Melvyn Ingleby | The two sides in Muslim decolonial thought

By Melvyn Ingleby

Thanks to the financial support of CCCCT, I was able to attend a Granada summer school organized by DialogoGlobal, a collective of decolonial academics and activists that also hosts similar events in Barcelona, Mexico City, Bahia (Brazil), and Amsterdam. Its theme:  “Critical Muslim Studies: Decolonial Struggles and Liberation Theologies.” As I soon found out, these vast terms are but a convenient cover up for deep internal divisions in Muslim decolonial thought.

[Ed.: Melvyn Ingleby is a student at ENS/EHESS and the Turkey correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Trouw].

Granada is not an accidental location for this summer school. The Spanish city once was a vibrant center of the Muslim territories of Al-Andalus, which dominated much of Europe’s medieval intellectual debates. The school’s sessions are held amidst the remnants of that world, in a 14th century Moorish building which now houses the School of Arabic Studies of the University of Granada. Just next door is the famous old Muslim Albaicin quarter facing the Moorish rulers’ magnificent Alhambra palace. When in 1492 the Spanish conquered the city, this world was lost. The free exchanges between Muslim, Jewish and Christian thinkers that had made Al-Andalus one of the intellectuals bastions of medieval Europe were smothered in the Spanish inquisition. Muslim and Jews were killed or had to flee, libraries went up in flames and the Spanish crown took over Alhambra. In the old Muslim palace one of the future guests would be Christopher Columbus, who in that same year 1492 had set out to conquer the Americas.

According to Ramón Grosfoguel, professor at UC Berkeley and one of the initiators behind DiaologoGlobal, “Granada 1492” therefore can be seen as the birthplace of European colonialism. It was here that the mindset and methods of colonization were first practiced: the Spanish Catholics didn’t just want to tax their subjects as the Moorish kings had done – they wanted to control, surveille and homogenize them. It is a shame Foucault was to French-centric to see it, Grosfoguel quipped, because Granada is exactly where governance was replaced by governmentality. The destruction of the Moorish kingdom therefore is the first in Grosfoguel’s list of “genocides and epistemicides” which shaped modernity (the next three being the conquest of the Americas, the transatlantic  slave trade, and the burning of European women as witches). The end result (to move quickly, as Grosfoguel himself did): a world in which “white men from five countries” control our structures of knowledge.

Now, none of us would dispute or relativize the scale of colonialism’s crimes, nor disregard 1492 as an interesting starting point. But moving with such rhetorical swiftness to cram several centuries into a master-narrative of colonization fails to pay sufficient attention to the different modes of imperialism, even less to imperialist conquest undertaken by non-Western countries. Grosfoguel’s historical method strikes me in effect as essentialist and, paradoxically, Western-centric as the structures of knowledge of the white men he was attacking. In one instance, for example, he discussed the Greek translation of the Aramean Bible as an act of colonization, because the Greeks destroyed the linguistic proximity between the Aramaic word for God (Allahah) and the word Allah that Muslims use; but this was reading history backward for identitary gratification, not critical thinking.

Professor Salman Sayyid from the University of Leeds gave a series of challenging lectures on the meaning of Critical Muslim Studies and the purpose of the academic journal he founded around this issue, Re-Orient. This project starts from a realization that decolonial studies have only partly tackled the challenges contained in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Sayyid distinguishes a ‘weak’ and a ‘strong’ orientalism. The former is easy to debunk, and refers to the ways in which knowledge production about the Orient has been complicit with empire. Essentially, it denotes misrepresentation: colonialism creates essentialist images of the Orient which served imperial ambitions but did not refer to reality. The stronger type of Orientalism is more problematic. It refers not to the way in which Orientalism distorts but also constitutes the Orient. As Sayyid has argued in his well-known study A Fundamental Fear, deconstructing this stronger type of orientalism leads to troubling questions about Islam, for “if Islam is constituted by orientalism, what happens when orientalism dissolves? (p. 35, 2015 ed.)

A common response of what Sayyid calls the anti-orientalist is to deny Islam any independent meaning. There is no essential ‘Islam’, the argument runs, there’s only the socio-economic relations, family traditions or political struggles that shape the ways in which many Islams are used. For Sayyid, however, thus enumerating the variety of functions of Islam does not answer the question of why its name is evoked. Islam matters, and the tasks of Critical Muslim Studies is to think through how and why. Muslims invoke the name of Islam to correct wrongs, an act which is founding and therefore political. Yet as soon as we ascribe to Islam any fixed meanings, or treat the Qur’an as a static constitution, politics is lost to rule, ethics to morality. Therefore, Sayyid argues, Critical Muslim Studies would be a field suspicious of any type of literalism, legalism and liberalism, which “turns Muslims into monks and mystics.” Rather, the political power of Islam lies exactly in the denial of all authority outside God. Faith becomes a resource from which to engage in endless critique, not a refuge of final answers.

This all sounded very good, but turned out somewhat differently when Sayyid started discussing concrete historical examples. Referring to Turkey’s experience with authoritarian modernization, Sayyid listed the ways in which Kemalism marginalized Muslims by forbidding the call to prayer in Arabic, obliterating the Ottoman script, oppressing religiosity in the public space, etc. To be sure, Islamism rose partly in  response to such projects of authoritarian modernization, be it in Turkey, Iran, or elsewhere. But when Sayyid concluded the story on the note of emancipation in the form of the Iranian Revolution or the rise of the AK-party, I again found myself seeking greater nuance.

Of course, we should criticize Kemalist projects of authoritarian modernization as an assault on both democracy and Muslim autonomy. But can we characterize anything that evokes the name of Islam as emancipation from such systems? Should we not rather interrogate how authoritarian state structures persist in countries like Turkey and Iran today? Should we not analyse how mainstream Islamist parties have adopted the neoliberal economic programmes they used to criticize? If decolonial critique goes only half way, it’s becomes a rhetorical pose that looks intriguingly critical but in fact is practically silent. (To give an example of this: one of the speakers at the summer school, Hatem Bazian, also writes for a pro-government newspaper in Turkey. His columnshere for instance, offer plenty of decolonially decorated critique, but much less on inequalities or injustices in present-day Turkey – which probably wouldn’t make the editorial cut, anyway…)

As the Granada summer school progressed, a clear divide seemed to emerge among the attendants. Whilst some students and scholars focused primarily on the themes outlined above, others were looking for a different type of decolonial critique: one that lashes out not only at Western imperialism but also at structures of oppression upheld by Muslims themselves today, one that engages with Western traditions of political thought rather than discarding them peremptorily, and one that takes pride in auto-critique as a blunt reassertion of Muslim autonomy and escape from victimhood.

The problem is: the argument that Muslims should be critical of their own societies is made all too often by people with very different intentions. Especially since 9/11 and the so-called war on terror, hundreds of scholars, pundits and journalists (including many Muslims) have argued that Islam needs a ‘reform’. Islam, they argue, has the potential to be nice and liberal, if only Muslims took the responsibility to embrace that potential and discard the parts of their religion at odds with Western-style liberalism. The issue with this argument of course is that it is conformist rather than emancipatory: the conditions of being progressive are set by the West, not Muslim societies themselves (practically all ‘liberal Muslim authors’ live and work in Western countries). This is profoundly anti-democratic, humiliating and risks alienating Muslims from causes they may well embrace, albeit not on the same terms as the self-identified progressive American in Brooklyn.

But a radically critical Muslim thought need not be conformist. A very strong case for this was made in Granada by Farid Esack, whose lectures revealed a fundamentally different type of decolonial thinking from that of many other speakers. This may largely be the result of Esack’s  own direct experience with poverty and political activism. Born in 1959 in the slums of Cape Town, Esack was raised by a single mother who died on a factory floor when he was thirteen years of age. Or as he said himself: “my mother was literally a victim of the triple oppression faced by black women–patriarchy, class and race.” Two years later, the young Esack received a scholarship to study in Pakistan, where he trained to become a traditional Islamic scholar, but also campaigned for the rights of Pakistan’s Christian minority. Upon his return to South Africa in 1982, he became very active in the anti-apartheid struggle and in later life was appointed as gender equity commissioner by Nelson Mandela.

Esack’s thought is a product of this life. In his most famous books – Quran, Liberation & Pluralism (1997) and On Being a Muslim (1999), Esack proposes an Islamic liberation theology which can inspire revolutionary struggle against socio-economic inequality and at the same time is staunchly egalitarian on gender and race issues. During the Granada summer school, what distinguished Esack’s lectures was a clear focus on concrete economic oppression. Whereas many speakers didn’t seem to unpack capitalism aside from its ‘Westernness’ – and some might be quite fine with it if capitalism bears the adjective ‘Islamic’ – Esack insisted that decolonial thought cannot just be about identity. Rather, it involves struggling against economic forms of oppression worldwide, including those perpetrated by Islamist governments which only superficially style themselves as anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist whilst carrying out neoliberal economic reforms. Moreover, he made constant and explicit references to the Qur’an, discussing in detail the many verses and passages which would inspire such a struggle against economic inequalities. In this sense, Esack bears some resemblance to other Muslim scholars who also place oppression at the center of their work and stick closely to the Qur’anic text. (For a discussion of these thinkers, including the female Pakistani scholar Asma Barlas who also spoke in Granada, see Shadaab Rahemtullah’s newly released The Qur’an of the Oppressed (Oxford University Press, 2017)).

Of course, this side of the decolonial divide is easily targeted by the other one. For those more fixated on Westernisation than oppression, Muslim campaigners for gender equality or LGBT rights can be easily dismissed as Westernised posers, the type of liberal Muslims who preach conformity instead of emancipation. It would be hard to accuse Esack of such a position, however. If anything, in his essay In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11, Esack lashes out very harshly at liberal Muslims who try to frame Islam as a conflictless ‘religion of peace’ digestible to Western audiences. To Esack, Islam isn’t peace, but revolutionary struggle. He therefore sees no need to water down the critique of Western imperialism. But the struggle doesn’t end there. A truly decolonial critique is like a double-edged sword, lashing out at the consequences of Western imperialism, whilst also cutting deep in the hypocrisy of those Muslims who built on its structures of oppression. If the movement goes one way, critique soon turns into indulgence.

Above all, then, the Granada summer school taught me a lesson in taking sides. Rather than superficially embracing any reassertion of Islam as necessarily emancipatory or decolonial, it is necessary to differentiate between the content of different traditions in Muslim political thought. Just as we would distinguish Marx from Locke, we cannot lump together thinkers as varied as Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini or Ali Shari’ati merely because of their shared critique of the West. If we do so, we treat Islam to an identity rather than to a specific political project. Yet as Shari’ati himself points out (in a citation used by Farid Esack), “it is not sufficient to say that we must return to Islam. We must specify which Islam: That of Abu Dharr or that of Marwan, the ruler […] One is the Islam of Caliphate, of the palace, and of rulers. The other is the Islam of the people, of the exploited, and of the poor.”