Originally published in the Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (November 2017), Indiana University Press
by Hasan Azad
Since digitality emerges from a Western, Eurocentric weltanschauung, it follows that the digital sphere tacitly rejects Islam and Muslims, where Islam and Muslims are the archetypal Other of the West. Digitality is a continuation of Orientalism, or a Eurocentric power/knowledge project of (continued) global domination. Given Eurocentrism’s inherent racism, given digitality’s omnipresence, and given that Islamophobia is the paradigmatic example of racism, it is inevitable that there will be more and more anti-Islamic/anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the world. This essay is an examination of the ways in which politics in the digital age are reconfigured to fit specific parameters preordained by the digital sphere, and, concurrently, ideas around Islam and Muslimness—whether according to the wider social (media) landscape or by Muslim actors themselves—are also significantly re-shaped by digitality. Digital Islam is disrupting traditional ulematic authority in ways never seen before. This is because authority/knowledge within the interactive spaces of Web 2.0 is dissected, reconfigured and reassembled as another kind of knowledge. Digitality is challenging various branches of Islam (whether Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi, or what have you), when it comes to their authority, not least because traditional Islamic authorities have to now—consciously and unconsciously— comport themselves and their message to the logic of digitality.
Since digitality—which I define as a coherent mode of being and thinking in the world that emerges as a result of our living and being through digital media and technologies—emerges from a Western, Eurocentric weltanschauung (Silicon Valley is, of course, the major progenitor of digital technologies, and is itself dominated by Eurocentric assumptions around knowledge, what it means to be human, and how the West relates to the rest of the world), it follows that the digital sphere tacitly rejects Islam and Muslims, where Islam and Muslims are the archetypal Other of the West.(1)
Digitality is the West writ large, and, as such, it is a continuation of the West’s neo-colonial penetration of the rest of the world. It is, therefore, inseparable from the West’s Orientalist machinations, which are conscious and unconscious. This point builds on Wael Hallaq’s Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowedge(2), in which Hallaq argues that “in modernity, Orientalism, like power, is everywhere.” “‘Orientalism’ can be said to pervade nearly all academic fields, making such disciplines as philosophy and engineering no different, in their knowledge structure, from Orientalism itself, as conventionally understood.”(3) Digitality, for me, is a continuation of Orientalism, or a Eurocentric power/ knowledge project of (continued) global domination. Given Eurocentrism’s inherent racism, given digitality’s omnipresence, and given that Islamophobia is the paradigmatic example of racism, it is inevitable that there will be more and more anti-Islamic/anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the world.
What all of this means as far as how Muslims and Islam are conceived by the wider social (media) landscape(4), as well as the parameters and contents of how Muslims are to conceive of themselves and their religion, they are significantly (re)shaped by the logics of digitality. For example, the idea of religious authority in Islam is being radically reconfigured. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen has pointed out, as I discuss in greater detail below, the digital domain breaks up knowledge and reconstitutes it in such a way that we lose the original “packaging” such that new possibilities open up. Although Sassen does not mention this next point explicitly, this repackaging of knowledge—or anything that is digitized—is due to the way in which digitization works. It breaks all information up into tiny packets which can be transmitted across the net and then reassembled at the other end. These packets are the metaphor for the way in which the internet works. If anything and everything can be spliced-up, this means that everything and anything is reducible to anything and everything else, because packets in and of themselves have no greater meaning, and this allows for putting random and unrelated packets together willy-nilly. The net result, therefore, is that all aspects of human life are manipulable, replaceable, and substitutable.
I specifically look at an example in 2014 when Tariq Ramadan announced online he would not be attending that year’s ISNA and RIS conferences (the two largest Islamic conferences in the US and Canada respectively) due to the tacit approval by senior leaders of the two organizations of oppressive regimes in the Middle East and their lack of criticism of the US for its support of such regimes. Examining Ramadan’s critique of ISNA and RIS, which caused a considerable amount of consternation and self-reflection amongst Muslims in North America, I argue that Ramadan, in his critiquing of influential traditional Islamic authorities, was/is reconfiguring Islamic authority through digitality (all these conversations occurred online).
Without going into further detail about Ramadan here, I would like to mention the phenomenon of what many Muslim scholars refer to as “Shaykh Google.” These Muslim scholars complain that all too often Muslim masses—the awam—who are not trained in the requisite Islamic sciences and therefore have little-to-no background knowledge to tell the difference between ideas—or, more commonly, within the Islamic context, fatwas—that are true and those that are false—resort to Googling ideas on various issues. This phenomenon, on the one hand, may be said to lead to a certain degree of leveling, or democratization of Islamic authority. But, as with the widespread problem of fake news, where anyone and everyone can write and opine on issues as they see fit and without any regulation, the problem of “Shaykh Google” is that it churns up ideas and fatwas pertaining to Islam and Muslimness that are all too often fake, and/or harmful. On the other end of the spectrum there is the phenomenon within Muslim circles of a radical reduction of Islam and Muslimess to memes. To give you an example I recently came across: “Atheism: 1+1+1 = 0 / Christianity: 1+1+1 = 1 / These people need some math lessons!” Of course a simple retort to such a meme could be “Islam: ∞ = 1.” The point, therefore, is that complex socio-religious phenomena cannot be reduced to memes (a paradigmatic example of communication in the digital world), except that they strip them to their most basic elements, which is the logic of fundamentalisms of all stripes, not to mention ultra-nationalisms and, indeed, fascism.
Many Muslim scholars and Islamic institutions have been responding to the phenomenon of “Shaykh Google,” and digitality as such, by creating significant online presences. Indeed, pretty much any Muslim scholar of note conducts a significant portion of his (they are mostly male) da’wa online. What this means, however, is that such scholars are forced to comport their ideas about Islam and Muslimness according to the dictates of digitality.
In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr describes how the typewriter affected Nietzsche’s writing style (after Nietzsche took to typing as opposed to writing longhand due to his failing eyesight), quoting the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler who notes that Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”(5) As with any medium and mode of thinking and being, digitality has its own logic and coherence, which informs the “message” rather than the other way around, as Marshall McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message.” In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,(6) Neil Postman observes the radical and unpredictable ways in which new technologies reconfigure what it means to be human and how we interact with each other. From the other end of the spectrum, Nicholas Negroponte writes in Being Digital: “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.”(7) Traditional Islamic authorities have to therefore, compete—whether consciously or unconsciously—with the assumptions and logics of digitality as far as their presentation/s of Islam and Muslimness. Some of the features of digitality are: (1) “presentism,” which, according to Douglas Rushkoff, is an ever elusive state of being always and forever at the peak of a digital world of beingness that is endlessly unfolding, struck as we all are by “present shock,” unable to formulate and follow with any depth serious narratives;(8) (2) a tendency towards in-coherence and fragmentation; and (3) assumptions about what it means to be human, which are all increasingly incompatible with older models.
I discuss further in this essay how Muslims and Islam are always already cast as needing reform in accordance with the wider social/media landscape. As I argue in my essay “Woolwich Terror, Surveillance, and the (Im)Possibility of Islamic Reform,” “Muslims across the board have internalized the Western discourse of the need to reform as a type of self-surveillance and as a means of living and being in the world.”(9) What I argue additionally in this essay is that self-surveillance—and comporting oneself to Western modes of being and thinking—is significantly the product of digitality.
Thus, the very idea of Islam and Muslimness in the digital age must be seen through a digitally-construed world, whereby it is not so much that it is impossible to be Muslim in the digital era, but that Islam and Muslimness have to be repackaged in a way that is appropriate for the medium. (I argue that such repackaging is, in fact, part and parcel of a wider Muslim dialectic between extremism and moderate Islam, whereby Muslims, consciously and unconsciously, comport themselves within parameters set for them by the West). Concurrently (and relatedly), the idea of politics must also pass through digitality, such that politics in the old sense of the word—which depends on informed citizenries—is no longer possible. What follows, therefore, is an examination of the ways in which politics in the digital age are reconfigured to fit specific parameters, preordained by digitality, and, concomitantly, ideas around Islam and Muslimness—whether according to the wider social/media landscape or by Muslim actors themselves—are also significantly re-shaped by digitality.
Web 2.0(X), Digitality, Politics 2.0(X)
In his important exposé of digital media and marketing, Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday writes:
Blogs are vehicles from which mass media reporters. . . discover and borrow the news. This hidden cycle gives birth to the memes that become our cultural references, the budding stars who become our celebrities, the thinkers who become our gurus, and the news that becomes our news.(10)
The emergence of Web 2.0—the shift from the static webpages of Web 1.0 to dynamic or user-generated content and the growth of social media—has meant an unprecedented amount of user-generated content. However, the notion that such “freedom of information” spells “freedom of the people” is utopian. As Evgeny Morozov argues in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, (11) the net result of internet freedom is greater authoritarian control as people, awash with bread and circus—with mindless chatter, and entertainment, and sex on the tap—are wholly prone to manipulation.
Parallel with the emergence of Web 2.0 there is the emergence of what I call Web 2.0(X), which is characterized by deep structural surveillance and social engineering being conducted by the NSA and social media companies such as Facebook.(12) Web 2.0(X) has been playing a significant role in deciding for us both what we get to see on (what used to be called) the worldwide web, and how we see it. Anyone who studies the history of media/propaganda(13) has to take into account the massive role played by media outlets in manufacturing consent, to use Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s powerful turn of phrase.(14)
Once again, it’s important to realize that digital technologies have not had an overall democratizing effect on the way knowledge is produced and consumed. Current attempts across the world by governments to curb internet freedom speak precisely to this problem.(15) Indeed, digitality allows for the manipulation of people in rather direct ways. The Trump presidential election campaign hired the same company used by the Brexit campaign, Cambridge Analytica, which used Big Data and social media platforms such as Facebook to manipulate voters.(16)
The question on the liberal left’s collective mind since Trump’s election to the Office of the 45th President of the United States—but not on the mind of right-wing Republicans, for whom, as represented by the popular broadcaster Alex Jones and his millions of listeners, Trump’s victory is nothing short of an act of God and a sign of the imminence of Christ’s return(17)—has been “How? How did Trump get elected?” There is, of course, a certain theory put forward: Russians interfered in the elections through a massive disinformation or trolling campaign “through the cyber-theft of private data, the placement of propaganda against particular candidates, and an overall effort to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”(18)
Six years prior to Trump’s presidential victory, Noam Chomsky predicted that if a charismatic man ran for president—on a platform of making illegal immigrants and Blacks the enemy, while also turning white males into a persecuted minority—he would sweep the elections.(19) A key element that Chomsky’s astute prediction left out was the Muslim question. Muslims—that is, the demonization of Muslims—have been a significant part of Trump’s rise to power, just as it was a key element in Brexit earlier in 2016. I had predicted in January 2016 that Trump would win the US presidential election based on his anti-Muslim platform.(20)
Ralph Schroeder argues in Social Theory After the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization(21) that digitality has radically transformed society in the last twenty-five years—from how people interact with one another to how they conceive of themselves, from how knowledge is produced and consumed to affecting the extent to which we can learn in the first place, from the ways in which people participate in the political process to the very reconfiguration of the political landscape. On the last point, Schroeder argues that Brexit and Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential elections were in fact made possible by the internet.
The politics that emerges as a result of Web 2.0(X) may, therefore, be called Politics 2.0(X), where Politics 2.0(X) is not only actively shaped by powerbrokers behind Web 2.0(X), it is also characterized by a digital media political landscape where political news stories vie with other forms of entertainment for viewers’ attention. This role of “the spectacle” in fashioning today’s political landscape is summed-up by a Wisecrack video:
According to Guy Debord, this is emblematic of a larger problem. Debord’s The Society of Spectacle(22) warns of a culture driven entirely by image, where people are more concerned with how they are perceived than how they actually are. And if we are primed to love spectacle, then why not go with the most spectacular [political] candidate? The thing that sells best in the spectacle driven society is the distraction.(23)
In other words, the nature of the spectacle—and we are all embroiled in the spectacle, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not—is such, and it has such hegemonic power, that it shapes what we do or do not do in our everyday lives, so much so that the ways in which people perform Islam and Muslimness is significantly shaped by the idea of the spectacle. In “Woolwich Terror, Surveillance, and the (Im)Possibility of Islamic Reform,” I argue that Muslims comport themselves—whether physically, sartorially, ideologically, or what have you—in relation to dominant Western modes of being and thinking.(24) To continue this line of thinking, it is my contention that Muslims always already conform themselves—whether consciously or unconsciously—to the dominant modes of being mediated to them through digitality, whose omnipresence, and whose Western normative modes of being and thinking, cannot but influence not only Muslims but people of all types and religious and political persuasions.
Surface has won over substance. Emotionalism has won over facts and discussion.
Tariq Ramadan and the (Re)Configuration of Islamic Authority on Web 2.0
Tariq Ramadan’s 2014 article “Why I will not attend the ISNA and RIS conferences”(25) caused a considerable amount of consternation within North American Muslim circles. Ramadan wrote that he would not attend the ISNA and RIS conferences in 2014—the two largest Islamic conferences in North America—because of the silence of ISNA’s leadership before unconscionable US foreign and domestic policies, as well as because of an RIS leadership that supports dictators in the Middle East.
In his piece Ramadan mentioned that year’s White House iftar (Trump of course no longer holds the White House iftar), where Obama spoke of “Israel’s [. . .] right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas,”(26) while Muslim leaders attending the iftar remained silent. Ramadan contended that ISNA and RIS are run by supposedly Sufi-inspired men who say “Yes sir!” to power, whether in the US or in the Middle East. With regard to the Middle East, Ramadan was immediately referencing Habib Ali al-Jifri— an influential Islamic scholar based in Abu Dhabi, with 6 million followers on Facebook—and his “prayer of tawfiq” for Egyptian president Sisi.(27) Discussions on Tariq Ramadan’s piece occurred in a few Listservs and Facebook discussion groups, falling on the sides of “for” and “against,” as well as trying to see “both sides of the argument.” It is particularly interesting to examine how Islamic authority itself is configured and reconfigured in these discussions. Middle East and Islamic Studies Graduate Students (MEISGS) is a Listserv populated by Muslim academics at various levels in their careers, from full professors to graduate students. An illuminating thread of the discussion emerged from an implicit positionality whereby academics see themselves as set apart from and possessing greater intellectual tools than traditional ‘ulema.
One of the discussants on MEISGS—Mohammad Fadel, who is associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto—described al-Jifri’s position as a rather typical, premodern juristic position. Fadel, thus placed al-Jifri in the position of a premodern subject. This in itself is, of course, a significant move, not least because this automatically places Fadel in the position of modern subject, and, as such, as being (more) in line with the West, while al-Jifri is ipso facto less so. All of this locates the Muslim subject—both Fadel and al-Jifri—within the politics of Islamophobia, as David Tyrer argues,(28) as far as the dialectic of extremist and moderate, whereby the Muslim subject is always seeking to argue that she/he is more or less moderate (in line with the West), or extreme (opposed to the West).
Sociologist Saskia Sassen points out how knowledge within the digital realm is reconstituted and reassembled as another kind of knowledge: “[T]he body of knowledge gets distributed and spliced-up in different ways so that you lose the packaging, and in losing that packaging all sorts of possibilities open up.”(29) What I want to draw attention to is the way in which al-Jifri and his authority (where authority and power are co-constitutive of the power/knowledge dyad) was reconfigured, dissected, and re-appropriated such that the discussants on MEISGS assume their own, individual domains of authority. This is part and parcel of the formation of the modern (Muslim) self, and how she appropriates for herself interpretive right and authority, which is in contrast to the ijazas (licenses to teach) circulated within traditional Islamic circles.
For Ramadan, being authentically Islamic entails critical voices among Muslims living in the West who are able to express their opinions in a manner, and with a freedom, that is denied Muslims in other parts of the world. For Ramadan, such critical voices call to and are guided by the values of Islam. Such analyses show us the complexity with which the “social digital ecology” (Sassen) takes on its shape, formation, and growth within the interactive spaces of Web 2.0. Islamic authority/knowledge is dissected, reconfigured, and reassembled. In the face of such complexity Sassen argues crucially for “recurrence as a critical element for recapturing a sense of the complex system.” So what is recurring in these examples?
There is the issue of what is considered “correctly Islamic.” In a subsequent interview Ramadan spoke of the necessity of being courageous at the same time as being wise.(30) Ramadan was responding to Sherman Jackson and his letter urging Ramadan to reconsider his decision not to participate at ISNA, because of the damage it would do to the “unity” of the American Muslim community. While Jackson applauded Ramadan’s courage, he suggested it would be wiser for Ramadan to reconsider his decision not to attend ISNA. Ramadan retorted that “his absence would certainly be the most powerful speech [he] has ever given at ISNA,” and that the importance of courage and wisdom in the face of injustices, no matter where they are suffered, is part and parcel of a correct Islamic ethos.
The “critical element” (to benefit from Sassen) that is recurring in all of the above is a reconfigured, reconstituted, and reassembled notion of Islamic authority, of knowledge, of the performativity of Islamic knowledge, and of one’s “Islamic” credentials. Sassen remarks that “in informalizing knowledge [we] are also reassembling.” Digitality informalizes and reassembles Islamic knowledge and authority.
All this being said, the re-shaping of Islamic discourse—by Muslims— is not separable from the wider media-political environment within which we all—whether Muslim or otherwise—live and breathe. As Ryan Holiday argues, as mentioned earlier, digital media shape the offline world in ways that we do not initially realize. Muslims are always seeking to fashion themselves in response to Western modes of being and thinking (meaning, they necessarily contain significant aspects of Western paradigms),(31) and digitality is creating a hegemonic mode of being whose logic is inescapable.
Related to all this, it is not insignificant that new kinds of Islamic authority are emerging through the academy that has its own mode of thinking and being, which, as Wael Hallaq argues in Restating Orientalism, is mired in Orientalism. As such, the very projects of people such as Ramadan and others—whether or not they are directly connected with the academy—to a lesser or greater degree conform to Western paradigms.
“Humanity” and the End of Political Correctness
In a Big Think video—titled “How Political Correctness Actually Elected Donald Trump”(32)—Slavoj Žižek contends that political correctness does not work when it is used as a means of regulating what people are allowed to say or not to say at a time when public mores (“the unwritten rules”) have broken down. An extreme example of this is what Žižek calls “administration political correctness,” where “waterboarding” was described by former US President George W. Bush as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”(33) On the other hand, there is a type of political correctness that is emphasized by what Žižek calls the “old Cold War establishment,” as represented by Hillary Clinton (given that people such as Paul Wolfowitz spoke in her favor). For Žižek, the old guard— with its entrenched history of “manufacturing consent,” who “spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class [as Chris Hedges puts it]”(34)—had to give way to “one moment of truth. . .the traditional machine of manufacturing consent no longer works.”(35)
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr(36) examines how the internet is re-shaping our brains, and also that people are unable to follow long discussions on the web. Similarly, I think digitality is responsible for rendering incomprehensible more nuanced policies and arguments as far as the complexity of national identity and belonging. And while media/ propaganda has arguably always tended towards simplification, which has always tended towards binary propositions, which has always tended towards populism, digitality is now taking those tendencies to their logical extremes.
The rise of the far-right in Europe and America is not coincidental as far as the rise of digitality. Digitality necessitates opinions that are more fanciful than they are true, for the fundamental reason that the economy of the digital realm depends on clickable content which needs to be more and more slanted towards falsehood. Truth in the digital sphere is less click-worthy. As Ryan Holiday points out, the nature of print newspapers with their limited space was such that by featuring someone in their daily edition they were doing that person a favor. In the digital domain, where space is unlimited and the key concern is page views, people providing the news item/s are doing the blog a favor. Within this metric, as Holiday points out further, emotion is always the deciding factor as far as “clickability.” And the emotion that attracts the most attention is anger, which often goes hand in hand with fear.
Trump’s election campaign was rooted significantly in fostering anger and fear vis-à-vis the Other—Mexicans, Muslims, liberals selling out the country to an Islamic agenda. It’s not coincidental that Trump’s platform was heavily slanted against Islam and Muslims. A report published by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and UC Berkeley in 2016 reveals that 200 million dollars were provided to 33 Islamophobic groups nationwide to fund what Nathan Lean calls the Islamophobia industry.(37)
In this connection here are a few observations: Digitality is Eurocentric, it is partial to whites and males,(38) and it is therefore—at its core—Islamophobic.(39) This is not really that large a claim to make when we observe that modern Western civilization emerges to a significant degree out of a demonization of Islam and Muslims. Added to that we should consider that the provenance of digitality is a West rooted in assumptions about its own superiority, and, if anything, it is re-doubling its efforts in asserting its identity in opposition to “the rest” of the world, most notably “the Muslim world.”
It is for this reason that the far-right both in the US and in Europe has made it a major rallying cry to be hostile towards Islam and Muslims, arguing that there is a conspiracy to Islamize the West which the left has been colluding in by refusing to criticize Islam and Muslims. As a result of this characterization of Islam and Muslims—as being harbingers of all that is anti-human, from jihad, to depriving women of their rights, to sharia, and terrorism—the current political climate in Europe and in the US is increasingly intolerant, and is showing in stark terms the limits of Western democracy. As a final observation, Talal Asad examines the genealogy of the idea of “humanity”—its Christian roots, and how it was originally constructed as a means of demarcating between people, as opposed to including everyone.(40) In the age of digitality Muslims are increasingly marginalized. As an indicator—and, being the world’s largest platform for people to socialize and share news stories Facebook is a barometer of some measure—Muslims have been complaining for some years that terrorist attacks in Muslim countries do not provoke the creation of Facebook “filters” as the “we are all Paris” filter following the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, for example, and other similar filters. The reason for this is a simple one. Digitality is geared towards the creation of people who belong to “humanity” as opposed to those who do not.
And Muslims—as far as digitality writ large—are considered less and less human.
1. Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian idealism is universalistic in its scope. This is in keeping with the universalism that characterizes secular liberal ideals, and which are assumed to constitute the standard against which the rest of the world’s modes of being and thinking are measured. Over the decades, Talal Asad has sought to uncover the assumptions that go into making Western ideals, notions such as “secularism,” “religion,” “agency,” “humanitarianism,” to name a few. It is my contention, therefore, that digitality emerges genealogically from the same epistemological sources, and, as such, its conscious and unconscious motives are very similar: to extend a Eurocentric, hegemonic discourse about what it means to be human throughout the rest of the world.
2. Wael Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowedge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018 [forthcoming]).
3. Wael Hallaq, “Orientalism After Edward Said,” TRTWorld, January 20, 2018, (accessed January 22, 2018) https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/orientalism-after-edward-said-14254
4. Society today is not only inconceivable without reference to social media, its very parameters and content—its limits and topics of discussion—are reconfigured through the social media landscapes (whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and so on).
5. Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August 2008 https:// www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
6. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
7. Nicholas P. Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 4.
8. Douglas Rushkoff argues brilliantly in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (New York, NY: Current, 2014) that as a result of the dissonance between our digital selves—which is endlessly updating itself and being re-imagined—and our analog bodies, we have been thrown into a new state of anxiety: present shock.
9. Hasan Azad, “Woolwich Terror, Surveillance, and the (Im)Possibility of Islamic Reform,” Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, 102.
10. Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2017), 14.
11. Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).
12. Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014); “The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering Project,” LA Review of Books, September 14, 2014, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay /manipulators-facebooks-social-engineering-project
13. The dyad media/propaganda points to the mutually constitutive relationship between media and propaganda that has been around for nearly a hundred years.
14. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manfacturing Consent: The Political Ecomony of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).
15. “Chris Hedges, David North Discuss How to Defend Internet Freedom,” Truthdig, January 16, 2018 https://www.truthdig.com/videos/watch-chris-hedges-david-north-discuss -defend-internet-freedom/ 16. “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, January 28, 2017. http://motherboard.vice.com/read /big-data-cambridge-analytica-brexit-trump
17. “Alex Jones prayerfully reflects on the victory of President Trump,” November 9, 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVp7XTsBXx4
18. Angie Frobnic Holan, “2017 Lie of the Year: Russian election interference is a ‘made-up story’,” Politifact, December 12, 2017 http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/essay/2017 /dec/12/2017-lie-year-russian-election-interference-made-s/
19. Chris Hedges, “Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This,” Truthdig, April 19, 2010. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/noam_chomsky_has_never_seen _anything_like_this_20100419
20. Hasan Azad, “Islam & the World’s Future - MLK memorial lecture,” January 15, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1eybOWe6hI
21. Ralph Schroeder, Social Theory After the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization (London: UCL Press, 2018 [forthcoming]).
22. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Kalamazoo, MI: Black & Red Books, 1967).
23. “Is Trump the END of Politics? – 8-Bit Philosophy,” Wisecrack, accessed January 2, 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlptgqP_PEA
24. Hasan Azad, “Woolwich Terror, Surveillance, and the (Im)Possibility of Islamic Reform,” 102. 25. Tariq Ramadan, “Why I will not attend the ISNA (August 2014) and RIS (December 2014) conferences,” August 10, 2014 https://tariqramadan.com/english/why-i-will-not -attend-the-isna-august-2014-and-ris-december-2014-conferences/
26. “Remarks by The President at the Annual Iftar Dinner, July 14, 2014,” The White House, July 14, 2014 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/07/14/remarks-president -annual-iftar-dinner-july-14-2014
27. “Habib Ali explains why he made dua for al-Sisi,” Ibn Percy, June 12, 2014 (accessed January 26, 2018) http://www.ibnpercy.com/habib-ali-explains-why-he-made-dua-for-al-sisi/
28. David Tyrer, The Politics of Islamophobia: Race, Power and Fantasy (London: Pluto Press, 2013).
29. Saskia Sassen, “Plenary at Theorizing the Web”, 2011 (accessed January 20, 2018) https:// vimeo.com/23044503
30. Tariq Ramadan: My Absence Would Certainly Be The Most Powerful Speech I Have Ever Given At ISNA, The Islamic Monthly, August 14, 2014 http://www.theislamicmonthly.com /tariq-ramadan-my-absence-would-certainly-be-the-most-powerful-speech-i-have-ever-given -at-isna/
31. To consider the Taoist symbol taijitu, it reveals not only the containing within the black teardrop an eye of white or within the white teardrop an eye of black, but also the black’s desire to encompass the white as its tail extends and elongates and disappears into nothingness, as does also the white.
32. “Slavoj Žižek: How Political Correctness Actually Elected Donald Trump,” https://www .youtube.com/watch?v=5bixgOtkLao
33. “CIA tactics: What is ‘enhanced interrogation’?” December 10, 2014, BBC News http:// www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11723189
34. Chris Hedges, “The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism,” Truthdig, August 8, 2016, https://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_revenge_of_the_lower _classes_and_the_rise_of_american_fascism_20160302
35. Slavoj Žižek
36. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011).
37. Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (New York: Pluto Press, 2012).
38. Sam Levin, Sexism, racism and bullying are driving people out of tech, US study finds, The Guardian, April 27, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr /27/tech-industry-sexism-racism-silicon-valley-study
39. Hasan Azad, “Racism Runs Through the Arteries and Veins of the United States,” The Islamic Monthly, February 5, 2016 http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/racism-runs-through-the-arteries-and-veins-of-the -united-states/
40. Hasan Azad, “Being Human: Islam, the West and our (shared?) Human responsibilities: and interview with Talal Asad,” The Islamic Monthly, October 20, 2015, https://www .theislamicmonthly.com/being-human-an-interview-with-talal-asad/
Originally Published in The Islamic Monthly
Hasan Azad (HA): Muslims in the West are facing a great deal of scrutiny and questioning as to their “loyalty” to the countries of their citizenship and belonging. You have argued that the greatest challenge to such rhetoric is a committed citizenship on the part of Muslims that is engaged and contributes to the welfare of the wider community. And yet, there is a prevalent narrative amongst Muslims—which seems to me to be a vestige of old narratives of “us” vs. “them”—that makes many Muslims prefer to help Muslims in other countries, than help local communities and people in need, who may or may not be Muslim: as you have noted, poverty and suffering knows no religion or creed. How can Muslims reclaim the Prophetic imperative of caring for the neighbor, over and above identitarian-pettiness, which will only exacerbate the waves of Islamophobia that Muslims are experiencing?
"Women of Islamic Studies is intended to contest the prevalence of all-male and male dominated academic domains, such as editorial boards, conference panels, publications, guest speakers, bibliographies, books reviews, etc. and provide resources to support the recognition, citation, and inclusion of women scholars in the field of Islamic Studies"
The project, "Women of Islamic Studies," spearheaded by a talented collective of powerful figures in the study of Islam is a long overdue counterbalance to the male dominate spaces of the academy. It is currently in its beginning stages and is deserving of further attention by various audience. For those wanting to learn more, please take a look at its current iteration
I finished writing The Patricians of Nishapur, my first book, in 1970. I was 30 years old and had only lived in two places: Rockford, Illinois, then the state’s second largest city with a population around 100,000, where I lived until graduating from high school, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, or more specifically Harvard University. Yet somehow I felt comfortable and confident in conjuring up the lives of the educated elite of an eleventh century Iranian city from the most niggardly of Arabic sources. It didn’t occur to me then to query my hubris.
Two decades later the thought struck me that maybe I had unconsciously populated Nishapur with versions of the educated middle class Protestant families I had come to know growing up in Rockford. I toyed with this idea from time to time over the years, but only recently have I given it serious consideration. Two things have prompted these deeper reflections.
One of the many paradoxes in the modern age is that there is an overabundance of knowledge and information available to the masses; yet, easy access to and dissemination of information has created a space for exaggerated views, simplistic analyses, and uninformed opinions to proliferate. As such, we have more knowledge available to us, yet many of us remain misinformed. With a plethora of uncritical and un-nuanced information bites easily available, a Muslim terrorist dialectic has emerged, reinforcing a narrative that Muslim men are dangerous, violent, and prone to acts of terrorism. It is not uncommon to come across this “dangerous Muslim man” archetype in Western public, political, and media discourses.
This most often occurs when radicalized Muslim individuals engage in random acts of violence, in which civilians are murdered and/or injured. When these acts of violence occur in the US, Canada, and Europe, there’s a concerted effort in the media to portray such random lone wolf acts of violence as being linked to some global Muslim terrorist infrastructure, and in doing so asserting that Islam is the root cause for these actions. However, deep and detailed analyses of the possible psychological, emotional, or social states of the perpetrators to help understand these actions, beyond terrorism inspired by Islam, is completely absent.
Hasan Azad: It seems to me that as “humanity” finds itself at the brink of a precipice, which is entirely of its own doing – the threat of complete environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction (a group of scientists published a report in June that predicts that, given the unprecedented rates at which species are becoming extinct, the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction as a result of human-made disasters) – now, more so than ever before in history, the notion of difference vis-à-vis the natural world and other groups of human beings has to be turned on its head into a recognition of a fundamental unity between all of us. What are your thoughts on this?
Talal Asad: Referring to the great achievements of the modern world – I’m going back to just after World War II – people would write about the great achievements of “European civilization.” At that time, as I remember it, everyone talked about European civilization – and even “the crisis of European civilization” that the world had gone through at the defeat of European fascism. (“European civilization,” “modern civilization,” or simply “civilization” were used interchangeably.) This was how the distinction was made between the most advanced part of “humanity” and the other parts that hadn’t reached its level. This is an old, old story, of course, one which has been retold many times, and occasionally criticized. But it also had this implication: “We are able to achieve these wonderful things and defend these wonderful values, not you.”
A friend of mine long ago used to joke whenever we were confronted with something technically sophisticated, saying, “You see how clever the white man is!” And so I’ve used that phrase quite often ever since: “You see how clever the white man is!” My point is merely that this was a common posture, a serious claim in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, and even just after World War II. The idea of European racial superiority was quite commonly associated with claims to inhabiting European civilization, which was, of course, the “highest.”
Now, over the last few decades, as the various global crises have been accumulating – climate change, the threat of nuclear war as well as the dangers of nuclear energy, the uncontrollability of the global financial system, and so on – we now hear people saying things like: “Look at what humanity has done.” Now suddenly the subject is “humanity,” whereas originally Euro-Americans had claimed: “Look at the stunning achievements of the West.” Because if you reread the earlier writings you see that everybody talked endlessly – well, perhaps not everybody but intellectuals, politicians and colonial governors – about the great achievements of European civilization, of the West. And it seemed quite reasonable to talk in these terms – even many reformers in the Third World talked that way because they too had internalized the idea that growing scientific knowledge and military prowess were signs of moral worth. My point is simply that when it comes to global disasters, then it’s all of humanity. Suddenly we hear the claim that humanity is responsible – including, no doubt, the peasants in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the urban poor!
Originally Published at #AsiaNow
I had already sat for several hours, gently sweating, as thousands of people arrived at an open-air building in Solo, Indonesia. The streets outside were full of pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, buses, and the smell of fried tofu. People pressed into the building; some took seats close to the front, while others went to the second level to rest after a long twelve-hour trek, and some stood, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the man they had come to see.
Unceremoniously, Habib Syech bin Abdul Qodir Assegaf appeared. He began to walk through the crowds of people, heading toward the front of the building. Along the way, Habib Syech passed out small amounts of cash to the children, shook some hands, and slipped through the many others reaching to touch him. He eventually made it to the front of the building and sat down, immediately stoking the incense coals prepared for his arrival. Habib Syech asked if audience members had any questions, and for the next two hours he responded to queries about banking, proper Islamic practice, and a wide range of other topics. And then, suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed.
Habib Syech reached for a microphone and began singing. He is a difficult figure to clearly define, but he typically travels around Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan to perform sholawat (sung praises about the virtues of prophet Muhammad) accompanied by 20-30 musicians. The crowd lurched forward, and several limbs became embedded in my back and side. During the question-and-answer session I had come close to dozing off, but I was now fully awake, even as the room grew intensely silent, audience members gazing at Habib Syech. Along with their gazes, they also directed camera phones in his direction. Some individuals were holding two or three recording devices to capture this 90-second performance by Habib Syech. A surprise to me during one of my first field site visits to the Habib’s building, camera phones became a constant presence at all events involving this figure.
A relevant Islamic philosophical theology should not be purely theoretical or historical. It should address intellectual problems actually faced by the general public. The main intellectual problems facing the general Muslim public, in my view, fall under two categories. On the one hand, there are the apparent and real contradictions between Islamic values and those of the globally dominant liberal culture. On the other, there are the apparent and real contradictions between postulates of Islamic theology and those of modern science. These are, of course, inseparable. They are only various aspects of the whole tension between moral and metaphysical reality according to Islam, and that according to the dominant cultural narrative. Here, however, I intend to examine the problems on the moral side of this equation. These problems present themselves to the individual Muslim at various degrees of depth and breadth, depending on how far she goes in the process of thinking through their philosophical roots and implications. The treatment of a problem, in the way of an intellectual resolution, should be proportional to the degree at which such a problem is experienced.
If the purpose of Islamic philosophical theology is, as I have proposed, to treat such problems, then the Muslim theologian in the required role of public intellectual needs to present her ideas in various manners, as appropriate to the various types of audience and their various needs. Contemporary Islamic thought cannot be allowed to remain an exclusively ‘ivory tower’ exercise, relevant only to a few intellectuals, and therefore irrelevant to most of the general public. For this reason, I propose to describe these issues, somewhat ‘phenomenologically’, in order of the depth at which they might pose themselves at different levels of reflection.
Originally published in Sacred Matters
by Hasan Azad
Do Muslims belong in the West? This is the real question behind the recent halal hysteria in Britain. This is also the question behind previous—and, no doubt, future—questions about the headscarf (hijab), about the face veil (niqab), about Muslim men, about Muslim women, about Muslims and homosexuality (which is prohibited according to Islamic law), and about Muslims and violence.
But staying with the issue of Muslims and animals—or, more specifically, how Muslims slaughter animals—the argument being made by a portion of the British media is that the halal method of slaughter (by slitting the animal’s throat while reciting an Islamic formula) is inherently inhumane, while the secular method (which involves first ‘stunning’ the animal using a bolt gun) is inherently humane. So far only Giles Fraser has pointed out that animals raised in factory farms, which supply both secular slaughterhouses as well as Islamic ones, are reared in remarkably cruel conditions. Therefore, the distinction over how the animals are killed is a relatively small, if not, indeed, hypocritical one.
I wonder whether this debate regarding the “humaneness” of secular methods of killing animals versus the “inhumaneness” of the Islamic form of slaughter draws on an essential liberal secular trope? The trope being: secularism is fundamentally humane and moral, while its Other—Islam and its practitioners—are inhumane and immoral. I ask this question because there is an increasingly loud group of voices in the West that sees Islam and Muslims as fundamentally religious and therefore the polar opposite of all that is “secular,” where the secular represents all that is modern, rational, progressive, and Western. This same group of voices, which has been gaining in energy over the past decade or so, wants to see Islam itself erased from Europe.
Erasure can be seen occurring both “externally” and “internally.” Externally, perhaps the most obvious example of erasure is the banning of the hijab from schools and the niqab from public spaces in France (debates surrounding the niqab and the hijab are also occurring in the United Kingdom, as well as much of continental Europe). The internal forms of erasure are less immediately obvious. Since the banning of the hijab from schools in France, there has been a concerted effort on the part of school teachers to insist that Muslim school girls wear shorter, more revealing skirts, while mothers who wear the hijab have been discouraged from participating in school events in the case of younger children, the claim being that their presence encroaches upon laïcité. Most recently, French Front National (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen, has announced that school cafeterias will no longer serve non-pork substitution meals to children living in towns won by FN candidates, the argument being made that it is to ensure that laïcité is protected. In Britain, there are increasing efforts at British universities to limit Muslim students from praying the communal Friday prayer with claims of upholding secularism as well as the need to curtail, and ultimately defeat, extremism being made—and the two claims are linked of course. Now there is the question of halal meat.
But I would like to take the discussion beyond the merely academic concern with the tension between “secularity” and “Islam” and back to the very real concern with animal welfare. It is my understanding, based on considerable study and deliberation, that the issue of animal welfare is central to the Islamic ethical perspective. Animal cruelty is unacceptable according to Islamic principles. The Prophet of Islam was never cruel towards animals and he categorically forbade all forms of animal cruelty. And factory farming is fundamentally cruel according to Islamic ethical principles.
Therefore, the way in which some Muslim (and non-Muslim) commentators are framing the discussion in Britain—as their “right” to eat halal meat—entirely misses the point of what really constitutes halal meat in the first place. Muslims seem to have forgotten that not only are there strict Islamic guidelines as to how animals are to be slaughtered, but also, significantly, about how they are to be raised. Animals cannot be kept in cages. They cannot be distressed. They cannot be tortured or be maimed or snatched from their mothers during their infancy. All of which are done constantly to factory-farmed animals. And the overwhelming majority of meat—whether “halal” or “secular”—comes from factory farms.
The idea “you are what you eat” was recognized as fundamentally true for the early community of Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad, as well as for Muslims following through the centuries. It is only a recent phenomenon, not more than a few decades old, that Muslims have been unthinkingly co-opted into the logic of mechanized production of all things, and not just meat, which is a logic that knows no race, religion, or gender.
Muslims need to take this latest question—and “crisis”—regarding their belonging in Britain and see it for the opportunity that it is. It is an opportunity to reconnect with the highest principles of the Islamic tradition and to help create greater awareness of a more holistic way of living that is beyond the hype and hysteria of the latest media campaign. It is an opportunity to be more deeply ethical and not simply unthinking consumers. It is an opportunity to relate to one another as human beings and towards animals as guardians and protectors and not simply opportunistic exploiters and pillagers—which is the case for the vast majority of people living in the West today.