Thursday, April 14, 2011

So both Beck and Zizek, the extremist neanderthals in their niches, have fallen a little from grace just as their years of labour are coming to fruition. Explosively. Even though it's been coming on so steadily for so long, the laborious restoration of the barbaric language, mythology and pseudo-science of white supremacist patriarchal domination, the sudden freedom and bravado with which it is all used now shock even some who have adopted some softer version of the reactionary revisionist discourse themselves.

But we have to remember that discrediting this and shaming it and stripping it of its respectability was the accomplishment of culture wars of the past, and if ground has been lost, it need not be lost forever. We can retake that territority if we wish.

KS:... 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

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