In Unveiling Traditions Anouar Majid issues a challenge to the West to reimagine Islam as a progressive world culture and a participant in the building of a multicultural and more egalitarian world civilization. From within the highly secularized space it inhabits, a space endemically suspicious of religion, the West must find a way, writes Majid, to embrace Islamic societies as partners in building a more inclusive and culturally diverse global community.
Majid moves beyond Edward Said’s unmasking of orientalism in the West to examine the intellectual assumptions that have prevented a more nuanced understanding of Islam’s legacies. In addition to questioning the pervasive logic that assumes the “naturalness” of European social and political organizations, he argues that it is capitalism that has intensified cultural misunderstanding and created global tensions. Besides examining the resiliency of orientalism, the author critically examines the ideologies of nationalism and colonialist categories that have redefined the identity of Muslims (especially Arabs and Africans) in the modern age and totally remapped their cultural geographies. Majid is aware of the need for Muslims to rethink their own assumptions. Addressing the crisis in Arab-Muslim thought caused by a desire to simultaneously “catch up” with the West and also preserve Muslim cultural authenticity, he challenges Arab and Muslim intellectuals to imagine a post-capitalist, post-Eurocentric future. Critical of Islamic patriarchal practices and capitalist hegemony, Majid contends that Muslim feminists have come closest to theorizing a notion of emancipation that rescues Islam from patriarchal domination and resists Eurocentric prejudices.
Majid’s timely appeal for a progressive, multicultural dialogue that would pave the way to a polycentric world will interest students and scholars of postcolonial, cultural, Islamic, and Marxist studies.
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About the Author
Anouar Majid is Associate Professor of English at the University of New England in Maine.
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Unveiling TraditionsPostcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World
By Anouar Majid
Duke University PressCopyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCan the Postcolonial Critic Speak?
Orientalism and the Rushdie Affair
Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: of a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained, group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery. In the West they are known through the Africa they offer; their compatriots know them both through the West they present to Africa and through an Africa they have invented for the world, for each other, and for Africa.-Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House
A form of freedom, I'd like to think, even if I am far from convinced that it is.-Edward W. Said, Out of Place
The ascendancy of postcolonial theory in the American academy has had an ambiguous effect at best, for though it has opened a debate on the concerns of hitherto marginalized peoples, it has also obfuscated some of the enduring legacies of colonialism, including the pauperization of the Third World. For Muslims who are trying to question the dominant logic of late capitalism, this has meant challenging a rearticulated discourse of Orientalism that continues to portrayIslam as an undifferentiated monolith, condemned to clash with the most cherished values of the West. In this context, new theories have emerged to redefine military strategies and redraw the map of the world along cultural lines. Since the Gulf War, Samuel Huntington states, "NATO planning is increasingly directed to potential threats and instability along its 'southern tier.'" Just when postmodern theories were thought to have taken us to a new dimension of thinking about ourselves in the world, essentialist views of civilization are being resurrected to account for continuing tensions, without criticizing the structures of capitalism and the lasting effects of colonialism on the shape of the world today.
The heroic efforts of postcolonial critics such as Edward Said to highlight the nefarious consequences of an Orientalist scholarship that once was the intellectual handmaiden for the project of colonialism has most certainly given a new meaning to cultural criticism in the West; however, as Arif Dirlik argues, "postcolonialism has been silent about its own status as a possible ideological effect of a new world order situation after colonialism." Not only is "postcoloniality ... the condition of the intelligentsia of global capitalism" and the discursive power of "newfound power" by Third World intellectuals in First World academe, but it has also been "designed to avoid making sense of the present crisis and, in the process, to cover up the origins of postcolonial intellectuals in a global capitalism in which they are not so much victims as beneficiaries." I would, however, qualify these dubious benefits; for despite the high visibility of a select group of intellectuals (mostly of Indian origin), their sense of alienation and loss can barely be disguised and so they must continue to be seen as victims of a larger enterprise whose origins go back to the earliest colonialist phase. For the seemingly liberating discursive "post-al" theories notwithstanding, one must decide whether the struggle for liberation from neocolonial policies that support the global transactions of capitalism is, as Frantz Fanon once put it, "a cultural phenomenon or not." Fanon's question is obviously rhetorical, since his answer is unequivocal: "We believe that the conscious and organized undertaking by a colonized people to re-establish the sovereignty of that nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists." But since, according to Dirlik, Third World intellectuals such as Homi Bhabha have been "completely reworked by the language of First World cultural criticism" and have largely managed to obfuscate realities without a mapping of which no viable struggle can be mounted, it is doubtful whether their insight on cultural practices can be useful to the liberation of Third World peoples. For, to invoke Fanon once again, "the business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands out the much greater business of plunder."
Because the postcolonial state is more colonial, inasmuch as its culture is more thoroughly infiltrated by the ideologies and cultural practices of former metropolitan centers, the restoration of an indigenous vocabulary is not the nostalgic and sentimental gesture that many of its critics make it out to be, but is the very act of cultural affirmation and political expression needed to reconnect individuals with their traditions. Many of the categories used by secular(ized) intellectuals to dismiss alternatives rooted in religion can be convincingly critiqued; yet the latter continue to cast a cold eye on the significance of Islam, especially in the wake of the controversy over Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. While extremism can take on both secular and religious aspects, it is the progressive Islamic contestation of both that has been conspicuously absent from the debate. The reason, one suspects, is the cyclical dominance of a few theories, associated with a few academic names, and either the dismissal of religiously inspired discourses as serious alternatives to capitalist relations or the widespread but confining methodologies used in the fields of Orientalism and area studies generally.
Gayatri Spivak, Akeel Bilgrami, and Edward Said were, for example, among the postcolonial critics who rightly protested Khomeini's fatwa on Rushdie, exonerated Islam from such "bigoted violence," and rearmed their "belief in the universal principles of rational discussion and freedom of expression" in a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Spivak's signature on the letter may have been politically strategic; but when, later that year, Harper's published a forum on the canon, she failed to defend Islam against Orientalist (mis)characterizations of the Qur'an. At one point during the debate over the canon, Roger Shattuck asked both ends of the political spectrum whether they had read the Qur'an:
"Have you read the Koran [sic]?" he asked Hirsch.
"No," answered the well-known defender of cultural literacy in the United States. Then, after announcing that he had read the Qur'an "three times in two different languages," Shattuck turned to Spivak:
Shattuck: ... Gayatri, have you read it?
Shattuck: Okay. Look at what you find in the Bible and in the Koran. As classics, these books are not moral equivalents or literary equivalents or equivalents in greatness. [Shattuck goes on to explain how the Bible is superior.]
Spivak and Hirsch, however, did not accept this proposition: Spivak, because she doesn't believe in hierarchical structures or value binarisms; Hirsch, because to say so (and he agrees with Shattuck on the issue of quality) is not "politically feasible." Although it is not clear whether Shattuck read the Qur'an in the original (since the experience of reading the Qur'an in Arabic is ultimately untranslatable), he succeeded, by this simple gesture, to legitimize the virtues of the classical liberal education challenged by new pedagogical and curricular theories and to question the reliability of postcolonial intellectuals in the West as adequate speakers for Muslim subjectivities. Spivak, who had defended Islam against intolerance, had not read the most central and defining text of Islamic cultures.
My goal here is not to critique Spivak or other leading Third World writers and intellectuals in the West-on the contrary, my project would most certainly have been difficult, if not impossible, without their groundbreaking work-but rather to question the representation of Islam and Islamic identity in postcolonial studies and to suggest that progressive Islamic alternatives are necessary for the emergence of a new multicultural order based on dialogue, not hegemony. At a time when issues of subjectivity are rigorously debated, many Muslims-whether familiar with Western theory or not-continue to be denied access to this debate. Thus Edward Said's diagnosis of a self-perpetuating Orientalist tradition of distortion and prejudice is being applied to the Western culture at large, since Muslims' inability to represent themselves-partly because of their passive participation in their own Orientalizing-is not only related to repressive regimes and inadequate facilities in the Islamic world, it is also actually hindered by the pervasive proliferation of a few theories (e.g., Orientalism as a discursive gesture or deconstruction as a self-negating technique) that have now become the standards against which all postcolonial theories are tested.
Dirlik's suspicion that postcolonial theories encourage the exploitative tendencies of global capitalism will need to be persuasively answered if the postcolonial project is to have legitimacy for billions of people worldwide; despite Spivak's and Said's tireless efforts to steer the course of Western cultural criticism away from its historically parochial confines, both scholars' excessive familiarity with the most arcane and inaccessible philosophical and literary traditions of the West makes them appear unsettlingly unreliable to many non-Westernized Muslims. Spivak has had to struggle with the issue of her own reliability: regarding theory as a form of Orientalism, she concedes, after a lengthy examination of two French intellectuals' coming to terms with the irreducible problematic of representing Others, that the "subaltern" (the leftovers, le déchet of social strata, the Other of the Other, the nameless muted Hindu woman, etc.) "cannot speak." The impossibility of representation properly acknowledged, she nevertheless refuses to "disown" her female intellectual's "circumscribed task" with "a flourish." The pull of the American cultural apparatus (along with the inescapable urge to speak itself) cannot be easily resisted; this apparatus, after all, describes Spivak as "one of our best known cultural and literary theorists."
Although the nameless speaking Subject of this generous evaluation reproblematizes the position of the self-consciously acculturated Third World intellectual and pushes us to inquire further into the questionable program of postmodernism as a "final solution" to the crisis of identity, and although Spivak may be more comfortable in the United States than she would in India, and rootlessness may be a virtue, she still resists total assimilation-at least symbolically-by refusing to apply for U.S. citizenship or to vote. She defines her role as that of a scholar who brings metanarratives to a "crisis," a strategy that is useful in "contact politics" (questions of subjectivity), for "the only thing one really deconstructs are things into which one is intimately mired." The Subject of Spivak's evaluation thus transforms a depoliticized (in the traditional, grand narrative sense) scholar, permanently alienated from her homeland since the age of nineteen, a woman who yearns to be Bengali and Indian again, into the mediator of an unequal cultural exchange, a dialogue conducted almost invariably in one of the modern European languages. For while the Western academic conscience is readily assuaged by the symbolic representations of the Other, it refuses to ask the equally significant if not troubling question: At what price postcoloniality? Dirlik doesn't address this important aspect of postcoloniality-if Third World intellectuals in the West are empowered by the insight of their displacement, their pain is nonetheless real. To forget this is to encourage a disturbing lack of sentience and perpetuate the myopic limitations of reified scholarship. If the goal of postcolonial theory is to abolish certainties at the superstructural level, the liberatory project it presumably espouses cannot be completed, as E. M. Forster concluded on friendship between political unequals in A Passage to India, without genuine political sovereignty. Only at that moment does displacement lose the coercive power of necessity and becomes the purely intellectual force it otherwise can and should be.
Edward Said, the prototypical "specular border intellectual" familiar with two cultures but "unable or unwilling" to be in either, not only embodies the harrowing predicament of the Third World critic in the West, but his very presence in the Western academy and the "tense productivity" of his scholarship are expressions of the Palestinian predicament, the people who (at the time of this writing) have been condemned to be at home in their homelessness (to use one of JanMohamed's metaphors). In fact, to question Orientalism itself can been seen as an act of protest that aims to unmask the cultural face of domination without necessarily being interested in offering "an alternate positivity." This is why postcolonial theory transforms itself into a discursive gesture that is simultaneously informed and co-opted by the very assumptions of Western humanism it questions in the beginning. For if Said once had to defend himself against the surprising charge of Eurocentrism when a black woman historian found his allusion to "white European males" excessive, it is because he seems to have been severely constrained by a struggle that demands that he first legitimize himself to that nameless Subject that claims and disclaims, the panoptical powers of Western institutions whose capricious selectivity finally drains the energies of Third World resources-both human and natural. Said's "worldliness," therefore, though ideal under conditions of global economic socialism, not only risks displacing the struggle of Others as one of the most effective ways to be heard and ushering in the very conditions of equality and reciprocity that Said advocates, but it may also evoke images of a utopian cosmopolitanism unachievable in the present capitalist system. Said is surely aware of all this; what is unconvincing, however, is the status he confers on the migrant or the exile as the best-situated intellectual and contrapuntal reader of culture in the age of global capitalism. It is, he writes, "no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, and between languages."
If the "specular border intellectual" is equipped to examine the synchronicity of culture in the (post)modern era, exile remains, as in Said's case, the condition of disempowerment whose "salutary" effects are to be decided against "the normal sense of belonging." A Christian who is culturally a Muslim, Said's critique of "the forces of resistance to Islam" does not address the "major epistemological problems" of "modernity," "heritage," and "authority" that Arab and Muslim scholars are now examining. Yet these Islamic perspectives have been occluded, and explaining "the return of Islam" has been entrusted to scholars whose impressive credentials in Western culture are not enough to disqualify others whose project is precisely to theorize Islamic alternatives to Western hegemony.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Introduction: Villainies Veiled and Unveiled
1. Can the Postcolonial Critic Speak? Orientalism and the Rusdie Affair
2. Millennium without Arabs?
3. The North as Apocalypse
4. Women’s Freedom in Muslim Spaces
Conclusion: Indispensable Polyentricity