Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Swiss Minaret Affair: What's going on in Europe?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Who could be more wicked than those who bar the mention of God's name from [any of] His houses of worship and strive for their ruin, [although] they have no right to enter them save in fear [of God]? (Qur'an 2:114)

This November 29th, a constitutional amendment was passed banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland (you can see the mapped results here). It's a rather bizarre turn of events marking the culmination of a bitter legal battle that began in 2005 over the proposed construction of a 6-meter minaret on top of an Islamic community center in the small municipality of Wangen bei Olten.

The struggle began as a local issue, but as so often happens, it ended up being exploited for political gain by right-wing political parties - namely the nativist/populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the Christian conservative Federal Democratic Union of Switzerland. It was the SVP that gathered the signatures needed to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. Below is a poster they used to advertise their campaign, which was banned in a few places due to its inflammatory, hate-mongering nature. The SVP then followed up with a poster saying: "Censorship: One more reason to say yes to the ban." In the name of freedom of expression, then, the architectural expression of Muslims must be curbed. Natürlich!

An SVP poster calling on voters to pass the minaret ban

Really it is worth taking a look at some of the other SVP political posters. Their general formula seems to be 1) aggressive bold letters, 2) the colors black, white and red (the perennial white supremacist favorite) and 3) Switzerland being threatened by dark things.

They gave the lightest hand savage hairy knuckles...
you know, just in case you were thinking it was white.

This - remember - is the party that holds
the most seats in the Swiss parliament.

It is both fascinating and horrifying to see these posters. They are really nothing more than a subtler, more refined (but equally hateful) version of the racist political posters of bygone times - like this famous Australian cartoon decrying Chinese immigration:

"The Mongolian Octopus" by Phillip May, published 1886.
("Mongolian" as in the antiquated supposed racial type)

But back to the minarets.

Something I find quite funny about this whole thing is that the classic Western visual reference to minarets is something thought of as exquisitely beautiful, inspiring dazzling fantasies and pointing to deep love and refined culture... Something which (as we perhaps never thought about all this time) has minarets as arguably its most striking feature:

What would the Taj Mahal be without its minarets?

Justifications given for the Swiss ban range from the utterly hysterical:

If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” said Julia Werner, a local housewife. “Before you know it, we’ll have sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.” (Quoted in this obnoxiously written article in The Sunday Times)

to the utterly hysterical:

"Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure - we don't have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it," Ulrich Schlueer, co-president of the Initiative Committee to ban minarets, said. "Therefore, there's no room for minarets in Switzerland." (Quoted in this Aljazeera English article)

The Swiss government, business community, NGOs and and virtually all religious organizations opposed the ban, which has been sharply criticized by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay. Pillay summed the whole charade up fairly accurately as "anti-foreigner scare mongering."

All present in the debate over this are the usual cast of anti-Muslim rhetorical postures - the well-worn polemic about Islam being not actually a religion but a political ideology (quite a convenient position for people claiming to be defending human rights by attacking someone else's freedom of religion!), the "Saudi Arabia oppresses religious minorities so we should too"
gambit - (a.k.a. "when in Rome..."), the "multiculturalism is oppressing me by not letting me oppress people anymore" spiel and so on.


What is interesting to me is just how many parallels there are between the issues Muslims are facing in Europe now and those faced by European Jews of the past.
Dr Herbert Winter, the president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, made an important comment. He said:

As Jews we have our own experience. For centuries we were excluded: we were not allowed to construct synagogues or cupola roofs. We do not want that kind of exclusion repeated.

This sharpened awareness may be part of the reason why Swiss Jewish organizations have opposed the ban so strongly. In the words of a joint press release by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland (PLJS) titled No laws creating exceptions! No to the ban on minarets!:

As one of the oldest minorities in Switzerland, the Jewish community is now established and integrated in Swiss society. But precisely because the Jewish community has first hand experience of discrimination, it is committed to active opposition to discrimination and to action in favour of religious freedom and peaceful relations between the religions. This commitment is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition.

European Jews have indeed had a long historical experience of discrimination of all kinds, including with regard to their houses of worship. Restrictions on the height and appearance of Jewish synagogues were common in Europe all the way from the Roman empire until recent times. In many ways, these restrictions were not very different from what is going on today. The point in both cases is to mitigate the visibility of an ethnic/religious minority; at the same time it is an exercise of control and a symbolic subjugation - a way to remind that minority of their place in society (i.e., below white Christians).

Thus we see what happened in early 6th-century Italy when the Jews of Genoa requested to replace their synagogue's roof:

Theodoric granted them permission but warned them not to enlarge the synagogue or to add any kind of adornment. The penalty of these strictures was to be "the king's displeasure."
(p.30 from Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe)

This was in fact a rather 'generous' threat:

The penalties stipulated in the Theodosian Code for the enlargement or the conspicuous decoration of a synagogue were the confiscation of the building by the government and the transfer of it to the Church. (Ibid.)

Carol Herselle Krinsky, in her book Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning, describes a controversy that arose over proposed repairs to a synagogue in Carpentras, France in the late 18th century:

Litigation dragged on, and authorities investigated charges that the synagogue was taller than several churches. Church authorities wanted the building reduced in height, pointing out that the Jews had sunk to their subordinate station in society through their own fault, and should be obliged to look as lowly as they were. The synagogue's east windows were blocked but later unblocked, the main room was reduced in size, and the authorities ordered the west (bimah) tribune sealed from the rest of the room. (p.241 of Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning)

The same issues were at hand in Russia near the end of the 19th century when Tsar Alexander II famously rejected the initial design for what is now the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, saying "Redo the project in more modest dimensions," (see p.134 of People of the City: Jews and the Urban Challenge). Tying things all together is this description of synagogue restrictions in 18th century Poland from Thomas C. Hubka's book Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community:

Thus synagogues often stood out as respectful but forceful indicators of a major Jewish presence in their expanding Polish communities. Recognition of the synagogue's physical prominence does not ignore the many attempts that church and municipal authorities made to curb Jewish visibility and presence. Many restrictions were imposed on synagogue construction, just as they were on Jewish commercial and domestic building practices in general. For example, many scholars cite the typical municipal requirement that the synagogue's height not rival the height of the Catholic Church as the town's tallest building. (from p.51 of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community)

Hubka notes (p.182) that restrictions like this were common not only in Poland but throughout the Jewish diaspora.

In light of this, I feel especially grateful to hear Swiss Jewish leaders like Mr. Winter speaking out about the minaret issue and making the connection - an important one which needs to be made - between the current ban and the hateful bigotry that permeated much of Europe's past (and is increasingly afoot today). The increasingly xenophobic political atmosphere in Europe - where far-right wing parties have been making startling gains - seems in some ways to be bringing Muslim and Jewish communities closer together. I'm reminded of a beautiful example in Scotland earlier this year where members of the Muslim community in Edinburgh offered to help stand guard outside a synagogue after it had been vandalized. The Scottish Islamic Foundation's chairman wrote a letter to a Rabbi from the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation which included these words:

We trust you have adequate security arrangements in place, in line with places of worship across the country. If not, such is our strength of feeling on this matter, we would wish to physically guard the synagogue ourselves.

(In an equally inspiring story, a synagogue in Virginia has opened its doors to Muslims who, because of overcrowding at their mosque, were left with no place to pray on Fridays. They now pray in the synagogue.)


In any event, it does not truly surprise me to see such a ridiculous, transparently xenophobic proposal like this get voted through in Switzerland. It's mildly puzzling perhaps, but not shocking. The fear and loathing of Muslims is for many Europeans a deeply rooted cultural tic, and because of that it makes instinctive sense to many Swiss, French, Danes, or Brits to incline toward a decidedly confrontational political stance toward Islam and Muslims. This trend would normally not be so widespread but for the fact that many European Muslims happen to be immigrants during a time of economic turmoil (one of the SVP's biggest platforms is anti-immigration, after all).

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become quite politically expedient in recent years, and so has anti-immigration. When these two intertwine, they become a formidable political tool. We saw John Howard play this game masterfully, for a time, in Australia. Sarkozy has been toying with it in France lately. The Freedom Party in Austria dramatically rose to power with it. The BNP continues to reap gains from it in Britain, as does Geert Wilders' party in Holland. The SVP, with the largest share of seats in Switzerland's National Council, seems to be doing just fine with the strategy - and in fact is planning to capitalize on the minaret referendum's success by calling for even more restrictions:

[Adrian Amstutz, parliamentarian and senior member of the People's Party] says his party will reinforce its calls in parliament for further measures to contain the creeping Islamicisation of Swiss society.

"Forced marriages, female circumcision, special dispensation from swimming lessons and the burka are top of the list," Amstutz said, adding that the party was also considering outlawing special Muslim cemeteries.

Party leader Toni Brunner said Muslims who settled in Switzerland had to realise that they could not turn up to work in a head scarf.


I will conclude with a passage (pp. 7-10) from Muhammad Asad's exceptionally great book The Road to Mecca where he reflects on what he sees as the underlying reason behind European anti-Muslim attitudes, recalling a conversation he once had with a friend:

And I went on to tell him of a theory which I had conceived some years ago - a theory that might perhaps help one to understand better the deep-seated prejudice against Islam so often to be found in Western literature and contemporary political thought.

"To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice," I said, "one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between the Western and the Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades."

"The Crusades! "exclaimed my friend. "You don't mean to say that what happened nearly a thousand years ago could still have an effect on people of the twentieth century?"

"But it does! I know it sounds incredible; but don't you remember the incredulity which greeted the early discoveries of the psycho­analysts when they tried to show that much of the emotional life of a mature person-and most of those seemingly unaccountable leanings, tastes and prejudices comprised in the term 'idiosyncrasies' - can be traced back to the experiences of his most formative age, his early childhood? Well, are nations and civilizations anything but collective individuals? Their development also is bound up with the experiences of their early childhood. As with children, those experiences may have been pleasant or unpleasant; they may have been perfectly rational or, alternatively, due to the child's naïve misinterpretation of an event: the moulding effect of every such experience depends primarily on its original intensity. The century immediately preceding the Crusades, that is, the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, might well be described as the early childhood of Western civilization...."

I proceeded to remind my friend - himself a historian - that this had been the age when, for the first time since the dark centuries that followed the breakup of Imperial Rome, Europe was beginning to see its own cultural way. Independently of the almost forgotten Roman heritage, new literatures were just then coming into existence in the European vernaculars; inspired by the religious experience of Western Christianity, fine arts were slowly awakening from the lethargy caused by the warlike migrations of the Goths, Huns and Avars; out of the crude conditions of the early Middle Ages, a new cultural world was emerging. It was at that critical, extremely sensitive stage of its development that Europe received its most formidable shock - in modern parlance, a "trauma" - in the shape of the Crusades.

The Crusades were the strongest collective impression on a civilization that had just begun to be conscious of itself. Historically speaking, they represented Europe 's earliest - and entirely successful - attempt to view itself under the aspect of cultural unity. Nothing that Europe has experienced before or after could compare with the enthusiasm which the First Crusade brought into being. A wave of intoxication swept over the Continent, an elation which for the first time overstepped the barriers between states and tribes and classes. Before then, there had been Franks and Saxons and Germans, Burgundians and Sicilians, Normans and Lombards - a medley of tribes and races with scarcely anything in common but the fact that most of their feudal kingdoms and principalities were remnants of the Roman Empire and that all of them professed the Christian faith: but in the Crusades, and through them, the religious bond was elevated to a new plane, a cause common to all Europeans alike - the politico-religious concept of "Christendom," which in its turn gave birth to the cultural concept of "Europe." When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the "wicked race" that held the Holy Land, he enunciated - probably without knowing it himself - the charter of Western civilization.

The traumatic experience of the Crusades gave Europe its cultural awareness and its unity; but this same experience was destined henceforth also to provide the false color in which Islam was to appear to Western eyes. Not simply because the Crusades meant war and bloodshed. So many wars have been waged between nations and subsequently forgotten, and so many animosities which in their time seemed ineradicable have later turned into friendships. The damage caused by the Crusades was not restricted to a clash of weapons: it was, first and foremost, an intellectual damage - the poisoning of the Western mind against the Muslim world through a deliberate misrepresentation of the teachings and ideals of Islam. For, if the call for a crusade was to maintain its validity, the Prophet of the Muslims had, of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remained there; and it was then that the name of the Prophet Muhammad - the same Muhammad who had insisted that his own followers respect the prophets of other religions - was contemptuously transformed by Europeans into "Mahound." The age when the spirit of independent inquiry could raise its head was as yet far distant in Europe; it was easy for the powers-that-were to sow the dark seeds of hatred for a religion and civilization that was so different from the religion and civilization of the West. Thus it was no accident that the fiery Chanson de Roland, which describes the legendary victory of Christendom over the Muslim "heathen" in southern France, was composed not at the time of those battles but three centuries later - to wit, shortly before the First Crusade - immediately to become a kind of "national anthem" of Europe; and it is no accident, either, that this warlike epic marks the beginning of a European literature, as distinct from the earlier, localized literatures: for hostility toward Islam stood over the cradle of European civilization.

It would seem an irony of history that the age-old Western resentment against Islam, which was religious in origin, should still persist subconsciously at a time when religion has lost most of its hold on the imagination of Western man. This, however, is not really surprising. We know that a person may completely lose the religious beliefs imparted to him in his childhood while, nevertheless, some particular emotion originally connected with those beliefs remains, irrationally, in force throughout his later life -­

"- and this," I concluded, "is precisely what happened to that collective personality, Western civilization. The shadow of the Crusades hovers over the West to this day; and all its reactions toward Islam and the Muslim world bear distinct traces of that die-hard ghost...."


Sunday, November 22, 2009

A rose by any other name: Semantic framing and the discourse on Islam

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

A few days ago I read an article by journalist Johann Hari called "Meet the Ex-Jihadis". It profiles a colorful group of Muslims that Mr. Hari met and spoke with in Britain:

Seventeen former radical Islamists have "come out" in the past 12 months and have begun to fight back. Would they be able to tell me the reasons that pulled them into jihadism, and out again?

The article is worth reading, I think, mostly because of the window it provides into the thoughts of many prominent "former radical Islamists". The piece is at its strongest when Hari does the least editorializing and lets the interviewees speak for themselves. There are some major problems with it which might easily go overlooked, though.

The first issue I have is with the journalism/counter-terrorism speak Hari uses. (I was going to do a whole post on this fraught lexicon, but I might as well just write about it here.) We will start with Islamism.

"Islamist" is one of those words that theoretically can have a neutral meaning but is used so pejoratively that its negative connotations overshadow any sort of technical definition and render it useless (similar to "mullah"). Among its various given definitions are:

a movement of "Muslims who draw upon the belief, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape, and animate political activity." May contain moderate, tolerant, peaceful Islamists or those who "preach intolerance and espouse violence"


“the whole body of thought which seeks to invest society with Islam which may be integrationist, but may also be traditionalist, reform-minded or even revolutionary”


“the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws or policies that are held to be Islamic in character.” (see link above)

In Johann Hari's article - and indeed the media in general - the term is almost exclusively used to imply a sort of oppressive, aggressive 'Muslim' political ideology. I take serious issue with this. Why should the term "Islamist" be reserved for only the most regressive forces in the global Muslim community?

This may seem like petty semantics, but really 'petty semantics' is what frames our whole discussion on subjects like this and determines the type of questions we can ask. We now have, in fact, an entire 'expertise' industry and news genre built predominantly on wrong questions. So don't talk to me about "tomato, tomahto."


This article called "Is Morocco a model for the Muslim world?" is a classic example of the tragic misuse of the word "Islamism". It discusses family law reforms initiated in Morocco by women's groups who have been demanding more legal rights using an Islamic platform. In the article, these women - who use the traditional foundation of Islamic doctrine to draw support for their position - are called "feminists", while those opposing their struggle for civil rights are called "Islamists". Both groups draw on equally "Islamic" sources for their arguments, yet the progressives are stripped of their religious credentials by the term "feminist" while the 'Islamicness' of the reactionaries is re-affirmed by the title "Islamist". Why? Why do we not, for example, call the women's movement "Islamist" and the men opposing them "misogynists"?

The answer, I personally think, is that that sort of nuanced and objective treatment of Muslims could well make our collective head explode. The definition of Islam as something inherently problematic is something that a lot of peoples' professional careers and political appointments depend on.

A screenshot from "Is Morocco a Model for the Muslim World". (Read the caption.)

The same objection applies to the terms "jihadist" or "jihadi". The first point to make is that by Islamic standards, Johann Hari's qualification of the former actions of his interviewees as "jihad" is suspect. The Qur'an, which is the unquestioned first source of Islamic doctrine, gives clear guidelines for what constitutes jihad. The first condition is that it is strictly defensive and never aggressive:

AND FIGHT in God's cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression - for, verily, God does not love aggressors. (2:190)

Muhammad Asad writes in his footnote to this verse:

This and the following verses lay down unequivocally that only self-defense (in the widest sense of the word) makes war permissible for Muslims. Most of the commentators agree in that the expression la ta'tadu signifies, in this context, "do not commit aggression"; while by al-mu'tadin "those who commit aggression" are meant. The defensive character of a fight "in God's cause" - that is, in the cause of the ethical principles ordained by God - is, moreover, self-evident in the reference to "those who wage war against you", and has been still further clarified in 22:39 - "permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged" - which, according to all available Traditions, constitutes the earliest (and therefore fundamental) Qur'anic reference to the question of jihad, or holy war (see Tabari and Ibn Kathir in their commentaries on 22:39). That this early, fundamental principle of self-defence as the only possible justification of war has been maintained throughout the Qur'an is evident from 60:8, as well as from the concluding sentence of 4:91, both of which belong to a later period than the above verse.

Secondly, jihad is not confined to military defense:

SUCH of the believers as remain passive121 - other than the disabled - cannot be deemed equal to those who strive hard in God's cause with their possessions and their lives:122 God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive. Although God has promised the ultimate good unto all [believers], yet has God exalted those who strive hard above those who remain passive by [promising them] a mighty reward (4:95)

The footnotes to this verse:

121 Lit., "who sit [at home]"- i.e., who do not participate in the struggle in God's cause, be it physical or moral.

122 The term mujahid is derived from the verb jahada, which means "he struggled" or "strove hard" or "exerted himself", namely, in a good cause and against evil. Consequently, jihad denotes "striving in the cause of God" in the widest sense of this expression: that is to say, it applies not merely to physical warfare (qital) but to any righteous struggle in the moral sense as well; thus, for instance, the Prophet described man's struggle against his own passions and weaknesses (jihad an-nafs) as the "greatest jihad" (Bayhaqi, on the authority of Jabir ibn 'Abd Allah).

I appreciate that Mr. Hari has no responsibility to make theological pronouncements about what "real" jihad is and what it is not. I as a Muslim may give my opinion on the matter (as I did above using evidence from the Qur'an), but he, in the context of "reporting" news, is not in a position to do this. Yet this is exactly what he does, however unwittingly. His terminology speaks for itself.

As one of Hari's own informants, Usama Hassan, explains to him:

"Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad."

Yet he is still called an "ex-jihadi". To be fair, he might agree with this description. But why should he, and why should anybody? Is his current struggle less authentically Islamic than the former?

I am so tired of people giving these type of titles away to the loudest and angriest Muslims they happen across. Johann Hari isn't the root cause of this problem; these terms have already been lobbed around enough times to become standardized jargon. Nevertheless, they still need to be called out and challenged constantly.

This normative labeling has a number of effects. Firstly, it precludes any true objectivity (all things "Islamist" are automatically predefined as being the most anti-reform, patriarchal, violent and so on). Secondly, it undermines the very people who western commentators would (presumably) like to see succeed in the 'Muslim world' (Muslims, for example, have a long historical experience of colonial feminism, and so the term "feminist" is often more of a liability than a boon for female Muslim activists). Conceding "jihad"(-ism) or "Islam"(-ism) to the most reactionary parties at the table instantly delegitimizes any voices advocating different approaches and interpretations of Islam.

Here's a simple exercise: ask yourself if it would be reasonable to start describing George W. Bush as a "democratist", or to call the invasion of Iraq an act of "freedomism". Bush and his administration (and indeed millions of Americans) drew heavily from this kind of rhetoric to justify their military decisions - and may well have actually believed what they were saying - yet did we start speaking of the danger of "radical freedomism", or interviewing constitutional historians on CNN to find out "why they did it"? I can imagine this happening nowhere other than the Colbert Report.

Yet Muslims are treated exactly this way by the media. They are taken at their word when describing global political violence as "jihad" or the suppression of women's rights as "Islamic", but when they call a struggle for peace or civil liberties by the same name, their voices are silenced by the journalist's pen and they become refashioned as "feminists" or "ex-jihadis".


So what should we call globalized violence done in the name of Islam, since "Islamism" and "jihadism" have been debased beyond repair? The correct term, it seems to me, would simply be "political extremism", or more specifically: "Islamicized political extremism". This may be the most accurate, theologically neutral way of naming the phenomenon. The word "Islamicized" implies the external, cosmetic application of Islamic symbols but does not characterize the political extremism as Islamic or non-Islamic. This is the only appropriate approach for a truly "objective" news media to take. Interestingly, according to google this term does not yet exist.

Relevant to all this is a very interesting book by John E. Richardson called (Mis)Representing Islam: The racism and rhetoric of British Broadsheet Newspapers. You can read its introduction and first chapter online.

Anyway, I didn't even talk about a whole host of other problematic terms. (For example, what is "fundamentally Islamic", "extremely Islamic" or "radically Muslim" about what we call "Islamic fundamentalism", "Islamic extremism" and "radical Islam"?) And there are also some other problems I have with Johann Hari's article. Maybe I'll write on them another time.

For now, peace out ~

... And do not call me a "moderate Muslim".

Sunday, November 8, 2009

V.S. Naipaul, Acclaimed Bigot

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

I was prompted to start this post after reading a comment someone posted in response to a story about "Rising Islamist Movements in Turkey":

"Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story...
The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of the converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil."

Sir V.S Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner

"Little negro children running up and down the street, causing me distress"

Wrapped in the laurels of a Nobel Prize, bigotry is less hideous a companion, I suppose. And let there be no ambiguity about it - V.S. Naipaul is, simply put: a bigot. The fact that he was given the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001 cannot change that.

I intend ultimately to discuss Naipaul's writing here. With this mind, anecdotal accounts of the man's personal racist disposition are perhaps not supremely relevant; they do, however, help us catch a glimpse of the mentality which shapes his writing.

Consider this, for example:

Of the
bindi that adorns the forehead of married Indian women, Naipaul once said, “The dot means: My head is empty.” Naipaul's vitriol for Africa and Africans is spectacular. “This place is full of buggers”; “Do you hear those bitches and their bongos?” Mel Gussow notes, “About the influx of Jamaicans into England, he suggested in an article that one way to decrease immigration would be to increase the importation of bananas. His much quoted line was: ‘a Banana a day will keep the Jamaican away.’” Naipaul has managed to package condescension as objectivity.

Remember that last sentence.


Naipaul's anti-black sentiments stare out of his novels. Sample his deductions about slavery: 'I asked for a cup of coffee . . . It was a tiny old man who served me. And I thought, not for the first time, that in colonial days the hotel boys had been chosen for their small size, and the ease with which they could be manhandled. That was no doubt why the region had provided so many slaves in the old days: slave peoples are physically wretched, half-men in everything except in their capacity to breed the next generation' (from A Bend in the River, 1979).

The excerpt below is from a review of Paul Theroux's memoir recounting his (now ended) friendship with Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow:

At almost every meeting between Theroux and Naipaul, whether in Uganda in the '60s, where they first meet, or in the '70s and '80s in Great Britain, where Theroux becomes famous, Naipaul complains: Servants "should be kicked" to keep them in line, a pregnant woman is "one of the ugliest sights on earth" and nearly everyone except for Theroux is an "inferior," or "infie." Unfortunately, all this bile makes "Sir Vidia's Shadow" a tiresome book.


“Africans need to be kicked – that’s the only thing they understand,” he said in Uganda. “Whip them” was also a frequent Naipaul rejoinder.

Is it West Indian waggishness when he speaks of “negroes at [Princess Diana’s] shrines, weeping openly”, or “little negro children running up and down the street [in London], causing me distress”. Or consider his reaction to the news that the cricketer Viv Richards and his Indian wife have had a baby: “How could she have a child by that nigger?” Or this comment on the Nobel prize (1988): “Of course I won’t get it – they’ll give it to some nigger or other.” To Naipaul, West Indians are “slaves” and Indians have a “slave mentality”. The word trips off his tongue.

A person so fluent in these racist clichés and postures would presumably have little hesitation saying something like:

"I don't count the African readership and I don't think one should. Africa is a land of bush, again, not a very literary land."

So what are we to make of all this? Edward Said sums things up well:

Naipaul, in Said's opinion, was "considered a master novelist [in the West] and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World, [yet] in the post-colonial world he's a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him."

Said further remarks:

Naipaul's account of the Islamic, Latin American, African, Indian and Caribbean worlds totally ignores a massive infusion of critical scholarship about those regions in favor of the tritest, cheapest and the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies, myths that even Lord Cromer and Forster's Turtons and Burtons would have been embarrassed to trade in outside their private clubs…

In his writings about Islam especially, Naipaul indeed reveals himself as a "purveyor of stereotypes" par excellence.

Ignorance, Bias and Misrepresentation

In the early 1980s Naipaul published Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, which details a series of travels he undertook in the 'Muslim world'. If we look at the writing in this book, we begin to see how his intellectual pathologies play out. This passage about his time in Iran provides a perfect case study.

The first problem with Naipaul is hardly pathological: he is just generally ignorant about the topic he decided to write a book about. This is true for Islam, Muslim history, and even current events in the 'Muslim world'. Without a touch of self-consciousness, he writes:

I hadn't followed Iranian affairs closely; but it seemed to me, going only by the graffiti of Iranians abroad, that religion had come late to Iranian protest. It was only when the revolution had started that I understood that it had a religious leader, who had been in exile for many years. The Ayatollah Khomeini, I felt, had been revealed slowly. As the revolution developed, his sanctity and authority appeared to grow and at the end were seen to have been absolute all along.

How he feels so confident making pronouncements about the dialectic between religion and politics in the Iranian revolution "going only by the graffiti of Iranians abroad" defies comprehension.

(But really, when you think about it, a nearly identical method of analysis was dominant in our media's coverage of the recent post-election protests in Iran; namely, "going only by the [electronic] graffiti of Iranians [or anyone on Twitter] abroad".)

Naipaul's lack of basic knowledge about Islam shines through in the account of his visit to Qom, an important center of religious scholarship in Iran:

There were 14,000 theological students in Qom, they told me. (And yet, arriving at the worst time of the day, we had found the streets empty.) The shortest period of study was six years.

"Six years!"

The director smiled at my exclamation. "Six is nothing. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years some people can study for."

What did they study in all that time? This wasn't a place of research and new learning. They were men of faith. What was there in the subject that called for so much study? Well, there was Arabic itself; there was grammar in all its branches; there was logic and rhetoric; there was jurisprudence, Islamic jurisprudence being one course of study and the principles of jurisprudence being another; there was Islamic philosophy; there were the Islamic sciences -- biographies and genealogies of the Prophet and his close companions, as well as "correlations" and traditions.

I had expected something more casual, more personal: the teacher a holy man, the student a disciple. I hadn't expected this organization of learning or this hint of classical methods.

Naipaul seems to assume that anything Islamic can be analogized to something from his own cultural experience. He is surprised, therefore, that traditional Islamic scholarship doesn't fit within the guru-disciple paradigm, or that a tradition which excelled in philosophy, astronomy and medicine - and heavily shaped modern science as we know it - might have a "hint of classical methods". Elsewhere he writes:

I had seen other medicine men in Tehran and had thought of them as Iranian equivalents of the homeopathic medicine men of India. But the names these Iranians were invoking as medical authorities -- as Behzad told me, after listening to their sales talk to a peasant group -- were Avicenna, Galen, and "Hippocrat."

Drawing now from his western historical subconscious, Naipaul comes up with this absurd equivocation:

Islam, almost from the start, had been an imperialism as well as a religion, with an early history remarkably like a speeded -- up version of the history of Rome, developing from city state to peninsular overlord to empire, with corresponding stresses at every stage.

It's as if the man is literally incapable of thinking in terms beyond his own cultural lexicon.

Naipaul is at least honest about his limited perspective:

Because with one corner of my mind I approached Iran through classical history and felt awe for its antiquity: the conqueror of Egypt, the rival of Greece, undefeated by Rome; and with another corner of my mind I approached it through India, where, at least in the northwest, the idea of Persia is still an idea of the highest civilization -- as much as France used to be for the rest of Europe -- in its language, its poetry, its carpets, its food.

The problem, though, is that he feels so comfortable marinating in his cultural afterbirth that he ends up projecting his own preconceptions and biases onto the world he had set out to "discover". Consider this remark:

Avicenna! To me only a name, someone from the European Middle Ages: it had never occurred to me that he was a Persian.

To Naipaul, this realization pointed not, say, to the fact that he might be ignorant of Islamic history. No, not at all; it simply meant that the fact about Avicenna "had never occurred to [him]". This lack of reflectiveness is almost solipsistic.

Subjectivity and cultural bias are certainly things we all are prone to, but Naipaul's great crime is that he takes his own stilted impressions and presents them to us as pedestrian fact.

Edward Said devotes a chapter of his book Reflections on Exile and Other Essays to Among the Believers. He writes (p. 113) of the provincialism behind Naipaul's pretenses to objectivity:

What he sees he sees because it happens before him and, more important, because it confirms what, except for an occasionally eye-catching detail, he already knows. He does not learn: they prove.

The further one ventures into Naipaul's work, the more unclear it is how much - if at all - his understanding of Islam has changed since the time he was a child in Trinidad:

Its doctrine, or what I thought was its doctrine, didn't attract me. It didn't seem worth inquiring into; and over the years, in spite of travel, I had added little to the knowledge gathered in my Trinidad childhood.


With a profound poverty of knowledge about Islamic scholarship and history already on display, it hardly surprised me to read such a thoroughly meaningless assessment as this:

To Kurdistan, following the Phantoms, went Ayatollah Khalkhalli, as close to power as he had boasted only ten days before in Qom. In no time, moving swiftly from place to place in the August heat, he had sentenced forty-five people to death. He had studied for thirty-five years and was never at a loss for an Islamic judgment. When in one Kurdish town the family of a prisoner complained that three of the prisoner's teeth had been removed and his eyes gouged out, Khalkhalli ordered a similar punishment for the torturer. Three of the man's teeth were torn out on the spot. The aggrieved family then relented, pardoned the offender, and let him keep his eyes.

It was Islamic justice, swift, personal, satisfying; it met the simple needs of the faithful.

"Islamic justice", he tells us, is little more than a convoluted iteration of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"; it is pure primitive vengeance embellished by a "hint of classical methods". Violent, emotional and lacking objectivity ("swift, personal, satisfying"), this "justice" is well suited for the unsophisticated needs of unsophisticated people: those he patronizingly calls "the faithful".

V.S. Naipaul has learned to play the 'white man' better than The White Man himself.

But, of course, one can never truly achieve this status viz. Islam without the required condescension toward Muslim women:

Another evening, on another program, an Iranian woman came on with her head covered to tell us that Islam protected women and gave them dignity.

(The true absurdity here lies not in Naipaul's juxtaposition, but rather in the surprising superficiality and cheapness of it.)

As shown in the quote above, Naipaul excels at repackaging invective polemic as mundane observation. Filtered through the writer's imagination, for instance, the account of a calligrapher at work becomes a flurry of sideswipes at Islam:

In a room across the wide corridor a calligrapher was at work, writing out a Koran. He was in his forties, in trousers and shirt, and he was sitting at a sloping desk. His hand was steady, unfree, without swash or elegance; but he was pleased to let us watch him plod on, dipping his broad-ribbed pen in the black ink. His face bore the marks of old stress; but he was at peace now, doing his newfound scribe's work in his safe, modern cell.

This sort of editorialism masquerading as description is the most dangerous thing about his writing.

Death, Rubbish and Sand

Intentionally or not, Naipaul's account of Iran makes healthy use of a rhetorical ploy common in the more fraught western descriptions of nonwhite Others: a preoccupation with dirt and the unclean.

Before proceeding it is probably worth considering this strange passage about Naipaul from a very strange 2007 article in The Sunday Times:

The small Indian community from which he came invented a past for themselves, an imaginary India of great and impossible glories. His mother succumbed to this myth. In one particularly telling essay in this book, Naipaul writes of her diary of a visit to her ancestral country. She visits relations and is given a cup of tea. One woman wipes the side of the cup with the palm of her hand and another brings her sugar and stirs it into the tea with her finger. That single and, to her, disgusting gesture destroys his mother's Indian fantasy, and the diary simply stops.

“The land of myth,” he writes, “of a perfection that at one time had seemed vanished and unreachable, had robbed her of words.”

Though hungry for a past, Naipaul never fell for this myth, and his mordant observations of the shortcomings of India have earned him yet more enemies. There was one prissy, middle-class Indian myth that, because of the Hindu emphasis on purity, India was a particularly clean place. By looking and seeing, Naipaul destroyed that absurdity. India was, to him, a mess. And, if there is one thing he hates more than anything else, it is mess.

These sort of trite revelations about the Third World being "a mess" go a long way, I think, to explain Naipaul's popularity in certain western circles. (The author of the Sunday Times article, for instance, seems disturbingly delighted at the idea of some "prissy" Indian "absurdity" being "destroyed" by Naipaul, the noble warrior-truth teller, who by "looking and seeing", exposes India as the "mess" it is. That'll teach those uppity natives.) They also raise serious questions about his responsibility as a writer. Said remarks:

Two things need to be said about the small band whose standard bearer Naipaul has become, all of whom share the same characteristics. One is that in presenting themselves as members of courageous minorities in the Third World, they are in fact not interested at all in the Third World - which they never address - but in the metropolitan intellectuals whose twists and turns have gone on despite the Third World, and whose approval they seem quite desperate to have. Naipaul writes for Irving Howe and Joan Didion, not for Eqbal Ahmad or Dennis Brutus or C.L.R. James who, after noting his early promise, went on to excoriate Naipaul for the scandal of his "Islamic journey," Among the Believers.

He continues:

Second, and more important, what is seen as crucially informative and telling about their work - their accounts of the Indian darkness or the Arab predicament - is precisely what is weakest about it: with reference to the actualities it is ignorant, illiterate, and cliché-ridden.

(Should it be any surprise, then, to hear the likes of David Brooks singing Naipaul's praises? Or Daniel Pipes?)

Returning to Among the Believers:

Naipaul spares no opportunity to tell us how much dust and grime there is in Iran, again:

The road was dug-up and dusty; the car was very dusty. It was hot; the exhausts of passing cars and trucks made it hotter.

And again:

South Tehran was still an Eastern city, more populous and cramped, more bazaar -- like, full of people who had moved in from the countryside; and the crowd in the dusty, littered yard of the bus station was like a country crowd.

And again:

Somebody in a grimy little office told Behzad that there was a bus for Qom in half an hour.

And again:

Behzad looked for a telephone, found coins, telephoned, got no reply. The August heat had built up; the air was full of dust.

And again:

In this dusty pavement medical stock was a reminder of the Arab glory of a thousand years before, when the Arab faith mingled with Persia, India, and the remnant of the classical world it had overrun, and Moslem civilization was the central civilization of the West.

And again, in perhaps his magnum opus of telling us Iran is dusty:

The colors of the city were as dusty and pale as they had appeared from the air. Dust blew about the road, coated the trees, dimmed the colors of cars. Bricks and plaster were the color of dust; unfinished buildings looked abandoned and crumbling; and walls, like abstracts of the time, were scribbled over in the Persian script and stenciled with portraits of Khomeini.

And again:

The pavements were broken. Many shop signs were broken or had lost some of their raised letters. Dust and grime were so general, and on illuminated signs looked so much like the effect of smoke, that buildings that had been burned out in old fires did not immediately catch the eye.

And again:

Low brick buildings were the color of dust; walls looked unfinished; bright interiors seemed as impermanent as their paint.

And yet again:

We went out into the light and dust, past the souvenir shops again, with the brown cakes and the tablets of Arabian clay, and were permitted to sit in the empty cafe opposite the KHOMEINI IS OUR LEADER slogan.

This repetition serves two functions. The first is to drive home the point that Islam is old, static and dead. Naipaul says this implicitly:

In this dusty pavement medical stock was a reminder of the Arab glory of a thousand years before, ...

And outright:

The glories of this religion were in the remote past; it had generated nothing like a Renaissance.

(Note the use of had rather than has.)

The second function is to tell us that the people of Iran, or Muslims, are dirt(y). This latter objective is pursued more explicitly by Naipaul. He begins with the co-location of dirt, garbage, and "a country crowd":

South Tehran was still an Eastern city, more populous and cramped, more bazaar -- like, full of people who had moved in from the countryside; and the crowd in the dusty, littered yard of the bus station was like a country crowd.

Before long - as if through osmosis - people actually become bits of trash:

Two saplings had been planted on the platform. One was barked and dead; the other was half dead. Between them lay an old, sunburned, ill-looking woman in black, an inexplicable bit of human debris an hour away from Tehran. Scraps of newspaper from the stall blew about in the sand, and caught against the trunks of the trees.

Death, rubbish and sand.

And again we see Iranians as trash, but what's even worse, they are peripheral trash:

So the Turkomans were men of Central Asia who were once feared. How they fitted into Persian history I didn't know; and their past of war and banditry seemed far from these depressed campers at the shrine. Small, sunburned, ragged, they were like debris at the edge of a civilization that had itself for a long time been on the edge of the world.

The description of lower class/rural Iranians is where Naipaul's colonial sensibilities and caste consciousness seem to congeal into a twisted lump of disdain. He makes them seem more like raisins than people. They are described as "old, sunburned, ill-looking", "small, sunburned, ragged", "depressed campers", "turbanned, sunburned", "sunburned peasants", "inexplicable bits of human debris" and so on until the dehumanization is complete and we start to see them how Naipaul sees them: Third World flotsam and jetsam, scorched by the sun and scattered in the dirt.

An Intellectual Catastrophe of the First Order

Two late, great scholars and critical voices - Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad -have each shared their thoughts on Naipaul. They can probably conclude this piece far better than I.

Edward Said on Among the Believers (p. 116 of Reflections on Exile and Other Essays):

The characters barely come alive. The descriptions are lackadaisical, painfully slow, repetitious. The landscapes are half-hearted at best. How can one learn about "Islam" from him? Without the languages, he talks to the odd characters who happen by. He makes them directly representative of "Islam," covering his ignorance with no appreciable respect for history.

In an interview from Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire: Interviews with David Bersamian (p. 110-11), Ahmad recalls meeting Naipaul:

he asked me what I thought of his book Among the Believers and I said I disliked it. He said, "Why?" I said, "Because you are not interested in reality. Books like these are not fiction. I read books like these for reality."

After Naipaul expresses confusion at this reply, Ahmad recalls how he outlined to Naipaul his irredeemable error: depicting the Pakistani government under Zia ul-Haq as "an Islamic state... as if this government represented that country and was supported by its people", while failing to mention that "the regime was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including almost all the known poets, writers, and artists of Pakistan". He continued (to Naipaul):

"Nearly 30,000 or 40,000 went into prisons, and you don't make one mention of it. You describe that regime as Islamic. The least you could have done was to say that this was a contested space. This Islam that you are presenting is not the final Islam of Muslims. It is contested by a large number, most probably a majority, of the Muslim people of Pakistan."

Naipaul "disliked hearing that".

Ahmad finishes the account by remarking to the interviewer:

This is not writing. He should stop writing. He should be selling sausages.

At the end of a review of Naipaul's second book about the 'Muslim world', Beyond Belief: Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Said writes:

Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.'


And how unfortunate it is that Said and Ahmad are no longer with us.

خُدا حافظ

Sunday, October 25, 2009

For Hadji Girl

Yet another reason why I write.. I'm doing this as the first post because it sums up well where we are today in terms of Muslim/non-Muslim relations. It also ties into the origin of this blog's name.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحي
In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving


This video was made in 2006 by a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq. It's titled "Hadji Girl", and tells the story of the soldier's fictional (?) experience of getting ambushed by the family of an Iraqi girl and the fight that ensued.

The song was posted on youtube (and then banned from the site for some time) in March of '06 and got some attention in the media, though I never heard about it until discovering it earlier today. It was released at an especially inopportune moment for the military: during the aftermath of the killing of 15 unarmed civilians (including women and children) in the Iraqi city of Haditha by a group of U.S. Marines.

(Note: the word "Hadji" is a title for a Muslim who has done pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the BBC, it is also "commonly used as a term of insult against Iraqis among US troops.")

Here are the lyrics:

Hadji Girl

I was out in the sands of Iraq
And we were under attack
And I, well I didn't know where to go..

And the first thing that I could see
Was everybody's favorite Burger King
So I, threw open the door and I hit the floor.

Then suddenly to my surprise
I looked up and I saw her eyes
And I knew it was love at first sight.
And she said:

"Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad,
[laughter, clapping]
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah"

- Hadji girl I can't understand what you're sayin'...
And she said:

"Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad,
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah"

- Hadji girl I love you anyway..
[loud cheers]

Then she said that she wanted me to see;
She wanted me to go meet her family
But I, well I couldn't figure out how to say no.
- Cause I don't speak Arabic, so -[soft laughter]

She took me down an old dirt trail
And she pulled up to a side shanty
And she threw open the door and I hit the floor..
- 'Cause her brother and her father shouted:

"Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad,
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah"

They pulled out their AKs so I could see..
And they said:

"Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad,
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah"

- So I grabbed her little sister and pulled her in front of me.
[loud cheers and laughter]

As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
[amused laughter]
And then I laughed maniacally...

Then I hid behind the TV
And I locked and loaded my M-16
And I blew those little fuckers to etern-i-ty.
[modest applause]
And I said:

"Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad,
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah"

- They should've known they were fuckin' with the Marines..
[strong applause]

The song's refrain, "durka durka Mohhamed jihad", is a reference to a scene in the film "Team America: World Police", which "satirizes" America's foreign policy and the 'war on terror' (... kind of the same way Hadji Girl "satirizes" the killing of Iraqi children... or the way 'Larry the Cable Guy' "satirizes" being a redneck..). Anyway, here's the scene - set deep in Durkadurkistan:

Stylistically, Hadji Girl is similar to Adam Sandler's The Chanukah Song. Both are minimalist storytelling songs accompanied by acoustic guitar that rely heavily on comedic timing and audience reaction/participation. The climax of Sandler's "Chanukah Song" comes near the end, when he sings those classic lines "So drink your gin and tonic-ah / and smoke your marijuana-kah!" (later rhyming this with "have a happy [3x] Hanukkah").

Con/per-versely, the climax for Hadji Girl comes when the Marine belts out - in a guttural intonation reminiscent of Sandler's trademark style - the line about "grabbing her little sister" and using her as a human shield during the gun battle with her family. This, I think, is the most gruesome aspect of the entire song. "Laughing maniacally" as "the blood sprayed from between [the little sister's] eyes" is plenty insane, and describing the Iraqi family basically as sand critters ("those little fuckers") is obviously dehumanizing, but the positioning of "So I grabbed her little sister and put her in front of me" as the song's prime comedic moment is just unfathomably sick.


Somehow, in its coverage of the "Hadji Girl" story, MSNBC managed to massively fail at describing the song's plot, saying that:

"Hadji Girl” tells a story of a Marine who falls in love with an Iraqi girl and is taken to meet her family. The girl’s family shoots her and then attacks the Marine, who uses her younger sister as a shield and watches blood spray from her head.

He then sings about blowing the father and brother “to eternity.”

Nowhere in the song is there any mention or insinuation of "Hadji Girl" being shot by her family. If anything, she would have been gunned down by the soldier when he "blew those little fuckers to etern-i-ty". But I suppose MSNBC can be excused, as it is, of course, only natural for Muslim/Arab men to murder their daughters..


Yeah, so.. this is where we are. Anyone got a shovel? Hadji Girl needs a proper burial, and I need to dig my way out of here.


The aftermath of the Haditha killings:

They should've known they were fuckin' with the Marines..


Khuda Hafiz -- May God protect you
خُدا حافظ