From Guerrero to Gaza: Changing the location of knowledge

From Guerrero to Gaza: Changing the location of knowledge
The locations of knowledge that the will to resist power implicates are outside the purview of self-centring sites of knowledge production that seek to rule and know the world at one and the same time .
7 min read
29 Dec, 2014
In Mexico, knowledge is produced in the critical condition of a national trauma (Anadolu)
In early November, 2014, as Mexico was deeply drawn into the traumatic disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School, in southern Guerrero state, I was in Mexico City to deliver a couple of keynotes at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and El Colegio de México, two of the most venerable institution of higher learning in the country.

     What enables pathbreaking scholars is their moral location outside the domain of the dominant will to power.
Coinciding with the national celebration of “the Day of the Dead,” these talks were in the context of an “Arab Week” Mexican colleagues had organized and in which leading scholars in and out of Mexico had gathered to reflect on the condition of the Arab and Muslim world in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions. 

This gathering was taking place at a time when Mexico was going through one of its nastiest historical periods. My colleagues and I found ourselves repeatedly drawn to make comparative comments and references to the contemporary Mexican conditions as we delivered our talks on the situations in the Arab world — from Morocco to Syria, from Bahrain to Yemen. Suddenly cross-references between Guerrero and Gaza was not just natural but necessary, not just logical but in that logic also illuminating, pathbreaking. 

As it happened, I and many other colleagues teaching in North America had left our campuses to gather in Mexico City at a time when the bigoted agitations of the American comedian Bill Maher and his fellow Islamophobe Sam Harris was competing for headlines with a new series of racist ads that their kindred soul Pamela Geller was putting up in US subways and buses against Muslims. The invitation of Bill Maher to deliver a graduation speech at the University of California in Berkley was on people’s newsfeeds as I was boarding my flight at JFK: “Campus Berkeley Students Protest Planned Graduation Speech by ‘Blatant Bigot and Racist’ Celebrity.” 

The location of knowledge 

Travelling from the US to Mexico, while thinking and writing on the world historic revolutions in the Arab and Muslim world makes a critical issue abundantly clear. The production of knowledge in Western European and North American context has long since hit a self-circulating plateau for two diametrically opposed reasons: (1) the most dominant forms of knowledge produced in these two sites are by think tanks and other militant and militarized institutions at the service of imperial power and then in turn institutionalized by the leading mass media; and (2) oppositional discourses by critical thinkers who have nowhere near the reach and influence of those who produce knowledge at the service of power. But if not careful, and there is the rub, this oppositional thinking in fact falls flatly into the trap of the dominant discourse and perforce engages solely in its hegemonic idiomaticity. 

Consider the fact that an illiterate comedian like Bill Maher or a liberal Zionist like Sam Harris (both categorically clueless about Islamic history and doctrine) have far more influence confirming a major component of American society in their ingrained racism than any critical thinker can have in dislodging them. The knowledge and counter-knowledge that is produced in the US as the epicentre of the globalized empire (and by extension in Western Europe), are both trapped inside a gridlock that have long since exhausted all possibilities of any epistemic breakthrough. 

But the situation in Mexico was and remains different. Mexico is in the midst of a deeply traumatic condition. Mexico City is the cosmopolitan centre of a rich, diversified, rightly proud and confident culture. In places like Mexico we have the epistemic possibilities of a different sort of knowledge, for there it is produced not in the bosom of power but in the critical condition of a national trauma. This productive dialectic between knowledge and trauma is infinitely more dynamic than the existing relationship between knowledge and power and the knee-jerk reaction against it that it inevitably produces. 

I believe the futile contestation between the dominant and widely popular “knowledge” (or more accurately ignorance) production and the critical thinking it paradoxically solicits and instantly nullifies must be categorically abandoned in favour of a fundamental change of the location of knowledge production in alternative sites such as in Mexico, or anywhere else in Latin America, Africa, or Asia, and thus by extension from anywhere where people are experiencing such traumatic episodes in their history: a fact that instantly places, Ferguson, Guerrero, and Gaza on the same societal and epistemic plane. 

Will to knowledge 

In my Post-Orientalism (2008) I have already argued that the entire course of classical Orientalist knowledge production came to a crucial curve during the Cold War and the rise of Area Studies fields, from which it then took yet another curve in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendency of think tanks, or production of knowledge under duress and for site specific conquest — from Afghanistan to Iraq. This varied forms of knowledge production remains constant in its manifestation of will to knowledge as an expression of will to power, whereas in Mexico — as an example of the world at large (that includes disenfranchised communities from Guerrero to Ferguson to Gaza) production of knowledge is precisely in the opposite direction: as a semblance of the will to resist power. 

To produce knowledge from the vantage point of a will to resist power, one has to be either physically or emotively outside the hegemonic domain of the self-centring exegesis of a will to power that calls itself “the West” and keeps spinning around itself in the US and its normative satellites from Europe to Israel to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

Consider the fact that precisely at the time when the US-led mass media is flooded by the inanities of Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other illiterate “New Atheists” pontificating about Islam and Shariah, one of the most brilliant scholars of Islamic Law in our time, Wael Hallaq published perhaps the most provocative treatise on the enduring dynamics between Islamic Law and the predicament of Eurocentric Modernity. Hallaq’s The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament (2012), which I have been teaching ever since its publication, remains a solid source of reflection on the current and future quandaries of Muslim societies, delivered from the vantage point of a deeply cultivated learning and a caring intellect. (For a wide-ranging interview with Wael Hallaq about a host of issues facing the Muslim world today see this recent interview). 

But who outside the limited academic circles of Islamic legal scholarship has ever heard of Wael Hallaq, or his other equally eminent colleagues Sherman Jackson, Khaled Abou El Fadl, or before them of the eminent Egyptian hermeneutician the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) — and their monumental scholarship on the nature and function of Quranic revelation or Islamic law — especially compared with the trillions of tweets circulating the cyberspace about every inanity of Maher/Harris and their ilk? 

Scholars like Boaventura de Sousa Santos have gone so far as to suggest the necessity of unearthing “Epistemologies of the South”, by way of (1) deconstructing the Eurocentric roots of colonized thinking, and (2) reconstructing non-European philosophical legacies interrupted by colonialism. But alternative epistemologies do not reside in the south of any map on which its north rules the globe. 

What enables pathbreaking scholars like Wael Hallaq is not their location or reliance on any retrieved “Epistemology of the South”, but their moral location on a site outside the domain and under the radar of the dominant will to power, and thus they sever the link between the knowledge that is useful to the reigning power, that it serves. They thus discover an epistemic domain responsive to a traumatic history that produces knowledge to resist power not to will it. 

The locations of knowledge that the will to resist power implicates are outside the purview of self-centring sites of knowledge production that seek to rule and know the world at one and the same time — anywhere from Guerrero to Gaza to Ferguson to Kobani to Zapatistas’ territories in the Chiapas. What scholars like Hallaq discover are new worlds and how to be worldly in them. They draw new maps of and for our defiant will to change the world beyond its current collapse into its ruling elites anywhere and its suffering masses everywhere. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.