On the Muslim question

i recently read Anne Norton’s On the Muslim Question (Princeton 2013), and thought i’d post some quick comments. A friend over last night to watch Seven Psychopaths and play a few rounds of dutch blitz noticed the book lying on the table and asked, “so what’s the answer?” What is the answer to the Muslim question? “All of the above,” I replied. “Yes to all of the above forms of life.” And like Colin Farrell in the film, a screenwriter who wants to make a life-affirming movie about carnage and destruction (serial killer serial killers), the book works through scenes of torture and drones and state terror to urge us finally to recognize what is already happening all around us. Not “war is over, if you want it”, because of course there is and will ever be conflict, but “snow removal and garbage collection, if you want it”. Norton argues that the figure of the Muslim today, much like the figure of the Jew earlier, is where a host of Western anxieties converge — anxieties about democracy, secularism, sexuality, equality, freedom. Yet these anxieties have less to do with Muslims per se than with problematics internal to the West and its history. And so Norton in elegant prose lays out just how unexceptional Muslims are. (How terrible that this is itself an achievement.) These are questions of living together, and people every day work out how to do so. She concludes:

Knowing these things, I see the Muslim question as the Jewish question of our time: standing at the site where politics and ethics, philosophy and theology meet. This is the knot where the politics of class, sex, and sexuality, of culture, race, and ethnicity are entangled; the site where structures of hierarchy and subordination are anchored. It is here, on this terrain, that the question of the democratic — its resurgence or further repression — is being fought out. (228)

And in this demonstration, for me as for others, there is a sort of relief. It means that the burden of these questions is not inexorable. It means they can be shared — with you, between us.

Almost the opposite strategy was offered by Martha Nussbaum in last year’s The New Religious Intolerance (Harvard). She too surveys and tries to address anti-Muslim anxieties.  But her solution to the new religious intolerance is as fraught as the ambiguity in her title (a new intolerance of religion, an intolerance of new religion — in each case referring to Islam, of course, but how?). Her answer to the Muslim question, predictably, is better tolerance. Deciding on and separating reasonable from unreasonable fears, recoursing to a vocabulary of principled equality and cultivated empathy — these solutions relieve few of the anxieties that congeal around the figures of the Muslim (Razack’s dangerous men and imperiled women). Instead they plot out a field of management. Norton, to her credit, refuses all that. She draws these themes together into a book accessible to those who would not read Anidjar, Euben, Asad, Badiou, Brown, Scott…

Yet still the Muslim question is not the Muslims’ questions. And so there are moments i return again (I somehow always return) to the resolutely postcolonial anthropology of Islam. For example, Norton observes that as a symbol the veil exceeds the interpretations we project onto it — and that this may account for some of the anxieties read into it, the burqa bans and the transparency demanded by pastoral power. Yet, as Asad’s contribution to the Political Theologies volume or Mahmood’s work in the women’s mosque movement or any number of works since have argued, something (perhaps the Muslims themselves) is missed when perceiving the veil only as a symbol or representation rather than also a practice or expression. And so there remains a gap between the Muslim question and the Muslims’ questions, though gestured toward and slightly redressed in later chapters.

In chapter 6 (“Democracy”), Norton discusses al-Farabi’s marvelous description of the democratic city, almost but not quite a quotation from the Republic (it is also epigraph to her book). She writes exposing the limits of Derrida’s figuration of democracy — for, modeling its autoimmunity on the fateful (not fated) Algerian elections, he chose to risk an alliance with the totalitarian military rather than the possibility of friendship (Derrida Rogues chapter 3). (This is something that really disturbed me when I first read it, so I am glad to see it addressed.) More suggestive than definitive, Norton argues we can discover this foreign familiar cosmopolis among the unexceptional Muslims already around us. This city, a local than a global cosmopolitanism, is where live the asecular Muslim punk bands and Cairo’s shape-shifting jinn (chapter 10). Al-Farabi’s description:

On the surface, it looks like an embroidered garment, full of colored figures and dyes. Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it, and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages…. Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents. All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it…. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses. (133)

I want to go to there.

6 thoughts on “On the Muslim question

  1. It seems indisputable to me that Muslims are the targets of a new form of anti-Semitism — which as you point out, was never about real Jews but rather about the bundle of anxieties that became attached to the figure of the Jew. This is clear in Christian theology. After the Holocaust made theologians much more circumspect in what they said about Judaism, it turned out that all the old cliches about Judaism could easily be shifted over to Islam. You can see this in even as “nice” a theologian as Paul Tillich, and arguably also in a weirdly Jewish-Christian theologian like Rosenzweig.

  2. yes– and Norton here is good about pointing out these homologies without belabouring them. I think i was hoping for a different kind of book, though, so found it a little underwhelming.

  3. biqbal, when you wrote “I want to go there”, I knew I had at least accomplished something of what I wanted to do. I want to go there myself. Anne Norton

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