As a Muslim living in the diaspora, I’m never more than an arms-length away from cliché’s framing the “Muslim World” and Muslim identity. With the “Arab Spring” (or Seasons, Storms and Colours) domineering news forecasts for the last 12 months, Western journalists booked up air flights to the sides of the Mediterranean and Red Sea where tour packages lost their appeal. Orientalist journalism, always a popular voyeuristic activity, formed a new rapid assessment tool ready to be deployed on the field. This hasty, quick-as-a-tweet reporting helped everyone feel as though they had something to say, and a personal stake in uprisings across the Middle East.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The West has eagerly filled in the knowledge gaps the Muslim world has left gaping open. Too often, the term “Critical” is seen as paradoxical to “Muslim”. Before the Arab uprisings, politics of the Muslim world – when not viewed as a threat – were seen as a farcical tragedy lacking critical self-reflection. The Middle East played into images of an easily ridiculed ambiguous entity – where the majority sit in a silent complacency helping sustain despotic leaders, until American and European troops can save the day, that is. Numbed by the necessities of life and a harsh outlook, reflection and analysis was considered atypical. Amidst this half-truth, Western media continued (and continues) to purport a sadly comedic rendering of the region – “the Angry Arab”, ready to take out his anger on everyone but himself or his tyrant. With social media climbing the ranks, and Twitter claiming to be the source of revolution, we can also give it credit for normalizing this hyperactive, visceral orientalist journalism.
Undoubtedly, the events of last year have been assisted by more democratic and participatory forms of media. The opportunity has allowed for alternative viewpoints to establish themselves in a more authentic fashion. Nowhere has that need been more urgent than the Muslim world. Those that challenge these assumptions have also found an opening to share a message of substance. Critical Muslim purports to be one of those publications. A quarterly style “magazine” in a book format (although not quite able to define itself or associate to typology), Critical Muslim looks at political and cultural debates from a Muslim perspective. Each issue presents a current debate, making it relevant in its analysis and appealing to an audience beyond the Muslim world. While questions of Islamic identity do feature within the publication, it’s not wholly concerned with self-questioning of religious sensibilities. The point here, rather, is to delve deeper into questions that conflate the notion of being “Muslim” – the political, the cultural and the personal. Critical Muslim is a response to superficial journalistic tendencies that disservice the very idea of “critical scholarship” in Islamic tradition. A tradition – as Critical Muslim co-editor, Ziauddun Sardar, points out – that is too easily forgotten, most easily by Muslims actively consuming the very media that conveniently disengages them from critically thinking about the world in which they live.
A project co-directed by the Muslim Institute, Critical Muslim hopes to form a new intellectual elite. Globally, Muslims are leading in terms of intellectual and economic capital, yet consumption of critical analysis and scholarship remains limited amidst the Muslim population. Critical Muslim hopes to revive the tradition of debate and discussion, reviving the rituals of Ottoman cafes and Socratic debates of Muslim Spain, while benefitting from the same social media that has helped garner an accessibility of new online “literary salons”.
You can find details about the publication’s future issues here. The first issue, aptly titled “The Arabs are Alive”, looks specifically at questions arising from the first year of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The title plays on the idea of events triggering a humanizing effect on perceptions of the Middle East – now see as living, breathing beings with an audible voice. And with these voices now off mute, the platform to speak out against impoverished notions of Arab and Muslim self-determination is more urgent than ever. Maybe it’s just a little spark and a big hope, but Critical Muslim hopes to play a part in re-invigorating that sensibility. No one could have said any less of a certain Tunisian street vendor less than 14 months ago. And now look far we’ve come.