Mohamed Abdou, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances (Pluto Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Mohamed Abdou (MA): Many reasons: pain, elegy, rage, squandered decolonial horizons within the “Arab Spring,” the “Black Spring” rebellion of 2020, and Indigenous resurgence during the Idle No More (INM) / #NoDAPL events, but also language, land, power, and the politics of (mis)translations relating to all of the above, given how liberalism has hollowed out words and their meanings.
Most leftist social movements oppose racial capitalism but assume that the nation state is a neutral entity that can be instrumentalized towards revolutionary ends, despite the fact that, historically, capitalism and nation states grew up together and are as entwined as grapevines. Islam and Anarchism focuses on this question of authority and authoritarianism. Michel Foucault argued that the nation state as a modern European colonial form of governing, disciplining, and controlling populations is inseparable from racism, and similarly is the case with capitalism, as Cedric J Robinson, Ruth Gilmore Wilson, Mariame Kaba and Robin D G Kelley teach. Together, capitalism and nation states rule over and facilitate what Harsha Walia refers to as “border imperialism.”
Islam and Anarchism starts with Columbus’ invasion of the Americas in 1492, which coincided with the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Andalusia. These communities were cast alongside Indigenous and transatlantic Black peoples as “savages” and “heathens.” My book contends that the “War on Terror” represents an ongoing crusade against Islam and Muslims, while arguing against the idea that “secularity” in the United States/Canada exists, given its Euro-American Christian anchoring in Protestant Ethics, common-law property rights, and anthropocentric conceptualizations of land and non-humxn life, as well as in Doctrines of Manifest Destiny and Discovery.
Instead, I propose “Anarcha-Islam.” It is deeply rooted in key Qurʾanic concepts and interdisciplinary textual sources, and draws on radical anti-statist BIPOC social movement discourses in an effort at connecting the fires of the Tahrir Uprisings with that of NoDAPL/INM, BLM, and Palestine from a land-based abolitionist social movement and political-theological perspective. The book philosophically, materially, and theologically challenges authoritarian and capitalist inequalities in the entwined imperial context of post-colonial societies like Egypt and settler-colonial societies (the United States/Canada) that never underwent decolonization and are symbolically, historically, and materially interrelated.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MA: A central theme is how migrant SWANA settlers in the United States/Canada are content with liberal-progressive voting/electoral approaches and strive to become good law-abiding citizens, while in the process they reify what Saidiya Hartman refers to as anti-Black “afterlife to slavery” projects, facilitated by their participation in the United States/Canada’s settler-colonization of Indigenous peoples at the entwined expense of Afro-Indigenous futurities. This approach is one animated by what Charles Taylor, Frantz Fanon, and Glen Coulthard call a “politics of recognition,” which obscures genuine anti-statist revolutionary understandings of decolonization centered on the re-matriation of stolen Indigenous land and Black reparations.
“Homonationalism” and “pinkwashing,” which Jasbir K Puar, Maya Mikdashi, and Sarah Schulman astutely identified, also constitute the geopolitical context informing Islam and Anarchism in so far as the militarization of feminist and queer rights as human rights in the United States/Canada and Palestine. Palestine acts as strategic ethical-political compass to Islam and Anarchism, given my Egyptian and North African Muslim background that includes being a settler of color living and working at the largest Grab University on Turtle Island—Cornell. I address why neither a one- nor a two-state solution to Palestine is feasible and build on the idea that the roads to Jerusalem and the Grand River are tied.
Other topics Islam and Anarchism addresses include a critique of Euro-American Marxist-Leninists statist perspectives, Postcolonialism/Third Worldism (including Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism’s constraints as a liberatory paradigm of reference), and the tactical usefulness but also strategic limitations of modern identity politics. I also discuss Arab Supremacy, anti-Blackness (within SWANA communities), gendered/racialized Islamophobia, and the difference between anti-colonialism and decolonization as well as between Jihad (to struggle) and Qital (the actual Qur’anic term that means “to do battle”). The book also intervenes in Indigenous and settler-colonial studies debates—Bonita Lawrence, Enakshi Dua, Jodi Byrd, Eve Tuck, Jeannette Armstrong, Zainab Amadahy, and others—on the concept of indigeneity and who and what is a settler, alongside questions of complicity and privilege, in light of how most migrant-settlers uncritically embrace upward mobility and Euro-American civilizational paradigms that inform what Sara Ahmed calls “migrant orientations” in displacement.
Islam and Anarchism, using the methodology of anarchic-Ijtihad, engages Islamic fiqh (loosely translated as “jurisprudence”), Muslim and SWANA history, and political-philosophical works, including (pre-)modern Muslim works towards a hermeneutical analysis of the Qur’an and its interpretations (tafasir), as well as the ahadith (the Prophetic oral traditions) which are their own discipline (ʿilm al-ḥadith) and over which there is discrepancy that in turn influences Muslim’s practice itself (the Sunna). I intervene in (pre-)modern debates alongside—Wael Hallaq, Tamim Al-Barghouti, and others—over the legitimacy of terms such as the “Islamic State,” and unveil anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and anti-authoritarian egalitarian Muslim forms of governance and economic practices, given the constrained Leftist and Islamist general approach of seeking to seize state power to enact social change. Anarcha-Islam takes for its interpretative territory other facets that constitute the corpus of Muslim thaqafa and Islamic turath spanning literary, scientific, medical, sexual, social, economic, ritualistic, and land-based scholarly works and practices.
I also address the (pre-)modern evolution of the concept of siyasa (the Arabic term for “politics” or the “art of governance”) and modern uses of concepts like Wattaniyyah (nationalism/patriotism) and Qawmiyyah (pan-regionalism as in a Pan-Arabism), and contemporary Muslim and Arab mistranslations of the political concept of Dawla (mistaken to signify the modern state), as well as the Umma (often mistranslated as nation).
A last theme that I will note is local, regional, and transnational solidarities and what a biodiverse strategy of resistance involves. Drawing on Muslim discourses, but also Leela Gandhi, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and others, I argue how “habitual” solidarity must entail what is referred to as an ethics of hospitality (in Islam, Usul al-Diyafa) and disagreements (Usul al-Ikhtilaf) and its application within Muslim, anarchist, or even spiritual and non-spiritual leftist movements in mitigating differences between us. The book draws on my two-decade participation in anti-hierarchical BIPOC, SWANA, and Palestinian social movement struggles. These include the post-Seattle anti-globalization protests of 1999 and the anti-Afghanistan and Iraq war protests, as well as the Tahrir Uprisings of 2011/2013, the Indigenous Zapatista movement in Chiapas and Oaxaca, and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga and community members from the sister territories of Kahnawake, Akwesasne, and Kanehsatake during their standoff with the Canadian federal government over the Culbertson Tract.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MA: The book represents a revising of my MA thesis titled “Anarcha-Islam,” completed in 2009. I returned to it following my ten-year historical archival and transnational ethnographic PhD on Islam, Queer Muslims, and Identity Politics: Race, Religion, Gender & Sexuality In the Contemporary. Through an engagement with queer Indigenous and Black studies as well as queer of color critiques, the doctorate involved interviews with a transgender sex worker in Egypt, a gay man in the Egyptian military, and queer-feminist Nubian and Sudanese Egyptians and others in post-2011 “Arab Spring” Egypt, as well as queer-feminist migrant SWANA Muslims in the American/Canadian settler-colonial context. Almost fifteen years since originally written, and numerous incarnations later, I wanted the book to remain faithful to the spirit and central anti-capitalist and anti-statist foundations of “Anarcha-Islam,” while also building on what I learned during my doctoral work and the organizational movement experiences I had.
Both the doctoral work and book simultaneously engage settler-colonial, critical race, and queer-feminist works, but also political theology and psychoanalysis, Indigenous, Black, decolonial, Islamic and postcolonial studies. Both works are built on the premise of the inseparability of politics from religion as well as studies of race from religion and gender from sexuality. They also intersect in exploring how spiritual orientations/practices can inform non-racial conceptualizations of indigeneity and decolonially trouble contemporary leftist social movements that are animated by secular anti-global, anti-Capitalist and anti-statist aspirations.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MA: Transnational interdisciplinary scholars and social movement activists (BLM, INM/NoDAPL, Tahrir, BIPOC elders, movements participants, and organizers, and so on). Everyone really, given the subject areas it touches on and the experiences that it strives to connect, unsettle, and convey. The book is written for members of the general public. Scholarship-wise, it is for Islamic studies scholars, particularly Muslim feminists, but also anti-racist, critical race, queer, women of color feminist, postcolonial (SWANA), decolonial, Indigenous, and Black studies, with which I am in dialogue and communing.
I hope the book serves towards genuine material decolonial liberation and healing, nothing short of that.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MA: I am building locally and globally with BIPOC and anti-statist social justice communities from where I am now located, on Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ, Anishinaabe-Haudenosaunee territory. I recently published two articles from the PhD research. One is on Egyptian gender-sexual harassment and a queer-feminist abolitionist initiative that arose from the Tahrir Uprising in Al-Raida journal. The second article is on the revolutionary wonderings of queer-feminist Egyptians in Egypt and queer-feminist Muslims organizing globally in Feral Feminisms. I am currently revising the PhD for a university press who are interested in its publication.
Excerpt from the Introduction
When we talk about waking people up from complicity, is to say that we can’t be only upset with Trump because he’s not a politician who sells us his policies in the most perfect way. His policies are bad. But many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was. And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.
Ilhan Omar, Politico Interview (March 8, 2019)
The notion of reform is so stupid and hypocritical. Either reforms are designed by people who claim to be representative, who make a profession of speaking for others, and they lead to a division of power, to a distribution of this new power which is consequently increased by a double repression; or they arise from the complaints and demands of those concerned. This latter instance is no longer a reform but revolutionary action that questions (expressing the full force of its partiality) the totality of power and the hierarchy that maintains it.
Gilles Deleuze (1972)
Much of the liberal controversy about Islam and democracy has really been about the West’s own antidemocratic imperial and domestic commitments (which denied, and in many cases still deny, rights to Native Americans, to blacks, to Catholics, to Mormons, to Jews, to Muslims, to women, to communists et al.), its “hatred of democracy”, its checkered history in relation to this much touted political system and its fantastical deployment as the very essence of Western culture which allegedly emerged from the very bosom of [Euro-American] Christianity. The liberal project is in effect a missionary project to convert Islam to the highest stage of Christian reigning in the West, even if this is carried out under the banner of a “reformed Islam”.
Joseph A. Massad (2015, 106)
The Destructive Legacy of (Neo)Liberalism and Colonial Modernity in the Production of Neo-Orientalist and Neo-Fundamentalist Muslim Subjectivities
On March 9, 2019, 37-year old Somali-American Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, the first hijābi-Muslim congresswoman, tweeted that news media outlet Politico had distorted her statements, given above, critiquing Barack Hussein Obama. Over the next 48 hours, both neoliberal news outlets, such as CNN, MSNBC, and CBC, and right-wing media outlets, such as Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Breitbart fixated on her comments that President Obama was a “pretty-face” responsible for “droning … countries around the world” and the concentration camp practice of “caging … kids.” Following the outcry, the former refugee Omar, who never shies away from retelling her hallmark success story as an affirmation of the “American Dream,” deleted her so-called controversial tweet. Omar – an institutionalized politician who has praised the mother of neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher as a role model as well as warmonger Madeleine Albright as an exemplary immigrant – then proceeded to insist she had become a victim of “fake news.” She proceeded to tweet, “[No] I’m an Obama fan! I was [just] saying how [President] Trump is different from Obama, and why we should focus on policy not politics.” Omar hardly stopped there. She continued to openly profess and affirm her “unwavering love for America” and proclaimed that as a country it “was founded on the ideas of justice, of liberty, of the pursuit of happiness.” Insisting on her unquestionable allegiance to America she decried the hypocrisy (nifāq) of how, “We export American exceptionalism … The Great America. The Land of liberty and Justice … But we don’t live those values here.” Then, on May 1, 2019, flanked by abolitionist Angela Davis, during one of many rallies in her defense, Omar asserted in typical contradictory fashion that settler-colonial America, or in other words, occupied Turtle Island (U.S./Canada), “was founded on the history of Native American genocide, on the backs of black slaves, [that] this is not going to be the country of white people.”
But which is it, “genocide” or “justice, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
Congresswoman Omar’s contradictory statements and their undergirding conceptions of positionality, history, and solidarity continue to simultaneously inspire and deeply trouble me. Her settler-colonial politics, as for many diasporic Muslims who exhibit these stances, speak to the struggles, irreconcilable loyalties, and identity crises that Muslims face globally. The identity crisis is a consequence of diasporic exile and displacement. Indeed, it is born out of having to contend with rediscovering a new homeland and meanings relative to the notion of “home” and “belonging,” while also engaging in the resettlement of Indigenous peoples who continue to struggle against their ongoing genocide, the theft of their land and calls for its repatriation and rematriation. The crisis is anchored in having to prove one’s loyalty to a nation that fetishizes and romanticizes its imperialist veterans that participate in expansionist adventurism elsewhere, while also assimilating and constructing a Euro-American identity and cultural formation ‘based on the territorial dispersal and political fragmentation’ of Muslims. This book argues that this identity crisis has pre-modern roots that have been heightened by modernity’s advent.
Liberalism’s effect on a majority of diasporic Muslims in North America is to seek to achieve a multicultural-progressive humanitarian utopian vision of an “American/Canadian” belonging premised on interracial, gender, sexual, and class social solidarities and political justice pluralisms. However, in adopting liberal-progressive stances, at the expense of more decolonial/radical social justice trajectories, diasporic Muslims reinforce the problematic notion that there is a “moderate” Islām and that there is congruence between, on the one hand, patriotic allegiance to nation-states that structure gender, racial, and sexual power, and on the other hand, ethico-political Muslim and Qur’ānic ontological/epistemological commitments. The irony is that innumerable progressives like Rashida Tlaib, Omar Suleiman, Dahlia Mogahed, and Linda Sarsour, as well as more conservative Muslims like Hamza Yusuf and Sherman Jackson, and others in between such as Zaid Shakir, market themselves as supporters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali’s radical Black legacies, while neglecting the fact that Malcolm X, in particular, explicitly adopted an anti-American stance.
Assimilation’s seductive lure, even when seemingly progressive, reifies the hollow mantra that diverse citizenship is an American/ Canadian value; an individualist slogan that ignores the fact that the very political institution of citizenship in settler-colonial North America is constructed upon continuing anti-Black foundations and Indigenous genocide and dispossession. This identitarian formation undermines core existential struggles involved in what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as a “double-consciousness,” as in possessing “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Unlike much liberal-Muslim scholarship and its idealization of individualist choices, representative democracy, and a politics of rights, this book engages with Islamic anarchistic and radical Indigenous, Black and People of Color (BIPOC) social movement literatures and movements that argue for a politics of responsibility anchored in direct and horizontal forms of democracy that are more egalitarian and socially just, with regards to both our species and its relationships to nonhuman life. It argues that the civil rights project of reform of the nation-state and associated assimilationist agendas disregard the asymmetrical hierarchies between and within various segments of domestic populations and thus “perpetuate the dangerous illusion that liberal politics are a refuge from right-wing racism,” when the truth is that the former are “constructed of many of the same components and hence occlude continuities and similarities with the Islamophobia of liberal governments like Obama’s or Trudeau’s.” These reform-based political approaches ignore Indigenous and non-Indigenous critiques of settler-colonization and the need for decolonization in addressing what Jodi Byrd refers to as the geostrategic “cacophony of struggles,” which argue that the quest for inclusion normalizes the colonization of Indigenous nations and emboldens neocolonial/neoimperial assemblages acted upon predominantly Muslim societies elsewhere. In other words, the preoccupation with assimilation and civic rights in the U.S./Canada, and the insistence on the unapologetic congruency of American/Canadian identities, actively promotes the colonization and dispossession of Indigenous and Black peoples within and elsewhere upon people of color beyond white supremacist Empire.
In contrast to these white-civilizational assimilationist strivings, liberalism’s reactive effect on orthodox Muslims is their infantilization such that they are driven towards impotent-violent strivings in the name of ushering in a totalitarian and exclusive puritanical “Muslim world.” This orthodox worldview informed by “con- version or death” narratives is one that we can see in Omar Mir Seddique Mateen’s case in which the Euro-American concept of sexuality is thrown into the mix.