Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dr. Jackson on False Universals and Reform

It was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois who made the prescient prediction that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. The twentieth century has come and gone, and, while the color line remains with us,

[footnote 1: Indeed, I would argue, it has transcended its domestic domain and assumed international proportions. See W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Fawcett, 1961), 23.]

I predict that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the false universal. In my use of "false universal," I am referring to that convenient confusion between abstract and concrete universals on the basis of which only those who share one's concretions of "justice," "beauty," or "civilization" are justified in laying claims to these values. The false universal conceals itself in the habit and or privilege of speaking as if the shape that one's values and preferences assume in concrete social, political, or interpersonal contexts is not grounded in cultural, historical, or even ideological perspectives but, instead, is reflective of a transcendent, "natural" order whose validity is obvious to everyone, save the stupid, the primitive, or the morally depraved. In a word, the false universal is a manifestation of history internalized, normalized, and then forgotten as history - at least for those on the inside looking out.

The horrific events of September 11, 2001, are likely to accelerate the pace with which American Muslims are forced to confront the problem of the false universal. To begin with, the international dimensions of the tragedy (though the perpetrators were substate actors) have prompted appeals to laws and institutions whose very legitimacy lay in their claim to universal validity and jurisdiction. At the same time, American Muslims' need to confirm Islam's participation in the global consensus condemning the carnage has added credence and momentum to the efforts of Muslim reformists who were declaring even before 9/11 that the sacred law of Islam is out of step with modern sensibilities and needs to be brought into conformity with "universally recognized" rights and obligations.

[skipping a paragraph you can read here. Also see Jackson's Islam and the Blackamerican for a more detailed account of the shift and redistribution in religious authority in Islam in America]

In the aftermath of September 11, reform has emerged as the preoccupation of American Muslims, especially those whose ethnic identity with the hijackers has rendered them particularly vulnerable. Given the aforementioned redistribution of Islamic religious authority, it comes as no surprise that immigrant Muslims are leading the way in this regard. Herein, however, lie the seeds for potential conflict. For to the extent that the aim of this enterprise is to disabuse non-Muslims of their negative assessments of Islam, reform will invariably entail an attempt to reconcile Islam with the dominant culture. And to the extent that this attempt conflates "dominant" with "universal" (the better to substantiate the propriety of specific reforms) black American Muslims are likely to remain skeptical if not hostile toward reform. This is because their historical legacy has endowed them with a deep suspicion of all claims to universal norms, white supremacy, their perennial nemesis, being itself little more than a false universal. Speaking in this regard, Richard Dyer notes in his provocative book, White:

There is no more powerful position than that of being "just" human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can't do that - they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people [i.e., whites] can, for they do not represent the interests of a race.

[footnote 3: Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997), 2. Dyer, incidentally, is emphatic in insisting on disclosing his identity as white.]

...The position of speaking as a white person is one that white people now almost never acknowledge, and this is part of the condition and power of whiteness; white people claim and achieve authority for what they say by not admitting, indeed not realizing, that for much of the time they speak only for whiteness.

[footnote 4: Ibid., xiv.]

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