Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Muslim Societies and Cosmopolitanism: Devji on Iqbal

The اقبال/ Iqbal website of the Moroccan academic Reda Benkirane, dedicated to 'free and creative thinking in Islam', has posted a series of video interviews with critical Muslim intellectuals and scholars commenting on specific themes and issues that have either contemporary currency or a longue duree intellectual-historical relevance, and sometimes both.

Among those featured is Faisal Devji, a Canadian academic and writer of Zanzibari origin, now based at St Antony's College in Oxford, author of a number of path-breaking studies on Pakistan, and contributor to Open Democracy. In this instance he is commenting on the poet, thinker and spiritual father of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, and the role of cosmopolitanism in Muslim societies.

You can watch video below:

For writings by Faisal Devji and other relevant publications, click on the widget below:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Challenging Malaysia's Conservative Islam

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid
In a guest column on the New Mandala website, a Malaysian academic challenges the conservative interpretations of Islam in his country. In the critique he has penned, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a UK-educated political scientist working at Universiti Sains Malaysia, accuses the government of being implicated in advancing, supporting and sustaining intolerant readings of Islam which he considers unsuitable for an ethnically and religiously plural country like Malaysia. Partly this can be attributed to the country's constitution, but in the remainder of the article, he singles out former Prime Minister Mahathir as the main culprit of government manipulation of Malaysia's majority religion.

Here are a few excerpts:
The Constitution was arguably a hybrid document, which was nothing peculiar in view of the new nation state’s eclectic sources of national history. Many analysts have put forward arguments that it had secular intent, but yet it seemed to elevate the religion of the majority of the population to a pedestal unreachable by other religions.

The expansion of the Islamic bureaucracy took place at a relentless pace under Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Islamisation programme in the 1980s. [...] In contrast to his predecessors who had refrained from exploiting Islam as a political tool, whether out of their own ignorance or respect for constitutional niceties established by its secular-inclined drafters, Mahathir unabashedly championed Islam as the most effective way of outflanking his competitors 
Former Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir

The state’s recent repression of unorthodox Islamic groups, as exemplified in renewed crackdowns on the Shiah and Global Ikhwan movements following the Thirteenth General Election, smacks of its inability to intellectually engage discontented elements within its majority Malay-Muslim population, who increasingly find the state’s handling of Islam to be inept and downright hypocritical
 Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid argues that this does not reflect the true state of affairs in Malaysia, where Islam is understood and practiced in a multiplicity of ways.
With its kaleidoscopic provenance as the backdrop, Islam as understood and practised by Malay-Muslims prior to the era of the nation state never bore monolithic traits. On the contrary, accommodation of mores from a variety of civilisational traditions prevailed, as strongly reflected in the assortment of religious practices deriving from various ethno-cultural traditions that eventually assumed the label of being part of Malay-Muslim heritage.
 In addition, it has also dire consequences for the intellectual vibrancy of a religion:
The government acts only on rogue Muslims in such a way that political benefit accrues to the state and its organic linkages. It is utterly unable to fathom that the Malay-Muslims have developed their Islamic horizons intellectually as a result of the shrinking of the ummah into a global village in the internet age, and so are open to the more sophisticated choices of models of Islam offered throughout the world. How could the state isolate the Islamic understanding of its Malay-Muslim population but at the same time urges them to embrace globalisation and modernisation?
The state continues to pursue an anti-pluralist approach to religion, but fails to appreciate that diversity of views and perspectives among the learned, even in theological matters, has been part and parcel of the glorious Islamic civilisation.

By equating unorthodoxy with deviancy, the Malaysian state is killing off intellectual creativity and innovativeness among its Muslim populace, over whom it prefers to exert an everlasting dominance. Ironically, this runs counter to the Islam Hadhari strand of civilisational interpretation of religion which the government once projected itself to be a proponent of [see also the post of 21 January 2012, ck]

To read the full article click here

For further readings click on the widget below:

Friday, 6 December 2013

Bassam Tibi's 'Euro-Islam'

Bassam Tibi
The idea of  'Euro-Islam' is the brainchild of Syrian-born but Germany-based political scientist and international relations specialist Bassam Tibi (b. 1944). First developed in the 1990s, he highlighted it again in his book Islam in Global Politics (2011) as a 'vision for bridging' differences not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also in order to overcome internal divides among Muslims themselves.

A recent article revisits the notion and the controversies that surround Euro-Islam: 'For some it embodies the deliverance of Islam from everything that is perceived as backward looking and pre-modern. Others fear that a European Islam is a watered-down religion, a kind of government-controlled "state Islam"'.

Euro-Islam was the developed on the back of Tibi's unsparing criticism of traditional Islam, accusing the Muslim world of having 'experienced nothing akin to the Enlightenment' and therefore in dear need of:
An alternative model to the Islam practiced in the Arab world and to everything that appears deplorable there. [...] Muslims should adopt the dominant European culture as their own, and many considered this to be nothing less than a call to assimilation. Since this inauspicious start, discussions on a European variety of Islam have been sharply polarized. 
In the case of Germany, the country where Tibi has spent his entire academic career, the so-called German Islam Conference initiated by one-time Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble 'has also asserted its desire to make a contribution to European Islam, thereby giving it the air of a project imposed from above' (see also the post of 26 November 2011) This is exactly the point seized by the critics of 'Euro-Islam', who regard it as 'an attempt by outsiders to interfere in an internal Islamic debate'.

In view of these critiques and also considering the fact that upon Bassam Tibi's retirement from his Professorship at the University of Goettingen his Centre for International Studies and Islamology was closed in 2009, it remains to be seen how viable this concept will be in the future as increasingly well-educated, integrated and assertive European Muslims  develop their own ways of articulating their multi-layered identities as European citizens and Muslims.

Click here to read to full article.

For further readings check the selection below

Critical Muslim Perspectives on the Qur'an (2): Abdolkarim Soroush

University of Notre Dame is now posting videos of its Qur'an Seminar online. The initiative is coordinated by Gabriel Reynolds, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies & Theology, and  provides a forum for contemporary Muslim academics and other intellectuals to share their views on the Islamic scripture. On of the most recent contributions was by the leading Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush (see also the earlier post on this blog, dated 20 March 2012):

For further readings of Abdolkarim Soroush and his work, click on the widget below:

Saturday, 2 November 2013

There is no Golden Age of Islam and al-Ghazali Did Not Kill Rationalism in the Muslim World

Asad Q. Ahmed
Piecing together the scholarly heritage of the pre-modern Muslim world, the intellectual historian Asad Q. Ahmed has come to the conclusion that there is no single Golden Age of Islamic learning. In an article on Open Democracy, he also corrects a number of other misconceptions about the Muslim past.
Over the past few years, I have slowly and meticulously been peeling away at the layers of Muslim rationalist discourses, in order to construct a responsible narrative of the fate of science in Islam; some of my colleagues - singly and in teams - have also been devotedly involved in this scholarly endeavor around the globe and have contributed much to my own understanding of the past.  And though we have yet a massive amount of trans-generational work to do, on the basis of our discoveries thus far, we have unanimously come to reject the longstanding narrative of the Golden Age and subsequent decline of Islamic rationalism
 Many conventional accounts, put the blame at the feet of a figure who is at the same time also recognized as one of the towering figures in Islamic intellectual history, the Persian polymath Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111):
 But I am afraid that this is not how things happened.  To begin with, al-Ghazali’s attack in his famous Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) is not aimed at reason or philosophy (despite how the title sounds).  He takes issue, as he clearly outlines in his multiple introductions to the work and in the main body, only with metaphysicians, insofar as they use faulty logic - incoherent formal syllogisms, arguments with internal contradictions, premises that are unrelated to the conclusions, etc. - to argue about matters that pertain to the Muslim creed (such as the issues of bodily resurrection, that God knows particulars only in a universal way, etc.).  Beyond these creedal matters, al-Ghazali is in fact rather explicit in stating that on matters pertaining to scientific demonstrations, Muslims should not argue with philosophers. 
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE)
Indeed he goes so far as to claim that when a scientific demonstration contradicts a hadith (Saying of the Prophet), it is more suitable to reject the latter as unsoundly transmitted; similarly, when any other scriptural proof text fails to conform to the demonstrated conclusions of reason, the former must be interpreted allegorically.  In other words, there is practically no doubt that al-Ghazali gives authority to reason over transmitted sciences. His other works, including those on law and legal theory, include sentiments such as “reason is the source of transmitted knowledge” and sharp attacks against the blind imitation (taqlid) of authority.
Instead, Asad Ahmed argues for a more careful qualification of the significance of Muslim rationalists of the pre-modern Muslim world:
...let me point out that the rationalists that I am referring to and whose attitudes I am reporting here were not marginal figures in Muslim societies: they straddled multiple fields of expertise, ranging from Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and Sayings of the Prophet (hadith) to astronomy, medicine, mathematics..
 Therefore he rejects the notion that Islam is inherently opposed to reason:
..if this is true, then I would advise Muslims to abandon their religion.  For in my view, no religion that suppresses this primary, essential, and defining faculty of humans can be true...
The explanation for the sorry state of the present-day Muslim world in terms of contributing to modern sciences and intellectual activities in general is therefore more complex. In the case of the geographical area in which A.Q. Ahmed specializes, it was a combination of the collapse of patronage by rulers, the rise of the Urdu language at the expense of Arabic and Persian, changes in the synchronic and dialectic practices of traditional scholarship in the wake of the introduction of print technology, and the tendency of Orientalist philology to privilege the foundational Sanskrit heritage of antiquity over the later cultural sediments brought by the Muslims..

To read the whole article, click here.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

French-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb: Islamists are not ready for Democracy

In an interview with the Qantara website, the Paris-based Tunisian writer and commentator Abdelwahab Meddeb expresses his doubts regarding the future trajectories of his home country and Egypt under the governance of Islamic parties. Ever the critical observer he minces no words
The Islamists who are now in power did not take part in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Indeed the very fact that no religious slogans whatsoever were chanted during the revolution is in itself interesting. For this reason, it is safe to say that the election of the Islamists to government and their appearance on the political stage constitutes a kind of hijacking of the revolution.
For me, the Islamists have nothing to do with the Islamic tradition of the Middle Ages. After all, the text-based tradition of the Islamic Middle Ages was complex and ambiguous. It was based on controversy and the plurality of thought. Above all, however, it was part of a universal, historical theocentric age. In this age, God was at the centre of all societies.
Abdelwahab Meddeb
To his mind their reactionary attitude is out of sync with the present-day situation in the Muslim world:
 When attempts are made today to put God back at the centre of society instead of humankind, then for me, that is an enormous step backwards. Islamism has changed from being a religious tradition into an ideology. As a religion, Islam has – just like all religions – a global vision. In other words, they want to assert their influence in all areas.
Referring to Turkey, he still harbours reservations whether the Muslim world is really entering a post-Islamist era: 
Whether Erdogan's Islamism has really developed into an Islamic democracy will only become clear on the day that change occurs. So far, Erdogan has not been voted out of office. I am waiting for the day when he loses an election and I will watch with interest to see how he leaves office and returns to his own home. I don't think that the Islamists are ready for a democratic culture. I will believe in an Islamic democracy when I see this change actually taking place in the form of a democratic handover of power. In other words, change will be the ultimate proof.
 However, he is also cautiously optimistic about the chances of a change of course into an alternative direction:

At present, there is an open debate between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia. This is the first time that this has ever happened. Indeed, I think that people have long since forgotten the culture of listening to each other. We are currently in a period of transition. The period that follows will be critical.

Read the full interview by clicking here

Friday, 18 October 2013

Intellectual Archive: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

The Jadaliyya website, which has grown into one of the most prominent platforms for alternative voices from the Middle Eastern and North African parts of the Muslim world has established an archive offering a useful introduction to the intellectual legacy of one of the pioneering scholars of Islam from the Arabic-speaking world during the final decades of the last century and the early years of the new millennium.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd has done ground-breaking world in the subfields of Qur'anic studies and in the discourse analysis of religious thinking in the contemporary Muslim world. His writings drew the attention of inquisitive young Muslims both at home and abroad, and some of his writings have been translated into Turkish, Indonesian, French, German, and Italian.

On the other hand, his proposition to approach the Qur'an as  literary text that can be subjected to text analytical and semiotic investigations also earned him the hostility of reactionary Muslim bloc. In the combustible political-religious climate of the Egypt in the early 1990s, which saw not only bloody confrontations between violent extremist and the Egyptian security forces, but also the assassination of the writer Farag Foda and a failed attempt on the life of Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Abu Zayd saw no other option than going into exile in Germany and the Netherlands. His premature death in 2010, cut short the life and career of Muslim humanist and innovative academic.

For those who can read Arabic, click here to read brief sketches and view video clips of a number of talks. For those who don't, here are a few interviews in English:

Part 1 & 2

Thursday, 19 September 2013

A Crisis of Religious authority in the Muslim World

An important article by Hatem Bazian of Zaytuna College on Religious authority in the Muslim World, signalling the problems faced by traditional authority figures:
Current events in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia - and before that in Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey - point to a great struggle between religious authorities and state powers. At play are various claimants to religious authority; states in pre- and post-colonial and pre- and post-nationalist periods; and the role of religious authorities in existing monarchies. [...] The scholars, despite being included, and contributing to unfolding events, have collectively been dragged into the political arena, an area they are ill-prepared or ill-qualified to respond to in clear and meaningful ways. And referencing classical texts only complicates the matter - for it brings history into the contemporary struggle without the prerequisite knowledge needed to examine the past. In this manner, the past becomes a tool for asserting claims to the contemporary.

His discussion ties in with the upcoming volume of essays, which  Susanne Olsson and I have edited, and which is due to appear later this year under the title Alternative Islamic Discourses and Religious Authority.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Positive Assertiveness: British Muslims write back

A number of British Muslim activists  as well as academics from Muslim backgrounds have developed a new initiative through the Runnymede Trust to resist growing Islamophobia in the United Kingdom. Positioning themselves as positive but assertive citizens, they underline the diversity of Britain's Muslim communities and the discrepancies between outsider and self-perceptions of British citizens and other residents originating from the Muslim world. Hereunder is a clip introducing :

Friday, 16 August 2013

From Fragmentation to Polarization: is there a future for political Islam?

My contribution to a debate on Al-Jazeera's 'Inside Story', discussing the fall-out of the security forces' crackdown on protestors in Egypt, who refuse to give up their demands for the reinstatement of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Erdoğan after Gezi Park: From Role Model to Bogeyman

What began as a small-scale protest against a contentious inner-city development plan in Istanbul, proposed by a government that seemed to be comfortably riding to its next election victory, within two weeks developed into a nationwide mass movement against Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan. Confronted with an arrogant and defiant government leader, who dismissed the protesters as good-for-nothing riffraff, a broad-spectrum alliance of middle-class urbanites, students, environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, Kemalists and leftists banded together to demand the AKP leader's resignation.

Not even in the surrounding Arab countries has the reputation of a leader unraveled so quickly. Erdoğan's political fortune collapsed as he sent in the full force of the police, now assisted by the goons of the gendarmerie, usually patrolling Turkey's unruly East, and perhaps soon -- if threats of the deputy prime minister may be believed -- the army too.

 It is ironic, to say the least, that the man who was held up as the model to follow for new leaders emerging in the Middle East and North Africa after the revolts of 2011 and 2012, has turned into a bogeyman himself, accused of authoritarianism and Sultan-like ambitions.

Never too good in absorbing criticism, Erdoğan now shows himself aggrieved and out-of-touch, incapable of understanding the significance of the fact that close to fifty percent of the electorate had never been on his side anyway. The only response he seems to know is confrontation. Small wonder that parallels are drawn between recent events in Turkey and what transpired in the Arab Spring.

'Padishah' Tayyip

It is evidently not so easy to plot a political course that can be regarded as a true 'third way' between 'hard' Kemalist secularism and an Islamic state. The Turkish government, like its counterparts in the surrounding countries, is struggling to understand and appreciate an increasingly well-educated and better informed population of 'critical Muslims'.

Nilüfer Göle
One commentator whose analyses of the current developments are receiving considerable attention in  publications outside Turkey, is the Paris-based sociologist Nilüfer Göle and author of The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling.

Her article about the nature of the Gezi Park movement and the Taksim Square demonstrations  in the 6 June issue of Le Monde is now widely circulated in English translation. Göle describes the opposition to Erdoğan as an 'urban movement --started by young people supported by the middle classes and featuring a strong female presence' -- which has lost none of their resolve in the face of police brutality to challenge the erosion of the right to the freedom of expression and the government's 'moralising intrusions into citizens' ways of life'.

Here are some excerpts which have appeared on the Germany-based Qantara website under the title A Libertarian and Unifying Movement, and was subsequently circulated by Open Democracy as The Gezi Occupation: for a democracy of public spaces.
His contemptuous vocabulary is no longer a simple source of mockery in conversations, but has incited collective indignation.
 He also provoked a scandal by naming a new bridge over the Bosporus "Yavuz Sultan Selim", a name that evokes the massacres of the Alevis. "Respect" has become a new slogan tagged on walls all over the cities and expressing the need for a return to civility in Turkish public life.
For the past few years, the mode of governance has seen the personalisation of power, not unlike that of the sultanate. Enjoying majority rule with no real political opposition, Erdogan has not hesitated to make major decisions himself, without deigning to consult either those primarily concerned, the citizens, or his own political entourage.
By monopolising discourse, he has undermined the power of others, such as the Mayor of Istanbul, who sought to ease tensions during the demonstrations in Gezi Park. This personalisation of power is felt in his omnipresence in the public sphere and is now turning against him and crystallising in anger directed specifically at his person.
  Drawing parallels with the Arab Spring and the European anti-globalization movement, Göle notes:
  [..] if the Arab Spring demanded the majority's voice in democracy, the Turkish movement is rising up against democratic majoritarianism. While European activists have been weakened by the economic crisis, Turkish residents have been filled to overflowing with a certain form of capitalism.
 At the heart of this movement is the restoration of public space in democracies. These spaces are public in that they are open to all, and bring together men and women, Muslims and the non-religious, Alevis and Kurds, young and old, middle and lower classes. This has allowed a new critical imaginary to circulate, one which focuses on protecting public space in its physical sense, with its capacity for bringing people together in a convivial way. In the face of state oppression through commerce and morality, citizens have put culture before consumption and respect for diversity before contempt for others.
 While the soul of this predominantly secular movement is libertarian, it does not embrace old State laicism and animosity against Islam. For now, unifying different classes of Turkish society  it defends 'the autonomy of the public space against the homogenizing forces of ideologies, religions, markets and the State power'.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Muhammad Shahrur: From Engineer to Exegete

Syria has been predominantly in the news for the, so far, bodged attempts to unseat the more than forty-year old Asad Regime as part of a wave of revolts shaking the Arab world in recent years. While regime change may still be quite far off, and the idea of an Islamist take-over is a disconcerting prospect for many Syrians and outside observers alike, for decades individual Syrian Muslim intellectuals have proposed alternative readings of Islam as a civilizational heritage rather than blueprint for an alternative political order.

Muhammad Shahrur
One of these is Muhammad Shahrur (b. 1938), an engineer and university lecturer turned Qur'an commentator. As a faculty member at the University of Damascus from 1972 until 1998, he was a contemporary of scholars from various other disciplines, including Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Tayyib Tizini, Yasin al-Hafiz, and Adonis. But his breakthrough as one of the heritage thinkers or turathiyyin of the last twenty or thirty years came with the publication of his The Book and the Qur'an, which caused as much of a stir as Mohammed Arkoun's Lectures du Coran and the writings of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. It earned him the ire of Syria's most influential Islamic scholar and regime loyalist, Shaykh Ramadan al-Buti (1929-2013), who was recently assassinated under very suspicious circumstances.

According to a recent article on the Qantara Website:

Shahrur also regards himself as part of an avant-garde of Islamic "revivers." For him, the key recognition is that there is only one God, but many paths to reach him. And since the very beginning of his reformist work almost 20 years ago, he has clearly and vehemently pleaded for Muslims to turn to the revealed text themselves as the true criteria of divine truth instead of being "subservient to the authority of Islamic law.

Educated in Moscow and Dublin, Shahrur's intellectual profile matches the cultural hybridity and intellectual cosmopolitanism that characterizes the new Muslim intellectuals emerging in the final decades of the twentieth century. Influenced by Marxism and the philosophical Positivism that can be traced from Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead to Kant, Fichte and Hegel, Shahrur is adamant that Islam's teachings can be reconciled with modern rational experiences of reality.

While since the publication of his first book, he has released a stream of publications on Islam's Sacred Scripture, he remains an engaged intellectual whose views echo very similar insights as other Syrian thinkers whose initial Marxist leanings are now complemented by a more sophisticated understanding of the importance of the Islamic heritage for achieving a secularization that can find root in Muslim societies:
Islam is for all intents and purposes the sole dominating normative force in the Arab world. "The religious heritage must be critically read and interpreted anew. Cultural and religious reforms are more important than political ones, as they are the preconditions for any secular reforms."
In view of the central importance of the Qur'an to the Muslim worldview, Shahrur has continued to invest his intellectual energies in engaging with the sacred text. He has fine-tuned his research methodology by combining his interest in Positivism and the mathematical proclivities which can be traced to his science and engineering background, with new advances in linguistics.

In line with the liminality that is another characteristic of these heritage thinkers, his reinterpretation of Islamic concepts such as hudud, is an exponent of how this intellectual Muslim avant-garde operates in the margins of traditionally  'accepted'  scholarly approaches.  Originally referring to corporeal punishments prescribed by the Qur'an for certain transgressions, Shahrur returns to the word's etymology and reformulates it as a 'theory of limits' -- a divinely set boundary or moral imperative, which opens up a myriad of hermeneutic possibilities towards a depoliticization of narrow-minded understandings of Islam. With this he sees himself as stepping into the footsteps of the last major medieval Muslim thinker, Ibn Rushd, who has been a beacon for so many of Shahrur's peers (cf. my post on the Moroccan Averroist, the late Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri).

To read the full article on Shahrur click here.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Critical Muslim Perspectives on the Qur'an: Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im

Abdullahi an-Na'im
University of Notre Dame is now posting videos of its Qur'an Seminar online. The initiative is coordinated by Gabriel Reynolds, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies & Theology, and  provides a forum for contemporary Muslim academics and other intellectuals to share their views on the Islamic scripture. It has hosted high-profile scholars such as the Sudanese jurist and human rights specialist Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im.

Click on the widget below for further readings into the work of Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na'im:

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sadik Jalal al-Azm: Muslim Secularist talks about the Syrian Uprising

Last week, the Syrian website Al-Jumhuriyah, run by a conglomerate of Syrian writers and researchers supporting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, published a lengthy interview conducted in January 2013, with one of Syria's foremost thinkers, the philosopher Sadik Jalal al-Azm, who has It focused  on his views about recent developments in his country and the role of intellectuals in bringing about change.

Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm
Sadiq al-Azm's thinking is very much shaped by Marxism and  he has written on a wide variety of subjects, including Arab political affairs after the defeat of June 1967,  freedom of thought, platonic love, secularism, democracy, and globalization. However, he has also written very perceptive studies on religion, including critical assessments of Islamic thinking and Muslim responses to Orientalism

When asked how the author of A Critique of Religious Reason and other skeptical works about Islam could join a revolution that had started in the mosque, he responded that for too long intellectuals had closed their eyes to Syrian reality just in order to preserve their own mental and physical survival. Now:
the revolution is a Syrian settling of old accounts and an overdue payment of bills that were the result of Syrian silence and cowardice in moments such as the siege of the city of Hama in 1982, and its destruction and killing of its people
Moreover, it is not the first time that he sided with a revolt towards regime that was led by religious people, including clerics; Muslim and non-Muslim:
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with the revolution of the Iranian people against the rule, corruption, and tyranny of the Shah, and against his famous intelligence apparatus known for its ferocity (the SAVAK). He stood with it despite the fact that that the leadership role of the clergy and ayatollahs was evident from the outset, and as I recall, the left in those days was almost entirely in favor of the Iranian people’s revolution despite the fact that demonstrations emerged from mosques, cemeteries, and funerals
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with Liberation Theologists in Latin America and other places, because Liberation Theology supported people’s liberation movements in those countries against base tyrants such as Samoza in Nicaragua, criminal coup-makers like Pinochet in Chile, and the rule of the bloody generals in Argentina. After all this, is it possible for the author of the mentioned book to fail or let-down in the issue of standing with the revolution of the Syrian people against the rule that has surpassed Samoza, Pinochet, the Argentine generals, and the Shah of Iran combined in its tyranny, murder, and destruction?
What tilted the balance of inaction towards action in the case of his home country was set in motion in 2000; when a republican government was changed into a hereditary dynasty and the indignities the Syrian people had to suffer simply became too much. Still, there is a chill and sinister side to al-Azm's words
Syria swallowed the humiliation quietly and sedately, which was an unenviable position these days, and blood is being spilled today to erase its effects. The moment that the “Damascus Spring” tried to light a candle at the end of the tunnel, it was eliminated with a visible ferocity, and once again, Syria was silent and it accepted the suppression of the Damascus Spring with shocking normalcy. I will say again, in its revolution today, Syria spills this much blood in order to atone for all its past sins and erase its shame, and for this reason, I am with it.

In response to a question why, as a  leading representative of the intellectual left he had decided to throw his weight behind the uprising, whereas many of its other exponents have remained at best equivocal in their support, or even refused to back it altogether, Sadiq al-Azm explained that this would first need an explanation of a development within the Syrian left:
 ... it is known that the left brings together committed activists and advocates from different religious, confessional, doctrinal, regional, ethnic, and tribal backgrounds for the sake of a future civil state which surpasses these primordial affiliations and loyalties. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the left and its dispersal everywhere (especially the numerous and differentiated communist parties), many of these leftists reverted back to their primordial and more primitive loyalties, especially the religious, confessional and doctrinal ones
[...] the left split into a large block that adopted what might be called “the Civil Society program”. It is a program which emphasizes certain issues, such as: Respect of human rights (even if only in word, or in the minimum possible manner), priority for the idea of citizenship and its practice in addition to civil rights and public freedoms, equality before the law, separation of powers, a secular state, an independent judiciary, democracy, decentralization of power and effective governance rather than passing power around between family members, as is happening in Syria today. In other words, the largest bloc of the left retreated to the second line of defense in the form of a “civil society program,” and its defense in the face of military-security-familial tyranny on the one hand, and medieval religious obscurantism on the other hand. I think that this bloc of the left in general sympathizes with the revolution in Syria
Al-Azm stresses that he has not given up his leftist convictions and that he still considers Marxist analyses of social and political situations convincing. However, he adds the caveat that he is not referring to classical Marxist analyses, but the approach advocated by Frantz Fanon, which he considers more relevant to  developments in a country like Syria:

..it is useful to return to it today for any attempt at diagnosing the Syrian revolution and understanding its nature, especially given that Fanon was a real pioneer in describing the mechanisms and the stages of transformation of political powers, parties, and organizations that start as parties and national liberation movements in oppressed third world societies but change into a clique of rulers completely separated from their beginnings, their popular foundations, and their liberal programs that they had adopted which formed the purpose for their coming to power, only for them to oppress and step on the neck of the wretched of their population
Returning to the issue of joining a revolutionary cause that was initiated by religious activists, he also takes a swipe at another leading intellectual, the poet Adonis (see also the blog post of 30 October 2011).
The contradiction here is not in my position, but in the position of those who once stood in support of the revolution of the Iranian people or the Liberation Theologists and their churches or for movements of national liberation almost everywhere, yet refuse to support the revolution of the Syrian people under the pretext that its demonstrations and protests spring from the mosque and not from the opera house or the national theatre, as Adonis justifies.
 Adonis preferred denial, evasion and justification in his dealing with the changing reality of the Arab Spring, and especially the popular revolution in Syria. Adonis had raised the slogan “positions for change, freedom and creativity” in his famous magazine Mawaqif (Positions); however, when the serious change began to occur in Syria and freedom was near, Adonis retreated more than two steps backwards instead of absorbing seriously and critically the development of the changing Arab reality, and instead of critically reviewing the axioms of his cultural and epistemological apparatus in light of the mobile and new Arab Syrian reality. His slogans imply that such an intellectual would be at the forefront of people leaning towards change and freedom in Syria and defending them, but he preferred to distance himself from all of this and he discarded his slogan in the dustbin of history.
Al-Azm also cautions against having exaggerated expectations of what a revolution can achieve in terms of structurally changing a culture that has become very much set in its ways: 'cultural change is socially cumulative and historically slow'. For convincing argumentations making that case, he refers to the writings of fellow progressive thinkers from the Maghrib, among others: Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, Abdallah Laroui, and Egyptians like Fouad Zakariyya and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. As for Syria, he believes inspiration can be drawn from such thinkers as Jamil Saliba, Anton Makdisi, Adib Allajmi, Adil Al-Awwa, Yasin al-Hafiz, Tayyib Tayzini

Returning to the ideological dimensions of realizing drastic changes in a culture and society, al-Azm believes that the key to genuine change is secularization and the creation of a civil society which can enact such social transformations. This is also the reason why he helped establish the 'Committee for the Revival of Civil Society' (al-Mowaten) and became an active participant in the 'Damascus Spring' forums:
what is most important in secularism and democracy is their energetic capacity, particularly in diverse and pluralistic societies… In addition to this capacity to provide a good, positive atmosphere to restore civil peace, and not to oppress and use bare force, and to provide well tested mechanism (in many countries and people and societies and cultures today) for peaceful transfer of power as widely as possible in society. Among the characteristics of secularism and democracy is that they provide a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs that are exclusionary by nature, allowing them to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape based on common denominators and voluntary, free consensus that makes it impossible for any of these doctrines and dogmas to survive in a vacuum
 He rejects the notion that some religions or cultures are per definition incapable of secularizing and therefore unsuitable for democratic systems of governance:
democracy is usually acquired, and the secular state is also acquired and is not that easy to launch. There has always been a great many obstacles, internally and externally, for all. I also do not think that the enlightened secular elites’ goal was originally only to prepare their communities to become eligible to accept democracy. Their goal, ambition, as well as their demand was a comprehensive renaissance of the vocabulary of democracy and secularism.
In analyzing why the secularization and democratization of Arab societies and political systems is such an uphill battle, the influence on al-Azm of Third-Worldist discourses as articulated by Frantz Fanon is clearly detectable: 
This not only happened to us, but to all civilizations, cultures, and peoplesIn the search for our enlightenment and renaissance, we always come back to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo, but a bit of scrutiny will show that there was something like al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo [Abduh, ck] and what they represent in Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Africa. So I think that the issue of enlightenment is much larger than groups of educated and secular elites that are trying to make the people eligible to accept democracy through public awareness of the need of secularism and secularization to overcome the failures and existing deficit. And I do not think that the current Arab Spring revolutions are able to set aside the idea of a broader enlightenment in ahistorical sense, if they had wanted to, because they also speak the language of reform, democracy, renewal, freedom, dignity, renaissance, and constitutionalism.
As for the role of intellectuals in recasting Syria's future in terms of securing a democratization process in the wake of the anticipated regime change, al-Azm notes the following points:
one of the most important things that intellectuals can do in the beginning is get rid of what is called the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information, then form their own cultural bodies, literary forums, intellectual circles, and independent autonomous unions, and manage them all without abidance to anyone or the dominance of one over the other.
 Then, it is up to the intellectuals to be generous with the best that they have to offer to the people, so that the intellectual in the New Syria is active and engaged. 
Read the full interview here.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Ignored and neglected: The Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa

Most attention for developments in the Muslim world, political, intellectual, or otherwise, focuses primarily on the Middle East and to some extent also South Asia. Geographically peripheral areas such as Southeast Asia, but even more so, sub-Saharan Africa, are generally neglected in both media and scholarship. The fact that Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation state in the world, and that Nigeria's Muslims number close to 90 million (more than the entire populations of, say, Iran, Turkey, or Egypt) is often ignored.

When areas such as West Africa do  receive coverage it is generally due to political crises or acute security concerns emerging from the region which are thought to have an effect on developments elsewhere. Seldom is there any attention for the local situation in its own right or a genuine interest in the region's place within the Muslim world or in its historical contributions to Islamic civilization. Africans are seen as 'marginal' Muslims.

In view of  recent events in Mali there has at least been some awareness of the destruction of its indigenous Islamic legacy in the course of clashes between locals, outside Islamic activists, and intervening foreign armed forces. However, so far this had hardly gone beyond indignation over the threats to UNESCO heritage sites such as the town of Djenné and it Great Mosque. Some cursory mention was also made of the equally endangered manuscript collections of Timbuktu. Such concerns demonstrate that there is an inkling of the role of Africa in shaping Muslim culture.

But that is all about the past, present-day Muslims in countries like Mali and its neighbours still face marginalization. However, some critical voices among its intellectuals do speak about the discrimination they face from their co-religionists, often in the guise of bringing 'true Islam' to Africa.

Bakary Sambe
This issue was addressed by the Senegalese intellectual Bakary Sambe. Trained in Lyon as an Arabist, Africanist and political scientist, he specializes in trans-regional Muslim relations, in particular between the Arab world and Africa. He has taught in France and Senegal, and has held research associations with the European Foundation for Democracy and the Aga Khan University in London.

Organisations that are financed by Arab nations such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are attempting what could be described as an "Islamisation" of our region; they want to bring their idea of "true Islam" to sub-Saharan Africa. This is pure ideology motivated by an Arab paternalism that I vehemently oppose. The attempt to "Arabise" us is based on a total denial of our culture as African Muslims.
His criticism is not only directed at the oil-rich Gulf States, but also individuals such as Tariq Ramadan, who  -- although controversial in his own right -- is nevertheless regarded as an 'acceptable face of Islam'. But according to Sambe, his attitudes still reflect a kind of paternalism towards non-Arab Muslims which he considers 'imperialist'.

At the same time, he sees little emancipatory or redeeming value in promoting Islam Noir or 'Black Islam':
This term was introduced during the colonial era and sought to infantilise us, the African people. Allegedly, we were so emotional because we were not as spiritually mature as the Arabs, who were consequently viewed as more dangerous. France has always tried to establish a barrier between the Maghreb and the sub-Saharan region, to prevent any intellectual exchange from taking place.
Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu
 He finds its ironic that now, at the beginning of the 21th century, Gulf Arabs come to 'Islamize' West-Africa's Muslims, while in the 15th century, when large parts of the Arabian Peninsula had reverted to being a cultural backwater, the scholars in Timbuktu were producing their treasured manuscripts....

Sambe thinks it is high time for African Muslims to shake off their inferiority complex and work redeveloping their own religious and intellectual traditions. Only this way Muslims can interact on par which each other.

Read the whole article here

Friday, 26 April 2013

Defending democracy and secularism: Ethiopia's Muslim civil rights movement

The Open Democracy website covers democratization efforts, and its discontents, across the world. It just posted an article on a country that is rarely mentioned in current affairs on the Muslim world: Ethiopia, where a Muslim civil rights movement has recently sprung up in defence of democracy and: 
has so far had some spectacular implications for the development of democracy and democratic political culture in the country. It has affected its culture as well as its institutional dynamics.
Author Alemu Tafesse contends that in the face of severe constrains on NGO activism, the virtual absence of a free press, tightly-controlled religions organizations, and professional organizations operating in cahoots with the government, Muslim activists are defying the country's repressive regime led by the janus-faced Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which sends out a barrage of 'legal speak' about the need for safeguarding the rule of law, whilst simultaneously curtailing citizens rights through what is an effect an authoritarian one-party state.

The regime has tried to manipulate the Muslim segment of the population by orchestrating tightly controlled elections for a new Islamic Supreme Council whose loyalty the government can count on. But since late 2011 it is confronted by newly emerging protest movement of Muslims who are campaigning for the restoration of citizens rights, establishing a 17-person committee to coordinate its actions, in January 2012  However, they face an uphill battle as becomes clear from the Human Rights Watch report on unfair trial of twenty-nine of its activists, including no less than 9 members of the committee, leading journalists and NGO activists.

Rather than advocating religious communitarian interests, they are challenging a formidable adversary with a very different set of demands: 
The movement has consistently demanded the protection of democratic and constitutional rights, nothing more or less. It has couched its demands in the most legitimate manner, and has staged perfectly non-violent rallies. It has never, on the one hand, asked for, or worked towards, the realization of religious interests beyond or independent of the constitutional framework, nor, on the other hand, has it demanded, or sought, the displacement of that framework by a new secular system. This is very significant for the development of an inclusive and non-violent democratic culture in Ethiopia.
Here we see a phenomenon that seems almost counter-intuitive, not to say, paradoxical: Muslim citizens criticizing a government's anti-secular policies. Thus Ethiopia's Muslim-led civil rights movement stands in marked contrast to other Muslim organizations which tend to focus on the interests of their co-religionists. In this case, Muslims appear to be defending an 'Ethiopian agenda' that is inclusivist:
By its very nature, recent Muslim activism has been trans-ethnic and trans-regional, and hence it has offered a glimpse of a pan-Ethiopian trait (despite the obvious limitation of its being religion-based). But it has also been “Ethiopia-centered” in the sense that its discourse, its actors, its visions etc have been Ethiopian, not international or regional. The government’s accusations notwithstanding, there has not been any trace of foreign involvement in this struggle.
Read the full article by clicking here

Saturday, 20 April 2013

An intellectual History of the Contemporary Muslim World

An impressionist and anecdotal talk by yours truly about contemporary thinking in the Muslim World at Mahfil Ali Shi'a Ithna'ashari Community in Middlesex (SICM).

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A critical Muslim view from Indonesia on democracy, state and religion

Herdi Sahrasad
The Jakarta Post carried an interesting article  on the delicate relation between state and religion in Indonesia. It was co-authored by American political scientist Blake Respini and the Indonesian journalist and academic Herdi Sahrasad, a lecturer at Paramadina University and associate director of the Center for Islam and State Studies.

Blake Respini
It challenges received views on the compatibility between support for a democratic political system and holding on to religiously-inspired -- often conservative -- social values. Many Muslim organizations in Indonesia advocate a combination of the two: 
It is easy to mistake support for a conservative moral law as support for Islamism when it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values.[..] these civic organizations may be as important to the future of Indonesia’s democracy as is the curtailment of extremists.[...] 
From an outsider (Western) perspective this often leads to confusion, but, as the authors point out, in the Indonesian context: 
a critical component of Indonesia’s democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. [...] most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs even if they do not support the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to sharia is often blurred.
 The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects that Indonesia continues to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy.

Consequently, the overeasy binaries projected in most of the media coverage on the Muslim world as well as due to the 'securitization' of the academic study of Islam, create a simplistic and misleading image -- certainly where it comes to Indonesia: 
political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognize this so that they can find common ground
 This reality imposes a delicate balancing act on both states and their citizens:
 All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes, musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves. However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the imbedded images that a country’s inhabitants hold of themselves is that of their national identity. 

In the Indonesian case it meant finding a meaningful combination between the Muslim identity of its majority population, connecting it with co-religionists elsewhere, and their belonging to Indonesia, forcing them to forge bonds with non-Muslim fellow countrymen (and women).

To read the article in full, click here. For a slightly different version, highlighting some other aspects, click here.