Nihilism On The March
Cynicism and Modesty

Mistakes Were Made

A few years ago, I was traveling in Qatar with a friend who is both Arab-American and Muslim. In the back of a cab, we witnessed a man, apparently a Qatari, hit a central-Asian man with some kind of cane. The spectacle led to a conversation about racism in the Arab world, and particularly in Qatar and the Emirates where imported laborers outnumber locals by significant margins. I made an offhand remark about how I would love to see a coalition of Pakistani and Filipino laborers seize an Emirate or part of Qatar from the local bullies that employ them. Both the cab driver and my companion were annoyed, apparently feeling it was pretty rich for an American to be judgmental of a racist incident playing out in a different part of the world. 

I want to be fair in this description, but here is what I surmised to be their position. Basically, Europeans are responsible for a disproportionate share of violence and calamity in world history, culminating with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, perhaps the single worst institution of all-time. As such, Europeans and therefore Americans, are uniquely compromised by the long-shadow of their racist past, and with the United States still struggling to extinguish racism, we had no right to judge racist outbursts in other, less inherently problematic cultural contexts. 

Perceiving their worldview as outlined above, I began to describe my historical understanding of Arab and specifically Muslim-Arab involvement in the slave trade, which predated European involvement by about 11 centuries. Perhaps I am the exact age where this stopped being taught after I left university, but when I was in school we learned about a robust, Arab-led Mediterranean slave-trade predominately targeting East-Africans. This trade also involved the participation of a number of local African slaver tribes that targeted their enemies and facilitated their capture and transfer to Arab merchants. Several centuries before European involvement, millions of Africans had already died as slaves, first in transit across the Sahara, and later in Turkish salt-mines in the desert itself. It was this earlier Arab slave-trade that created some of the infrastructure that would be used so horrifically by Europeans hundreds of years later. I do not believe this history proves anything about the nature of Arabs or Islam. I think it proves that history is ugly, that slavery was an institution embraced universally until recently, and that Muslim civilization was closer to Africa than Europe, and therefore had the first crack at violently dominating and exploiting the continent. 

My friend and the cab driver were outraged by this version of history, saying I had surely read it on storm-front or in some crackpot history book. It's all on Wikipedia. That being said, I became aware during the conversation that I was making my conversation partners deeply upset. My American attitude was: confront your history. You can't really change until you do. But this is a process that was already fully underway by the time I was born, and therefore the only way I knew to look at history. In my lifetime, history and confronting history were the same thing. I was encountering for the first time an individual asserting that an untarnished version of history was an insult to their identity, an identity they saw as inextricably linked to that history. 

So, I stopped pushing the point. Here were two men who did not seem racist and who were good people (in the case of my friend I knew this). In their minds, both their Arab and Islamic heritage contributed to that goodness. They understood Islam as opposed to both slavery and racism generally. Their Islam is universalist and emancipatory. These are beautiful qualities for a believer to identify in their faith, and they certainly have scriptural basis. Is it really important for me to remind such men that slavery is also justified in nearly every Abrahamic text, and that universalist readings of scripture are perhaps modern inventions? If they are not actively practicing bigotry, in other words, is it actually important that they acknowledge the bigotry of their forebears?

For most of my life I would've answered the above question with an emphatic yes, but as American culture collapses in on itself, I question my earlier certainty. I think condemning our past selves is now such an endemic part of Western historiography, it's impossible to separate it from the history itself. Perhaps we can take an example from elsewhere to get at what I think is happening. 

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael has a joke where he tells the audience that their grandfathers probably beat their grandmothers. The audience groans and he jokingly concedes, "Im sure, not your grandma." The trick is one Carmichael often pulls in his comedy, and seems executed more for his own pleasure than for laughs. He wants to see a crowd full of people subvert their own personal histories in real time. He wants to see them struggle to resist the evidence, and then slowly accept an inevitable conclusion: they have loved people who were evil. I think the joke is an outrage, not only because he grossly overstates the ubiquity of spousal abuse two generations ago, but because it's logic is pure nihilism: "the people in this room believe they are standing on solid ground, I'm going to pull out the carpet and show them we are suspended in vacuum." Carmichael is preferable to some cultural subversives in that he does not pretend he's doing the audience a service, which would be the more common instinct. 

And it was a similar evil maneuver I was trying to pull on my friend in that Doha taxi. He believed he was the latest incarnation of a moral lineage with a proud history. Showing him he was wrong seemed unlikely to make him better, only to discourage his religious mission to be a good person. Some people, including religious and political conservatives, have said that this ability to self-evaluate and self-criticize is a vital element of what makes the West unique and important in human history and accounts for our ultimate rejection of slavery. It seems now, to move forward, we may have to rekindle our empathy for our past. 


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