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City of God III 30 November 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy, Politics.

In the first and second posts of this series, I was pressing the idea that believers should see themselves as citizens not of this or that political community, but rather of a community of faith that transcends political boundaries. To draw out the political implications of the idea, let’s consider what it means to say that I or you are an American Muslim.

Usually, to be an American of a certain Muslim background means that you fall in the intersecting space of the two circles of American and, say, Egyptian or Pakistani or Turkish. But this inevitably leads to the question of which circle you really belong to. Are you really an Egyptian who happens to be an American citizen? Or are you really an American who happens to have Egyptian parents?

Often, Americans have been able to reconcile this by saying that America is a country of immigrants, and that we all have hyphenated identities. So all Americans, and not just Muslim Americans, are Americans from a particular place. But this doesn’t entirely settle the problem. To radicalize the point: the particular place that most Americans are from (Italy, Germany or China) does not consider America the Great Satan. And when America decides to go to war with Iraq, Iraqi-Americanness comes apart at the hyphen.

So, in keeping with the idea of the previous posts, I would like to suggest a different way to look at American Muslim identity. This is not my settled view, but I want to think through it.

If believers are strangers wherever they happen to be, than a community of faith transcends political boundaries. More than that, such a community doesn’t just erase the borders between Pakistan and Egypt and Turkey (thereby replacing the geography entity of particular Muslim countries with the geographic entity of the Muslim world). It also transcends political boundaries in a different sense: if a believer is not really an American, then he is also not really an Egyptian, a Pakistani or a Turk either. These are geographic and national identifications, and are all part of the City of Man. The believer wants instead to live in the City of God.

So the problem with imagining our identities as intersecting circles (thinking of Muslim American as Egyptian-American or Pakistani-American or Turkish-American) is that we are comparing apples to oranges. Different geographic, national and ethic affiliations may overlap, but belief is literally on another plane of existence.

To press this point further: if as a person of faith you choose to take a political position on a particular issue, then perhaps you should do so from a transcendent standpoint and not simply as a member of this or that community. If you have a problem with what America is doing in the Muslim world, for example, then you should be thinking about this neither in terms of American chauvinism (this is good or bad for America) or Egyptian or Pakistani or Turkish chauvinism (this is good or bad for Egypt, Pakistan or Turkey).

A person with transcendent values does not considers what is good for us or what is good for them, but rather what is good simply.

Continued in the fourth and final post in the series: City of God IV.



1. The Turk - 30 November 2006

“A person with transcendent values considers not what is good for us or them, but what is good simply.”

This what annoys me most of all. The US foreign policy claims the above as it goal but works oppisite of it.

I could accept if they stated simply we are going to rape and pillage the world for our own financial gain. However when they do and then claim that pillaging is what good for the locals. That makes me arh#$. Have the courage to say what you doing. Take responsibilty even if as superpower you can’t be touched.

Thats what I say.

2. SA'ILA - 30 November 2006

While comparing Muslim-American to “Choose Whichever Ethnicity”-American may be a comparison of apples and oranges, the fact remains that both live – as communities – in a nation state as minorities, even if, as pointed out that belief is on another plane of existence.

How does one reconcile what you propose with the idea that living in any particular locality as a minority community is different from living in another locality as a majority community? And while the theory may not hold to individual persons, do the responsibilities of a community who is a minority not differ from one who is a majority? Is it not so that what is good for a majority – independent of a “us” vs.”them” mentality – may not be good for a minority?

3. Maliha - 30 November 2006

Your concept reminds me of the Virtuous city by Al Farabi (he was influenced by Greek thinkers too).

It’s hard to think in a transcendent mode when we are entrenched in our imperfect reality.

And even then, I doubt I would change my political position on *most* things, just because the injustices being perpertrated are really stark and can’t really covered up by lofty words/media.

4. Irving - 1 December 2006

Injustice ends when citizens of every country, no matter their origin, accept their common humanity. That is the only transcendence necessary. After two or three generations, an Egyptian-American becomes just an American of Egyptian ancestry. The original language gets lot along the way, and we feel at home. But countries are a human invention, born of tribal territorialism, and will one day be gone, inshallah, if human beings evolve to be one family, no matter their race, religion, origin, or color.

Ya Haqq!

5. ABD - 4 December 2006

these responses raise some great issues. i’ll try to speak to each of the different points you bring up.

Turk, you point to the problem of hypocrisy in foreign policy. i am deeply sympathetic to your concerns, but you know as well as i do that this is always a problem in politics and not simply limited to american foreign policy. i am not saying that we should not have any moral expectations in politics, but rather that we should have different ones. in a court of law, you have to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth. perhaps a noble foreign policy can be expected to speak nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth.

perhaps this is more reason for our approach as muslim citizens to be transpolitical rather than political. if political communities will always be constrained by what is good “for us” rather than good simply, then our loyalties should lie beyond politics.

SA’ILA, you introduce another layer of complexity. you’re absolutely right to point to the problem of minority vs. majority communities. there’s clearly a difference between speaking as a muslim american and a muslim malaysian. but i would have to think more before trying to explain that difference without compromising the central point of these posts. for now, i should simply stress that the community of faith, the city of God that we are talking about is an ummah not in the sense of the Muslim world in the here and now, but rather of ummat Muhammad, the community of believers that our prophet, on him be peace, will claim as his own in the hereafter.

Maliha, i have yet to study al Farabi. but you are right on the mark. al Farabi clearly modeled his madinah fadilah after the city in Plato’s Republic.

and about changing our political positions—clearly, in the case of injustices, we wouldn’t want to change our political positions. but it may be worth our time to consider whether we are opposed to the injustices for ethical reasons or other (political, racial, etc.) reasons.

finally, Irving: i have to disagree with you. i do not want to dismiss the hope that you find in the prospect of universal brotherhood, but utopian hopes for a perfect state of political affairs (whether local or global) is exactly what motivated many of the best-intentioned disasters in history. which either means that we keep the hope alive for a utopian experiment that will not be a disaster, or that we place our expectations for perfection outside politics and indeed outside of this world. hence the city of God rather than the city of man.

and God knows best.

6. talib - 4 December 2006

this framework is all fine and well. but ‘goodness’ is a relative concept. everyone considers their values to be transcendent. ‘us vs. them’ is not a descriptive categorization. it is a value judgment, namely “we’re ‘us’ because we’re good, and they’re ‘them’ because they’re evil.’ very rarely is someone so two-dimensional as to think ‘we need to bomb afghanistan because that’s in our best interest’ or ‘we need to wipe israel off the map because that’s advantageous for us.’ to the contrary, people think, for example, ‘we need to bomb afghanistan because they’re terrorists’ i.e. absolutely evil and hence, in need of annihilation. or ‘we need to support israel because they’re one of us’ i.e. transcendentally good.

it is quite easy to believe God, the source of transcendent good by definition, to be ‘on your side’. so easy, that pretty much every human being and community does*. which would mean that everyone, deep down, fancies him or herself as a citizen in the City of God. but then, how do we stop deluding ourselves and actually become such honored citizens in reality? it doesn’t matter. let’s go pray and make tauba.

*-except for true believers, of course, as ahadith would indicate.

7. The Turk - 5 December 2006

“Turk, you point to the problem of hypocrisy in foreign policy. i am deeply sympathetic to your concerns, but you know as well as i do that this is always a problem in politics and not simply limited to american foreign policy.”

Well maybe not just american but defintely Western. They take the haughty moral stance. Our Eastern Leaders say whatever; but they are winking and let the public know its all bs. You know when a Eastern leader will say something and if he lying. He’ll remain quiet and skip over the issue. Letting everyone know its lie and it ain’t happening.

However, when proclaim and proclaim and then do the oppisitte. Given the current adminstration. An example whould be stabbing a person in the chest and yelling “I am not stabbing you to the guy” as the you keep stabbing. Thats overtop hypocrisy I really don’t like.

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