Across the Bay

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Islamic Reform

I came across this article by Brian Whitaker on Juan Cole's site.

The article attempts a "balanced" analysis, correctly cautioning readers not to make quick jumps linking Islam as a religion to the problems facing Muslims today, yet honestly pointing out those problems caused by Muslims to themselves and others.

There are three main points I would like to address that I think Whitaker did not treat properly.

First, concerning the oft-used argument of comparison with Christianity and "Christian" nations, as this paragraph demonstrates:

"Before jumping to conclusions about why this might be, it is worth noting that the same could have been said of Roman Catholic countries about 35 years ago. A look at the world map then would have shown numerous countries, in Latin America, eastern Europe and elsewhere, that had predominantly Catholic populations ruled by authoritarian regimes.

It might have been tempting at the time to suggest a connection between their religion and their politics, but it was more a matter of history and circumstances, and events since then have shown that Catholic countries are as capable of adapting to democracy as any others

Besides the different dynamics between Christianity and Islam and the way they play out in their respective societies, Whitaker neglects a crucial point (which he somewhat tries to pick up on later), namely that Christians since the Enlightenment, have had alternative models to work with, models that have embraced and interacted with modernity, and thus Christians were not restricted intellectually to uncritical and fundamentalist models. These models not only are easily accessible in secular universities (as well as religiously affiliated ones or seminaries) even in Latin America and Eastern Europe or the Middle East, and in easily accessible critical books and journals at any library, but also they have become part of the culture and the Christians' parlance. Such is not the case with regards to the Qur'an in the Islamic world overall. Whitaker acknowledges as much when he says that progressive readings of Islam all originate (or end up) in the diaspora, written mainly in western languages (with the exception of Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid who publishes in Arabic) and not always translated into Arabic. This is not to mention the problem of censorship in the Middle East.

Secondly, there is the issue of "reform emanating from within." While this is partially true, there is something very troubling and dangerous in the way this argument is used. Whitaker mentions Omid Safi's book which I admittedly haven't read. However, take this other book (Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, edited by Richard C. Martin) which deals with the issue of how Islam is approached and taught in western schools. There are some really terrible Occidentalist views in there, that are all too often masked with the excuse of "western colonialsm" or "Orientalism." There are two problems (at least) with this attitude: One, which Whitaker notes, is that this same argument is used by the salafis themselves (see for instance, for Iran, Hazem Saghieh's book Thaqafaat al-Khumayniyya) to demonize anything that comes from "the West."
The second problem is that this is in fact fallacy and hypocrisy. Muslim academics cannot simultaneously ridicule the theory of "clash of civilization" and talk about "dialogue of civilization" while refusing to acknowledge the debt they now have to the west, and that their ideas on reform are at the least a response to the challenge of western modernity. Even talking about finding arguments from within their own tradition is also half-baked, because it does not mention the methods, the Western methods, with which those ancient texts are re-read.
Furthermore, how is adopting that approach (of a reform exclusively from within) any different from what the salafis are doing? Both are reverting to the past, while not acknowledging the debt of the present (in fact both are effectively demonizing it). To all of a sudden hail the Mu'tazala as the islamic equivalent of modern critical scholarship is counterproductive as much as it is inaccurate (not to mention that Orthodox Islam views them as heretics, just as it does Sufis).
Not being able to dissociate the benefits of western culture from colonialism is intellectually dangerous as much as it is infantile. Again, I bring back Michael Young's article on the Napoleonic campaign and the "Arab Renaissance." The 19th c. Nahda would not have taken place had it not been for the encounter with Europe.
Many of those so-called "progressive" Muslim scholars are more "pseudo-progressive" than anything else. You can't keep trying to have it both ways.

Finally, the third point concerns the position which sees "elements of democracy" in many Islamist organizations and in their willingness to use elections and to even recruit women in campaining (imagine that!). As Michael Young once pointed out (I'll have to find that reference again, but it's there!), most of those organizations have no problem using democratic means to reach power. It's another story to see whether they will agree to them when it's time to relinquish it.

We have to move beyond this truly fruitless post-colonialist fixation with the "ugliness" of the western encounter with the East. I don't see any of that talk when discussing the Andalus, even when by all accounts that counts as Islamic colonialism.