I grew up with Bomba, the Jungle Boy, Tarzan of the Apes, Rudyard Kipling, Jim Bowie and General Custer, and I was often seduced by orientalist tales of white folks saving the world for humanity from Africans, Native Americans, Arabs and slant-eyed hordes from Asia.
“White” Bomba, for example, had a soul that was “awake” while his non-white African friends had “sleeping” souls. I, turning page-by-page way past my bedtime, was blind to such racism. I thought I was white — my soul was awake — so all was cool.
“The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.” — Kwame Nkrumah
I kept on reading.
Today, you are more likely to find Naguib Mahfouz, Tariq Ali and Chinua Achebe than Kipling or Mark Twain amidst my books.
Part of my bookshelves are lined with my “Bad-Arab” collection, an unfortunately too-large collection of 19th, 20th and 21st century novels that portray olive-skinned Arabs or Muslims, daggers clenched between their teeth, out late at night trying to sneak into the tents of blond, blue-eyed pale-skinned virgins in order to ravage them or, more recently, teeth clenched, trying to assassinate heads of state or flying airplanes into buildings.
Sadly, some of those stories are not just fiction.
Intolerance. When Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhist shrines in Bamiyan, Afghanistan — shrines I had once visited — a bit of me died.
Intolerance. When Muslims, members of the terrorist Boko Haram group gun down and burn the bodies of Christian worshippers inside a Nigerian church, I, too, was charred by the flames.
Intolerance. When Islamists put the torch to ancient Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu I didn’t have enough tears to quench the flames.
So they burned.
Scholar Khaled Abou el Fadl writes, in “Conference of the Books,” “Pirates of intellect who, possessing no intellect of their own, rehabilitated their ignorance with intolerance.”
Intolerance. When KKK members lynched African-Americans on Sundays after church services so that the congregation could all witness the spectacle, all of America struggled for breath.
When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City my first thought was: Please God, don’t let the perp be a Muslim.
When the massacre at Fort Hood happened I once more pleaded with God: Sadly, the perpetrator was Muslim.
Why so much violence in God’s name?
Historically, Jahiliyyah refers to pre-Islamic Arabia — the time before the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
Jahiliyyah referred to the idea of living in a time of ignorance of guidance from God.
Today, some Muslims believe they are today living in a new Jahiliyyah — an age of ignorance resulting from centuries of colonialism, occupation and exploitation by Western powers. They believe the West ripped Muslims away from their religious traditions and supplanted God’s rules with Man’s rules. In response, out of ignorance, frustration and anger, disenfranchised Salafis and Islamists want to create an imagined utopian world ruled by Islam that they believe was ordained by God.
This unambiguous mythology, an un-nuanced, simplistic way of looking back over recent centuries of Muslim intellectual and political impoverishment without taking any responsibility for it, is appealing to some Muslims who aren’t willing to do the hard work that God expects from believers.
Exceptionalist and parochial world views, within Islam or within any other faith tradition, are unacceptable, and that’s not what enlightened citizens who believe in pluralistic, socially just and responsible communities should tolerate.
This concept of a new Jahiliyyah, is found within the 20th century scholarship of Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, whose writings influenced terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
Sophisticated theological arguments, often removed from context, combined with the illiteracy of their followers, allow terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to survive and commit grievous acts of violence.
Their mantra might be to reconnect man with Islam and God but they fail: They are unable to see that what they consider spiritual acts are actually crimes against humanity sanctioned neither by scripture nor by fellow Muslims.
Sadly, these Islamists are not alone in their bigotry and ignorance, in their denial of truth.
Witness the 2012 Republican primaries, where Christian exceptionalist theology was de rigueur. Witness televangelists blaming hurricanes and tornadoes on lifestyles, video games and TV programming.
Witness the denial of evolution, science and climate change.
Witness the denial of Truth.
We, privileged in the West, live in stable communities where the electricity works, water is plentiful and government functions, more or less, for the benefit of most of its citizens. We, being politically “sophisticated,” use elections, military and economic sanctions and boycotts to bend communities and nations to our will — often without seeing the consequences of those actions.
The Other has no such tools. Disenfranchised, often barely surviving at subsistence levels within fractured dysfunctional states, what power does a farmer in Kandahar, a schoolteacher in Sana’a or a street grocer in Djenné have? If current circumstances offer the dispossessed no expectation of living in security in this lifetime then imagine the allure of a vision of Paradise, offered either by Millennialists or Islamists, in the next.
To be secure we must expand our critical consciousness to understand what drives these forces of religion, despair, jihad and political action, within our own communities and beyond.
In the end let it not be said that, “… the pirates of intellect, the sharks that crave the pedantic and thrive on the insignificant,” crippled our judgment.
In the end let it not be said of us that we failed to embrace the oppressed — that we failed to embrace Truth.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.