By Haroon Moghul
Every so often, I pass some place in New York, whether it be a museum or a memorial, and find myself falling in love with the city all over again. There are so many wonderful things to do here! If I didn’t live here, I think, I might even be able to afford to do them. One of the casualties of my Brooklyn life is a dear passion: Books.
Long ago I planned on having an impressive library. Not only do books represent more money than I can spend, but they also take up more space than I can pay for. So now I borrow and only buy books if I know I will go back to them again. Since we’re just past the halfway point of the year, I thought it a good opportunity to share what those rare books are.
Four of 2015’s books that should be on your bookshelf.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
A longform letter to his 15 year-old son, Between the World and Me is a moving, overwhelming, infuriating, amazing narrative of intellectual development, written with physical force. He didn’t write this. He punched it into the keyboard.
For those of us who work hard to explain bigotry, prejudice and racism to Americans with no experience of it, Coates’ narrative rings deeply true—even as, in its exploration of blackness in America, it challenges us to confront some of America’s ugliest histories. Most painful of all is perhaps Coates’ refusal to comfort his son after the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
He needs his son to know that it may not be okay. It will not be okay. It has not been okay.
Certain books become part of us, not just because of what they say but also because of when we read them; for me, these were Malcolm X’s autobiography, Alija Izetbegovic’s Islam Between East and West, and Muhammad Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. This book will serve that function for generations to come: Kick start that process by making sure it’s on bookshelves of young Muslims now.
I’m now reading the book for a second time. I almost never do that.
Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming An Individual in an Age of Distraction
Where Coates discusses the body, Crawford moves us to the mind.
We have become so fragmented, Crawford argues, that we cannot even act as individuals—we find it hard to sustain long-term projects or pursuits, overwhelmed by a deluge of distraction none of us asked for but none of us can escape from. Contrasting the cacophony of the general airport lounge with a business-class lounge experience, Crawford politicizes our attentional deficit and attends to a radical reshaping of the self.
Read alongside Coates’ book, we can see how injustice reproduces itself. Positing that those who have become wealthy from social media have done it by seizing control of our attention, using our minds as resources, Crawford suggests that silicon valley wealth is not the creation of wealth so much as the capture of resources—except the resource is your own head, your mind, your ability to focus on the world and act in a principled and purposeful fashion in it.
“Genuine agency,” Crawford writes, “arises not in the context of mere choices freely made (as in shopping) but rather, somewhat paradoxically, in the context of submission to things that have their own intractable ways, whether the thing be a musical instrument, a garden, or the building of a bridge.”
Or religion, or community, or deity? You may not disagree with his analysis of the cause, nor prescription as cure, but you will finally find an explanation for the general frustration and anxiety of our every day life. I for one should like to see those words on the walls of mosques. Even as I lament the fact that it is not a Muslim thinker who has more beautifully articulated Islam—however inadvertently—than most Muslims can.
Masha Gessen, The Brothers: The Road to An American Tragedy
What happens when a fearless journalist applies her rigorous methods on us, not as individuals but as a country, as bearers and promoters of a singular and allegedly incomparable American dream? Gessen leads us up to the Boston bombing—but afterwards jumps (it is jarring at first) to describe the great faults and flaws in our war on terror generally. It takes us a moment to reorient ourselves: Why are we focused less on the criminals, and more on the crime?
This is a study of America’s experience, definition and prosecution of terrorism, as only someone from without can see it—who has applied herself to an external object with the detachment we have given up expecting from many of our journalists. Gessen is concerned with the mythologies that undergird our war on terror, and have made it, to a great degree, an exercise in self-deception and therefore self-defeat.
“In the wake of the bombing,” Gessen writes, “both law enforcement and the American press corps focused their efforts on finding out who radicalized Tamerlan or both of the Tsarnaev brothers, and when and where.’
Gessen continues: “The possibility that their actions were driven by simple ideas acquired without any concerted outside help, that … Tamerlan simply objected to U.S. foreign policy … this terrifyingly simple idea was never on the table.” Or, more catastrophically: ‘Radicalization’ keeps happening, because we seem unable to accept that people might turn to violence to express their opposition to violence.
Which is so hard to come to terms with that we blame instead Islam, or Muslim culture, for an inherent proclivity to violence, rather than see what is actually happening. It is too hard, apparently—it is asking too much of us—to expect the Muslim mind to behave like a white mind. For all Coates’ valuable insight into the control, disciplining—I thought of Foucault—and brutalization of bodies, let us reflect here on “reason.”
It is something we are assumed not to possess. Therefore, because our minds are defective—how dare those Muslims respond to violence with violence, only we can!—so our bodies are free to be targeted, tortured, droned, destroyed. There is a reason there is no real definition of terrorism. It would prove the civilizer has no clothes.
Chris Impey, Beyond: Our Future in Space
I grew up on Star Trek, and loved it dearly. Though I took issue with the series’ inability to deal intelligently with religion—speaking to a deeper shortcoming of the progressive culture many Muslims find so amenable in other respects—I was deeply inspired by its vision, its inclusion, its generosity, and believe it speaks to America too. Gene Roddenberry, after all, was an American, whose 24th century Captain Picard appeared to be a socialist philosopher-king dispatched on behalf of a Communist Federation of Planets. The new meaning of red-shirt.
You read it here first.
In Star Trek, humanity used technology to better itself, to reach out and explore, within and without—not to replace and displace itself. Recently, though, I’d lost hope that that future, that any such future, might be available to us. We seemed more interested in denying climate change, letting our infrastructure going to waste and flushing hundreds of billions down war of terror toilets. But Impey’s book made me a believer again, if cautiously.
By describing the great minds once again pushing the envelope for America, the industries and ideas that can take humanity to the final frontier—and what it might look like when get there—we have a book that gives us hope in the future, or at least hope that one kind of American dream is not the only kind.
“We created you,” God says, “in nations and tribes… that you may know another.” The principal benefit to difference is its ability to present contrast, without which we should not be able to see—literally, of course, but philosophically and spiritually as well. By stretching our capacity to imagine alternate worlds, we are convinced that where we are now is not necessarily where we were before, and where we are headed next is not the only destination we must travel with.
Boldly go, or boldly stay. But do so on some basis beyond the whims and whirrings of your mind, something that can compel or persuade another mind—there is no greater homage to our common nature, no better underlining of Islam’s fundamentally humanistic bent, no deeper gesture to universalism that is really and actually universalism, not the wishful and therefore necessarily violent subjugation of the other.