Which Way to Mecca?

One more notch in my procrastination belt, I finished the syllabus last night. The first class is tomorrow. What a sad man I am. I have to admit to some serious nervous activity but I pulled through in the end. Once, I had the class structure up, assigning the readings was a lot easier. It is making those tough calls that killed me. One week or two to pre-Islamic Arabia? 2 weeks or 3 on political history until the Ottomans? Science and Medicene AND Art and Architecture AND Philosophy and Theology? Or just one, or just two. And most importantly, Crusades OR Literature and Poetry.

In the end, I decided that I should settle the narrative that I want to present to the students and choose only things that serve that narrative directly. And here is the narrative I chose:

This course, then, should properly be titled, An Introduction to the History of Islamicate Societies, using Marshall Hodgson’s formulation that underscores the distinction between Islam as a religion and as a cultural practice. As such, we will aim to understand the social and political forces that shaped the Islamicate polities. We shall do this by broadly combining political history with forays into cultural and intellectual history.

So, largely political history of the various regions and then specific thematic weeks on various aspects. Of course, medieval and pre-modern period is going to be the dominant one. I think there may be too much reading, though. I have assigned roughly 100 pages per week (between secondary and primary materials) which could be a lot for an undergrad class. If they rebel, I will cut back. Plus, they will have a class blog. Now, I really thought about it. Email listservs don’t work at all. I have tried them. Forums are clunky and hard to manage and I had little luck getting people to post or respond. I could have all the same problems with a blog but, it is the least technically obtrusive option. Hey, it’s all an experiment anyways. What the hell do I know about it all?

To start things off, I chose, Edward Said’s piece from Harper’s entitled, Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified and Clifford Greetz’s excellent review articles, Which way to Mecca? from NYT Book Review (I had to pay 4 dollars to get that online. Damn you, NYT). That should be a good start to introduce them to various approaches to the study of Islamic past (and present).

In the end, I feel that the syllabus is pretty damn good. Even, I would take that class. Which is all one can hope for. Syllabus are like the ultimate movie trailers. I loved getting clean, new syllabi as a student – so full of new information and promises ahead. I try to make mine like that – jovial, exciting. Then the crushing realities of never ending reading lists, and way overdue assignments set in. Happy Academic Year 2004-05!!!

The Yes Prime Minister

Shaukat Aziz is now PM of Pakistan. He was elected to the post at a National Assembly session with 191 votes and no opposition. Which is funny, because, for once in Pakistani history there was the most unified opposition candidate, Javed Hashmi, a man incarcerated by the General for “sedition”. However, Hashmi was not allowed to attend the Assembly and, in protest, ARD, MQM, MMA, PPP all walked out. Really. The opposition against the General just got united which, I must say, is bad news.
But, anyways, back to Aziz. Here is the Economist’s take on the dismal state of affairs facing the new PM. In his acceptance speech, he vowed to work with the opposition and to run an open and transparent government. I have said earlier that I am very ambivalent about Aziz. On the one hand, there is no hope for Pakistan if the General does not retire and democracy does not return. On the other hand, I am impressed with the numbers game that Aziz has played as Finance Minister – Pakistan’s economy is coming along well (uh, the massive US aid helps a bit. just a bit.)
Aziz faces immense challenges, chief among them is that the General can flip anytime; also, the mullahs are getting out of control; also, Baluchistan is hurtling towards chaos; also, Osama may be found somewhere in Rawalpindi leading US to drop Pakistan like its 1989 ; also, Osama may never be found leading US to continue propping up the General; also, the economy has yet to establish a solid base; also, oh heck.
On the plus side, Aziz has proven himself as a bureaucrat (or technocrat, as the homi press calls him). And he is, uh, close to Paul Wolfowitz. Question is whether he can be the perfect rubber-stamp that the General desires? After all, that is the only qualification for the job.

Empire Struck Back

Is it wrong of me to think that Arundhati Roy is super cute? I think it is. Anyways, she is visiting US (I guess they forgot to cancel her visa) and gave a speech entitled Public Power in the Age of Empire. The speech, in line with her recent public discourse, is largely a challenge to both global capitalism and liberal democracy. They talking about a revolution? you ask. But, of course:

So when we speak of “Public Power in the Age of Empire,” I hope it’s not presumptuous to assume that the only thing that is worth discussing seriously is the power of a dissenting public. A public which disagrees with the very concept of empire. A public which has set itself against incumbent power – international, national, regional, or provincial governments and institutions that support and service empire.

What are the avenues of protest available to people who wish to resist empire? By resist I don’t mean only to express dissent, but to effectively force change. Empire has a range of calling cards. It uses different weapons to break open different markets. You know the check book and the cruise missile.
For poor people in many countries, Empire does not always appear in the form of cruise missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam. It appears in their lives in very local avatars – losing their jobs, being sent unpayable electricity bills, having their water supply cut, being evicted from their homes and uprooted from their land. All this overseen by the repressive machinery of the state, the police, the army, the judiciary. It is a process of relentless impoverishment with which the poor are historically familiar. What Empire does is to further entrench and exacerbate already existing inequalities.

And what would Roy do if she couldn’t stir some righteous controversy?

There is no discussion taking place in the world today that is more crucial than the debate about strategies of resistance. And the choice of strategy is not entirely in the hands of the public. It is also in the hands of sarkar.

After all, when the U.S. invades and occupies Iraq in the way it has done, with such overwhelming military force, can the resistance be expected to be a conventional military one? (Of course, even if it were conventional, it would still be called terrorist.) In a strange sense, the U.S. government’s arsenal of weapons and unrivalled air and fire power makes terrorism an all-but-inescapable response. What people lack in wealth and power, they will make up with stealth and strategy. In this restive, despairing time, if governments do not do all they can to honor nonviolent resistance, then by default they privilege those who turn to violence. No government’s condemnation of terrorism is credible if it cannot show itself to be open to change by to nonviolent dissent.
But instead nonviolent resistance movements are being crushed. Any kind of mass political mobilization or organization is being bought off, or broken, or simply ignored.

Now the thing is that Roy is one of the chief idealogues of the protest movements on the left (Zinn, Chomsky etc. has-beens) and I know that this speech is all over the various email lists that are congregating people to NYC for next week. I don’t always agree with Roy but hers is a voice that needs to be heard and understood. So, please go read the speech.

Keep Out

As long as we are talking about censorship, I wanted to quickly comment on the Tariq Ramadan case. You may or may not be aware of him – a European intellectual whose work negotiates the twin worlds of European secularism and Islamic philosophy. For all necessary information about him and the charges of anti-Semitism against him, please see this post at Muslim WakeUp!.

The State Dept. had earlier given him a visa to teach at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace Studies but, last week, after a tip from DHS, they revoked the visa citing, “aliens who have used a position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity” cannot enter the US.

Mr. Ramadan is a well-published, well-scrutinized, public figure. If he had any ties to terrorists or was a terrorist, there would be clear evidence. There is not a whiff of that. What he is, is a liberal (or progressive or modern or whatever) Islamic intellectual – and, oh boy, there are about 4 of those around. For a debate on Ramadan’s Islamic cred see Abu Aadvark [click through to his earlier posts].

The general take on all this is that Daniel Pipes [scholar of peace] and his ilk (campuswatch.org) raised alarms and someone in DHS bought that nonsense. I don’t know enough about that. Pipes did write a favorable review of Ramadan’s book in 2000 and disavows having anything to do in this matter. Whoever or whatever group did it – it amounts to plain and simple censorship and suppression of ideas.

All that summarization to make one simple point: Which voices of Islam are legitimate in the US public sphere? Who does the DHS think should be allowed to speak or teach about Islam? Who can criticize Israel and not be branded anti-Semitic terrorist? Where can DHS find a Muslim voice they approve of? As an academic, all I can gather from this episode is that the only legitimate form of discourse on Islam is one that is lopsidedly critical, bereft of any substantive engagement with modern political realities and praiseworthy of US imperial designs. I am disgusted. Ramadan was supposed to speak at next month’s ISNA gathering and I was all psyched to go attend. It would have been my first ISNA. There were a few other public lectures that he was giving…oh well. As long as we win the War on Terror.
update:Tariq Ramadan replies. I am pasting it below the fold.
Continue reading Keep Out

The Tipping Point

My theory about the upcoming elections has been that the country cannot remain in such close contestation for too long – that something will happen that will prove to be the tipping point and, well, Kerry will win in a landslide. I believe that (barring any “revelations”), the presidential debates will be that point. Think back to the debates in 2000. The CW was that Gore will cream this dolt Bush guy who didn’t even know who Pakistan’s newest General was. But the press changed its tune really fast since Bush didn’t drool on camera or adapt Don King’s particular brand of eloquence. Bush’s “competence” seemingly free’d him from any serious criticism and he won the debates according to that new, amended CW.

So, how does the KE’04 deal with this lowered-expectations criteria when it comes to the upcoming debates? In July’s Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows had a preview of the debates entitled When George Meets John which is a must-read [thanks moacir!]. It is not available online but I can put up a fair-use pdf if people want to look at it. It is available now. Fallows lays out the Bush team strategery used against Ann Richards (and later):
Continue reading The Tipping Point