Monday, October 31, 2011

Islam as the Solution in the Age of Islamism I: Definition and Motivation

First, I have to define what I mean by "Islamism." Many definitions have been given, of course, but I have to give mine for the rest of my analysis to make sense. My definition of Islamism is the view that "Islam" has something to say about every individual or collective action. This does not really allow me as much wiggle room as you might think. It is an expansive definition because different people and groups will define what constitutes "Islam" differently (some will focus on scripture -- and even then some will focus more on Qur'an than Hadith -- while others may focus on classical -- i.e. premodern scholastic -- opinions and practices, and others still may follow particular contemporary scholars or preachers). However, it is precisely because it is so expansive that it doesn't leave me a lot of wiggle room, because Islamism is thus defined by the individuals' or groups' own choice of what to make "Islamic."

Thus a leftist secularist thinker/politician like Rifaat Al-Said, who has been consistently one of the most outspoken and strongest critics of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would still be Islamist in this view, because he is not opposing MB by denying that "Islam" has a role to play in forming political positions and shaping other behavior. He is merely echoing what many other secularists have decried, which is that (other) "Islamists" want to exercise monopoly on what is "Islamic," i.e. in the words of Khaled Abou El Fadl, that they try to convert the authoritative texts of Islam into a source of authoritarianism by usurping Divine authority. Rifaat Al-Said wrote in his book on Hasan Al-Banna (the MB founder): that his writings on MB are built on the cornerstone view that "terrorism starts as thought الارهاب يبدأ فكرا" when a group chooses a definition of "Islam" (and therefore under my definition adopt a particular flavor of Islamism) and consider that they alone follow the true "Islam" and the "other" is by definition off the correct path. In recounting the events of the early 20th Century, he clearly likes the (undeniably Islamist) thought and modernization program of Al-Afghani and Abduh, and laments the transformation of Rachid Rida from a student of Abduh to an advocate of political Islam, whose thought thus helped to shape the thought processes of MB and modern-day salafists.

I have to admit that I generally agree with Said on this ground: I also like the thought of Abduh and the early Rachid Rida and dislike the mid-20th-century mutation. The important point here, however, is to note that even if one is arguing for getting "Islamic" discourse and political brand names out of politics, as Rifaat Al-Said clearly has been, one is forced to argue on the turf of the Islamists whom he opposes. The argument clearly cannot be settled on humanist grounds, because the Islamists with whom one disagrees would not find the basic premises compelling. Therefore, even the anti-Islamists who have a chance of engagement in the debate are forced to argue from the common grounds they have with various Islamists: Islamic scripture, scholarship, and history. Once that is the reference point, one becomes a different type of "Islamist" according to my definition, because even if the point being made through reference to the sources of "Islam" is that "Islam" does not have a specific opinion on a particular subject (e.g. in politics), one must state that "Islam" (according to their interpretation, of course) has a meta-opinion on the subject, which may very well be to leave the subject to human thought and discourse. Thus, anti-Islamists become Islamists of a different kind, by referring to "Islam" in a different way and at a different level of the discourse, but do not deny an abstract "Islam" at the center of debate. This applies equally to non-Muslims in countries that have become Islamist, including Copts, and even the Coptic Pope, in my native Egypt, who have increasingly argued from Islamic scripture and scholarship to counter the arguments of Islamists with whom they disagree.

My definition may be pleasing or unpleasing, but according to this definition, we certainly live in the age of Islamism, and therefore any solution that has a chance of implementation and/or success must by definition be viewed as "Islam." The statement that "Islam is the solution," the powerful slogan of the MB and its offshoots in various countries, thus becomes tautological under this definition of Islamism and the reality of Middle East societies. The question becomes what "Islam" is the solution. What common grounds can we find whereupon a new social contract can be found to replace the broken one?...


Post a Comment

<< Home