Over the past few decades, “politics” became a dirty word globally, to be left for the corrupt and deceitful. A healthy tradition of interventions by various social and political actors to remedy the shortcomings of modern concentrations of power – be they state or private ones – seemed to be increasingly passe, and was replaced with the era of neoliberalism, the “end of history” mantra, and the general de-politicization of society. The end of the Cold War was interpreted by some, particularly those who had a vested interest in such an interpretation, as the obviation of meaningful political engagement. All that was needed, in their view, was a good dose of technocratic management (let the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO run things) and faith in the bona fide intentions of the rulers of the “free world.”
The ‘global war on terror’ (GWOT) has seriously altered this picture. The war on terror quickly became the war of terror. Politics, it seems abundantly clear, cannot merely be left in the hands of not-so-benign politicians and their handlers who have projected criminal displays of power rather than advanced peace, justice, and safety and security for any population, be it in the global North or global South. The GWOT has significantly, if not completely, eroded any moral authority – if any was deserved in the first place – of Western democracies/plutocracies to preach the rhetoric of human rights, freedom, and democracy. Invasions, occupations, drone warfare, and the invention of new gulags and torture chambers tragically characterize the post-September 11th world order. And ironically and most scandalously, the threat of terrorism has only escalated, with possibly the most vicious and massive terrorist force in Muslim history – in the form of the self-proclaimed Islamic state or ISIS – erected in the middle of and because of these global power plays.
It is also important to note that an ideological corollary to the GWOT has been the intensification of Islamophobia. The dehumanization of Muslims and the recycling of vulgar orientalist cliches about Islam are what have legitimated abhorrent practices such as indiscriminate bombing and waterboarding. But it is a mistake to perceive Islamophobia as merely a project designed to target, curtail, and eliminate the freedoms, rights, dignity, and even lives of Muslims. Islamophobia is fundamentally about targeting and undermining democracy. Through the rhetoric of combating terror and terrorists and protecting safety and security, the “masters of the universe” have instituted new regimes of repression – national security states that service centers of power even more obediently and control the voices of the voiceless even more effectively and ruthlessly.
It is precisely at this critical juncture, where the collapse of a certain model of democracy and development – as imagined and imaginary as that notion might have been in the first place — is rapidly occurring, where political engagement is both necessary and clearly re-emerging. While there are very interesting and encouraging social movements, such as Black Lives Matter in the US, or the anti-austerity political forces in Europe, or the public condemnation of some politicians’ bigotry by masses, there is still the global hegemony of a politics which is reactionary and is attempting to mobilize disgruntled, disenfranchised, and increasingly impoverished populations in directions which offer more violence, hatred, and social injustice. The xenophobic, anti-immigrant forces in the US and Europe – blind to thousands of deaths of refugees fleeing the war-torn areas of the world – epitomize this phenomenon, as does a brutal group like ISIS which, it must be acknowledged, was able to gain as much ground as it has because of the despicable social and political conditions of present-day Iraq and Syria caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That illegal invasion, as President Obama stated categorically, decimated Iraq’s infrastructure, reducing to rubble a smoothly functioning and prosperous country and unleashed chaos all over the region, thus providing fertile breeding ground for groups like ISIS to emerge. Violence and intolerance are to be condemned everywhere and by anyone, especially so in the United States, which has the means to alleviate misery and destruction worldwide, but instead is acting like a police state, as evidenced by systematic murders of unarmed African Americans by police throughout its history. This streak of violence and criminal intolerance in America is what made George Bernard Shaw say about this potentially great nation: “America is the only country in the world that has gone directly from barbarism to decadence before once passing through civilization.” Luckily, there have been enough Americans throughout its history who have championed the cause of the oppressed and continue to do so at great personal risk — enough to prove George Bernard Shaw wrong in his sweeping generalization.
All public intellectuals have the mandate to play an active role in contributing to a new politics of social change and transformation. Those, like the authors of this article, with life experiences in both Pakistan and the U.S., and who have witnessed both the politics of hope and of despair ebb and flow in both countries, feel more intensely that we should and can lead the way to a bi-national grass-roots struggle to bring about the desired changes. We stand witness to the cascading crises in virtually every aspect of our lives, from the economic, political, cultural, ecological, and spiritual.
As individuals grounded in Islamicate contexts, we are alarmed by reactionary, fundamentalist, and exclusivist tendencies having mushroomed in the Muslim world. But we do not divorce it from global realpolitik, and the miserable social conditions callously imposed by the powerful in these societies. We see them as decaying but tenacious vestiges of the old order. Even leaders of many formerly colonized but now independent countries, sadly, have joined the imperialists by carrying on the colonialist agenda. They carry on what may be called an insidious form of indirect colonialism. They serve their formerly colonial masters to stay in power, bringing nothing but misery to their own people. Throughout history, the best of Islamic principles and practices have served the causes of social justice and egalitarianism by curtailing the excesses of tyrannical rulers and inculcating the sanctity of human rights. It must be emphasized that not every political Islamist group is ISIS or the Taliban. There are shades and vastly different flavors that we are dealing with here. Sadly, the simplistic and reductionist popular discourse on the subject prevents meaningful dialogue to address issues of both politics and theology, and interfaith relations. Unfortunately, to a significant extent, think tanks, policy makers, and academicians are implicated in this distorting reductionism.
What catalyzed this brief broadside from us were the consistently courageous, principled, and even prophetic positions being espoused by Pope Francis. From global socio-economic inequality to the issue of climate change, from Palestine to Greece, from indigenous rights to gay rights, the Pope has not wavered from taking firm stances on the side of justice for the weak and suffering and for the Earth that God has entrusted us to look after. He has done what politicians have consistently failed to do over the centuries: apologizing to the indigenous people for the brutality of European “crusaders” in the name of Christianity.
We believe that such a vocal voice emanating from the Church is an important development, and contributes immensely to the new politics necessary to address our myriad crises. For one, it revives the very spirited and liberatory message of Christianity that saw its manifestation earlier in the 20th century in the civil rights movement in the US, in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and in liberation theology in Latin America and the Philippines. In today’s GWOT context, progressive Christianity is expressing solidarity across the globe, across faiths, and across cultures. In particular, it is challenging and combating rising Islamophobia, and concretely working to halt cruelties and injustices being inflicted on many parts of the Muslim world. What this points to is a faith-based politics of social justice that must be accommodated in the new emancipatory struggles in the world.
What this new form of political engagement is able to do more effectively is to displace an older form of depoliticized multiculturalism with one which preserves the commitment to the mutual respect and pluralistic celebration of differences (along ethnic/national/racial/socio-religio-cultural lines) but combines it with a politics of social justice and liberation of all oppressed and marginalized groups. This, if you will, is the key insight as we move forward into the 21st century and beyond: nurturing and upholding pluralistic, multicultural societies that foster interfaith harmony and understanding must recognize the centrality of the question of power and how it is distributed within and among societies/nations. This recognition will then lead to corrective action to remove gross imbalances of power.
Dialogues and understanding between civilizations, cultures, and religions are important, but they must never be used as a substitute for meaningful social and political engagement that get to the heart of the grievances of the social majorities of the world. Edward Said’s words from “Reflections on Exile” that the world desperately needs to “elevate appreciative sympathy” and “diminish orthodox judgment” should not just remain a dream. They should be turned into reality through sustained political action to accept different cultures, according to Said’s vision, as contrapuntal notes in music that create harmony. The choice is simple: It is either mutual coexistence without coercion or mutual annihilation. And the only way to achieve mutual coexistence despite our differences is through dialogue, not with bombs and threats. In the stirring words of the independent presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein, “the power to create this new world is not in our hopes; it’s not in our dreams – it’s in our hands.”
Abdul Jabbar is Professor Emeritus, Interdisciplinary Studies and Political Science, at City College of San Francisco, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
They are collaborating on a project to document the incredible life work, scholarship, community engagement and activism of Prof. Jabbar, as a resource tool to inspire generations of Americans and Pakistanis – to embark on similar paths devoted to transformative education, peace, and justice.
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