21 January 2014

Islamphobia, Individualism and Herman Melville?

Just the thing for a progressive weekly: a cover story of literary criticism. That's what The Nation offers in its January 27 issue, which serves to promote Greg Grandin's new book on slavery. His piece for the magazine uses Herman Melville's story Benito Cereno as a jumping-off point for reflections on modern-day Islamophobia and the ideological and ethnocentric biases behind it. Melville's story is a fact-based account of a slave uprising aboard a Spanish cargo ship, as discovered by an American sea captain. In fact and fiction, the erstwhile slaves trick the captain by pretending that they remained the loyal servants of their ship's captain, who was in fact their prisoner. Grandin admires this for showing that Africans had "talents their masters said they didn't have (reason and discipline)." He's more impressed by the mere fact of a slave uprising by Muslim slaves, since he thinks that such an incident refutes Islamophobic stereotypes. In his words, Islamophobes claim that Muslims "have no true concept of personal freedom" because their religion insists "on the submission of one's self to the divine." But a Muslim slave uprising suggests to Grandin that "far from quashing individuality, belief in a universal, unseen god and membership in a larger prophetic community gave enslaved men and women a way of surviving -- and contesting -- slavery."

I'm not sure it all follows exactly as Grandin believes. For starters, the uprising more clearly refutes a different Islamophobic stereotype, an older one that views Muslims as culturally paralyzed by a fatalism apparently unique to their faith. According to this stereotype, Muslims should have submitted to slavery since their enslavement had to be the will of God. Meanwhile, Grandin sees the uprising as proof of Islam's "insistence on human dignity," at which point it has to be mentioned that at no point in his article does the author mention the long history of Muslim slaveholding, slave-taking and slave-selling -- perhaps because he thought it might refuel readers' Islamophobia to do so. To recall the history of slavery in the Islamic world is to call into question Grandin's characterization of the uprising as an affirmation of Islamic belief in "human dignity" or "individuality." He'd certainly say no such thing about a narrative of Europeans escaping enslavement by, say, the Barbary Pirates. He's unlikely to see such a story as an affirmation of individual freedom of dignity because he's too aware of Christians' history of slaveholding, slave-taking and slave-selling. Is he unaware of the same things in Muslim history? I suspect not, but since he wants no one to think ill of Islam he politely ignores it all. Had he not, readers might see the uprising that inspired Melville as motivated not by a belief that no one should be a slave -- admittedly, Grandin never actually makes such a claim explicitly -- but by a conviction that a Muslim should not be the slave of an infidel, along with the more obvious and universal selfish reasons.

It turns out that Grandin is not as concerned with individual liberty as his article initially suggests. While it might be useful to show how the uprising disproves assumptions about Muslim antipathy to western ideals of individual liberty, Grandin actually has a problem with the western ideal. At the least, he has a problem with an extreme expression of the ideal by those he calls "individual supremacists." These people "want to deny the ties and obligations that all humans find themselves caught up in -- the bonds, in fact, that make them human." Returning to his subject, Grandin writes that "Individualism masking as freedom, Melville thought, was no kind of freedom." He chops up some lines from a Melville poem to enhance the point. The lines are from Clarel: John Rolfe says, "'Tis the New World that mannered me/Yes, gave me this vile liberty/To reverence naught, not even herself." Individual freedom without "reverence" is a lack Islam seems to fill. Grandin admires what he sees as Islam's attempt to "find a balance between free will and fatalism under conditions of extreme suffering, along with its insistence upon human dignity." He sees an affinity between Melville's critique of "vile liberty" and the Sufi belief that, in Grandin's phrase, "the real meaning of freedom was found ... in recognizing the limits of freedom." That reads well in abstract, but we may still question whether Muhammad or any of his successors described those limits properly, and we ought to keep questioning despite Grandin's concern for bruised sensibilities or his anxiety about cultural clashes.  Individualism as an ideology (or "individual supremacism") may be a problem, but it's doubtful whether Islam is the or even a solution. Grandin's need to protect those he apparently sees only as the downtrodden muddies the argument he wants to make about the true balance between individuality and slavery in the real world.


Anonymous said...

"Islamophobes claim that Muslims "have no true concept of personal freedom" because their religion insists "on the submission of one's self to the divine.""

Which, to my knowledge, is pretty much the underlying message of all monotheistic religion, if no all religion. The same concept holds true for christianity: "Do what god says in the bible or burn in hell." The same thing goes for Judaism: "Follow God's numerous commandments or else..."

Samuel Wilson said...

Grandin writes that Christian Islamophobes ascribe to their own faith "the seeds of a rational, emancipating individualism, which gave birth to classical political liberalism." I've heard that argument too, often made vis-a-vis a pagan world in which, allegedly, individual lives had no value, while Christianity supposedly asserted that each soul was an end unto itself and all were equally precious in God's eyes. As far as I know, Islam denies neither of these premises, yet Islamophobes and orientalists still seek the causes of political and economic backwardness in Muslim countries in Islam rather than cultural factors or simple bad decisions by rulers.