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Winter 2017

A Deficiency of Lyricism

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Tariq al Haydar

"I thought of erasure as what a state does." —Solmaz Sharif

One of the undergraduate courses I teach at King Saud University in Riyadh is a survey of American literature. When the time comes to discuss modernism, most of my students have some difficulty conceptualizing “modernity” and distinguishing it from “modernism,” especially since the word hadathah, the Arabic word for both “modernity” and “modernism,” has a different shade of meaning in Saudi Arabia, denoting as it does a specific type of anti-Islamist leaning. In the face of this linguistic entanglement, the first strategy that came to mind was to avoid attempting to disentangle it altogether. In lieu of that, let’s just focus on the literary aspects of modernism and read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” kids.

Following a series of coordinated suicide attacks and mass shootings in Paris, France on November 13, 2015, surprisingly popular presidential candidate Donald Trump affirmed that he would install a database to monitor American Muslims, and added that there may be a need for “a lot of systems” of surveillance, including special forms of identification for Muslims to note their religious affiliation. A few weeks later, Trump escalated his rhetoric by calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” While his competitors in the GOP race vacillated between condemning Trump’s Islamophobia and echoing milder variations of it in order to appeal to voters, Democrats and other “left-leaning” commentators lambasted Trump and lamented his prejudiced discourse.

Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to opine that Trump’s remark “makes us less safe,” while Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders stated that “[d]emagogues throughout our history have attempted to divide us based on race, gender, sexual orientation or country of origin.” Even celebrities and figures who don’t normally venture into the political felt compelled to react. One interesting response was authored by Tayyib Rashid, a U.S. Marine who tweeted, “Hey @realDonaldTrump, I’m an American Muslim and I already carry a special ID badge. Where’s yours?” An image accompanied the tweet: Rashid’s Armed Forces ID card.

I wish I could make the argument I’m trying to make, but it’s like I’m running in a dream, and whatever I say will not be what I mean. Not what I mean at all.

Anthropologist Talal Asad states that the modern state “is the law state. Law is central to how it sees its structures and processes. And the modern world is inconceivable without the modern nation state.” Shahab Ahmed, a scholar of Islamic Studies, describes how the fact that modern man is, “to a historically unprecedented degree, homo juridicus” makes it unsurprising that people—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—often conceptualize Islam in terms of “the unilateral normative supremacy of something called shar’iah identified with law.” In other words, Islam in modernity has come to be reduced to Sharia, the corpus of jurisprudence accumulated throughout Islamic history, which is often constructed as in direct conflict with the “law” of the nation-state, most specifically of liberal democracies. This way of conceiving of the law is an entirely modern phenomenon.

Examples of Sharia-related hysteria in the United States are neither few nor far between. Here is an example, uttered by Representative Steve King (R-IA) while discussing two Muslim members of the U.S. Congress:

“Sharia law is incompatible with the United States Constitution and so if they want to demonstrate that they are open to being Americanized, the first thing they should do is renounce Sharia law. You won’t get Keith Ellison or Andre Carson in this Congress to renounce Sharia law, let alone somebody that’s just come out of the Middle East that is someone who has been steeped in Islam for a lifetime.”

Fox News personality Sean Hannity, a prolific source of inflammatory rhetoric:

“If you live in Saudi Arabia, if you live in any of these Muslim countries that have strict, radical Sharia law, it is a clash of cultures. It is the antithesis. Sharia law is the antithesis of our Constitutional republic.”

Hannity, discussing refugees:

“How do we ascertain if they want to assimilate into American values, because they want liberty and freedom, and the hungering of their soul is for a better life for them and their families and their daughters and their sons? Or do they come here like they did in Paris, infiltrate the refugee community, and those that want a better life—with the intention of bringing a Caliphate and killing as many Americans as possible—all in the name of Allah and in the search of seventy-two virgins?”

Senator Gerald Allen sponsored a bill in the Alabama Senate that would outlaw the application of Sharia law. In an interview, Senator Allen was asked to define “Sharia law.” His response: “I don’t have my file in front of me. I wish I could answer you better.”

According to the Arabic dictionary Al-Mu’jam Al-Waseet, the word “sharia,” derived from the root SH-R-’, means “way” or “path.” It is deployed as a synonym for “law,” as in Shariat al-Ghab, which means “law of the jungle.”

The phrase “Islamic sharia” means “Islamic law.”

The phrase “Sharia law” literally means “law law.”

Whenever I hear someone expressing fear of “Sharia law,” the first thing I think of is the linguistic redundancy.

At a party in New York, I leaned against a wall, squeezing one of those balls one squeezes to relieve stress. I didn’t drink—don’t drink—which impeded my speech. A woman tapped me on the shoulder. She was wearing a t-shirt with one sleeve rolled up, wrapped around what I assumed was a pack of cigarettes.

“Why don’t you have a drink?” she asked.

I smiled and said that I was a teetotaler. She had never heard of such a thing.

After some time, she asked, “Well, if you did imbibe, just this once, what would you try?”

The enormity of the question: one drink. Would I choose the rugged individualism of a whiskey, the sophistication of…? Come to think of it, I didn’t even know what character trait aligned with what beverage. A scene from a film flashed in my mind and caused me to say, “A White Russian!”

She laughed.

In Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, a culture war raged between two groups. The first were Islamists. The second were known as “modernists,” despite the fact that a more accurate descriptor might be “developmentalists” or “technocrats.” While these two groups disagreed on certain societal issues that may be described as religious, what was truly at stake was not merely religiosity. In a centralized state where the vast majority of the economy is based on “rent” from oil production, patron-client relationships are the main avenue towards access to the resources of the nation-state—a war over the privilege of being a client. Preachers and technocratic government ministers exchanged polemics via newspaper columns, pamphlets, and widely-distributed audio cassettes. The publication of one book in particular marked a significant victory for Islamists: Awadh Al-Qarni’s Modernism in the Light of Islam.

The significance of the book was that it was prefaced by an endorsement from Abdulaziz bin Baz, the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia. As for the actual content of Modernism in the Light of Islam, not many people bothered to read it. I did. Al-Qarni recognizes that hadathah (modernism/modernity) does incorporate a literary dimension, although he portrays it as a conspiratorial desire to undermine the Arabic language as a way to indirectly attack Islam. Al-Qarni traces the history of “modernism” by overemphasizing the supposed connections between diverse literary figures such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarmé, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel García Márquez, Rainer Maria Rilke, Roland Barthes, and Albert Camus, among others, and claiming that they are all in essence part of a single hegemonic literary/ideological movement based on godlessness, immorality, hedonism, and decadence. He easily shifts from suggesting that Saudi modernists are the “illegitimate children” of the West to accusing Saudi modernists of being leftists, communists, and Marxists who “employ Marxist terminology like ‘stage,’ ‘stagism,’ ‘social movement’ and ‘radical historical accumulation’ (sic).”

Al-Qarni seems to be writing under the assumption that his target audience would not be familiar with the “foreign” names he invokes and is therefore not concerned with accurately describing their philosophical positions. (For example, he derides Hegel as “an atheist and a materialist.”) It appears that Al-Qarni’s strategy relies on creating a hegemonic ideological movement called “Western modernism,” which is based on immorality, licentiousness, and hostility towards religion, and associating Saudi “modernists” with their irreligious, immoral Western counterparts. By casting Saudi “modernists” as agents of a homogenized West, Al-Qarni successfully excludes them from the nation.

“You like basketball?” she asked. “Who do you root for?”

I explained that I tend to root for players, not teams, and that my current favorite was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, though he was out for the season with a shoulder injury.

“You root for players?” she laughed. “I root for the Knicks. If you’re not a Knick fan, you’re not a New Yorker.”

She had never heard of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi?” she laughed. “Sounds like a German car. What’s a Saudi?”

A list of answers I almost uttered:

Saudis are honest men.

Saudis can trace their lineage back to a tribe.

Saudis are from the central part of the peninsula.

Saudis believe in liberty.

Saudis don’t have a strong work ethic.

Saudis are basic units of nature.

The state is now the locus of supreme authority with, as Wael Hallaq put it, its own metaphysics. The locus of supreme authority and the person of the president do not align, yet the selection of this one official entertains us every four years, much like the Olympic Games.

When I think of countries in the twenty-first century, I think of disparate entities: democracies and dictatorships, republics and monarchies, rogue and failed states. I rarely think of them as variations on a theme.

Many people found Tayyib Rashid’s response to Donald Trump amusing. Muslims of various professional backgrounds followed Rashid’s lead, posting their identification cards on social media en masse. Physicians, professors, journalists, humanitarians, and others posted their IDs online, with comments that valorized their particular profession’s contribution to the nation.

A Muslim doctor said, “I take care of your sick, regardless of race, religion or creed.”

A Muslim activist proclaimed, “Proudly working at the UN to help address dire needs of the world.”

A police officer declared, “I’m an American-Muslim, I serve and protect my community. Where’s your ID?”

The police officer identified himself as an American-Muslim. Not an American Muslim, but an American-Muslim, a hyphenated form usually used to denote multiple ethnicities. The implication being that this officer, like African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Arab-Americans, Bolivian-Americans, and Swedish-Americans, boasts an ethnic heritage from elsewhere, yet retains his sense of belonging to the nation. Or, it may have just been a typo.

By posting a photo of his military ID, Rashid affirmed his “American” (or “American-”) credentials. More so than the other professionals, Rashid’s status as a member of the military marks him as an American par excellence. Another American Muslim posted the image of the gravestone of Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan, and asked Trump if he would care to “visit the Grave of Fallen American MUSLIM Hero in Arlington: Winner of Purple Heart.” By appealing to their military backgrounds, these Muslim Americans asserted their Americanness, which, by virtue of Trump’s lack of service, outweighed the erstwhile game show host’s Americanness. In essence, these well-meaning Muslim Americans responded to Trump’s exclusionary nationalistic rhetoric via jingoistic nationalistic rhetoric.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And, in short, I was afraid.

Tariq al Haydar's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Crab Orchard Review, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of English at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.


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