Solidarity, Dissimulation, and Making Space

Many recent articles now have discussed the rather unwelcoming world of activism and how it could potentially discourage activism. I personally have yet to be fully engaged in any offline activist community, due to my transient occupation as a student. But I do see these trends and feel the effect. Similarly, there have been heated debates revolving the politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates and Cornel West. While I do agree with West's analysis, there are also the issues of authority and personal relations at stake: Who gets to call someone a neoliberal? Who are we talking to? Where is the public sphere? Twitter? Cafes? Likewise, there have been intense name-calling among Arabs in the U.S., especially in light of the Lebanese-Saudi tensions. A Lebanese performer in Boston criticized the policies of Saudi Arabia last month, which caused many people to leave the venue in either outrage or dismay. I was not there so I am not sure what was exactly said. I wish there was a way for people to share their opinions without resigning to a simple refusal. Al Jazeera also published a good piece about the value of connected histories and a certain type of mindset that prevents these histories. I agree with him that "What we are witnessing throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a battle for the soul of the Muslim past to inhabit the spirit of the Muslim future." Perhaps that is also why Cemil Aydin's history book on The Idea of the Muslim world is so timely. He also shares a lot of contemporary connections with politics on a great episode of the Ottoman History podcast. He argues: through tracing the historical roots of Pan-Islamism, one can become wary of the sloganeering of politicians and rebel factions. The author of the Al Jazeera piece, Professor Hamid Dabashi, also published a book Being a Muslim in the World engaging in similar themes

I also have been questioned by an Iraqi Kurdish person in the U.S. in regards to my allegiance vis-a-vis Arab-Kurd relations, which prompted me to think: How should we make space for one another in this context?  Much effort is dedicated to explaining Others to an "American" public, but identities are fluid and Muslim / Brown-skinned folks living in the U.S. also should provide space for each other. In other words, we are also entitled to the public sphere to process our own beefs as much as anyone. 

A friend studying in Turkey wrote about the book markets of Istanbul and how patrons usually avoid political subjects. This phenomenon can be traced to the Ottoman era, and is a mark of being "cultured." Nowadays, most of us in the U.S. no longer have that leisure to be that "cultured." At the same time, too much criticism also can be a hindrance to forming solidarity.

It also reminds me of a history paper presented on a learned scholar who practiced dissimulation in the Ottoman era. The paper argued that the scholar was Shi'a and most people around him knew about it for decades on end. In my understanding, even dissimulation, in either the religious or political sense, is not simply an individual act and requires patience for and understanding of each other. Dissimulation (into whiteness or heteronormativity) requires not only the person to meticulously dissimulate and pose as a  authentic member of the "mainstream," but also a community of people who take him/her at his/her words and not reveal.

In a rather different context, for many who faced discriminatory checkpoints in the post-2005 urban Iraq, pretending to be a person from different sect was an important survival skill. While the scale of violence has yet to become that high in the U.S., there are definitely rising tensions around me. Much has been written about how to organize without leaking information about undocumented people to the ICE. Yet I am also speaking about a social issue. At times, exclusionary views seem to be much easier to espouse than inclusive ones, which then silences and erases certain people's experiences. How can we devise politics that allows space for thinking and debating, without invoking too much of a person's identity that s/he/they would rather not speak about? 

Below is an interesting passage on South Asian-Iraqi connections from page 45 of Recasting the Region by historian Neilesh Bose. Even though he was writing about political organizing of the early twentieth century, it is equally relevant to today as well. 

“Shatt-il Arab” one of Nazrul’s most well-known poems from this era, expresses the feeling of a Bengali soldier in Iraq, near the Shatt-il Arab, and his loving feeling of admiration for Arab heroes in Iraq, the ‘land of martyrs’. Repeated laments over the ‘spilt blood of valiant Arabs’ and pure Arabian riverbanks establish the poem as a paean to Arabic culture and Islamic civilization in that region. The poem also sings a song of fondness to that ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates as a measure of universalist Islamic identity. The end of the poem places the suffering of the Bengali soldier, the pain, sorrow, and hurt felt in war, and in death, alongside the Iraqi army: Iraqi army! Here in this story / We in the Bengal army / Can say your suffering is ours!” Regarding Muslims identity, Nazrul places the Bengali and the Iraqi into a common Muslim world of mutual love and admiration. The Bengali protagonist remains a Bengali, never to be shorn of a particular cultural location. Muslim identity is part of a larger universalism which doesn’t exclude, but rather, actively includes the local sense of identity. It is one of the first poems to appear after WWI that combines a look towards the future with a feeling of belonging in the Muslim and Bengali world.
While one may be skeptical about the "objectivity" in the idealism invoked by the poet Nazrul, it is also a breeze amidst heated geopolitical contestations and certain venomous youtube comments. 

Iraq, Indian soldiers within the British forces in a suburb of western Baghdad in 1917. First shared by Old Iraqi Pictures