Friday, 29 January 2010

Exploratory Workshop on The Islamic Caliphate in the Contemporary Muslim World

Three scholars from King's College London have been awarded a grant by the European Science Foundation for an exploratory workshop entitled Demystifying the Islamic Caliphate: Advocates, Opponents and Implications for Europe. This conference will be hosted by the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, bringing together scholars from various European countries to discuss the contemporary relevance of the historical caliphate as well as new interpretations across the Muslim world.

In their proposal, workshop conveners Madawi al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten and Marat Shterin noted that from London to Moscow, Sarajevo to Jakarta, Istanbul, and Baghdad, the concept of the Islamic Caliphate is theorised by religious scholars, invigorated by political activists, and condemned by some Muslim and non-Muslim politicians. While few Muslims insist on its centrality to Islam, many Muslims have not only rejected it but also contributed to its historical downfall. With globalization and the re-imagining of the Muslim umma as a multi-ethnic diverse community, the ‘Caliphate’ is today a contested concept among many actors in the Muslim world, Europe and beyond. As the Muslim world has known the rise and fall of several caliphates until the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the reinvention of the Caliphate in the twenty first century may appear puzzling. However by exploring the idea of the Caliphate, its contemporary genealogy as a ‘modern’ Islamic political-religious concept, the debates between advocates and opponents, the modern contexts in which Muslims imagine it, and the virtual forums in which it is invoked justifies an engagement with the phenomenon that moves beyond historical perspectives.

Muslims, both in the ex-European territories of the Ottoman Empire and in the Muslim world at large, have had to rethink Islamic governance in the contemporary world. The majority sought the model of the nation-state and aspired towards independent and sovereign entities that more or less corresponded to newly drawn territorial boundaries. Some Muslim scholars, for example Egyptian Azharite Ali Abd al-Raziq wrote a religious treatise that de-emphasized the centrality of the Islamic Caliphate and justified the shift towards national states, by definition smaller entities configured on the basis of a homogenous national culture rather than faith. Other Islamic scholars and activists, however, lamented the fall of the Islamic Caliphate and wrote counter treatise calling for its revival. One such obvious advocate was Taqi al-Din al-Nabahani, a Palestinian activist who founded Hizb al-Tahrir. In India, the Khilafat movement developed in the shadow of the British Empire and became active in the 1920s. Similar movements emerged in South East Asia, among Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Even though none of these movements gathered momentum or achieved their objectives throughout the twentieth century, in the new historical conditions prevaling today calls for the return of the Caliphate are revived among some sections of the Muslim population. It is this revival that constitutes the main focus of this workshop which will try to address issues that can contribute to a clarification and explanation of the contemporary revival of Muslim thought about the Caliphate.

By opting for an interdisciplinary project that brings social scientists and humanities experts together to discuss the revival of the concept of the Caliphate among diverse Muslim groups, the conference organisers anticipate to show the interconnections between text and context among increasingly literate and connected Muslims from Indonesia to London. Special attention will be drawn to how old theorisations of Islamic governance are redefined and reformulated by contemporary Muslims and for what purposes.

Through case studies drawn from different parts of the Muslim world and the European context, this exploratory workshop will first of all highlight the interconnection and continuity of Islamic discourses. At the same time it will take care to situate the object of study in the transnational realm rather than the confined locality of individual countries. Secondly, it will emphasise that increased mobility in the age of globalisation and migration enables Muslims and the ideas they hold to travel beyond traditional boundaries of nation and state. Third, it will underscore the role of highly mobile non-state actors in the Muslim world and the diaspora in defining the public sphere and setting agendas that may or may not correspond to the agenda of all Muslims. A focus on both material and intellectual conditions in diaspora situations and the access to both old and new media that are perhaps still more available to Muslims in Europe and North America than those in the Muslim world will yield a better understanding of the revival of the concept of the Caliphate among young Muslims in the West. It is no longer possible to examine political mobilisation among Muslims without taking into account these important developments that contribute to increased connections, mutations in thought and activism, and the movement of ideas and people.

Scheduled to take place at King's College London in November 2010, the conveners intend to release an edited volume of the various contributions by keynote speakers and panelists.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Dutch-Moroccan (Moroccan-Dutch?) Author wins prestigious literary prize

Moroccan-born Dutch author Abdelkader Benali can add another literary prize to his crown of laurels. Today it was announced that he has been awarded the E. du Perron Prize for his novel De Stem van Mijn Moeder (My Mother's Voice). The E. du Perron Prize was established to recognise individuals who contribute through their cultural expressions to the Netherlands multicultural society. In its motivation for giving the prize to Benali, the jury explained that although starting out as an exponent of 'migrant literature'*, Benali is no longer confined by such boundaries, but has moved on to 'giving voice to an infinite literature'.

34-year old Benali made his debut in 1996 with the novel Bruiloft aan Zee (Wedding by the Sea), which won the Geertjan Lubberhuizen Prize. This was followed by a play and collection of short stories, but the real breakthrough came with his second novel De Langverwachte (The Long-Awaited). This book established Benali as a significant writer of Dutch literature and it received the Libris Prize 2003. Since then he has become a very prolific writer, also adding poetry and non-fiction to his oeuvre. These writings include a reportage of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah in Beirut, published as Berichten uit een Belegerde Stad (Reports from a City under Siege).

Benali is one of several Dutch writers of Moroccan origin, such as Hafid Bouazza (winner of the 1996 E. du Perron Prize), Fouad Laroui (E. du Perron Prize 2002), Mohammed Benzakour (who was nominated alongside Benali for the 2009 E. du Perron Prize), and Naima El Bezaz. They have become so well-established that they are no longer merely regarded as producers of semi-exotic migrant novels, but recognised as an integral part of the Dutch literary landscape.

Some combine their artistic work with academic and/or political engagement. Where Bouazza, although having a fascination with the literary legacy of the Muslim world, profiles himself mainly as a fierce critic of religion (in particular Islam) and the Moroccan community in the Netherlands, Benzakour served as a member of the Zwijndrecht municipal council and briefly joined the civil service after obtaining degrees in government and sociology. Courted by both the Arab-European League (AEL) to become the leader of its Dutch branch, and controversial Dutch politician Rita Verdonk, who wanted him as her adviser during her stint in office as minister of immigration and integration, he rejected both offers. Benzakour has also expressed himself in favour of indicting George W. Bush in an international court of justice and he questioned the way Tariq Ramadan was removed from his positions as consultant to the Rotterdam municipality and professor at the city's Erasmus University (see the post of 18 August 2009).

In my view these writers must be regarded as part of a broader phenomenon of 'diasporic' Moroccan and other North African writers and intellectuals, such as Anouar Majid and Laila Lalami in the United States, or Paris-based Abdelwahab Meddeb. Take for example Fouad Laroui, who trained as an engineer and economist before trying his hand at literature. He is not only recognised as both a literary figure and scholar in the Netherlands, where he holds a chair at the University of Amsterdam, but also in the Francophone and English-speaking world. Aside from contributions to literature and economics, he has also written a book on political Islam under the title De'Islamisme (see also Laila Lalami's blog). In a similar vein, Abdelwahab Meddeb too has not only produced translations of Sufi poetry by Al-Bistami and Ibn Arabi, but written a personal assessment of the situation in the Muslim world, entitled The Malady of Islam, whereas literary scholar Anouar Majid established his name with studies such as Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World. Straddling the worlds of literature and academia, they also show themselves as critical Muslims or exponents of a cosmopolitan reading of Islam.

* see also the article in Migrant Literature on the German website Qantara.