Islam and the “Cold War baroque”

Raza Rumi in The Friday Times:

KomailAs the world moves into a maddening phase of Islam versus the West, Pakistani academic Sadia Abbas presents a layered narrative in her book, At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham University Press, New York), on the contours of a new, imagined view of “Islam”. In great detail and with crafted nuance, she analyses the complexities of the postcolonial condition of Muslim societies and Muslims, and the myriad modes and facets of anticolonial ambitions. Abbas’s study is unique because it delves into the intricate relationships between Islam, empire and culture, and weaves the story of the current crises that inform the lives of Muslims and their societies, through a literary lens. This study, in effect, presents an alternative discourse to the debates that surround depictions of both “Islamic terror” and “Islamophobia”. At Freedom’s Limit suggests that the complex histories of identity and struggle at the global level are vital to understanding the “new Islam” that has emerged since the early 1990s.

This new representation of “Islam” started to take shape in the late 1980s when Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, invoked violent passions among some Muslims and thereby delineated a marker – between the “civilised” and the “violent”. This was also when the Berlin Wall was demolished (1989) and the first Iraq war (1991) was waged to “liberate” Kuwait. However, these brewing forms found a new shape and discourse after the events of 11 September 2001 when this imaginary notion of Islam found a whole new meaning and “changed” the world. According to Abbas, the key elements of this new conception of Islam comprise debates around the veiled or “pious” Muslim woman, the militant and the Muslim “injured” by “free speech” in the West. A central argument she presents is that “freedom”, as used in mainstream parlance – and particularly in popular culture – is one that is imagined as modern and Western, thereby reverting to a peculiar imposition of “Enlightenment”. Abbas unpacks a plethora of such Eurocentric terms and critiques their application as expressions of imperial discourse creation. For instance, the “pious Muslim” outraged at the West and injured by its “values” may, in effect, be wishing for enslavement and is, therefore, envisioned as freedom’s “other”. ? Taking this critique of the contemporary view of “Islam” in anthropological terms, Abbas undertakes a sweeping overview of cultural production, employing references from television, cinema and novels. Interestingly, the book ends up showing how the most nuanced contestations of Islam today are contained in the works of Muslim intellectuals and artists.

More here.