Saturday, 17 December 2011

Naguib Mahfouz Centenary: chronicling Egypt's short twentieth century

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)
This week it was one hundred years ago that the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born. On occasion of the centenary of the only Arabophone Nobel Prize laureate, the Qantara website commemorated him as a writer of an imaginary historiography of Egypt's 'short twentieth century'. It traces Mahfouz's development as an author through the various literary guises he assumed during his literary career: pharaonist, chronicler, seismograph, allegorist, and -- finally -- a cultural monument.

This iconic status could not protect him from a violent assault in 1994, when a religious zealot attempted to assassinate the octogenarian because of his controversial views on religion. A self-described secularist, others interpreted his convictions as atheism. This was also the alleged reason for Mahfouz's transfer, earlier in his career as a civil servant, from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Generally regarded as a realist who tried to faithfully depict the life of ordinary Egyptians in extraordinary circumstances, Mahfouz also tried his hand at more metaphorical approaches. It was in his manifestation of allegorist that caught the ire of the self-appointed guardians of 'true Islam'. They were particularly irritated by The Children of Gebelawi (also known as Children of the Alley):

The novel depicts a microcosm in a city, easily recognisable as Cairo, in which usurpers use material and physical violence to suppress and torment the population. There are many attempts to rail against this tyranny, each of which crystallises around individuals whose life stories and lines of reasoning point to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Each of the three manages for a short time to achieve the best result for his supporters and takes it upon himself to fulfil the wishes of the patriarch Gebelawi, who lives in a villa somewhere outside the city – Old Paradise. The fourth "saviour" no longer defers to this ancestral figure, but sets out to fathom his secret, which eventually leads to Gebelawi's death. This pseudo-realistic portrayal casts doubt on the legend, on the myth. The author voices quite explicit and pronounced doubts over the sustainability of old and new messages of salvation, a doubt that also includes the modern sciences – 
To read the whole article, click here

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Circulation of Ideas in the Muslim World: Systematic Thought or Organizational Skills?

In my research on contemporary Islamic intellectual history, I focus on the more innovative and progressive, and therefore often controversial, currents of thought, which I have coined in provocative terms such as ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘heretical’. In discussing the trans-regional aspects of these alternative Islamic discourses, I am increasingly drawn to the notion of the ‘circulation of ideas’. This in itself somewhat amorphous expression strikes me as suitable for capturing the complex, multi-layered – even messy – nature of these contemporary trends of Muslim intellectualism. Already fruitfully employed in, for example, Indian Ocean Studies, I have become more convinced that it can also be aptly applied in research on contemporary Islamic intellectual history when I had a chance to listen to the anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, emeritus professor and former holder of the ISIM Chair at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

This week Aga Khan University in London hosted this specialist in the history of Islam in Turkey and Indonesia, as well as their present-day societies, for a talk entitled ‘Indonesian Muslims and their Place in the Larger World of Islam’. In his presentation, van Bruinessen concentrated on finding an explanation for the fact that Indonesian Islam still remains little known to Muslims from outside Southeast Asia. It certainly is not that the way Islam is interpreted, experienced and practiced in this largest Muslim nation-state is not interesting or has nothing to offer to the rest of the Muslim world, almost the contrary.

Van Bruinessen recalls an observation made in 1986 by the famous Pakistani scholar of Islam and modernist Islamic intellectual Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988). At the time, the latter was of the opinion that the two Muslim countries to watch for the emergence of innovative ideas and alternative trajectories in the Muslim world were Turkey and Indonesia. It was probably no coincidence that Fazlur Rahman, who was then Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, was supervising numerous postgraduate students from these two countries, many of whom would rise to becoming prominent religious and political leaders in their respective home lands.

One of the possible reasons why the often interesting ideas developed by Indonesian Muslims did not catch on elsewhere is a matter of form. Generally, Indonesian intellectuals present their ideas in speeches, seminars, talks, newspaper columns, magazine articles and other forums. These are later published in often voluminous collections, but rarely – if at all – do they find their way into any systematic presentation of their thoughts. An explanation for this seemingly unstructured style is that many Indonesian Muslim intellectuals are also activists, who tend to live out their ideas rather than theorize about them. On the other hand, to have an impact new interpretations not only need ideational coherence but require also efficient dissemination. Here, as shall be seen below, the Indonesian Muslim knack for organization comes into play.

Also historically, Indonesia or, for that matter,  its predecessor -- the Dutch East Indies – never produced the equivalent of single, towering intellectual figures such as Shah Waliullah al-Dihlawi, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, or Abu Alaa Maududi. Yet, in the past, ulama from Southeast Asia, including regions which now form part of the Indonesian republic,  were present in the Haramayn for centuries, teaching and instructing visiting pilgrims and students in things Islamic. However, although they formed by far the largest contingent of non-Arab Muslims in the holy places, they did not profile themselves explicitly as ‘Indonesians’.

Also today, Indonesian Muslims continue to display a voracious appetite for learning about Islam. There is a vibrant ‘translation industry’ of books on Islam and the Muslim world written by Muslim scholars and other intellectuals from across the Muslim world, as well as Western scholars of Islam. According to van Bruinessen, knowledge from abroad has always been highly valued in Indonesia. One explanation for this eagerness for ideas from the outside – aside from centuries of participation in the Islamic scholarly networks connecting the region to centres of Islamic learning on the other side of the Indian Ocean, in India, Yemen, the Hijaz, and Cairo – is Indonesia’s colonial experience, when Western knowledge percolated into the Dutch East Indies, opening up yet another epistemological realm.

Martin van Bruinessen
Consequently, the traffic of ideas has remained one-directional -- from other parts of the Muslim world and the West to Indonesia, whereas the ideas of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals have had very little exposure abroad. The only exceptions cited by van Bruinessen are former President Ahmad Sukarno and the one-time leader of the now defunct Islamist Masyumi Party, Muhammad Natsir. These were Indonesian Muslims who -- at one tim --  had an international profile with a global reach: Sukarno as a founding member of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries in the 1950s, and Natsir as a key figure in the Muslim World League and most prominent Southeast  Asian representative of Islamic reformism of the Salafi schnitt. In Natsir’s view, the benchmark for what constitutes ‘real Islam’, is provided by medieval Middle Eastern Islam. In the lively debates in Indonesia between ‘Westernizers’ -- who saw no contradiction between Islam and modernity, nor any fundamental incompatibilities with the other Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity -- and the ‘nativists’ who took issue with both Islamic and European influences, Natsir actually disagreed with both, neither did he approve of the advocates of a culturally specific traditional Indonesian Islam.

This lack of interest in or attention for the development of Indonesian Islam, does not mean that the country has nothing to offer to the rest of the Muslim world.  To return again to Fazlur Rahman’s view of the potential of both Turkish and Indonesian Islam, van Bruinessen also notes that, when comparing the two countries, another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is the matter of temperament. As another prominent non-Arab segment of the Muslim ummah, Turks have been more assertive in establishing themselves as significant and distinct from the Arabs than the evidently more modest and subdued Indonesians. At the same time, as I have discussed elsewhere, there are remarkable parallels between the Turkish and Indonesian experiences with Muslim intellectualism and the place of religion in public life in these two countries during the last twenty five years or so. These developments contain important lessons for alternative trajectories in the post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world (see my posts of 5 February 2011 and  30 July 2011)

Among the aspects identified by van Bruinessen as having something to offer to the wider world of Islam is first of all the high level of organization among Indonesian Muslims. The country is home to what are not only the oldest and largest Islamic mass movements, they also manifest a longstanding and rich democratic tradition reaching from the local all the way to the national level. The political and legal framework of the Dutch East Indies, enabled Islamic modernists and traditionalist Muslims to establish organizations which focussed on  emancipation through educational and charitable initiatives and steered well clear of explicit political activities.

On all levels, both the modernist Muhammadiyah, founded as early as 1912, and its rivalling traditionalist counterpart Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) established in 1926, are run by elected governing bodies. Thus they have gained lengthy experience with selecting and electing leaders at national congresses which are held every five years, and the chance to develop a tradition of grassroots level democracy stretching back decades. This makes the Muhammadiyah and NU much more transparent than, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In regards to the organizational and institutional dimensions of Indonesian Islam, another interesting example is provided by Hizbut Tahrir. In Indonesia, this movement can command a disproportionately large following among the country's vast Muslim student population. On the other side of the Islamic political and intellectual spectrum, van Bruinessen also observed a very widespread and solid presence of contemporary Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandi-Haqqani, whose leadership is currently based in the United States. He even ventured a speculation that, given the pressures on Muslims in America, it would not be inconceivable if the current leader, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, would decide to select Indonesia as the most suitable location for the organization’s future headquarters.

Then there is the flourishing of progressive and liberal interpretations of Islam. While it is true that, as explained earlier, the inspiration often comes from abroad, at the same time and in contrast to many parts of the Muslim world, Indonesian engagement with innovative and often controversial ideas is not only more intense, but also receiving  support from wider segments of society.  From the 1970s until the late 1990s, this was manifested through what Indonesians refer to as ‘cultural Islam’. During this period the ideas of thinkers such as Hasan Hanafi, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, as well as Shi’ite intellectuals like Shariati and Mutahhari were translated into Indonesian and integrated into the Muslim discourses circulating in that country..

Martin van Bruinessen in discussion with Kathryn Spellman of Aga Khan University
If there is one area where it could be argued that Indonesia has actually managed to influence developments elsewhere, it would be Islamic feminism. Here again, the origins came from the outside, in this case from the American-Pakistani women rights activist Riffat Hassan. But Indonesia was the only Muslim country where she was permitted to give an address at an Islamic university. Aside from Riffat Hassan, also the ideas of the Sudanese jurist and theoretician of human rights Abdullahi an-Na'im, and the latter's mentor Muhammad Mahmoud Taha, are an important ingredient for Islamic feminist activism in Indonesia.

There is no Muslim country where Islamic feminism is so deeply rooted and supported on grassroots level than Indonesia. Its success does not depend on any prominent figures, but rather on the broad support and widespread activism by scores of Muslimas working in the women’s branches of mass organizations such as the NU and Muhammadiyah. The international dimension of Indonesian Muslim feminism is evidently visible in the Musawah network. Although a Malaysian and Iranian initiative, the Indonesian experiment with Islamic feminism soon caught the attention of the initiators and has left its mark on this international body for coordinating Islamic women’s rights activism worldwide.

What became manifestly clear from van Bruinessen's discussion of indonesia's Islamic scene is that, aside from a store of interesting, progressive ideas presented in a coherent and systematic fashion, the successful dissemination of such ideas also depends on effective organization, and here Indonesian organizations such as the NU and the Muhammadiyah have a track record that has -- so far -- remained unmatched in the Muslim world.

Hereunder are some of van Bruinessen's writings, for more materials also check his personal website.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Germany stimulates critical Islamic thinking with new postgraduate programme for Muslim theologians

The Germany-based Qantara website, which covers news from the Muslim world and 'diasporas' in the West, draws attention to a German initiative that seeks to stimulate critical Islamic thinking through a new postgraduate programme intended for Muslim scholars with an ambition to specialize in Islamic theological thought. Published under the adamant title 'Muslim theologians are instigators of change', the article argues that the 'advancement of research from below wll provide new perspectives on Islam and produce new insights so that Islam may establish itself within a German context'.

The nation-wide project will in first instance enable fifteen young researchers from seven universities to meet regularly at workshops and conferences to exchange ideas. The programme is financed with a 3.6 million Euro grant from the Mercator Foundation, which also organized this years Young Islam Conference in Berlin.
Islamic theology is still a very new academic discipline at German universities. It is hoped that a new nationwide post-graduate programme will boost its development, lead to increased representation of Muslims in Germany, and lay the groundwork for the training of state schoolteachers of Islam.
Mouhanad Khorchide
The project is coordinated by the Lebanese-Austrian scholar of religion Mouhanad Khorchide, currently associated with the Wilhelm University in Westphalia in Münster. Says Khorchide.:
The programme is promoting the same aim that the federal government has been pursuing since last year with the creation of four Centres of Islamic Theology. The political expectations are obvious. It's all about an appropriate integration policy and creating the conditions for "the necessary dialogue of cultures", as the Federal Ministry of Education has put it on several occasions.
Another scholar involved in the project is Professor Harry Harun Behr of the Interdisciplinary Center for Islamic Study or Religions (IZIR) at the University of Erlangen, who observes that:
Harry Harun Behr
Muslim theologians move along borders in order to be able to translate between different systems of knowledge management. [...] Muslim theologians should also have an effect within the Muslim community. Cautious provocation is part of the trade. Muslim theologians are instigators of change.
The fifteen academics involved are all young immigrants of the first or second generation addressing subjects such as They include subjects such as feminist Islamic theology, the re-discovery of forgotten early Islamic theologians, the historical-critical study of Koran manuscripts, or the role of language, script and reason in the interpretation of the Koran and the prophet's sayings. All are using critical methods and approaches:
many of the projects question overly simple concepts of a literal understanding of the canonical sources and might well end up angering conservative Muslims.
Just as with controversial subjects, the young academics show little fear of making contact with Christian traditions of theology and religious educational theory.
Also other prominent Muslim scholars of Islam currently based in Germany have weighted in with their support for the initiative:
Ömer Özsoy
The establishment of Islamic theology (in Germany) can no longer be undone (Ömer Özsoy, Professor of Exegesis, University of Frankfurt). 
Katajun Amirpur
There is certainly an underlying expectation that this discipline will make Islam compatible with democracy and help reduce problems with Muslim,s [...]: We're not engaging in contract research here and won't invent some kind of integrated Islam for you. (Katajun Amirpur, Professor of Islamic Theology in Hamburg)

The young researchers involved in the project include Serdar Kurnaz(New philological, theological, and legal phiolsophical approaches to Islamic jurisprudence); Nimet Seker (Gender-equitable approaches to the Qur'an); Tolou Khademalsharieh (Early textual history of the Qur'an); and Fahimah Ulfat (Islamic religious educational theory). Watch this space for more news on their future academic exploits.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Where are the Arab Intellectuals?

In his news analysis of 29 October 2011 published in the Sunday Review section, New York Times staff writer Robert F. Worth examines the relative silence of intellectuals from the Arab World during this year's 'Arab Spring'. It looks at the disappointment of Syrians due to the absence of any bold challenges by the famous poet Adonis in his open letter to Syrian President Asad.
Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis
This makes Arab intellectuals look meek in comparison to their European, Asian and American intellectual predecessors like Vaclav Havel, Mao, and Thomas Paine. According to Worth it reflects the climate of repression under which many intellectuals in the Arab world live and work, but it is also symptomatic of the post-ideological era in which we live with much less room for 'unifying doctrines' and 'grandiose figures'. 

Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm
Worth continues: 'To some extent the intellectual silence of the current uprising is a deliberate response to the revolutionary rhetoric of previous generations... [...] The protesters who led the Arab Spring had grown tired of the stale internationalist rhetoric of their forebears'. There is a perceptible shift from ideological grandstanding to a more realistic and pragmatic concern with human rights and democratization. Thinkers such as the Syrian philosopher Sadik Jalal al-Azm joined other Syrian intellectuals to sign the 'Declaration of the 99'.  But then again:
But in recent years their voices often went unheard, because their secular language had little resonance in societies where political Islamic was becoming a dominant force. nor did Islamic reformers fare much better when they tried to cast their political critique in religious terms. The Egyptian scholar Hassan Hanafi, for instrance, in the 1980s began calling for the creation of an "Islamic Left", a socialist ideology rooted in religion. He was branded a heretic and had to seek police protection after receiving death threats from jihadists. His work gained an audience in Indonesia, but not in his own country, said Carool Kersten, a lecturer at King's College London who has written on Islamic reformers. 
It appears intellectuals throughout the Arab world are struggling to find a way for giving voice to the frustrations, ambitions and expectations of its citizens. To read the full essay click here.

* those who read Arabic click on this link.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Curing 1000 years of amnesia: Europe's (re)discovery of Arab Culture

Britain's venerable Royal Society (dating back to the 1660s) hosted Professor Charles Burnett of The Warburg Institute, University of London, for a talk entitled 'The European Discovery of Arab Culture'. A medievalist by training, Charles Burnett has been Professor of Islamic Influences in Europe since 1999 and is the founder of the Centre for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE). Although there appears to be a cavalier conflation of 'Arabic' and 'Islamic' in these designations, in his introductory remarks, Professor Burnett took care to underscore the importance of making a clear distinction between the two.

The lecture, co-hosted by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, was held as one of the closing events celebrating an exhibition of Muslim contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge throughout the Middle Ages at the Royal Society's headquarters on Carlton House Terrace.

Bettany Hughes
The exhibition and lecture were conceived to cure what has been dubbed the collective 1000-year amnesia which has made the West forget the significance of Arab and Muslim achievements in science and knowledge in general for the development of European civilization. The event was MC'ed by the historian and renowned broadcaster Bettany Hughes, while the lecture was chaired by Jim al-Khalili, a Professor of physics at the University of Surrey and also a well-known TV figure actively engaged in the promotion of the sciences and the significance of inter-civilizational contacts for the development of human knowledge. Words of welcome were also spoken by Professor Lorna Casselton, the Society's Foreign Secretary, and Professor Salim al-Hassani, Chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) -- a British-based non-profit organization established to promote the contributions of Muslim civilization and its role in the advancement of humankind through scientific knowledge and its technological application. It seeks to promote awareness of Islam as a civilization and stimulate interest in the multicultural aspects of scientific progress through the centuries by supporting a wide range of activities including the online based initiatives, MuslimHeritage and the global 1001 Inventions Project.

Prof. Salim al-Hassani
In his talk, Charles Burnett sketched how, up to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, European scholars eagerly learned Arabic in order to access the Islamic depositories of knowledge. Meanwhile merchants were encouraged to carry manuscripts from the eastern bassin of the Mediterranean and from North Africa to the southern shores of Europe. What is remarkable about the exchange is that European curiosity was generally limited to the exact or natural sciences. However, by the 1300s, this interaction reached its conclusion as Europeans became of the opinion that also in these fields nothing new could be gained from Arab and Islamic scholarship. This closing of the mind lasted until the sixteenth century, when interest in the Orient was rekindled. In contrast to the earlier ages, now there was an expressed interest in Arab and Islamic culture and civilization. The first chairs in Arabic were established in Paris, Leiden, Cambridge and Oxford with the objective of expanding the knowledge of Semitic languages in order to come to a deeper and better understanding of Jewish and Christian scriptures. In this development, Arabic was treated as an auxillary to the study of Hebrew and the seeds for a polemical engagement with Islamic religious doctrine were laid as well.
Prof. Jim al-Khalili (L) and Prof. Charles Burnett
The evening's programme was closed by Dr Rim Turkmani, a Syrian-born astrophysicist at Imperial College, who helped curate the 'Arabick Roots of Knowledge'  exhibition. In her presentation she showcased some of the main exhibits. 

'Arabick Roots' Exhibition at the Royal Society
Dr Rim Turkmani
While it is debatable whether the scholars from the medieval Islamic world would qualify as critical Muslims in a contemporary sense, what becomes evident from both the Royal Society exhibition and Prof. Burnett's lecture is that these Muslims were certainly critical to the development of Western civilization and the subsequent emergence of modernity.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Arab Spring: Is there a critical Islamic discourse in Saudi Arabia?

On 17 October 2011, my colleague Madawi al-Rasheed, Professor of Social Anthropology at King's College London, gave a talk in the Middle East Seminar convened by the London School of Economics (LSE), under the title 'A Saudi Spring of Sand Storms; Signs of Domestic Turbulence'. The chair of the event, Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at LSE, introduced Prof. al-Rasheed as one the most renowned scholars on present-day developments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, and certainly the foremost critical voices on current affairs in the Kingdom. She is the author of a number of books on Saudi Arabia.

Madawi al-Rasheed
In her preliminary remarks, Prof. al-Rasheed already foreshadowed a more pessimistic account when compared to seismic shifts which have occured elsewhere. Alluding to the metaphoric associations employed by Egyptians and Tunisians, who refer to the Spring as the season of blossoms and jasmine flowers respectively, in Saudi Arabia the arrival of Spring is accompanied by often vicious sand storms. Accordingly, the trajectory of the Arab Spring in the Arabian Peninsula in general has been less than promising. The Sunni-controlled government of the neighbouring miniature island state of Bahrain has clamped down, without mercy, on expressions of dissent by its disenfranchised majority Shi'a population -- rapidly and readily assisted by Saudi troops in armoured vehicles sent across the strategic King Fahd causeway by the government in Riyadh. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia' s southern neighbour Yemen teeters on the brink of civil war as the protests against Abdullah Ali Saleh are turning increasingly violent and bloody.

Saudi Arabia itself, like many other Arab kingdoms (Jordan, Morocco, Oman), makes every effort to present the monarchical system in the most benign ways, alleging it offers a favourable contrast to the nasty republican regimes that seem to be falling like dominoes. As a critical note, Prof. al-Rasheed observes that this rosy image is swallowed without question, and even spread further, by external stakeholders in regional Gulf stability. these interested parties are no longer confined to America and Western Europe, but now also include Russia and China. Their willingness to side with the incumbent regime is motivated by the need for access to Saudi oil reserves and the prospects of lucrative arms deals.

But, the sand storms of the Spring of 2011 are harbingers of growing domestic turbulence, Prof. al-Rasheed insists. As one of her informants has it: 'The events of early 2011 have propelled Saudi Arabia ten years ahead of its own pace of development'.

There is widespread dissatisfaction in Saudi Arabia, but Saudis express their grievances and frustrations differently than elsewhere. Again, al-Rasheed refers to the explanation offered by a disaffected activist within the Kingdom she is in contact with: If Saudis would be confronted with the kind of humiliation suffered by Egyptians or Tunisians at the hands of security forces, their temperament and cultural conventions would force them to respond in kind. In a country where weapons are readily available, violence would rapidly spirall out of control. So instead, critics of the regimes and opponents of the present political order have taken recourse to their conventional way of addressing complaints to the government: sending petitions.

Since the mid-1990s, when foreign troops taking part in Operations 'Desert Shield' and 'Desert Storm', assembled on Saudi soil to fend off the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi opposition has issued a dozen or so petitions demanding reforms and change. In general, these addresses studiously avoided any direct criticism of the king or other members of the royal family. And whereas, the ruling monarch, the crown prince, and the grand mufti -- as leader of the religious establishment -- still retain near sacred status, the latest petitions contain thinly veiled criticisms of the highly umpopular minister of interior, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz. Heading a vicious security apparatus and himself an epigone of political conservatism and authoritarian repression of any democratic reforms, Nayif is nevertheless best positioned to succeed the aging king and ailing crown prince -- both of whom have spent extended periods of time in hospital during the last few years.

The government, in turn, has responded with its time-tested counteroffensive: financial mumificence. This time around the key beneficiaries were, first of all, the armed forces. All serving members were promoted one rank, while also receiving the cocomitant rise in pay. In addition, another 60,000 new positions will be created. Whereas this will only lead to a further militarization of Saudi society, Madawi al-Rasheed took care to note that the armed forces are by no means a united front. In fact, the loyalty of the various branches is fragmented and divided between key senior members of the royal family. The religious establishment too benefited from royal generosity, receiving additional budget for its activities. Combined with the third strategy: a further curtailment of the press, the Saudi regime has -- for now -- taken the sting out of the protest movement.

But aside from a combination of repression and largesse on the part of the government, there is another reason why protests in Saudi Arabia have remained relatively subdued when compared to other Arab countries. Calls for a 'day of rage', scheduled for 11 March, were generally ignored because there is no consensus among the protesters on the agenda for reforms. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has no tradition of civil activism. In order to prevent the development of such a sense of civil society or the articulation of shared citizens' concerns, the government also plays up tribal belonging and sectarian divides: pitching regions and tribes, and Sunnis and Shi'ites, against each other.

Saudi Arabia's 'day of rage' (11 March 2011)
However, it cannot be denied that Saudi society is sick, and the key ailments include not just the repression of the Shi'ite minority (not only 'Twelvers' or 'Imamis' in the Eastern Province, but also the often forgotten Ismaili community in the southern border province of Najran). Then there is the denial of equal rights to women; the continued detention of large numbers of political prisoners; and -- above anything else -- the rampant unemployment of the Saudi youth. According to some estimates, the level of joblessness in Saudi Arabia is only topped by Gaza and Iraq. In the face of such challenges, Saudi society increasingly resembles a pressure cooker ready to explode.

Shi'ites protesting in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province
External factors also play a role in defining the future prospects for a Saudi Spring. According to Prof. al-Rasheed the world is rapidly moving, if it has not already, from a one-super power post-Cold War order to a multipolar world, in which varies powers are vying for influence, including orchestrating developments in the strategically so important Persian Gulf Region. On a global level these include the USA, Russia, China and India, on the regional level Saudi Arabia itself, Iran, and Turkey. Each of these players tries to direct developments into a direction that serves its own interests.

Whereas some Arab countries are looking to Turkey for inspiration, it is highly unlikely that this will be a useful model for Saudi Arabia, at least in the short term. Its lack of a sense of civil society and tradition of feminist activism currently deprive it of the necessary preconditions. This lack of civil action also severely limits the likelihood of a 'facebook' or 'twitter' revolution -- which al-Rasheed also considers a misnomer in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.

However, what is not an unlikely scenario is that continuing turbulence and the persistence of critical questions being directed at the government could destabilize the regime to such an extent that a fragmentation of the Kingdom is not entirely inconceivable. Most likely candidates for a breakaway would be the oil-rich Eastern province and the Asir and Najran provinces on the border with Yemen.The lack of a tradition of civil disobedience also makes a violent turn of events a very likely option.

According to Prof. al-Rasheed the current initiatives of the government to respond to the demands of the protesters are insufficient. Although Saudi Arabia's economy continues to expand it has never managed to absorb the country's rapidly growing population; for that the government has always relied on expanding the civil service, which is seen as inefficient and corrupt. Women's issues are primarily addressed in response to foreign criticism, but Madawi al-Rasheed is adamant that the kind of emancipation introduced by the Saudi regime will not undermine its authoritarian grip on power. Playing up sectarianism often expressed by pandering to a sense of 'Iranphobia' will also not contribute to the creation of a sense of nationhood. However, according to al-Rasheed there are signs that leading figures among the citizenry in the Western Hijaz province, a more cosmopolitan region with a historical tradition of plurality where also the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina are located, are trying to build bridges between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Even though the Saudi government has been pushing for years for a military intervention in Iran, al-Rasheed thinks that in the current multi-polar world a sustained military campaign against Iran is highly unlikely, and Saudi Arabia definitely lacks the means to go it alone.

King Abdullah
However, the key to any future scenario for Saudi Arabia is the succession question. At present there are five key princes, representing various factions within the royal family. Aside from the King and Crown Prince, and their sons, there is the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, the oldest surviving son of the late King Fahd (1982-2005), and the governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, as the most senior member among the descendants of King Faisal (1964-1975). However, as she mentioned earlier, at present Madawi al-Rasheed considers the powerful interior minister, Prince Nayif -- a half-brother of King Abdullah and full brother of Sultan, the ailing crown prince and defence minister -- as the most likely future king. This does not bode well for the prospects of any drastic reforms.On the other hand, it is never certain what the 33 most senior members of the royal family will decide. What is certain is that the opportunities for a horizontal succession -- for brother to brother -- will soon be exhausted. How this will play out the next level, the sons of the leading royal members of government, is anybody's guess.

Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayif
In Madawi al-Rasheed's mind, for any drastic change to occur -- and this is only likely in the long run -- it will be absolutely vital that freedom of expression and organization are widely expanded; without the creation of a viable public space any attempts for real political reforms are doomed. That is exactly why the regime continues to stress tribal and sectarian affiliations;why it makes sure to kepp foreigners away from the native population by confining them to their walled compounds and labour camps; and why universities are closed enclaves keeping young Saudis isolated, under strict surveillance, while exposing them to skills training rather than an education which would enable them to articulate their critical faculties. Critical Muslims are the nemesis of a regime composed of a well-entrenched royal family and collaborating religious establishment as the self-appointed custodians of a narrow-minded intolerant interpretation of the Islamic tradition.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Refashioning the Study of Islam: Muslim contributions

Kristian Petersen, the new host of the Islamic Studies and Religion section of New Books Network (NBN) interviewed this blogger about the contributions of three Muslim intellectuals to finding new approaches to the study of Islam. The talk is based on the book Cosmopolitans and Heretics examinations of the writings of Indonesian Islamicist and public intellectual Nurcholish Madjid, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi, and the French-Algerian historian of Islam Mohammed Arkoun.
Often when we read about new Muslim intellectuals we are offered a presentation of their politicized Islamic teachings and radical interpretations of theology, or Western readings that nominally reflect the Islamic tradition. We are rarely introduced to critical Muslim thinkers who neither abandon their Islamic civilizational heritage nor adopt, wholesale, a Western intellectual perspective.
Click here to listen to the whole interview. And the the image below to buy the book.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

This year's Arab Spring in London (2) - Internet entrepreneur

In the wake of the epochal changes that are currently affecting North Africa and the Middle East, London was the scene of the launch of a new website advocating freedom of expression in the Arab world.  is an initiative of Thunayan Khalid al-Ghanim. Although he had already built up a reputation as one of the most prolific and expansive buyers of  online domain names, the Kuwaiti-born internet entrepreneur was a bit of enigma. In late June, the once secretive internet pioneer, also known under the alias elequa, stepped out of anonimity. A member of a prominent Kuwaiti business family, which is also active in politics, often in opposition to the ruling family, Thunayan al-Ghanim was educated in Europe and the United States. Before turning to exploring and exploiting the opportunities offered by the internet revolution, he pursued an artistic career as a painter and sculptor.

Art work by Thunayan al-Ghanim

Future Media Architects (FMA)
Through a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands named Future Media Architects (FMA) he has managed to take control of literally tens of thousands of domain names. Although he professes no interest in politics, the initiative does make a political statement, as its website's subtitle reads 'Freedom of speech is a human right'. launch
 Taking place in 40/30, the top floor  bar & restaurant in the Swiss Re Building, better known as 'The Gherkin', the launch of was given an appropriate allure. The event was organized by Orient Consulting Services and hosted by its CEO Lina Tayara.

Lina Tayara with founder Thunayan Khalid al-Ghanim
 The evening also featured Chris Cobb Smith, a  former military officer turned press security consultant, as keynote speaker. Not long ago he made headlines during the recent troubles in Libya, when he -- together with BBC Arabic Service journalist Feras Killani and cameraman Goktay Koraltay -- were captured by Gaddafi's forces and subjected to torture and coercion. Subsequently, the trio was awarded the 2011 MBI Award for Press Freedom.

Keynote speaker Chris Cobb-Smith
In the fringes of the launch, which attracted representatives of the media, the world of publishing and communications, as well as publicists and academics working on the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, there was a screening of a brief documentary film, entitled 'A Story Seldom told' and produced by the Zenith Foundation.

The launch was also covered on the  technocrati website.
Follow on Twitter

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

This year's Arab Spring in London (1) - A Syrian contribution

The next few posts will present a number of events that have taken place this Spring and Summer in London, confirming that the city is still in many respects at the centre of critical developments in the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Aziz al-Azmeh at AKU
On 21 June the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilization (ISMC) at the Aga Khan University (AKU) hosted the renowned Syrian Scholar of Islam Aziz al-Azmeh, who delivered a lecture under the title The Relevance and Irrelevance of Muslim Political Traditions. Beginning with an unexpected quote from Paul's Epistle to the Romans that there is 'no authority but God' and other references to the view of the Gospels that we must obey God rather than man, he provides some contrast with the perhaps more often cited statement in Matthew of rendering unto Caesar in order to challenge the generally held assumption that , unlike Islam, Christendom clearly separated State and Church.

His objectives in this talk were not to compare Islam and Christianity or oppose them to each other, but to reflect critically and present some purposeful discriminations. Al-Azmeh declared the argument that Scripture prescribed Europe's political system absurd, because it flies in the face of sociological evidence: Dogma and practice have always differed.

Sociological thinking insists that political systems cannot be reduced to cultures and that cultures cannot be reduced to Scripture. The great transformations of modernity have made social, political and cultural diversity and complexities only greater. This observation, al-Azmeh insists, that applies as much to the Muslim world as it does to the West.

However, regarding the latter, al-Azmeh discerns the same disinterest and lack of analytical rigour among Muslim and Western observers when studying Muslim societies. The prevailing presumption still is that the Muslim world in the 21st century is only just emerging from the Muslim traditions which require a religious legitimation for political structures. Muslims are 'frozen' into their traditions and the what he terms as 'Super Muslims' like to perpetuate this stultified view.

The profound changes in Muslim societies in the course of the last few centuries are still 'bracketed', in spite of the fact that -- although they may be unevenly distributed -- are very real. These changes may have been of European provenance, but they have been indigenized and adapted to local contexts.

Through his analysis of the characteristics of these changes in Muslim societies, al-Azmeh wants to transcend the tendency of coining the description of Muslim society and the history of the Muslim world in dogmatic terms.

In his responses to various questions, al-Azmeh rejected the contention that there are textual prescriptions for the organization of Muslim society or depiction of Islamic history in the Qur'an, as if Muslims are afflicted with some congenital nomocratic disposition . He wants to contest and break-down the 'logocentric clichés' which hold the analysis of Muslim societies captive. Prior to the nineteenth century, such articulations were unknown to the Muslim mindset, and al-Azmeh contends they are the result of the influence of both Catholic and Protestant traditions. 

In this respect, he argues that the Islamic concept of ijma' -- the consensus of the community of religious scholars -- was as multilayered as early Christian Patristics. Islamic theological traditions have been very diverse and were often in conflict with each other. Muslim history manifests different caliphates, Sultanic traditions, and other political systems.

He does not deny that the emphasis on scripturalism has been enormously influential, but, to further clarify the point he wants to make, this must be seen as a 'Protestant inflection' -- which can in turn be explained through  its disenchantment with Catholicism. Subsequently, this view has been transplanted and transposed into analyses of the Muslim world.

Pushing his argument even further, al-Azmeh maintains that there is no evidence of a specific political reading of the Qur'an prior to the twentieth century. In his view, the fuqaha' or legal scholars were practical men, and only ideologically disposed in a secondary sense. This demands a rethinking of Islam as jurisdictional and nomocratic -- at least in the reductionist fashion in which it is generally presented. The praxis of law in the Muslim world was complex, and very distinct from classical Islamic legal theorizing. Consequently, he dismisses the notion of Shari'ah as an 'artificial gloss'

The violence involved in imposing Islamic law in the way the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to do it is at odds not only with standards of equity and justice in the contemporary world, but also at variance with both Islamic historical practice and legal theory. The way in which Islamists are implementing Islamic law makes for what al-Azmeh calls a 'bizarre spectacle'

Aziz al-Azmeh
Commenting on Muslim reformism, al-Azmeh does not deny that it tends to be apologetic and that there is a lot of 'social engineering' going on on the basis of an Islamic variety of scripturalism which some perceive as 'authentic'. In addition, aside from the emergence of political islamism along 'intellectually rudimentary' Salafi lines, social conservatism has also grown. The social salience of Salafism has pushed genuine reforms to the margins. Al-Azmeh dismisses its claim of being representative of the tradition as false, rejecting the 'scripturalist' reshaping of Islamic tradition as an unnecessary interpretational mode.

Interpretations such as those put forward by the likes of Abu'l-Ala al-Maududi or Sayyid Qutb would have been inconceivable to the medieval scholars who were truly intertextual in their outlook. Maududi and Qutb are products of modernity and their ideas do not reflect a revival of Islamic authenticity. In fact, there is no univocal answer to that constitutes a genuine 'Islamic tradition'. It was never fixed for all times, on the contrary: tradition has to be understood in the context of spatio-temporality. 

 It can be taken as a self-description, it can constitute religiosity as a personal belief and participation in certain rituals, it can be regarded as adhering to a 'minumum of social practices', or a more rigorous modification of personal behaviour and language reflecting a deeper piety. Finally, when the latter is reflected in political and social behaviour it can become stuck in a political framework and leading to a complete resocialization.

The same applies to the term 'Muslim' as used by al-Azmeh in the title of his lecture. This also requires a 'situational' understanding.

In this presentation al-Azmeh positioned himself in a discourse shared by other Syrian intellectuals such as Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (1) and Bassam Tibi (even though the latter and al-Azmeh himself have been working for decades in the West as 'exilic intellectuals'). Their work calls into question the overeasy pigeon-holing of Western thinking as somehow more susceptible to secularity than the Muslim intellectualism. Hopefully, it will be not for too long, before these kind of ideas are allowed to flourish again in Damascus and elsewhere in long-suffering Syria, ansd beyond.

(1) For an earlier appeal by al-Azm, dating back to 2005, calling on the Baath Regime to allow a 'Damascus Spring', click here.

Islams and Modernities (Third Edition)The Times of History: Universal Topics in Islamic HistoriographyIbn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation (Ceu Medievalia)Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Politics