No. 12: September-December 2014

Carool Kersten

Muslim World

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the Muslim world?

In 1996, Asef Bayat published an article under the title ‘The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’, by which he meant a condition where the ‘appeal, energy, symbols and sources of legitimacy of Islamism get exhausted’. [1] As this was the very year in which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, introducing five years of repressive Islamism of the most brutal sort, and heralding another decade of further atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam across the world, one might be forgiven to dismiss Bayat’s proposition out of hand as a preposterous contention. However, in contrast to other scholars, such as Giles Kepel and Oliver Roy, who also predicted that Islamism was in the process of burning itself out, Bayat’s understanding of Post-Islamism is not chronological but conceptual. [2]

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

What we are looking at is an ongoing process of changing discursive formations, which are historically rooted and with a mid- and long-term horizon. Short-term predictions would be highly speculative. What can be observed is that, just like Postmodernism does not spell the end of modern(ist) thinking, or postcolonial theory the extinction of colonial realities and practices, so Post-Islamism introduces an alternative way of thinking about religion in the Muslim world that -- for the foreseeable future -- will coexist with other Islamic discourses.

The overall taxonomies developed for mapping modern and contemporary Islamic thinking are of a mind-boggling variety, a problem that is compounded by the cavalier use of terminology in both media and scholarship, especially when it comes to forms of (perceived) radical Islam. Terms like Islamic fundamentalist, Islamist, Jihadi, Salafi, and Wahhabi are casually thrown around as if they are synonyms. While I think a convincing argument can be made to bring exponents of these strands of Islamic thinking and activism together in a category of ‘reactionary Muslims’, it is important to stress that not all Islamists are Salafis, nor are all Salafis automatically Islamists. As Quintan Wiktorowicz has argued, Salafis can be ‘quietists’, ‘politicos’ seeking a peaceful achievement of their objectives, or ‘Jihadis’ engaged in violent actions. [3]  Inversely, not all Islamists can be qualified as Salafis – the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, looks remarkable like a traditional Sufi order in its structure and is not tied to the seventh-century ‘Pious Ancestors’ (Salaf Salih), encompassing the first three generations of the embryonic Muslim community, as the sole benchmark for proper Islamic conduct.

Despite the impression created in the media, only a small minority of Muslims is involved in political violence, and even the politicos can’t claim majority support – although sympathy for their viewpoints and actions may be more widespread. Fact of the matter is that the overall population of majority Muslim countries is socially conservative and subscribing to traditionalist interpretations of religious doctrine and piety. Genuinely committed to their faith, they also often object to being called ‘moderate Muslims’, because it carries a connotation of lukewarm or half-hearted adherence. It seems to me that qualifying these Muslims as ‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’ is a more accurate reflection of their outlook. A similar problem is attached to the designation ‘liberal Islam’, because it invites comparisons with liberalism as a political ideology that has historically evolved in a social, political and cultural setting very different from that of the Muslim world. Proceeding from ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ to the other side of the spectrum, I suggest that “progressives” would be a more consistent characterization of that type of Muslims.

If and when accepted as a subcategory of such progressive Islamic thinking, also Post-Islamism must not be understood as a homogeneous discourse. Instead of a narrow set of doctrinal tenets and legal do’s and don’ts, conceiving of Islam as a civilization, as proposed by the turathiyyun or so-called ‘heritage thinkers’ in the 1970s and 1980s, is one instance of post-Islamist thinking that already began taking shape decades before the term was coined. Affirming the point made earlier – this strand of progressive Muslim thought developed very much in parallel with the alleged ‘Islamic resurgence’ emerging on the back of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. In the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, present-day Muslim thinkers who I refer to as anti-foundationalists, such as Hamid Dabashi and – to a lesser extent -- Ali Mirsepassi, push this critical engagement with the Islamic heritage much further. Their criticism focuses in particular on the futility of the search for Islamic ‘authenticity’, which features prominently in such intellectual projects as ‘Heritage and Renewal’, the lifelong preoccupation of the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi; the writings of Persian nativists; as well as Iran’s so-called ‘religious intellectuals’, led by Abdolkarim Soroush who defy the reactionary policies of the Islamic Republic.

The ‘blindness’ that undermines their critical Islamic rationalism can also be detected in the blind spots marring the outlook of certain heritage thinkers from the Maghreb. [4] I think that is even the case with the neo-Ibn Rushdian philosopher from Morocco [5], Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri (1936-2010), whose ‘Critique of Arab Reason’ project was largely shaped by his Marxian reading of Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history. To be sure, also this, what I call ‘Maghrebi Historicism’, comes in different manifestations [6]. Aside from other Marxists such as Abdallah Laroui, there was also the French-Algerian historian of Islam Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010). His alternative research agenda for Islamic Studies presented under the name ‘Islamologie Appliquée’, has traces of the influences of the Annales School; the anthropologist of religion Roger Bastide, and the ‘Lusotropicology’ of the Brazilian social scientist Gilberto Freire [7].

Tracking the genealogy of concepts and ideas also pays in pointing up Post-Islamism’s intellectual inconsistencies. For example, Hamid Dabashi’s use of Gianni Vattimo’s penseiro debole – ‘weak thought’ [8]. This is not just a whimsical borrowing of a fanciful term; it introduces a deeper engagement with Poststructuralist discourse analysis and Ideologiekritik. Reading some of Vattimo’s other texts on the transition from modernity to postmodernity, such as Transparent Society, where he characterizes it as a shift from a unilinear philosophy of history and potentially progressive utopia to ‘heterotopia’; that is the multiple makings of the world which tend to be restricted to ‘inventory, nostalgia, revival’, it becomes clear that the Salafi glorification of the ‘Pious Ancestors’ is not all that different from Hamid Dabashi’s advocacy of a return to the literary humanism of the classical Persian poets. On the other hand, it also can be read as an Islamic form of kenosis – ‘the “emptying out” of the divine into the human’, which – this is again Vattimo – as the theological turn in postmodern thinking connects religion with the latter’s interpretation of nihilistic philosophy [9].

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

Obviously these types of intellectual exposées are only accessible to the highest educated strata of Muslim society, and even there – due to a combination of factors, including social conservatism and the repression of the freedom of thought -- they are often met with reservation and scepticism. However, if demographics is anything to go by, then it could be argued that with the explosive growth of the middle classes in the Global South – and that includes most of the Muslim world – there will also be a concomitant growth of the numbers of people gaining access to higher education. They will be the prospective audience, and eventually also producers of such alternative Islamic discourses, which can in turn help shape future post-Islamist Muslim societies.

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[1] Asef Bayat, ‘the Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’, Critique: Critical Middle East Studies 9 (Fall 1996), p. 45.

[2] Cf. Giles Kepel. Jihad:  The Trial of Political Islam, London: I.B. Tauris, 2002; Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1994.

[3] Cf. Quintan Wiktorowicz, ‘Anatomy of the Salafi Movement’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29 (2009), 207-239.

[4] Cf. the chapter ‘Blindness and Insight’ in: Hamid Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 2008, 99-142.

[5] This is to be clearly distinguished from ‘neo-Averroist’ – because that is a strand of medieval and Renaissance European thinking shaped by the Andalusian philosopher’s commentaries on Aristotle rather than his own philosophical engagement with Islamic doctrine.

[6] Carool Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam. London and New York: Hurst and Columbia university Press, 2011, 180-190; Carool Kersten, ‘Critical Islam: Muslims and their Religion in a Post-Islamist World’, Singapore Middle East Papers 10/1. Singapore: National University of Singapore Middle East Institute, 12 June 2014, 10-18.

[7] Cf. Carool Kersten, ‘From Braudel to Derrida: Mohammed Arkoun’s Rethinking of Islam and Religion’, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 4:1 (2011), pp. 23-43  DOI: 10.1163/187398611X553733

[8] Dabashi, Islamic Liberation Theology, 14.

[9] Gianni Vattimo, Belief. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, 8.

Carool Kersten is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London. He is the author and editor of six books, including Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (2011); Demystifying the Caliphate (2013), and Alternative Islamic Discourses and the Muslim World (2013). He also is the editor of a book series on Contemporary Thought in the Islamic World for Ashgate Publishing.

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