Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2014

Critical Muslim

Filed under: Islam — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

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I just received the January-March 2014 Critical Muslim,  a special issue on the Maghreb. Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-edits this essential quarterly journal with Ziauddin Sardar, discusses the term in an article titled “Dusklands”:

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

Who can possibly resist a journal that simultaneously calls itself Muslim—albeit critical—and that refers to William Burroughs in the same breath? I would not and neither should you.

I contributed an article titled “Jews of the Maghreb” that expanded on themes I first broached in film reviews about Arab Jews, a term I find more useful than Mizrahim, the Hebrew designation for the Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa. In the course of researching the CM article, I wrote something for Counterpunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that despite the title concurs with Iraqi Jew Ella Shohat that the term should be Arab Jew:

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the ’50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently–the European Jews–were actually European Christians.

My article was based on scrupulously conducted research that concluded that the Jews of the Maghreb enjoyed a much higher status and a degree of freedom that amounted to a kind of Golden Age. Zionist historians who basically adopt the same essentialist “the goyim have always been against us” methodology of Daniel Goldenhagen have challenged this interpretation. I cited Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History that emphasized the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

My article appears in CM 9 alongside some fascinating other pieces that really epitomize the journal’s ability to weave together culture, society and politics.

I especially appreciated Julia Melcher’s “Invisible Interzone” that examines Tangier, the Moroccan city prized by American expatriates, especially bohemian authors such as the aforementioned William S. Burroughs and Paul and Jane Bowles, whose work I had a keen interest in as an undergraduate in the early 60s. Melcher reveals that Burroughs had very little interest in Arab culture and even told a visiting Kerouac that he just should push the natives aside “like little pricks”. Paul Bowles was far better in terms of becoming engaged with Maghreb culture, but finally confessed to an interviewer that we are “not likely to get to know the Moslems very well.” The next to last paragraph of Melcher’s very fine article contains this very shrewd observation on the strained relationship between the locals and the bohemian self-exiles:

But how did those natives, the Tanjawis, perceive the invaders of their city? What are their accounts of the whole story? Do their voices remain unheard and their faces invisible in the discourse and representation of their colonisers, or do they finally claim their own ground in the narrow streets and shadows of the dreamlike city? Cunningham Graham once summed it up in a rather trenchant observation: ‘They were objects of wonder to the Moroccans, who looked on them with awe, mixed with amusement, and regarded them as amiable madmen who, for some purpose of his own that he had not disclosed, Allah had endowed with the command of fleets and armies, and with mighty engines of destruction, so that it behoved the faithful to walk warily in their dealings with them.’ Whether this is true or not, Graham convincingly shifts the perspective. It’s not the colonised Arabs who were the objects of wonder or madmen of odd cultural background in this whole narrative of Moroccan colonialism. On the contrary, the Westerners who lived there themselves often exposed a good deal of their own sometimes dysfunctional culture and way of living, bringing their various neuroses and addictions, longing to escape the morals, norms and state control of their home countries.

In terms of Bowles’s rueful admission about not being able to know the Muslims very well, I cannot help be struck by the mounting Islamophobia on the left, mostly prompted by a bastardized “anti-imperialist” tendency to put a minus where the USA puts a plus—taking its most extreme form with respect to Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s homeland. A decade ago the left embraced the Sunni guerrillas in Fallujah as much as it did the Vietnamese fighters just over a decade earlier. As long as their weapons were aimed at an American ally, they were “good guys”. Now, erroneously viewed as CIA tools no different than UNITA or the Nicaraguan contras, the Muslim combatant is a symbol of religious fanaticism and medieval resistance to progress. Just as was the case with Burroughs and the Bowles, the Arab figures more as a symbol than a living, breathing human being.

The best and easiest way to develop an understanding of Muslim culture and politics is to subscribe to Critical Muslim, a journal that I recommend without qualifications. Subscription information and ordering back issues from the British publisher is here. Back issues can also be purchased on Amazon.com using the dollar rather than the British pound.

Finally, I would like to direct your attention to the website of the Muslim Institute (http://www.musliminstitute.org/home), the publisher of Critical Muslim, that describes itself as “a Fellowship society of intellectuals, thinkers, academics, artists, and professionals. It aims to promote and support the growth of thought, knowledge, research, creativity and open debate within the Muslim community and the society at large”. This, like the journal, is essential reading for those trying to understand “Islam without tears”.

I would refer you to the article “Father Sarrouj’s bookshop and the Death of Ideas in Tripoli” by Mazen El Makkouk that appears on the home page, a sad reminder of the mortal danger posed by Salafist type politics in Libya as well as Syria. Father Sarrouj’s bookstore was torched on January 3rd, in all likelihood by an extremist. El Makkouk writes:

The Salafists, who last week set fire to Father Sarrouj’s bookshop, also inhabit the fallen universe. But, perhaps tired of being fallen, they find exhilarating the claim that they can and should turn the tables, and rule the universe. In a traditional Muslim society like Tripoli, this fact might not seem obvious, since it is easily mistaken for deep religiosity, whose ordinary forms, such as prayer, are shared. Salafism can even come across as a school of jurisprudence, promoting particular “correct” forms of worship. But turning the tables is a declaration of war, and at the core of Salafist ethics is the belief that normal rules don’t apply: the destruction of property and lives, not usually halal, are now made halal for them.

Tripoli is living up to its Greek name: it is, more than ever, three cities. But the Salafists did not spring out of nowhere, suddenly brainwashed by foreign ideas. Within living memory, the universes have been separate. It has only gotten worse. In homage to Father Sarrouj (who, thankfully, was not physically hurt), I would like to give a bookish answer to the problem. On several occasions, Father Sarrouj complained to me that no one reads. Yes, that is a classic bookseller complaint. But I think that Father Sarrouj was aware of the public dimension of reading: of the exchange of ideas on public issues.

The problem with the bourgeois universe is that it is afraid of public issues. It can’t believe that it has made it out of poverty, and now wants to put as much of a distance between it and poverty as it can. One thing that it tells itself is that it is now better, it is more educated, no longer backward. Ironically, education, the source of social progress, is antithetical to a public spirit. The only purpose is to get ahead, and stay ahead, and books (arranged on bookcases in tasteful homes), only serve as a badge of prosperity and enlightenment.

Salafism thrives in Tripoli because bourgeois Islam is private: it has no public spirit, no way of inviting you to be a citizen discussing public issues with other citizens. This is because bourgeois Islam accepts the division of the universe into enlightened and fallen realms—“model Muslim” maps almost perfectly onto “solid bourgeois citizen.” What is there to discuss? Outside the respectable realm lies a dark area of taboo. The Salafists exist, but we know very little about them.

At the end of the article Mazen El Makkouk is identified as a PhD student in Literature at the University of Notre Dame whose dissertation is about the way concepts of literariness can inform readings of the Qur’an. If his analysis strikes you as powerful—and surely it should—I can only conclude by urging you to subscribe to CM or to buy single issues. It is the best way you can stay abreast of some of the most advanced thinking in the Middle East and North Africa.


  1. Having read Robin’s piece, I think it’s the best description of modern Morocco I’ve come across. Perhaps it’s pedantic of me, but Robin means to say ‘Darija’, not ‘Durija’.
    You’re right about Bowles and Burroughs. Apparently, literature journals are too inculcated to be ‘political’ and mention their views on the ‘natives’.
    Though I am nervously waiting to read your piece once this issue reaches my doorstep.

    Comment by Anas El Hawat — January 20, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

  2. So America carpet bomb Iraq and kill hundreds of thousands, occupy the nation and let their debased troops run amok, and you view the left’s hostility to this in the same light as events in Syria. What kind of game is being played here?

    Also, you are part of the mounting Islamophobia on the left. In that you put the rebels in the good and bad camps. In your view the good guys are the puppets of the West, the bad guys are Islamists who are perverting the rebellion, or as I call them the heroic people on the ground, protecting their neighbourhoods.

    Comment by The Man With No Name — January 21, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

  3. In your view the good guys are the puppets of the West

    If they were puppets, like UNITA in Angola or the Nicaraguan contras, they would have been armed to the teeth long ago. The “good guys”, a dubious term, have been marginalized because the Saudis and the Qataris prefer to back Sunni sectarians.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 21, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  4. […] I first motivated a subscription to Critical Muslim in January 2014 and invite you to review that post. Instructions on how to buy single issues and subscriptions are here […]

    Pingback by Motivating a subscription to Counterpunch and Critical Muslim | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 9, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

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