Hypatia – Saba Fatima Interview


Miranda Pilipchuk: Tell us about yourself.


Saba Fatima: My name is Saba Fatima, and I’m an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I did my Ph.D. from State University of New York in Binghamton under Dr. Lisa Tessman. My research interests are contemporary Islamic thought, feminist theory, race theory, and currently nonideal theory as well. And then a little bit personally about myself: I grew up the first nine years of my life in Saudi Arabia, and then the next nine in Pakistan, and since then, far longer here, but hopefully permanently, settled in Illinois, for now.


MP: How do you define feminism? What initially drew you to feminist theory?


SF: So my first introduction to feminist theory was through Dr. Shari Stone-Mediatore at Ohio Wesleyan, where I did my undergrad. And we read The Second Sex, and we also read a text by wives of coal miners in South America who were rallying around improving their living conditions, and working conditions. And both of those texts resonated with me in very different ways. And so that’s where it all started for me. But as a feminist, I’m most affected by intellectual giants like Gloria Anzaldúa, María Lugones, Audre Lorde, bell hooks. And for me the central concept of feminism is the concept of intersectionality and social location. And I think that as Americans—as American feminists—we have to be able to confront our privilege that we have, and how that privilege impacts women all around the world. So currently we have invaded, and have been at war with, Afghanistan for over thirteen years, with Iraq for over eleven years, and years of sanctions on Iran and Iraq, you know, supported dictatorships, and our foreign policy currently has been under this veil of the phrase of “War on Terrorism.” And so I think as American feminists, slash Western feminists, we have to be able to hold ourselves responsible, and see our complicitness in the oppression of other women who are subject to our social engagement with the world. And for me those are not separate subjects, they are inseparable; they’re intertwined in my identity as a feminist. I think, you know, we have to retain this tension that we have, the tension between our privileged social location and our, you know, our feminist ideals of fighting oppression worldwide—fighting oppression in the lives of all concerned. And that tension, retaining that tension, recognizing that tension, is going to serve us better as feminists in being able to recognize how to best fight oppression, and how to be unharmful, or nonharmful allies, nontoxic allies, hopefully. So yeah, that’s feminism for me.


MP: One of your areas of specialization is critical race theory. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in this area?


SF: For me, race theory is a natural counterpart to feminist theory. And in the United States of America we’ve had great intellectuals—a history of great black intellectual thought—that have conquered brutal oppression both subversively and confrontationally. For me personally, though, the more contemporary thought of Stokely Carmichael within the Black Power movement, Malcom X within Nation of Islam, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, they have really inspired me, and affected me. And I think their unyielding stance in how they fought oppression lent a lot of courage to other rights movements, to the feminist rights movements, to the civil rights movement, to the Chicana rights movement, to the gay and lesbian rights movements of the sixties and seventies. So I think currently racism has become so obscure within institutions and within the structure of society that it’s much harder to point to anything and say, “Well that’s what racism is, that’s racism happening.” I think we hide behind euphemistic language of, you know, “high crime neighborhoods,” or “penal justice system,” or whatever, “entitlements.” We hide behind these euphemistic phrases and I think we really have to tune our consciousness to really be able to spot those structural forms of oppression in society. And then furthermore, as feminists, as race theorists, as critical race theorists, we have to be able to be humble enough—we have to be epistemically humble—to recognize our own complicity in sustaining those structures that ultimately oppress other people. Race theory for me has another component as a Muslim American, because within American, within the Western world, the Muslim identity has also become racialized. And surprise, surprise, the body of the Muslim women has become the site of other peoples’ projects within the Muslim world and within the Western world. And I think we as feminists and as race theorists, it is very important to be able to recognize how arbitrary signifiers of the veil, or beard, or a brown body—and you know, I mean they’re truly arbitrary—how those signifiers have come to embody what being Muslim is, and how those identifications then work to oppress people in society.


MP: Can you explain to us the general idea behind your article “Muslim-American Scripts”?

SF: So the article “Muslim American Scripts” was part of my larger dissertation under Dr. Lisa Tessman. And the larger project was motivated by a specific kind of experience that Muslim-Americans have, and I’m not saying that all Muslim-Americans experience this, but that it resonates with many Muslim-American political experiences. That is of distress and disenfranchisement by their own country. And so that was my motivating factor. And amongst my friends and amongst discussions it appeared that Muslim-Americans tended to stay away from issues that would, you know, reveal their complex affinities with the world. And that’s very frustrating. And you know, loving María Lugones’s work as much as I do, I saw that as a form of fragmenting oneself to having to, you know, prove our loyalty—our unyielding loyalty to our country at all costs—when, in effect, it becomes an animation of some sort of patriotic script that you have to keep regurgitating. So that was my underlining motivation there.


MP: The concept of epistemic doubt plays an important role in your article. Can you explain what epistemic doubt is?


SF: So, who are the constant sources in, you know, our daily lives? Who do we trust to give us a good run-down of things? And while everybody recognizes that the media has bias—you know, Fox News is biased, or MSNBC is biased, or whatever not—in reality, the spectrum of our political opinions is very limited. Not many of us actually, you know, look up international newspapers and see how the other sees us. And I think by … so there are obviously sources that we consider unreliable because obviously they’re going to be biased about how they see us. I mean, you know, they’re the enemy. The enemy is going to have a bad opinion of us, right? But what that has ended up meaning in terms of Muslim-Americans is that we have become that doubted source; Muslim-Americans have become that doubted source. So whatever we have to say about our foreign policy, or even our domestic policy as far as it concerns Muslims and their liberties, that has become subject to doubt, because obviously we must have split loyalties at best, and otherwise we obviously have sinister loyalties that we’re disguising. And what that does to young Muslim-Americans, or to Muslim-Americans in general, is that they begin to doubt their own testimony eventually. They begin to see themselves like it’s not their place to be giving their view on the war in Iraq because, you know, they don’t want to give their “biased” opinion about something that they might have an affinity for, or a sympathy for, or empathy for. And this can be very corrosive, you know, over time. When, time and time again, anything you have to say is … you’re only saying it because of your social location, you’re only saying it because of your identity. But that explanation is only applied to your social location, and not to the master narrative.


MP: Your article argues that because of the current social and political context in the United States, Muslim-Americans often experience political apathy. What is the problem with political apathy?


SF: The first issue with political apathy is that you’re going to have Muslim-Americans who are not going to be very interested in aiding the government in their War on Terror. So that to me is an instrumental detriment. But the more important aspect of political apathy is, there is this desire to disconnect yourself from our country’s foreign policy and domestic policy. And with that, what happens is that there’s no disruption of the master narrative on the War on Terror, because you’re not engaged in the political process.


MP: Your article also argues that when Muslim-Americans are not fully engaged in political discourses involving Muslim themes, the United States experiences an epistemic loss. What is an epistemic loss, and why should this be a concern for the United States?


SF: Epistemic Loss is as simple as losing a crucial perspective that would appropriately inform the social or political issue that’s under consideration, so the very people that can provide you with the appropriate context. It’s like not consulting surgeons for a surgery, or not consulting climate scientists for climate change, right, but having junk scientists give testimony on it. So similarly, losing that important perspective—not simply just losing that important perspective, but also losing it in virtue of the source that it’s coming from because you have epistemic closure about that particular identity. You already know everything there is to know about them just by looking at their body, by looking at their signifiers that you, you know, identify them with. And why that is of importance is because Muslim-Americans are in this unique position to be able to understand the narrative and the lived experience of people that they have affinities with. You know, other than this idea of Pan-Islamic identity, I mean even as heterogeneous as our population is, we have, you know, there’s nothing that unites Muslims in the sense of our bodies or our cultures. You know there’s phenotypes, but nothing that truly unites us, economic, social values, political alliances, you know, divergences on all issues. But there is this … but Muslim-Americans can still provide, can still better understand the lived narratives of lives of people that they are able to place themselves in. They’re able to place themselves in others’ lives and be able to give a better perspective on those particular issues. To lose that because you consider that particular testimony disloyal is—I think that’s a grave loss for U.S. foreign policy.


MP: Your article proposes that actively assuming a position of empathy can overcome the obstacles generated by political apathy. How can an empathetic position achieve such results?


SF: So in terms of cultivating empathy to counter apathy, you know if you’re able to cultivate empathy in our citizens we’d be able to give a more morally responsive response to any particular sociopolitical issue. But I think more importantly for Muslim-Americans, or for any minority, it allows us to remain whole. In María Lugones’s term, it allows us to remain multiplicitous, or in Bernard Williams’s terms, it allows us to retain our integrity, our deep sense of commitment. So cultivating that allows us to, in essence, retain our humanity.


MP: How can an empathetic standpoint make a difference in social and political policymaking in the United States?


SF: So in terms of empathy informing, you know, our political response, if you have empathy as part of a political discourse, you’re going to get a different set of responses in terms of the kind of solutions that will be offered. Let me give you a sort of non-related example: when we have a white body involved in an incident, we have a completely different discussion, and a different set of solutions that are on the table up for discussion—a different plan of action, let’s say—than when we have a brown body or a person of color that is involved in an incident. Sometimes we don’t even have a discussion because we, you know, we just jump the gun, literally. But secondly … so first of all, it really affects the kind of discourse that’s going on. It affects the kind of solutions that people offer—let’s say in Congress or elsewhere, in society, or in the media—if you have empathy for the other. But then my second claim is that empathy is informing that discourse for the better. That that’s a more … that’s a better response that is coming to the table. So it’s not simply that it’s a different response, but that it’s a more morally adequate response. And in that sense, you know, we are able to think about the everyday lived experience of the other, be able to place ourselves within, you know, how we stand within their political narrative, be able to see that. And so one might wonder, “Well okay, what does that do?” It might be so that a person who has cultivated empathy within a political context and a person who has not cultivated empathy, they both arrive at the same conclusion: drone strikes. Let’s say they both say we’ve got to drone strike. That’s fine. The idea here is that the fact that this person had cultivated empathy, that empathy acts as a moral obstruction. It acts as a moral hesitancy that this person has in making these hard choices that this person does not have. So while this is a hard inevitable choice according to some, drones strike, let’s say, right? There are situations where this person who doesn’t have empathy may be more willing to strike when a strike is not needed. In the case of Syria or Iran, I mean, there have been so many instances where we could have responded by military actions, and thank God we did not. And I think that requires a moral conscious that you have to keep alive. And, in part, you keep that alive by cultivating empathy, and by understanding the lives of other people.


MP: What is the most important point you hope your readers will take away from your article?


SF: The article in particular obviously is talking about accessing: for Muslim-Americans to access and assess their affective response to what goes on in the Muslim world, and what happens to Muslims within this particular country, and to value it as a political response, and to value it within a political context. But a larger point which I do not make in the paper, but that’s part of the motivation behind everything, and which I always try to emphasize to my students, is that even though Islam is a comprehensive religion and that it is an all-encompassing way of life, to attribute the social and political engagement of Muslims to something inherent within them, or to attribute their engagement to their religion in particular, is very, very dangerous. First of all, it’s simplistic. And secondly, it’s dangerous because you’re not making an effort to understand where that other person is coming from. You’re just saying, “You do that because you’re Muslim. You do that because your religion tells you to do it.” But thirdly, it’s also offensive because it denies the material and historical reality of our lives, of our daily lives, of a history of colonialism, of a history of dictatorships, and so on and so forth. So my hope is that people understand that oftentimes Muslim engagement comes under the cloak of it being Muslim engagement, but that there are social and political underpinnings to why that engagement is taking place the way it is, and to recognize those underpinnings.


Transcribed by Bailey LePage