Portals, Politics, and Post-Modernism: A Call for the Liberatory Moment

Introduction

It is important to note that my own process of becoming Muslim involved the destabilization of my Atheism and the stabilization of an Islamic Theism occurring simultaneously. These were overlapping developments in my life when I was in my early 20s. Although they are necessarily kept separate in these blog posts, I want to stress that I was reading about Islam at the same time that I was reading Anarcho-Primitivist critiques of Science and Marxist critiques of Secular Humanism.

694px-Six-winged_Seraph_(Azrael)._1904

I have already elucidated before a bit about my early path to Islam on this blog. In fact, Michael Muhammad Knight, in his book Why I Am a Salafi posed an interesting question in response to that blog post.

“A blogger, naming me as an influence on his early explorations of Islam, credited my books along with various Qur’an translations, Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival, Carol Anway’s Daughters of Another Path, Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as forming the assemblage that he called ‘Islam’ and to which he converted. What kind of Islam does that sack of potatoes make? To what origin, exactly, can it revert him? Is it really Islam? And if not, if it is only a portal that leads to other portals, at what point does that process arrive upon the real thing, the Islam of preexisting coherence and unbroken unity?” (p. 345)

Knight points out an important aspect of my conversion to Islam – it was based on a limited reading in a specific time and place that cannot be universalized and cannot be retrospectively applied as a standard for understanding Islam. In a post-modern condition, my reading of Islam is thoroughly post-modern (as is, for example, my reading of Marxism-Leninism and post-modernity itself).

In answering these questions adequately, we must first accept some important points – the Islam to which I reverted was certainly an Islam of my own making, just as everyone else’s Islam (whether Muslim or not) is an Islam of their own making. It’s an Islam of what they have read and what they have not read (or chosen not to read). It’s an Islam of what they have been told or haven’t been told and what they accept or don’t accept to be legitimate.

Applying Post-Modernism

We could take the post-modern critique that I proposed in Part One to its conclusions and say simply that reality is always mediated and distorted through a subjective lens and we can never arrive at anything objective. This would mean that these “portals” will never “arrive upon the real thing” and we will never reach “the Islam of preexisting coherence and unbroken unity”.

Whether we follow the ideas of Heidegger, Foucault, or Deleuze (all three white men from Europe), we’re struck by the fact that we’re are trapped by the limited access that humans have to Truth. Indeed, post-modernism (correctly, in my determination) insists that our limited ways of being in the world constitute our limited ways of understanding the world.

The concept of Truth has essentially two dominant strains in society today – correspondence and constructionism. These two ways of thinking more or less fit to two divergent epistemologies – realism and constructionism.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth would be that Truth is out there in the world and we have access to it. If I say something is “true”, we can accept it based on how it corresponds to reality.

The Constructionist Theory of Truth would be that Truth may be out there somewhere, but our access to that Truth is based entirely on our extremely narrow perspectives. We construct social realities and then treat those social constructions as true. If I say something is “true”, then that begs a hundred thousand questions of what it could mean, under what circumstances, and what the structures are that provide me with the means to make such a claim.

As a theist, when I make claims about Truth, the constructionist would ask those questions. The constructionist would ask the same questions, however, if an atheist made claims about Truth. And despite the agnostic (whether strong or weak) attempt at folding out of the debate, there are also deeply embedded Truth claims in agnosticism, along with a mode of being that reflects one or the other predilection.

And I should point out, for the sake of being explicit, that I subscribe to the Constructionist Theory of Truth, which does have its twin in the post-modern critique.

At this point, you could reasonably ask: if we accept the post-modern critique, however, does that mean that we should simply reject any attempts at uncovering the world (in the Heideggerian sense) as it is?

I want to return to this question a bit later. But before doing that, I think it would be worthwhile to address some of the ideas that allowed me to disassemble my Atheism and assemble a Theism.

Being an Atheist and Not Reading Freud

When I was a New Atheist, I had some bizarre ideas and had some deep prejudices based on my very limited experiences.

Indeed, the unexamined core of my New Atheism was the assumption that all religious people are stupid, uneducated (read, un-indoctrinated into proper secular reasoning), and/or delusional. This is a self-serving belief when you’re a young, straight, white boy from the First World. It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I wasn’t debating theologians or religious philosophers, I was arguing with my peers and my relatives (to whom I owe an enormous apology for being a complete buffoon).

In reality, my Atheism was sparked by a (justified) feeling of alienation and a(n unjustified) feeling of superiority. It seemed that people were just accepting what they had been told and I was determined to break away from the herd. The absurdity of this is most evident when you consider that I wasn’t asking any real fundamental questions – I was just thinking something along the lines of: if there’s no evidence (based on my own subjective standards) for God, then there must not be a God.

Checkmate.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to this wonderful clip from James Burke’s Connections:

Obviously, because I’ve read Anarcho-Primitivist literature, I think that Burke is sorely mistaken about the prospects of technology. However, he is right to point out that alternative views of the universe aren’t any more or less ignorant than rationalistic approaches. If I had been thinking even slightly deeper, then the fallacies would have likely been more evident to me.

How do we determine what is true?

What do we mean when we say something is true?

Does Truth exist?

When we say that something exists, what does that mean?

What should we accept as evidence for such claims?

Are falsifiable claims the only claims worth making?

Is that itself a falsifiable claim?

I had the internet at my disposal and I was wasting my time watching Richard Dawkins lecture to his disciples about how creationists pose a grave threat to humanity. Mind you, I don’t think I knew a single creationist personally, but I was convinced that they were wrong and they needed to be converted to accepting evolutionary biology as a fact.

That was a priority.

If I had had access to Lenin’s critique of this line of thinking, I might have been spared such an enormous waster of energy. But, alas, I spent much of my time wondering how I, the straight white cis-man, could save the planet from the scourge of religion, which I would do by showing people that they were deluded in their beliefs (obviously indicating that I was not – I was above delusion).

Psychologism – the attitude that reduces everything to a person’s psychology – is a tempting game to play for a lot of people who criticize religion. It allows you to say, “Oh, that person believes in God, because they’re afraid of death!”

Since becoming Muslim, I’ve had a number of atheists reduce my experiences, thoughts, and perspectives down in the same exact way. Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” really solidified that attitude in the atheist community.

At the time of my New Atheism, I too thought that people were only religious, because it offered them a sense (a false sense) of comfort.

That was how I thought of it – obviously, anybody who thinks about it rationally and accepts their death will absolutely reject religion!

Of course, this psychologism goes both ways. We have to speak in terms of totalities. The comforts of Atheism (and indeed Agnosticism) are no different than the comforts of Theism. All of these ideas provide the individual with some semblance of understanding the world. If we accept the perspective of psychologism, then we must conclude that no one escapes their own prejudices and subjectivities.

Because of this perspective, however, my New Atheism began to soften and slowly unravel once I had the enlightening thought that maybe not all religious people are total idiots.

In my first year at university, I decided that I would spend each summer reading about a different religion. My plan was that I would gain insights just by treating religions (just slightly) more fairly. Interestingly, it was through reading the literature of Anarcho-Primitivists, who are almost entirely white men, that I began to take the voices of Black and Brown people more seriously.

That’s why in the summer of 2010, I spent a lot of time at the library poring over books on Hinduism. My rationale was that I would read over the largest religion that I knew the least about. Luckily, the library had an extensive collection on Hinduism that provided me with endless information. But, to be honest, at the end of that summer, I felt like I still didn’t have a full grasp on what people meant when they were talking about Hinduism.

It was at this time, however, that I made the decision that I would learn about Islam next, because I felt like it was important to learn about the supposed enemy of the West.

I already knew a bit about Islam.[1] I certainly knew more about Islam than I did about Hinduism and, as an Abrahamic faith, I had some basic knowledge of the cast of characters and some other information – I was already primed for confronting the textual elements of the formal religion of Islam, due to my experiences with Christianity.

However, I wasn’t going to wait until the summer.

Instead, I neglected a number of important responsibilities throughout the next two semesters to read about Islamic history and theology.

Those books and articles, along with the Anarcho-Primitivist literature, had slowly begun to lead me to the questions that I should have been asking. The jump from being an atheist to being a theist began with me questioning my underlying assumptions. It is important to note that I was not interested in becoming religious, I was interested in religion simply as an intellectual pursuit. However, once I started to look into my own epistemological ideas about the world, I realized that I hadn’t thoroughly investigated these questions.

By June of 2011, I was a Muslim.

I couldn’t yet answer these epistemological questions, but by reading more philosophy and theology, I was able to figure out a clear path (even if retrospectively).

Critiquing Post-Modernism

Returning to the question I posed above, should we simply reject any attempts at uncovering the world as it is?

I wasn’t (and still am not) ready to throw out all rationality or attempts at reaching reality. Post-modernism offers us an approach and skepticism that I think we should take seriously – as displayed in Part One. However, this approach isn’t unique to post-modernism and that’s something important to keep in mind.

In her article, The Primacy of the Ethical, Nancy Scheper-Hughes takes a position against post-modernism, arguing that “[t]his imagined post-modern, borderless world (Appadurai 1991) is, in fact, a Camelot of free trade that echoes the marketplace rhetoric of global capitalism, a making of the world and social science safe for ‘low-intensity democracy’ backed by World Bank capital.” (p. 417) Scheper-Hughes sees post-modernism as laying the groundwork for neoliberal capitalist takeover and tries to reveal that for what it is.

This critique of post-modernism is correct, but also a posteriori, and to get to a deeper critique at the heart of post-modernism, we need to shine the critical light of the post-modernists onto their own philosophical underpinnings.

In their article, The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective, Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen refer to important feminist critiques of post-modernism:

“Political scientist Nancy Hartsock… finds it curious that the post-modern claim that verbal constructs do not correspond in a direct way to reality has arisen precisely when women and non-Western peoples have begun to speak for themselves and, indeed to speak about global systems of power differentials. In fact, Hartsock suggests that the post-modern view that truth and knowledge are contingent and multiple may be seen to act as a truth claim itself, a claim that undermines the ontological status of the subject at the very time when women and non-Western peoples have begun to claim themselves as subject. In a similar vein, Sarah Lennox has asserted that the post-modern despair associated with the recognition that truth is never entirely knowable is merely an inversion of Western arrogance. When Western white males – who traditionally have controlled the production of knowledge – can no longer define the truth, she argues, their response is to conclude that there is not a truth to be discovered. Similarly Sandra Harding claims that ‘historically, relativism appears as an intellectually possibility, and as a ‘problem,’ only for dominating groups at the point where the hegemony (the    universality) of their views is being challenged. [Relativism] is fundamentally a sexist response that attempts to preserve the legitimacy of androcentric claims in the face of      contrary evidence.’ Perhaps most compelling… is the question Andreas Huyssen asks in   ‘Mapping the Postmodern’: ‘Isn’t the death of the subject/author position tied by mere   reversal to the very ideology that invariably glorifies the artist as genius?… Doesn’t post-structuralism where it simply denies the subject altogether jettison the chance of challenging the ideology of the subject (as male, white, and middle-class) by developing alternative notions of subjectivity?’” (p. 15)

In other words, there is no reason to embrace post-modernism, because it’s a bad faith analysis of the world. The argument is that we can achieve the same things through feminism, but that’s an even better lens to achieve those things, because feminism is politically grounded.

Post-modernism doesn’t break down the Enlightenment subject outside of time and space, but rather post-modernists advanced this project that directly benefited them personally and reified the position of white men in academia. In other words, post-modernism is open to its own discursive reversal and falls victim to its own critique – it is nothing more than a discourse of power.

I would argue, along with the feminists, that we could achieve the same things from a variety of different politically-invested stances, including Islam and Marxism.

We could, as good classical Marxists, call post-modernism a fully bourgeois ideology.

However, I think it would be improper to write off post-modernism as well. Rather, we can alter Lyotard’s (in)famous definition of post-modernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives” to a “skepticism towards metanarratives”.

In the last post, I said that “I have no problem with meta-narratives”. That isn’t exactly the case.

Here, I have no intention of writing a piece called “In Defense of Grand Narratives” or anything of the sort. Instead, I’m arguing that we should approach metanarratives, such as feminism, religion, science, rationalism, Marxism, atheism, theism, etc. with a healthy amount of skepticism. However, that also does not necessitate a total rejection of metanarratives.

Real liberation allows us to embrace metanarratives on their own terms, engage with them from a position of skepticism, and question our own subjectivities with regards to Truth.

Of course, as Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen argue, all of this can be accomplished (and, indeed, be accomplished better through something like feminism, which forces us to do these things, but nevertheless maintain a political commitment to liberation). Alternatively, we could take the theoretical position of Fanon and recognize the subject/object relationship reflecting the colonizer/colonized – dismissing the subject of modernism and digging our feet in the political sands of anti-imperialism.

How do we know what we know?

How do we arrive at Truth, if possible?

In 2011, I found myself dismantling my Atheism as much as I began to see it as an active metaphysical position, rather than just some objective metaphysical position. Systems of knowledge are never a given. As I argued in Part One, it is clear that Secular Humanist Scientism not a neutral perspective and neither are the Atheisms that accompany it.

Conclusion

Many like to argue that Atheism is a religion in the same way that bald is a hair color.

Regardless of the validity of that analogy, we can certainly say that Atheism is a metaphysical position in the same way that Theism is a metaphysical position. Only by challenging these positions on their own terms are we able to see their strengths and weaknesses clearly.

In a journal I was keeping at the time, I wrote:

Evidence exists only when it is observed and interpreted. We interpret phenomena – there is no objective, non-ideological lens. For example, if I claim that everything is a sign (therefore evidence) of God, the response would be that I’m interpreting things through a specific bias, but that is the bias that similarly exists for other ideologies” (October 22nd, 2010).

These three sentences represent a huge break with my previous atheism, because it was the first time that I asked a more fundamental question about epistemology. It was my very attempt to step fully into another system of knowledge.

When we break down modernist conceptions of Truth, Reason, and Progress, we’re left with a level playing field of ideologies, for better or for worse. What initially appears to be a pyramid to many (with science at the top and religion at the bottom) is actually a flat plane upon which individuals determine which ideologies to embrace and which to toss out based on personal preference, knowledge, external structures, etc.[2]

Real skepticism means being skeptical about any systems and any claims to Truth, including those of science as much as those of religion.

This is the liberatory moment.

Standing in front of the plane of ideologies and considering them on their own terms, while recognizing our own limitations, we become free (well, as free as possible) to establish our lives as we please.

When we recognize the potential in other systems of thought, and not just the dominant system that masquerades as the repressed, we stand before an endless sea of new modes of being and new modes of understanding. And although we are not tabula rasa at this moment, we are at least free to choose our next step forward.

In 2011, I chose my next step forward in the direction of Islam for reasons that I will address in upcoming blog posts.

I can accept that I read Islam through a subjective lens and that Michael Muhammad Knight is correct when he writes that I’m stepping through portals that lead to other portals.

There is no pure, authentic Islam at the end, because there is no pure, stable subject to reach it.

I would argue that we’re all just going through portals that lead to other portals. However, that shouldn’t stop us from making steps in a specific direction. Our limited interpretations lead us to limited conclusions, but acting in the world allows us to move closer to more-correct or less-correct conclusions.

As Marx shows, our modes of being do in fact influence our modes of understanding. It is for that reason that we should consciously make the commitment to think, to act, and to be in the world.

When I converted to Islam, I came to Islam with a whole host of cultural baggage and I constructed an Islam for myself in the same fashion that I had constructed an Atheism, although this time I felt that I had made a leap towards getting closer to that Truth out there.

Does that make my Islam any less legitimate?

I don’t think so.

Instead I think it offers me the opportunity to say that I don’t have all the answers and I can’t possibly have all the answers to questions about reality and Truth. And, at the same time, no one has all the answers.

The liberatory moment can (and must) repeat itself in order for the individual to move closer to that reality. Every day we choose which ideologies we’ll embrace – but that choice can be restricted or open. Our knowledges and ignorances define that moment, we’re neither totally free nor totally unfree.

This is a radical skepticism that allows us to also be skeptical of our own prejudices and biases that remain after the moment.

Part of the cultural baggage that I was carrying was my ideas about “rationality” and in Part Three, I will address rationality, theism, and arguments for/against the existence of God.

 

 

 

[1] An interesting side note here is that I used to defend Islam to atheists on the internet. My politics led me to be critical of “my” religion, but I was highly defensive of the religions of religions. This made Christianity my primary target, while I often defended other religions, particularly Islam and Judaism.

[2] Here, I don’t want to wade in too heavily into debates about structure vs. agency, only to remark that the dominant Western paradigm of a hierarchy with science at the top is very obviously artificially constructed.

Advertisements

On Being a Muslim Ambassador

When I accepted Islam a couple years ago, one thing I failed to anticipate was all of the new roles that I would immediately have to play. This was obviously due to my own naiveté, but being a white American Muslim has definitely had an affect on how I view the world and, in turn, how the world views me.

First off, I neglected to realize how many Americans simply know next to nothing about Islam, Muslims, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, cheese making, origami, beekeeping…

Image

And this isn’t any one individual’s fault per se, but it put me in a position of representing every single Muslim ever in history since the beginning of time. Let’s not forget that right now, Muslims make up about 1/4th of the planet.

That’s a lot of pressure. Especially when I’m competing with bizarre, yet common stereotypes and fears of the other. Seriously, people in this country are petrified by stuff they don’t understand.

Another thing that surprised me was the latent racism against Muslims in supposedly “tolerant” circles.

Over the past two years, I’ve had multiple white people accuse me of somehow not being sufficiently Muslim for one reason or another. What this tends to mean is that I don’t fit into their box of what a Muslim ought to be or how a Muslim ought to act.

What do they have in mind?

Probably a brown person with a beard and a turban.

Image

You called?

Of course, these people are often well-meaning, enlightened Liberals who probably don’t see themselves as having a racist bone in their body. The problem is: however well-meaning one might be, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Finally, there’s a general concept among many Americans that Muslims are all the same.

Many people speak of Muslims as one, undivided whole. Can you imagine grouping all Catholics or Jews or Atheists into a singular group? No, probably not.

In reality, the Islamic tradition is filled to the brim with differences of opinion.

Ramadan just began a few days ago and I’ve started to receive a whole bunch of questions from friends and family. No food? No water? How do you survive!?

I think that I should elaborate that I love getting asked respectful questions, because it means that people are curious and interested, which is the only way to fight against these negative stereotypes.

At the same time, it’s easier for a lot of people to talk to me, because I’m the nice Westernized white Muslim. I’m about as non-threatening as you can get, considering I come in the shape of a pasty twig with glasses.

But this is another huge problem of me serving as a representative, isn’t it?

Especially considering the demographics of Muslims in the United States. I serve as an interesting bridge between white suburban middle class America and black and brown Muslims who have an entirely different way of engaging with the United States. (I use the word “interesting” in place of “really fucked up”)muslims-are-coming

In all honesty, I don’t mind playing this role, even with all the setbacks and frustrations. Ultimately, it’s going to take Muslims in the West opening up the doors for dialogue and discourse in order to break down these barriers and move forward.

I just hope that when I’m acting as an ambassador for Islam and Muslims, I’m not doing a terrible job, inshaAllah.