It is becoming more and more common amongst Muslims living in the West to grasp at straws when attempting to find an identity to latch on. In fact, these days hyphenated Muslims abound. Almost every label or category that exists in mainstream society has its duplicate in the Muslim community: Muslim Feminists, progressive Muslims, ex-Muslims, orthodox Muslims, hipster Muslims, etc… Clearly, on one hand individuals claiming these labels still find some importance in establishing a link with the broader Muslim identity; even the ex-Muslims reiterate formerly belonging to it instead of simply calling themselves atheists and putting the emphasis on their new found identity rather than the one they’ve renounced. One the other hand however, being just Muslim is not enough. There is this need to affiliate oneself with something that makes the Muslim part of one’s identity more acceptable, more modern, more authentic, or simply less threatening. It would be erroneous and quite unfair however to pretend that this phenomenon is only found amongst those of us living in the West because the very same thing is also happening in the Muslim world, although certain notable differences exist between the two contexts.
To claim a Muslim identity is one that comes with a heavy burden today. For all intents and purposes, Islam has been labelled as a political and civilizational threat to the Western world. To deliberately ally yourself with such an entity makes you a focal point for the vehement narrative of Islamophobia. Is it so unusual then, that some would try to find a way of softening the blow, of taking the target sign off their backs by attempting to link their Muslim identity to something less foreign, less ostracized, and more acceptable to Western audiences? But, this need to hyphenate one’s Muslim identity is not always born out of a desire for acceptance, at times (or maybe at all times) something far more insidious is at work.
Since the fall of the Muslim Caliphate in 1924, all subsequent generations of Muslims have been educated in Western-centric education systems. We have all become bearers and custodians of a colonial script that alienate us from our own past and our own history. We find ourselves beholden to a narrative that deny us our humanity and instead claims that our salvation as individuals, people, and nations can only be found in blindly following and imitating the Western world’s standard. We are for all intent and purposes colonized bodies leading an illusionary postcolonial existence. It is only logical then, that such individuals find themselves, almost unconsciously, gravitating toward a version of their identity that ascribes to this Westernized standard.
Neither Western Imperialism, nor its main vehicle Western Colonialism, can be reduced to a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even propelled by powerful ideological formations reiterating the notion that certain nations require domination. Out of these imperial experiences forms of knowledge affiliated with domination became part and parcel, if not the most important aspects, of Western thought and Western Academia. The very tenants of Western Enlightenment are rife with notions like subject races, subordinate peoples, and dependency. The giants of Western philosophical thought such as Hegel and Montesquieu formulated the kind of narrative asserting the inferiority of non-Europeans.
Colonialism is not satisfied merely with dominance and possession. It is a process that requires the negation of any previous system, an erasure of any previous originality. The past is distorted, disfigured, destroyed, and eventually expunged from the colonized’s memory. This constant devaluing of pre-colonial history has deep seeded effects on the minds of colonized people and their ability to muster any agency susceptible of truly liberating them from this oppression. They can no longer dissociate themselves from their colonizers, or envision their existence as separate, or in opposition to that of their oppressors. The lines become blurred, and it is henceforth almost impossible to figure out where one ends and the other begins.
This is where it becomes important, dear brothers and sisters, to ponder on the “germs of rot” the colonial experience has left in our minds, and the way we see ourselves and construct our identities. Any real project of intellectual awakening requires the recognition of this painful truth. At a time when Islam often finds itself under the limelight for all the wrong reasons it is easy to lose sight of its true meaning. The present socio-political upheaval rocking most of the Muslim World, as well as the continuous attacks on the very nature and goals of Islam, have left our Ummah—here and abroad—embattled, bloodied, bewildered and often divided. The ultimate purpose of the message of Islam is and has always been to nourish and purify the souls of the believers through the knowledge and the worship of Allah (‘aza wajal), while strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood between us all. However, in the present climate of confusion and chaos we can no longer afford to be ignorant of our past if we expect to move forward meaningfully. To commit as a community to a process of intellectual awakening is commendable indeed, but without a clear understanding of what such a process would entail, the resources at our disposal to achieve our goals, and the acknowledgement of the very real challenges hindering such an enterprise on our part, the chances of success are nothing more than illusionary .
The responsibility rests with us to use knowledge as a tool to rediscover our own Muslim identity, without hyphens, and elaborate a liberation project through the production of a narrative unsoiled by Western imperialism. The development of a nation does not rely solely on sound economy, but also on sound knowledge and its proper use. Let us follow as an example the previous generations of Muslims, who through Islam, not only liberated themselves from the yoke of disbelief and superstition, but also elevated the whole of humanity through the knowledge they’ve produced.
“Oh Allah, I seek refuge with You from knowledge that is of no benefit, from a supplication that is not heard, from a heart that does not fear You, and from a soul that is not satisfied.”