Review of
Umair Muhammad, Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016)

I would recommend to every reader of Confronting Injustice to begin with the “Afterword” on page 163. Here, author Umair Muhammad explains the origins of the book: “I began writing Confronting Injustice during the last year of my life as an undergraduate student. … Taking extra time to finish off my degree and not having many friends around gave me a fair bit of space to reflect on the chapter that was closing in my life.”

This explains a few things, as the book reads indeed like the everything-I-ever-wanted-to-say account of a college activist caught between ongoing enthusiasm for the fight for a better world and encroaching frustration with the fight’s everyday reality. Such a read can be very engaging. A blurb by community organizer Maryama Ahmed says about the book that “I wasn’t even halfway done before I wanted to share it with everyone I knew”, and I’m sure this was a genuine sentiment. For others, encountering zillions of topics on less than 200 pages – the ecological crisis, the history of colonialism, modern individualism, the rise of al-Shabab, or Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save are just a few of them – without any apparent attempt to tie them together or offer central arguments might be less enthralling. I suppose it depends on your own political biography, the circles you move in, and the kind of literature you like to read.

Personally, I found Muhammad’s link between a “crisis of activism” and the “age of individualism” most promising. Much of what he points out is valid: social structures must not be ignored, NGOs are riddled with problems, and the individual-vs-society divide is harmful. Unfortunately, Muhammad then mainly launches into a critique of consumer-based politics without, for example, ever raising the question of how the individualization of our lives undermines effective organizing, which is where I see activism’s crisis at its most urgent. In an even more puzzling manner, the interesting promise of a critique of identity politics in the “Afterword” turns into a bashing of bell hooks of all people.

I’m afraid I didn’t get that much out of Confronting Injustice, but that’s just me. And even for me the book had its moments, for example when Muhammad describes the consequences of electronic devices accompanying our every move, which doesn’t just impact our social interaction but also prohibits us from finding “space and time to think”. Other readers, I’m sure, will find their moments – if they don’t give the book a chance, they’ll never find out.

(January 2017)