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‘Islam, Colonialism, and Resistance’ – Zia Sardar

Zia Sardar

Interviewed by Bux Qalandar Memon (forth-coming in NP 14 – Summer 2010). 

1 – In your recent book Balti Britain you recall racist encounters that you had as a child growing up in East London.  Could you explain the operative dynamics behind the racism of your youth and how it operates today?  Has there been a change?

During my childhood racism was much more overt. It was largely about the colour of your skin. ‘To Let’ signs on houses often carried the refrain: ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. People would cross the road to avoid you when they saw you coming. I was a regular bunch bag for racist bullies and thugs and came home from school routinely battered and bruised. Initially we were all ‘blacks’; then all Asians become ‘Pakis’ and ‘Paki bashing’ became a favourite sport of racist thugs. The 1960s and 1970s, an era of recession, saw the rise of the fascist movement; and the consequent rise of several youth movements such as the Southall Youth Movement. There were two dominant kinds of racism: police and popular. Various racist murders and cases of police injustice led to a number of riots in places like Birmingham, Bradford and Brixton. 

During the late 1980s, the generic black identity label began to recede. After the Rushdie affair in 1989, racism acquired a more cultural and religious dimension. Muslims became the new scapegoat. In addition, racism based on perceptions of patriotism also emerged during this period, indicated most clearly by the famous ‘cricket test’ of Norman Tebbit. When patriotism is contrasted with the charged language of ‘immigrants’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’, minorities become easy targets as unpatriotic outsiders. Bring in the metaphors of ‘nation’ and the ‘national way of life’, based as they are on common descent, kinship ties, language, and custom, and every Black and Asian automatically becomes an alien Other. A variation of this form of racism is based on liberal secularism. Cultures and traditions that do not conform to the dictates of liberalism,  such as the rural traditions of Asian Muslims in Britain, are constructed as intrinsically and immutably hostile to the European liberal ideals and consensus – that is, as ‘alien’ par excellence. Arrogant liberals, in my opinion, tend to be as racist as the easily identifiable, extreme conservative and nationalist types. 

So I think racism in Britain has become broader and widened its parameters. Paradoxically, Britain appears to be a less racist society now than it was during my youth. But apart from religious racism against Muslims, which is openly expressed, the old-fashioned racist attitudes are expressed in more subtle, sophisticated forms – as nods and winks and paternal attitudes.

2 – In your book, Postmodernism and the Other, you outline a modern form of a similar practice where the knowledges and ways of being of the Third World are ‘de-energized’…and you link this process to post-modernism.  This would seem odd – after all, postmodernism stresses multiculturalism. Could you explain the link between post-modernism as an ideology and the continuation of imperial/colonial practices in the Third World? 

For non-Western cultures, postmodernism is simply a new wave of domination riding on the crest of colonialism and modernity. Alterity (along with other euphemisms signifying the Other or the non-West) is a key postmodern term. 
Postmodern relativism embraces the Other, making alterity far more than just the representations of all non-Western cultures and societies. Alterity is the condition of difference in any binary pair of differences; there is even alterity within the self. Thus postmodernism avoids, by glossing over, the politics of non-western marginalisation in history by suddenly discovering Otherness everywhere and that everyone has its own kind of otherness by which it defines itself. While this proves the triumph of the postmodern thesis that everything is relative, it is incapable of suggesting that anything is in some distinctive way itself, with its own history. The postmodern prominence of the Other becomes a classic irony. Instead of finally doing justice to the marginalised and demeaned, it vaunts the category to prove how unimportant, and ultimately meaningless, is any real identity it could contain. We are all Others now, can appropriate the Other, consume artefacts of  the Other, so what does it matter if  Others want something different in their future – such as the chance to make it for themselves? Postmodernism is thus several quantum leaps above colonialism and modernity. Colonialism was about the physical occupation of non-Western cultures. Modernity was about displacing the present and occupying the minds of non-Western cultures. Postmodernism is about appropriating the history and identity of non-Western cultures, colonizing their future and occupying their being. 

It is all the more ironic then to encounter Third World champions of postmodernism and a whole array of Third World postmodernisms. The very idea of Third World postmodernism parallels the conditions of colonial or neo-colonial dependency in which shop-worn and out of fashion goods, irrelevant or useless technology, expensive or banned drugs, are exported to the developing countries where they enjoy a profitable second life. As with the fifties and sixties frenzy of  modernization,  postmodernism has partly been embraced uncritically and enthusiastically, partly reluctantly and critically and  partly rejected and resisted strongly. Modern Indian pop music (including British Asian pop music), Malay hard rock and the work of postmodernist novelists like Thailand’s Somtow celebrate postmodernism wholeheartedly. South African township jive music, contemporary Filipino art films, the punk rock culture of Medellin slums in Colombia take a more critical stance towards postmodernism. While Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo’s decision to abandon the novel and write mainly in Kikuyu and Rigoberta Menchu’s striking testimonial narrative of  Indian resistance in Guatemala, “I, Rigoberta Menchu” have transformed postmodernism into a culture of  resistance. Third World postmodernism is as diverse as Third World cultures themselves. Nowhere in the Third World is postmodernism more contested than in Latin America. During the Reagan era, a postmodernism of the right flourished throughout Latin America. The presidential campaigns of both Mario Vargas Llosa and Fujimori in Peru, the media populism of Menem in Argentina and Collor in Brazil, the transformation of Mexico in prospect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the complex politics and economics of drugs and terrorism are the high points of the postmodernism of the right. These developments led the Mexican poet and Noble Laureate, Octavio Paz, to describe postmodernism as yet another imported project that does not fit Latin America. The South American left, on the other hand, sees the postmodern project as an important means of renovating its exhausted and discredited political agenda. A ‘left postmodernism’, based on the ‘ethics of survival’, emerged to challenge the gains of the right. Perhaps the most noted champions of this variety of Latin American postmodernism were the Sandinistas of Nicaragua who, after their defeat, embraced a whole range of postmodernist goals and policies while still maintaining a broad socialist agenda. 

My main criticism is that while postmodernism demolishes grand narratives it privileges the grand narrative of liberal secularism. Indeed, liberal secularism is the umbrella under which postmodernism flourishes as well as the guiding principle of postmodernism. So it is an arch ideology pretending to be a force of liberation. The multiculturalism that postmodernism champions is largely window-dressing: it is not about giving power to marginalised cultures but consuming their cultural products. Postmodernism does not give voice to the voiceless, as it is claimed, but speaks for the voiceless. It is all about facile choice: we can choose to be different things. But of course the poor and the marginalised have no choice – you need power and representation to be able to choose. It is worth noting that postmodernism is specifically a product of western thought and philosophy, which has always defined reality and truth as its reality and truth. Now that this position cannot be sustained it seeks to maintain the status quo and continue unchecked on its trajectory of expansion and domination by undermining all criteria of reality and truth. Postmodernism takes the ideological mystification of colonialism and modernity to a new, all-pervasive level of control and oppression of the non-western cultures while parading itself as an intellectual alibi for the West’s perpetual quest for meaning through consumption, including the consumption of all non-western cultures. 

For me the whole postmodernism project is summed up by zapping. We have a seeming cornucopia of choice on our digital and satellite televisions, catering to all tastes however absurd or far out. We hop from channel to channel, zapping away. But we end up with everyone choosing to watch nothing. The raison d’etre of postmodern existence, the meaning of life, universe and everything, the intimate connection we all so acutely desire – all, all of this, is located in the art of zapping, the auto-creation of your very own postmodern spectacle. This is why I think postmodernism has fizzled out. It was empty to begin with; and we now hear nothing but the echo of the inner emptiness of the postmodern worldview.

3 – What role has Iqbal’s thought played in your writing?  What in Iqbal continues to radiate for you?  For example, you quote the following couplet: 

‘if thou desirest everlasting life, 
Break not the thread between the past and now 
And the far future’. 

You suggest that tradition must not be broken away from but reinvented. Why is this particularly important for the non-west? And how can tradition be used for those from the non-West now located in the West? For example, Muslims in Europe?

I dip into Iqbal off and on. He is always there as a source of inspiration and motivation. I find him a deeply traditional as well as futurist thinker. And, of course, he is eminently correct to point out that you cannot remain sane if you cut yourself from your past – a future without a past is no future at all. He wants us to jealously safeguard our traditions. But, as is clearly evident from his “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”, from time to time, traditions have to be reconstructed, rethought and reinvented. Indeed, traditions remain traditions by being reinvented; otherwise they become ossified, oppressive customs. 

Iqbal knew all too well that ossified passive traditionalism and militant formalist traditionalism are both easy prey to modernity. I would also argue that postmodernism induces panic in all forms of passive and  militant outlooks and thus not only renders them ineffective against its all pervasive nihilism but makes them self-destructive. In other words, modernity simply overwhelms and postmodernism co-opts passivism and fundamentalism with the end result that goals of modernity and postmodernism are promoted. Thus unthinking and simplistic reactions, which shuffle the blame entirely onto the Western world while seeking to best the western demon with its own tools and rationales, lead to further entrapment. The only cultural survival kit for those who would choose to remain alive within living traditions, retain their identity and distinctive moral and ethical vision of themselves and the purpose of their existence – what Iqbal demands – is to see through the limitations of the passive minimalist tradition and the futile trap of militant fundamentalism. For the worldviews of the non-West, the only option is to transcend meaninglessness through living consciously, creatively making, and constantly reconstructing. This is a difficult and complex agenda, yet it is the only worthwhile enterprise that can offer us any kind of sustainable future. 

At the heart of any culture and its traditional forms is a distinctive moral and ethical understanding, a worldview. Traditional culture in all its forms is about expression and communication of this moral vision, about working out its contemporary significance and relevance for a people with a strong historical identity. It can only remain alive when it becomes the living language through which contemporary questions, problems, choices and decisions are articulated. Form is not tradition, that is the misconception of Western theory that has been imposed upon all of the non-West to become a 
self fulfilling, self sustaining delusion. Traditional forms were constantly in the process of being created, mutated and radically revised, that is the story of history. For the non-West history will really end, the project of modernity will be complete and postmodernism will rule un-assailed unless the worldviews of non-Western cultures become the medium through which economy, politics, social, industrial and ecological conventions are negotiated. Culture is not an optional extra that can be indulged after working hours in the privacy of the home, or on certain high days and holidays. If that is what culture becomes then it is the rotting corpse of  a dead system of thought and understanding, the dried husk of a worldview that no longer interacts with the real world we inhabit. It is not just one worldview, but 
every worldview that makes up the rich mosaic of our world that must be brought back to life if we are to defy and resist western cultural hegemony and the seductive path into total dependency and ever expanding decay it offers. Moral and ethical considerations are never easy, they are the greatest challenge to our humanity and our intellect. Becoming cantered in the moral and ethical concepts of our worldviews cannot mean renouncing all old interpretations or abandoning all that is of the West. It does, however, require recognizing and transcending the limitations of both as part of the process of taking responsibility for the present and creating a future that answers to and is a function of what we believe to be of enduring value and meaning. 

I think Muslims living in the West have a great opportunity to rethink and reinvent their traditions. We have to make our traditions meaningful to both: contemporary times and the societies we live in. To some extent this will be painful. We have to ditch the ossified and oppressive forms of our tradition, for example, those relating to suppression of women. And rediscover the life-enhancing dimensions of our culture, for example, the emphasis that women should be treated with respect and dignity in public space. Instead of being obsessed with the outward forms of culture – such as dress and facial furniture – we need to promote its spirit: the principles of equality and social justice, the concerns with community development and community life, the emphasis in our tradition on knowledge and learning and on consultation, criticism and self-criticism, and debate and discussion.

4 – You have suggested that a difference has to be made between ‘historical Sufism’ and ‘contemporary Sufism’. Could you elaborate the difference? 

Let me begin by pointing out that Sufism is integral to Islam; and it has played a great part in our history. Iqbal himself was a great Sufi. Perhaps he is the greatest Sufi of the twentieth century. But this is not widely recognised. Largely, because he did not go around wearing his Sufism as a badge. Historical Sufism, I would argue, was deeply grounded in life-enhancing tradition, devoted to social justice, thought and learning and thus played a major part in the spread of Islam. It was due to their concern for social justice that great Sufis like Shah Waliullah and Osman dan Fadio took up arms against the imperialist. It was their concern for education and the welfare of the people that enabled Sufis like Nizamuddin Auliya and Datta Gunj Buskh to spread Islam so successfully in the Subcontinent. 

Contemporary Sufism has a totally different makeup. Popular Sufism throughout the Muslim world is mostly about saint worship, veneration of graves, and exploiting the gullible with charms and amulets. In some cases, as in Turkey, it is a tourist attraction. Notice also that in contract to classical Sufism, which was anti-imperialist, contemporary Sufism has served the neo-con agenda. Suddenly, the Sufis are in fashion and being promoted as soft Islam in answer to the hard Islam of the fundamentalists. In Britain, contemporary Sufis played virtually no part in promoting social welfare amongst the Muslim communities. But were ready to support that agenda of the government in the form of the Sufi Muslim Council. 

My main criticism of contemporary Sufism is its authoritarian character. Virtually all the Sufis I have met in my extensive travels around the Muslim world want total submission and obedience to their Sheikh: who has to be venerated endlessly, obeyed without question, and treated like a demi-god. This is not a prescription for creating a healthy, dynamic society.

5 – You have prefaced the new edition of Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks”. What was your experience of reading and understanding Fanon.

Reading Fanon is always a volatile experience. His prose is full of anger – as it should be – and he writes with some immediacy and urgency. One also experiences slight disorientation as his texts, for example, “Black Skin, White Masks”, are full of discontinuities, changes in style from academic to journalistic, mixing of genre, switches from analysis to pronouncements against the West, strange similes, extended metaphors and a string of contradictions. But all this was very refreshing when I first came across Fanon. I found myself constrained by disciplinary borders and found Fanon’s ability to cross disciplinary boundaries – from psychoanalysis to medical analysis, literary criticism to Marxism – quite refreshing. I think he was consciously subverting genres, styles and disciplines. Something that I also try to do. 

During my student days, “Wretched of the Earth” was the Bible of radical students from the Third World. Fanon was our route to discovering what colonialism was all about, how the minds of Third World elites were colonised, and why it was necessary for us to resist western imperialism. It is a good place to start finding what it means to be black, or Asian, in a world dominated by modernity and western civilisation. To understand Fanon is to learn to speak. As he says, ‘to speak means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation’. We need to speak for, about and with our culture; and culture has true meaning, and is expressed best, within a framework of civilisation. In other words, resistance to the West begins with understanding our own culture and civilisation, and the cultural and intellectual products of our civilisation are in fact the main instruments of our resistance.  Ultimately, the goal of all resistance should be to create a multi-civilisational world, where a plethora of difference civilisations exist in dynamic equilibrium. 

6 – Are enlightenment values, or what are articulated as such, compatible with Islam?  Many, Muslims and non-Muslims, have suggested they are not.

I think the first question to ask is: where did the Enlightenment values actually came from? Did they emerge, ready-made, from within Europe? Or do they have some other source? Where did, for example, Europe learn about Greece in the first place? From the perspective of Islam. There is a double irony here. It is not just that Islam introduced classical Greek civilisation to Europe, but also without Islam, Europe would not have been able to manufacture its Greek roots. Islam not only preserved the Greek heritage, it added and expanded it in numerable ways. Few of the great names of the European Middle Ages could actually read Greek: so what they in fact read was not Plato but Latin commentaries on Plato by al-Farabi, not Aristotle in the original but the Latin translations of Ibn Sina’s commentaries on Aristotle, and not the Neoplatonists but the works of the Brethren of Purity, the tenth and eleventh century philosophers of Basra and other Neoplatanist philosophers and mystics of the Muslim world. The translation of Greek texts was a major intellectual undertaking in the Muslim civilisation from the eight to the twelfth century. The translations of Arabic text became a major intellectual activity in Europe, starting in the early twelfth century right till the middle of the fifteenth century. It is hardly surprising that the Post-Columbus Renaissance started in the independent city states of Italy, cities whose long history of trading contact with Muslim lands provided familiarity with its sophistication and ready access to Arabic texts. 

But it was not just Greek thought – Europe borrowed freely the thought and learning of Islam. There is a huge swathe of Islamic history that shaped Europe and its so-called Enlightenment, the seven hundred years between the Battle of Tours and the fall of Constantinople: all this history has been rendered invisible by Europe. It is during this period that Islam actually transformed Europe and turned it into a world civilisation. The conventional, manufactured history, defining this period as the Dark Ages, sees the long gestation of embattled Europe forged by the antipathy that sustained the Crusades. Unwittingly, the enemy prompts the rekindling of the flame of civilisation when, phoenix like, classicism arises from the fall of Constantinople. The warlike intervention by the Turks permits a flood of Greek manuscripts to come to the West. This inspires the Renaissance obsession with all things classical, permits Europe to recover its Greek roots, invent modernity, discover the rest of the world and recover the destiny of world domination implicit in its Roman ancestry. It is, of course, all a fabulous fabrication. 

This manufactured history does get one thing right. The barbarian hordes who overthrew Rome did a thorough job of vandalism. The Roman Church became the custodian of all the learning rescued from the wreckage. Knowledge was housed in the monasteries where the fashion was to keep books in chains, as can still be seen at Hereford Cathedral. The largest monastic library had little more than 500 books, mostly on theology, precious few of which were works of the classical scholars of antiquity. 

In contrast to Europe, the cities of the Muslim world had free public libraries and the public purse financed the search for the works of classical scholars that were translated into Arabic, the common language of a world civilisation. The greatest libraries of Muslim cities, such as Baghdad or Cordoba, contained some 250,000 books. There was a vibrant publication industry with new books being added to the stock at a rate that compares favourably with today’s publisher’s lists. There was a well-established network of universities, the public financing of what we would call research, and the practice of private industry supporting technological research and development that produced a string of innovations. 

Quite simply, Europe became an eager student of Islamic learning and Islam conducted itself as a good teacher. And the teaching began at the beginning: Islam taught Europe how to reason, what is the difference between civilisation and barbarism, and what are the basic features of a civil society. It trained Europe in scholastic and philosophic method and donated the model of its institutional forum of learning: the university. Europe acquired wholesale the organisation, structure and the very terminology of the Muslim educational system. Islam not only taught Europe the experimental method and showed it the importance of empirical research, but it also very considerately worked out most of the mathematics necessary for Copernicus to launch ‘his’ revolution! It showed Europe the distinction between medicine and magic, drilled it in making surgical instruments and told it how to establish and run hospitals. And then, to top it all, Islam gave Europe liberal humanism. 

The differences between Islam and Europe are often highlighted in terms of liberal humanism. Yet, the liberal humanism that is frequently cited as the hallmark of the Enlightenment has its origins in the adab – literally, the etiquette of being a human – movement of classical Islam. Islam developed a sophisticated system of teaching law and humanism that involved not just institutions such as the university, with faculties of law, theology, medicine and natural philosophy, but also an elaborate mode of instruction including work-study courses, curriculum for teaching grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, medicine, and moral philosophy, and mechanisms for the formation of a humanist culture that produces men of letters such as academic associations, literary circles, clubs and coteries. When Europe adopted this system in its totality, including the text books, the European humanists felt that they could match the classical Arabic only by another classical language, Latin, a language not quite their own. They thus reproduced the same errors that are associated with Islamic humanism: the horror of barbarism and solecism. There was hardly any aspect of Islamic humanism, good or bad, which Europe did not copy: from slogans to dress; from emphasis on eloquence and display of literary prowess to the cult of classical language; from the works on government administration as part of moral philosophy to the history of cities, the novella, practical and speculative grammar to historical and textual criticism. What is there then to distinguish Enlightenment from Islamic humanism? 

The truth is that many values we identify with the Enlightenment are Islamic values: the love of knowledge and learning, equality of all before the law, accountability in governance, contractual basis for rights, and liberal humanism – all these were and are the values propagate by the Qur’an, the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, and were practiced, on and off, in early Muslim history. From the Muslim point of view there is a double two-fold irony here.  First, after appropriating these values, Europe not only consciously severed the Islamic connection and suppressed the history of Muslim contribution to science and civilisation, but now claims that Muslims have no such values themselves. And Muslims, after originating and shaping these values, not only lost them but now claim that they are alien to Islam.

7 – Radicalisation of Muslims in Europe towards a jihadi agenda has in large part been a reaction to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. How, except through violent counter-attack, are such invasions to be countered?

Clearly radicalisation amongst Muslims has increased since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think it has longer and deeper roots. The Iranian revolution played a part in increasing radicalisation. And the Saudi petrodollars and support for mosques and Muslim organisations is also responsible for promoting fanaticism and fundamentalism. I would argue further that ossified traditionalism, and the closed minds it produces, also has something to do with the emergence of fundamentalism in our time – this only makes my agenda of reinventing tradition that much more urgent. 

Before we talk about the futility of violent counter-attack, let me say that I subscribe to the analysis of the Moroccan scholar Malek Bennabi, a contemporary of Fanon, who argued that nations are not simply ‘invaded’, they invite invasion, the attention of imperialist vultures, by the state they are in. More precisely, his thesis concerned what he called ‘colonisibility’: to be colonised, he said, a society has to be in a physical and mental state which makes colonisation almost inevitable. Bennabi, an electrical engineer, studied in Paris and had spent over three decades in Europe. Colonisation was not the basic cause of Muslim decline, Bennabi argued against common assumptions. It was the phenomenon of colonisibility, which had set in centuries before, that made the Muslim world ripe for colonisation. Bennabi was suggesting that Europe was not invincible, rather it was the weaknesses of Muslim societies that was the major hurdle to decolonisation. Similarly, I would argue that the real problem, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, is the weakness of civil society, the disunity and intractable warfare between Muslims, and the general corruption and moral decay of these countries. If Iraq had been a thriving democracy, instead of a brutal and inhuman dictatorship, it could not have been invaded so easily by America and its allies. So I would say that our prime task is to reform our own societies – this is the best way of resistance. 

Violence is where I depart from Fanon. Fanon thought violence was necessary to resist imperialism. Ghandi proved him wrong. Thoughtless violence, I would argue further, serves only one purpose: to increase the pain and agony of Muslim people. Consider this: the most brutal and savage violence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been meted out by Muslims to other Muslims. Think of Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq, and brutal murder of innocent people, including children and women, by suicide bombings in Pakistan and Iraq. Violence only begets violence. 

– So what is to be done? 

I would argue that our main goal should be to build strong civil society and establish transparent and accountable governments in these countries. Governments that actually reflect the needs and desires of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And Muslims in America and Britain need to mobilise themselves and put pressure on their respective governments to get the allied troops out. In Afghanistan, as I have always advocated and written about in the New Statesman, we need to negotiate with the Taliban. You can’t beat the Taliban into submission. Our counter-attack has to come in the shape of politics, not violence.

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