One among many complicated figures: Alice Walker

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Photo Credit: OII

I just finished reading The Color Purple for the first time.

The timing is no mere coincidence.

Alice Walker is now getting some pretty bad press for her apparent endorsement of David Icke, a “professional conspiracy theorist” according to Wikipedia and whom critics call a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite, which of course he denies. But don’t they all?

Honestly, I haven’t read his stuff and know next to nothing about him. So I’ll leave it at that.

Now, Alice Walker, who until now has been regarded as a champion of human rights and Black feminism – at least to my knowledge, is being accused of being an anti-Semite herself. Of course, anyone who publicly supports BDS is leveled with this accusation. But that’s really not my point in writing this post.

I think that people who are accusing Alice Walker of being an anti-Semite, which she may well be, are missing a larger point.

This is an article I read earlier this morning that explains a little bit about Walker’s personal life that provides some insight. Walker was once married to a Jewish man, but was not accepted by her mother-in-law because of her blackness. When you have such a negative experience like that, it’s hard for a person to compartmentalize it. One bad experience can cloud a person’s judgement for his or her entire life. We all know people like this — and may ourselves be guilty of it as well, if we can truly be honest with ourselves. But being discriminated against by a fellow minority can be particularly hurtful (which also coincidentally happens to be a theme of the book). Minorities are supposed to be allies of one another, right? Often times, however, that is not the case. This experience with her mother-in-law may have affected Walker’s later views. I don’t know.

The author of the aforementioned article then referred to this problematic poem that Walker wrote a few years ago: It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud. Beginning with describing her experience visiting Palestine, she then goes to examine the root cause of all (political) oppression of one group of people by another.

These are lines that stood out to me:

We must go back
As grown ups, now,
Not as the gullible children we once were,
And study our programming,
From the beginning.
All of it: The Christian, the Jewish,
The Muslim; even the Buddhist. All of it, without exception,
At the root.

While she may be blaming the Talmud or at least certain people’s interpretations of it to justify their political actions in Palestine, it is clear that Walker is not singling out any particular religion. The Rohingya. The Yazidis. The Roma. Tamilians in Sri Lanka. No religion is immune.

Having just read The Color Purple and its preface, which quite frankly, as a practicing Muslim, discomforted me and made not want to read the book, it’s more fresh in my eyes as to what the larger issue is: She’s against pretty much all organized religions.

“… perhaps it is the pagan transformation of God from patriarchal male
supremacist into trees, stars, wind and everything else, that camouflaged
for many readers the book’s intent to explore the difficult path of
someone who starts out in life already a spiritual captive, but who through
her own courage and the help of others, breaks free into the realization
that she like Nature itself, is a radiant expression of the heretofore
perceived as quite distant Divine.” (Preface, The Color Purple)

I think it’s quite clear that Walker is no fan of any of the Abrahamic faiths, which, let’s face it, refer to God as “He”. I’ve encountered many a Muslim feminist who have their own issues with Allah being referred to as “He”. I know this because I was one of them. But I also lacked a more nuanced understanding of the Arabic language at the time. Pronouns serve an important linguistic function, which as a writer I have come to appreciate. And honestly, Hajj has reoriented how I see things and has expanded how I view my faith.

Given Christian theology, it makes sense for Christians to refer to God as “He.” But it makes less explicit sense for Jews and Muslims (especially the many of us adherents who are not familiar with the complexity of Semitic languages). And so, orthodox Jews and traditional Muslims, particularly women, are put into this box they can’t really get out of by having to justify how they can be for gender equality and yet faithful to the traditional interpretations of their texts.

I mean, I have my own issues with the term feminism. Not the implicit concept, but how it’s interpreted and used in the contemporary context. I can’t get behind some of the Muslim women who argue wearing hijab is a feminist choice. In my opinion, it’s not. I see it as a command from God. And getting into why problematizes the basic premise of feminism: that men and women are equal in every which way. That may not be how the movement started, but it is how it’s been progressing. The fact of the matter is that in Islam, men are not required to cover their hair, but women are. Of course, there are plenty of Muslims who believe women are not required to cover their hair. But as a Muslim woman who does and has religiously-rooted reasons for continuing to do so, I risk being dishonest with my beliefs and myself if my primary concern is to appease mainstream society that is accepting of only a certain kind of Muslim.

Hajj has indeed changed me.

As I know, there are certain elements of one’s faith that can never be explained to someone who only views the empirical as truly valid.

To conclude this meandering of a post, we all see what we want to see.

The interpretation of any text will be imbued with the interpreter’s often times unexamined inclinations and beliefs, including his or her biases. I am not above that. But neither is Alice Walker or anyone else writing about her right now.

10 thoughts on “One among many complicated figures: Alice Walker

  1. I’m afraid intellectual honesty is rapidly becoming a rarity. Even in academia, it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about certain issues (Palestine, Islam, Neocolonialism, Liberal Imperialism, etc….) without being immediately labelled as some sort of bigot, radical, or extremist. You have entire industries predicated on the production of propagandist narratives and the erasure of any sort of counter-narrative based on evidence and historical facts.

    Feminism has always left a bad taste in my mouth. In my late teens and early twenties I became active in the Anti-globalization and the anti-war movement. I realized very quickly that feminism was just white supremacy with a better PR. I blame my own lack of historical awareness for falling for the great slogans of sisterhood and defence of women’s rights. I knew very little about the ideology of feminism itself, outside of the slogans. I was knee-deep in Socialist/Anarchist and Liberal circles which are supposed to be progressive bastions. To the feminists, I was only a “sister” as long as I was adhering to an idea of womanhood molded around Western values and norms. Our cultures were essentially seen as inherently inferior, they would never say something so crass as that, but their continuous attacks on the cultures of POC as being inherently detrimental to women reiterated that idea. I also realized that women of colour (and Muslims) who adopted a westernized identity were held as examples for “their sisters of colour”, which reaffirmed to me that these circles held Western civilization as a higher form of civilization to which all others cultures should aspire too. Essentially, it became clear to me that Feminism, much like white supremacy, was not seeking my liberation but rather my annihilation. Because erasing, deny, and rejecting what makes us who we are as Non-Western folks is nothing short of annihilation; it is a form of cultural genocide but with ideas instead of guns.

    Eventually, I gave up activism all together as I started learning more about my own religious and cultural identity. My greatest take away from my experience was that if you don’t know who you are, someone else will tell you who they think you are. I lost many friendships when I walked away from leftist/progressive circles, but Alhamdulillah I found myself in the process and I got closer to my creator. I try to warn young Muslims from entering those circles, but sometimes nothing beats first hand experience. I just hope they’ll eventually find their way out.

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  2. Alhamdulillah. Thank you for sharing your insights on this. I used to think academia was one place where I might find a space to explore topics of interest, but I realize you gotta toe the line if you want to reap its benefits. Academic freedom is a bit of a farce. Once you go against the acceptable narrative, you lose your job and/or become a pariah.

    I agree with you on feminism. Even intersectionality is a bit problematic. It helped for WOC, but I don’t think it did much for conservative religious women. Practically, anyway. I think it really hit me when I attended an event on women religious leaders earlier this year and I found myself being perhaps the only in the audience not agreeing with what the panel was saying: i.e. women need to be religious leaders in order for our religious traditions to be functioning in the modern day. That has a lot of implications for Islam. And I’m sorry, but I just don’t agree with Amina Wadud.

    Honestly, I think I had to go through all that I did to truly appreciate what I know now. Alhamdulillah, my understanding of Islam is stronger now, Insha’Allah. One hadith comes to mind: “Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange.” I never truly appreciated this sentiment until recently. On its face, it might be a bit hard to swallow. Shouldn’t we all get together? I don’t think that’s what the hadith is saying though. There’s no reason why Muslims can’t live in non-Muslim majority nations and be a part of civil society (I think Islam encourages it), but what I do think it means is that we can’t sacrifice our religion just to fit in with the times. Unfortunately, there’s a rift going on. It’s nothing new. But I worry about the next generation of Muslim kids and what they will be exposed to and what will be considered normal. Ay!

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  3. Couldn’t have said it better Rafia. That hadith resonates with me so much these days. Subhanallah, some of the things I hear these days make me happy that I am not in a position of leadership where I could lead myself and others astray.

    You will notice that some of the most vocal voices for “reforming Islamic theology” are either self-described scholars or people who in reality possess the equivalent of a BA in Islamic studies. You hardly see someone with a BA in biology being an authority in biology do you? But when it comes to Islam, folks that took a few courses here and there, or have a diploma from God knows where (let’s be honest some of the institutions in the Muslim world that are dishing out credentials are so corrupt you can literally buy yourself a degree), try to edify themselves as legitimate scholarly voices…..I’m looking at you Amina Wadud. Most of these folks could not old a candle to traditional islamic scholarship, hence there animosity toward it. What they have however is a foothold in the Western culture, and they often use the same Orientalists premises to try and discredit traditional scholarship as being too backward and incompatible with the setting of modern society.

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  4. Totally agree with you on that one! Most of the Islamic scholars that I respect, with the exception of Dr. Umar F. AbdAllah, did their PhDs in Islamic Studies AFTER mastering the traditional Islamic sciences. I actually had naive goals to do my PhD in Islamic Studies back in 2013. But Alhamdulillah, my lack of sufficient Arabic was a practical reason why I did not do it. But on a more personal level, I was struggling with the “critical” lens required of my classes, not to mention that most of my profs were non-Muslims. Not having a more solid Islamic education, I knew I was not strong enough to pursue a doctoral degree. I was upset for a long time that I couldn’t achieve my goal, but in hindsight, it was better for my iman. I’m slowly starting to get over this obsession with a PhD.

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  5. Finding your own path is such a difficult journey honestly. I’m trying to get over some goals I set for myself in my younger days as well. Life is such a frustrating yet fascinating endeavour lol.

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  6. One thing I wish more Muslims would do, including myself, is study more about different religions. So I really appreciate your posts like this and I loved your musings on Allah being refereed to as “He” in the Qur’an as well as your thoughts on the hijab and how, in Islam, it’s not necessarily a choice but an obligation. Now whether or not we follow that obligation is a choice, so long as that distinction is clear.

    I see equality in terms of Islam not as physically or biologically equal, but that our worth is equal in the eyes of Allah swt. That’s the most important type of equality for a Muslim, and when any movement says there is a better type of equality than that, I tend to leave that path. It’s easier said than done though, when society screams at you to join a flock of sheep..

    Your hajj experience makes me so excited to go one day, in shaa Allah. I could read about your Hajj reflections all day long.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “Now whether or not we follow that obligation is a choice, so long as that distinction is clear.” You’re right! I should have been more clear. But I think… I hope that my sentiment came across. I just don’t like how hijab is used so lightly by some women. So, if it’s not required, as some say, then why am I wearing it, you know? I am not wearing it because I want to put myself out there and potentially in danger. I wear hijab because I believe it is an obligation. But women who are so defensive about hijab saying it is absolutely not required need to understand that it’s all a matter of interpretation. It makes those who do believe it is required seem like we don’t know what we’re doing. Does that make sense?

    You also distill a very important element of equality that is lost on lots of people. You know that argument, separate but equal and how in the U.S. it totally was not. Well, it’s not a one-to-one analogy. In the U.S., it was racists that made that rule to give them the veneer of decency. But God, the Lord of the Universe, is not a racist. We can’t compare God to human beings and by using the analogy, that is exactly what we’re doing.

    Insha’Allah. I hope you do get to go on Hajj soon and then we can reminisce about our experiences! :)


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