PUBLIC BOOKS: Nadia Abu el-Haj on The Submission
12 March 2011
Bringing Politics Back In
With an “event” that, as many reviewers of the book have noted, ends up being eerily prescient of the “controversy” over Park51, the Islamic cultural center to be built in downtown Manhattan, the question that stands at the center of The Submission is: “Who do or have we become”—we “liberal Americans,” perhaps, we white liberal Americans—in the aftermath of the attacks? If there is a moral dilemma that stands at the novel’s heart and gives it much of its power, it is the question of the staying power of liberalism. And if there is a teleology that emerges through the narrative it is a kind of triumphalism about that liberalism, at least vis-à-vis the US in which liberal commitments, even when interrupted, seem destined to return. (“The country had moved on, self-corrected, as it always did, that feverish time mostly forgotten”—the narrator recounts, 20 years hence.) I want to think briefly about liberalism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in a way that departs from Waldman’s vision, even as the contours of the political imaginary that I sketch are captured, if perhaps unintentionally, in the story that she tells.
Grief and “identity,” and attachments to them, drive the characters in this book. There is the grief of having lost a relative to the attacks. There is the grief of having lost something as an American. There is the grief of trying to be a Muslim or not a Muslim, or to be just an American in a society in which neither seems to be much of an option any longer. And there is the grief—or pain—of being or remaining a liberal in the face of not just horror but of a kind of horror and a kind of enemy that presumably embodies the very essence of illiberalism and intolerance. It seems to me that the inextricability of one from the other—that is, of grief from identity—drives not just the kind of soul-searching that the novel narrates and its characters endure but quite crucially the kinds of conversations—presumably, “political” conversations—that the characters do and do not—or can and cannot—have.
I recognize all the characters in this historical novel as either real persons or as types. I will list some but not all of them. There is the New York Post reporter, testament to the rise of tabloid journalism tethered to the Swift-boat tactics of America’s right wing: just send out a story, regardless of whether or not it is true, saturate the airwaves with it, and make it true (and of course, make one’s career). There is the Pamela Geller–type anti-Muslim Christian crusader (Debbie, in the novel). There are the Muslim activists—driven by a variety of outlooks, but the more prominent of whom are driven by, in addition to sheer ambition, a commitment to a multicultural, inclusive America. They are passionate about a crucial element of “the American dream,” one could say. There is the oppressed Muslim woman who finds her voice in the aftermath of her husband’s death—and it is worth noting, she finds her voice in America, not in Bangladesh that is characterized, as the novel tells us over and over again, by the submission of women. There is the assimilated Muslim who comes to the very painful realization that in the aftermath of the attacks, he cannot be just another American. In his grief about the impossibility of his own subject position, he ultimately leaves. And there is the angst-ridden liberal widow—her very personal grief ultimately overtaking her more generous, principled position on the Garden (the design submitted by the assimilated Muslim architect). What we have lined up in these characters are all the necessary ingredients for a culture war.
And a culture war is precisely what The Submission depicts. In so doing, it articulates most powerfully and accurately what the immediate post-9/11 period was seen to be from the perspective of (New York) liberals. In so doing, it also necessarily recreates the silences that saturate(d) that liberal world. It is to those silences that I turn: I want to point to a whole other set of critical conversations that were, while certainly not absent, very hard—indeed, much, much harder—to have.
The proposal to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan exploded into public consciousness in much the same way as did the fictional event portrayed in this novel. And both sides—those defending the center and those opposing it—did so in the discursive terms laid out by Waldman: in opposition to the center, activists argued that Islam is a violent religion, inherently; that this would be a victory for the terrorists; that it would be insensitive, at best, to build a Muslim center here. In defense of the center, other activists insisted that Islam is not a violent religion; that the terrorists do not represent Islam; that this center is being built precisely to embody moderate Islam; that we are all Americans and Muslims should have the same civil rights as any other community in this democratic nation of ours.
My intention here is not to criticize those who defended the center. It was a fight that needed to be waged in light of the anti-Muslim rhetoric through which the project was being opposed and in light of the sometimes violent and often successful efforts to block Muslim communities from practicing their faith and building cultural centers in other parts of the US. Moreover, I recognize that the fight had to be waged in the terms that were chosen: there is no other politically solicitous language available than that of a defense of multiculturalism and civil rights. Nevertheless, I want to raise some questions about the terms of that debate and I do so in order to remind us of the kinds of conversations we have not been able to have over the past decade—at least not in any widely circulated public forum.
Let me begin with what united both sides of the “controversy” over Park51. They both took for granted that this is a civilizational battle, if not between Islam and the West, then between different values—those of moderation versus those of intolerance. (Which side of the argument might best be labeled in which way was clearly the object of rather contentious dispute). Those arguing in defense of the center, after all, argued that the US, if it is to really win this war, must show itself to be the democratic liberal nation that it is, and that regimes in places from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia are certainly not. (Note how often that argument—in the mouths of various characters—shows up in the novel.) Those that argued against the center insisted that violence, and not just intolerance, are endemic to Islam, and that we, therefore, can only save our own civilizational values by keeping “them” out. What all parties to the conflict seemed to share was a belief that this is a culture war, and it is a culture war gone global.
But what is the cost of turning 9/11 into a culture war? What are the costs of turning it into a clash of cultures and of values? Before I continue let me be clear: I am not arguing that I have any sympathy for the attacks on September 11. They were horrifying. Nor am I arguing that I have any sympathy for al-Qaeda and its political program. What I am arguing is that what is at stake, for better or for worse, are political disagreements, not “cultural” ones. And what I am arguing is that there is a historical and political genealogy to this conflict—or more accurately, to the many and varied if often overlapping movements and organizations now subsumed under the rubric of radical Islam (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda to name but a few). And I am arguing that in the immediate aftermath of September 11 it became pretty difficult to have those conversations. And yet those were and still are the conversations that most need to be had.
At the risk of proving one of Amy Waldman’s characters correct, I want to talk about Palestine. No, not everything is about Palestine, but that is a critical conversation which we needed to have and which was impossible to have in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It is a conversation which illustrates my point about what gets lost when we accept the terms of the debate and just argue the opposite: no, there are moderate Muslims; no, the terrorists just hijacked Islam.
It is worth keeping in mind the political genealogies of the rhetoric deployed by figures such as Pamela Geller. Let me take the example of what has come to be known as “soft jihad.” I begin by quoting the character of Debbie: “Two years after the attack, Americans were getting complacent. This attempt to claim our most sacred space—it’s a wake-up call. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you people: You think the violent Muslims are dangerous? Wait until you see what the nonviolent ones do! What’s next? The crescent over the Capitol? They’re trying to make this piece of land Dar al-Islam.” Soft jihad—the concept was developed (as far as I know) and promoted by the likes of David Horowitz, a neoconservative Jewish blogger and activist whose maligning of Islam cannot be understood without knowing that his primary political project is a defense of Israel. And Horowitz is not alone: Daniel Pipes, of Campus Watch and the Middle East Forum, a group with right-wing Zionist commitments, organized a successful campaign against the “Khalil Gibran Academy” (in Brooklyn) and its principal in the name of soft jihad several years ago. The question of Palestine, to use Edward Said’s term, hangs in the balance for Pipes, as it does for many an activist and scholar aligned with this brand of neoconservative Jewish politics. And the characters involved in this campaign, individuals who have worked long and hard to forge a more powerful alliance between Israel and the US, reached both directly into the Bush White House (through the power and “expertise” of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, to name a few) and outwards to conservative Christian political movements, with their own investments in demonizing Islam and excluding Muslims from this nation-state. In turning all political conversations into discussions of Islam—or into discussions of whether or not there indeed are good Muslims, whether or not Islam was hijacked by the hijackers—other kinds of questions, that is, arguments about history, rights and injustices, about colonialism, military occupations, population transfers, and imperial power are subsumed under the terms of an identity politics gone global. All conflicts are about an “us” and a “them,” and the forms of life—liberal, modern, and democratic; illiberal, backward, and violent—for which each of us stands. (It is worth noting that none of the main Muslim characters in The Submission is Arab, perhaps making it easier not to address some very central political disagreements without which there is no way to give a coherent account of the al-Qaeda attack in 2001.)
In a recent book called The Shape of the Signifier, Walter Benn Michaels writes, “Culture… has become a primary technology for disarticulating difference from disagreement.” We seem to talk about difference a lot more than we talk about disagreement, he argues, a reflection of the reorganization of political life within the grammar of identity politics. We speak from our own “perspectives” now and those perspectives are grounded in identitarian claims. That is certainly true for the characters in this novel. And identitarian claims are not just embraced by or foisted on the novel’s Muslim (or would-be-Muslim) characters. As the soul-searching goes on and Claire—and Paul—struggle to articulate their positions vis-à-vis this memorial “designed by a Muslim,” liberalism itself is no longer a political commitment born of a philosophical tradition and the history of the modern state. It has become just another identity. It has become a matter of who I am—and who I will have become—depending on which side of the debate over the memorial Garden I ultimately choose.
Nadia Abu el-Haj, Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, studies the relationship between scientific knowledge and the making of social imaginations and political orders. She is the author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society and The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (both University of Chicago Press).