Interweaving: Khaldoun Samman on the Changing Face of Islamophobia and Colonial Discourse

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Interweaving: Khaldoun Samman on the Changing Face of Islamophobia and Colonial Discourse

66 Khaldoun SammanAs part of my occasional series of “Interweaving” conversations, I recently interviewed Khaldoun Samman, Associate Professor of Sociology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Samman teaches a range of courses in social theory, social problems, and the complex relations between “Islam” and “the West” and is the author of the recently-published book Clash of Modernities: The Islamist Challenge to Jewish, Turkish and Arab Nationalism, published in December 2010 by Paradigm Publishers.  

JC: Since 9/11 we have seen a proliferation of Islamophobic discourses that have shaped a wide range of public debates about everything from immigration policy to the prosecution of the “global war on terrorism” to the politics of human rights.  What role does sexuality play in some of these emerging discourses?

KS: I appreciate the fact that your question connects the "War on Terror" to the debates over immigration policy, human rights, and sexuality. In the mainstream, the political rhetoric about immigration, security, war, and torture are rarely ever connected to the emerging discourse on sexuality, women and gay rights, "forced marriage" (usually coupled with "arranged marriage"), "honor killing," "female genital cutting," and so forth. This so-called War on Terror, while visibly about military interventions and geopolitics, is also about redefining the cultural terrain of who belongs to the civilized world and who is Other, culturally and civilizationally is different than “us,” as well as who can be surveilled, killed, tortured, and imprisoned.

For me the link is at times direct when it involves traditional Islamophobic groups like Stop the Islamization of America, Campus Watch, Jihad Watch and other such organizations, which function as a sort of a propagandist arm in support of Israeli policy to disenfranchise Palestinians or U.S. imperialism overseas. "Activists" who work in such institutions, when proclaiming they are acting on behalf of women's rights (I am thinking of people like Phyllis Chesler, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Pamela Geller), are clearly working from a project that postcolonial feminists and others have correctly defined as colonial feminism as a way to denote how women's issues are being appropriated to legitimize war and violence against Third World populations. The fact that right-wing groups like Jihad Watch and Stop the Islamization of America, which I call Islamophobic incitement nodes, can adopt a feminist rhetoric attests to how these groups are searching for ways to mobilize some left-leaning groups in support of their cause.

But lately I've also become interested in how these right-wing interventions, by presenting the so-called conflict with Islamists and others as a conflict between the "civilized world" and "barbarism," have began to seep into individuals and groups who often are not directly linked to a particular state or colonial enterprise. I've become interested in how liberals are being interpellated into the ideological matrix we can call Islamophobia, all while claiming to be acting on behalf of the marginal and the weak. These voices speak as belonging to the left while also using racial and problematic discourses. Often, in an effort to give more legitimacy to this type of liberal racism, they appropriate “native informers” on their behalf like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, or Azar Nafisi.

Ferruh Yilmaz, a professor of communication studies at Tulane University, has made me aware of how these constant right-wing interventions over immigration and culture, particularly as manifested towards "the Muslim" minority, are forging a new national racialized social ontology between "our" culture and "their" culture, to the point where some liberal feminists, gay activists, and others mobilize a culturalized discourse of human rights, focusing specifically on the culture or religion or tradition of "Muslim" immigrants as the source of the human rights violation. This is why, particularly in Europe but also now starting to have traction in the US, a culturalized concept like honor killing is alive and well. By constructing the murder of a woman as the result of "their" traditions and customs, they desire to implicate an entire people in the violence. This is rarely done for whites; in those cases the violence is defined as an act of an individual and rarely ever generalized to American or European or Danish “culture.” I should also say that the reason I am focusing on issues like honor killing is that it is precisely through these progressive-sounding issues that the Right interpellates liberals into its hegemonic project. I predict that we’ll be seeing lots of these issues in the next few years discussed and debated in the American media. Burning the Koran kinds of hate do not go well with liberal sensibilities, but add in a few statements about “their” patriarchal culture—now that will have much more traction and pull in a larger number of folks who usually would not participate in explicitly racist discourse. This is indeed how the Right is forming the new racial hegemonic bloc.

Yilmaz is making a very important point here: By culturalizing human rights, therefore, liberals have also, in a very alarming way, become complicit in the Islamophobic wave once championed by the right. In this way a new racialized hegemonic formation, in a Gramscian sense of a historic "bloc-making," is being forged between liberals and the right. That I find even more dangerous than the Koran-burners since it indicates a possible new political articulation between right-wing racists and liberals, producing a hegemonic bloc of a very racist nature, one that is hard to stop and will have wide repercussions for both the legal and human rights of domestic “Muslims” as well as for our foreign policy and future foreign military escapades.

The argument is not as simple as saying the Right influences liberals. What we are claiming is that as the Liberal Left becomes interpellated, the way society conceives itself changes in fundamental ways, with “Islam” acting as the other side of the border between an alien culture and “ours.”

JC: If this development reveals the limitations of liberalism and its complicity in colonial structures of power/knowledge, does it also signal an opportunity for creating new (post-liberal, post-9/11) strategies for addressing gender violence?  What kinds of strategies are emerging among those who are critical of the “culturalized” human rights discourse you describe? 

KS: At this moment I’m not that optimistic. It seems that over time this “culturalized” way of seeing is having more and more traction. It forces those on the left to respond within its framework, so that when racists and some liberals allege that Islam is fundamentally oppressive towards women and gays, that Islam is anti-science and rational, and so on, those who do want to resist often find themselves using the same culturalized framework to find a “peaceful” Islam, to search through the Qur’anic scriptures to find alternative explanations by trying to prove Islam too (like “us”) is “progressive,” that some Muslims are good and moderate…

This kind of framing does at least two things. First, it reduces the critical nature of our political imagination by focusing on cultural difference as the root of the issue and leaves untouched the issue of occupation (as in Palestine or Iraq), imperialism, social injustice… This is what Mahmood Mamdani calls, in his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, the culturalization of politics. By using this term he is alerting us of how this kind of discourse leaves those in power untouched, forcing us to turn our lens on to “them” and their religion or culture. What needs to be done to resolve the issue? With this kind of cultural politics, our option becomes limited to “cross-cultural dialogue” and learning to respect each other’s “differences.” Politics is simply reduced to management and appreciation of “cultural difference.” Notice also that the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine or the utter destruction of Iraq by the American military, for instance, are marginalized in this culturalized framing, leaving us at the superficial—and I would argue, ideological—level of a Thomas Friedman-type worldview that tries to reduce all explanations of “what went wrong” in Iraq as a product of a time-immemorial culture of the Arabs that can or cannot be civilized or modernized. Notice how it blames “them” and “their” culture for all that is wrong and leaves untouched anything the US war and occupation of Iraq did to them. Second, and for me more significant, this culturalized talk reduces and produces subjects and identities to simple civilizational and cultural templates. I recently spoke to my older brother on the phone and he said something to me that highlights this well. He said to me, “Khaldoun, I feel like an object. All my opinions and everything I do is now seen by both friends and foe as stemming from my Muslimness. It’s like that’s all I am now…” This is something many of us so-called Muslims or Arabs—no matter how secular or complex may be our identity—have been more and more exposed to this simplification. Everything from our sexual and dating desires, our views on marriage or on gays and women, to our critical insights on Israel or other political issues—are all reduced to our Muslimness/ Arabness. Moreover, it produces what Ferruh Yilmaz calls a new social ontology of difference by reconstituting our political identities from a class or colonial based way of seeing to an ethnicized/civilizational one.

And, as I have already mentioned, it’s not only crude racists that speak to you this way. Often, and more so now, it is the default language of some on the non-mainstream left as well. Indeed, in academia, Yilmaz and I have been noticing an increasing number of left scholars who are themselves slowly becoming interpellated by this civilizational discourse. Once the social divide becomes culturalized around categories like Islam and the West, it transforms the way we see social issues like inequality, conflict, human rights, and so on. So to your question of what kinds of strategy are emerging, first thing I would say is that we have to be careful and not to think about politics as coming from a particular discursive content. Rather we have to see how this discourse relates to power and what it does once it articulates itself in the public sphere. Often we judge someone’s politics by the words contained in his or her worldview. So words like “patriarchy” or “homophobia” are usually seen as adopted by “progressive” minded folks. But I think this is very limiting, especially when the social divide has been transformed from a class and colonial divide to an ethnicized/civilizational divide. So in our times, often these words are used as adjectives that precede civilizational categories, so that when they come together (patriarchal culture/Islam) it particularizes these political and social offenses to a specific people or culture. This means we have to start looking at the fine work of some postcolonial feminists and queer theorists like Joan Scott, Uma Narayan, Jasbir Puar, Judith Butler and others who are doing creative critical work around these issues.

JC: You mentioned Thomas Friedman, whose particular perspective on the Middle East has been quite damaging in terms of how he contributes to the culturalization of political discourse.  This goes all the way back to his bestselling book From Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he engages in some absurdly reductionist arguments.  Obviously the news media play a key role in the circulation and legitimation of the discursive patterns you are describing here.  Given that the Weave is an alternative media project, I’m feeling a need to ask you about mediatic spaces where one might find more critical voices – voices that try to resist being interpellated into the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” framework, for instance.  For people who are looking for alternative sources of news and commentary, what do you recommend? 

KS: First I would recommend that you read the fine works of folks like W.E.B. Du Bois and study others like Ida B. Wells. Over the past couple of years, for instance, I’ve learned much from Ida B. Wells campaign to stop the lynching of black men who were accused of raping white women. The similarity between that campaign and what is emerging in our times was very shocking for me. And I was absolutely amazed by how Ida B. Wells, noticing northern liberal white complicity in the lynchings, maneuvered to fragment the racial hegemonic formation of her time by finally turning liberal whites against the white lynchers. I think this is the project of our time: is it possible that we can intervene in this new hegemonic bloc-making in such a way that liberals can be tugged away from this new racial magnet (let’s call this de-interpellation)? Is that possible or is it wishful thinking and naïve on my part? I can see why some folks may think the latter, but from the few talks I’ve made to the public I’m always energized by liberals who come to speak to me later and tell me that they needed to hear what I said. So I would recommend finding folks that can speak in such a way to fracture this hegemonic formation. This would mean that you would have to refuse to abide by the constraints of the debate manufactured by our mainstream political and media institutions. Don’t let them frame the issue. They will try to frame the issue around free speech or something of that sort, between Muslims who come from a culture that does not yet have experience with free speech (or gender equality or gay rights…) and “our way of life.” You have to be diligent and find other frames, like searching the chains of incitements and locating the nodes that produce the debate in the first place and showing its racial element. Many academics and experts do not recognize this and proceed to pontificate upon the axioms of this politically constructed and politically manufactured debate.

Second, study how many in the Egyptian revolution intentionally intervened in the civilizational discourses by offering a representation of the Arab multitude in its complexities: veiled and unveiled women, Copts cheering on Muslims and Muslims cheering on Copts and atheists, the immiserated poor speaking to the real looters of our time, the neo-liberal regime of Mubarak and its complicit imperial banker the United States, and so on. Having these images enter the public consciousness in an Orientalist-saturated American media landscape is essential to articulating a new global left politics with folks in Wisconsin and London who are themselves trying to liberate themselves from the same looters. It restructures our political and social imaginaries by steering us away from a civilizational divide to one based on locating those who are responsible for the looting of our public institutions like healthcare and education and the destruction of our environment.

This does not mean we look away from human rights abuses. Indeed, far from it. I’m always amazed when people accuse me of blaming the “West” or imperialism rather than the hate mongers in “your community.” But I always ask these folks to tell me who is letting off whom? If I were to look at “my community” and ask them to take responsibility as “Muslims” for the hate practiced by the Taliban or the father for the killing of a daughter, is that what you mean by making sure justice is served? Or is it more practical to target the actual assailants of the hate-crime rather than the immigrants or “Muslim community”?  Interesting also to think about how “whites”, when they commit a crime, are rarely ever culturalized. When feminists in the 1980s attempted to claim that America has a “rape culture,” it was quickly dismissed and marginalized, with the feminists who made the claim satirized and ridiculed. Those with enough power to protect themselves from negative representations would not allow it. This could only be done to people with less access to the mediatic world. So be conscious of this in your efforts to produce an alternative mediatic source.

And straight out of my new book, The Clash of Modernities, my third recommendation will be the following: Note that one of the defining features of hegemony, be it colonial or nationalist, is its chameleon-like quality, which allows it to engage politics through no single ideological lens. There are no ideological scripts that it cannot absorb. Similarly, it has no essential ideology of its own. It shifts every time we offer up a new epistemology of resisting it, incorporating many of our beloved political stands of the past so that it may continue to create and reproduce its power over a newly-defined Other. Indeed, at the very moment we think we have successfully created the political space for human rights, including women and gay rights, the hegemon maneuvers to absorb them as well and then uses them against a defined Other, reproducing an old or new social and global divide. This means we have to be diligent and ready to constantly shift our political discourse so that we maintain our focus on the hegemon. When our given social and political imaginary becomes part of the hegemonic discourse we must be willing to alter it so as to maintain our resistance to the eye of power rather than being used to further pounce on the hegemon’s enemy. This requires that we are always a step ahead of the hegemon by keeping our radar of power scrutinizing the hegemon’s digestion of our earlier liberatory texts. Given the hegemon’s unquenchable appetite for power, it can devour anything we throw at it, even the most basic rights we as humans can think of. It does this because it is an expert of producing political scripts that divide the Self from its Others. So we too have to become chameleon-like and constantly shift our political discourse so as to offer a new epistemology of resistance it has not yet learned to digest. This is a non-ending process that can never end in some utopian future. We have to be politically diligent and constantly on the look-out for how our liberatory political discourses are being utilized by the hegemonic powers of our world. This will require first and foremost the refusal to reproduce the culturalized boxes that the hegemon produced as the fundamental template it uses to rule over both “us” and “them.”