In an age of celebrities, intellectual honesty is a scare commodity

Recently, I followed through social media two controversies about two individuals: one from Canada and the from the US.

The first is a famous novelist and short stories writer, Joseph Boyden, who describes his bloodline including Indigenous ancestry. For Joseph Boyden, this association with the Native people and First Native groups, wasn’t only a matter of cultural pride or reclaiming his roots, he, de facto, became one of the most popular representative of the Indigenous affairs, when it comes to media, culture and politics.

This connection, whether genuine or not, became a sort of a “branding” that the author used, rightly or wrongly, to build his media persona. And I think, here is where Native groups had all the right to dispute this “fake representativity” or to be frustrated with his celebrity becoming a silencing tool for them. I am not sure, if we can still use the expression of “native informant” here as Joseph Boyden is somehow sympathetic to the Indigenous issues, but he played the perfect role of the “successful native” who  silenced the rest of the Native voices, their diversity, their multiple issues and specially their visibility.

It is fascinating to see how, a respected investigative journalist Jorge Barrera, looked into the aboriginal ancestry claims of Joseph Boyden and found more questions than answers. What Jorge Barrera did is a perfect exercise that many journalists would do for celebrities and public figures to try to answer questions but mainly to dig further down into the motives of these celebrities.

Recently, a Canadian journalist, broke off the story that Mariam Moncef, a newly elected Liberal MP and Minister of Political Reform, wasn’t born in Afghanistan but rather in Iran. Even though, I personally found the story irrelevant and borderline “anti-refugee fishing expedition”, it got a lot of media attention and Minister Moncef was put under the spotlight to explain her other birth narrative. At the opposite, for Joseph Boyden, many journalists from the establishment are trying to save his credibility and insinuating that those questions about Boyden’s origins are futile and unnecessary. Moreover, Joseph Boyden, did not take the time to refute the allegations against him. His statement was very confusing to not say useless.

For me, this controversy is the sign that Indigenous people are rising up quickly to the challenges and that imposed voices or “appropriated voices” won’t be imposed on them anymore. This is a sign that a community is fighting for its rights to be heard and to decide who can be one theirs or not. Being an Indigenous isn’t a brand that one can sell and make profit out of it.

The Muslim community in Canada has been facing similar challenges in the last years. Where some self appointed “Muslims” would speak on behalf of the whole community and would be automatically considered as media darlings. As a community, we have a lot to learn from Indigenous struggles and their ways of refusing to be infantilized or silenced. When some people with Islamic sounding names or with some ancestry link to Islamic countries, are used by the media as the “enlightened” ones, we should be courageous to question these people and questions the media complicity in making them icons.

The other controversy that I followed is the one dealing with Hamza Yusuf. A prominent US Muslim scholar when asked at the “Revival Islamic Spirit” RIS 2016, a conference held every year in Canada, about the Black Lives Matters, answered the following:

“The United States is, in term of its laws, one of the least racist societies in the world. We have some of the best anti-discriminatory laws on the planet… We have between 15-18,000 homicides a year, 50 per cent are black on black crime… There are twice as many whites that have been shot by police but nobody ever shows those videos. It’s the assumption that the police are racist and it’s not always the case…

“I think it’s very dangerous to just broadstroke any police that shoots a black as immediately being considered a racist, sometimes these are African American police officers. The police aren’t all racist.”

I am glad that I stopped going to this event years ago. After few years attending, I noticed that this is becoming a sort of “religious entertainment” event where some scholars are there mainly for building their celebrity status rather then denouncing injustice, or intellectually challenging the youth and the audience. Political questions are most of the times non discussed or if it is discussed it is done in an apologetic way that would make the Muslim individuals feel and behave not as full citizens but rather as “grateful” immigrants or refugees who should behave themselves.

The last year I attended RIS, I heard Hamza Yusuf, denouncing the moral depravity of America and denouncing people watching “Minions” movie, as for him, the one-eyed devilish creatures are a sort of a worship of the “Anti-Christ”. I found these comments so shallow and so dangerous that immediately after, I took the decision not to attend the event anymore.

It is insulting to our intellectuals to hear how Hamza Yusuf would worry about the spiritual wellbeing of Muslim youth watching “Minions” and meanwhile having doubts and reservations about a social justice groups like Black Lives Matters. This attitude turns Islam into a religion of stupid details, whereas Islam is a religion of big ideas and standing with the right issues.

 

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6 thoughts on “In an age of celebrities, intellectual honesty is a scare commodity

  1. While I never attended RIS, I find myself attending less and less events organized in the community for the simple fact that Islam is constantly being reduced to nothing more than rituals. You would be hard pressed to find any of these organizations/institutes addressing politics, poverty, discrimination, or any other subject that they deem too controversial. None of the solution that are offered by Islam come to light since they are refusing to even address the existence of these problems. For me Da’wah has turned into an industry, where Muslim personalities have successfully built themselves platforms with massive cult-like followings, and they exclusively pander to the strata of the Muslim community that enjoys class privilege.

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