Influence is an art. It is a dance of subtlety and force. A moving of the mind and a journey of the heart. It is difficult enough to master at an individual level; so how can one possibly master it at a geopolitical level?
Yet, influence is the invisible hand in geopolitics. Hard to quantify and in constant flux, some countries wield it with brute might, while other countries seduce their counterparts into submission.
Qatar may be the per square mile most influential nation in the world. This little, lavish country has mastered the painting of perceptions through the art of influence. And more than that, Qatar has turned its art into action.
When the ancient Cro-Magnon crossed paths with the Neanderthal in prehistoric Europe, a conflict was born. Slowly but surely, the invading Cro-Magnons subdued and supplanted the native Neanderthals into oblivion. The only Neanderthal traces left were fossils and tiny genetic snippets in the Sapiens code. But why did these Cro-Magnons so rapidly succeed the Neanderthals?
In his book Sapiens, Harari posits that it was the ability of ancient humans to create myths that led to triumph over their Neanderthal cousins. Whether it was concepts of religion, trade, country, etc…, the Cro-Magnon coalitions weren’t just strengthened by shared genetic codes but shared mythic creeds. Innovation and legends built from this cognitive revolution gave early humans the tools to not only conquer other species but also each other.
Old myths were now carving new realities.
This blood of fratricide would continue across the ages to the tip of Spartan spears clashing against Athenian shields. In this land of early contacts, people who shared even greater similarities than the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were still locked in an eternal war over the myths of alliances and city states. Another incarnation would appear in the same land as Greeks and Anatolian “Turks” (who may have shared more DNA with an Athenian than a Central Asian) would come to gunpowder blows with a backdrop of whether Jesus or Muhammed was the supreme prophet.
Of course, one could say these conflicts were all over resources; but myths provided the fuel to the fire. The fictions of community, ideology, and religion were integral to these conflicts; and the legends of their conflicts were peppered with these myths, not over who controlled a salt mine.
History is filled with centralized powers and rulers having a vice grip over their societies’ myths. Nonetheless, massive calamities or upheavals would cause realities to shatter mythologies (much like the coronavirus today). The spread of the internet and social media have upended traditional formulas, and now myths are increasingly divided and divisive.
I came across an extremely interesting yet at times very hypocritical podcast – the Rabbit Hole. It is produced by the New York Times and delves into the story of a young man named Caleb and his radicalization by way of…YouTube. On the way it pairs a fairly centrist Joe Rogan with famous racists such as Stephan Molyneaux and Milo Yiannopolous, designates deviation from mainstream thought as a mental disturbance, and labels dissent against mainstream media as surefire pathway to bigotry.
It is slickly produced, gorgeous in audio, and loudly ironic – as it sounds like a parody of propaganda itself.
These are the myths that an esteemed and storied American institution propagates. It doesn’t take a mythologist or scientist to tell you that something is off.
Media, academia, corporations, and governments themselves are seeing their stories thrown into bonfires like an Evangelical reaction to Harry Potter books. The sacred myths of the past such as the accessibility of the American Dream, the “natural fit” of the European Union, the hyper-competence of the CCP, India’s minority favoritism in guise of “secularism,” and so many more myths of the elites are being capsized. Populist surges have been inflamed by mismatching of reality and myth, and alternative voices have been given suffrage by the internet.
The Rabbit Hole feels like a reaction. A major institution trying to silence alternative thought (much of which I strongly disagree with myself) as it feels threatened, using every aesthetic and influential trick in its repertoire. It’s a very entertaining yet at times jarring piece of content. It’s so fascinating seeing a media giant so brazenly and fearfully enforce its myth.
Māyā, the Illusion
The Hindu concept of Māyā is multifaceted; but for our purpose today, let’s pin it down to the idea that our world is an elaborate illusion, fueled by attachment, arrogance, and deception. The illusion is tailored. For one, it may be their emotional faults; for another, it’s their addiction; for someone else, it’s their position of power, etc…
Each person has their own māyā. Their own reality. Their own myth.
Institutions have for too long utilized prestige to create precedent. They have gotten used to their word being a given, rather than something that is taken. Now with the coronavirus baring the top-down māyā of the elites and institutions, a bottom-up backlash ensues.
A whole array of new myths and challenges to the status quo are arising. Many of my group chat debates with friends end up being us posting different articles that say wildly opposite conclusions with Herculean confidence – a testament to how we now have a myriad of myths to choose from yet increasing difficulty in discerning our reality. News is no longer news. News is narrative.
Truth is more subjective than ever.
The Vedas have described reality as “neti neti” – not this, not that. This comfort with ambiguity is something that is sorely missed in today’s world. The sages who composed the Vedas found ease in ambiguity and accepted the limits of truth. From their verses, flowed the founding myths of the Indian subcontinent; and subsequent philosophers and truth-seekers created their own spin on those myths. Debate, diversity, and a mutual respect became integral to the Indic ethos, something you would never assume today watching the screaming cobblestone screens of Indian news.
Now is a time to embrace ambiguity. Absolute truths are being overturned by the coronavirus and the cascading economic downturn. From the Federal Reserve’s infinite monetary sprint careening past notions of debt to the WHO’s blatant capitulation to the Dragon, old conventions are imploding to open a path for new strategies, new myths.
This piece is more of a collection of thoughts than a focused message. A quiver of arrows rather than a spear. I want you to leave with questions.
Why should I listen to the media and institutions that have been so consistently wrong? That have a permanent sneer towards me? That seek to sear any speck of debate into ashes?
The war over myths is the story of human progress. Our myths chart the trail of our future. Belief has proven self-fulfilling on an individual as well as societal level. We must make sure that our beliefs are not defined by consistently wrong and Puritanical elites and institutions.
Our myths should come from experience and inquiry. It’s time for conversion. It’s time for reincarnation. It’s time to choose our own mythology.
For whatever reason, Facebook recently thought I might be interested in the subscription South Asian themed webzine and newsletter The Juggernaut. I don’t mind paying for media. I pay for The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. But why should you pay for The Juggernaut? Here’s a snippet from their about page:
It’s like your other email briefings. But browner. Join thousands and get the newsletter that curates the best global news on South Asia(ns) every Sunday. We also send updates on events, giveaways, our original reporting, and more. Unsubscribe anytime.
There are some good stories in The Juggernaut. I especially liked “Not Indian Enough” by Sabrina Malhi, a Guyanese American of East Indian ethnicity. This is a good piece of journalism because it shines the light on a topic and experience that’s underexposed, the liminality of being of Caribbean East Indian background. I learned a lot.
But the problem with The Juggernaut is that it strikes a pose as “South Asian,” which like “Social Justice” or “Family Values” is innocuous on the face of it, but connotes particular affinities, identities, and preoccupations, which are exclusionary of vast swaths of its potential audience. Back when the Sepia Mutiny blog was a thing I went to some meet-ups, and one thing that I noticed is that despite the focus on inclusive South Asian language on the internet, privately most people were conventionally nationalistic in regards to where their parents came from.
People didn’t talk about Desi or South Asian, they talked about Indian identity.
Since then the political and social cleavages have polarized. The Juggernaut is a pretty conventional distillation of progressive Diasporic poses. It focuses a great deal on marginalized elements of the brown experience and is lockstep with the global Left in a deep skepticism of Hindu nationalism.
There is nothing wrong with that. But it’s just one viewpoint and a viewpoint that seems extremely overrepresented among the Diasporic media class. There are potential readers who are somewhat outside of this progressive South Asian American exoteric box. I wish publications like The Juggernaut had enough viewpoint diversity to reflect and attract them.
As the United Kingdom’s Labour Party swallowed a staggering loss, it’s clear that we see a pattern across the world. Election after election, Left parties collapse against either centrist or frequently right wing parties. Does this imply a victory for the “Global Right?”
The crux of Joseph’s argument lies in the fact that Leftists have become constantly concerned with grand humanitarian conflicts and cosmopolitan problems while Right Wingers are more concerned with “skin in the game” local issues. The Leftist leader shouts in a city square about human rights abuses in Israel, America, India, the UK, etc… (all while conveniently ignoring much, much worse abuses in less pluralistic and less democratic countries). The Right Wing leader is on the hinterland battleground listening to disaffected and ignored voters about their latest economic or communal ailment. The Left has become caught up in the noise in the air while the Right have their ears to the ground.
Of course, you may notice that lately there has been some hobnobbing amongst many “nationalist” or Right Wing leaders. Yet this exercise will only go so far.
Consider this – put an American Evangelical Christian and an Indian Hindu Hardliner in a room together. While they may both agree on their disdain of radical Islam, they will reach an impasse when the Evangelical explains to the Hindu Hardliner that they will burn in hell for eternity for not believing in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Hindu Hardliner will then tell the Evangelical to stop sending missionaries who destroy indigenous Indian culture with their conversion agenda. This clash will overwhelm any commonalities in the long run.
Bring a group of Leftists from disparate places such as London, New York, and New Delhi and you will have free flowing conversations about the liberation of Palestine, proper pronoun use, and how one needs to read more Marxist theory for communism to work.
Even on economics, Right Wingers from different nations will have vehement disagreements. The British Tories are distinctly to the left of American Democrats. Narendra Modi (who many times is described as “Far Right”) has enacted more “Socialist” policies in 5 years than Bernie Sanders will probably ever do in his lifetime. Modi has achieved the wildest economic initiatives of American Democrats yet is labeled as India’s doom and gloom; which is in direct contrast to his staggering electoral victories.
Finally, we have to acknowledge the grand chasm between international media’s narratives and ground realities. The raucous and slanted theater over the 2016 US, 2019 UK, and 2019 Indian elections show how massively wrong reporting was. This was a validation of localist siege mentalities regarding the media as well as the growing distrust people have in it.
What is a nation?
Is it its citizens? Its borders? Its values? Its history? Its present? Its future?
Of course, a reasonable take is that it is all of the above. The Left’s problem is that it has disconnected from its old base (the working class) partly because it has more or less forsaken the first 3 (notions of citizenship, borders, and local values).
The rural proletariat backbone of Left parties across the world have now been labeled as bigots, uncouth, and “deplorables;” simply because they refuse to digest runaway academic politicking, sneering towards their local tradition, and denigrating of their skin color or religion.
The Left’s relentless attack on their countries’ respective “majorities” has manifested into electoral backlashes. Even in loss, we’ve seen their ideologues double down on this suicidal oration.
Does this mean all minorities should be shamed and hounded for their misdeeds? Absolutely and unequivocally no. All communities in a nation, whether in majority or minority should move to remove their faults and prosper forward. However, the reality is that localist parties have now been given enough ammo from the Left to consolidate majorities in their countries. The Left’s vote bank vetos have lost their old potency and must face the mirror or face the music.
From Revolution to Rosé
The march of muddied boots under red flags used to send shivers up the spine of capitalists. Now capitalists rally around the latest “woke” trend and other inane culture wars that are ripe for the investment into perpetual outrage. Old Left leaders came from factory floors, while the current crop comes from Ivy Leagues and ivory towers. The formally faithful worker base asks for policy changes regarding welfare, wages, and trade; while the bourgeoise urban elite donors and leadership demand new articles highlighting “X-phobia” and identity politics.
And when the Left does decide to finally wade into economic issues, the results have been lackluster.
The topic of the Left’s economic evolution is worthy of a book in and of itself. Every country’s economic situation and externalities are very unique; so it is futile to paint their economic portrait either free market green or a socialist red. However, a common theme across the world has been Left parties holding the torch of economic reform only to run either half measures or trip up over useless communal quarrels.
America is a prime arena as the economic tug of war is in full force here.
While markets have recovered and wildly prospered post-2008, many Americans feel like they missed the ship. These same Americans would propel Trump into power as they saw the Democrats’ half hearted economic agenda failing them. The Democrats would face a wave of economic populism to finish what Obama started, but this would drown under toxic identity politics introduced by the mainstream Clinton camp to nullify Sanders’ swell. The problem came about when Clinton lost and now a new wave of Democrats combined both Clinton’s social agenda with Sanders’ economic direction. As various elections across the world have shown, this is not a reliable concoction.
While older Left parties were seen as champions of the working class, they have increasingly championed policies that hurt them. Open borders and mass immigration rhetoric would be devastating to lower income people with depressed wages and increased job competition. Scathing criticism of the “billionaire class” by multi-millionaire politicians not only looks like ridiculous rhetoric but is absolutely ineffective policy. Billionaires and the mega rich are indeed the global citizens that many Leftists wish they were. As Europe’s failed wealth tax experiment showed, the rich will simply move abroad or tell their accountant to move their money.
A Path Forward
A light in these dark times for the (Western) Left is demography. The youth overwhelmingly favor Left parties in places like the US and Europe (India is the opposite where youth are placing faith in the BJP). American youth even have a positive tilt towards socialism. I can imagine a recession in the near future will shatter the walls to universal healthcare, major subsidies in education, and maybe even UBI.
However, what the Left must work on is ushering in renewed faith amongst the majorities of their nations. A ceasing of incessant attacks on majority culture, customs, and values is a must. It is all right to call out the problems of slavery, imperialism, etc… of the past, but the crimes of the past should not rest on the shoulders of those in the present. Likewise, current issues regarding discrimination shouldn’t be blanketed over whole populations.
Concerning immigration, it is a topic for individual nations dependent on context and demographics. An open or loose border ideal won’t work for most nations if any due to either economic constrains or demographic antagonism.
In America at least, I see glimpses of a future winning ticket in politicians such as Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard (though both will most likely not win the primaries) who shun the vociferous social histrionics of much of their party while presenting decidedly Left articulations of economics without wading into full blown socialist visions. They stand their ground all while standing up for minorities as equal citizens instead of coddled vote banks or vilified communities. All this, while tackling the impending massive changes to the economy as the information age veers into full swing.
It is more than clear that Left parties have their work cut out for them. Introspection is the best prescription I can offer them as their current path will only lead to ruin. The world needs their kind for ideological balance, sensible opposition, and checks to an increasingly dominant right wing across the world.
Time will tell when sense returns to the Left. Till then, localism will reign.
The feverish pitch over the Citizenship Amendment Bill has reached a crescendo. The Indian lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly passed it with it now reaching the upper house. Most likely, it will pass with the support of “neutral” parties pushing the bill over majority.
Under the CAB – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians (basically persecuted communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh) will receive asylum and an accelerated path to citizenship.
Critics label this bill as anti-Muslim and rhetoric from certain BJP members does not help in the defense against this accusation.
But again consistent with the common theme of international coverage of India, we are missing context (or more accurately, outlets are leaving it out purposefully).
What’s A Partition?
Not the Beyoncé song. If you have an inkling of knowledge about subcontinental history, you know about the partition and the Two Nation Theory (TNT). TNT was proposed by an Islamist ideologue named Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh Muslim University in the late 1800s. Muhammed Ali Jinnah ran with the idea and eventually convinced enough Muslims to vote for partition (Hindus, Sikhs, etc… were not polled for their vote). In the midst of continued violence (much of it encouraged by Jinnah’s Muslim League), the Indian National Congress would acquiesce to partition. Massive violence followed with millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs dead.
However, while Pakistan became an Islamic state, India remained secular (though its minority appeasement down the line really pushes that definition).
It is the shadow of partition that looms large over the CAB.
The Entry Rules?
Defenders of the CAB say it gives refuge to persecuted minorities in true Indian tradition (Baghdadi Jews, Syrian Christians, Persian Zoroastrians, and Tibetan Buddhists have all received refuge in India over thousands of years). However it brings to point the case of Islamic minorities (Shias, Ahmediyas, Ex-Muslims, etc…). Many of these minorities face horrid persecution in the Islamic subcontinental states. Why should India also turn them back?
Now is where the acceptance of partition arrives. CAB critics say by rejecting persecuted Muslims, India validates Jinnah and the TNT. I can honestly understand this perspective. Why should these Muslims pay for the sins and mistakes of their ancestors?
On the flip side, CAB supporters return with saying they are merely accepting realities. Threats of national security, demographic change, as well as a cold hard perspective that India owes nothing to those related to its partition (non-Indian Muslims) are valid reasoning no matter how un-PC they are. In addition, the CAB has no bearing on Indian Muslims.
Even deeper, CAB supporters see this as India fulfilling its duty as a refuge of Dharma in the case of Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. The near complete obliteration of Dharmic religion from these lands is not forgotten and won’t be any time soon.
The legalese with regards to the bill seems iffy on its constitutionality. The Indian constitution bars discrimination based on religion within India. However it doesn’t bar discrimination with regards to non-Indian citizens.
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah (and probably next Prime Minister), has foreseen this. During a firebrand speech recently, Shah pointed out the litany of laws favoring minorities in India thereby showing a mirror to the Indian state’s institutional religious discrimination. This poses a major problem for the opposition. Add to the fact that the BJP has massive political capital after the Kashmir and Ram Mandir episodes, the centre possesses an insurmountable high ground over its opponents.
But what about a moral high ground?
Western media laments at how India has degenerated to fascism these days. Is this perception reality? Probably not in my opinion.
I think what irks many of these outlets is an assertive India that no longer looks for the approval of the West (or a deracinated brown sahib/a in their place).
What has caught my mind recently is how Western coverage of India is affecting perceptions of India abroad. While some saw Modi as an aberration of a “secular, democratic, and liberal” Indian ethos, now they are beginning to realize Modi and Hindutva are here to stay. Does that mean India will slide into fascism?
On the other hand, many domestic Modi supporters would say that Modi is fulfilling a “secular, democratic, and liberal” ethos that India lacked for so long under Congress rule! Of course in both of these scenarios, I am speaking of white collar middle class folks’ perspectives. Other demographics would say Modi is fulfilling his role as a Hindu leader giving refuge to the persecuted Hindus in lost lands (this may honestly be the biggest vote catcher for the CAB and primary driver of the BJP’s push).
As the world becomes more globalized, it will be interesting how influential Western media outlets will be on the increasingly connected youth of developing nations including India (the caveat is India’s youth are more pro BJP than older generations).
Yes, opinions can change as we age but it is fairly apparent that your average millennial takes the word of BBC/NYT/Wash Post as gospel. We will have to see how a Western left wing government reacts to India, especially one whose constituency is in congruence with this “India = Fascist” narrative. Throwing in the wrench of India’s rising economic clout, these parties will have a bit of a conundrum.
Though it must be said, do that many Westerners even really care about India?
Find more about Indian, American, and Geopolitics at my blog – The Emissary. Thanks again to the Brown Pundits!
A middle eastern student shares how deeply offensive a condescending pretentious patronizing xenophobic post modernist baizuo caucasian is towards them. The baizuo caucasian tells the middle eastern student that he is a genie for solving a math problem and then apologizes for it afterwards, since after all the word “genie” comes from the middle east. Two phenomenons might be at play. One is baizuo. The other is anti muslim islamaphobia.
If this is coming from baizuo, this is a very old problem. It comes out of European imperialism in the 1700s and 1800s. The European intelligentsia tried to colonize the minds of their imperial colonial subjects with inferiority complex to damage their self confidence. Europeans also tried to deconstruct colonized peoples, causing them to be embarrassed by, hate and reject their ancient history, technology, science, product development, process innovation, civilization, culture, religion, spirituality, art, literature, institutions, ancestors and elders. Post modernism divided colonized peoples into many categories of oppressed and oppressors (mostly manufactured irrational concepts) to turn different groups of people against each other; implying that power oppression rather than meritocratic competence defined local hierarchies. This European colonization of the mind sharply lowered total factor productivity and material living standards in the developing world ceteris paribus. The Latinos, Africans and Asians got sick of it, and kicked the Europeans and their baizuo European intelligentsia out. You can read more about this in a Nuanced understanding of British Colonialism.
Sadly the baizuo caucasian intellegentsia did not seem to learn from this. In the 1960s they tried to undermine America’s heroes Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X. Please watch Muhammed Ali’s and Malcolm X’s videos speaking about the baizuo in American Caste (a). And the baizuo seem to continue to get worse year after year. I don’t understand how this is happening. Perhaps could this be a xenophobic jealous backlash against the accelerating socio-economic rise of the rest–especially darkies?
What can we darkies do about this? Should we ask to be considered white?
To the middle eastern student who wrote Prof Saad, maybe the caucasian overlords should learn that the vast majority of Aryans are Asians. Asians (Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang, Tibet, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, SAARC, South East Asia) are very proud to be Aryan or Arya, thank you very much. Arya or Aryan is a cultural rather than genetic marker. Arya means nobility. Maybe ignore the baizuo and become extremely successful in everything you do despite their efforts to sabotage you. Fewer and fewer foreigners are fooled by the hard bigotry of low expectations, by the lie that we cannot manifest our own miracles. Their time is almost up.
I would like to thank Prof Saad for being a glowing light of wisdom and inspiration for our world. Love you Saad!
In the comments, please mention if anyone would like to invite Prof Saad to be a guest for the Brown Caste podcast.
I was meaning to write this for some time now but somehow I kept postponing. Razib’s recent post about Mehdi Hasan inspired me to sit down and finish what I was thinking of writing down (https://www.brownpundits.com/2019/07/31/mehdi-hasans-hypocrisies/). This long post is not about Mehdi Hasan par se, or even Ilhan Omar (sheepishly admitting her clickbait value). This is mainly about prominent Muslims in American public life and public perception of Muslims. In the first part of this post I will discuss direct political aspects of Muslim public representation and in the second I will dive into some of the relevant socio-political and moral issues.
Barack Hossain Obama became the first African-American person to be elected President of United States in 2008. He was reelected in 2012. Now, there are lot of grounds for criticism of Obama’s presidency. His leadership in lot of important matters, particularly in foreign affairs , have come under lot of criticism since the end of his presidency. In domestic matters too, his leadership record has lost lot of luster even among his supporters. However, most Americans agree that Barack and Michelle Obama occupied the White House with exemplary dignity and fulfilled the inspirational role that Americans generally expect the presidential office to provide in this very republican (small R) of countries.
The Obamas were very acutely aware of the huge responsibility they had as the first African-American couple in the White House. They knew personal scandals, failure to control and command, would create huge barriers for the next ethnic minority aspiring to be president. That’s why they were dignified and moderate to a fault in their conduct. In that consideration, the Obama presidency was an unqualified success. Today Barack Obama is the most popular living President to Americans with 60% approval rating (https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/explore/public_figure/Barack_Obama) and Michelle Obama is frequently polled as the most admired woman in America. The next presidential candidate of African-American descent who will reach the final stages of election, will not face any questions because of his/her ethnic background except from the incorrigible bigots.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Catholic president in 1960. It’s hard to believe now but prejudice against Catholics was very widespread among mainstream Protestants of America, who were the overwhelming majority, until fifty years ago. When populist nativists of the early 20th century railed against domestic and foreign enemies of the people, ‘Jews, Papists and the N-word’ was the standard phrase used. Kennedy was aware of the great headwind facing him in seeking primary nomination and then eventual victory. He famously said before the election, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me,” (https://www.wbur.org/news/2017/05/25/kennedy-catholicism-presidential-campaign). He kept emphasizing this point before the election and was mindful of his role as the first Catholic president after getting elected. Suffice it to say anti-Catholicism ceased being significant in American political sphere after the Kennedy’s presidency.
Ilhan Omar became the first visibly-Muslim, hijab-clad elected representative at federal level in 2018. Understandably, her ascension to national stage created huge amount of interest, savory and unsavory, in all corners of the politically engaged section of the people. I am not going to mention the long list of accomplishments and controversies Ilhan Omar has been registering in almost daily basis since her election. It will not be an exaggeration to say that she has become one of the most prominent banner issues that are feeding the frenzy of the two battling political armies in national arena. She is inflaming passion even more than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who may be representing more the economic division than the cultural division represented by Omar.
I personally think that Ilhan Omar is not a very religious Muslim, the identity aspect of the religion is more important to her. Rather than cosmic theology, her religious identity offers her a worldview theology; providing explanation of power relations among communities, groups and institutions of today’s world. Socio-cultural beliefs define the modern political man and Ilhan Omar represents the current cleavages more starkly than almost any other public figures.
However, Ilhan Omar was not lucky enough to get the elite education and varied experience that both Obama and Kennedy had. Experiences greatly influence worldview. A liberal, integrative, long-term worldview that typify Obama, Kennedy, may be too much to ask from her. I personally think she is not very sophisticated but that is not germane to this discussion. However, among her most prominent public defenders there are many who have benefits of background and who are very articulate. That brings me to public personalities like Mehdi Hasan.
In the last couple of years, several Muslim media figures have been regularly invited into mainstream media like CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, WaPost whenever some events related to Muslims became prominent in the fast churning stream of news and views. Mehdi Hasan, Wajahat Ali probably commanded bulk of those airing of Muslim perspectives. They are among the staunchest defenders of Ilhan Omar (also of other minority social justice public figures) in media. They are also among the most vehement critics and denouncers of Trump, Trump-supporters, the Republican Party and American foreign policy in general. They had been like this since Trump became the Republican nominee. I remember how I first saw Wajahat Ali in CNN before the 2016 election when he repeatedly and day after day described Trump as ‘impotent’. I cringed every time I heard that, but it could have been just me.
Now, people like Ilhan Omar, Mehdi Hasan and Wajahat Ali have lot of justification to go ballistic against Trump and his supporters. I think that Trump is significantly more racist than an average white American septuagenarian, his policies have targeted Muslims discriminatorily, his utterings have stoked outpourings of anti-Muslim hate, Muslims in America may become further victimized if Trump is reelected. However, opportunities of public criticism should not just opportunities for lashing out. We should evaluate effects of these criticisms, whether they are benefitting the country or even Muslims themselves. There is also an ethical aspect of this public criticism, which I will discuss in part II of this blogpost.
Ever since the 9-11 attacks the partisan divide in attitudes towards Muslims and Islam has gradually diverged in America. There are reasons to believe that the divide has become starker in recent years. A recent survey conducted before the 2018 elections show that 71% percent of self-described Republicans agreed they don’t believe Islam is compatible with American values, compared to an overall 42%. 60% of Republicans agreed with the idea that Muslim Americans weren’t as patriotic as non-Muslim Americans, compared to 38% generally (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/01/new-america-study-report-republicans-muslims-trump-midterms). The wide difference between the Republican numbers and the average for the population means the difference in attitude between the two parties is very wide. Few wedge issues signal the difference between the two parties more clearly now than their respective attitude towards Muslims in America.
Shadi Hamid has said that he is comforted that at least one of the two political tribes of America is acting as a shelter for American Muslims in these troubled times (https://gen.medium.com/how-donald-trump-made-me-a-muslim-7f28abcfd33a). Muslim Americans reciprocate the Democratic support faithfully. It is estimated that about 90% of them vote for the Democratic party in national elections now, before 9-11 the figure was more even. As much as 30-40 Muslims voted Republican in the 1990s. Other analysts OTOH have expressed reservation about the state of Muslims in the political polarization. Republican disdain for the Democratic Party and suspicion about Muslims in America may be reinforcing each other, worsening the political divide. Moreover, it’s not that Muslims find a very natural place in Democratic Party that is mainly characterized by secularism and progressivism. Shadi Hamid recounts that a religious Muslim told him, “I can sense the disdain from the Democratic Party towards my faith, even as they don a cape against Islamophobia. The underlying view Democrats have [about] anyone seriously religious is that they’re, at best, silly and gullible, and at worst, dangerous.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/for-religious-american-muslims-hostility-from-the-right-and-disdain-from-the-left/2019/07/25/7121e4ce-99e4-11e9-830a-21b9b36b64ad_story.html?utm_term=.f693a53b2fd8 )
For a minority that comprises only 1% of the voters, this kind of polarization should be very alarming. Its true that there are other minorities who also are reliable member of the Democratic clan. Black-Americans generally vote for the Democrats in the 90s while Jewish voters vote in the 70-80% range. However, the socio-political positions of Muslims are not same as Blacks or Jews. Black American voters comprise about 12% of the total voters; they are indispensable core of the Democratic coalition and a un-ignorable part of America for Republics. Moreover, sufficient number of Black Americans take part in Republican politics and intellectual development , making them always cultivable for Republican political leadership. While Jewish voting population is close to 2% of total, they have very powerful representation within the Republican establishment.
We must consider this context when examining the role of Muslim political and media personalities in the political sphere. It seems to me the most visible Muslim personalities in politics and media, determinedly and gleefully want to exacerbate the partisan divide. Few rational observers would disagree that Donald Trump has been most un-presidential in his public sayings during this political phase of his life. Even labelling those words as juvenile would probably be unjust towards the youth. However, these Muslim public personalities seem to think that going toe to toe and tit for tat with Trump and the Republicans, are the best tactics for Democrats and Muslims. I think, apart for impact on partisanship, there are important ethical aspects in these public exchanges that also have deep and wide consequences, which I intend to discuss in the second part.
These Muslim public personalities want total war against Trump and Republicans where crossing the line or fraternization with the enemy will be unthinkable. A few days ago, a very prominent Muslim religious leader, Hamza Yusuf, got widespread notice among Muslim Americans for joining a multi-religious state department commission on Human Rights (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/time-muslim-americans-condemn-hamza-yusuf-190715130254222.html). Many people would argue this as a very sensible move considering the plight of Muslims in many countries of the world and the very important role that America has in global concerns about those hapless Muslims. However, for political activist Muslim-Americans, Hamza Yusuf joining a Trump presidency commission was an ultimate betrayal, an act of Vichy French ignobility.
A Blitzkrieg style total war wouldn’t be so reckless if the chances of victory were good. However, chances don’t look good at least in the short term. When Trump became presidents, Democrats and liberals were openly speculating how he would be removed from power within one or two years because of all the scandals and malfeasance in the past and before the election. With low presidential approval ratings acting as comfort blanket, few Democrats were thinking Trump would last the full first-term, let alone getting reelected. Now desperation is in the air. Democrats openly speculate that Trump is heading for a second-term and Democrat’s chances are not so good. Betting markets reflect that increasing despair also. This political atmosphere again demand that Muslim Americans take long hard look how their political and media personalities are representing them in the public sphere. I have not read any reports of how Muslim Americans view role of their representatives in the public arena but from my personal interactions I gather that most of them are very uncomfortable being the spearhead of the resistance. Lot of them say that they physically wince whenever Ilhan Omar is in the news and they wish she would be far less prominent.
However, coalition-building, gradual advances may be things of the past and the spirit of the times may demand reckless combativeness. Just as revolutions in military affairs made Blitzkrieg possible, revolutions in socio-political affairs of current era may be favoring bold tactics. After all, Republicans had their May 1940 moment in November, 2016 in a most improbable victory with a most improbable candidate who refused to occupy the center ground. In these kind of historical victories, being the armored spearhead of deep battles brings everlasting glory. Nevertheless, people should also remember that Blitzkrieg grinded to a halt in 1941 in face of obdurate structural conditions and determined resistance. The spearheads were obliterated.
We have been watching the Israeli TV serial “Shtisel” the last few days (it is available on Netflix). I find the availability of foreign serials on Netflix a very good development; We watched Yunus Emre (a Turkish serial about the Turkish Sufi poet; a sort of less famous Rumi) and enjoyed it. Turkish serials have good production values, though the propaganda requirements of modern Turkey can be heavy handed (and therefore the depictions of 13th Century Turks are likely to be not even close to accurate), but even so, at least they shed light on what contemporary Turkish media mavens regard as desirable. Yunus Emre is about “spiritual” matters, so the propaganda is not a huge issue (no more than what it would be in a Western production), but it is a much bigger element in Ertrugul.. another series worth sampling (though it is extremely long, so don’t even try to watch it all). The propaganda in this series completely dominates any actual historical record that may be buried under it. Still, at least one can see what kind of founding myth the neo-Ottomans want to project (short version: The torch of Islamdom is passed to the vigorous (though as yet insignificant) Ottomans as the Seljuks and others are falling to the Mongols and the vicious conspiracies of the Crusaders; the spiritual side of this great clash is being handled by Ibn ul Arabi on the Islamic side and the Templar Grand Master on the Christian side).
Shtisel is far closer to reality than either of the Turkish serials I mentioned (it is also set in contemporary times, so that makes a difference, though the Turkish serials set in current times are much more crudely propagandistic as well). I have never been to Israel and don’t know a lot about the Haredi community, but what little I know (mostly from reading the news and from conversations with a couple of Israeli colleagues), this seems to be a very realistic (and very sympathetic) portrayal of this ultra-orthodox community. Some of the subtler plot elements may be missed by viewers who have no knowledge of Israeli society, but maybe the serial will be gateway to learning more?
I have only seen about 6 episodes, so I have no idea how it holds up later.. still, check it out.
Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words, ” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”
The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )
Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.
I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.
For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.
Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.
“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”
Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism. As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.
What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).
Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.
ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.