The Arab and Muslim worlds have too long seen popular movements toward democracy be derailed by religious fanaticism, whether Shia or Sunni. Neither Islamophobes nor Islamists should tell us what it means to be Muslim.
I will not apologize for your parochialism your provincialism or your ignorance
The politics of post-Charlie Hebdo incident has become positively polarized. On one side you have a militantly mobilized army of liberal fear and loathing against Islam and Muslims. On the other, you have Muslims who refuse to be intimidated by this charade and emphatically assert their defiance to jump on the “Je sui Charlie” bandwagon.
No Imam, no Mullah, no Sheikh, no sect, absolutely no one and nothing has a monopoly over defining who or what is a Muslim.
The smarter the liberal Islamophobes think they are, the better they seek to hide it under “the freedom of speech” truism, as if by being a Muslim you are ipso facto against that freedom. That in effect reveals an even more sinister form of Islamophobia.
But the battle is waged fairly and the skirmishes continue apace — as they should. In his powerful poem, Bad Muslim, Asam Ahmad puts the defiance in chapter and verse:
I will not apologize until every single european apologizes for the massacres holocausts genocides famines committed in your names until you personally apologize for palestine kashmir algeria the congo for drawing lines in the sand that still fester like bloody wounds
In the midst of this thickening dust of polarized politics of position and counter-position, identity and alterity, people who care for the free and democratic future of the Muslim world at large need to beware of a far more serious issue that may get lost in the thick smoke screen of this particular European moment.
We have already been here and done that – distracted by a relatively minor incident while a much more colossal calamity was under way: a militant group of Muslims does something outrageous and generates fury, and as the world attention (triggered by an incident that involves European or American bodies) is drawn to that fury, people lose sight of something far more critical and costly.
Precisely at the European moment when world attention was forcefully drawn to Paris for the vicious murder of a handful of French satirists, the murderous Islamist gang Boko Haram slaughtered an estimated 2,000 human beings in Northern Nigerian villages. Of an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide only a few million live in Europe and North America and they are more than capable of engaging in the historic struggle of defending (as they re-articulate) their faith. The screaming hypocrisy of Europeans and their turn to “freedom of speech” when it comes to denigrating and humiliating their Muslim populations (particularly the disenfranchised and destitute recent émigrés suffering hopelessly in their ghettos), underscored by their murderous colonial past, accentuated by having a war criminal like Binyamin Netanyahu lead their parade, are just too gaudily evident to worry they may get lost in the midst of this “Je suis Charlie” charade. If we care about the fate of our humanity – Muslim and non-Muslim – there is a larger context and concern that demands simultaneous attention. ‘Death to America’ I dislike Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons no more or less than I detest the slogan of “Death to America” when chanted by masses of mobilized and frenzied Muslim zealots on the Friday sermons staged by the custodians of the Islamic Republic on the occupied site of Tehran University. The slogan, of course, is far less targeted against Americans half way around the globe than it is against Iranians themselves, to frighten and silence and rule them with fear. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980 and Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie are the enduring gifts of the Iranian revolution to the world at large: How viciously militant Islamism creates smoke screens of fighting “the Great Satan” while robbing a nation of its magnificent cosmopolitan revolution and turning it into a diabolic Islamic Republic. The so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly, ISIS), Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda and all their varied gestations, are today the most pestiferous counter-revolutionary machineries diverting the course of Arab and Muslim revolutions. Whatever their causes – ranging from the brutish US imperialism to the banalities of Israeli colonialism to local and regional tyrannies from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another – their consequences immediately threaten the democratic future of Muslim lands first and foremost. These Islamist thugs have one aim and one aim only: to derail the democratic and cosmopolitan course of Arab revolutions. Everything else is a sideshow. They bank on European and American racism and Islamophobia. They maliciously turn the legitimate grievances of Muslims and all other people against European colonial history and contemporary racism to the advantage of their own criminal and illegitimates aims. European leaders and their press might “freely” opt to fall into that trap. It is their business. But people who care for the democratic future of the Arab and Muslim world should not. As with the case of the Salman Rushdie Affair of 1989, this murderous posturing of militant Islamists in Europe to tackle “the West” is a criminal ruse to rule the Muslim world with fear and loathing, with cruelty and thuggery, as Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and IS are now doing in territories under their control from Afghanistan to Nigeria. The ruling fanaticism in the Islamic Republic of Iran is only the more institutionalized case of the same disease. The murder of a dozen journalists in Paris pales in comparison with the terror that Boko Haram and Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the Taliban have perpetrated on Muslims from Africa to Asia, or over thirty years of systematic destruction of independent journalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in the Arab and rest of the Muslim world. Ayatollah Khomeini and his lieutenants staged and used the American hostage crisis and the Salman Rushdie Affair of 1989 to divert world attention as they went about consolidating their brutish grip on power, seeking to destroy a magnificent cosmopolitan political culture and levelling it to their own contorted and crooked sizes. The taking of the US embassy in Iran in November 1979 by the so-called “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” was no less treacherous an act of thievery against the cause of democracy in Iran than the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, which they feigned to fear would be repeated in 1979. Widespread and deep-rooted university purges followed that treacherous act, as did mass executions of political prisoners. With the stroke of one pen by Khomeini, mass graves were dug in the Khavaran cemetery, as successive “cultural revolutions” were led by militant ideologues. Meanwhile, the aching hearts of European and North American liberalism were bleeding profusely over the career opportunism of one Salman Rushdie.
A nasty streak of racism
History is now repeating itself in an even more insidious way and on a much wider scale. As the ruling regime in the Islamic Republic singularly Shia-fied the cosmopolitan Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, its chief nemesis, Saudi Arabia began financing the most pernicious form of Wahabism, soon to be followed by other Persian Gulf potentates financing even more diabolic forms of Sunni fanaticism. Thus the militant Sunnification of Arab politics seeking to derail the Arab revolutions mirrors the violent Shiafication of the Iranian revolution. After the catastrophic partition of India in 1947 in the course of its anticolonial struggles and the formation of Pakistan as an Islamic state in 1947, and after the equally catastrophic (as Palestinians rightly term it) establishment of the Jewish settler colony of Israel, the militant Shiafication of the Iranian revolution was the most disastrous event of modern history in the region. Exacerbating and deepening the denominational and sectarian identity politics of the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran emerged to face the Jewish state of Israel, adjacent to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India and of Buddhist nationalism further to the East — all of course under the military suzerainty of US Christian imperialism. This is the terrorizing history of the last half a century that has afflicted millions of human beings living in the region. Yes we are all Muslim, but Muslim is not all we are. Yes Islam is integral to who we are, but it is not definitive to who and what we are. Yes Islamic law is integral to being a Muslim but not definitive to being a Muslim. There is more than one way to be a Muslim and no Imam, no Mullah, no Sheikh, no sect, absolutely no one and nothing has a monopoly over defining who or what is a Muslim. Muslims are the descendants of vast and successive world and worldly empires. A rich and diversified intellectual, discursive, institutional, spiritual, and symbolic history informs the transnational public sphere upon which Muslims can now articulate who and what they are. There is more to “Islam” than any fraternity club of Mullahs or Imams or self-appointed “leaders” can imagine or legislate in their Shariah. Just because there is a nasty streak of racism and Islamophobia in Europe and North America and all they see in us is being a “Muslim” (which for them is a coded word for being a “terrorist”) it does not mean we too should reduce and compromise the diversified plurality, the rich complexity, the life-affirming multiplicity of who and what we are to their common denominator of fear and loathing. We are a world and we have inherited a worldliness of which both the Islamophobes and the Islamists (two sides of the same nasty coin) are constitutionally ignorant and every day that passes their ignorance increases. In order to break the vicious cycle between the militant Islamists and racist Islamophobes and deny them the monopoly of the dominant discourse we need to expose them simultaneously—for the ugly mirror image of each other that they are.
It is imperative for us to see Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri for what they are, the fanatical counterparts and kindred souls of Anders Breivik, Geert Wilders, Pamela Geller, Bill Maher and Sam Harris. When a power-mongering Ayatollah issued a fatwa against a magnificent British Indian novelist and forever destroyed his literary career, Ayatollah Khomeini and Salman Rushdie became the doppelganger of each other: a militant Islamist and a fanatical Islamophobe. Khomeini now lives in Rushdie, and Rushdie died with Khomeini. What criminal fanatics of al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and Boko Haram have come together to do is precisely what the Shia militants did to the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 — derail these multifaceted, grassroots, emancipatory, cosmopolitan revolutions by distorting and derailing them into Islamist sectarianism. Muslims as citizens of one particular multifaceted culture in Iran were fooled and frightened and their liberating revolution derailed by fanatical Shia — their “religious intellectuals” in particular. Muslims at large from one end of the Muslim world to another should not be fooled and frightened again by fanatical Sunnis in the course of the Arab revolutions — their murderous death squads in particular.