Ideas & Philosophy — 22 June 2011
Beheading the Cultural Zombie – Liberal society’s illiberal response to Islam?

Jacques Derrida argues the Hollywood figure of the zombie is an example of the problem we face when two opposing elements cohabit the same space. Zombies are both dead and alive. They disrupt “binaries” and undermine pure categories. The zombie is thus: “undecidable”.

In a classic horror movie, the hero simply kills his “enemy”. However, he cannot kill a zombie. They are dead. He therefore needs to act beyond the classical approach. He needs a creative solution. In Hollywood it is straightforward. The hero breaks the rules. He sends zombies back to the stable category of “the dead” by beheading them.

There is an infamous photograph of 911 survivors entirely covered in the collapsing twin tower’s black dust. They look like walking statues. They were ashen, colorless, but still walking towards safety. They looked both dead and alive. They looked like zombies. They signaled an undecidability. They brought about anxiety.

We might ask, is not the third-generation Muslim growing up in the West after 911 today’s cultural zombie?
Today’s young Muslim-Australian who remains emotionally, politically and culturally attached to the “outside” Muslim world remains a problem. His self is a “space” that cohabits opposing elements. The young Muslim poisons the inside/outside binary. He disrupts the binaries of “here” and “there”. He is an “undecidable”.
Within the social doxa, society fixes the young Muslim between difference and citizenry, past and present, inclusion and exclusion. He is between negotiating and wanting Shari’ah and democracy.

News media might well induce the belief that the Muslim is in a contest with the democratic citizen. The citizen is the basic ”thing” that gives meaning to democracy’s subsidiary qualities and values. It is the “pin” that holds up today’s elections, and laws, liberal values and perspectives.

The citizen allows society to describe and attribute rights and freedoms. Whereas, within the same social paradigm, the Muslim is “old and moralistic”. The Muslim apparently cannot find a place in the current tolerant society. He thus challenges citizenry, and yet paradoxically this same society uproots the Muslim from his own Islamic traditions. The Muslim is in transit. His identity exists ‘beyond’ the modern ontology. He is neither here or there.

Similar to the Hollywood hero, liberal society thus faces a dilemma. The Muslim challenges categories, and produces anxieties about the enemy within. However, democratic societies cannot deny the Muslim’s freedom to interpret religion without undermining the idea of a citizen. How does liberal society deal with what it determines to be illiberal elements without itself being illiberal?

So how does liberalism deal with third-generation Muslims who wish to use their rights to express an Islam that has loyalties to the Muslim world; that challenges Australian interests; that questions secular values?
Similar to Hollywood’s hero who creatively kill zombies, liberal society must break its own rules. They must attempt to “behead” the Muslim youth, symbolically. They must attempt to remove one pole of the two opposing poles. They must remove the Muslim world as a guide, the community as a whole, Islam as a universal and singular religion, they must promote an individualist vision, to remove the source that guides a Muslim as an entirely embodied being that is constituted within the Shari’ah. It must sever the body, from the head, the public Muslim from the private Muslim.

Australian public academic, Waleed Aly unwittingly offers a perfect description of the beheaded Muslim. He carelessly squeezes Islam out from a Muslim character and presents her ontological corpse as a principal example of an integrated citizen. In the chapter, Seeking the Human, in his book People Like Us, Aly writes admirably on Yasmine who is a young Muslim professional working woman. Here, Aly tells an intriguing story of a fascinating individual. Aly mentions how her smile resists the crude taxonomy of negative stereotypes.

In one story, Yasmine refuses a leading newspaper’s request to pose with a sullen face. Aly claims, she is breaking down long lasting assumptions about Muslim woman. Yasmine says more than just “no” in refusing to wipe away her characteristic smile which “flashes broadly and brightly”.

However, in Aly’s description he makes no mention about what makes Yasmine a Muslim. Yasmine is just Yasmine. Here, Aly defers Islam. It remains undefined. He leaves it as the unsaid. Yasmine has little to do with the Muslim world. She is an empty signifier. Aly performs the role of the Hollywood hero and reaffirms the “Australian” category because he slices away one of the two clashing elements of “here” and “there”.

Aly has removed the unfamiliar element. Islam becomes unrepresentable in its representation. It becomes an ambiguity, something unjudged. The individual’s private possession. He places the shari’ah in the background. Islam becomes irrelevant when he tells the familiar story of the ordinary Australian citizen who so happens to be Muslim. This is in many ways is the price young Muslims face for integration, their symbolical heads, their link to the traditions within the Muslim world and Islamic thought.

Yassir Morsi is a Phd candidate and lecturer in Political science and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect New Civilisation’s editorial policy.

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