Across the Bay

Monday, July 26, 2004

The End of Islam?

Notorious Islamist Azzam Tamimi wrote a review of Khaled Abou El Fadl et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy in The Daily Star that is really important to read. Not that I am an admirer of Tamimi -- the opposite is true -- but he has made a couple of honest statements and one careful distinction between liberalism and democracy from which other Islamists usually (deliberately or not) shy away.

Here's what I think is the core statement of the entire review:

"Democracy is seen by these Islamic thinkers as consisting of two components: a cultural aspect that is incompatible with Islam and a procedural aspect that Muslims can learn and benefit from. There is no way the liberal secularist component of democracy can be espoused by the Muslims because it contradicts the essence of their faith. It is simply a case of two directly opposed world views: in the Islamic view divine revelation is the source of reference whereas in the liberal tradition man is self-referential. It is therefore a futile effort to try and re-formulate Islam in order to espouse liberalism; this would simply be the end of Islam as a divine revelation."

Of course you have your usual stock of confused analogies, like those we've seen with Qaradawi. For instance, the conflation of Shura and Sharia with political participation and rule of law.

You also have your share of hypocrisies (I'm leaving aside the many infuriating distortions for the sake of my and your blood pressure!), such as this statement here:

"There is no reference in either his prologue or his epilogue to the many broken promises of liberal democracy or to the undeniable historical link between the most liberal democratic nations and imperialism.

The hypocrisy should be obvious, as Islam has practiced nothing but imperialism throughout its lifespan!

This is coupled with the usual pathological victimology and shift of agency:

"However, that decline and growing inferiority to the West was later enforced by colonialism and is now sustained by a world order that claims to be liberal and democratic under the leadership of the US.

My own research, (see "Rachid Ghannouch:i A Democrat Within Islamism," OUP), argues that the world order, the modern territorial state and the policy of enforced secularization are the real culprits for democracy's absenteeism in the Muslim world.

And this is of course solved by the classic Islamist cure-all:

"But that decline, in my view (and it is a view shared by many in the Muslim world), was the product of deviation from rather than adherence to the true path of Islam."

But all this nonsense aside, I noticed that these Islamists simply cannot break with their Islamic outlook when dealing with democracy. For example, take how Tamimi and Khan talk about "democracy in theory" and "democracy in practice." This dichotomy so resembles their own (faulty) essentialist postulations on Islam (hence the often-used label: "true Islam", which of course is a false premise). This all comes from the position of holding the Quran to be literally the immutable eternal divine Truth on one hand, and the interpretations of human beings, which are relative (although the issue of Sunna is problematic here) on the other. Of course anyone with half a brain realizes the problem of how to access the immutable Truth (bear with me here!) without the interpretive faculties of men and women! If the Truth (assuming of course there is such a thing) is accessible in an essentialist sense, then there should be no dichotomy, but naturally there is! This is all in complete contrast to democracy as a messy, historical, and thoroughly human endeavor. It's not static, it's dynamic. It's a work in progress. It's anti-utopian. So to me, hearing the categories of "theory" and "praxis" is too platonic to bear! It's a theological framework. It misses the whole point of democracy. That's the same reason why I reject Shura and Sharia as analogies with democracy. The former are theological terms and forcing them is little more than a theologizing of democracy (similar to Cole's "sacralization of learning" and Faruqi's "Islamization of knowledge").

There's also a fundamental paradox. If Tamimi is throwing out the baby with the bath water by connecting America to liberal democracy (theory and practice), then he should throw out Islamic democracy with its Muslim incarnations! This is why he and his likes need the problematic dichotomy of "true Islam" vs. "Muslim practice," or "theory and praxis." It's an absolutist theory that denies the primacy of rational interpretation. But then again, such is the state of Sunni Islam anyway! Tamimi is criticizing Abou El Fadl precisely for dismissing this entire way of thinking:

"Abou El Fadl declares 'absolute' Sharia is impossible to implement because it can always be re-interpreted."

In the end Tamimi did us all a favor by verbalizing what any one with a brain knew. Now if only those trying to square the circle would take heed. If you're going to approach Islam or religion from an essentialist perspective, you'll hit a dead end.

Now people should have a lot to think about whenever they hear these oft-repeated clichés:

"The cause of democracy in the Muslim lands has not been served by this publication, which will only be seen by Muslims as another attempt to undermine their religion. It is as if Muslims have to buy the commodity of democracy at the cost of their own faith and culture or (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) at the cost of their own freedom and dignity. If democracy is indeed compatible with Islam, and this is what most Muslims today believe the case to be, then the last thing Muslims need to be told is that they need to abandon both their culture and their faith in order to be democratic. For it is a lie, and a lie which undermines the cause of democracy in the Muslim world."

What Islamists really think is that their "pure," divine, and eternal system is obviously superior, and consequently is in no need of reform. That system should be the corrective to all others, including democracy, just like it was a corrective to all previous religions and ideologies (so Cole's relativistic, Baha'i-inspired "universe of Prophets" -- see posts "Sacrilicious" and "Cole Nidre" below-- is nothing more than a fantasy that would make Tamimi laugh hard, especially if he recognized its Baha'i overtones!)

So, while frog man Chirac believes that the Islamic world is in no need for "missionaries of democracy," Tamimi, while wholeheartedly agreeing with him on that one, firmly believes that the democratic world (especially the French laïcité) desperately needs "missionaries of Islam."