Monthly Archives: May 2010

In Defence of Grand Theory

Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown | 29 May 2010 – The National Newspaper

As the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico haemorrhages the refuse of industry into the water, infecting the environment and strangling the oxygen of aquatic life, we hear the echoes of the slogan “drill baby, drill”.

Now I love metaphor, and reading meaning into the physical environment is part of the synthesis of form and content. Inference is the sole purview of the rational animal.

The current environmental disaster alludes to some interesting readings into the crisis of the contemporary intellectual landscape.

For the past 50 years the emphasis of intellectual work has been to purposely move away from anything that smacked of a grand scheme. Correct thinking had to be intensely specific, intensely local. It would be governed by context and never accused of generalising. In its narrowness and specificity it was akin to drilling down to the very particular details of one specific case.

This ‘mode’ of thinking and analysis is important. A person’s actual situation is never decontextualised. We have to account for that. But the contention is that something is lost here.

Specifically what is lost is one’s global positioning on the map of a bigger picture. Without recourse to a holistic cartography a person cannot make sense of trajectories as the flux of their existence causes positions to evolve and change.

The resulting scatteredness and atomisation of being leads to a type of narrowness and a myopia of sorts. Self is lost, identity is lost, the forest, as an environment, as a larger context, can no longer be seen.

But when I say identity here, I mean ontological identity. It is a structure much deeper than the superficial identity politics of swappable labels; for example, citizen/immigrant, black/white, Labour/Conservative.

But to what degree is this merely the reverberations of post-structuralism and its penchant for surfaces and allergy to centres, and not a reflection of the individualistic direction of the past 100 or so years?

Radical specificity causes us to be disconnected, insensitive and fragmented. It causes us to be heedless of the impact of our actions and ideas on the greater “environments” that we occupy and share. Our vantage point becomes narrow.
To correct this minor glitch a fix, called relativism, is applied. The problem is that once relativism is activated, the lights go out, value is lost and we’re all moving about in the dark with a feigned air of confidence.

This confidence however, belies the frightened confusion that somewhere in this dark room to which we have subjected ourselves lays the edge of the abyss of nihilism. While the Quran, in haunting intonations, warns “and do not toss yourselves, by your own hands, into destruction.”

A superior corrective would be one that joins between these two extremes, recognising the value in each. The need for a map presupposes the mastery of cartography. Case-specific analysis ensures that one’s map is in 360-degree relief. Dr Recep Senturk, of the Istanbul Foundation for Research and Education (ISAR), proposes that Islamic ‘fiqh’ provides the foundations of an alternative social science because of the priority that both fields give to the analysis of human action.

But the system cannot be complete without recognition of a spectrum of universal principles that spans the continuum of time and space, allowing the ability to calibrate “global positioning”. Once the holism of the system is in place, and one possesses the astrolabe and sextant to read this canopy operating above, we are then enabled to chart a course.

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Coexistence in Crisis and the Devolution of Satire

Shaykh Jihad Hashim Brown
22 May 2010 | The National Newspaper

This article originally appeared in the newspaper on the above date. It was edited on 23 May 2010 by the author and appears below.

“There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins”

– Isaac Hayes on his leaving South Park in March 2006

Of the many dumb things that Muslims have done, attacking South Park has to count among the top five. You never enter into an argument with someone whose disrespect for others knows no bounds. A more intelligent person would have known that such a move would open an almighty can of worms.

Most Muslims did not pick up on the twist that the comedy was directed at a bear suit allegedly containing the Prophet Muhammad. In the end it turned out to be Santa Claus – an attempt to point to the absurdity of the whole situation.

Some said that Muslims themselves empowered the cartoonists by acknowledging that their drawings had any relationship at all to the actual Prophet. However, this logic does not play out; these activities do constitute an attack on something every Muslim holds dear to the heart.

At the same time, death threats? This is obviously disproportionate. It only reinforces the premise of the cartoons. The logic will be inevitably that if the followers who represent the Prophet Mohammed are violent, then the Prophet also must have been violent. And now the almighty can of worms has bestowed upon us “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”.

South Park, as the bottomless wood-chipper of everything near and dear (the mechanisation of nihilism if you will), is a particular outgrowth of American popular angst. I get it, a complete audit of everything as of yet un-ridiculed and then to systematically subject anything that might be accused of taking itself seriously to “the business”.

But to expect – even demand – that anyone who hasn’t graduated from an American high school also get it, is simply unfair.

Ridiculing those who have been arrogant and have hurt others is understandable and justifiable. But the Prophet Mohammed never took himself seriously; rather, he took seriously the well-being of others. Matt and Trey (South Park’s creators) are not ready for international markets. They are better off sticking within their own American context; it’s a different ball game out here.

Mainstream Muslims have been so far extraordinarily accommodating, given the circumstances. They have been relatively co-operative with two wars, industrial strength, civilian death tolls and the mandated curtailment of faith practice in their own countries. They have been relatively quiet about less than surgical air strikes and continuous subjection to “random” racial profiling. Now Muslim women are to have their modesty routinely subjected to compromising body scans. All the while the resurrection of the western civilisation is played out on the top of their heads.

These cartoonists and amateur satirists believe it to be their right to force each and every person to join in the ridicule of what they hold sacred. That’s all well and good if that’s what “turns you on”, but they’ve just picked a really bad time for it.

This whole cartoon episode has got Muslims feeling kicked in the teeth while they’re already down. The question is, will Matt and Trey and company allow them to maintain some semblance of dignity intact, if only vicariously through the person of their Prophet?

Scarcity Theory in a World of Choices

10 April 2010 | The National Newspaper

Living on either end of two extremes seems to characterize the times we live in. In the area of thought, global outlook, and culture, it’s as if we have defied the ever-present world of advertisement over-saturation and competitive product markets; it’s as if we have no “choices” and have succumbed to a philosophy of scarcity.

There are others, who bravely venture into the gray area of ambiguity between polar opposites. Without cartography or compass, the voices from the no-man’s land echo as either a faint and indiscernible pidgin English, or the howling of Jack Kerouac. Such is the nature of our post-modern condition. No depth, no center, nothing is certain; everything is periphery and surface. It may be that curiosity killed the cat, but radical skepticism killed the soul leaving the world to pragmatism that fashioned people into automatons with no more intrinsic value than that of a “time-change part”.

The two extremes I speak of, with regard to the discourse on “Islam in the world”, are that of the “Medieval Outlook” vs. “Liberal Arab Thought”. Engagement – involvement – with the world of culture and the ideas that inform it is comprised of three elements: Assumptions, conversance, and language.

The first is the global assumptions that operate in the minds of the mainstream public square. These assumptions tend, as a default, to be informed by liberal humanism. This would include a list of concepts including freedom of speech, democracy, liberty, equality, human rights, and multi-culturalism, along with a host of others that, when taken to their logical extreme, will include items that can be detrimental to human wellbeing as well as excluding one’s that secure it.

As a paradigm, liberal humanism can enforce its own style of tyrannies that undermine the very principles it set out to promote. Look how laissez-faire capitalism coupled with unregulated marketing contributes to the new crisis of child obesity, the obliteration of rainforests, or a generation of latch-key children.

The second element is an awareness and conversance with these operating assumptions that inform the thinking of people in the global public square. And the third element of engagement is a contemporary and relevant language; one that makes sense to the listener. A language that demonstrates where one stands vis-à-vis real and prescient issues and illustrates one’s consciousness of the factors that affect peoples’ daily lives.

Notice that element one, “global assumptions”, stands alone and separate from element two, which is merely the understanding and awareness of them. There is no implication of acquiescence here. Now, there are four approaches to treating with these three elements of global cultural engagement.

(1) The first, having mastered elements two and three, “language” and “conversance”, is to adopt element one, “global assumptions” in toto. This is the Liberal Arab Thought approach.

(2) The third approach, lacking any semblance of “conversance” or relevant “language”, resists every aspect of element one, with no coherent reasoning behind the resistance. This is the “Medieval Outlook” approach.

(3) A third approach shared by members of both camps, is to also lack elements two and three, only to wholeheartedly patronize element one complete with confetti, party favors, and circus clowns.

The Medieval Outlook is not without its merits though; it is the safest of the three. Because, although it operates in an archaic language and according to pre-modern assumptions about the world, it remains grounded in authentic foundations of identity and maintains its links to original and organic human nature.

(4) I would like however to offer a fourth option; one that speaks in a language that is clear, recognizable, and conversant with the assumptions that inform or express life in the world with all of its terrible beauty and exhilarating tragedy. An approach that is, at the same time, grounded in the roots and foundations of original Islamic culture. Engaging its wealth of intellectual history – through its doctrines, methodologies, and spiritual aims – with the lived reality of the public square. In this way it can offer robust and healthy alternative prescriptions for the real human concerns and needs that have been the drivers of the solutions that have up to now, been the only ones on offer.