Saba Fatima is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has mostly published on issues of social and political significance to Muslims. Her research interests include non-ideal theory; social and political issues within prescriptive Islam; Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory, virtue ethics, and more recently, medical ethics.
On Being Muslim and American
“the actions of those folks [American soldiers] in Iraq do not represent the values of the United States of America. . . . courage, love of freedom, compassion, and decency.”
–President Bush 2004, right after Abu Ghraib prison torture became public.
“This is a time for reflection, not retribution. …. at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence.”
– President Obama 2009, on the United States’ use of torture, emphasis mine.
“Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”
– First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 DNC, in response to Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan
I have always been interested in identities and how they connect with socio-historical frameworks. I have thought a lot about my own identity and about the sorts of spaces and social contexts that mold both the content and the tone of my voice.
One of sort of space that often shapes my behavior and speech (both in good & not-so-good ways) is within the religious realm. I recently wrote about how diminished religious spaces for women impact the perception of women’s religious standing, not only in the eyes of the others, but also our perception about our moral self as well. When women’s public space to worship is confined, our collective worship becomes not-so-visible to the community at large and the worship itself cannot be fully experienced by individual women (‘Striving for God’s Attention: Gendered Spaces and Piety,’ 2016). However, change can be very hard to bring about. One reason has to do with politics of gatekeeping. In order to have legitimacy within religious circles, others must give some degree of acknowledgement about the goodness of your character. But what may qualify as ‘goodness’ is often at odds with the sort of person needed to challenge the social norms that apply to women (even when those social norms are in contradiction with basic precepts of theology). It is a tricky terrain to retain your conception of faith, navigate the hegemonic conceptions, all the while keeping in mind the wisdom gleaned from the social & historical collective to arrive at a better-informed version of theology. If your conception of faith is so far out from the mainstream, do you even belong to the faith? (I’d answer yes, for various theological reasons).
I have also wondered about political belonging. Recently, after returning from a visit to Pakistan, my 6 year old son inquired as to why we were standing in a different line than some others at the airport immigration. I told him that this line was for the citizens of the United States. He then says, ‘Can I get a Pakistani passport?’ ‘Why,’ I asked, to which he replied in a matter-of-fact fashion, ‘so if Donald Trump kicks me out, I’ll have somewhere to go.’
I wanted to tell him that he can’t be told to go ‘where he belongs,’ because he belongs here. Moreover, I wanted to tell him that Pakistan isn’t his country, not because it’s not good enough for him, rather, quite the contrary. He had a false sense of entitlement to assume automatic citizenship of a country that he had just visited for the first time. I did ask him to consider, ‘Why do you think the Pakistanis would grant you a passport?’ Despite his assumptions, he (or I) cannot speak for Pakistanis, let alone feel entitled to citizenship.
One would think though (OK, I think that) he can speak as an American within the American political context. But what sort of political voice does someone like my son – someone visibly Muslim – have here? In one of my papers, I look at the Muslim-American political disenfranchisement within the current framework of terrorism and heightened security. I argued that how we are often perceived and our awareness of that perception, interplays in a detrimental way with liberalism’s demand for public reason, essentially sustaining the Muslim-American exclusion from the political realm (Liberalism and the Muslim-American Predicament,’ 2014).
The only way we (Muslim-Americans) are sometimes heard is if we conform to the patriotic-American narrative, the sort where we continually perform a script about our undying and undivided loyalty to the United States. Any affective response in politics that does not follow such a script (such as our anger at seeing tortured Muslim bodies at prison sites), is then viewed as disloyal, rather than as something positive that better informs our political process (Muslim-American Scripts, 2013).
I do believe that Muslim-Americans need to be more politically active, but in ways that take our competing values and our existing reality into account. While in some ways, our struggle in this country, mirrors that of other minorities (political exclusion), in other ways, our lived reality is also both structurally and economically different. Muslim American political posture must not only take power structures and one’s social location into consideration, but also the sorts of relationships within civil society that we exist in. Perhaps our political posture needs to shift from what is sometimes traditionally encouraged in liberatory movements – that of urgency – and adapt to become more reflective to best serve our sense of integrity. We must claim our place as Americans on our own terms (‘Presence of Mind,’ 2012).
I do wonder though what it means to be American. This is the current project that I’ve been working on for some time.
I have been told by some that I should be grateful to be in this country (I’m an immigrant, if that’s not clear by now). I think embedded within that sentiment is the idea that I should be grateful to them. ‘They’ (in their imagined sense of community, that can perhaps be best summed up to an outsider as … White?!) have pride in American values and way of life. ‘They’ have an inexpressible knowledge of what this country stands for, and this knowledge gives them the feeling of socio-political situatedness. In their social imagination of what it means to be an American, they belong, I don’t.
But when people have expressed such patriotic pride, it has always made me feel uneasy. From the times of the ‘Manifest Destiny,’ when apparently God Themselves had decreed the American people with special virtues, to today’s belief in American exceptionalism (Hillary Clinton just gave a whole speech on it), being American to a few is heavily tinged in a sense of superiority. For others, there is a disconnect between a conception of self as American and any sense of relationality with the other. While their sense of self as American is not one based in superiority or arrogance, there is a void of any understanding of the harmful power dynamics between us as Americans, and others. .
I recently showed parts of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States that covered the war in Iraq (chapter 10) for my political Islam class. Many of my students were indignant at this ‘biased’ depiction of the history of the United States, and there were a series of student responses that listed out the multiple times that the United States has ‘championed’ the cause of democracy in the Middle East. I have encountered such reaction countless times before, and took their resistance to epistemic friction in stride. They, like many educated Americans, have a certain perception of their identity as Americans, and any news development that challenges that perception is either seen as an aberration, not truly embodying the values that Americans stand for (along the lines of a ‘few rogue agents’ defense used in the Abu Ghuraib prison case), or worse, is seen as justified action in the face of evil (the sorts of explanations used after the 2014 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report came out on the torture conducted by the CIA over the course of a decade). It is epistemically unimaginable to equate aspects of oneself with evil behavior, and much easier to remain epistemically arrogant.
If we just look at the ‘war on terror,’ that alone should cause some sort of shift in the righteous indignation that Americans conduct themselves with. The United States reduced a country’s infrastructure to rubble and killed over 100,000 people, a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with an attack that had killed 3000 Americans. While we got rid of a terrible dictator (who we had previously supported even when we knew of his tortuous ways), we created a power vacuum, built detention centers for ‘insurgents’ with little oversight, we conducted torture of our enemies at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, we rendition ‘enemy combatants’ to torture sites without due process, and even after our President made a promise to not torture, we simply outsourced it to other countries (Human Rights Watch 2011).
There was negligible attention paid to the discrepancy between who we see ourselves to be (for e.g. a law abiding & democratic people) and what we do (e.g. torture).
Perhaps a nationalistic amnesia is an inevitable production of being part of a functional nation-state. The installation of ignorance is not one that takes place overnight, but is a social imagination of citizenship that is embedded deeply in our sense of self as Americans. And once the myth of America’s greatness as the world’s advocate of democracy and of individual rights and as a giver of international aid and champion of freedom, is established, it needs very little maintenance and justification in the face of counter narrative.
I use the word ‘ignorance’ here in the same sense as Charles Mills defines it: ‘to cover both false belief and the absence of true belief’ (2007, 16). I define American ignorance as the active production of false knowledge about what, if anything, it means to be an American, obscuring certain relationalities with others while producing/sustaining another narrative . American ignorance encompasses, among other things, a sense of superiority of American societal values, its ‘benevolent’ role in the precipitation of democracy amongst ‘backward’ peoples, and often an unshaking belief in the fundamental ‘otherness’ of certain cultures and peoples.
A more pernicious manifestation of American ignorance, than one based in superiority, is when Americans cannot wrap their head around how their privilege is a direct function of their country’s imperialistic relationship with the global south, and that it is precisely the lack of understanding of their identity in such a manner that sustains that oppressive hierarchy. And incomplete/ false ‘knowledge’ about the other is a function of, and particular to, the American hegemonic world order.
I argue for, what I term as, epistemic reconciliation with the past, where the dominant reconcile with heterogeneous narratives of the past, as held by the marginalized, the other. In order for that to happen, especially in the cases of grave harm by a collective such as torture, epistemic reconciliation with the past must necessarily entail the notion of responsibility as liability. That is to say, in order for us to process the ugly (and painful) parts of our collective history, there has to be some enforced form of accountability – such as international criminal prosecution or reparations to victims of torture.
America can indeed ‘right its course.’ But this is not possible until there is imposed culpability, or such that liminal bodies can hold up mirrors to our collective face (and make us look). Only then can we have any possibility of shifting our perception of ourselves. Until then, we keep ‘righting’ some wrong in very targeted and specific ways; but make no dent whatsoever to our social imagination of our citizenship. We continue to conduct ourselves with arrogance and impunity when it comes to liminal bodies within our own borders and in the global south, because we are, after all, the United States of America.
Mills, Charles. 2007. ‘White Ignorance.’ In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan & Nancy Tuana. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 11-38