article.


June 11, 2020

Muslims, gender protection under the law, and Bostock v. Georgia

From the RFI brief in Bostock v. Georgia: "The purpose of the brief is to set forth orthodox Sunni Islam's position that sex is biologically determined upon conception, and that to interpret "sex" to mean gender identity would have applications that impinge on Muslims' religious rights." Some things that have been bugging me about this whole debate are 1) the meaning of 'biologically determined' to an 'orthodox Sunni Muslim' who does not believe in biological evolution, 2) the legal meaning of 'sin' under US civil rights law, and 3) the idea of a specific protection for 'religion', when there is no objective determination of what a religion is and religions frequently deems other religions as inherently sinful or misguided. Biology is a human science that today holds that all life on earth came into being through natural selection, aka without a creator. So when orthodox Sunni Muslims reference 'biological science' as an authority to interpret the meaning of sex and gender in the laws, it would seem that in order to avoid the charge of cherry picking, they would have to also believe in the authority of biological science to interpret the origins of human beings through evolution. If they don't, then this claim that gender protections impinge on a Muslim's right to believe in biology is nothing more than a private religious matter that religious claimants are seeking to impose on the public square with thinly veiled 'public reason' sentiments. By the logic of 'sin' presented in the brief, the fact that Muslims have to accomodate Catholics atheists, polytheists and other 'loathsome' beliefs in American life is given surprisingly short shrift. Surely the authors know of robust historical and contemporary debate among Muslims about whether or not it is even PERMISSIBLE to live outside of the sovereignty of a Muslim ruler. According to a number of orthodox Sunni Muslim authorities from the past and present, it is sinful to live in a non-Muslim state and Muslims have an obligation to emigrate. THAT contradiction in Muslim American life was once much greater than the sex/gender issue, and acknowledging that would seem to undermine their case that the 'sex/gender' issue is some kind of Muslim 'rubicon'. Finally, notice, that the Muslim Bar Association filed a separate amicus brief in this case, opposing the RFI brief. This represents to me the thorniest part of the case: how are secular courts supposed to offer accommodation for a 'religious' point of view, when it means adjudicating internal disagreements over non-creedal issues like this? It is an impossible task. In fact, 'religious' protection as a category is on even shakier conceptual grounds than sex/gender protection. There are two basic biological sexes (and a handful of intersex and gender identity expressions). With religions, no 'religious' group can totally agree with any other religious group as to what a 'religion' is and is not. In fact, many religions have beliefs that logically entail that another group's religious beliefs are 'sinful'; thus a protection of one religion's rights can entail 'sin' for another group. I'm not a lawyer. My main point is that I think this issue is blown waaay out of proportion by the average person's ignorance about intersex issues and the relationship between sex and gender. In that confusion, reactionary organizations like the RFI can position themselves as 'standing up' for Muslim rights by opposing protections for others. Recall how this case started: "Gerald Bostock, a gay man, began working for Clayton County, Georgia, as a child welfare services coordinator in 2003. During his ten-year career with Clayton County, Bostock received positive performance evaluations and numerous accolades. In 2013, Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Shortly thereafter, Bostock received criticism for his participation in the league and for his sexual orientation and identity generally. During a meeting in which Bostock’s supervisor was present, at least one individual openly made disparaging remarks about Bostock’s sexual orientation and his participation in the gay softball league. Around the same time, Clayton County informed Bostock that it would be conducting an internal audit of the program funds he managed. Shortly afterwards, Clayton County terminated Bostock allegedly for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.” (https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/17-1618) My own opinion, from reading about the case, is that in addition to the inconsistencies I listed above regarding justifications for specific religious exemptions from the 14th Amendment, Muslims in America who are filing briefs like this are actually arguing for the right of Bostock's employer to fire him, simply for being gay in public. In doing so, they are demonstrating a callous shortsightedness (probably also motivated by fear of losing control over their institutions), which will come back to haunt them.


June 3, 2020

Islam, Christianity and LGBT in the United States: What do we owe to each other?

This is a response to Mobeen Vaid's reflection from Feb. 19, 2020. The author of this piece is an excellent, incisive writer. I enjoy reading him, in spite of my substantive disagreements, because he makes me think. This piece is not the best example of his abilities. In fact, I think the piece shows that the author has some blind spots, some unexamined bigotry on the LGBT issue, as do many of your Muslim faves on this issue. To see why, and to see what I believe to be the shortcomings of his approach, it may help to imagine the post below being written by a Christian about Muslims. To understand the validity of this comparison, we need to erase the Eurocentric distinction of distinct "religious" and "non-religious" communities in modern society. This doesn't mean denying that certain groups think of themselves as religious groups, rather it means seeing that IT MATTERS how, and with what language, groups relate to each other in a plural society. Under US law, religious groups don't have a privileged right to an authentic identity that exceeds that of any other group. In the US, there isn't a meaningful legal distinction between the protection for religious identity, and the protection for sexual identity, although today a number of conservative Christian legal theorists are highly invested in making the distinction. However, both are legally protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. A thought experiment I often perform when thinking through the subtleties of this issue, is to imagine if a Christian wrote about Islam, the way Vaid writes about LGBT. I can see a Christian 'apologizing' for centering their point of view unequivocally with the following, betraying their profound anxiety about losing followers: "There are increasingly Christians who are attracted to the abominable heresy that is Islam, who are still trying to live a life of fidelity to Jesus Christ, in spite of the increasing public tolerance for Islam's perversion of the gospel." or, an edited version of a sentiment expressed in Vaid's article, from a Christocentric perspective : "Today, Christian activists and politicians are free to support masjids being built in majority Christian neighborhoods, the legalization of polygamy, the practice of the sharia, restrictions on Christian religious freedom, and basically any other pro-Muslim program without receiving even mild push back or concern from anyone other than a few nominal corners online." We can recognize the 'right' of someone to express these opinions, about Muslims as well as gays and lesbians, even if we find them distasteful. But if it is important to critique the above sentiment as partial and based on low-information and a degree of hysteria, then it is equally important to challenge the sentiments expressed in the linked piece by Vaid. With study, we should be able to recognize that the Christian perspective I articulated above is Islamophobic, even if it is a valid generalization from the perspective of an authentically, orthodox Christianity. Similarly, LGBT-phobic Muslims are expressing a clearly recognizable form of bigotry, even if it is a valid generalization deeply rooted in Muslim religious orthodoxy. There are a number of shortcomings and contradictions in modern social progressivism, which Vaid is an eloquent critic. But these contradictions pale in comparison to the contradictions that would arise if orthodox Muslim and Christian views of human sexuality were implemented on a universal basis in US society today, or even ONLY within their respective communities. With its shortcomings, 'liberal progressivism' still provides a valuable safety valve for victims to escape from some of the more damaging views of sex and gender relations emanating from within religious communities.


May 5, 2020

Studying racism in pre-modern Muslim contexts

Some thought provoking methodological reflections on my timeline recently, mostly critiques of Cemel Aydin's book, The Idea of the Muslim World. I was particularly taken with this argument: "Perhaps the better argument is that such ideas [the Muslim world] represent a rebirth of classical ideas, and are not simply some construct of colonial modernity, even if colonial modernity created the conditions in which they gained new salience."

 For historians, who ideally are trained to see things in terms of dynamics and evolution, rather than origins, this idea makes intuitive sense. However, I've seen a lot of reluctance among Islamic studies scholars to apply this  methodology to forms of social prejudice and governing distinctions with roots in the premodern Muslim past, that also clearly affect modern social life among Muslims. Indeed, in popular Muslim circles the exact opposite is usually claimed. A popular take from a few years ago attributed most all recent critical revisionist scholarship on the issue to 'Orientalism' and anti-Muslim Afrocentrism. I do not think such a position can be sustained. Put simply, my contention is that racism(s) in the Muslim tradition (like in the Christian or Jewish traditions) have an independent pre-modern history that was not erased by colonial modernity and thus continues to impact the present.

 In a comment left below the article linked above, one cogent commentator, Sarah, asked: "Is what religiously matters to Muslims whether it was “American” racism, or whether there was discrimination at all? Are we discussing personal-level xenophobia, cultural ideas, the history of religious legal institutions, or the possibilities of religious primary sources?" In short, a lot of today's simplistic constructions of Muslim history around race are reflections of genuine contemporary hope and faith in Islam as an alternative to the systemically embedded racism of a morally exhausted post-civil rights US society. From this perspective it is understandable why scholars might be reluctant to talk about how modern forms of Muslim racism have much deeper roots than colonial modernity, fearing they will lend support to the rantings of racist western bigots. But in doing so, scholars leave themselves no way of meaningfully analyzing forms of racism originating from people thoroughly steeped in the Islamic tradition, well before the west became the west. When these are analyzed, it is rare to see commentary that goes beyond modern notions of generic anti-racism, in which race is merely a sinful aberration.

But the roots of racism within this 'special world-system' of Islam are complex, not merely the manifestation of human sin, or the universal tendency to favor one's tribal in-group. Remember that forms of racial difference have always co-existed ideologically with socially leveling ideas, sometimes within the same religious or political group. Belief systems with the ambition to universally reorder all humanity into a new community, can give birth to their own unique forms of systemic exclusion. While not unilinearly linked to color or complexion, Muslim forms of racism took shape in the historical patterns of acculturation, accumulation and dominion that accompanied the worldly success of Muslim empire. Scholars might profitably analyze the whole cluster of ideas in the Islamic tradition relating blood, culture, color and lineage, as ideas about race. We might then see more clearly how race, as an assemblage of ideas about physical and cultural traits, informed the creation of multiple cross-cutting social hierarchies of value in Muslim societies.

 TL:DR , saying 'race and racial difference is a modern colonial construct' is about as conceptually useful as saying 'the Muslim world is a modern colonial construct'. That is not to deny that a particularly pernicious form of racial difference, birthed in the European colonial encounter, had a world-historical impact and continues to operate globally. Race was an indispensable tool of governance in the colonial Atlantic world. But the Americas are not the origin of the construction of racial difference, any more than they are the origins of capitalism. In each case one needs to carefully unpack the historical meanings encompassed within the modern discursive signs.


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