- Double Critique and the Aesthetic Archaeologies of Islam
What is "Islam," especially after 9/11? The clarity such a question is meant to generate evaporates when we recall that the panoply of Islamicate societies have produced innumerable social infrastructures and institutions in distinct relation to the state, political economy, community, and kinship; highly differentiated histories and modalities of practice; and a wide array of aesthetic forms, narrative structures, and richly heterogeneous discourses. The formulation of this question reveals two proper nouns called upon to do such voluminous rhetorical, affective, and political work as to verge on meaninglessness. Its hedged post–9/11 foreshortening cleaves to a periodization that all too readily obscures any substantive tracing of continuity and change. The centripetal force of "Islam" as a signifier in the last fifteen years has attracted all manner of blinkered formulations, from the devotional to the demonic, from the practice of piety to the problem of policy. In the United States especially, Islam after 9/11, as Edward Said once argued about Islam during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, is in important ways a construction redolent with projections, intentions, and ideologies that reveals more about the speaker than the spoken-about. In this sense, one critical rejoinder to the question, "what is Islam?," is to ask in response: who wants to know? [End Page 575]
Said's 1981 work, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, brought Orientalism's mode of critical philology into the contemporary archive of U.S. popular news media and policy prescription. The book compellingly asks about the kinds of images, tropes, and figurations that inject Islam with meaning, the kinds of claims to expert knowledge they produce, and how such claims interface with the practices of late Cold War foreign policy. While Covering Islam maintains Orientalism's interest in the active long-distance and long-standing Anglophone orientalist traditions, Said also places in high relief the emergent representations of Islam in a moment of up-tempo geopolitical and political economic realignment, one in which the U.S. as an agential force of the "free world" was called upon to mitigate against the proliferation of communist and socialist regimes, sometimes through support of Islamic political movements and sometimes through their demonization.
Like Covering Islam, Sadia Abbas's important book At Freedom's Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament provides literary scholars with a thoroughly engaging and densely argued investigation of the operations of "Islam" as a signifier of contested meaning. But that might be where substantive similarities between these works end. At Freedom's Limit incisively disrupts not only those forms of scholarship that are caught in the epistemic dilemma of Islam's Anglophone representation in a moment of militarized misery and devastation, but also those forms of argumentation that, in their critical expressions of anti-racist and anti-imperialist sentiment, press into service pronominal enclosures of Islam. Abbas's concentrated analysis reveals "archaeologies that keep folding into the present, sometimes becoming particularly visible like geological strata after an earthquake" (2). Patient in its treatment of literary, cinematic, and visual texts, and sharp in its critique of what Abbas terms "leftliberal" scholarship on Islam, the book takes on an analytically significant set of interpretations without obscuring the contemporary political realities that are the book's point of departure.
In the face of Islam's post–9/11 mobile signification, At Freedom's Limit advances two consequential and related lines of argument. The first is situated squarely in discourses and debates in Britain, the [End Page 576] United States, and France that address Islam in relation to prominent notions of freedom. This line of argument contends that forcing Islam into debates about freedom, particularly in cultural production and cultural analysis, not only reproduces and intensifies gendered modes of racial, colonial, and imperial domination, but also obscures Islamicate heterogeneity in the service of certain prevailing post-secular arguments about liberalism and modernity. Here, key essays by Tariq Modood, Joan Scott, Judith Butler, Talal...