When he read "The Postmuslim" (more than three years after it was written), Robert K. Beshara sent me the Giorgio Agamben essay "What Is the Contemporary?"
Reading it, I remembered how essential the idea of being contemporary had been to my thinking about the postmuslim stance. One tweep objected to my use of the word in the context of taking a position, pointing out that the contemporary is simply what exists at the present time, and I was unsure how to respond.
"Sooner or later you will realize," I wrote in "The Postmuslim". "To be embodied and empowered as a contemporary Muslim, you need to bring the past back into the present. But that past, your past as a Muslim is an endless trove of meanings in flux. And it is up to you to interpret and incorporate those meanings… Having acknowledged your historical estrangement, in other words, it is up to you to creatively insinuate yourself into the contemporary world…" (The italics here are purely circumstantial.)
I admit I hadn't thought too deeply about "contemporary", taking its many possible meanings and their relevance to my argument for granted. And I think I did know what I was talking about, more or less. I meant what I described elsewhere as being "functionally alive in the world today… and by 'functionally' I mean something like purposefully or meaningfully or in any worthwhile sense." But beyond the horror of consumerism and correctness, what does that imply?
Unlike "modern", which has specific historical overtones – modernity, as in the James Joyce quote, being the (post)colonial "nightmare from which I am trying to awake" – it turns out "contemporary" isn't so much about being at any one time. It is about being between times or in some sense outside time altogether, in a space where you're able to see, or rather sense the present's discontents. Agamben writes:
the contemporary is not only the one who, perceiving the darkness of the present, grasps a light … he is also the one who [is] able to read history in unforeseen ways, to "cite it" according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot not respond. It is as if this invisible light that is the darkness of the present cast its shadow on the past, so that the past, touched by this shadow, acquired the ability to respond to the darkness of the now.
So if I disparage political Islam as un-contemporary – if I say it goes against the postmuslim stance to subscribe to political Islam, even though it too is a postmuslim phenomenon – that is not because political Islam does not belong in the present moment. It is not even because I have a problem with political Islam, which I do. But it is because I can sense that it is symptomatic of a darkness, a horror, that connects the past to an unknown future.
That, then, is what I mean by the postmuslim position being a contemporary one.