The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.
Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.
A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.
The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.
Or the Beatification of the False Wali: Sufism, Suspense, and the Possibility of Sufi Realism
Even as it ages, a corpse shows no sign of decay. People start having visions of the dead man. He gives them advice in their dreams. When miracles begin to occur through his apparent intercession, he is declared a wali or vassal (of God). A shrine is built over his grave, and those who tend to it command kudos among his devotees…
It would be wrong to reduce the multifarious phenomena of Sufism to such a story. But in the Egyptian popular imagination, at least, that story remains the quintessential narrative of Sufism.
Sufi doctrine is impossible to sum up with any clarity anyway. Claimants range from the ninth-century Malamatiyya of Khorassan to “the Proof of Islam” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The first group actively sought ill repute by flaunting sinfulness and making themselves worthy of malamah (or blame), the better to reject piety, which they saw as a worldly value and a factor in distance from God. The second is arguably the central figure in Sunni orthodoxy.
So the beatification of the wali is as good a way as any to set the dervish apart from the ordinary believer: the gnostic secrets he has access to (sometimes enabling him to perform miracles), the higher states of consciousness he experiences as a result of those secrets, his sheer unmediated joy (making him willing to give up all worldly powers and possessions), and his often strained relations with the Umma’s sober patriarchs.
Nymphomaniac’s Message for the Arab Spring
As an Arab you’re probably expecting me to lay into Nymphomaniac. It’s a film that must seem, if not offensive to my cultural sensibility, then irritatingly irrelevant to the poverty, underdevelopment, and upheaval that surround my life.
In most cases dropping the word “white” in the same paragraph as “Islam’s respect for women” is all it would take to slam Lars von Trier in this context. It would be a politically correct slur, too. I could even draw on Edward Said’s hallowed legacy to point out that the only time non-Europeans appear in over four hours of action, they’re portrayed as dumb sex tools. Not only self-indulgent and obscene but also Orientalist, etc..
But the truth is I actively delighted in Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t have to stop being an Arab for that to happen. To be accurate I should say I would’ve welcomed a von Trier film anyway, but this one showed up when it was needed—and it duly exploded on arrival.
On Fiction and the Caliphate
Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to thepostcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.
20 December 2011
We, honourable citizens of Egypt — pioneers in every field, one hundred million nationalists and three great pyramids — declare our absolute support and inexhaustible gratitude for those valiant and chivalrous soldiers of our own flesh and blood who, with knightly dedication and redoubtable bravery, are making of their own unassailable selves the impregnable garrisons with which to protect not only us, their people, but also our most sacred, most xenophobic patrimony. Before we go on to demonstrate, with indubitable argument, the blindingly obvious fact that it is thanks to the wisdom and righteousness of our faithful Council of the Armed Forces (Sieg Heil!), of whose incorruptible grace the word “supreme” is but the humblest designation, that the people and their oil-smeared holy men of fragrant beards will be saved from a fetid galactic conspiracy to which this country has been subject.