Third Persons

There is an air of paradox in my claim: One’s coming to an understanding of the historical source and function of one’s commitments can put one in an unreflective and uncritical state of mind about those very commitments… Understanding a phenomenon is something that occurs in the third person. And, of course, we do often take such a third person stance toward ourselves. But to allow such a stance to develop into defensive and reactive commitments is to rest with a third person conception of ourselves. It is to deny the first person or agent’s point of view. . .

Thus (when considering the spread of absolutist sentiment in their countries) ordinary Muslims are often heard to say that “this is how things are with us because of colonial and neo-colonial domination.” . . . On the lips of sympathetic others (“this is how things are with them”) these remarks are the only stance to take. But on our lips, the lips of Muslims, they cannot be the only remarks we make unless we treat ourselves as objects, unless we think of our future as we think of our past, as something we cannot make a difference to. . .

… if I am right, there should be place and possibility for the switch to the first person, for the voice of the subject as agent to say, “This appeal of Islam is something we have uncritically and indiscriminately embraced out of demoralization and defeat, often allowing it to dominate our political actions, and it has gotten us nowhere; it is up to us to assess the relative merits of diverse commitments, up to us to work toward its internal transformation. . .to fashion a more depoliticized Islam so that its appeal and relevance is spiritualist and universalist rather than to the polity,  so that it does not remain perpetually exploitable by the fundamentalist political factions whom we oppose.”

This is a chunk of another of Akeel Bilgrami’s essays, entitled “Who is a Muslim?” that I read today. This is not a particularly new critique of contemporary Muslim fatalism, if worded with more nuance and elegance than the apologetic anxiety of the ~progressive~ crowd. I don’t want to sound as if I am totally dismissive of the self-designated progressives, even though some of them are frankly insufferable individuals. The solution to the contemporary Muslim’s existential predicament lies at some undefined intersection of the reformist ethos, the anti-imperialist chant, and the profession of faith.

to the extent that such arguments as expressed above appeal to me, it is because they turn away from the cowardice of the deflection strategy, when we muslims wave our olive branches and proclaim our peacefulness. i hate this tactic because it is pointless and solves no problems and delusionally believes that peace rather than violence is a universally agreed upon value in this world (there are certainly more western governments that believe in the utility of force than in hugs). i hate it even more because it is a declaration we are constantly forced to repeat given that significant subsections of the apparently enlightened societies lack the basic computational skills to conclude that, if by nothing but the laws of probability, the majority of a billion-strong variegated community are no more or less peaceful than the rest of the world. neoliberalism will destroy the humanities and social sciences but it won’t succeed in producing a population that knows how to do math.

what is frustrating here is that bilgrami clearly recognizes the importance of re-inserting historical outcomes and especially colonialism into any analysis of the persistence of islamic absolutism (a term he prefers over fundamentalism). yet when he talks about not thinking of the future like we think of the past, he completely misses the existence of the present. it is a futile exercise to try and theorize on the basis of a historicized colonial encounter when it is not yet a matter of history. (this line of thinking is perhaps a 1st world diasporic privilege, one of our many.) he mentions the neo-imperialist middle eastern adventures of the 2000s but his subsequent theorizing proceeds from an implicit assumption that this, too, can be made into a past– by what psychological acrobatics it is unclear. one can make the criticism that an unproductive pre-occupation with past embarrassments yields fatalism. but how can it be fatalistic to respond– in whatever way– to one’s present? even the most idiotic arguments– “we are suffering because our faith wasn’t pure enough”– have a sense of action, of urgency embedded in them. that is more alarming than fatalism.

there are plenty of people who believe the islamic reformation can be guided along by heat-seeking missiles (not that bilgrami is one of them, as far as i know). they are about as moronic as those who maintain that reformation is a heretical concept. at the moment, the dialectic seems to be dominated by these two extremes, with those desperate to chime in during the short silences finding themselves stuck formulating within these frameworks (moderate or militate?), as to me it seems bilgrami has gotten stuck. meanwhile i’m still searching for that intersection leading to the road out of this mess.


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