Saturday, January 08, 2005

Between a rock and a hard place: secular Muslim

Oops, I've done it again.... Not in the Britney sense, but in the sense that I am posting a long comment here as a post again! I am not an engineer and not tech. savvy at all, so please bear with me until I learn how to send my long posts to another vitual place, as hyper-text. I guess I need to get my own domain in order to do that. No? I'm not sure.
I am back home, on the “hot seat” behind my computer. It is raining outside and in this cold weather, sitting on this hot seat is actually not bad at all. Although I don't know why my cat, Sepeed, has decided to go out cruising in this rain!
Pantea-ye aziz, I am not sure what in my posts makes you come to the conclusion that I “believe in Islam.” If by believing you mean that I am a follower, then no. If you mean that I believe that Islam is a reality of many people’s lives today, then yes. I think I have tried to explain by using anecdotes, and through a simplified explanation of performative identities, what I mean by being a Muslim. I am not going to repeat what I have said in my last two posts and comments, but let me just bring examples, through which I may be able to make myself more clear.
A friend of mine, an Iranian queer woman, always takes issue with my claims to Muslim-ness. She grew up in a very religious family, which wasn’t quite the case for me. Although my mom became born-again Muslim before the revolution, soon after the revolution she became less religious, because unlike others in my immediate family, she was a Shah advocate! (She was religious, but not in favor of the Iranian regime, which is the case for many Iranians). In any case, my family came from all kinds of political inclinations and as I have said before, I ended up becoming a leftist at the age 11. I was even expelled from school in the 7th grade, because I took “Tarikh-e donyaye Qadeem” to my Islamic Knowledge (Ma’aref-I Islami) class in order to prove to my teacher, a “hezbollahi” woman, that there was no God (I tried to do this through the Darwinian evolution theory!) Thanks to “party-baazi” of a relative who taught in that school, I was re-admitted with a permanent red mark on my school file! So, I too, have occupied the subject-position of an “atheist” at some point in my life. But, saying that I am a Muslim does not mean that I have repented, brainwashed, or that I am a “believer.” I say I am a secular Muslim because I come from a part of the world, where Islam has had a significant cultural influence (as a joke, I always use the example of my beloved Aftaabeh. But that is a joke, people. Don’t start sending me comments arguing that Aftaabeh is an Iranian invention and not an Islamic one!) In any case, because of my positioning as a diasporic subject in a Christian-dominated location (and we can talk about how religious the U.S. is, despite all its claims to secularism), I have found myself in a position of being interpellated as a Muslim and also in the position of being denied my history. In the 15 years I have been here, I have encountered so many different ways of being fixed into rigid stereotypes and subjected to many instances of being required to prove my “authenticity.” From, “but you don’t look Iranian, where is your veil or long hair?” to “Oh, I should have guessed that you don’t drink alcohol and you don’t eat pork, because you are a Muslim.” This last one coming from an anthropologist who specializes in a Middle Eastern country (I guess after all, not all anthropologists are that smart, huh? One point for engineers, Mo! :-)). [By the way, let me digress for a moment. I take issue with social sciences and humanities being excluded from the realm of being “scientific.” Back to my story now…]
I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat bacon, not because I practice Islam, but because I have stomach problems, and because I was a vegetarian for 13 years (I just started eating meat again, due to health issues... And joojeh kabab is my favorite now!). Believe me, eating bacon and drinking alcohol are the least of offenses that would have made me into a kaafar in some people’s eyes! That is why my queer friend objects to me: “but how can you be a Muslim?” Well, that is exactly what I am trying to complicate! “Being” vs. “becoming.” This is my point about questioning essentialist notions of identity. "Being a Muslim" does not just mean one thing and does not remain the same. As David has put it, identities are not immutable. So, my Muslim-ness in Iran has a very different meaning than my Muslim-ness here in the U.S. I am constantly becoming, as we all are. We are subjects in making. My Muslim-ness now is contingent upon the transnational discourses on Islam and my geographic, political, and cultural positionality in relation to these discourses.
Now, why do I not approach Sura Nisa (Nesaa)? Because there are many different forms of feminism and I do not have the same approach as the feminists who try to re-interpret Islam. Many Women who live under Muslim laws have taken up this approach, either for strategic reasons and the immediacy of the issues they deal with, or because they believe in Islam as their faith and are negotiating a legitimate space for themselves in patriarchal settings (remember the recent discussion about the meaning of “rijal” in Iran?) Mernissi, for example, questions the whole notion of “sacredness” of the text, pointing to the political and economic issues that were at stake after the death of the prophet of Islam in Ad 632. In a sense, she questions the history written by male elites and without refuting Islam, points to relations of power in the formation of a patriarchal Islam (this would require a long discussion, so if you are interested, read Mernissi’s The Veil and the Male Elite). Now, it may be the anthropologist in me, but I do think that rather than whole-sale rejection of a theory or concept, we can take pieces from it and develop new ways of approach, a bricolage, in anthropological terms. So, there is no way I can tell you, Pantea, “exactly" what being a "Muslim" or being "Secular" mean. They have different meanings in different locations and times (I witnessed a very interesting version of it when I was doing fieldwork in Istanbul last summer, for instance). “Exactly” is an impossibility in my view. We can only get near, get close to meanings, as they always shift and are deferred (the “excess” that I was referring to in my last post).
Dear David, I hope I have to some extent answered to your comment. Let me say that print actually enabled the massive distribution of the bible, as the first thing that was produced through what Benedict Anderson calls “print capitalism.” Also, I have added two new books (not available yet, but forthcoming) to the side bar. The one by Minoo Moallem talks about fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon. Elsewhere, Moallem has shown how egalitarian feminism and Islamic fundamentalism share many principles and histories. Both, she argues, are engaged in a crisis of rationality and identity (again, she is not talking about all forms of feminism, but egalitarian feminism). I would highly recommend her new book to those who are interested in the subject. The one by Afsaneh Najmabadi talks about the masquerade of homo-eroticism in modern Iran. It is also a fantastic re-writing of history.
On a different note: In my Persian blog, I had written about my friend's finch, Sanam, who became very sick when my friend was away. While Sanam was in the hospital, we found out that "she" had been a male bird all along! (It's hard to tell their sex when they are babies. My friend has had Sanam for four years, thinking that she was Sanam Khanoom!) In any case, I just got a call from my frined. Sanam is doing better and is back home. To celebrate, I am going over there for lunch tomorrow. We are having joojeh kabob!! Sanam's name remains Sanam and her owner has decided that she will still see sanam as a female bird. Sanam and Julio, her male cage-mate, are apparently all over each other! I thought that was funny :-). What can I say.... Performativity of gender and the discursiveness of sex!
Post-script: Isn't it saddening when someone removes you from their list of links when you disagree with them on something? I guess I need to become "poost-koloft" and get used to being "de-linked!"


The sidebar image is taken from Mahmoud Pakzad's "Old Tehran", Did Publishers, 1994. Thanks to Jahanshah Javid (www.iranian.com) for sharing it.

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