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.


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