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OR WE SHOULD ALL PRETEND TO BE
by Mitchell Abidor
From the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
1. A PLAINT
THESE LAST FEW YEARS have been terrible for us Muslims. The promise of the Arab Spring has ended in chaos and dictatorship in the best of cases, with our fellow Muslims feeling the weight of the death and violence. Yes, ISIS gets press for its killings in the West (where its victims almost always include Muslims), but the overwhelming mass of those they kill, or whose lives they make a living hell, are Muslims of the Middle East. This is occasionally noted, but the fact remains that the war (and the rhetoric) against ISIS (and us) only heats up when they kill Westerners.
Even while we are the main victims in the East, we figure as the great bogeyman of the West. In America, everything humanly possible is done to keep Syrians and Iraqis, the true victims of the violence, out of the country as would-be terrorists. The threat of our imposing sharia law is also regularly invoked — by politicians who back their own positions with their Christian beliefs. None of them see that no one is attempting or claiming to make sharia the basis for anything in American public life, while Christianity is invoked so regularly that one might think the U.S. is a theocracy. And if Muslims choose to allow sharia law to make decisions in their daily existences, in what way does this differ from the rabbinical courts of the Jews? Don’t the Jews have rabbis who — like the maddest of our imams — preach holy war?
If you are visibly Muslim, you know that you will be looked at askance at the airport and even yanked off a plane if you speak in Arabic. You will be followed by a sneaking suspicion that you support terrorism, and politicians will be calling for your neighborhoods to be policed, and the police will indeed spy on you and your community. This, although there’s been no evidence that any American mosque has aided or abetted terrorism; this, although synagogues all over Brooklyn serve as the breeding ground for those Jews who advocate the death and expulsion of Palestinian Muslims.
Let us not forget the targetting of Muslims in Europe by ultra-right parties that aim to restrict our presence or end it altogether — in Europe, where we are already shut out of so many spheres of daily life and then accused of not integrating into their societies.
WE ARE LIVING PROOF that not all victims are equal. When we flee countries made living hells, no one wants us. We are parked in poorly equipped camps whose existence, and hence ours, is threatened daily. Violations of international law on the treatment of refugees are acceptable when we are the victims. We are the perfect enemy: invisible victims and hugely visible killers. As victims, we number in the millions; as killers, in the thousands. Yet you care only about the thousands.
Attacks on Jews in France are covered in the world press; aggressions against Muslims in France, and laws more or less aimed at us under the guise of laïcité pass unnoticed.
And who knows what will happen to us after the U.S. elections? The atmosphere has been so poisoned by the Trumps and their ilk that it will be difficult for the racist genie to be stuffed back into the bottle. Perhaps Muslims will not be kept out of the country — for now. Perhaps there will be no registry of Muslims — for now. Perhaps there will not be special police units spying on us — for now. But who knows when?
What can we do? What can you do?
2. A GUIDE
IN TRUTH, I am not a Muslim. But as the anti-Muslim chorus has continued to grow during the Republican campaign, it struck me that the tactic to adopt in defense of Muslims in the U.S. is a modification of what occurs near the end of the film Spartacus. When the last of the slave rebels are captured, the Romans know that the leader, Spartacus, is among them. When asked which is Spartacus, so he can be tortured and executed, one by one the slaves rise and say, “I am Spartacus.” They all pay the ultimate price.
Well, then: I am Mahmoud.
Let us all become Muslims. The professor at Wheaton College who wore a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims had the right idea, but why not take it all the way? If our place, as Jews and as progressives, is alongside the shunned, let us join them. I am already an atheist Jew, so why not be an atheist Muslim? We are all Mahmoud. We are all Fatima . . .
What better way to point out the absurdity of the Islamophobes among us than to have people who look and dress and eat and act just like them become one with those they think are our enemy? How better to demonstrate their ignorance and the absurdity of their reductionism than to make the Other into us?
BUT HOW to situate myself in that world? I figured that I needed an education in the A-B-Cs of Islam, so I turned to my son Pascal, who is a doctoral student in Islamic studies — and has been harassed for it.* First, I asked, what is the process of conversion?
[*NOTE: Pascal Abidor was the plaintiff in an ACLU case about the confiscation of his computer at the U.S.-Canadian border (he is earning his Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal) for national security purposes. See Mitchell Abidor’s “My Son the Homeland Security Threat” from the Jewish Currents Spring 2012 issue.]
“It’s pretty simple,” he wrote. “Just say, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,’ in Arabic (la illaha illa allah wa muhammadar rasul allah). Say it sincerely, as though you believe it is true. The sincerity of belief is key, otherwise virtually everyone who has taken an Arabic class would technically be a Muslim. But as the Arabic saying goes, ‘God knows best’ — which can mean, in this case, that only God will know your heart.”
And that’s it? I asked. And once I’m in, I can choose what kind of Muslim I want to be, Shiite, Sunni . . . ?
“The decision of what kind of Muslim you want to be is decidedly more complex,” Pascal wrote. “Islam is not simply divided between Sunni and Shiite. There are four different schools of law within Sunni Islam, and the substantive difference between them can manifest as different assessments of what is permissible (less common) or as very different modes of legal reasoning that arrive at the same conclusion (more common). The schools themselves are united by modes of legal reasoning and not by legal decisions. This is a seemingly academic difference, but it’s crucial to how different local Islams operate.
“Shiism,” he continued, “has less formal divisions. They’re not expressed in terms of schools of legal thought, but revolve around specific individuals, whom we in the West lump together as ‘the ayatollahs.’ These are the foremost scholars of Shiite interpretations of Islamic law — Islam’s equivalent of the rabbinate. Shiites divide as followers of individual, living ayatollahs. They might follow one ayatollah for all matters, or different ayatollahs for different matters — one for matters of finance, for example, another for social issues. However, you are not supposed to pick and choose your ayatollah for each specific situation based on what you’d like to do.”
Briefly, I asked, what would be some of the theological differences? Since both Shia and Sunni Islam share the same Qur’an and the same five pillars — declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving money to charity, fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca — what separates them?
“The theological differences are less significant than the practical,” Pascal wrote. “Sunnis believe the prophet should have been succeeded by Abu Bakr and the other three ‘rightly guided’ caliphs; Shiites believe that Ali, the prophet’s cousin, son-in-law, second-in-command, and all-around favorite person ever, and his eleven descendants (known as imams), should have been the successors to lead the Islamic world after the prophet’s death. The twelfth imam, known as the Mahdi, is believed by Shiites to have gone into occultation, hiddenness, and will return to restore justice in the world. While it is a central tenet of Shiite Islam to believe in the Mahdi’s return, Sunnis don’t share this belief. There are numerous other differences about how the law works, the relationship between the laity and the clerisy, and even just the idea of a clerisy (which is more of a Shiite idea than a Sunni one).”
NEXT I ASKED if there is some kind of class fracture within Islam? It’s a fact that two of the three most important Communist parties in the region, the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Egyptian, were all in Shiite countries,
so . . . ?
“The communist-Shiite connection runs deeper than class divisions, though those are certainly important,” Pascal replied. “Certain conceptions of society and social justice in Shiism have a strong affinity with communist ideologies. Shiites believe that the rise of Sunni Islam came at the hands of wealthy, unworthy, un-Islamic leaders who had a hand in assassinating ten of their imams and driving the twelfth into occultation. The very idea of the Mahdi’s return is conceived not as a metaphorical, mystical reckoning, but as restoring peace and justice to the world, materially, and leading an actual political force.
“Marxist texts were popular in Shiite seminaries in the mid-20th century. In fact, the rise of more mystical strains of Shiite thought was meant to be an ‘authentically’ Shiite response to the dangerous spread of Marxist ideology. The rise of political Shiism, in which the ayatollahs took a direct role in politics, was also in part inspired by the rise of secular, leftist ideologies.
“In South Lebanon, for example, it was the communists who first resisted Israeli occupation before political Shiism joined the fray. And the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was solidified through a years-long campaign in the late 1980s and early ’90s in which important Shiite leftist thinkers were systematically assassinated. I think the perceived danger of communism to the Shiite leadership is indicative of the close affinity of their goals for society in this world.
“Then there’s Iran, where the ‘Islamic Revolution’ was an ideological appellation established after the fact. The shah was overthrown by a coalition of forces in which secularist, leftist parties were at the vanguard. After the shah was deposed, an interim government led by leftists was established, but the ayatollahs created a much more effective ‘shadow government’ that was actually able to ameliorate the post-revolution disorder. Let’s be honest: Actually ruling has never been the forte of the left. So when it came time for the referendum to decide the nature of the new Iranian state, the people chose an ‘Islamic Republic,’ mostly because the Islamists had proven to be the most capable in governance. So yes, you are totally correct in pointing out the Shiite-Communist connection.”
IN THAT CASE, I asked next, as an atheist Jewish leftist, what would be the branch of Islam for me?
Pascal studies Shiism, so his answer “might be biased,” he wrote, “but despite the history of conflict between Shiism and Communism, as well as Shiism and Zionism, I think that Shiism would be the branch for you.
“The sociological structure of Shiism is fascinatingly close to Judaism,” he continued. “I trace my interest in Shiism and the Shiite clergy to my childhood exposure in Brooklyn to another group of profoundly religious people: Orthodox Jews. Both groups have semi-formal clerisies whose power is, in theory, derived by the support they receive from the laity and not some independent institution. I genuinely believe that it is a cruel irony of history that the branch of Islam that most resembles Judaism (in rough contours) is also the most virulently opposed to the presence of Jews in the Middle East.
“Shiite Islam, with its semi-formal leadership, is also the branch of Islam that has a social class — the ayatollahs — that could actually be reached out to and worked with in order to achieve greater peace and accord in the Middle East and beyond. No one should let themselves be fooled by the hawkish, warmongering alarmism of those who oppose diplomatic relations with Iran: The world would be a better place if the U.S. and Israel were allied with Iran, as they were up until 1979, rather than with the ISIS-funding plutocrats of the Arab Gulf.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is predicated on the idea that while the Mahdi is occulted, a single ayatollah may lead the community and make all decisions for him. But there is a school of thought among Shiites that believes in caution — a technical legal term which denotes entire categories in which no ordinary human can make a correct judgment or tell others how to behave. This essentially opens the way for entire areas of daily life that cannot be regulated by Islam — the believer is simply meant to take ‘caution.’ This is the means by which Shiite Islam is capable of entering the secular world without transforming or bastardizing itself.”
3. AN ANALYSIS
EVEN AFTER EXAMINING the currents that traverse Islam, even after recognizing it not as an evil monolith but as an ideology with its class currents and political currents, people rarely place reactionary Islam — and let us make no mistake about it, Islam’s predominant face today is reactionary — within the context of our current reactionary period in world history.
Rightwing evangelical Christianity has been on the march in the U.S., Asia, and Latin America; the Catholic Church, prior to the ascendancy of Pope Francis, was far more concerned with private morality than with what Francis calls the “moral economy”; rightwing settler Judaism dominates Israel; authoritarian rule, infused with nationalism, homophobia, and military macho, is the order of the day in Russia, Egypt, and much of Africa. Terrorism has provided the pretext for the suppression of free speech and political dissent throughout the world, and military might has replaced creativity and even prosperity as the point of pride in such societies as China, Russia, and the United States.
Essentializing Islam and failing to contextualize it shows a lack of desire to understand and confront its fundamental reality. Indeed, viewing Islam as essentially reactionary or as more reactionary than other religions is as false seeing Islam or the Arab world as the bearers of a new dawn for humanity.
Here an idea that is dear to the French philosopher Alain Badiou can serve to illuminate events. In his recent Notre mal vient de plus loin (“Our Affliction Comes from Afar”), written in response to the attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris and not yet translated into English, our affliction is the death of communism. Badiou explains that “[b]y communism I mean simply the historical name given a strategic idea dissociated from the hegemonic capitalist structure” — that is, communism not so much as the reality of the USSR or China or Cuba but as a pole of opposition and resistance to capitalism that promises a more just future as the product of conscious social activity. “It is the absence of this politics,” Badiou writes, “that creates the possibility for fascism, banditry, and religious hallucinations.”
With all potential for positive social change blocked if not dead all over the world, discontent in the West has found its outlet in the rightwing scapegoating by Trump or Marine Le Pen or the countless rightwing movements, and in many cases governments, in the rest of Europe. In the Middle East, the ideology — or, rather, non-ideology — that has been latched onto by the most alienated and so most uncompromising of the discontented, in order to find an anchor in certainty, is Islam, an Islam only tangentially related to the actual religion. Make no mistake, Islam is a banner and nothing more to the murderers who act in its name: Their knowledge of Islam is usually limited at best, a few notions picked up in prison or on the streets. Most of the ISIS murderers are petty criminals turned into media-star murderers who use Islam as a way of explaining the world and justifying their acts. For Badiou, they are purely and simply fascists, who should be viewed and treated as such: Their “fascism is . . . organized more or less militarily on the flexible model of the mafia gang and . . . religion holds a purely formal place.”
In short, in a world deprived of an effective revolutionary idea, a degraded Islam serves to modify the second part of Marx’s famous quote about religion, that it is “the sigh of the oppressed.” For the killers among us, it is instead the roar of the oppressed, history and theology made malleable to fit whatever they need to give their lives meaning.
History will move on, and there’s every reason to believe that just as seventy years ago it seemed Germany would forever be a pariah state, Islam will find its balance again. The question is, will we allow it to happen, or will we back it into a corner from which it will never escape.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the author of many volumes of translation. His translations of the poet Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems, published by New York Review Books.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.