The role of the intellectual in these difficult times is paramount as debates on every issue abound in contemporary society. Nothing from the economy to the environment, race relations to healthcare, and migration to outer space exploration escape the debates and are all in contestation and in flux. At the outset, let’s not posit that the intellectual alone has all the answers for every issue at hand because the honest truth is that they, the intellectuals as a whole, are struggling with what to do like everyone else. What I am seeking and writing about is the role of the intellectual in the complex debates underway and the numerous remedies offered to address them with a specific focus on the Muslim intellectual in particular.
On a broader, historical trajectory, the role of the intellectual in civil society has shrunk, and certainly limited pockets of influence remain available. The reasons for the shrinking influence are themselves complex and can’t be reduced to a single agent but some of the critical causalities are: massive economic changes, revolutionary transformations in modes of communication that at present confuse access to information with intellectual pursuit, commodification of every aspect of the human life, and diminishing of independent sources of finance. In addition, the pursuit of ideas for their own sake rather than those subjects or areas that can translate immediately into monetized returns are frowned upon and increasingly are objects of derision.
On a deeper level, the intellectual him/herself bears considerable responsibility for what transpired and the collapse of his/her status in the broader society. The intellectual relationship to power is the poison pill that produces sweetness and joy but at the same time is utterly bitter when pursued. Power devours everything in its path and intellectuals who frequent the fountains of power are delusional in thinking they have attained the magic elixir of influence. In reality, the intellectual at the gates of power end up as a wreckage on the red carpet of the powerful who needed a perception of intellectualism to couch their personal ambitions.
Certainly, the intellectual’s desire to see his/her theoretical ideas validated in society and gaining favor with the powerful was the shortest route to such an outcome. However, the fact that the powerful adopted a particular idea and the intellectual who produced it did not translate to the idea’s validity, and history’s pages are replete with such examples.
My interest in the topic came about after rereading Edward Said’s “Representations of the Intellectual” and thinking of the various roles Muslim intellectuals play in the securitization era and what Said’s response would be to it. As a Palestinian, I am aware that Said took part in initiatives that brought him into direct contact with various U.S. administrations as a go-between for the PLO; however, and as far as I know, at no time was Said compensated directly or indirectly for his relations with U.S. government officials in pursuit of Palestinian rights. Furthermore, Said’s role as an advocate for the Palestinians put him at odds with the U.S. government, Congress and much of the political elite in America, not to mention the vehement opposition by pro-Israel institutions.
At present, the role for American Muslim intellectuals is precarious as they are navigating a terrain that on the one hand seeks to establish an American identity within an increasingly hostile environment while on the other trying to find a distinct voice of their own. Adding to the mix is the complexity of a massive U.S. governmental effort directed at harnessing the intellectual capacities of the beleaguered American Muslim community to execute an open-ended “war on terror” and extension of U.S. imperial interests.
Muslim intellectuals find themselves recruited in their specific fields of specialization so as to render service to the U.S. government’s priorities even if those run contrary to Universal Human Rights Declaration and community ethical and moral principles. Muslim intellectuals are being asked to partner with America’s status quo and to mount at home and abroad a defense of the political, economic, social and exceptional world view that sits at the heart of the American project.
Increasingly, Muslim American intellectuals call on segments of the community to refrain from engagement or critique of America’s role abroad and urge a focus on domestic and “our” own problems. Here, the call is narrowly focused on refraining from foreign policy issues that may constrain the intended integrationist trajectory that might face derailment if serious opposition is mounted. Is the domestic really disconnected from the global? If it is disconnected, then in what way and how should it be navigated?
How can an intellectual argue for a focus on the domestic at a time when U.S. power, in all its manifestation, is on display daily across the globe? Walk to any grocery or department store across the country and you are immediately connected to the global dimension and the heavy impact of U.S. foreign policy, which is wedded to pernicious capitalist consumption. One may choose to ignore the “inconvenient truth” of the heavy weight of U.S. power across the globe because centering it in thought and action will complicate Muslim Americans’ ability to “fit-in” and be accepted as the jolly next-door neighbor that patriotically flies the biggest and highest flag on the street.
The intellectual class in general and the Muslim part of it in particular has been reduced to a series of engagements initiated by government needs and set in motion according to a pre-determined agenda. Rather than being independent, creative and reflective , the intellectual class (with some exception) has accepted its role as problem solvers for persistent U.S. imperial problems that emerge out of intervention abroad, militarism, racism and obscene capitalism.
American Muslim intellectuals are joining the bandwagon and fitting in perfectly as a functionary of this massive and persistent domestic and global imperial enterprise. In 1967, MLK spoke of the internal and external colonial as he moved to critique the Vietnam War and the on-going racism directed at African Americans and minorities in America’s cities.
Muslim intellectuals should carefully examine the monumental contribution of African American intellectuals in the 20th century — if not before — so as to understand the American imperial project with which they are being asked to partner. How to decipher the current state of affairs where Muslim intellectuals are being funded directly or indirectly by various U.S. government institutions to produce a Muslim subjectivity that affirms and rationalizes the empire, non-stop militarism, obscene capitalism, securitization and otherization paradigm. Under various rubrics, integrations, assimilation, patriotism, Americanism, exceptionalism and inclusion, Muslim intellectuals at America’s red carpet of power end up reproducing the paradigmatic externalization of the community as a whole and rationalize empire in the process.