Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Media, The "bad" and "good" Muslims... and more

Salaams all:

I know that I have been quiet on this issue and on the list in
general, but I have been closely following the issue. Various folks
on the NPM list has done a good job in identifying many of the
problems with PMU. I will just add a few more points, and please
forgive me if there is some overlap:

1) One of the things that bothered me right from the beginning was
the obsession by PMU folks of getting media coverage for this group.
Even before its official inauguration as an organization on Eid,
PMUNA has received ample publicity in the media, and we can expect
much more publicity, and publicity in more of the major establishment
media, after Eid. I thought to myself, what genuine dissidents,
particularly in the heart of an Empire where the parameters of debate
are kept so narrow, receive this type of coverage. The answer is
simple: practically none. Why don't we see people associated with Z,
like Chomsky or Mike Albert or Robert Jensen or the international
socialist organization, etc. and the issues they raise covered in the
media. The conclusion is simple: a dissident must be doing something
wrong if she is receiving such coverage from the mainstream
establishment media of the empire. At times, PMU folks have sounded
like they have some fetish for as much media coverage as possible,
which wouldn't be a negative thing in a decent society that did
without the undemocratic and concentrated corporate media of the US.
Knowing that the US media is on the search for nice, moderate,
even "progressive" muslim reformers, folks like us need to be extra
careful in these matters, again for reasons of the possibility of co-
optation (as farid and others have mentioned).

If we assume that Ahmed and PMUNA are aware of the problems of media
(and its specific position vis-a-vis "bad" and "good" moderate
Muslims) in the heart of the empire, then I can't help feeling as if
they are engaged in something entirely unethical.
For "progressives," the general aim has been understood to be one
that undermines power and authoritarian structures, either at the
political, social, or economic level. From this it follows that the
reliance on the US media, certainly a core ideological institution of
US imperial power, is to effectively depend one form of power (a very
powerful one in fact) to try to confront another form of power
("islamic orthodoxy," a far weaker power). Whether or not Ahmed or
Omid have this intention or not is irrelevant. Right now, in a
situation where Muslims in the US do have their backs against the
wall and are being told to get their act together or else, showcasing
oneself as the "progressive muslims" amongst the herd of
reactionaries is to have the practical effect of using the imperial
ideological system for one's "progressive" purposes. This might
undermine one form of "power" (Muslim institutions such as ISNA, male-
female mosque dynamics IN THE US), but strengthens a far more
powerful propaganda system that's not shy of using force and
violence. The point is simple: as progressives activists, the goal
is not to use one power structure against another one (that one
despises more); rather, it is to undermine all such power

2) It seems like some who've otherwise been consistently anti-
imperialist have demonstrated a softness for the liberal/secularist
defenders of the Empire. I remember a while ago when I spoke about
the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, Tarek bitterly condemned their
collaboration with US imperialism in Pakistan. However, in this
instance, he's able to take these Hassans lightly and joke about them
and give a de facto acceptance of their presence on the board. Is
the criterion NOW only one having liberal social views, such as on
homosexuality, middle class pluralism, etc. It was once said that if
one takes a sample of the views of corporate CEOs and also of most of
the people working in the mainstream US media, their views will be
pretty liberal, on very narrow social issues of course (what are also
called "wedge" issues here in the U.S.; they are used to divide
people by the so-called family values rhetoric, as Itrath mentioned
recently). However, does that in any way affect their views on
empire, both its militarism and capitalist exploitation? Not at
all. And so, ultimately we reduce everything to putting such and
such individual on trial for such backward social views, rather than
putting the system on trial. Our venom is then really saved for the
conservative/backward Pakistani or Arab who has recently migrated,
rather than a system that continues to impoverish those countries
from which these people are forced to flee.

3) I take issue with an implicit "othering" of non-North Americans.
The arrogance of calling this a North American organization, yet
inviting Muslims from all over the world has already been mentioned.
There is the claim made that the privileges of freedom and liberties
accorded to American Muslims will be used for good purposes and
ends. This, I think, really translates into support for american
discursive domination of the world. If you are privileged in the
first place, privileged for not having to face bombings, or curfews,
or starvation, etc., your first bloody objective ought to be to
challenge that privilege day in and day out, and refuse to be a
moderate, decent voice when you know your government is a key factor
behind the suppression of millions of your sisters and brothers
throughout the Muslim world. Unfortunately, there is the assumption
that the brave new progressive islamic world will be ushered in
america. The struggles of AIDS activists and folks like Farish Noor
and Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, of Asghar Ali Engineer and others
in India, in Iran, of Na'eem Jeenah and others in South Africa, etc.,
ALL OF IT is ignored as if this is not taking place since it does not
receive the type of media that a group of western activists get for
setting up a group of a handful of people.

4) We really need to emphasize that the principal contradiction in
the world today is NOT talibanism, "islamic fundamentalism,"
wahhabism, etc. The hundreds of millions who suffer and die from
AIDS, poverty, starvation, lives of boredom and rote work,
meaningless and commodified human relationships, etc. are not the
victims of wahabbism. "Islamism" is just another symptomatic
reaction to the fundemantalism of a modernity/progress narrative that
inflicts only misery and malaise on the social majorities of the
world. Rather, the main culprit is a world system of empire which is
relentless in its efforts to destroy any and all remaining social
spaces for liberation, in all human spheres of life (political,
economic, cultural). This is the reduction of human beings, of
ihnsan, to homo oeconomicus (economic man). Aspects of
kinship/gender and race/nationality are all exploited to serve the
cause of the ever-expanding imperial profit machine. Although i am
hesitant to use this marxist formula of one specific principal
contradiction, for some reason, during these times, it seems
difficult not to.

5) As some have said, it may be time to dump the term progressive in
front of Islam or Muslim for something that refers to liberation or
its derivative. Friends from the UK disliked the term progressive
islam when i first mentioned it to them. Reflecting on how we need
to rethink our approach to the adjective we use (if any) before Islam
(which is probably unnecessary and unwise; but perhaps necessary
before "Muslim") is important. However, let us not beat this issue
ad nauseum and let our adjectives and descriptions, in other words
simply language, become substitutes for concrete praxis from which
languages and discourses of liberation will emerge themselves.

6) One thing which all of this points to is a healthy skepticism that
we should have about organizations that emerge out of no context of
mass movement or struggle. There are tons of "progressive Muslim"
NGOs cropping up throughout the Muslim world, promising to
bring "enlightened moderation" (as pakistani military man musharraf
calls it) to the masses through their intellectual forums and bad
pamphlets. It has become a racket and the corruption of the worst
kind, where many of these enlightened muslim intellectuals act as the
intermediaries between the civilized west and its generous funding
through USAID and Asia Foundation, and the mass of Muslim uncouths
who these intellectuals are hired to tame. In many ways, my bitter
criticism of this ngo/think tank model extends to somewhat less
harsher criticism of the vanguardist approaches of parties and other
organizations. The peoples movements in the world will give voice to
themselves, and will also be shown solidarity by others who are
privileged BUT are using that privilege to expose the complicity of
their own governments in pepertuating the underdevelopment of the
majority of the world. But some folks (either the communist party,
or PMU or whoever) already setting the agenda for them and getting
the glory and fame on the backs of their struggles, i don't think
so. Come to think of it, all of the decent organizations in north
america, like global exchange or rivers first, etc. focus almost
entirely on how the bloody empire is ravaging the two-third world
(the first on issues of trade, debt, etc., the latter providing
crucial support and solidarity to activists in places like india
against western-supported big dam projects).

Finally, let me just mention something that will make us think. I'm
working with various Muslim Student Associations in the DC area on an
Islam and worker justice conference, where huge muslim communities
will interact with unions, etc. Some of the leading organizers
(various female students and Imams) are very cool and progressive,
yet they have never heard of these progressive Muslims nor have they
read any of the progressive Muslim thinkers we are fond of. They are
just DOING IT, working with organizations such as jobs for justice,

Our approach not TO the struggle but IN the struggle in these
scandalous times is crucial, and should not be taken lightly.



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