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April 26th, 2017

Understanding the president’s reality: Our unconscious, not his

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Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895The matter of the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and public life has an unexpected link to the complexities of secularism in the United States. Officially, psychoanalysis has been dismissed as a mode of inquiry into the issues of public life and especially into the states of mind of its actors. This is the result of the famous Goldwater Rule, introduced into the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association following the 1964 presidential election, when analysts had the temerity to “diagnose” Barry Goldwater without the benefit of having him on their couches.

The Goldwater Rule came at a time when psychoanalysis was influential among psychiatrists, who had transformed the complex experience of the talking cure and the endless variations of human behavior into rigid diagnostic categories of mental illnesses. It is now common practice among psychiatrists to say that unless a patient expresses a complaint, psychiatrists are not ethically permitted to speak of the condition that supposedly is causing the mental distress. My attempt to explain President Donald Trump’s behavior in psychoanalytic terms is perceived by some not only as unethical, but as arrogant and insulting to a citizen who is not a patient and most probably will never become one.

There was a time, however, when psychoanalysis was squarely part of American culture, public discourse, and of the world of ideas.

April 26th, 2017

The American tradition of tolerance and free speech

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuch has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal. . . .

Thus, Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president.

April 24th, 2017

For Love of the Prophet—A reply

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For Love of the ProphetFor Love of the Prophet certainly is a book about Sudan, but, like all ethnographies, it is also very much autobiographical. Indeed, the book starts with an anecdote about me and my own wanderings during my dissertation fieldwork: How what I assumed to be true in my framing of the project proved otherwise and how I was forced to rethink my own research questions in light of what I found. In a very real sense, For Love of the Prophet is a record of my own schooling by the people and situations I confronted, forcing me to ask new sorts of things of the individuals I met and to look at the world they inhabited in new ways.

Yet, in calling my book “autobiographical” I mean something more than that it is about me personally. Rather, the book serves as a mirror for a very particular moment of our history in the West, one in which “the Islamic” has unsettled how we imagine the state, not only in our examinations of experiments in Islamic statehood such as the one I study in Sudan, but at home as well. Everything we hold dear about our own state project—equality, liberty, rule of law, the very idea of a citizenship blind to religion—seems to be upset by the those who pose an Islamic exception. From the Muslim Ban to Brexit to the looming possibility of a Le Pen victory in France, the Islamic is frequently positioned as a challenge to the modern state, and in its conjuring often muddles the coherence of the principles the modern state claims to uphold.

April 20th, 2017

The inevitable Islamic State? The paradoxes of Sudanese politics and society

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon’s recent book, For Love of the Prophet, is a lesson in academic creativity in the face of adversity. As the author details in his candid introduction, he went to Sudan in search of the “Islamic State,” only to discover that it was nowhere to be seen. Deprived of his object of study, he was able to conjure it by renaming it. What other researchers would call “civil society” was re-christened as an ubiquitous Islamic state that was found everywhere, from bus rides to mosques and mystical rituals. The enemies of this state, no less than its supporters, all became part of this amorphous phenomenon called the Islamic state. As he puts it, the opponents of Islamism vied with its constituencies (due to its “hegemony” and “magnetism”) in a contest to speak its language.

This “discovery,” Salomon argues, compelled him to ask his questions in a new form. Rather than focus on the state as a despotic entity, the question was re-formulated in terms of what can be learned from examining “state power as productive and not solely repressive.”

This radical claim is supported by an even more radical rejection of the widely accepted separation between state and civil society and its enveloping public sphere.

April 13th, 2017

Taking the Islamic in “the Islamic state” seriously

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For Love of the ProphetI want to focus on Salomon’s argument that the secular state—in this case the British colonial one—is in the business not of separating religious from political life but of administering and managing religion, which necessarily includes defining its proper form and molding the various practices the state finds on the ground to fit that form . . . .

Yet the Sudanese state is not, Salomon also wants to argue, merely another instantiation of a secular state; there is something specific to the “Islamic” in this Islamic state. As he writes, “the method by which Islamic sources are engaged in order to produce the present state, the way in which these sources inflect its politics in new directions unimagined by the state’s colonial pioneers, and the results of state projects in religion-making as they intersect with diverse spiritual practices on the ground, certainly distinguish the contemporary Islamic state from the secular colonial state.” . . .

The dexterity with which Salomon maps these continuities and discontinuities between the secular colonial state and the Islamic post-colonial one is compelling. But it made me wonder about the distinction he draws between a secular state and an Islamic state.

April 11th, 2017

Salafism in Nigeria: An introduction

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Salafism in NigeriaStudying Salafism is important not just for analyzing jihadist movements or clarifying twentieth-century Muslim history, but also for better understanding the role of religion in contemporary life. What claims to authenticity are religious movements making? What mechanisms sustain these claims? How do these mechanisms shape the preaching and writing of religious leaders, and the expectations and preoccupations of their audiences?

My new book, Salafism in Nigeria, explores these questions through a case study of Africa’s most populous country. The book argues that Salafism is animated by a canon of texts. This canon foregrounds the Qur’an and the reported words and deeds of the Prophet (texts known as hadith reports). At the same time, the canon gives a surprisingly prominent place to the work of twentieth-century scholars. The canon structures Salafi preaching and is a key tool that Salafis use in debates with other Muslims—and with each other.

April 6th, 2017

Tainted love

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon begins his work with the provocative statement that the “state may have failed according to the criteria of Foreign Policy’s index, yet by producing and sustaining novel publics, it has in fact endured,” but ends with “the Islamic public sphere [the state] had enabled was turning out phenomena they could not control.” Namely, the Islamic state’s project towards public hegemony paradoxically engendered its rejection embodied by the secular secessionist movement in South Sudan and ISIL’s rejection of the Islamic nation-state model based on sovereignty. . . .

I’m left wondering how specifically these non-discursive, non-didactic, somatic and affective circulations in the “public” played a special role in these ruptures. Is Salomon simply left agreeing with Wael Hallaq that the Islamic nation-state is an “Impossible State” due to incommensurable modes of (now insert: “affective”) disciplinary subjectification and moral governance?

April 3rd, 2017

Weak theology and the anti-gospel of American exceptionalism

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"God Bless America" - Boulder City, NV USA, Antique Store | via Flickr user g TardedHas the United States been a source of good in the world? Weak theology assumes a position of service to the vulnerable as the point of redemptive activity. A strong theology would argue that it is our task to defeat the enemy in order to save them and then to convert them to our “way of life.” The most recent incarnation of this “destroy to save” motif is the Iraq War—a war that put the lie to our exceptionalism, and made many rethink our noble experiment in the new world order. So in this moment of deep division and national ambivalence, a know-nothing, carnival barker stood on the stage and said, “I will make America great again!”

So we might ask, what is American greatness now? What makes us exceptional? There is no clear path toward fulfilling this myth, other than following this rag tag apprentice and philander, promising that the dream of greatness is not dead at all—it is a dream that is more like a festival of fantasies in which dreams can become true not because they are great, but because we are great—whatever we want, we deserve.

March 30th, 2017

The rhetoric of Islamic politics in local and global dimensions

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon’s ethnography of politics provides a penetrating insight on the far-reaching effects of the Islamic state project in the Sudan. It is a welcome study of an Islamic state that is more than two decades old, at a time when a new experiment in the Levant seems to overwhelm the global imagination. The older models, including the Pakistani, the Iranian, the Libyan, and earlier still the Saudi, provide food for thought of Islamic politics in its local and global manifestations. These earlier projects offer a longer-term perspective of political projects in the face of continuing challenges in Muslim societies. These include questions of diversity, legitimacy, economic prosperity, deep inequalities, ever-present foreign interventions that constitute our global world, and fractured religious identities.

Salomon’s monograph is a close interrogation of Sudan’s Islamic state, particularly in the responses that it generates from other Islamic actors. Through this ethnography, he explores other kinds of politics and other kinds of publics that unfold in response to the state’s project that was launched in 1989.

March 28th, 2017

Scholar or retailer of import goods? Reza Aslan, his guru, and his critics

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Image via Ken Wieland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons“I came to Varanasi India to do a show about Hinduism, about karma, reincarnation, the caste system, and a little known Hindu sect called the Aghori. That’s when things got out of hand,” Reza Aslan narrates in the opening minute of his new show, Believer. The narration is accompanied by shots of Aslan riding down the Ganges on the bow of a boat, saffron robed Hindu holy men, fires burning on the ghats, cows, and ascetics covered in ashes.

Aslan’s new show is a kind of Anthony Bourdain, but for religion. Each week our fearless host embeds with a different religious community. It’s spiritual adventure television. In the debut episode, Aslan visits Varanasi to spend time among the Aghori, a small sect of ascetics that attempt to dismantle distinctions between pure and impure by engaging in rituals of defilement. After making him bathe in the Ganges, the Aghori guru promises to teach Aslan the ways of the Aghori. They offer Aslan human brains and charred human remains to eat. They cover him in ashes from the cremation ground. While the episode shifts focus later to a group of middle-class Aghori that use the rejection of purity distinctions to fight against caste discrimination and pursue social justice, it is the exotic images of the ascetics on the riverbank that dominated the advertising for the show and the reaction to it afterward.