In his book The Souls of Black Folk, a powerful analysis of racism’s effects on African Americans and a critique of US society, W E B Du Bois theorised on the concept of “double consciousness”: the self-measuring and regulating mechanism that causes African Americans to “look at one’s self through the eyes of others”, denying them the ability “to attain self-conscious manhood” and “merge his double self into a better and truer self”.
He explained further: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness: an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
It is important for me to bring Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness into the discussion of Muslims, the colonial and the post-colonial, because of my personal interest as a Palestinian in his work and in all issues related to race and racism; and because of my conviction that “double consciousness” is a condition that afflicts all who inhabit the modern Eurocentric world.
Indeed, how we define ourselves; the superior or inferior, who we seek to emulate, the Fair and Lovely we purchase to whiten our bodies, the history, novels, movies and media we devour, the political structures we build, the cities we desire to visit, the music, fashion, the things we hold important, the food and corporate symbols we all share, etc., are all burdened by double consciousness.
The “known” world is Eurocentric and produces double consciousness in all subject people it came in contact with in the past and present. The world today is Eurocentric: The history, economy, politics and media are Eurocentric; the Muslims inhabiting the modern world are Eurocentric; the definition of the human and “consciousness” itself in today’s world is Eurocentric. Thus Muslim, as a category, is a by-product of a Eurocentric enterprise whereby the focal point is demonstrating one’s Muslim-ness to an external that is constantly negating its value.
Muslim’s double consciousness was formed in the colonial period and continues in the post-colonial state. When the terms Islam and Muslim are used, they have to be understood within the confines of colonial epistemology, for the pre-colonial conception of both is no longer present, and whatever vestiges are located or discovered, are experienced through the colonial cartography. What colonisation has done was to construct an external objectified Islam and Muslim, an ideal inferior and a static pre-modern Other through which the Eurocentric colonial “modernisation” project can be rationalised in the Muslim world.
The Muslim subject in colonial discourse is ahistorical, static and rationally incapacitated so as to legitimise intervention and disruption of the supposed “normal” and persistent “backwardness”. Indeed, the colonial expansion was theorised prior to contact with the Muslim subject through a set of rationalisations to satisfy foremost the colonial citizenry that the theft, pillaging and destruction is for a higher purpose, i.e. civilisation itself. The Muslim’s subjectivity emerges out of this colonial rationalisation and is brought into the modern as the constantly un-modern and persistently resistant to civilisation, therefore necessitating constant intervention.