The Muslim question

Half of knowledge is contained in the question, is an important and well-known saying in Arabic. Taking this as a starting point and reflecting upon the current global discourse that is totally focused on the “Muslim question” with multiple research projects, intelligence programs and policy debates on how best to answer the unsolvable riddle of how to civilize and domesticate the 1.2 billion to 1.4 billion Muslims living in the world today who seem intent on destroying the peaceful world for everyone else. Can Muslims be modern? Can Muslims be civilized, rational and industrious? When will Muslims support gender equality, human rights and democracy? When will they end the cycle of violence? Can Muslims be Western? More critically, when will Muslims give up their attachment to religion?

Let’s be clear that any question or discussion that begins with “the Muslims” is both racist and ignorant and the need to state this fact is in itself a problem. Nonetheless, there are a large number of otherwise intelligent people, including in most academic and civil society circles, who feel at ease voicing these sentiments under the rubric of being open minded and liberal without a moment of self-reflection on the fundamentally racist nature of the discourse. Certainly, the more sophisticated opts for a sub-grouping within the larger category of Muslims, focusing instead on Arabs, Pakistanis or Iranians, as if this is less essentializing than the broader, ignorant framing.

Notice that the questions posed are all external and intended to answer someone else’s problems with the Muslim subject, but the Muslim subject is not permitted to ask their own question. “The Muslim” is framed as a problem needing a constant epistemic intervention in order to bring them into liberal and neo-liberal discourses for the purpose of transforming a constituted set of implied deficiencies present within all the questions. Muslim subjectivity in global discourse is framed as the intractable human problem that requires setting in motion the civilizational engineers, including native experts, to test remedies that can produce the needed outcome.

The questions are intended to set the boundaries and chart the course for Muslim self-examination and the standards to measure arrival to or distance from the constructed external goal. Embedded in the Muslim question is the conviction that Muslims are other with doubts cast upon the possibility of ever becoming the known, the familiar and part of the “human,” the civilized us.

Considering the saying: “Half of knowledge is contained in the question,” and in the context of “the Muslim,” means that half of knowledge about oneself is being wrongly and externally constituted. Furthermore, the answers arrived at for the questions asked externally lead to creating a fictitious sense of discovery and realization, answers that are gravely problematic when they are internalized by the essentialized Muslim subject.

The questions and answers in this situation are akin to the prisoner-torturer relationship whereby the prison imposes the epistemic structure and the dialogue is shaped by the contours of power embedded in it. Assuredly, the torturer is seeking answers to his – mostly it is a he – constituted questions that already have a set of acceptable or preconceived parameters based on existing intelligence or confession from an earlier torture session.

Nothing will satisfy the torturer except the correct answer located in his and his mind alone while the prisoner is asked to confess as the precondition for stopping each torture session. The Muslim question is constituted around the same power topography as that found in the prisoner-torture relationship and subject to the same demands for answers. Muslims must answer affirmatively when asked about their inferiority and deficiencies, just like the torturer conditions prisoners to provide the correct response.

Like the prisoner, questions about Muslims are not intended for the subject to arrive at a self-realization or self-discovery. On the contrary, the structure is directed at silencing and composing a constantly negated and deficient Muslim other that must admit inferiority. In other words, the Muslim subject is in constant need of a 12-step civilizational rehab intervention program, with an electric “shock and awe” therapy introduced to get them back on track every now and then. The first act in the process of self-liberation is located in the mind, and formulating one’s own questions is the starting point. In addition, and just as important, is taking inventory of all the answers given to the wrong and externally constructed questions.