Youssef Rakha: The Postmuslim

A. Abbas, Pakistan, 1988. Source: magnumphotos.com

Return of the Prodigal Muslim

Everybody knows the Enlightenment is dying. I don’t mean in the hells from which people board immigrant boats. It was never very alive here in the first place. I mean in the heavens to which the boat people seek suicidal access.

They end up drowning less for the love of the Postchristian West, it would seem, than out of despair with the Muslim East. Blame politics and economics, for sure. But could it be that all three phenomena – despair, poverty and dictatorship – are rooted in the same cultural impasse?

Today Brexits, Trumps and, let us not forget, the Islamic Invasion of Europe are spelling an Endarkenment all across the North, confining progressive and egalitarian principles to intensive care units. And I’m wondering what that could mean for despairing Muslims in the South.

The Enlightenment fuelled all kinds of repulsive affronts: colonialism, nationalism, capitalism. But it also begat completely sexy memes like reason, the empirical method and secularism. Only thanks to these memes does the West look like paradise today. Only in their absence did we start to live in infernos. And it’s time to admit that, whatever we feel about them, memes remain nation-less, race-less. Beyond sectarian affiliation.

The dawn first broke in the realms of Christendom, so the world’s earliest Non-Sectarian Individual ended up a Postchristian. It could’ve been Postanything, really. But if not for that creature’s emergence here, there or somewhere, there would be no antibiotics, psychoanalysis or Whatsapp.

Now it’s true that today’s Postchristian liberalism has stood humanism on its head. It has embraced trigger warnings. It has started civil wars. It has confused democracy with theocracy and reduced Sufism to self help. But surely none of that is the fault of the Non-Sectarian Individual.

The excesses of political correctness and multiculturalism smack rather of cultural fundamentalism. They recall the kind of mindset that has deprived Muslims of Enlightenment sexiness even though their natural philosophy and hermeneutics made indispensable contributions to the Enlightenment.

First there was the indignity of being colonised. Then, the way rationalism undermined religiosity. But mostly there were postcolonial identity constructions. These, we have used to preserve and paranoiacally protect our sense of inferiority since our fall from grace. But as it turns out they give us a starkly limited spectrum of self-definitions to choose from. We can either be active terrorists and closet jihadis or we can be non- and ex-Muslims.

Could the post-Postchristian Endarkenment be our cue to think about being Postmuslims, then? To reclaim empiricism and secularity not as imports or impositions but as proven ways of turning hells into heavens? And burn the death boats forever…

It’s completely far-fetched, I know. But the OED definition of “Postchristian” as someone who professes no religion rings hollow, under the circumstances. Right now I feel “Postmuslim” is the only way to profess Islam.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Wobbly

There is something to be said for moderatism, no question. But perhaps there is an even stronger thing to be said against it. As the holy ghost in the trinity that rules the world today – capitalism the father and democracy the son – moderatism can be judged in at least two ways.

The good side is easy to see. There are “moderate” as opposed to “radical” Youknowwhats, for example. There is also (1) drinking or smoking in moderation, (2) being a good moderator, whether as judge or umpire and (3) any number of utilitarian associations from tolerance to fair-mindedness. Even human rights emanate less from a universally accepted ethics than a European tradition of post-war moderateness.

The bad side is where I find myself standing, beleaguered and beguiled of all good sense. It’s the point where postmodern correctness begins to apologise for premodern abomination.

Too often, for example, I’ve watched in distress while some righteous native defended an immigrant’s right to wear the niqab. Never mind that the imperialists’ descendent in question might be a gender-fluid, anarchic nudist. They still feel the need to fight “Islamophobia”. Which they do by endorsing what is arguably the worst affront to Islam.

I don’t just mean Wahhabism. I mean a slavery-addled tradition of misogyny, among other horrors of times past. Such horrors are being re-revived by displaced as well as local fundamentalists who, if not outright jihadis, are jihadi-sympathisers for sure. Their obsessions benefit not only from oil-greased Wahhabi influence but also from the (dis)ingenuous open-mindedness of their Western hosts.

More and more they make fanatical excesses look like the only true interpretation of the faith. And, what is worse, the world’s overlords are ever so considerately letting them. Neither making the connection between them and ISIS nor recognising their thinking as the root of terrorism…

But here is an example of moderatism’s less obvious obverse – is my point. While the doctrine by definition cannot be extreme or unreasonable, it can provide a context and a justification for all kinds of immoderate behaviour. The Islam that left-wing Westerners support is ultimately a false orthodoxy. In many cases it has turned Muslims themselves into Islamophobes.

And yet, such is the civilised world’s need to be considerate. Such is its compulsion to assert its superiority that it must operate outside as well as in the twin arenas of bombs and banks. And to this end Westerners, especially good Westerners are prepared to use the branding iron handed to them by Islamists to identify all Muslims. Willy-nilly.

It’s the dominant civilisation’s anxious and unsteady effort to resume the white man’s burden of mapping, classifying and controlling the world. And it’s that civilisation’s economic urge to knead even morality into a consumerist mould. That’s what I’m talking about. Forget FGM and honour killings. Given the right combination of post-Marxist politics and oil-trade economics, moderatism can make female infanticide sound like a lifestyle choice…

But we needn’t worry too much, so long as we can continue to pride ourselves on our multiculturalism. After all such things will only be happening to other people.

 

Play It Again, Said

Even if I was that way inclined, Mathias Énard is just not my type. Yet of all those I’ve recently perused – Sahar Delijani among them – it is Énard I’ve been seeing in my sleep.

At least twice after being submerged in Compass – with this kind of writing, normal immersion is not an option – I sat across a table from the sturdy orientalist. We were in a remote archaeological site somewhere in the Levant, at the foot of some enormous, crumbling ziggurat. We spoke of symphony and Syria. Each time I woke wondering what it was about the book that had got so deeply to me.

It could be sheer originality and erudition. Beautifully conveyed in Charlotte Mandell’s effortless translation, the book’s mille-feuille melange of essayistic enquiry and anecdotal, fragmentary confession render a storyline unnecessary. Despite being in essence a rambling, interminable soliloquy, it is full of stunning one-liners. For example, “How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?”

It could be the voice of the narrator and main character. His uniquely engaging predicament: unidentified illness, abiding interest in opium, critical if amused perspective on fellow European scholars. Especially his hopeless love for one of them, a French Jewess named Sarah. Whether as a musicologist and ethnographer or as an Austrian. A lover of the orient. Or, that increasingly rare thing, a true cosmopolitan. Franz Ritter is utterly convincing.

It could be the book’s central metaphor: a compass that, instead of the familiar and the ordinary, points towards the other, the desirable, the unknown. Prior to the discovery of magnetic north, proto-compasses – depending on the sun – pointed east. At one point Sarah gives Franz a replica of Beethoven’s compass which is fitted in such a way that it points east instead of north. “You now own one of the rare compasses that point to the Orient,” she tells him mockingly, amused by his perplexity, “the compass of Illumination, the Suhrawardian artefact.”

It could be any and all of those things, but I suspect it is something both simpler and more complex. It is the way in which Compass suggests a refutation of Edward Said’s thesis in Orientalism. Using only fiction and literary creativity. Without a hint of polemic or contention. It redeems the innocence and legitimacy of exploration. It exposes cultural difference for the ideological cling film that it is. And it reaffirms the possibility of intermingling outside the realm of power.

Franz recounts how the “debate became stormy” when Sarah mentioned “the Great Name”. But “I had no opinion,” he says, “and I still don’t, I think; Edward Said was an excellent pianist”.

 

Who’s Afraid of Paul Bowles

It can only be politically incorrect to complain of political correctness. But – in the context of Ost-West exchange, especially tweety, web-bound Ost-West – it would be downright wrong not to.

Not that I hope to redeem “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”, as Stephen Fry famously called Twitter. Still, the question has to be asked. How did it come to be that to say anything, anything at all of any public import, you must first go through a checklist?

This isn’t a checklist of rules or precepts, what is worse. It is one of predetermined human categories: woman, black, queer… Impossibly superficial collective labels that neither clarify context nor improve ethics, but serve horrendous political agendas over and above the pseudo-moral message of their enforcers.

However large or amorphous, groups are modelled on minority communities. They are imagined to live not only contiguously, in perpetual isolation, but also beyond any possibility of dialogue. The idea is to go through the checklist to make sure nothing you say will give offence.

So, far from reflecting anything individual or principled, the checklist reduces humanity to cabals of potential offence takers. Those cabals have e-eloquent agents posing as benign influencers all over the internet. They are determined to silence me.

I cannot criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. I cannot criticise Islamism (or any form of religiosity emanating from Muslims, however unreasonable or vicious) without being an Islamophobe. Back here in the Arab world, I cannot object to war-mongering sectarian incitement without being against independent journalism. I cannot object to civil war-inducing riot chic without being a counterrevolutionary. I cannot even be quiet without becoming an agent of corrupt military-fascist dictatorships…

In Paul Bowles’s 1945 story “A Distant Episode”, a European ethnographer has his tongue cut off by members of the Saharan tribe whose language he is studying. He becomes the caravan’s human pet, chained, covered in jingling bangles and forced to dance.

Now, while the current discursive paranoia might have its origin in a relatively innocuous Anglophone sense of propriety – the compulsion to be nice – there is something deeply disturbing about the internet holding and twisting my tongue.

Political correctness and the minority logic that underlies it might appear to be diametrically opposed to Bowles’s contention. In fact, in its understanding of culture as a force to separate and reductively define identity, in its insistence on irreconcilable difference and in its ultimate denial of a shared humanity, multiculturalism is informed by the exact same terror and despair as “A Distant Episode”.

Let postcolonial theory, comp lit and all their webified holy cows make of me what they will. I will tell a different story.

 

Come Ye Sons of Immigrants

There is no reason you can’t be a South discourse initiator and a classical music snob at the same time. The problem is when, taking issue with one fantastical view of the Orient, you end up inadvertently paving the way to another.

“There were – and are – cultures and nations whose location is in the East,” the Great Name writes in the holy tome (which he completed in New York the year I was born in Cairo), “and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West. About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute”.

The Arab Spring, by contrast, has had a lot to say about brute reality. While democratic transformation turned out to be a Trojan horse for political Islam, the liberal-left discourse partly inspired by Orientalism proved just as deluded and dangerous as what Edward Said set out to discredit.

As it turned out that discourse hadn’t been describing the place where I lived so much as somewhere like it. A place where mass protests and free elections could instantly override systematic incompetence, intergenerational entitlement and well supported fanaticism. And where a sixty-year-old military regime, without any political force to contend with it, would spontaneously dissolve in a puff. Leaving behind a paradise of equality and freedom…

This too, I have come to feel, is Orientalism. It’s an Orient that emerges from the “unchallenged centrality” of the West, “governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, regressions, investments, and projections”. The only difference is – it belongs not to imperialists but immigrants.

Well, it belongs to an immigrantish left that tends to presuppose an authority on the East it simply cannot have. Not even when it physically moves there, the better to live out its masturbatory fantasies of world-changing upheaval. And while it retains all the stupidities of political correctness and moderatism, it lacks all magic, all mystery.

The truth is no one enthuses about intermingling more than I. No one drools more copiously at the thought of Alexandria, Córdoba, Istanbul. “Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?” the Quran says. And I will always be for people moving across continents. Becoming other people while they do so.

But there is something about the current format of multiculturalism that seems to prevent becoming. It’s as if people travel not in order to open up to other people, to change, but to clam up and become reductive, essentialised versions of themselves.

Thus the Immigrant’s perspective. In an East seen too comfortably from the West.

And it’s thanks to this avatar of the real, anti-Orientalist Oriental that the more sympathetic the West is, the more absurdly reductive and ultimately disastrous its views.

 

28 Decades Later

You can make a point of denying it. You can wire yourself up with explosives and wait for an opportune moment to detonate. Or, having emigrated and purposely forgotten your mother tongue, you can call yourself Chuck and pretend you were born with the name. None of that changes anything.

To be a 21st-century Muslim is to be hopelessly homesick. Wistful or murderous, the impulse is part of your life no matter where you are. Because, in a metaphorical but very profound sense, to be Muslim in our times is also to be homeless.

It is to be in the past, where all your historical credentials belong. To look in on the present like a shy interloper. To be Muslim in our times is to be bereft of material power and moral influence, by turns maligned and wept for. Except in the most peripheral and individual ways, it is to be irrelevant to the workings of either capitalism or science – the two forces that have dominated the world for at least three centuries.

And it is to be homeless knowing that once you had a home. Once you were the victor, master if not of others’ then at least of your own destiny. And now you are defeated and subjugated, a liability wherever you go. Even if it hasn’t seen better days, the space you occupy will retain the residue of some former glory. Like Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, it will be “a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy” – of hüzün, as he calls it, using a word derived from the Arabic root for sorrow.

Such hüzün pervades your life whether or not you identify it for what it is. It infuses your experience with a texture, a colour, a vibration; the scent of perpetual yearning. And so you pine – not for a specific time or place so much as some reliable cultural grounding or collective pride, a positive sense of identity.

Sooner or later you will realise. To be embodied and empowered as a contemporary Muslim, you need to bring the past back into the present.

But that past, your past as a Muslim is an endless trove of meanings in flux. And it is up to you to interpret and incorporate those meanings, choose which ones to stress and which to abandon, then write the code for seamlessly installing them into your daily life. The trick is to remember that said life operates within a mainframe. And that mainframe makes no provisions for incurable nostalgia.

Having acknowledged your historical estrangement, in other words, it is up to you to creatively insinuate yourself into the contemporary world – with a view to reclaiming it.

Otherwise you will end up doing one of two things. You will try and fail to destroy that world, pushing yourself further and further out on the margins. Or you will remain a perennial intruder on the present, forever pining for a country to which you can never emigrate.

 

All the King’s Men

Egyptians sometimes yearn for the monarchy. Secular city people, especially. Let’s call them “monarchists”. They imagine a kind of convivencia of Italians, Greeks, Jews and state-approved “Egyptians”. They accept the British occupation, downplay the plight of the fellahin. And, looking at the sexagenarian military republic under which they live, they retch.

Not only at the lack of political life and the absence of rule of law. Not only at economic deprivation affecting proportionately more of the population than under King Farouk. Or corruption, repression and waste reaching infinitely higher levels. Not even at the sordid state of higher education. Ineffective infrastructure, insufficient development, inadequate health care…

The monarchists retch, in particular, at what the republic has done to the mind of the nation. Eliminating multiplicity. Normalising incompetence. And encouraging parochialism to the point where the religious-sectarian excesses of a predominantly conservative polity have come to undermine that selfsame republic’s existence…

But, seeing the monarchists retch, hearing them wax lyrical about the past, the leftists immediately start foaming at the mouth. They denigrate and mock the monarchists’ nostalgia. They insist that no convivencia ever actually took place in Egypt. And by suggesting that it ever might have – so the leftists shout – the monarchists are betraying the cause.

Leftists have not been known to define “the cause” too clearly, of course. But why they should so reflexively decry any longing for pre–1952 times is not always clear.

A colonially coopted monarchy overseeing the feudal enslavement of the majority does sound infuriatingly right-wing. But that is neither the only meaningful narrative nor a particularly true one. And, whether or not you acknowledge the fascist and fanatical overtones of Nasserism, there is no excuse for what the republic and the cause have perpetrated.

An image of Egyptian cosmopolitanism, what is more, need not undermine national independence, social justice – or Marxism. Which is why, when they object to it, it is nostalgia that the leftists like to denigrate.

But the objection seems in reality to be to anything that undermines a Platonic notion of the grass roots, the more puritanical the better. Leftists have after all consistently cuddled up to the most right-wing ideology imaginable, that of political Islam. And could this be because it is perceived to emanate from the grass roots’?

For surely if it’s nostalgia you have a problem with, the monarchy should not trouble you as much as the caliphate.