What if Neo had taken both pills? | A Reflection on a Summer School and Feelings of Madness

It has been exactly one Gregorian-calendar-month since I left Granada, Spain, where I attended the Critical Muslim Studies two-week summer school. I had intended to write up some notes or musings as soon as I got back because there was so much to reflect on from what I enjoyed, to what frustrated me, and unresolved questions. But upon returning to the UK a certain heaviness settled upon me. I had found the course full-on and thought-provoking but struggled to process a lot of that once I was back. It was the need to process not only ideas provoked by what was presented from scholars, but what was shared in the early hours of the morning with activists and women from all over the world, what was said and unsaid in the classroom, what was said after leaving the classroom, what was passed between sheikhs and students with tears in eyes, what wasn’t passed across bridges of power between people, what was prayed fervently into the carpets of the central mosque, what was laughed at overlooking the Alhambra Palace, what was causing me to cry in so many seminars, and what I wrote into my journal eating churros in Spanish plazas.

Initially I intended to write a summary post here on my blog – a highlight of some of the ideas and questions the course provoked as well as some of the unsettling feelings it left me with (here’s a thread of my summary of each day on twitter). I will include them  in this post where they fit, but what I think is more important to talk about is the strange impact such questions had on me, the impact of the disjuncture between my expectations of the space and the operation of the space, and the impact of spending two weeks with mainly Muslim women of colour, in an academic setting, thinking about coloniality, Islam and our existences 24/7.

Even now I find myself glancing at my phone, opening new tabs, deliberately avoiding writing this post. There is something I have found particularly difficult about processing this. The best way I can put it is that how I have felt for some weeks since the course is a heightened/hyper sense of how I felt before. That is to say that spending time with a group of mainly Muslim women of colour and mainly Muslim academics, scholars and sheikhs was a type of unravelling. I have never been in a space like that before. I don’t mean it was a perfect space or entirely unlike any other academic spaces I have been in – I want to make that clear from the start. Indeed, I was personally quite vocal about my disappointment in the set-up of the space as a reproduction of the colonial classroom which assumes a non-dialogical lecture format, and my own remarks about a roundtable which looked very similar to a Cambridge formal hall, except the men were mainly brown instead of white, was received with some unease.

But what I am trying to say when I say it was a space unlike any other I have been in, is that I have never been in a classroom where the majority of participants were Muslim women (from different countries, different diasporas, different histories) and academics, activists and Islamic scholars who all brought radical ideas to their fields. When I say it was a space of unravelling, I am trying to say that it was a space where there was a chance to be possible in a way that is usually made to seem impossible. That was because I was surrounded by people who not only acknowledged my reality, not only knew my reality, but also named it for what it is. It was to be in a space where, as one of our teachers termed it, the master’s tools were named (perhaps not all, but many) and thus the structures holding up the master’s house, denaturalised – or, in other words, shown to be historical and contingent, not natural and eternal.

That is to say, I have rarely spent two weeks talking about coloniality (not only the European occupation of other lands (broadly, colonialism), but the way that impacted knowledge and power dynamics and the ways people thought about other people as less human) without having to begin from the premise of questioning it’s reality. I have rarely spent two weeks talking about Islamophobia or racism without having to begin from a premise of justifying such things exist. When I say it was a space of unravelling, I mean it was a space of letting go of the sorts of answers I always have to have at the ready, leaving my hands empty to consider new questions in the semi-safety that there was a consensus on the reality of a colonial, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal world. This was a blessing.

However, when I say those two weeks left me with a heightened sense of how I have felt in the past, I am also trying to talk about the unexpected impact it had on me to be in a space where there was a consensus on the reality of a colonial, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal world for two full weeks. What kind of impact do I mean? Well I am thinking something along the lines of how Neo feels early on in The Matrix. I suspect other people have used this analogy before, but I must quote the conversation between Morpheus and Neo at length because it really hits on the head how I have found myself feeling for the past month since the summer school.

Morpheus: … you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Neo: The Matrix.

Morpheus: Do you want to know…what it is?

[Neo nods]

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work…when you go to church…when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: [leans in closer to Neo] That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.


Morpheus: Unfortunately, no one can be…told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. [opens pillbox, empties contents into his palms, outstretches his hands] This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill [opens his right hand revealing blue pill], the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill [opens his left hand revealing red pill], you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. [Neo, after a pause, reaches for the red pill] Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

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I don’t know if Morpheus had actually been reading decolonial texts and considering the politics of knowledge production recently and was trying to make such an explicit reference to coloniality as being “all around us” and a sort of “prison” – and let me make a disclaimer here to say that I acknowledge it is crass and insensitive to talk of slavery and prisons of the mind when slavery, slave trades, detention and the prison-industrial complex are not metaphorical but violent realities now, and historically, especially, disproportionately for black people – I only want to run with Morpheus’ wording for a second. I quote this dialogue at length to try to convey that when I came back from the Critical Muslim Studies summer school I felt as if I had swallowed both the red pill and the blue pill. By that I mean that I felt the awful, unexpected hangover of having spent two weeks with everyone around me acknowledging and talking frankly about the Matrix, excavating it, considering how to approach it, etc – and then coming back to an everyday life where I wake up in my bed and still know about the Matrix, but face the pain of barely anyone else believing it exists. I try and tell people about the Matrix because I know the Matrix is the reality, not just a reality, it is the unlabelled version of the world that is the illusion. E.G colonialism called “civilisation” or called nothing, violence called “keeping the peace” or called nothing, violent exclusion and violent inclusion called “nations” or called nothing, global patriarchal domination called nothing.

When I say I feel like I took both pills and am therefore living with the agony of both, knowledge of the depth of the rabbit hole (some) and the alienation of waking up in a world which doesn’t want to believe it, I do not mean to discredit the multitudes of people I know who do acknowledge the rabbit hole. However, to be brutally honest, how many of us who acknowledge it are ready to excavate how deep it goes? How many of us don’t take the red pill, because in fact they don’t take either of the pills and instead keep sitting in the armchair only prodding at the fact something is wrong? What can I mean? How can I say it?

What I am trying to say is that there is nothing more exhausting than the manifold critiques in the world today which don’t follow their own logic to their conclusions. What I mean is that when many of us critique coloniality we also want to emulate it. Which is to say, many of us want to reproduce the very violence we say we are opposed to – because so many of us do not know who we are outside the Matrix, we are terrified of the possibility of who we may be outside of white supremacy, what our existence is without coloniality…

What I also mean is that our arguments are stunted. If some of us can accept that knife crime is caused not by “evil” people, but violent contexts and circumstances that people live in, why can’t we take this to the conclusion that all acts of violence perpetrated by individuals are due to violent contexts – including so-called “terrorists”? If some of us can accept that the Israeli nation-state enacts state violence and colonial occupation with violent exclusion of a dehumanised population, why can’t we take this to the conclusion that realises all modern nation-states must therefore be opposed and held accountable for their violence because it is the very nature of a nation-state to be colonial, racist and violent – just as Britain is, just as France is, just as the United States of America is. It is the very fact of being a nation-state that causes genocides like those of colonialism, the holocaust, and what is happening to Palestine – to exceptionalise is to miss the point. When I say that many of us critique coloniality whilst also wanting to emulate it because we do not know who we are outside the Matrix, I mean to ask how some of us can critique some nation-states but remain devout patriots of others? I mean that when some say “it is unfair to deport innocent people”, they fail to grasp that the very concept of “innocence” as historically racialised, they still internalise the belief that some people are “illegal”. I mean that when some say “he needs to be locked up!”, they fail to grasp that the very concept of incarceration and punitive justice avoids accountability or dealing with broader violent circumstances. I mean that when some of us critique the consequences of capitalism but still endorse the system itself, we have missed the point.

When I say many of us don’t take either pill but remain in the armchair, I mean that in the majority of critiques I see around me, some aspect of the very violence being criticised is actually, glaringly, tragically, reproduced (see my last post). I mean that when some Muslims want to prove “Islam is modern, too” they retain the supremacy of the desire to reproduce the things Europe deems marks of civilisation, and thus, the supremacy of Europe. I mean that when people want to attain dignity in the world, they often end up doing it as a self-hating subject. I mean that when some Muslims try to say Islam and capitalism are not a contradiction, they are willing to pretend Adam Smith’s hand is the hand of God. I mean that when some Muslims do not take the ethics of Islam to their logical conclusions they will allow for the oppression of others for the sake of themselves – but Islam necessitates justice, and that means Islam does not necessitate prisons, does not necessitate patriarchy, does not necessitate the commodification of the human, does not necessitate our whims and fancies at any costs.

What I am trying to say by saying I feel like I took both the pills is that I feel crazy. For the past month I have felt crazy – and I don’t use that word lightly. I believe it is exactly the type of mental instability, alienation and detachment I have been feeling from the world that is the punitive measure imposed by the world for calling it what it is. What I mean is that so often the punishments we face for acknowledging the reality of the world as one that is deeply violent and almost always the opposite of what it says it is, are punishments of the psyche, initially. These include being accused of ruining every bit of fun, being accused of being obsessive, being accused of being over-sensitive, being accused of making things up – in other words, being made socially unacceptable, a disruptive presence: unhinged, unstable, strange or a liar at best and dangerous at worst.

I use the word “crazy” deliberately. I am not diminishing mental illness, I am acknowledging the very real, very painful mental toll it takes to be gaslighted by a world which tells you consistently that the world is not how you know it to be. I am acknowledging that for one whole week myself and at least several other students would cry in our lectures at questions posed about whether we could ever know our own history if we only know it through colonially epistemic, Eurocentric languages and Universities; we would cry at questions about whether we would spend our lives answering other people’s questions or asking our own; we would cry at questions about the kind of softness Allah asks of us that holds the possibility of going beyond reactionary anger which simply reproduces the violence of Othering; we would cry at questions about what it means to cry; we would cry at questions about how it has come to be that a history of diverse and divergent Islamic rulings and understandings have come to be so stifled; we would cry at questions posed to each other – I remember one sister in particular asking the devastating and ringing question: “how am I supposed to deal with the fact Islam allows someone who was yesterday my oppressor, to today become my sister?”; we would cry at questions about who we are outside of white supremacy; at questions about how much of the way we know Islam is through colonial lenses worn by translators trained as colonial elites; we would cry at questions about what we pray for and at questions about for how many people we remained the subjects of research rather than producers of knowledge ourselves.

This kind of craziness that I am talking about struck me hard and deep in my first few weeks back home. Despite my criticisms of the course, its many limitations and my disappointments with the fact we didn’t really explore Islam as a pre-colonial and thus potentially decolonial episteomolgy as I had hoped we would; I realised how important so many of the conversations I had had were for me. The psychological instability I was and am experiencing was tribute to that. And yet, that same instability (or catastrophe, Professor Nelson Maldonado Torres might call it) I felt upon returning to the everyday reality of the depraved, violent, racist society and genocidal world we live in, the tears, detachment and etc – were in some ways almost liberating. What can I mean? How could I say that?

Well what I am trying to explain is that with the feeling of being made crazy, unacceptable, strange at best and dangerous at worst, came a new sort of possibility I had not experienced before. I had read about it in the texts of so-called “radical” thinkers, but never actually felt it in my bones. And yet, with this raw feeling of psychological imbalance came that real feeling that I can only express as a will to live without a need to. Or, a realisation that I am bound by nothing – since the Matrix of “law and order” around me is an illusory cover for violent unjust practices – I am bound by nothing but the principles I believe in. And that realisation is one I call liberating because it is also a recognition of my power. That I can be alone, crazy, small and weak but fundamentally a disruptive existence. I have the power to be that; that power resides in me and always has and does in all of us. Others have said and realised this long before me, and my point is less the point itself that others can tell you with much more evidence to prove they’ve lived it and much more pain for it – my point is merely a desire to convey the feeling. What an electric, overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling.

I have therefore decided to embrace being crazy, which is to say I have decided to tell everybody more constantly, obsessively and consistently about the violence of the world we are living in. I have decided to, even more than before, call things by names to expose their contingency and do it in my own way. That includes my latest drive to tell people that we are living in a genocidal culture. It is inherent in the modern world – by which I more or less mean the world(s) as imagined since the beginning of European colonisation/“discovery” – that people are forcibly excluded and forcibly included into nation-states. For example, the project to assimilate Others is a project of forced inclusion. If they fail to assimilate (or civilise, or modernise), they will be forcibly excluded – think Britain today and detention, deportation, imprisonment, alienation, social marginalisation, deprivation of citizenship, etc of populations deemed “unable to integrate”. Whilst forcible exclusion is suggested as the outcome of a failure to “include” oneself, the irony is that Others are never allowed to be properly included. For example, Muslims in Britain are accused of “living parallel lives”, so that even if we were to assimilate to the T and distance ourselves individually from the rest of the Others (as some of our most esteemed Muslim sell-outs have tried to), it would not be believed (and thus, sadly, those esteemed Muslims still face the same Islamophobia that taints the rest of us) and we are continuously excluded, treated as suspect and disloyal necessitating scrutiny, policing and ultimately rejection.

That rejection can, ultimately, make a population disposable or deserving of death (think of the multiple ironies of Sajid Javid on the death penalty). Think about any nation-state you know, think about its history and see the pattern. This forced inclusion/exclusion is the reality of the modern world from Germany to Britain to Serbia to India to Israel to South Africa to China… it is a modern culture of genocide facilitated by the crucial link between two groups who see themselves as oppositional: liberals and the far-right. The offer of liberals is the impossible assimilation: forced inclusion whilst continuously Othering (multiculturalism, inclusion, diversity); the follow up of the Right is the rejection of the possibility of such inclusion and thus, forced exclusion – think of how Obama facilitated Trump, think of every nation-state history you know. Call me crazy, but the system is the same.

And so, after a difficult month of processing badly and reeling from unresolved thoughts and structural manipulation and gaslighting like never before, I have decided to embrace being crazy if it means I get to acknowledge and name my reality, even if only for myself. Somehow it is only now, in this state of constant grieving and overwhelming instability that I feel a possibility to exist in another way – a way that has no need to abide by rules made in a civilisation that exist only to control, trap and destroy unlike any other civilisation before it. It was only when Audre Lorde was faced with the reality of illness, the reality of her mortality and death, that she said she was no longer afraid to write and speak; perhaps, for me, it is a different way round – only as I begin to face the reality of the world’s mortality and illusory nature, that I am no longer afraid to exist.

I must quote Audre Lorde at length here, too, it is only right:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”
I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you.

And so, I find myself at the end of this post having summarised very little and written a great lot. Perhaps little of it makes sense, perhaps no one will read this far, but I haven’t felt so at home in my writing for a long time. It reminds me of why I started writing: for myself. And isn’t writing for oneself the first step to existing for oneself? By which I mean, the first step to existing without reference? As more than a subject? I have written some strange things today, in a tone I haven’t adopted before. But why should I be afraid to say this? Why should I be afraid to speak? Why should I be afraid to question? I am afraid anyway, so why not be afraid aloud?? I feel crazy anyway, so why not be crazy in the light?? Why not name my crazy? Why not jump down the rabbit hole rather than peering into its darkness shivering and afraid? Perhaps being unafraid is not the point.

A question from the summer school lingers in my mind some nights, asked by Professor Roberto D Hernandez – “What kind of elder do you want to be?” I am not sure, I am young, but perhaps I would like to be an elder who is dangerous at best, and strange at worst. If I am in the Matrix – the epistemological cage of deceit and illusion – and I see it, and know it and can call it out – why in the world would I opt for not speaking? For not acknowledging how mentally unhinged this reality makes me? Why would I opt to become the very guard standing between me and my power to disrupt it all?




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