Insecurity archipelago: liberal Islam and its limits

Since his election as president, it has become increasingly clear that Donald Trump’s seemingly erratic penchant for fictional storytelling is in fact a deliberate strategy. Connecting the imagined Islamic terror attacks that he and his Cabinet have publicly denounced, is the fact that these ‘attacks’ have all taken place in parts of the world where white supremacy has historically been well-entrenched, and where right-wing terrorism is not uncommon. Trump’s is a populism that reaches deeper and wider than the ‘imagined community’ of average Americans voters – and he and his advisers know this.

Appealing to what can be described as an ‘insecurity archipelago’ – hotspots, mostly strung out across the Western world, where xenophobic and particularly anti-Muslim sentiments have long incubated – the administration is deliberately cultivating and inciting the very cultures of moral outrage that give it and its allies legitimacy, and which thrive on various circuits of ‘alternative’ information and facts. It seems that Trump and his cabinet are reaching out to the far right everywhere, and that the latter are responding positively.

On the other hand, Muslim spokespersons, in mounting their defence of Muslim communities and identities, seem to be confined to the national or the local in their frames of reference. We are witnessing vastly unequal political imaginaries at play, and they are urging us to register how ill-equipped we presently are in facing a rising fascism that is forming solidarities across ever-expanding horizons.


This came to mind as I watched the latest debacle on the ABC’s Q&A. I am referring, of course, to the ‘debate’ between Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Jacqui Lambie, which has since been making the rounds, particularly in The Australian, as an indictment not of the way the panel was organised or facilitated, or of the program’s singular inability to offer a setting for an informed discussion of anti-Muslim bigotry, or even of its insistent appeal to and tolerance of authoritarian personalities, including Lambie herself. Rather, it has been presented as yet another instance of the irreconcilability between the ‘Muslim’ and the ‘Australian’ that make up Abdel-Magied’s hyphenated self-identification, converting political spaces into cultural identities. More ‘culture talk’, as it were.

The asymmetry of power between these political spaces, palpable on the Q&A debate itself, are increasingly obvious. On its own an exaggerated pastiche worthy of plenty lampooning, Lambie’s performance as a demagogue is nevertheless backed by the overwhelming reality that somewhere else, Muslims have been temporarily banned by an executive order. On the other side sits a young activist struggling to deliver a simple, if trite, message about belonging and agency. Thereafter, it was the latter who fell victim to a media witch-hunt backed by a petition from a far-right group demanding she be sacked for promoting ‘pro-Sharia propaganda’.

For some time now, Muslim activists have been increasingly aware and vocal about how their identity continues to be evacuated of political content, even as those who identify as such are increasingly encircled by dubious political machinations of all sorts. That this identity has momentarily exhausted its political potential can be gleaned from its consistently exhausted looking ambassadors, like Abdel-Magied, as they desperately try to affect the right composure, the pithy expressions, and the sufficient expertise to make themselves heard and taken seriously, not least by their opponents. The latter, in this case, being an elected representative whose platform is built on the criminalisation of Muslims and whose all-too-easy political gains are secured through time proven yet resurgent clichés: ‘something something ensure our safety’.

That this platform continues to be validated by programs like Q&A as if it were politically neutral or ethically acceptable is a fact lost on many, not least, it must be said, Muslim spokespersons, who continue to participate in such panels. The intention of ‘giving a voice’ to our communities seems rather misplaced given the efficiency with which our voices are drowned out in the larger chorus of calls for deportation, confinement, and extermination. More importantly, this is a cacophony that taps into a much more widely shared political imaginary. Lambie, Hanson, Trump, Wilders, Le Pen and Netanyahu are in harmonious concert; in fact, they are increasingly indistinguishable. Far from diminishing their presence, the homogeneity inflates it.

Lurid and absurd as this political front at first seemed, it is also all the more frightening when one considers the ‘alternative voice’ on hand: a motley of American-Muslims, Australian-Muslims, French-Muslims, and so on ad infinitum, jostling for a space to be heard, be seen and belong. This is not an indictment of individual activists or groups, but a reflection on the (in)efficiency of our political language and strategies, and how ridiculously, painfully under-equipped we are in this very moment. While inter-fascist solidarities are built and consolidated across a global archipelago, we remain confined in both imaginary and practice to islands of hyphenated identities.

It’s not that something like ‘Australian-Muslim’ is inherently bad; it’s just that it doesn’t seem to have anything more to offer politically. As an identity, it has been saturated with ethnic content and fixed in a national setting. In other words, it is ensconced as an imagined community within an imagined community. These amorphous ‘communities’, moreover, are then taken for granted as entities that already exist – requiring us to persistently appeal to, represent, and speak for – rather than form social relations that must be built from the ground up, requiring us to actually labour on in all our different capacities. More to the point however, there is a much more universal and practical fact about communities that fascists will always be better at exploiting: they tend to be exclusionary. They are always bracketed and bordered with various insides and outsides.

Who do we exclude, at this point, in our defiant preservation of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Muslim community’ as exclusively ethnic and cultural markers? One needs look no farther than the recent ‘billboard’ controversy on Invasion Day, when a campaign to reinstate the image of two Muslim girls as the face of the annual celebration of the colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal lands was hailed as an act of multicultural benevolence and inclusion. As comedian Aamer Rahman put it: ‘Truly a novel and expensive way of throwing Aboriginal people under the bus’. This particular incident in fact goes right to the heart of the question of our politics of identity and belonging: instead of abandoning this project, as leftists and liberals persistently demand, can it not be grounded in more ethical relationships of solidarity with Indigenous peoples and migrant communities? If the assumption is really that, after decades of trying and failing, belonging can only be achieved through appeasement of settler societies at the expense of everyone else, then as colonisers maybe we should just pack up and ship off.

But there is an added dimension to communal exclusion that undermines all our efforts in constructing a homogeneous, albeit nationally confined, identity, that fascists have also been able to utilise to deadly effect. As anthropologist Anthony Cohen explained long ago, communities as symbolic constructs draw internal, not just external, borders. As Muslim communities, we have tended to define ourselves not only in distinction and indifference to other marginalised groups, but by highlighting dominant and non-threatening aspects of our collective identity: namely, our Arab-centred, middle class, straight, cisgender conception of self. This image prevails, and does so at the expense of the political struggles of Muslims who bear double, triple, and quadruple burdens – black and queer Muslims in particular.

Actually, we uphold this image to its own, gradual detriment. Neglecting to address these internal borders – and in fact actively undermining conversations that do so – has fostered the very toxic cultures of violent masculinity and white self-racialisation that continue to alienate young men and women in our communities, who can then find their identity and belonging in ‘alternative’ conceptions of the faith; i.e. promises of counter-modernities and caliphates offered by fascist and violent organisations. Just as with the generation that produced gamergate, pepe the frog, and eventually a significant portion of Trump and co’s support base, these young Muslims know full well that belonging, full inclusion, and upward social mobility are not on the table in late capitalist, Western societies. Theirs is a politics of despair, which nevertheless allows them to see clearly that panel discussions, celebratory billboards, and iftar dinners with politicians and police commissioners are just so many gambits: it doesn’t matter how we play their game, we always lose from the get-go.

Trump and co, which here includes groups like ISIS, understand and appropriate this world view much more efficiently than we ever will; partly because they helped create it. The idea of the ‘losers’, the people who failed or who were failed by their representatives and leaders, who struggle on the margins against political correctness and against the mainstream: this is what props up contemporary fascist ideology, including its Islamic hue. It is a space that is subterranean to the typical ‘imagined community’ that Muslim and non-Muslim liberals pander to. It festers in the basements of middle class family homes, in Facebook’s more edgy siblings like Reddit and 4chan, on ‘alternative’ media sites and the channels of ‘cyber-muftis’. Our politics of respectability and representation have little impact now because such spaces have created ‘alternative’ cultures of representation and respectability.

Though we have some way to go here in the antipodes, there are promising signs elsewhere that point to a revitalised grassroots Muslim presence. In the US, for instance, what started out as a ‘Muslims for Ferguson’ group has, under the leadership of Palestinian Muslim Linda Sarsour, cultivated relations of solidarity and collaboration with Black Lives Matter, anti-deportation groups, as well as with Standing Rock. These efforts demonstrate that belonging does not have to come with complicity and assimilation, and that we don’t have to indigenise at the expense of the Indigenous. It remains to be seen whether these spaces of political struggle can shake up the ethno-cultural caging of Muslim identity, and offer instead a political framework through which it can be articulated. As of now, our imaginative geography, blinkered as it is by territorialised notions of ‘community’, leaves us with few tools with which to map out the crucial spaces that are currently being colonised by more insidious political forces.


Image: Dome inner of the Lakemba Mosque / flickr

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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  1. Great article!

    I find it surprising that the relatively progressive and tolerant societies (not governments) in the Muslim-majority countries of Albania and Kazakhstan are not put forward by Muslims in Western countries as examples.

    Perhaps it’s because of that “Arab-centred conception of self” you mentioned.

  2. I have travelled a fair bit in the Islamic world, and have visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Jameh Mosque of Tehran, and various others. The interior of the Lakemba Mosque, as illustrated, looks interesting. But for me the most rewarding of them all, and to my knowledge the world’s one and only corrugated iron job, is the Broken Hill Mosque; when I last looked unfortunately closed to visitors.
    It catered for the spiritual needs of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers (actually mainly from what later became Pakistan) who provided so much transport in the interior of Australia before the coming of the railways and automobiles of various kinds.
    Perhaps the Australian Muslim community will be able to restore it to its former and simple glory. It would be well worth it, in my humble opinion.

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