international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Charlie Hebdo and Kang Xi

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 17th, 2015

What happened earlier this month at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo has been commented upon ad nauseam; some really good pieces have resulted alongside some terrible ones.  What needs to be said has probably been said already, and readers can look here and here if they are interested in what I have to say about the tragedy. The incident is being imprinted onto our collective psyches as an event with the clear-cut imprimatur of “Islamic terrorism.” Without going into the myriad stupidities and misunderstandings that mediate much of our popular interpretations of what happened, I dare say that the event is emblematic of much more than meets the eye.

The world is a transitory place, and the globalizing effects of commerce and travel have prompted many in the so-called “East” to migrate out of their geographical, social, political contexts, and into the Western world. This broad physical transition has resulted in the proliferating of communities in the West that represent ways of being that, at once modern in appearance, is the 21st century representation of pre-modern traditions that used to dominate mankind. The West’s primary alphabet of secular materialism is often unable to fully penetrate and comprehend the complete meanings of such modes of being, resulting in a kind of tension that makes it difficult for many to see the world through the migrants’ eyes. Islam, as is often the case in the modern era, finds itself caught in the middle of this interaction.

The miscomprehension of lived Islam in the Western world is directly related to the misinterpretations of the violent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s quite ironic that places like North America and Europe, where political repression of the dictatorial kind is supposed to be least pervasive, are often incubators for the least sophisticated sort of cross-cultural understanding. There are many barriers: institutional racism, historical baggage, personal prejudice, etc. But an opportunity does exist. Today, for example, it’s impossible to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. The Communist Party censors all searches of it on Google, and other search engines. It’s very difficult under such circumstances to form a comprehensive history of China without Big Brother looking over one’s shoulder. So, ironically (some would say, with sadness), much of the great works on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature have originated in institutions in the Western world. Jonathan Spence’s seminal 1990 masterpiece In Search of Modern China is a primary example.

So goes for pre-modern traditions like Islam, which, like many other traditions, is most misunderstood in lands that have the most potential of accentuating its public comprehension. The most overlooked tragedy to result from centuries of imperial/colonial activity and its subsequent post-colonial effects is the degradation of one’s heritage. It is, to take one example, why the masterful 20th century writer Lao She, who wrote Rickshaw Boy (Noam Chomsky’s favorite novel when he was a child, incidentally), and who once taught at SOAS, University of London, ended up committing suicide after being humiliated by the Red Guards during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A parallel can be made between this kind of tragedy and the bizarre post-colonial aftermath in the Muslim world, where, in certain countries, the Friday khutbah has to be of a certain flavor according to the state. Such strictures don’t necessarily exist in the so-called liberal, democratic West, which presents its own set of head-scratching oddities, tensions, and crudities.

Yet, within this cauldron of confusion lies an opportunity. As the post-9/11 West staggers onward in its own confused struggle to understand the “Other”  (a generalization, I know), banal crudities have received far more favor than nuanced understanding or deep empathy. Detailed explications of certain traditional or religious principles are often seen as a kind of “liberal” obfuscation conducted in the name of superstition, backwardness, or pure ignorance. The negation of this pattern toward a one-off glossing-over of complex systems is where the opportunity lies for young, non-Western (or, perhaps, partly-Western) intellectuals (Muslims or otherwise) to reclaim their own heritage. Here, in the West, is where the staging point can be for the recollection of memory and history. Not to do so would be, in fact, to surrender any opportunity of narrating one’s own existence.

The present state of affairs reminds me (as a matter of contrast) of how the first emperor of China’s last dynasty (the Qing, 清朝), Emperor Kang Xi (康熙), who came to power in 1661, spent a lot of money and time wooing the Han Chinese intelligentsia, most of whom were loyal to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) rulers that the Qing displaced. Kang Xi, the representative of the nomadic Manchu people of the North (hence, Manchuria), ruled China for an astonishing 61 years. His problem was that the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty were not established by those who held the same Confucian traditions that the Han Chinese (who continue to make up the vast majority of China’s population) did, and therefore didn’t have the loyalty of much of the empire’s most brilliant minds. The Han see themselves as a distinct ethnic group who are central to China’s over-all makeup, and regarded the Qing as outside invaders to their long-established homeland.

Faced with this administrative challenge, Kang Xi didn’t impose a monolithic set of Manchu dicta to marginalize the traditions that featured centrally in the lives of his Han subjects. Instead, he treated the Confucian legacy (which, by then, had many centuries to permeate China) with the kind of sensitivity that’s quite uncommon among most rulers. He assembled a team of tutors (comprised of both Han and Manchu intellectuals) to teach him all the Confucian classics, and, in 1670, issued the “Sacred Edict,” a list of 16 maxims that summarized what Kang Xi thought it meant to live the Confucian life. Whisperings of his scholastic efforts were “leaked,” and, soon enough, many were praising his majesty’s intellectual precociousness and cultural sensitivity. Combined with nation-wide strategies to incorporate more and more Han minds into his orbit of power, Kang Xi made it clear that he didn’t want to caste aside thousands of years of complex philosophical tradition.

Without romanticizing the Qing emperor’s reign (it was not, after all, sensible to dissent against him, for obvious reasons), I wonder how many rulers in the democratic West even have the time to learn just a little bit about the traditions of those they claim to represent? Probably not many. So the work is to be done, then, by civil society—by those who, with one eye on their own past/tradition, dare to peek over the fence to see what’s happened on the other side. This is a crucial intellectual pluralism from which Western Muslims can benefit (if adopted), as the task of explaining one’s own self is often coupled with that of being in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is the essence of being an migrant, or exiled person, I think: one who discovers him or herself not through narrow provincialism or angry selfhood, but through the painstaking, though worthwhile, interpretation of others.

Photo: Inside the Palace of Preserving Peace (保和殿), one of the major halls within the Forbidden City (故宫), which was the imperial palace of China’s monarchs from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/charlie-hebdo-and-kang-xi/]
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international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

The Left’s Ignorant Islam Critics

Published by The American Conservative on January 9th, 2015

Criticism of Islam has become a staple of contemporary politics as observers and practitioners alike wrestle with the myriad implications of Muslims living in the post-9/11 West. For the most part, one could argue with great force that the social panic generated by current fears have been “much ado about nothing,” as Muslims have not shown themselves to be an existential threat to their civilizational counterparts.

That’s not to say that no one can or should criticize Islam, as many have. The problem is whether or not such criticism stems from true understanding or total conjecture. Sadly, the latter has been much prevalent, and the culprits aren’t always raving Christian fundamentalists who, in depicting Islam as a “Satanic religion,” prefer an Armageddon-style showdown between faiths. Rather, it’s arguable that some of the most unfair and ignorant assessments of Islam and Muslims have come from those who label themselves as “progressive.”

The attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a horrid and barbaric response to some of worst, most unfair “criticisms” of Islam. The cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad are meant as a provocation, as was the ensuing massacre which left a dozen people dead. The magazine is now being lionized as a platform that’s been at the forefront of free speech guardianship. A look through its so-called satirical treatment of Muslim figures and it’s quite obvious that the outlet’s top priority when it comes to Islam is to offend and provoke—none of which are crimes, let alone offenses punishable by death. There’s a difference between having one’s expression being protected by free speech principles and actually being a defender of such principles. All of Charlie Hebdo’s writings and cartoons deserve protection (even though their management has fired cartoonists before for anti-Semitism), the framework used for their (mis)interpretation of Islam is awfully similar to those used by the far right.

Fittingly, last year’s polls show Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s ultra-right party, as the leading presidential candidate. Le Pen has wasted no time in linking the Charlie Hebdo attack to immigration, something she’s vowing to crack down on, all the while emphasizing the “religious” dimension of the massacre, and even calling for a referendum on whether to bring back the death penalty. Given all their differences, it’s almost strange that part of the left finds itself aligned with ultra-rightists when it comes to assessing Muslims and their religion.

Take Michael Moore’s recent defense of the odious Bill Maher, host of “Real Time,” who, along with Sam Harris, faced off against actor Ben Affleck on Maher’s show, setting off a firestorm of Internet commentary. Moore, a prominent progressive, argues that Maher shouldn’t be vilified for his harsh criticisms of Islam, and portrays his friend’s insults as being limited to the bashing of “crazy people professing to be Muslim.” One need not look all that far to identify the misrepresentation here of Maher’s vitriol, which hardly ever bothers to distinguish between traditional Islamic beliefs and extremist misinterpretations of the faith. The truth is that those who perpetuate ISIS or al-Qaeda-like violence in the name of Islam are very small in number. The vast majority of orthodox Sunnis, who make up most of the world’s Muslim population, fall within the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is divided up into four main schools of thought (among others), none of which permit the killing of innocent people.

Within this huge corpus of scriptural interpretation can be found laws that govern essentially every important aspect of life (marriage, commerce, jihad, etc.), and though there’s much overlap, the schools recognize each other’s positions and the reality that there’s much room for interpretation when it comes to God’s words, as well as the actions of His messenger (known as hadiths or “Prophetic traditions”). The most “liberal” interpretations of certain verses or hadiths can be found within the existing body of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet, progressives who see monotheistic religion as a relic of the medieval past essentialize Islam in a way that doesn’t recognize its internal diversity. Perceiving the Islamic tradition as one, big, monolith akin to a desktop computer from the 1980s, they call for a “reformation” within Islam so the religion can update its hardware, making it more palatable to the modern world.

The analogy here is obviously with the Christian Reformation associated with Martin Luther, who some progressives misinterpret as a solely democratizing figure, eliminating the middlemen priests so believers can interpret scripture for themselves. What they fail to note is that present-day manifestations of Christian fundamentalism derive their origins from the consequences of the Reformation (which also involved a good deal of bloodletting). Seeing this Protestant transformation as inherently “progressive” in its “democratizing” effects, the logic is now applied to Muslims and to Islam, religious content be damned.

Even a scholar like Cornel West, who has consistently argued against some of Maher’s caricatures of Islam, has often talked about Muslims having to develop what he calls “Prophetic Islam.” The term sounds pretty and comes from West’s desire to see an Islam that takes up causes of justice, but the underlying assumption is that the religion needs to wake up to some sort of modern condition that demands inherent change. It’s ultimately a proposition borne out of “progressive” ignorance, blindly assuming that Islam doesn’t have the tools to engage with the world that preserves both tradition and the rights of others. The truth is that Islam isn’t quite as amenable to reform as its monotheistic cousins. In a way, it sees itself as a religion that came to reform Judeo-Christian sectarianism.

In Western modernity’s virtual casting aside of faith, the necessity of having to understand religions prior to issuing criticism also seems to have gone out the window. This is exacerbated when it comes to the post-9/11 scramble to make sense of the Islamic tradition and how it ought to comport to modern sensibilities. Since secular modernity and/or liberalism are portrayed as the default settings of contemporary Western societies, then, the argument goes, it’s reasonable and logical to expect older religious traditions to conform to its demands. There’s no sense of mutual understanding or negotiation, and the relationship is inherently imbalanced.

The tendency of many progressives to internalize this deep assumption has caused much of their interpretation of Islam to square with that of the extreme right wing, whose criticisms stem from a much simpler kind of antagonism. Yet both groups’ misgivings and misunderstandings can be traced back to a basic ignorance that has plagued the West long before the tragedies of 9/11, and can only be mended if observers of all stripes are willing to assess Islam on its own terms.

Photo: Some volumes from the “News Atheism”/CC

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-lefts-ignorant-islam-critics/]

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