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/11 and Empire

The attacks of 11 September 2001 are arguably the single most important event, at least in the past decade, that has framed discussions on Islam. Paralleling Esack, who sharply criticized liberal Muslims for failing to challenge the presumption that America’s suffering ought to be ‘the axis around which the earth rotates’,[1] Barlas locates 9/11 firmly within the framework of global politics, thus rejecting any notion that it marked a ‘unique event’ in history.[2] Ascribing any uniqueness to 9/11, she writes, is inextricably bound to the racist idea that Americans themselves are unique, that their pain is somehow more important than that of the rest of the world.[3] Drawing on the timely article of the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman—‘America’s No Longer Unique’—Barlas points out that the USA perpetrated its own 9/11 in Chile.[4] Here, she is referring to 11 September 1973, when the USA backed a military coup that overthrew the socialist and democratically elected president Salvador Allende and brought into power the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. While, as has been shown throughout this chapter, Barlas takes issue with literalist readings of scripture, she emphasizes the universality of extremism—not only being present in non-Islamic religions but also in secular discourse and practice—and points to the underlying socioeconomic roots of such interpretations:[5]

extremism needs to be understood in the broader context of a racist, unjust and oppressive global political economy that is the outgrowth of both centuries of Western imperialism and of many existing US policies.225

For Barlas, then, 9/11 is first and foremost a political event. Though Muslims can be terrorists, depictions of terrorism as uniquely Islamic, as being the simple outcome of Muslim religious fundamentalism renders invisible the oppressive contexts in which terrorism tran- spires.[6] Furthermore, the USA has found a justification to shape Islamic discourse ever since. The USA, Barlas laments, has appropriated Islam as a tool of imperial policy, creating a stifling dichotomy— the ‘moderate’ versus ‘militant’ Muslim—which has nothing to do with religious interpretation but rather is defined purely on the basis of one’s political allegiance.[7] The moderate Muslim is proAmerican; the militant Muslim anti-American. Calling for gender reform is a central part of this colonial project, portraying Muslims and Islam as being innately patriarchal and promoting inclusive and liberal (read acquiescent and apolitical) interpretations. So whereas Americans had very little interest in Muslim reformist movements prior to 9/11, Islamic reform suddenly became a fashionable topic. In fact, Barlas recalls that she was having great difficulty locating a publisher for her manuscript on the Qur’an. Following 9/11 and the subsequent surge of interest in Muslim women, however, she was successfully able to secure one.[8] In her critical awareness of the ideological politics of Islam, and of Islam and gender in particular, Barlas departs significantly from Wadud. As described in the preceding chapter, when discussing 9/11 Wadud not only subscribed to such a moderate/militant Muslim binary, or what she referred to as ‘the face of love and life’ versus ‘the face of evil and destruction’,[9] but she also singled out Muslim men as being responsible for planning the attacks,230 thus connecting this event with patriarchy in Muslim communities.

As Barlas’ discourse on 9/11 suggests, she is highly critical of US imperialism. Moreover, her criticism—as seen earlier with regard to Chile’s 9/11—moves beyond the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries, noting how the USA has undertaken military interventions throughout the world.231 What is so provocative, so audacious about

US empire-building is the veneer of liberalism that sugar-coats it. As Barlas words it:

Wanting control of the world is nothing new. What is perhaps new is that the West and the United States want to be loved as they go about the business of making the world subservient to themselves by any means necessary, for how else can one explain the plaintive question, Why do they hate us?[10]

Indeed, echoing Said,[11] Barlas argues that portrayals of Islam and the West as being diametrically opposed are a direct epistemic outgrowth of Western global dominance,[12] sustained today by American firepower. This dichotomy is deeply problematic, she observes, not only because Islam and the West are simply incongruent as categories, the former being a religion and the latter a ‘geographic space/identity’, but it is also based on the racist presumption of ‘radical difference.’[13] That is, the essentialist idea that there is something fundamentally different between the Westerner and the Muslim, as if the two are hermetically sealed, occupying different worlds. The very term—‘the Muslim world’—is inherently flawed, objects Barlas, since ‘Muslims live in the same world as everyone else.’[14] Furthermore, this phrasing presumes that religion is the most important determinant of Muslim life, ignoring key differences amongst the world’s one billion plus Muslims rooted in race, culture and political orientation, among others.237 It is important to note here that Barlas’ discourse on world politics cannot be divorced from her anti-patriarchal exegesis. For it is impossible to conceptualize and mainstream gender-egalitarian readings of the Qur’an without a wider democratization of Muslim societies,238 which are plagued with highly authoritarian regimes that routinely clamp down on human rights and basic freedoms. Consequently, numerous Muslim reformists—as different as Rachid Ghannoushi in Tunisia, Mohsen Kadivar in Iran, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid in Egypt, to name but a few—have either lost their jobs, been imprisoned, or have been forced into exile.[15] However, the dismantling of domestic dictatorship will be tremendously difficult, if not impossible, mourns Barlas, given America’s backing of despotic rulers throughout the globe.[16] Rereading scripture is thus intrinsically tied to domestic politics that, in turn, are shaped by the international status quo.

  • [1] Esack, ‘In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11’, 82-3.
  • [2] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 17. 3 Ibid, 21.
  • [3] 223 Asma Barlas, ‘September 11, 2001: Remember Forgetting’, Political Theology
  • [4] 12:5 (2011): 729-30. For Dorfman’s article, see: Ariel Dorfman, ‘America’s No LongerUnique’, Counterpunch, 3 October 2001, available at: accessed 17 September 2014.
  • [5] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 67-8 . 225 Ibid.
  • [6] Asma Barlas, ‘Jihad = Holy War = Terrorism: The Politics of Conflation andDenial’, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 20:1 (Winter 2003): 46-62.This article was accessed on 17 September 2014 from Barlas’ personal website:
  • [7] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 29. 3 Ibid, 33.
  • [8] 229 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 5. 230 Ibid, 228.
  • [9] 231 Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 60.
  • [10] Ibid, 58.
  • [11] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) and EdwardSaid, Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest ofthe world (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).
  • [12] Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 243-4. 4 Ibid.
  • [13] 236 Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 57. 237 Ibid.
  • [14] 238 Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 249-50.
  • [15] Kamrava, 24. Ghannoushi (b. 1941) is a Tunisian Islamist and a co-founder ofHarakat al-Nahda (The Renaissance Movement), which is currently the largestpolitical party in Tunisia. An outspoken critic of then-president Habib Bourguiba,Ghannoushi was imprisoned from 1981-4, serving a second term from 1987-8. Hewas eventually forced to leave for Europe as a political exile, and recently returned tohis home country following the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, which overthrew PresidentZine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. Kadivar (b. 1959) is a reformist Shi‘a cleric and aprominent leader in the opposition movement in Iran. Because of his religiouscritiques of Khomeini’s theocratic writings, in 1999 Kadavar was imprisoned foreighteen months. Abu Zayd (d. 2010) was an Egyptian scholar of the Qur’an. Dueto his research, which situated the text within the broader history of Arabic literaturerather than religion per se, an Egyptian court charged him with apostasy. Furthermore, the court ruled that he must divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis, as a Muslim womanaccording to Islamic law cannot be married to a non-Muslim man. As a result, theywere forced to go into political exile in the Netherlands.
  • [16] Barlas Interview, 2009. I suspect that, following the revolutions that have sweptthe Arab world since 2011, she has become more optimistic of the possibility ofbreaking the shackles of American power.
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