Shadow of the Rhodes: How I Went the Distance to Find Out How Far We Are


I think I first set my sights on a Rhodes Scholarship in Grade 12 as I was graduating high school. I was going through what plenty of teens go through; call it an existentialist crisis, brought on, perhaps, by some of the racial invective I was experiencing. Our parents had homeschooled us from Grade 4 to Grade 12, and I was shocked when fellow students asked me if I was putting a bomb in my locker, or when they whispered, "Sand N***er" as I walked through the hallways (I had apparently missed the memo about post-9/11 realities for Muslims in the confines of our home). That was when I found TS Eliot.

Reading that immortal poet, I was taken aback by the despair of The Wasteland and The Hollow Men, and the incredible power of Four Quartets. I really fell in love, though, not surprisingly, when reading The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I'll never forget sitting in the school library as I read the words "Do I dare disturb the universe?" I flipped to the back of the book, and found out from the brief bio that Eliot had attended Oxford. As a graduating student, I set my goals on attending the institution, but as I did some research, I decided that I wait until the completion of my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, and then apply for a Rhodes Scholarship to take me to Oxford.

I promptly forgot about this dream when I entered university. The amount of knowledge was simply amazing; simultaneously, it was a place where, for the first time, I could talk about Islam with actual scholars. I swiftly abandoned English and the Humanities and drifted into the social sciences, where I entered the political science honors program. We read Plato, Marx, Aristotle, Charles Taylor. I battered away at Derrida, Foucault, and temporarily decided that I was going to carry along in the tradition of post colonial scholars like Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. After a stint learning Arabic in Cairo, I was able to engage with great Muslim scholars in the past, like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah and Imam Al-Ghazzali, and read their texts to discover an incredible scholastic legacy that has largely been ignored in our discussions about Islam today. 

Simultaneously, I trained at nights to get my black belt in Taekwon-do, volunteered, and founded a number of organizations. I discovered a penchant for writing, and traveled to a number of countries to volunteer and write as a freelancer. I won the national Gold Medal in Canada as the best over-all performance candidate in Speech Arts and Drama from the Royal Conservatory of Music. I helped manage pharmacies and took photos in conflict zones. My undergrad experience, then, was an incredible experience of self-examination, study, and learning to help others.

As I began my final year, and as my friends began to talk about grad school and law school, I remembered about the Rhodes Scholarship. I began to ask various professors about the Rhodes Scholarship and whether they would be willing to help me in the process. I was rather stunned, then, when one of my close mentors and friends, a brilliant Jewish historian, told me that applying wasn't necessarily a good idea. I was rather taken aback, "But, with the Rhodes Scholarship, I could pursue critical studies on Islam! I could try to be a voice that moves beyond polemical soap-box stands!"

My professor's eyes glinted at me, and he then began to tell me the history of the Rhodes Scholarship.

Cecil Rhodes was a business magnate, politician, and the founder of the diamond company DeBeers (the company, of course, that made diamonds inextricably linked with marriage in a brilliant marketing campaign). He was also, however, an ardent supporter of British colonialism. Indeed, he made his fortune by extracting diamonds from various African countries in a rather unethical fashion. DeBeers, indeed, became well known for its slave-like conditions of labor. As Rhodes himself said, "We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories". Horribly, the Rhodes Scholarship Fund was built on his estate, inasmuch as Rhodes wanted to create, in a sense, brave and intelligent young men who would continue the great work of Empire-building (women were banned from the Rhodes Scholarship until 1977 when the Rhodes Trust was forced to change its selection criteria by an Act of the British Parliament).

I shrugged off my professor's critique. So what if the Rhodes Scholarship, a hundred years ago, was built on a foundation of slavery and expropriation? If that was the case, I had a moral duty to try to get the Rhodes Scholarship and, in a sense, try to take down the master's house with the master's tools. I would win a Rhodes Scholarship, I promised myself, and write and be active against rampant capitalist and imperialist oppression. There was no way, I thought to myself, that the Rhodes committee would still be colored by Cecil Rhodes' ideological standpoint.

As I applied, I checked the past recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship in Canada. As I read through their profiles, I felt a quickening of my pulse; I could win this. My qualifications were at the very least equal to those of the other candidates. When the President of my University endorsed my application, I ran out of my classroom to call my family. A few days later, as I wrote my final draft of my personal statement, I listed my ideas for a renewed critical examination of the way academics, journalists, and politicians represent "Islam", and the necessary critical examination that Muslims must undertake of so-called "Muslim" countries. I would be the first orthodox Sunni Muslim to win a Rhodes Scholarship in Canada, I promised myself. I would do my country proud.

When I received an invitation to the regional interview for the Rhodes Scholarship, I nearly jumped out of my skin. There would be ten candidates. Three of us would become Rhodes-Scholar Elects, basically guaranteeing a spot as Canada's next Rhodes Scholars. We would have an evening reception, and then an interview the next day that would be the final stage in the journey to become a Rhodes Scholar. I prepared long hours for the interview, practicing with my professors and mentors.

Finally, the day of the reception. I find myself remarkably comfortable, as I speak to other outstanding candidates about the Occupy movement,  Aboriginal rights, and the "Arab Spring". A few of the interviewers from the Rhodes Trust comment positively on my comfort in the setting and on some of my volunteering work. I think I might have a real chance at this.

The next day, though, everything changed. I walked into the board room, smiled, and sat down in front of the interviewers. The first two or three questions about homelessness, Aboriginal representation, and my experiences as a black-belt are sitters. I am starting to get into my groove. Suddenly, then, and for the rest of the interview, I began to be interrogated on my relationship to Islam.

"You talk about the need for respect based on understanding and scholarly exploration. As Tarek Fateh says, though, 'the need for respect' is just a fancy way of you saying that you don't want to beself-critical".

"Mr. Farooq, how has your Islamic education degraded and detracted from your education in general?"

"Do you feel as a Muslim that you can be objective?"

"What is your position on jihad in the West?"

"How will your work, as a Muslim, be relevant in 60 years when Islam is no longer an issue?"

"Have you questioned your faith?"

I realize, as I begin to answer these questions, that I have two real options. I can describe myself as aloof, secular, objective, and a perpetuator of traditional Orientalist ideas about Islam. Or I can try to be honest. I respond with the latter, which turned out to be a mistake, as far as the interview goes.

I argue that critical self-examination is based on respect and analyzing texts on their own terms, that my Islam has not detracted from my education, that while I, as a human subject can never be completely objective, but will strive for the truth at all times. I respond that "jihad" and the "West" are used in incredibly problematic ways, that an Islamic ethical and legal tradition is undeniably important to revive in  a neo-liberal global system, and that I critically question my faith all the time. As the interview ends, I can see from the looks on the faces of the interviewers that they are displeased with my interviewer. I smile wryly as I think of my Jewish professor, and his pain in describing how Oxford was funded on appropriated possessions, some of which certainly came from Jewish populations after the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. In my final comment, I tell the committee how honored I am to be here, how much I would value the opportunity to do a Masters at Oxford, but how I am committed to pursuing my goals of understanding and critical thought in Muslim political thought regardless. As I leave the interview, I know I haven't received  the interview. And it wasn't because the interviewers were racist, Islamophobic, or bigoted. It is simply because the questions they were asking were framed in a particular manner that shows that old, patently false assumptions about Islam are deeply ingrained even among esteemed past Rhodes scholars. The shadow of Cecil Rhodes, then, continues to cast a long shadow that affects the way the interview process is conducted and run.

When I received the phone call that inevitably informed me of the fact that I would not be the next Rhodes-Scholar Elect, I looked up into the night sky on that cold Albertan night. Do I dare disturb the universe? I hang up my cell phone, and realize that even in the complete darkness of the night, there are bright shimmering stars that show us that we can, and that we shall disturb the Universe. It might mean not winning a Rhodes Scholarship. But disturb it we must.

Mustafa Farooq is a fourth year political science honors student and freelance writer at the University of Alberta. His work has appeared in The Edmonton Journal, The Winnipeg Free Press, and The News International.  

Leave a comment