Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

source:brietbart.com
source:brietbart.com

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.

What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.

 

Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.

 

How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.

Lessons in Foreign Policy from Food Cart Vendors

“Cairo, very good city. You go there?” queried the young Egyptian juice vendor, as I was attempting to buy a mixed berry juice, while waiting for my turn to enter the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Another food cart vendor, who was a Syrian pointed out the similarities in spices in India and the Arab world. “We got lots of spices from India. Spices tie us together. We are brothers in spice,” he joked when I asked him to pour more hot sauce on the Shawarma that he was preparing for me. He even did the Indian head nod, in an effort to make me feel ‘at home’, I must confess that it irritated me a bit – it doesn’t feel great to be at the receiving end of a stereotype.falafel3

Later, it was a Bangladeshi worker at a pizza joint who remarked “Indira Gandhi very good. Sheikh Hasina not good,” summing up his understanding of Indian politics. Given that his Hindi was extremely limited and my Bengali is virtually nonexistent, we still managed to talk about various things, as I gorged on the mushroom Pizza on the streets of Manhattan. Despite my new Bangladeshi friend’s understanding of Indian politics being over three decades old, he seemed to have gleamed the broader trends in Indian politics – that there is some level of democracy, no matter how imperfect and (lesser) outright corruption than Bangladesh. I had to remind him that India is no paradise, he was insistent that “India very good. Indian people good people.”

            This was the United Nations of people – an Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Syrian all feeding a hungry Indian on the streets of New York city. While I have always loved the Big Apple for its diversity, openness and positive energy, it can be, at times quite exhausting; I have never lived there long enough to understand how people bring their own understandings of the world and create a city that is a microcosm of the world. But through these exchanges, people were revealing themselves and their modus operandi – of shared cultures, foods, political observations, habits of heart and idiosyncrasies. And through this, they were finding a common ground to communicate – despite the barriers of language.

                        While Americans are famous for not traveling outside of the country, they are often exposed to people from different cultures and lands. This may, in some cases lead to jingoism and a false sense of entitlement. As I read somewhere a few weeks ago, “Americans like Mexican food, Mexican Music and Mexican culture – just not Mexican people.” There is a great effort to remove those who are living as undocumented workers in the U.S. and the sense that immigrants are taking over ‘our jobs’ seems to have become all pervasive. This sense of entitlement and fear of the ‘other’ is unfortunately prevalent and seems to be gaining ground among certain political actors in the U.S.

            The final visit of the day was to the National September 11 memorial, just a few blocks from where I had had the fresh fruit juice. I enjoyed the exhibits, though it was a bit overwhelming, both visually and in terms of the displays themselves. I noticed half way through the visit that the brochure did not have any Arabic language. There were instructions in about eight or so international languages, but to leave out one of the most widely read and spoken languages in the world seemed a rather odd omission. I walked out of the museum wondering if those who made that decision to consciously leave out the language knew as much about the world as these food cart vendors, and if they appreciated others humanity as much as these strangers from strange lands.

 

 

Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4

Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.

photo(2) photo(3) photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014

 

Photo courtesy: Reuters.com
Photo courtesy: Reuters.com

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.

 

Notes


[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011

 

Ibn Battuta, Malcolm X and the tradition of student travelers in Islam

Rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is an Islamic tradition, whose roots extend as far as the Prophet Muhammad himself, who prioritized learning and knowledge. His famous Hadith “Learning is from the cradle to grave” has inspired billions of people to travel, seek knowledge, over the last 1400 years of Islamic history. This tradition of learning and traveling for knowledge is epitomized by two scholars and student travelers, whose lives I will discuss here, in brief: Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X. In this article, I seek to answer the question: Are we losing this tradition of student-travelers, in an age when travel is so easy and relatively cheap. What lessons can we learn from the personal histories of student-travelers such as Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X?

battutamap

I heard a lecture about Ibn Battuta’s travels (starting in 1325 C.E), a few weeks ago at the Upenn Museum and the blog post about that lecture is here. The gist that is relevant to us here is that travel in the era of Islamic Empire was easy. No passports, no visas or even travel documents. There were hostels for travels along the path where weary travelers could stop by to rest. This however came at an enormous cost: travel was harsh, dangerous and very slow. Ibn Battuta traveled for months on the road and his sea voyages lasted a longer time. From the time of the Islamic conquests from 7th century uptil about 15th or even 17th century; one could travel anywhere between Africa to China and beyond with relative ease, provided one had the means and the right connections, with the Islamic Empire providing one vast area of interconnected routes through which traders, travelers, pilgrims and scholars could pass through. And knowledge networks were formed this way, point out many scholars, who have studied this phenomenon of how travel influenced the flow of knowledge. His travels were dangerous, adventurous and at times fun. Ibn Battuta’s knowledge and scholarly standing helped him enormously, as it helped him earn a living as he traveled – he was a qazi or a judge, trained in Islamic jurisprudence, a valuable skill to have in those days.

As the Oxford Islamic Learning portal points out: “Religious travel in Islam reflects an extraordinary degree of intercontinental cooperation among constantly intersecting groups that perform overlapping functions. The general pattern resembles a web of interlacing and autonomous networks instead of a rigid hierarchy, spontaneous collaboration rather than central direction, and fluid process over fixed structure. This vast web encompasses Muslims in every part of the world, helping to create a universal Islamic identity that transcends nationality, race, gender, and class. The Hajj has always been the most powerful expression of Islamic unity and egalitarianism, and today its unprecedented size and diversity make it more important than ever.” In contemporary times, with the growth of technology, while the tradition of traveling on such a scale to learn may have been reduced, or rather the purposes of travel changed; pilgrimage to perform the Hajj does remain significant.

While travel for Ibn Battuta began as a spiritual quest, he in fact wanted to go to the annual pilgrimage i.e., the Hajj, but eventually ended up traveling for over 23 years of his life; for Malcom X, it came towards a much later stage of life, also inspired by the desire to go to Hajj. While for Ibn Battuta, it expanded his knowledge networks, increased his understanding of the world, for Malcolm X, travel transformed him. It made him question the narrow mindedness with which he had approached other human beings, up until then, having been taught a racist ideology by his mentor Elijah Muhammad. It was his Letter from Mecca that really shows his transformation. Malcom X’s letter reads:

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.” Malcom X goes on to point that America needs to understand Islam because “This is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

He was reacting to the profoundly warm welcome he received as a state guest in Saudi Arabia and many other countries that he visited during this trip. This sojourn was not only professionally rewarding, in that he met many heads of state and formed very strong networks that would serve him for the next few years of his life; but also personally transformative – in that he realized that his racism towards whites was misplaced. This trip, more than anything else, changed his mind from being a racist to one who realized that he was in the wrong and that white man indeed, can be benevolent and kind towards others. Not all white men were devils, as he had previously imagined.

This theme of traveling and spiritual transformation is also explored by Zareena Grewal. In her book Islam is a Foreign Country (2014), Grewal, professor at Yale University contextualizes the contemporary travels of American Muslim youth, who travel around the world, to seek ‘authentic’ Islamic knowledge. Malcolm X, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are examples of this phenomenon. Both are considered iconic ‘student-travelers’ who went to the Arab world and Africa in search of spiritual and religious insights and learning, she points out.

Grewal further traces how the moral geography for Americans has moved over the decades – it was different for the Black African Muslims, than it was for those in the 1960s’ onwards, when the Arab and South Asian countries became part of the dominant diasporic imagination. They were seen as racial utopias and the core of Ummah’s moral and political core. This, she adds has significantly shifted since the 1990s’, with the examples of spiritual leaders such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who, like Malcolm X is an iconic Muslim student-traveler. This rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is also a result of specific set of historical ruptures.            She argues rightfully that the shift in religious leadership that occurred in the U.S. from the 1960s onwards- from the indigenous African Americans towards a more educated, elite South Asian and Arab professional class of people is part of this shifting moral geography.

In contemporary American society, these travels are also inspired by those who are aware of the lack of religiously trained scholars, since most of the mosque leadership is taken up by those who have a ‘secular’ education and are professionally successfully, either as doctors or engineers. In her analysis, Grewal points out that of the hundreds of students who have left the U.S. to study in the Middle East and returned, most are disappointed with the results they produce after they return. The communities expect them to play roles as Imams at mosques at best and also to be ‘role models’ for youth here. While this is an expectation that is normal, she points out that the public discourse of crisis in the U.S. does not allow them to play a constructive role in society, often relegating them to passive positions. They become ‘carriers rather than mediators of the tradition.’ As she points out.

Malcolm in mecca

The biggest lesson one can draw from both these travelers’ lives is that travel is transformative by nature. Leaving one’s home, the comfort of the familiar and the known can expose us to dangers, unknown people and situations. Overcoming them can help one gain new knowledge, sharpen one’s instincts and also transform one’s thinking – if one approaches it with an open mind. As countries are clamping down their borders and restrictions on travel are beginning to become much more than they ever were, one could be forgiven for asking whether we are regressing as a people. While the means to travel, technology and access has definitely increased, we have erected other boundaries in the name of national security, borders and imagined threats that stop us from traveling and exploring the world that is yet to be discovered. Perhaps this tradition will help us realize the rich promises that travel for learning holds.