Recently I read a piece, Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian, which is interesting from an anthropological perspective. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a progressive South Asian Christian, which is the perspective of this author. But as I read the piece I felt that it elided and conflated so much. A much deeper and richer story was being erased so as to serve up another illustration of the primacy of white supremacy.
If you read From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East you know that how white American Christians treat non-white Christians can be rather ridiculous. One of the stories I recall is of an Arab Christian waiter in Jerusalem who wore a cross, and was very irritated with white Americans with strong Southern accents would inquire when he had converted to Christ. This person of course privately scoffed, and reflected that when his ancestors had been Christians for centuries his customer’s ancestors were still worshipping pagan gods.
Here is a passage from the above piece which I think really confuses:
Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.
The writer is a young Canadian woman whose family is from South Africa of Indian heritage. Additionally, though she never is explicit about it, her family seems to be evangelical Protestant. This is an interesting perspective, but it is a totally different one from that of South Asian Christianity.
Bracketing Kerala with Pondicherry and Goa is simply misleading. Christians are nearly 20% of the population of Kerala, and most are St. Thomas Christians, whose origins predate European contact with India by many centuries. Originally part of the territory of the Persian Church of the East, modern St. Thomas Christians have splintered into numerous groups with varied affiliations, in part due to the trauma of contact with Portuguese Catholicism. But through it all they maintain an indigenous Christian identity which is distinct from any colonial imprint.
Second, large numbers of India’s Christians are converts from Dalit populations, or, tribal peoples in the Northeast who are racially and culturally distinct from other South Asians. The framing in the piece is that South Asian Christianity has to bear the cross of colonialism, but a good argument can be made that for Dalit converts and tribal groups in the Northeast Christianity is the vehicle for resistance to oppression, assimilation, and colonialism on the part of the dominant South Asian cultural matrix.
This is not to say that the piece does not speak to a real dynamic. North American white evangelical Protestantism is inordinately freighted with racialized baggage. And it is easy to reduce into the Manichaean framework of postcolonial theory, where whites are the sole agents of action in the world. But to the generality, Indian Christianity has many disparate threads, and this sort of reduction is misleading.
The creation of Pakistan was a culmination of the ‘Indian Muslim National Project’ that was started by Muslim Elites primarily based in UP. It was bound to be a country where religion took center stage in the political arena. Led by a charismatic, populist British lawyer, All India Muslim League was a hotchpotch of landed gentry and titled aristocracy. The Second World War paved the way for an early exit by the British and handed a historic chance to Indian leaders to decide their destiny. It is difficult to predict if a ‘United India’ would have survived for some time in the absence of British interlocutors since fratricide and ethnic cleansing in Potohar had started much before the actual partition. The Muslim Elite (Ashraf) that founded Pakistan decided that the country would be an ideological state, the ideology was chosen to be Islam. Not because the elite overwhelmingly consisted of Islamists (with a few exceptions) but because religion is an easy way to manipulate people. The Khilafat movement had provided a glimpse of what mixing religion and politics could achieve and Muslim Leaguers were well-aware of its power, which is why they used the ‘Islam in Danger’ card during the 1945 election.
The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic (I don’t think pork is superior to chicken, but that’s a matter of taste).
That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:
In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.
Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background, a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.
Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined. She said I’m not supposed to eat pork products and not to do it again.
In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.
The aspect that people like Khan are not emphasizing when they talk about violence having nothing to do with Islam is that most people are not Muslims, and most people (in the West) do not know Muslims in their personal life. So terrorist acts are quite salient as a representation of the religion when that’s the only time it comes to mind in a visceral sense.
This may not be fair to practitioners, but this is how human cognition works. As an analogy, there is a lot of diversity and range of experience for what it means to be an evangelical white Protestant. But for many young secular liberals the salient aspect of this religious movement is its attitude toward abortion and gays. All the charitable giving, or the incredible personal experience of redemption and reform of white evangelical Protestants, is not relevant in a broader social context to most people because these are two policy positions which are salient and distinctive.
Obviously for most Muslims their religion pervades their life, and most of their associations with the religion have to do with family and community. But non-Muslims are not generally part of this world, so it is not a major element of their perception of the religion in a concrete sense. So one strategy for disassociating Islam and violence would be further integration, so that more and more non-Muslims can experience the whole range of the religion. And yet even here it isn’t as if Muslim experiences are distinctive from other religions.
This does not address the elephant in room: Islam today as a religious civilization is in ferment and change, and a non-trivial element does engage in violent habitually, against other Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
Consider the lives of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. The majority of Pakistanis would not condone attacks upon these communities, but a motivated minority of the Muslim majority are clearly targeting this two groups for persecution. From the perspective of non-Muslims in Pakistan it is the actions of the minority who are violent toward them that really matters, because their lives are on the line.
There are so simple answers here. Though in the public realm stylized simplicity dominates. That too is a human cognitive bias….
Back in 1992, Fukuyama wrote his (much maligned, frequently misunderstood) book about the End of History and had this to say:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
People jumped on Fukuyama for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t remember any broad feeling that the Western liberal project had failed. Its most visible Western critics at that time tended to be postmarxists and postmodernists, whose entire existence (from their university appointments to every detail of their lives) was itself an appendage of Western liberal democracy and had no meaning or safe existence outside of that system; and whose real-life ability to bring down Western liberalism was insignificant (i.e., if and when it falls, it will not fall to these clowns).
Another kind of opposition came from the “Confucian authoritarians” (or postmarxist fascists, or whatever you want to call them) in China (and in smal but influential exemplars, like Singapore). But while these groups had power and economic success, they had no great legitimizing ideology. They are may appear to be winning as long as they provide more and more goods to more and more of their people. But even while they do so, these same people are watching “Friends”, picking up liberal memes and dreaming of making Shanghai “better than Manhattan”. It is hard to them as a coherent alternative ideology. It was far more common (even WITHIN those systems) to think of them as authoritarian way stations on the long winding road to Western style “mature” liberal democracy and capitalism.
Some Right-wing opposition did come from people who rejected Western liberalism more deeply on religious or cultural-nationalist grounds. But currents like Great Russian Fascism or scattered illiberal Western ideologies (from the “almost inside the Overton Window” Pat Buchanan to Christian identity folks and a few hundred actual fascists) tended to be fringe affairs, or at least they were treated as such by most public intellectuals and the media. Triumphant liberal ideology had internal divisions and weaknesses (including the above-mentioned defection of many university trained intellectuals to postmodern/postcolonial/critical theory crap) and lacunae, but apparently, no serious competitor; The way of thinking that puts humanity, rationality, freedom and the free individual at the center of the world; and which includes memes (not necessarily unique to it, not necessarily derived from first principles, but aggregating in a recognizable meme-complex) like legal equality, secularism, democracy and human rights, was so dominant, it was taken for granted. These were the legitimizing ideas that all modern states at least paid lip service to. Democratic socialism is just a variant of this dominant post-enlightenment meme complex; even Marxist socialism is a variant of the same complex (Marxist revolutionaries, for example, idealized the same memes of equality, liberty and rights, but claimed that mainstream liberal Democracy failed to match its ideals and was a sham, a betrayal of these very ideals, and so on).
The place where this whole meme-complex really hit a solid rock was in the Islamic world. It was not immediately apparent that this was so. Many Western post-enlightenment ideals were popular among the Westernized intellectuals of the postcolonial Muslim world. But the grip (and even the personal commitment) of these intellectuals was shallow. This was not easily visible to liberal contemporaries (and of course, to Muslim liberals themselves; it is doubtful whether someone like Jinnah ever really understood the illiberal nature of his demand for Pakistan for example). The difference between Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals,whether in the third world or the first, if it was noticed at all, was seen as one of degree; i.e. Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals both had older loyalties, ideas and identities that belied their liberal ideals, and any apparent difference was a difference of degree…but as it is easier to see now, the difference of degree was always in the same direction, and in fact, it was significant enough that it could be described as a qualitative difference; not just a quantitative one. But this was not the common intellectual view (and exceptions like Samuel Huntington just proved the rule, with their “problematic” status in mainstream discourse)
THIS challenge in fact proved most difficult for Western liberalism to process; the fact that large numbers (probably clear majorities) of Muslims simply did not accept the most fundamental assumptions of the post-enlightenment Western liberal worldview was hard to see because it was so hard to imagine. This was such an alien thought (especially to those on the Left side of the liberal spectrum) that it was repeatedly obfuscated under other categories (“poverty” , “colonialism”, etc). It was not seen because it seemed to undermine the universal validity of the whole liberal project. Better to not see it…But it continued to be inconveniently resistant to liberalism… And as events and examples multiplied, they evoked rethinking in other groups. Ultimately, the emperor started looking ragged, if not completely naked.
One striking problem, for example, was the resistance of Muslim populations to joining the mainstream in countries they migrated to. SOME resistance to assimilation is certainly not unique and has been exhibited by many groups of immigrants, but it does seem that Muslim resistance remains greater than that exhibited by contemporary Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist migrants. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but when the same thing happens again and again, people start looking for explanations. Unfortunately, not necessarily for good explanations..).
Anyway, the point is that as Muslim resistance refused to go away, all the other alternatives to late-Western liberalism (many of them much stronger in material terms than any Muslim country or party) like Great Russian Nationalism and its Orthodox Christian backstop, Chinese nationalism with Confucian and fascist characteristics, nascent Japanese nationalism, Hardcore Hindutva in India; all of them became stronger because Islam had already wedged the door open and thrown open the possibility that the liberal project itself may be incoherent; may be hollow at the core; may not map to the real world; and may even be dangerous to non-Muslim groups who try to stick to it..
In short, here is the thesis question for the day:
If and when modern humanism and liberalism (broadly defined) crashes and burns (who knows, it may not), will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?
Is Islam the kid who asked about the emperor’s clothes with such naive determination and clarity, and such stubborn unwillingness to accept “the facts”.. that it opened the way to the future? (which looks suspiciously like the illiberal past)..
Inquiring minds want to know.
(100s of nuances are left unexplored in this very tentative and very over-simplified post. Argument and events may clarfiy).
PostScript 1: One quick note: I used the “emperor’s new clothes” analogy deliberately. The point is not that some extremely powerful force called Islam single-handedly sabotaged the late-Westsern liberal order all by itself; or that free-market capitalism and Western democracy was about to put a chicken in every pot if Islam had not resisted… The point is that the system may have been threatened by failure because of its internal contradictions and its own limitationsanyway (as a friend put it: “just to be clear liberal order is broken because it doesnt take cognizance of the fact that humanity is broken“. Maybe, maybe not) but whatever deficiencies existed WITHIN liberalism, Islam forced them into the open…and it did so in such a way that it put the whole project in doubt in OTHER minds as well, leading to a vicious cycle of internal doubt, further decay, bad solutions, more doubt, more decay..
And I take it for granted that every order has defects, but not all possible histories lead to the defects being exposed and the system crashing down. In a way, civilization is about the “soft landing” of various defects; their quiet or not-so-quiet removal and replacement while faith in the overall system still holds.. And so on… The failure to “account for Islam” (for what Shadi Hamid may call “Islamic exceptionalism”) exposed the liberal order to other critics and other doubts. These doubts can reinforce each other, there can be self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitable conflict and violence..until Humpty Dumpty has a great fall.
I still hope this is not the case. That we will have a soft landing, not another world war and an age of revolutions. Because if the system falls apart, it will not be pretty; the interlude will be painful and nasty and brutish and not so short. Still, the fact is, it may fall; history is not over.
I also want to point out that I do not share the Islamists own optimism about their coming triumph. A great reordering and a general war may be here. But if it is, it is likely it will be nasty and violent and most of the dead will be Muslims. Maybe there will even be a “scramble for Africa”, as more capable powers divide up the Middle East. The great Sunni hopes (Pakistan, Turkey, Saudia) all seem shaky and none of them may be in a position to establish order if the empire falls. In short, the collapse of the neo-liberal world order will have its winners and losers, but too many Muslims may end up as losers.
Of course, I could be wrong. I hope I am. We will see.
Postscript 2: MANY people have raised the objection that Islam is really not that strong a force in the world, cannot defeat the West, etc. My second attempt at clarification follows:
That was not my point at all. As I tried to explain in the postscript, my thesis is not that Islam will defeat Liberalism. The thought process was more like this:
1.The weaknesses/incoherence/decay of the liberal world order are mostly internal to it. They may be simply a matter of the inevitable decay and corruption of any highly successful civilization (what may be called “catastrophic success”). Or they may be due to some blind spots in the world view, some failure to map adequately to human nature. Whatever they are, they not caused by Islam. e.g. the liberal order failed in Cambodia (as it did in many other places) without Islam playing any role, but that failure did not lead to any sudden collapse in self-confidence within the metropole, or even in widespread realization by those outside the liberal order that the emperor may be weaker than she looks)
2. But Islam/Muslims are a large enough phenomenon that their failure to line up and join the party, their almost naive refusal to accept the brutal facts (that they are weak, that the liberal order is very mighty, that the washing machines and iphones come from the modern world and everyone wants those, so how could large populations possibly consciously opt for alternatives that do not prioritize washing machines?) is harder to sweep under the rug. They are not killing the liberal order (at least not yet, probably never), they are making its blind spots visible to many others who can do more serious damage. They are creating doubt in the minds of the citizenry, but even more so, in the minds of the clerisy itself. Of course, the clerisy tries/tends to ignore or obfuscate the problem. “It is about poverty”. “It is a reaction to microaggressions”. “It is a revolt against imperialism or colonialism”. And so on. As it is, all these explanations (except maybe the microaggressions crap) have some truth to them. But not enough truth. Something else is also going on. It may be that human beings are not the convenience-maximizing homo economicus we assumed. Or they are not naturally egalitarian when it come to gender. Or whatever..the particular doubts engendered vary from person to person and group to group.. But the recurrent eruptions of events that do not compute undermines confidence in the software.
3. As the doubts spread, they lead to a search for alternative software. “Maybe the racists were right”. “Maybe the religious revivalists were right”. “Maybe the cultural nationalists were right”. Maybe even that ignorant conman from Queens is right.. Whatever, the point is, the liberal order is losing the confidence of its own people. This can become a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
By the way, the alternatives being considered are NOT necessarily correct. That is part of the point. The liberal order could fail, not because its failure was inevitable or because its enemies are better, but because it lost asabiya, coherence, confidence, public support, shared delusion. Something like that.
4. Future historians look back at WW3 (I am just making this up, it may not be WW3, it may just be a lot of decentralized violence and decay, whatever, let your imagination run wild) Anyway, these imaginary future historians look back the fall of the Western enlightenment project, and one of them says “hey, you know, I think Islam was the rock on which this ship floundered. Not militarily or economically defeated by Islam, but exposed by Islam. Shown to be naked.
5. Finally, I remain convinced that this is not the end. It is just another turn of the spiral. The enlightenment will be back. Ideologies not centered on man, on this world, on rationality, on empiricism, will not take over the world. But the mess of 2032 will be a topic of study. And the role of Islam in undermining confidence in the first matrix will be a topic of study.
6. This is supposed to be a kind of thought experiment. To be put out there to get feedback. To start a debate. To learn something. I hope. Not as the literal true description of the coming mess of 2032 and its aftermath. More like a tiny effort to figure out what is going on, as our honorable President likes to say. 😊