Artistic statement

by Azhar Usman

Azhar Usman

ULTRA-AMERICAN: A PATRIOT ACT is the result of many years of wondering and wandering all over the planet, trying to make sense of my own existence in a seemingly insane world–a world full of contradictions, paradoxes, and fundamental incongruences. A world that is presently on fire: with political violence and state surveillance reaching dizzying heights, religious extremism on the rise, unprecedented global communication, technological inter-dependence, and personal connectivity, the seemingly unstoppable tide of Secular Humanism (supported by an atheist-leaning, Modernist philosophical worldview), the apparent end of privacy, and radically unequal wealth distribution due to the corporate takeover of just about every aspect of human life. And all of this has happened on America’s watch: under the auspices of the “world’s sole superpower,” The United States of America ... the Empire.

As a citizen of the Empire, for the past four decades, I have been negotiating a set of competing identities inside myself: Indian, American, Muslim. What does it mean to be an Indian? An American? A Muslim? In the modern world, no less, where even the questions seem problematic, because I never felt like any of those labels really fit, not as nouns anyway. Perhaps as adjectives. To be Indian is, in a sense, different than calling oneself “an Indian.” Just as being American is a universe away from calling oneself “an American.” I am very comfortable saying that I am Muslim, but calling myself “a Muslim” triggers a whole range of disclaimers, tensions, and, perhaps, disquieting confessions about my relationship with the other billion and a half humans who claim the same label. Several of the assumptions and realities underlying each of those dimensions of identity clash with one another, resulting in contradictions, paradoxes, and confusions: an internal conflict that mirrors the crazy-making world we all inhabit today. What does citizenship entail today? Race? Ethnicity? Religious affiliation? These are complex discussions and debates.

And it is in this potent cocktail of competing identities that I have attempted to forge a holistic, balanced, cogent, informed, and intelligent view of the world. Indeed, what is an “identity” really, but a lens through which to make sense of the world around us? Along the way, the following ideas resonated deeply:

 W.E.B. Du Bois
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
~ W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

This notion of “double-consciousness” articulated by Du Bois (and further developed by Frantz Omar Fanon in his concept of “dual consciousness”) has become a way of life for hybrid- (tri-brid?) identity Americans. Du Bois rhetorically asked: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

In 2016 America, one of the leading presidential candidates has declared that “Islam hates us,” and that he would call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The politics of fear of such ideologues makes Thomas Paine’s call for “thoughtful patriotism” more urgent than ever. Samuel Johnson said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Well, if that is true, then the entire Empire today is run by scoundrels.

Religion-inspired, political violence is at the heart of the ideological conflict. But as the British humorist and polymath Sir Peter Ustinov observed: “Terrorism is the war of the poor. And war is the terrorism of the rich.” So what does all of this mean? Was Samuel Huntington right? Is the world on an unavoidable collision course, headed for the fated “Clash of Civilizations?”

Meg Greenfield

It is against this backdrop, and with all of these open queries, that we recall the sagacious comments of Meg Greenfield in 1979, at the height of the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis. She wrote in Newsweek:

We are heading into an expansion of the American relationship with that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam…no part of the world is more important to our own well-being at the moment – and probably for the foreseeable future…[and] no part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us. [Emphasis added.]

Ouch. That is quite an indictment: Stubborn, systematic misinformation–indeed disinformation–can make one hopeless indeed. At a time when 62 individual multi-billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of earth combined, intelligent citizens must ask difficult questions. For example, can it really be true that six media companies own and operate well over 90% of American mass media? ALL of the major film studios, TV channels and cable networks, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and book publishers are owned by just six mega-conglomerates: Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, CBS Corporation, and Viacom. These are the creators of the cognitive frames that dominate our world. They set the parameters of the discourse. They define our perceptions of reality. They control our emotions, our thoughts, our subconsciouses, day to day, moment to moment.

The media’s magical spell is so strong that it can actually cause one who awakens from it to wonder if anything we are told is true at all. This line of questioning has spiritual consequences, to be sure, and can actually lead one down Philosophy’s most popular rabbit hole, to ask: “Is anything real?” The great Sufi mystic Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili taught: “The Sufi sees his own existence like particles of dust, made visible by a ray of sunlight: neither real nor unreal.”

ULTRA-AMERICAN: A PATRIOT ACT is a modest attempt to push back, to explore the above-stated, macro/global themes through micro/local examples, in an attempt to make sense of it all. Armed with nothing but personal stories, reflections, jokes, and funny one-liners, it is the most ambitious creative project of my career. It is a tall order, no doubt. But alas, what choice does an artist have other than to toss a pebble into the ocean, hoping and praying that perhaps it can cause a ripple that will reach the other side of the world? It is a task that should properly be considered next to impossible. But as my standup idol and mentor, Dave Chappelle, taught me: “Next to impossible is the precursor to dope.”

Hope you enjoy the show.