It’s Impossible to Talk about Islam (Syria After Boston)


No doubt I’m overstating it, but it sometimes seems that an honest discussion about Islam is impossible in the United States, and certainly not now, at least for the time being after the terrorist attack in Boston.

In both the popular and sometimes scholarly discourse about Islam, everyone is forced to pick a side. It sometimes seems like the only choice is between angry polemic and desperate apologetics. For rightwing, racist hysterics, Islam represents only a “problem,” not a human phenomenon worthy of recognition and sympathy. For those on the left, any attempt to consider political or radical forms of Islam as a factor in this or that extreme outbreak of violence gets pushed back immediately as reflecting western racism and Islamophobia. At their worst, each side tends to be as vociferous as the other; both sides marked by hyper-ventilation and moral posturing, self-righteous victimhood combined with twitchy paranoia, misplaced sympathy and hyper criticism, the failure to cognize larger pictures.

For orientation, I go to the liberal Arabic press (in English translation) and twitter-sphere where one encounters engaged critics from and in the Middle East and elsewhere who are alert to and write critically about the deep ideological fissures within contemporary Islam. They tend to avoid simplistic catch-calls like “Islamo-fascism” and Islamophobia, perhaps because these terms have no explanatory value vis-a-vis complex social and political dynamics. Most helpful are those voices that follow the ethnic, sectarian, cultural, and political fault lines, in Israel/Palestine, and in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, alert to the human face and life-histories.

It’s claimed by many that Americans get upset only when Americans, especially white Americans, die violent deaths, that for Americans only some lives are worth caring for and only some deaths worth mourning. This may or may not be true. Certainly, it is difficult to generalize. All I On my FB feed, none of my radical friends pay any mind at all to the ongoing carnage in Syria, about which Judith Butler or Slavoy Zizek, or Alain Badiou has said what? Last night I watched this  Frontline video,  which I found posted at Syria Comment, a site by Joshua Landis which always plays it straight down the middle re: that conflict. The video about Syria puts the Boston tragedy, and not just the Boston tragedy but the entire discourse about “Islam” in a sharp and painful perspective.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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7 Responses to It’s Impossible to Talk about Islam (Syria After Boston)

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    Great post. I would want to add that I think the usefulness of the word “Islamophobia” emerges as a way of examining the politics of distance. When Americans–usually white Americans–start speaking about Islam it is almost always from a situation not only of ignorance but of distance from Muslim communities. It takes on a putatively neutral mantle of reason while actually reveling in the play and production of borders and binaries. The liberal Arab press can say things that Americans can’t. This doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be cross-community conversations (and obviously the constitution of the boundaries of a community is always fluid and needs to be negotiated on the ground in ways that often hover beneath the range of possibilities of discourse alone), only that we need to be triply sensitive to the politics of addressing a plural “You” or “They”–especially when those perimeters are constituted inside racialized histories of colonialism and imperialism.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Donovan. but does this mean that in overcoming distance we can begin to bracket, carefully, our over-use of the term “islamophobia,” not in order to deny that this form of racism exists and isn’t active but to place it more carefully in our affective political and media environments?

      • donovanschaefer says:

        I’m not sure that the priority right now should be pretending that distance doesn’t exist. I think Americans need to become better acquainted with their distance from things, rather than assuming that they know other worlds or have the moral authority to step into spaces where they haven’t built up anything resembling a history of trust and attempting to reconstruct the regimes of knowledge there.

        In other words, Islamophobia is a bigger problem by several orders of magnitude than overuse of the word Islamophobia.

  2. efmooney says:

    Yes ! Two very minor asides — things that have surprised me from my perch here in Israel that bear on Islamophobia. First, I got a request to be interviewed about my Kierkegaard book by a journalist from the Tehran Times — do they have time, between their nuclear program and terrorism to read or be interested in Kierkegaard? Yes indeed, the interviewer asked good questions, and it was fun to read the English edition of the Tehran Times. 90% duplicated the sort of reporting found anywhere else in the world. Second, regarding Butler’s suggestion of fostering a mixed Palestinian-Israeli identity, there’s a mixed Israeli-Palestinian community of 60 odd families just up the road intentionally set up by lefties to show what ‘mixed identity’ among the ideologically committed would be in practice. It’s been around for a few decades. There’s a new book out on this community, based on many interviews (in Hebrew, but I’ll try to track it down).

  3. dmfant says:

    I think we should give up talking about “Islam” (or Judaism, Christianity, etc) as if there was such a Singular thing/concept/world-view.

  4. Might “Islam” be a reification?

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