In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Contemporary Paradox of Postmodernist Identitarianism
Many sects in Islam are influenced by a foreign idea, in the form of a metaphysical ontology or worldview, through which they interpret Islam and change whatever disagrees with it. The most salient example from early Islamic history is the Mu’tazilah – the rationalists who “withdrew” (i’tizal) from the lessons of the great scholar among the Salaf, Hasan al-Basri (Allahhave mercy on him). They were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which was the framework they used to develop a number of heterodox beliefs, specifically the alleged createdness of the Quran.
The Mu’tazilah were “rationalists” in that they would prioritize philosophical reasoning over the texts of the Quran and Sunnah and the way these texts were understood by the Salaf (earlier generation) or Ahlu Sunnah. However, the most depraved among them exposes the flaw of human reasoning untethered by divine revelation. They instituted the first major inquisition (mihnah) in Islam in which they imprisoned, tortured, or even killed Imams who denied the false doctrine of the createdness of the Quran. They were stopped by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Allahhave mercy on him), who patiently endured their persecution and emboldened other scholars around him to persevere until the inquisition was finally put to an end.
Today, the ascendant trend in America, supported by politicians and corporations, is a collection of ideologies we might call Postmodernist Identitarianism. Postmodernism is a diffuse philosophical school of thought that rejected the Western Enlightenment’s focus on scientifically objective truth-claims. It spawned numerous off-shoots such as deconstructionism, anti-foundationalism, and critical theory (critical not in the sense of smart thinking, but rather relentless criticizing). It can be difficult to pin down and clearly define because its nature is amorphous by design. Perhaps the best characterization of their attitude was expressed by anti-foundationalist Stanley Fish, who wrote that deconstructionism “relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting.”1 When applied to politics, postmodernists assert that truth-claims are not objective realities but instead are social constructions designed to oppress others.
Identitarianism as a Political Movement
Identitarianism, on the other hand, is a political movement partly inspired by the Marxist oppressor-oppressed binary. Whereas Marx envisioned the eventual triumph of the proletariat (lower economic class) against the bourgeois (higher economic class), American Identitarians similarly divide the populace into warring factions based on race and gender. The fundamental problem of Identitarianism, or extreme identity politics, is the tendency of movement leaders to “essentialize their identities as a basis for making political claims.”2 In other words, it claims a monopoly over its chosen identity and expels any dissenters not only from its ranks, but from the identity itself. Black people who reject their identity politics are not “politically black,” they say. These movements are not based on universal principles, even though such disingenuous appeals to common values like “fairness” color their rhetoric. It is not a vision for a more harmonious and just future; it is the weaponization of identity for political objectives.
Identitarians and Radical Mu’tazilisim
The historical parallels with the Mu’tazilah and today’s movements are obviously not exact analogies. The Mu’tazilah, after all, did believe in objective truth -unlike the postmodernists- and not all of them were extremists, even if they were theologically incorrect. Nevertheless, we can identify some commonalities between the Identitarians and the most radical Mu’tazilites. The most important parallel is that American Muslims who subscribe to Identitarianism have taken the foreign theories and ideologies of non-Muslim academics and activists as the criterion by which they judge Islam and seek to change it, whether they consciously do this or not.
For instance, Muslim academics in Islamic studies departments support gay marriage on behalf of LGBT-identity activism and spread their ideas to the youth, despite an utter lack of support for such opinions in the scriptural or legal traditions. Feminist Muslim leaders have attempted to introduce new rituals into Islamic worship on the assumption that men are natural and historical oppressors of women. Even the heretical Nation of Islam’s theology of innate black superiority over whites is making a comeback due to the influence of Critical Race Theory on left-wing activism; an old prejudice now given cover through a newer, more socially acceptable form of expression. In each case, a reductive postmodernist-inspired narrative (“men have always oppressed women”) is the foundation and justification of their deviation from the Sunnah.
Whether the fault line is gender or race, Muslims seeking to make changes to core Islamic beliefs and practices are happily supported by the elite Identitarian powers that be. Like the persecutors of Imam Ahmad (Allahhave mercy on him), the elite Identitarians are ruthless and determined. They seek power, and when they have it, they use it to crush dissent by intimidation, defamation, and cancellation. Since they do not believe in absolute truth, they do not put too much effort into persuading the public or their opponents; they prefer to suppress them. They cannot allow any alternative belief system that might free people from the chains of identity-based tribalism, lest it threaten their grip on power.
Because elite Identitarians view all truth-claims as power plays, they are sloppy when it comes to the facts. This leads their politicians and activists down a path of extremely cynical dishonesty. Identitarianism is animated by a cosmic narrative of oppression and the narrative must be upheld at all costs, even to the truth. It assumes one essentialized identity is always oppressed and another essentialized identity is always oppressor; then it cherry-picks facts or even distorts them to reinforce this story. Not the Truth, but “their” truth. In the world of mainstream legacy journalism, you can observe that the narrative framing is already done before the facts of the story even come out. For this reason, a majority of American rightly believe that journalists are incapable of reporting the news “accurately and fairly”. Indeed, it was pointed out decades ago that the news is not the truth, and the situation only worsens as Identitarianism grows in popularity.
Identitarianism and Hypocrisy
A pernicious feature of Identitarianism is its transparent hypocrisy. It claims to be against racism even as it invents new forms of racism. It claims to fight for women even as it belittles femininity and motherhood. It claims to fight for minorities even as it essentializes their identities and exploits their plight for votes. It claims to fight for decolonization even as it colonizes and deconstructs traditional cultures. They raise the slogan of “social justice” even as they institute profound injustice. Identitarianism is a disgraceful betrayal of the genuinely oppressed, as they mix lies with the truth and obscure the actual wrongdoing in society that must be corrected. You have heard of the story of the boy who cried wolf, right? Today’s version is the activist who cried racist. He falsely cried racism one too many times and when the time came to actually confront racism, no one answered his call.
Identitarianism is ultimately a top-down movement promoted by elite politicians, academics, journalists, and professional activists. It has some grassroots support but these followers are not aware of the fraudulent theoretical underpinnings of the movement. They are more convinced by the manufactured talking points and carefully crafted euphemisms written by marketing strategists to obscure the goals of the movement leaders, which is only to maintain the power of the elites. Identitarianism serves the interests of the powerful because it fractures any popular, universal resistance to their rule in a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Citizens are then fiercely fighting each other about the issue of Drag Queen Story Hour instead of the corrupt monetary policies that are looting their wealth, devaluing their currency, and draining their savings.
It should be clear by now that American Muslims politically allying with the Identitarians or Identitarianism was an enormous mistake. The error was not in the specific Muslim issues that the Identitarians pretended to care about, but instead it was the rotten metaphysics at the core of their movement. There was no way to work with this movement without acquiescing to at least some of their misguided assumptions and narratives about the nature of existence. American Muslims so fervently supported these apparent political allies to the point that a new generation of young Muslims is so thoroughly propagandized into the movement that traditional, orthodox Islam appears to them as just another racist, patriarchal system of oppression.
Identitarianism, Islamophobia, and the False Promise of Protection
There was intense Islamophobic pressure on American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks and the passage of the Patriot Act. Those of us who lived through those frightening times know that the community was looking for refuge from open hostility coming mostly from the right-wing – a hostility that still exists to some degree today. Along came the Identitarians with promises to protect Muslim identity from the xenophobia of the right, to protect our religious rights in the face of this menacing threat. It was a lie. They never intended to protect traditional, orthodox Islam from anything; they intended to mold American Muslim identity into simply another submissive ethnicity, another permanent blue voting bloc.
We should not harshly blame Muslim scholars and leaders who fell for the false Identitarian promise. Hindsight is 20/20. Politics is messy cloak-and-dagger stuff. They were naive, perhaps. But we can no longer afford this alliance with the Identitarians. They want our children to grow up with their nebulous values and the indulgence of their whims, not our universal faith and principles. They will turn against us the moment it is politically convenient, as soon as the persecution of orthodox Muslims is no longer considered “Islamophobic” to their base. They will never be pleased with us until we are unbelievers exactly like them. It is time to reject their false promise.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.
Source: Muslim Matters