Friday, 31 December 2010

Meccan Openings? Islam's Holy City at the Mercy of Urban Developers

The New York Times is carrying an article by Nicolai Ouroussoff, with a biting criticism of the architectural monstrosity which is disfiguring the holiest city in Islam. With the blessing of Saudi Arabia's government, an eyesore called Abraj al-Bayt in Arabic and referred to as the 'Mecca Royal Clock Hotel Tower' has been constructed on a hill near the Haram al-Sharif or Great Mosque. According to Ouroussoff:
It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.
Abraj al-Bayt Towers in Mecca
Ouroussoff is not alone in his rejection,  he is joined by Sami Angawi , a Saudi architect who founded a research center that studies urban planning issues surrounding the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and has been one of the development’s most vocal critic. Mincing no words, he has called it  “It is the commercialization of the house of God.” Angawi also features in another piece on this Arabian nightmare.

Dr Sami Anqawi
In Ourousssof's assessment:
The city’s makeover reflects a split between those who champion turbocharged capitalism and those who think it should stop at the gates of Mecca, which they see as the embodiment of an Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. “We don’t want to bring New York to Mecca,” Mr. Angawi said. “The hajj was always supposed to be a time when everyone is the same. There are no classes, no nationalities. It is the one place where we find balance. You are supposed to leave worldly things behind you.”
The government, however, seems unmoved by such sentiments. When I mentioned Mr. Angawi’s observations at the end of a long conversation with Prince Sultan, the minister of tourism and antiquities, he simply frowned. “When I am in Mecca and go around the kaaba, I don’t look up.”
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud
  This from the man who once hitched a ride on the Space Shuttle.....

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

New Journal on Islamic and Social Sciences

IUR Press, the publishing arm of the Netherlands-based Islamic University Rotterdam (IUR) has launched a new academic journal. The maiden issue of the Journal of Rotterdam Islamic and Social Sciences (JRISS) was released recently. According to the journal homepage, IUR seeks to corner part of the higher education market catering to Muslim chaplains and moral guides, which was increasingly appropriated by the secular universities. The university sees it as its task to help educate and integrate Muslims into Dutch society through programmes taught by both Muslims and non-Muslims (see the podcasts of lectures (in Dutch) on such topics as the Mu'tazila and Hadith criticism broadcast by uirtv). The journal was founded as an outlet for the university's research findings and to act as a bridge between the Muslim world and Western countries by impacting on public opinion and engage in public debates.

Although the university and its journal appear to be initiatives primarily run by educationists of Turkish origin, cooperation with non-Muslims is also reflected in the composition of the journal's international advisory board, which includes scholars such as Professor Colin Turner of Durham University, Karel Steenbrink, Emeritus Professor of intercultural theology at Utrecht University and for many years associated with Indonesia's Islamic State Universities (UIN) in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and Dr. Jan Peters, an Islamicist and former vice-chancellor of Radboud University Nijmegen, who also serves on IUR's supervisory board. The university's principal (or 'rector' in Dutch), Prof. Dr. Ahmet Akgündüz, is the journal's editor-in-chief.

Aside from an editorial and keynote article by the chief editor, the first issue contains contributions by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars on the Qur'an and on the origins of Islam, Islamic law (Maqasid al-Shari'a or objectives of Islamic law; Islamic law of tort), and Sufism (the notion of dhikr; and articles on the ideas and works of Said Nursi and Muhyiddin Ibn al-'Arabi).

The journal website contains a very extensive and useful list of links to academic societies, institutions, universities, and journals dealing with Islam and the Muslim world or religious studies worldwide, as well as organizations active in the integration of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands and in the field of interfaith dialogue.

Friday, 19 November 2010


On 16 November 2010, four US-based scholars launched the Society of Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCTIW). Alina Gharabegian, Seema Golestaneh, Jason Mohaghegh, and Lucian Stone want to 'promote new directions in scholarship and creative activities related to the interface of Eastern and Western movements' by establishing a multi-disciplinary network of 'professional academics representing a diverse array of fields'. This diversity is already reflected by the backgrounds of the initiators, New Jersey City University Assistant-Professors Gharabegian and Mohaghegh work in the fields of English literature and World literature respectively, but their interests also include contemporary Armenian literature, 'Middle Eastern interpretations of the elegy', and contemporary avant-garde circles in the Middle East. Seema Golestaneh is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Columbia University working on contemporary Sufism in Iran (see also the post of  27 August on this blog). Stone, now an Assistant-Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota is not only a specialist on the philosopher Simone Weil, but was also involved in the Library of Living Philosophers project, contributing to the volume on the Iranian-born thinker Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Although its geographical remit indicates that the society wishes to showcase developments in the Islamicate world, the Society regards it as 'a kind of limitless zero-world, a vast territory of thought, experience, and imagination'. This open interpretation combined with the involvement of scholars not confined by the philological-historical inclinations which for so long determined the way Islam and the Muslim world was studied holds great potential of innovative and original ways of engaging with the pluralist civilizational heritage of the Muslim world.

At present membership is free, to register click here.

For a flavour of what might be in store for the future, here are some of the publications by members of the steering committee:

:New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East: The Chaotic Imagination (Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World)Relevance of the Radical: Simone Weil 100 Years LaterPhilosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Library of Living Philosophers Series)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


LSE IDEAS, the centre for the study of diplomacy, international affairs and strategy at the London School of Economics, hosted a seminar on Islam and the State: A Southeast Asian Perspective, featuring Dr. Bahtiar Effendy, a lecturer at State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta, with Prof. Gilles Kepel, Director of the Moyen/Orient/Méditerranée Programme at Sciences Po in Paris and holder of the Phillipe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, acting as discussant, and Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, head of the Southeast Asia International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, in the chair.

Dr Effendy's talk was largely based on his book Islam and the State in Indonesia (2003), a published verion of his PhD thesis at Ohio State University, defended in 1994. Notwithstanding the fact that Indonesia's political landscape has changed unrecognizably since the fall of Soeharto's New Order Regime, Effendy's study has only been updated with a relatively brief  'post-script' containing just a summary discussion of developments from 1999 to 2000. While earlier parts of the book contain valuable discussions of the role of a new Muslim intelligentsia in creating the 'New Islamic Intellectualism' of the 1970s and 1980s, which transformed the debate on religion and politics from a legal-formalist and exclusivist into a substantialist and inclusivist discourse, there is no mention of the rise of two ensuing generations of Muslim intellectuals, consisting of scholars from the State Islamic Universities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta (including Effendy himself) and younger intellectual-activists connected through networks such as the Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL, Liberal Islam Network) or associated with the young cadres of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), referred to as NU Muda. Part heirs, part critics of the pioneers of this substantialist Islamic discourse they have been instrumental in the further shaping of an Indonesian variant of Islamic civil society.

Dr Bahtiar Effendy
Also from Effendy's presentation it was difficult to get a clear sense of where he sees Indonesia going. Having identified the early twentieth-century, the end of the Cold War, and post-9/11 as three key moments when the discussion of the relation between Islam and modernity and between religion and politics became particularly acute, he then restricted his discussion primarily to the domestic Indonesian context. 

Throughout the Soekarno and Soeharto years, Islamic political parties were considered as potential contenders for political power and were therefore clamped down on. Only in the 1950s, when a system that can be described as liberal and democratic was allowed to briefly flourish, were Islamic parties able to profile themselves uninhibitedly. This was reflected by their unsurpassed success in the 1955 elections, when the four Islamic parties together received 43% of the vote --- still, not a majority in a country that is 85-90% Muslim. Evidently, even then, large segments of Indonesia's Muslim intelligentsia did not want Islam as the basis for statehood.

The New Order Regime approached the Islam with the same suspicion as Soekarno had in the 1940s and during the 'Guided Democracy' of his later years. Islamic Parties were generally reduced to an outsider role in the political process  It was not until the 1970s, when this earlier mentioned new generation of intellectuals and technocrats formulated a non-formalist alternative Islamic discourse. Because it was no longer regarded as explicitly anti-state the state allowed more room for this kind of activism. In fact, the Muslim intelligentsia were not only co-opted in the government's development policies; eventually the state itself saw the usefulness of religion for driving its own objectives. and began boosting its own Islamic credentials. The power of Islamic courts was strenghtened in regards to personal and family law, the country began experimenting with Islamic banking, and the government established a kind of Islamic think tank, the 'Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals' (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim se-Indonesia, ICMI), led by Minister of Technology and later Vice-President and President B.J. Habibie.

In the democratic transformation that followed the fall of Soeharto in 1998, more than 181 new political parties emerged, of which 42 bore an Islamic or Islamist signature. It also spelled the return of the legal-formalist political and religious discourse. There was a sense of deja-vu, as it became clear that the Islamic parties still bore a historical stigma, according to Effendy. The majority of the Muslims preferred a substantialist understanding over the legalist interpretations associated with political Islam. As an explanation for this hesitation, Effendy suggests that three factors played a role: the fear it may thwart Muslim social mobility, the fragmentation of the community due to the competition between a plethora of Islamic parties, and the sense of alienation felt by younger generations of Muslims, who never experienced the struggles during the first fifty years of independence. Again, elections results reflected these sentiments. Between 1968 and 1998 support for Islamic parties oscillated between 15 and 30%. In the three free elections that have been held since then the Islamic parties received 37% (1999), 38% (2004) and 24% (2009) of the votes.

Effendy concludes that the intellectual transformation effectuated between 1970 and 1990 still dominates at the expense of the advocates of a legal-formalist Islamic model: The Jakarta Charter of 1945 (forcing Muslim citizens to abide by Islamic law) was never inserted into the constitution and only select elements of Islamic law have been implemented. As long as Muslim politicians do not disrupt the idea of a nation state they wuill be allowed some maneuvering space, but the exact place of Islamic principles in the political constellation is still not defined. Whereas Effendy expresses the hope that political and religious elites will reach an appropriate settlement, he gives no indication what such an agreement should encompass. Nor did he tell anything about the vibrant intellectual milieu in which younger scholars, intellectual-activists, and writers current discuss possible scenarios for a future civil Islam.

Prof Gilles Kepel
As the author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel responded by providing a wider context by drawing on examples from other parts of the Muslim world. Comparing developments in Indonesia with those in Turkey and Algeria, he sees similarities in the implicit association of Islam by its detractors as threatening to the nation-state and a step backwards, or their use of political Islam as the scapegoat hampering state-building and development. However, when political opponents of authoritarian regimes want to challenge the incumbents they often opt for employing an 'Islamic vocabulary', although this must not be automatically equated with legal-formalist aspirations. 

In the same vein, Kepel further suggests that Turkish civil society-building has more of a 'Muslim' dimension than that it envisages an Islamic -- let alone Islamist -- agenda. It is important to acknowledge the sheer diversity of Islamic discourses, with civil society movements on one end and totalitarian Islamist ideologies on the other end of the spectrum. Given this multitude of voices, the questions to ponder are: Who controls Islamic discourse?; Why do so many different groups feel the need to take recourse to rhetoric coated in Islamic idiom and symbolism?; What are the reasons for the resurgence of cultural Islam? Returning to the Indonesian situation, Kepel ventured the speculation that, notwithstanding all the criticisms, whether there is not something to Clifford Geertz's  (in)famous taxonomy  distinguishing between between Santri (pious, practicing Muslims) and Abangan (syncretic Javanese belief and practices professing nominal allegiance to Islam).

In response to a query whether aside from the legal-formalist aspirations of Islamic parties and the substantialist view of the proponents of cultural or civil Islam, there are no initiatives on the part of Muslim activists to address other 'substantial' issues such as economic developments, generic human rights, justice etc., Effendy claimed that this was not the case. According to him, those driving the Islamic agendas continue to subscribe to legal-formalist interpretations focussing on ritual practice and symbolism. The Chair Dr. Munir Majid doubted whether this is so. Invoking the distinction between the Islamic notions of  fard ayn (individual obligations) and fard kifaya (collective obligations), he admitted the former tend to be overamplified, but the later offer a vehicle for social activism and civil society building.

Yours truly was also surprised that Effendy did not recognize the remarkable parallels, rightly noted by Kepel,  between the historical trajectories in Indonesia and Turkey (apart from an anecdotal reference to the personal friendship of ex-President Habibie with former Turkish Prime Minister Erbakan --dating back to their student years in Germany). Perhaps it is a lack of familiarity with developments in the latter country, that prevented Effendy from detecting the undeniable commonalities in the Indonesian and Turkisch experiences with Islam in the public sphere and the accommodation of religion and politics. 

In spite of his discussion of  the intellectual trends circulating among Indonesian Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s, Effendy's presentation missed an updated account of developments during the past turbulent decade and failed to venture beyond a narrow focus on the issue of statehood and Islamic parties role in the formal political process, and unpack the development of substantialist Islamic discourse. For an intellectual from a generation who can be considered to have inherited the legacy of 1970s New Islamic Intellectualism he almost seemed disenchanted and having doubts whether it had all been worth the effort..

Friday, 29 October 2010


Routledge has included my review of Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion in its selection for the American Academic of Religion (AAR) Article Collection, which will be featured at the upcoming Annual Convention of the (AAR) in Atlanta from 30 October to 1 November 2010. The review is freely accessible until 31 December by clicking on the banner below.

For more information on Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Andrew B. Irvine click on the image below.

 Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Assessing Sayyid Qutb: The Importance of 'Thick Description'

In a recent lecture at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics on the prominent Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), Dr. John Calvert, Associate Professor of History at Creighton University and an expert on radical Islamism, stressed the importance of taking into account the complex identity of such figures associated with political Islam, especially in view of caricaturistic representations in the media coverage of this phenomenon.

Although radical Islamist ideologies and their exponents are not within the ambit of this blog, as it seeks to introduce 'critical Muslims' provided alternative visions of the place of religion in the Muslim world, a number of remarks made by John Calvert in his talk at LSE merit mention here -- as they can be considered helpful in acquiring a more balanced and nuanced impression of the multilayered personality of Sayyid Qutb. Not least also because the impact of his ideas on contemporary Islamic discourse can hardly be exaggerated. Moreover, when taking into consideration the full width of his intellectual legacy, Sayyid Qutb can be considered as a 'critical Muslim' in his own right, notwithstanding the vast differences between his vision and the outlook of other progressive and though-provoking intellectuals with more liberal dispositions.

To understand what motivated individuals such as Sayyid Qutb, and those present-day and equally controversial exponents of Islamic radicalism and extremism who draw their inspiration in no small measure from his writings, a degree of empathy for their way of looking at the world is required, if we are to get even an inkling of what makes such activists (including those perpetrating despicable acts of violence) tick. In order to account for both 'the objective circumstances and subjective experiences' of a figure like Sayyid Qutb, Dr Calvert argues that it is necessary to engage in 'thick description' --- a term used by one of America's leading anthropologists of the late 20th century, the late Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), who applied this approach to his own research in the field of the anthropology of religion.

No matter how controversial the ideas they expound may be or how objectionable the actions they perpetrate or condone, if we are to comprehend the authors of radical Islamist discourses and make sense of what they stand for, these Islamist ideologues and activists must be studied on their own terms.

 In the case of Sayyid Qutb this evinces a gnostic disposition that suffuses all his writings, including the radicalized ones of the final years of  his life, which -- as as it was cut short by his execution in 1966 -- has left us with what Calvert refers to as an 'open-ended Islamism'. This in my view very apt characterization points at one of the most problematic aspects of Sayyid Qutb's Islamist ideology -- namely what his often self-proclaimed heirs have done with his legacy. It raises important questions as to the extent to which authors can be held responsible for what others say or claim to do in their name or on the basis of their writings.

In the course of his presentation, Dr Calvert explained how the doctrinal anchorage of Sayyid Qutb's ideas regarding the need for a radical transformation of Egypt, and indeed all Muslim societies, was grounded in his abiding interest in humankind's spiritual disposition and his personal preoccupation with the Transcendent. It was on these grounds that Sayyid Qutb consistently argued that Muslim identity eventually trumped all other loyalties or human associations.

The transformation of a bookish writer preoccupied with literary and broader cultural interests into a radicalized political-religious ideologue must, according to Calvert, be primarily attributed to the torture Sayyid Qutb suffered  at the hands of the Nasser Regime during his lengthy incarceration between 1954 and 1964 . It was this life-changing experience that is presented as an explanation for Sayyid Qutb's shift from his discussions of the dichotomy separating a spiritual East from a materialist West towards another binary opposing 'true Muslims' to those sleepwalking through existence with the false consciousness associated with the state of 'Jahiliyya'. Originally referring to a specific period in Arab history, namely the time prior to the mission of Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur'an, Sayyid Qutb interpreted it as a primordial disposition afflicting those unfamiliar with the true meaning of the Islamic teachings. Contrary to many of those appealing to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the man himself did not take the step of condemning individual Muslims as infidels or apostates, but used it as a notion describing the collective state of mind in which contemporary Muslim communities find themselves.

For a detailed account of this fascinating figure of modern and contemporary Islamic thinking, read John Calvert's latest book: Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (For more information click on the image below).

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia/Hurst) 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010): Trailblazer for new approaches to the study of Islam

After Mohammed Abid al-Jabiri (cf. blog post of 16 May 2010) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (cf. blogpost 6 July 2010), a third innovative Muslim intellectual has just passed away as well. Mohammed Arkoun died yesterday in Paris at the age of 82.

Carool Kersten with Mohammed Arkoun (London, October 2009)

An Algerian Berber educated in French and Arabic in Oran and Algiers, in 1954 Arkoun moved to France in for postgraduate studies. In Paris, he studied under eminent scholars such as Jacques Berque, Robert Brunschvig, Louis Massignon and Paul Ricoeur, while his teaching duties in Strasbourg brought him into contact with Claude Cahen, who in turn introduced Arkoun to the historians of the Annales School, which had emerged in that city a quarter of a century earlier. This proved to be a revelation which left an indelible mark on Arkoun's scholarship. Notions like the 'history of mentalities' and the 'unthinkable' developed by the school's founders Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, or Braudel's conceptualization of the Mediterranean as a 'geo-historical space' found their way into Arkoun's pioneering historiographies of Islamic thought.

Coinciding with the Algerian war of independence and the student uprisings of 1968, Arkoun's postgraduate studies overlap with the Aufbruch of the French political, cultural and academic scene. His years as a doctoral student  are also framed by global events like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring twelve years later, thus matching almost exactly with what Patricia O'Brien has called 'the milestone dates in the chronology of dislocation’ characterizing the intellectual upheaval in the postwar era.

In his subsequent scholarship, which must primarily be regarded as setting a new agenda for the study of Islam as a field of scholarly inquiry, Arkoun has drawn from across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences, using the latest advances made in the Western -- and in particular the French -- academe. Aside from the Annales school,  the structural linguistics and anthropology developed by Saussure, Benveniste and Levi-Strauss, the semiotics of Greimas, the sociology and political philosophy of Cornelius Castoriades, Foucault's discursive formations, as well as his archaeologies of knowledge and power, or Derrida's poststructuralist deconstructions; have all left their traces in Arkoun's rethinking of Islamic studies. 

Initially conceived as a 'Critique of Islamic Reason', he moved on to a more constructive proposition for a new research programme for studying Islam and the Muslim world. Presented under the name 'Applied Islamology'., this project envisaging a collaborative effort requiring the participation of international teams of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, was not only inspired by the French ethnographer Roger Bastide's 'Applied Anthropology', but also informed by the Luso-Tropicology (Tropicalism) of the Brazilian social scientist Gilberto Freyre. 

Arkoun's ability to draw all these different strings and strands of thought together into a coherent whole betrays the influence from yet another of his intellectual mentors, Paul Ricoeur. Just as the latter's generous or charitable interpretations had enabled him to reconcile conflicting philosophical positions on knowledge and understanding, Arkoun adhered to a similar catholic approach. Following his master through the 'narrow gate' of structural-linguistic analysis, Arkoun's insistence that 'accurate description must precede interpretation; but interpretation cannot be attempted today without a rigorous analysis, using linguistics, semiotic, historical, and anthropological tools’, reflects Ricoeur's hermeneutic adage that 'to explain more is to understand better'.

In the final years of his career, Arkoun repeatedly expressed regret that his methodological suggestions often fell on deaf ears among scholars of Islam. But that did not deter him the least. In fact, in the last ten years or so, he actually expanded his horizons from the study of Islamic thought to a critique of all forms of reason and rational thinking, proposing an almost Kantian philosophical recalibration, which he called the 'Emerging Reason Project' and continued to advocate and propagate until the very end.

Last year, in October 2009, the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London organized a symposium in honour of Arkoun's efforts to renew the study of Islam (cf. blog post of 11 October 2009). For links to some of Arkoun's publications, click on the images below.

Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon AnswersIslam: To Reform or to Subvert?The Unthought In Contemporary Islamic ThoughtLa Pensée arabeL'IslamMohammed Arkoun

Friday, 27 August 2010

Scholars of Religion Discuss Alternative Islamic Discourses

The recently held conference of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) featured a panel on 'Alternative Islamic Discourses and the Question of Authority'. Hosted by the University of Toronto, the IAHR's 20th world congress was dedicated to religion as a human phenomenon. As part of the academic programme, Dr. Susanne Olsson of Södertörn University and current chair of the Swedish Association for the History of Religions and Dr Carool Kersten, lecturer in Islamic Studies at King's College London, convened a panel that brought together seven scholars from universities in Sweden, Britain, and the United States, to introduce and discuss innovative ways of engaging with Islam as a religious and cultural tradition which are currently developed in different parts of the Muslim world.

Conveners Susanne Olsson and Carool Kersten
Co-convener Susanne Olsson examined the influence of the Egyptian TV preacher Amr Khaled. Her presentation focused on the careful trajectory he must navigate in the tense political-religious climate of Egypt and the wider contemporary Muslim world . His interpretation of Islam could be described as promoting a personal piety and an individualistic understanding of responsibilities and duties. This has made him a potential threat to both the Egyptian regime as well as representatives of the so-called Establishment Islam. He also faces the challenge of having to negotiate between the demands of Islamic tradition and a globalizing world confronted with the complexities of modernity and secularisation. This forces Amr Khaled to accommodate his reinterpretation of Islam in a way that can be regarded as authentically Islamic while avoiding accusations of innovation and Westernisation.

Nida Kirmani
Nida Kirmani from the University of Birmingham has expanded her fieldwork in India to other parts of the Muslim world in order to assess the extent in which Islam can play a role in the advocacy of women's rights.  Although the promotion of women's rights tends to be regarded as a 'secular enterprise', Kirmani argues that various forms of 'Islamic feminism' have been emerging in the last two decades: A variety of non-governmental organisations and members of women's movements have drawn on these ideas and have, either by necessity or choice, begun to engage with Islamic discourses and actors in their efforts to promote women's rights on a variety of issues, especially in relation to reproductive rights and family laws.

Ann Kull
The phenomenon of 'Islamic feminism' was further explored by Ann Kull of Lund University, in a paper on gender-sensitive interpretations of Islam in Indonesia. Part of the discursive framework of Islamisation processes emerging in the 1980s, the Indonesian variant is firmly rooted in the country's 'cultural Islamisation' as opposed to the explicitly politicized versions developing elsewhere. Moreover, its liberal characteristics are informed by the emphasis on context in the interpretation of religious texts, while the level of penetration in society is also aided by the particularities of Indonesia's system of higher Islamic education and the relatively high levels of participation by women.

Carool Kersten
Remaining in Indonesia, Carool Kersten's introduction of  the country's Islamic Post-Traditionalists builds on his earlier research into new Muslim intellectualism emerging in the final decades of the 20th century. At the start of the new millennium, an upcoming generation of intellectuals with a dual secular-religious education began presenting an alternative to existing indigenous Indonesian Islamic traditionalism, transnational currents of revivalism in both its moderate and radical manifestations, and classical Islamic reformism and modernism represented by the heirs of figures like Muhammad Abduh. Born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this new generation even challenges the synthesis of Islamic modernism and traditionalism developed by their immediate predecessors, such as Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005)  and Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009). Steeped in poststructuralism and postcolonial studies, these upcoming intellectuals use the ideas of the French-Algerian historian of Islamic thought Mohammed Arkoun (cf. the blog entry of 11 October 2009), the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (blog entry 16 May 2010), and the Egyptian text critic and semiotician Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (blog entry 6 July 2010), as well as Western thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida to subject all forms of Islamic thought to a rigorous discourse critique reflecting the primacy they accord to epistemological concerns, as opposed to the political considerations dominating other strands of contemporary Islamic discourses.

Seema Golestaneh
The afternoon session of the panel was opened by Seema Golestaneh,  a PhD candidate at Columbia University in New York, who discussed the role of Sufism in the development of modernist Islamic discourse in Iran. The focus of her research is on poetry reading groups associated with the Nimatullahi Order, the leading Sufi order in the Shi'ite parts of the Muslim world. In her talk she signaled the paradox of a move towards the esoteric, stressing the the inward -- some would even call it the a-social and a-political -- which in the context of the Iranian Islamic republic has nevertheless important socio-political consequences. Based on her fieldwork in Tehran, Isfahan and Kerman, she argues that the collected data provide valuable insights in the significance of personal interpretations of texts, which stand in contrast to more standardized orthodox practices of Usuli Shi'ism. The experience of intuitive knowledge or erfan offers not a neutral form of mystical or otherwise passive disengagement from the world, but a type of critical practice that simultaneously engages with the personal, social and metaphysical realms. Sufi poetry groups can thus be said to act as points of convergence between religion, literature and identity, offering an unique entry point into current manifestations of modernity in Iran.

Anne Ross Solberg
Moving from Iran to Turkey, the contribution of Anne Ross Solberg, who is completing a doctorate at Södertörn University, looks into the somewhat eccentric author and preacher Adnan Oktar, who uses the pen name Harun Yahya for his publications. Under this alias he has developed into one of the most visible Muslim proponents of creationism. Helped by a staff of researchers he has built up a prodigious internet presence in which he seeks to debunk Darwin's evolution theory, arguing it is an ideological tool for the spread of philosophical materialism and atheism.  He calls for Muslim unity under Turkish leadership to counter the continued propagation of what he insists is a defunct scientific theory only upheld through Masonic manipulations. Yahya's creationism is combined with an alternative Islamic eschatology placing himself and Turkey at the centre of a pre-millenarian narrative. In her presentation Anne Solberg posits Yahya/Oktar as an exponent of a new Muslim intelligentsia challenging the authority of 'establishment Islam'. His success is not based on academic credentials but rests on a combination of personal charisma, the effective use of new media and sophisticated marketing techniques. Orthodox and traditional authority figures find themselves struggling in how to counter such alternative discourses.

Zeki Saritoprak, incumbent of the Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies at Cleveland's John Carroll University, closed this series of presentations with an assessment of Muslim reactions to Fethullah Gülen and the eponymous movement (cf. also the blog entries of 12 June 2010 and  8 May 2010). The objective of his paper was to shed some light on the nature of the movement and the environment in which it arose in order to understand the perspectives of those who consider the movement and its purported leader as a threat. Special attention was paid to recent claims that Turkey, or rather Turkish secularism, is in a state of crisis and the role of the Gülen movement in that alleged crisis situation. Assessments of the movements objectives and influence vary greatly; where Le Monde presented it as the largest Islamic movement in the world, Zaman Today -- a leading English-language newspaper in Turkey with links to the movement -- hailed it as a great contributor to the strengthening of the country's democratic process, while others -- such as Newsweek, Foreign Policy and the Middle East Forum expressed concerns of its threat to secularism. In reviewing these various aspects, Saritoprak endeavoured to come to a more balanced understanding of what is undeniably a very influential movement in a country that is positioning itself increasingly as a key player in the Muslim world, strategically located between the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia.

Zeki Saritoprak
  It is envisaged that the various contributions to this panel will be published in an edited volume dedicated to the development of new ways of critical engagement with Islam's religious and cultural legacy emerging in various parts of the contemporary Muslim world.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Two Faces of Turkey's "Neo-Ottoman" Revival

In spite of its domestic and international political successes, the AKP-led government of Turkey still faces a fair degree of suspicion regarding its real objectives. Even though there are no concrete indications, let alone evidence, accusations of having a secret agenda for the Islamization of Turkey crop up regularly -- not least in other parts of the Muslim world, where the country's rising profile on the world scene appears to breed a degree of envy; its tangible achievements in democratizing the government system and economic development during the last decade stand in stark contrast with the track record of most of the rest of the Muslim world. In the international arena, Turkey has deployed diplomatic initiatives to improve its relations with its neighbours and mediated in conflicts such as Iran's nuclear question (see also my post of 12 June 2010 and 8 May 2010). But the political and economic drive of the AKP also has casualities.

Indicative are two articles appearing at the same time on the Qantara website, the Germany-based news service about the Muslim world.

In an interview cultural historian Gerhard Schweizer points out that:
Erdogan is trying – as no other Turkish Prime Minister before him – to make use of the strategic value of being the only Muslim country to maintain close relations with Western states and Israel on the one hand, and Arab states and Iran on the other. This gives Turkey the opportunity to act as a mediator, both between Syria and Israel and between Iran and the United States.
 In response to a question why Pesident Abdullah  Gül  prefers Turkey to be 'a leading nation in the Islamic world than bringing up the rear in the West', Schweizer observed that: 
[he] is seen as a staunch advocate of Turkish entry into the EU. He proved this convincingly during his time as Foreign Minister. His words indicate a certain disappointment that many European countries are delaying entry talks; some are even blocking it altogether. Germany under Angela Merkel and France under Nicolas Sarkozy play a more ambivalent role.
As for the reactions elsewhere in the Muslim world:
The Arab states and Iran are observing Turkey's growing involvement in the Islamic realm with mixed feelings. On the one hand they welcome the fact that Turkey, which until now has maintained ties strictly with the West, is now also seeking to establish contacts with its Eastern neighbours whom the West regards with mistrust, and in doing so it is raising their international standing. On the other hand, though, its relations with these countries are burdened by the weight of history.
Schweizer maintains that the AKP under Erdogan has consistently navigated a pragmatic course: 
It would be completely mistaken to believe that Turkey's greater political opening towards to its Muslim neighbours is motivated by religion. It is not their common religion that leads to rapprochement among the Muslim states but their common strategic interests. [...] However, in this instance it is not only Turkey that is being pragmatic, but also Iran. It would be impossible for Iran to form a close alliance with the Turks for purely religious reasons. In this context, may I remind you that Iran, a fundamentalist theocracy, did form a close alliance with secular Syria in the early 1980s, purely based on strategic considerations – an alliance that has lasted to this day.
He therefore adamantly rejects the suggestion that the AKP is motivated by an Islamist agenda:
The accusation that the AKP is trying to establish an Islamist state in Turkey is out of touch with reality. Erdogan does have Islamist roots; his political mentor Necmettin Erbakan was an Islamist. But Erdogan's great success in the polls and subsequent popularity were precisely because he came to power promising to reconcile Islam and the modern secular state, and to overcome intolerant nationalism through the systematic cultivation of democracy.

It is one of the paradoxes of Turkish politics that it is no longer the strictly secular parties, those who orientate themselves towards Atatürk, who are the most emphatic advocates of extending democratic rights. These days it is rather the "Islamic-secular" AKP that is the biggest champion of reforms aimed at paving Turkey's way into joining the EU.
 At the same time, Qantara also included a critical article on the shadow side of the entrepreneurial elan that is driving Turkey and which has the full support of the AKP Government: The risk that Istanbul's historical centre will lose its status as a UNESCO Heritage Site as a result of years of mismanagement and flagrant disregard of the pertaining guidelines. Ironically, this news broke while Istanbul is still Europe's Cultural Capital of 2010. As a result: 
Nervous tension lies like a pall over the city, disbelief: UNESCO wants to revoke Istanbul's World Heritage status. The Old Town is to be put on the red list of endangered cultural heritage sites. And more than a few people nod to themselves, thinking that's just where it belongs. But what a resounding slap in the face for the authorities, what a scandal if it really happens: now of all times, when the city fathers are still gloating over earning the title of European Capital of Culture 2010.
Apparently there are some sinister motives behind the lack of cooperation by the responsible government bodies in Istanbul:
The municipal administration in Fatih is in charge of this part of the city. When UNESCO arrived with money and know-how, the administration not only didn't lift a finger to support the project – it even did everything in its power to sabotage it. "They insinuated to the inhabitants that this was a clandestine project of the Greek patriarchate", says attorney Aysegül Kaya. "The patriarchate supposedly wanted to set up a second Vatican here with the help of the UN: an independent church state."
Crazy? This country has plenty of practice in fomenting paranoia amongst its citizens. When the UNESCO team fanned out to bestow money and restoration plans on the homeowners, many residents slammed the door in their faces.
However, aside from these less savoury aspects, it is also very much a matter of 'money talks':
The time was ripe for the AKP-led municipal administration to take action. Middlemen swooped down and persuaded owners to sell their houses below market price – threatening that they would otherwise be confiscated.
As one disenchanted architect and government adviser, Korhan Gümüs, said: 
"The State does without expert knowledge, without the intelligence available in the society. It acts technocratically. Instead of architects or historic preservationists, it hires construction companies. The results are corruption and injustice. The authorities represent the interests of the most powerful players: the entrepreneurs."
Reflective of these two sides of present-day Turkisch politics and policy making are the media reports on the reopening of an Istanbul landmark, the Pera Palace Hotel, after a four-year refurbishing. The former terminus of the Orient Express, the hotel was the scene of much political wrangling in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. Restored it to its former glory but with a contemporary touch, it acts as a symbol for the ambitions of present-day Turkey. At the same time both Associated Press and Arab News also referred to the endangerment of Istanbul's status as a cultural hallmark of world significance. Is this the price to be paid for Turkey's new-found assertiveness and self-confidence through the Neo-Ottoman  -- pragmatic rather than religious -- designs of the AKP?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010)

The Egyptian Islamicist Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd has died in a Cairo hospital on 5 July 2010. He had only recently returned to Egypt after being diagnosed with a rare viral disease.

Since 1995 Abu Zayd had lived in exile in the Netherlands after his innovative approaches to Quranic studies -- promoting a human-centered hermeneutics and applying methods derived from semiotics, literary theory & criticism to the study of the Islamic scripture -- caused controversy in both academic, religious and political circles. This not only led to him being denied tenure at the University of Cairo, but also resulted in court proceedings initiated by lawyers associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Following a conviction on grounds of apostasy, those prosecuting Abu Zayd went a step further by insisting that the courts also impose a divorce from his wife on grounds that an non-Muslim cannot be married to a Muslim woman.

Because of these developments, Abu Zayd and his wife Ibtihal Younes ( a professor of French literature) considered it prudent to leave Egypt for the more welcoming academic environment in Europe. Traveling via Spain Abu Zayd found refuge in the Netherlands, where he held a number of academic posts at the Leiden University and lastly as the incumbent of the Ibn Rushd Chair at the University for Humanistics in Utrecht. He was also associated with the Wissenschaftkolleg zu Berlin in Germany. In 2005 he was awarded the Ibn Rushd Prize by the Ibn Rushd Fund for the Freedom of Thought

After an absence of almost fifteen year, Abu Zayd started to revisit his home country again. However, his position is still controversial; in December 2009 Kuwait refused him entry in spite of having initially issued a valid visit visa. It was during a recent visit to Indonesia that the scholar fell ill and was admitted to the Shaykh Zayed Hospital in Cairo where he slipped into a coma.

Publishing primarily in Arabic, very little of Abu Zayd's work has been translated into English. The German-Iranian scholar and author Navid Kermani assisted Abu Zayd a number of years ago with the publication of an autobiography in German, which was later also translated into Dutch.

For more on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd on this blog, click here.

Voice of an Exile: Reflections on IslamEin Leben mit dem Islam.Gottes Menschenwort

Saturday, 12 June 2010

'Zero Problems with the Neighbours': Davutoglu, Erdogan, Gulen and Turkish Foreign Policy

The recent incident with the Gaza-bounded Flotilla of aid ships involving the vessel Mavi Marmara (operated by the Turkish Islamic charity Isani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) but sailing under Comoros flag) seems to have thrown a stick in the wheels of the AKP government's foreign policy of 'Zero Problems with the Neighbours' as relations between Turkey and Israel have rapidly soured.

Turkey's profile on the world stage has been undeniably heightened through a flurry of activities in international diplomacy. Master-minded by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, it is indicative of a more assertive Turkish foreign policy. An academic-turned diplomat, Prime Minister Erdoğan's chief international policy advisor carefully handles the Iraq dossier, engineered the rapprochement with Syria and Armenia, mediated in the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2008, and brokered, together with Brasil, a deal on Iran's Nuclear programme. Based on this track record he has already been dubbed 'Turkey's Henry Kissinger'. It has led to a growing attention in both Turkish and international media not only for the man (more here, here, and here), but also for the recalibration of Turkish foreign policy (see the recent coverage in The Economist, Foreign Policy, The GlobalistNewsweek, and New York Times).

Although he rejects the designation 'neo-Ottomanist'* -- preferring to talk instead of 'Strategic Depth' (also the title of one of his books) -- Davutoğlu's activist regional policy reflects  the elan underlying the AKP's broader political ethic, which betrays an unmistakable re-appreciation for Turkey's Ottoman legacy.  This reorientation has actually been in the making since the early 1980s when the then Prime Minister Turgut Özal managed to coax the uncompromisingly secular military establishment towards the idea of a 'Turkish-Islamic Synthesis' or TIS for short (see also my post of 8 May 2010). Since then, some analysists have ventured that the TIS is now even embraced by right-wing nationalist parties such as the MHP to wrest power away from the AKP.

Although there has never been any formal acknowledgment from both sides, the AKP's reorientation away from the explicit Islamist agendas of predecessors such as the WelfareVirtue, and Felicity Parties is inspired by the ideas of the somewhat enigmatic Fethullah Gülen, whose spiritual guidance has significantly impacted not only on leading figures in the AKP, but also on the outlook of much wider segments of Turkish society. The organization that bears his name, but to which -- again -- the man himself claims to have no official affiliation, has been tremendously successful in building up what can, for the lack of a better word, be called a very wide civil society network both inside Turkey and abroad, encompassing educational institutions (from nurseries to universities), a media conglomerate, charities, and platforms connecting academics and other intellectuals, diplomats, interfaith activists, business people, etc. The extent of the movement's influence is difficult to gauge, but speculations are that its compounded resources are in the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. For this the Gülen Movement  can drawn  on a large pool of donors and other benefactors who made their fortunes in the economic boom that began in the 1980s and led to the rise of the 'Anatolian Tigers' -- the outcome of business initiatives deployed by urban and small-town entrepreneurs from Turkey's main cities and the rural interior.

Now there are appear to be signs of a rift as Gülen, in a very rare interview with the Wall Street Journal, criticizes the organizers of the flotilla, saying that their failure:

to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid "is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters."
Given the Turkish Prime Minister's very critical remarks in the direction of Jerusalem, reigniting the earlier tiff caused by his rebuff of Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Davos Economic Forum in 2009, Gülen's statements are interpreted as veiled criticism of the government's line towards Israel. Consequently:
Mr. Gülen's views and influence within Turkey are under growing scrutiny now, as factions within the country battle to remold a democracy that is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The struggle, as many observers characterize it, pits the country's old-guard secularist and military establishment against Islamist-leaning government workers and ruling politicians who say they seek a more democratic and religiously tolerant Turkey. Mr. Gülen inspires a swath of the latter camp, though the extent of his reach remains hotly disputed.
 His words of restraint come as many in Turkey gave flotilla members a hero's welcome after two days of detention in Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party condemned Israel's moves as "bullying" and a "historic mistake."
Mr. Gülen said he had only recently heard of IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamic charity active in more than 100 countries that was a lead flotilla organizer. "It is not easy to say if they are politicized or not," he said. He said that when a charity organization linked with his movement wanted to help Gazans, he insisted they get Israel's permission. He added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations.
This intervention has led to renewed speculations over Gülen's influence and intentions, with the Wall Street Journal observing that 'Mr. Gülen has long cut a baffling figure, as critics and adherents have sparred over the nature of his influence in Turkey and the extent of his reach'. It notes that, on the one hand, he is recognized as a moderate figure propagating non-violence and advocating dialogue between the Muslim world and the West, while on the other hand his 'detractors see him as a cult-like leader whose empire aims to train an Islamic elite who will one day rebuild the Turkish state'. The New York Times followed suit with its own assessment of the movement's influence, citing studies by John Esposito and Hakan Yavuz.

Suspecting such sinister designs is an author writing under the pen name Spengler who, in a piece entitled Fethullah Gulen's cave of wonders', portrayed Gülen as 'a shaman, a relic of pre-history preserved in the cultural amber of eastern Anatolia'.

Such diverging opinions are indicative of the fascination commanded by figures like Fethullah Gülen. Articulating alternative Islamic discourses they differ from the exponents of existing traditionalist, reformist and modernist strands of Muslim thought, thus challenging the corresponding conventional and ingrained views of Islam held by outsiders, and -- perhaps most significantly -- undermining the stale authority structures prevailing in many parts of the Muslim world but called into question by increasingly assertive and sophisticated critical Muslims.

* For more on Neo-Ottomanism (pro & contra), click here, here, here, or here).

For a selection of books on Gülen and current Turkish foreign policy click on the images below. 

The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate IslamTurkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East)Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of UncertaintyTurkish Foreign Policy, 1774-2000Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War (Samuel and Althea Stroum Book)Turkey's New World: Changing Dynamics in Turkish Foreign PolicyTurkish Foreign Policy In Post Cold War EraTurkish Foreign Policy and Turkish Identity: A Constructivist Approach (International Relations Series)Turkish Foreign Policy: 1919-2006 (Utah Series in Turkish and Islamic Stud)Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics)