Reading: Talal Asad on “Islam,” Europe, and the civilizational shtick

An excerpt from “Europe Against Islam” (April, 1997):

“If religion is often thought of as a major danger, “Islam” is often represented as a uniquely intractable instance of active religion in the modern world. In the modern world “religion”has-or at any rate, we believe that it should have-its proper appointed place. Islam, presented as a “religious civilization,” is a construct not only of the media but also of intellectual discourse. That is the discourse in which the rich and diverse history of Muslim societies across three continents and one-and-a-half millennia is reduced to the essential principles of a distinctive “religious civilization. ”

Such essentialist characterizations of “Islamic civilization” are carried out sometimes sympathetically and sometimes with hostile intent, but in either case they prompt people to explain the many authoritarian .or violent trends in Muslim countries in terms of an essential “Islam.” There are several objections to such an explanatory procedure, but I shall confine myself here to the most obvious: No liberal in the West would suggest that the Gush Emunim in Israel represent the essence of Judaism, or that the assassination of abortion doctors in the U.S. by pro-Life activists represents the essence of Christianity, Liberal scholars today would rightly object to the suggestion that the powerful authoritarian campaign throughout India for Hindutva (which some observers have likened to Nazism)” expresses the essence of “Hinduism”;yet Western writers continue to identify an essential “authoritarianism” in Muslim countries and attribute it to Islam’s monotheistic beliefs.

The Western intellectual discourse on ”Islamic civilization’’ goes back at least to the first half of the nineteenth century, but in our own day scholars (von Grunebaum, Gibb, Watt, Lewis, Crone and Cook, Geertz, Gellner, and many others) have continued to reproduce it. This discourse is not invariably hostile, but it does make it possible to represent the contemporary Islamic revival as the outcome of a civilizational essence reacting violently in self-defence against the challenge of Modernity. I contend that the very idea of “civilization” -a nineteenth-century invention-is not helpful for thinking constructively about the cultural and political problems of our time. On the other hand “tradition”-often falsely opposed to “modernity” and “reason” since the Enlightenment-is a far more promising concept. Continue reading

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Imperialism, Theirs and Ours

Below is a conversation about imperialism, US and Pakistani, and my note about it.

  1. mehreenkasana
    While it is commendable that there is an upcoming documentary (The Invisible War) to highlight the sexual abuse female US soldiers suffer >>

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:00:28
  2. mehreenkasana
    by their very own American male counterparts, I doubt anyone will make a documentary on the Afghan, Iraqi and/or invaded >>

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:00:55
  3. mehreenkasana
    country victims of rape by US soldiers. And that hypocrisy or censorship of US military abuse on other civilians is what unsettles me.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:01:23
  4. kaalakawaa
    @mehreenkasana While I’m all for docus exposing US excesses, I primarily wish we’d make one abt sexual assaults in 1971 by PK soldiers.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:06:55
  5. kaalakawaa
    @mehreenkasana Yes, Empire is a terrible thing. But Empire is something PK aspires towards too. I’m far more concerned of our own excesses.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:07:53
  6. mehreenkasana
    Agreed. @salmaan_H and I shared posts on ’71’s brutality. Rumor has it that a certain HR activist is making a documentary too. @kaalakawaa

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:08:27
  7. mehreenkasana
    @kaalakawaa Never disagreed. My criticism against US military abuse is never endorsement of PK force’s state-endorsed excessive violations.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:10:43
  8. kaalakawaa
    @mehreenkasana Yes, but continued anger at US imperialism, while justified, come at the cost of anger at PK’s motives for empire.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:12:04
  9. kaalakawaa
    @mehreenkasana The awful ‘strategic depth’ argument is in essence imperialistic and one that we have not discarded even now.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:12:48
  10. kaalakawaa
    @mehreenkasana In reality the ‘strategic depth’ argument argues for a PK ‘sphere of influence’ that extends over all of Central Asia.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:13:44
  11. mehreenkasana
    @kaalakawaa Agreed. That said, an equal and consistent criticism against *both* is essential to question either’s megalomaniac urges.

    Sat, Jun 09 2012 13:18:57

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Archipelago of Injustices

Below is the writer’s cut of my review of Alia Malek’s Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice for Dawn (link).



On March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32 year old Iraqi woman, was fatally beaten with a tire iron in Southern California. A note found near her said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The investigators asserted that it was an isolated incident and that other Iraqis need not worry. Lumping disparate peoples into threats and describing violence against them as “isolated incidents” works in tandem. The former justifies sustained national violence and the latter diverts our attention from the systemic nature of this violence. What we see instead are “isolated incidents” of violence suspended outside the broader societal context and exigencies of the national security state, and exceptional events, neither the latest in a long chain of violence on a particular group of people nor as an episode in the nation’s deep history of violence and dispossession.

Alia Malek’s work of oral history, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice gives the lie to the frame— isolated incident— that holds within it the image of the idyllic American society as it effaces its systematic injustices. By including the violated as victims of isolated crimes, it excludes the chorus of their voices. It shuts out the stories of unrelenting violence: of racial terrors such as beatings and violent deaths; of legal terrors such as incarcerations, detentions, and deportations; of routine, everyday violence such as bullying at school, employment discrimination, traveling made arduous, racist jibes and sneers. In Malek’s words, “the personal stories and lived experiences of these realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In Patriot Acts that chorus pushes at the constricting margins of the frame and shows those that will see beyond isolation, the lives damaged and scarred, the families shattered.

Walking back home with an Indian co-worker on the day of 9/11, Malek noticed that it wasn’t her but her non-Muslim, non-Arab, Indian friend who was getting nasty stares and sneers. “Ironically,” Malek writes, “I, as a fair-skinned Arab, look the part much less, given how Arabs and Muslims are visualized in the American imagination.” This is a fundamental insight. Racism, tied intimately to nationalism and empire, doesn’t make studied and careful distinctions. Its essential distinctions are centered on itself: They are not us. The construction of enemies, of majorities and minorities, is the constitutive violence of the nation. It labels and targets particular kinds of ‘Others’ at a given historic juncture, and especially those perceived to be cosmopolitan, people of suspect loyalties and having links with the enemy without. Minorities are the foil against which the unity of the nation is constituted and injustices obscured. That foil for the present day America is the racialized figure of the terrorist, the Muslim: Dark skinned, bearded and beturbaned, or behijabed, Middle-Eastern-looking, and/or having Middle Eastern sounding name. And the violence arrayed against it targets immigrants in general. Continue reading

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They used to visit in summer . . . boiling, hot summers. My cousin, my brother, and I would raise hell. In our quieter moments we played Ludo. Meals were served on big dastarkhwans with our families sitting around it on the floor. For two weeks there will be respite from the monotonous, never-ending, mind-numbing summer homework. (We were asked to copy large portions of our textbooks, presumably to improve our handwriting and memory, though we were seldom, if ever, tested for memorizing what we had written down in our summer-homework.) The elders sometimes played carom but mostly cards was the game of choice: my aunt and uncle vs my mom and dad, or some combination of them for the four players card game rang (trump?). My parents disapproved of them, unless, of course, played with family, so I sat and watched the forbidden games being played openly, and learnt how to play from the very people who forbade them. Indian films, yes, lots of them. Since we didn’t have a VCR, it would either have to be rented or borrowed. It was a special treat.

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Remote-controlled Knowledge

[Following is the Homistani edition of my review of Where The Wild Frontiers Are, published on Counterpunch and ChapatiMystey.]

They rain death and destruction from above, burying their prey in the rubble they reduce their targeted location to. And then they hit the rubble to ensure their kill stays dead, killing rescuers in the process. They buzz incessantly, making it difficult for people to fall asleep and sending the demand for anti-depressants and sleeping pills soaring in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Besides their function as airborne assassins, drones are also used to watch, observe, monitor. What they monitor, they relay back as grainy images. Images are also captured on checkpoints: images of retinas, faces and fingers. Biometric data on 1.5 million Afghans, that is “every six males of fighting age, ages 15 to 64” and on 2.2 million Iraqis, “the equivalent of one in four males of fighting age” was collected and stored, reported The New York Times. Within the U.S, foreigners from certain countries (almost all Muslim) were ordered to have their biometric data collected. Since then, biometrics have proliferated to airports en-masse. All of this has yielded piles of information. Still, the appetite for more data remains and the fantasies about technologically cutting edge data-gathering toys abound. The nano drones being developed “can fly after their prey like a killer bee through an open window.” The Gorgan Stare, a U.S Air force technology, it was reported, will look at a city 24/7 so that the “adversary” knows that it is being watched but never knows what exactly is being looked at, because, as The Washington Post’s giddy headline put it, “we can see everything.”


The tech-savvy American empire has other ways of seeing and knowing as well. The Global War on Terror has spawned a whole battery of experts on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Islam, and Muslims. Such expertise historian Manan Ahmed juxtaposes with the indecipherable mountains of data obtained through constant surveillance to conclude that “the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalized.” It is empire’s vacuous ways of seeing and knowing, the critical distance between knowing and understanding, that Ahmed brings into focus in his book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a curated collection of his blogposts and published essays. “The idea of unknowing (or deliberate ignorance),” he writes, “is at the heart of the empire—and arguably, specifically, the American Empire.”  Continue reading

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“Justice Undone: Color Blindness After Civil Rights”

Thanks abubanda for sharing this video (Prof. López’s lecture begins at 28:00):

Below is some hasty transcription and paraphrasing of some of Professor López’s points in the lecture, to give you a sneak peak and why you should spend the hour watching the lecture.

“He, George Wallace, had figured out how to tap into that hatred, and the key was to use non-racial language that stoked racial fears but allowed people to tell themselves they weren’t being motivated by racism. … In the words of the historian Dan Carter, ‘Wallace Pioneered a kind of a soft-porn racism, in which fear and hate could be mobilized without mentioning race itself except to deny that one is a racist.'” … “[This] Southern strategy [of politicians’ using coded racist language to attract white vote] is really a version of color-blind racism. It’s colorblind in the sense that it never makes a formal reference to race except, of course, to deny that race is an issue. It’s race-ism because it constantly seeks to stoke racial animosity.” The politicians elected through this strategy then appoint judges to the supreme court. “It’s color-blind racism that creates the court about to enact [constitutional] color-blindness.” A constitutional color-blindness that holds that express references to race cannot be made, requires direct evidence of express reference to race to prove discrimination based on race. This results in less than 5 percent of litigated racial discrimination cases resulting in conviction, but more insidiously it ensures that the racial politics of the elected officials that appointed the Judges could not be indicted. It also holds that express references to race cannot be made. “When the court begins to announce that it needs to be suspicious of every use of race, because you can’t differentiate between affirmative action and Jim Crow, it’s saying that at the point it is already clear that the only express uses of race will be in the context of affirmative action.” With a non-self-referring racism in place, the advocacy for affirmative action, which has to use the language of race expressly to bring attention to the issue at hand, that being, um, race and racism, is confounded with Jim Crow and racism itself!
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On Anatol Lieven, Empire and Knowledge

There have been some dissonant responses to Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country. Some (many) call it “the perfect antidote to stereotypical descriptions of the country as the most dangerous place in the world.” (Pakistan isn’t a failed state, you see, it is a “highly conservative, archaic and sometimes quite inert and somnolent mass.”) Others, like Praveen Swami write that “there is little sense in this book of Pakistan as a place with people, rather than a problem.” Still others charge him with “viewing the country as the sum of all its military parts.”

That, I think, is an issue with this genre of books that either represent or inform, in Sepoy’s words,”the view from the mahogany conference tables in and around Washington.” Zia Mian and Sharon Weiner, in their review of some such recent policy-oriented literature about Pakistan, write that

Much of this literature sees Pakistan as a policy problem and seeks to inform Washington’s debate on how to get Pakistan to do what the United States wants it to do. The literature also reveals the limits of American knowledge and power when it comes to Pakistan. Continue reading

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