Sympathetic essays on ‘modernizing Islam’ illustrate realities of the carrot and the stick

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Shawwal 07, 1424 2003-12-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 15, Shawwal, 1424)

Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East by John L. Esposito and Francios Burgat (editor). Pub: Hurst & Co., London, 2003. Pp: 278. Pbk: £16.50 / US$24.00.

In the modern, post-911 context, Western scholarship on Islam is recognised as constituting two distinct camps, which charectarise each other as the ‘neo-orientalists’ – those with a essentialist, monolithic and negative view of Islam – and the ‘apologists’, a term which is self-explanatory. This book is a collection of essays on ‘Modernizing Islam’, edited by two senior Western academics, John L. Esposito and Francois Burgat known for their sympathetic understanding of Islam, and attacked as ‘apologists’ by the neo-orientalists. As is usual with compilations of this kind, the quality of the contributions varies, though in this case the overall quality is unusually high; but a number of problems with the approach of many ‘sympathetic westerners’ do emerge, which need to be considered.

The volume opens with an introduction by Esposito which can be taken as a summary of the sympathetic approach. Esposito opens by highlighting the continued importance of Islam to large numbers of Muslims in the world. He also points out the wide variety of different understandings and practices of Islam within the Ummah, and that the Ummah itself consists of every imaginable sort of people living in very different circumstances in very different parts of the world (this volume focuses on Muslims in Europe and the Middle East). He then goes on to demonstrate that Islamists include many whose outlook is extremely forward-looking and modernist; who are essentially democratic in their outlook, having taken ‘modern’ norms of political organization and behaviour on board (while still maintaining their commitment to Islam); and therefore that not all Muslims should be judged by the actions of an extreme, violent fringe. His object is clearly to demonstrate that the neo-orientalist approach of regarding Islam as inherently backward, monolithic and irredeemable is wrong. He also points out some of the reasons Muslims have for dissatisfaction with the West-dominated social and political status quo, to establish that opposition to the West need not imply irrational fanaticism. He then goes on to discuss major themes illustrating these points, based largely on the essays which make up the main part of the book.

These are divided into three sections. The first, called ‘Issues and Trends in Global Re-Islamization’, has three of the most interesting papers in the book. These are ‘Veils and Obscruring Lenses’ by Francois Burgat, discussing perceptions of Islam in France, which is useful considering that much of the literature of this kind is US-centric. Burgat brings out both major parallels and interesting differences between the situations of Muslims in France and the US, reflecting perhaps France’s imperial history and the fact that most Muslims in France are poor north African immigrants rather than middle class Arabs or Asians.

Bjorn Olav Utvik, a senior Norwegian academic, has contributed a paper called ‘The Modernizing Force of Islamism’ in which he argues that, contrary to popular prejudice, Islamic movements generally have in fact very moden and realistic understandings of the world, are often modern in their own organizational structures and methods, and are forces for modernization in Muslim societies.

The final chapter of this section, by Esposito, is ‘Islam and Civil Society’, in which he discusses the relations between Islam and the emergence of civil society institutions in Muslim societies, arguing that it is natural, indeed inevitable, that civil society institutions in Muslim societies are going to be shaped by the Islamic values that dominate and shape the lives of the vast majority of Muslims. He also argues that this is in no way incompatible with processes of democratization in Muslim countries, provided understandings of Islam that are not closed and exclusive, and a plurality of perspectives is permitted to emerge. This issue of democracy is perhaps the single key one in the debate between the neo-conservatives and ‘apologists’, and is one in which Muslims often also get bogged down.

The other two sections discuss ‘Re-Islamization in the Public Sphere’ and ‘Re-Islamization in Europe’. The first has thematic chapters discussing forms in which Islam is increasingly shaping public life in various spheres, including political discourse in Iran, law in Egypt, education, also in Egypt; and women’s Islamic activism generally. The final section discusses Islam and public life in European countries. The most substantial paper in this section, ‘The Holy Grail of Muslims in Western Europe: Representation and their Relationship with the State’, by Dilwar Hussain of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, UK, is the only paper in the volume written by an Islamic activist rather than an academic (an Islamic academic, we should perhaps say, to be fair), and it makes interesting points although the approach would merit some critical analysis on another occasion.

All such works written by ‘sympathetic Westerners’ have a similar problem, however, which is evident in some of the papers in this volume as it is in most ‘apologetic’ writings. That is the assumption that the Islam can and should co-exist with the West as the West currently exists, with little acknowledgement that the reason for much of the conflict in the world is not that Islam refuses to co-exist with others, but that the West refuses to allow anyone else to co-exist with it. The assumption is that Islam and Muslims have to learn to accept the West, rather than vice versa. In this volume, the assumption is largely implicit, perhaps because the discussions are general and thematic; but it certainly appears strongly in other works by Esposito and Burgat.

However sympathetic they may appear to be, therefore, their ultimate object is the same: to persuade Muslims to accept their place in a West-dominated world order. The fact that they would try to make other westerners understand us somewhat better, and allow us more room to do our own thing in our cages, is therefore a limited consolation. The thing to remember is that when people argue over whether a a carrot or a stick would be more effective in achieving their objectives, they usually have more or less the same objectives.

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