A mullah chased out a pig who had somehow got into a mosque. A Bektashi dervish who observed the event remarked, “I have often seen pious people who were swine, but this is the first time I have seen a swine who was pious.”
The Middle East has a long tradition of humor that deflates pompous clerics and the ostentatiously pious. Jokes will skewer mullahs for their obsession with religious rules, and darkly suggest that their wealth and status are ill-gained.
When I have tried such jokes among my friends–mostly stereotypically liberal professors and professionals–they have not gone over well. Maybe I did not do a good job translating. But maybe they sounded too much like ethnic jokes. And we liberals are well trained to be sensitive to whether our speech sounds appropriate.
Lately, however, liberals and leftists have acquired a reputation of shying away from any criticism of Islam. Human rights advocates have had bitter disputes amongst themselves concerning Islamist pressures on women’s rights. Critics of Islam, such as Maryam Namazie, observe that any negative remark on Islam or Islamism is liable to be attacked as a manifestation of Islamophobia. Namazie, a leftist and an exile from Iran, finds that people who identify as left of center are prominent among those who object to her presentations, often trying to exclude her from university campuses. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many liberals condemned the blasphemy and the imagined racism of the murdered cartoonists as well as the violence. People who complain about “political correctness” have begun to speak of a “regressive left” that attempts to shut down any speech that may offend minority identities, particularly the religion and politics of Muslim immigrants.
We do not have censorship lurking everywhere. Nonetheless, a kind of postmodern cultural conservatism has come to occupy the left wing of our political imagination. Liberals recoil from the identity politics of Christian nationalists in the United States, with their Bibles and guns, but are more reluctant to probe other forms of religious conservatism. Repudiating a colonial, patronizing legacy, some leftists accept conservative community leaders as representatives of local authenticity.
All this frustrates those of us who come from a Muslim background, but identify as secular liberals. Many of us hail from a secular tradition among Muslims–very much a minority tradition, with many flaws, but also a tradition that was both anti-imperialist and positive toward the Western form of modernity. Our forebears in the early twentieth century fought colonial overlords, but also saw something liberating in the way that Europeans had curbed the influence of their aristocrats and clergy. In the modern sciences, Muslim secularists perceived not just an adjunct of technology and a means to power, but a common human accomplishment, a way to achieve genuine knowledge beyond clerical obscurantism. They hoped that art and literature as practiced in Muslim lands would become a stream joining a universal high culture, not just a heritage belonging to any particular religion. And back in the days when the political left held up hope that ordinary people could get out from under the thumb of bosses and landlords, many secularists gravitated toward the left. So today, when opposing the colonial legacy has come to mean respect for hierarchies rooted in custom and religion, we are bewildered. We think that decent, liberal-minded, modern people should stand with us secularists. They should be amused at the pretensions of mullahs to authority, not accept them.
We expect too much. One reason is the dubious record of secularists in Muslim lands. After independence, mostly after the Second World War, the leaders of many Muslim countries organized their states in a partially secular fashion. Secular elites were usually educated in a Western style and enthusiastic about modernization; while making gestures toward cultural authenticity, they also thought that properly modern countries had to reduce the public influence of religion. They passed secular laws and constrained the clergy. Popular culture began to showcase unveiled women singing on movie and television screens. But secular elites also, very often, became corrupt and autocratic. Privatization of faith and strictly secular ways of legitimating political power remained confined to small, urban, relatively prosperous and educated segments of Muslim populations.
Conservative religious people–pious provincial businessmen, faith-based student activists, devout peasants, and the working classes that migrated to the slums of industrializing cities–could not be excluded from power forever. For many decades now, the Muslim world has been undergoing a religious revival. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Muslim populations display an intensifying personal piety and express their aspirations through competing varieties of religious politics. Arab elites either embraced religion, or suppressed popular demands expressed through Islamism, often in the name of a secularism that was little more than kleptocracy. Iran had a revolution, and both the ruling clerics and their opposition are still arguing about the meaning of an Islamic state. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey embraced a full-blown neoliberal capitalism, achieved middle income status, and gradually desecularized. Secular political habits in Pakistan and Bangladesh were drowned in increasing public piety. And everywhere across the Muslim world, increased electoral democracy and the rise of pious, business-oriented middle classes meant increasingly privatized public spheres that were at the same time infused with more and more religion. Today, secularism has become associated not just with leftist intellectuals hopelessly distant from power, but culturally alien, oppressive, and undemocratic elites controlling decaying states.
So if anyone wants an authentic representative of a Muslim population, yes, they would have to pick someone a lot more religious than one of a handful of secularists. It would be hard to pick any single representative, since a common activity among Muslims is quarreling with other Muslims about religion, ethnicity, gender, or what conspiracy theory is best supposed to explain regional politics. Nonetheless, they would probably wear a full beard or a headscarf. The political center of gravity in Muslim populations is distinctly conservative: male-dominated, crony-capitalist, religious.
But so what? Dissidents from conservative Islam still expect Western liberals to be supportive. Yes, since socialism died, everyone has reconciled themselves to bosses and landlords. A good liberal today observes the proper dietary rules–no GMOs!–and hopes for a more representative gender and ethnic composition of corporate boards. Even so, Muslim dietary rules are different. Those who speak the loudest about the glory of Islam support traditional gender roles. And Muslim regions are no less wracked by ethnic violence than any other. It might even seem that for liberals, Islam should provide a rich supply of political bad examples.
Many liberals and leftists seem persuaded, instead, that True Islam is misunderstood, or that more liberal, suitably reinterpreted versions of Islam are poised to save the day. There are no few Western liberals who instruct us that the Quran, when properly understood, does not demand veiling or female subordination, or that the fiery homophobia of so many Muslim preachers is an aberration traceable to colonial policies. Meanwhile most Muslims, who don’t seek secular liberal advice on inventing what their God’s orders are, seem more easily persuaded by conservative interpretations of their faith.
This is not to say that Islam always resists change. Modernization has meant that even though Muslim environments continue to be restrictive toward women, Muslim women are increasingly educated, have fewer children, and participate in paid employment. There is a large constituency for more female-friendly ways of thinking. But this new thinking will not be provided by the heirs of those secular feminists who discarded their veils earlier in the twentieth century and who today get accused of a culturally inauthentic, colonized consciousness. The rising stars of today are Islamic feminists with tight headscarves, seeking woman-centered interpretations of their scriptures.
Many Western feminists celebrate Islamic feminism. After all, their Muslim sisters are reclaiming their faith tradition for women. Female Muslim activists assert themselves by wearing headscarves–their veil is a choice, an expression of religious freedom, an act of empowerment. Islamic feminists obsess over sacred texts, but now they have divine commands deny rather than affirm a husband’s right to beat his wife.
Islamic feminism can promote practical improvements in women’s lives. It is easier to persuade pious women that their husband is not entitled to abuse them if ideas of women’s rights come wrapped in a familiar idiom and do not rock too many boats. But from a more old-fashioned secular liberal point of view, it is hard not to notice a strong conservative element in Islamic feminism. Islamic feminists often seek to serve female interests by emphasizing the disciplining of men in the context of traditional gender roles. This is, often, a feminism that seeks to make complementary gender roles work better for women. Its affirmations of women’s choices include decisions to construct religiously defined selves possessing virtues of submission and obedience. Western liberals can hardly object. Today’s dominant voices emphasize choices for women, regardless of whether those choices support female subordination. Liberals today too often overlook how pious choices often cut against both individual autonomy and the ability of others in a religiously defined community to seek autonomy.
But then, maybe all of this is beside the point. Those of us from secular Muslim backgrounds who have a leftish perspective are concerned about free speech, workers’ rights, secular education–all so nineteenth-century compared to exciting new frontiers of freedom such the ability to choose your own personal pronouns. In Muslim lands, such an old-fashioned secular liberalism is defeated and despised, often for good reason. And in the West, liberals have moved on to becoming a technocratic, managerial faction in neoliberal economies. We celebrate our fake diversity that goes no deeper than having a wide range of ethnic restaurants. We demonstrate our enlightenment by acting as a moralistic language police, patting ourselves on the back for not being like those shiftless racists of the white working class. Putting blasphemy against Islam on the list of inappropriate speech forms just comes naturally.
Critics of Islam who have had enough with liberals, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, often drift into a neoconservative orbit. It must be easier to portray Islam as a problem when in the company of people who unapologetically claim Western superiority. Critics can call for Muslims to further westernize, to have a reformation, to stop all the religious upheaval and get on with their lives. Evidently such rhetoric fits well with the neoconservative inclination to think that problems associated with Islam can be solved with even more free markets, and dropping even more bombs. But regardless of conservative exhortations, Muslims today are enthusiastically reforming their faith–that is why we have so much theological fundamentalism. So yes, Western liberals often undercut dissidents from Islam, and Western conservatives are a questionable set of friends. But then, Western liberalism is not, perhaps, what dissidents thought it should be. Worse, we secularists from the lands of Islam are not quite who we think we are. Too often we advocate secularism without recognizing that for many devout Muslims, this sounds like calling for a return of the bad old days. We have not properly reckoned with the defeat of secular liberal ideals in Muslim lands, and we do not understand why they are not in a healthy state in the West.
If I had my way, liberals and leftists would start doing things differently. A good place to start is revisiting why the political left has historically sought emancipation not just from sexual and ethnic straightjackets, but also from the power of those who controlled the means of production. It would then become easier to understand why some of us want to do without the authority of mullahs as well. It would also be good if we could articulate a rationale for free speech that goes deeper than narcissistic self-expression. If not, notions such that blasphemy against Islam is “punching down” against the powerless will continue to be plausible. Some of us criticize Islam because we encounter most varieties of Islam as potent conservative forces, as a support for the powerful rather than a hope for the oppressed. Religion is open to interpretation, and Islamic texts sometimes inspire revolt as well as obedience. But I find that any preoccupation with sacred texts does not sit well with aspirations to organize our lives together by using the best of our goodwill and intelligence.
I cannot claim any optimism that would not also sound cheap and clueless. It is not difficult to envision a political future ruled by sociopathic tech-billionaires, where mullahs flourish as never before. But we can imagine better, and work to improve our prospects. And while doing so, we should still have occasions to crack some jokes.
A Bektashi dervish was forced to listen to a sermon in the mosque one day, when the mullah started to describe God by saying, “God does not resemble anything, cannot be seen with our eyes or heard with our ears, cannot be touched, He is neither on Earth nor in the sky, does not eat or drink nor sleep, has no hands or tongue or eyes…” The dervish remarked, “You’re about to say that He doesn’t exist, but you can’t bring yourself to say so.”
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