Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
    It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It





Religion and the Awakening
by Philip Seib



“I have long been struck by the similarities between the indeterminacy of our present time and that of the early twentieth century,” the historian Edmund Burke III wrote back in 1998. “One place where these indeterminacies come together is the Middle East. Unpredicted by all observers, an Islamic political revival is under way.”

Over a decade later, the Middle East remains the locus of contemporary unpredictability.  But if the past year’s Arab Awakening took everybody by surprise and continues to baffle minds around the world, might it not be because our way of thinking about the region is flawed?

That way includes some residue of good old Orientalism, by which one explains current phenomena through notions derived from old and familiar texts, rather than by taking the long and tortuous route of exploring the real world with all its complexities and elusiveness.

In addition, many observers of the Middle East seem determined to find a single simple idea—one that defines the region by ascribing a distinctive character to it. This creates the impression that the region in fact has a fixed character, and obscures what is happening on the ground.

Some of the schemes devised in this spirit are elegant, such as the philosopher Ernest Gellner’s swinging-pendulum theory of Islam, which proposes an alternation of moments of resignation with moments of outcry and devastating rage. An idea of this kind led some to find the Holy Grail of explanation in the phrase “culture of riots.”

More entrenched in some academic circles is Bernard Lewis’ and Antony Black’s idea of a “political language of Islam” that proposes an enduring, closed, and invariable set of concepts that fix the way the region’s populations think and behave.

What is noteworthy is that all these schemes turn their backs, in one way or another, on the possibility that these societies may actually be changing. Be it the swinging pendulum or the linguistic straitjacket, we are left with the impression that what seems to be new is only superficial, irrelevant, or inconsequential.

 Yet the schemes are often used to make predictions, and when these are falsified—as they regularly have been since “unpredictability” has forced itself on observers—the reaction is not to listen carefully to what people are saying, but rather to quickly identify some familiar notions that confirm existing views of the region.

Yet the evidence of actual change in the Middle East is overwhelming, and can be seen plainly in the way people talk about politics.

In his Dictionary of Political Thought, the British philosopher Roger Scruton noted the need to update the lexicon of politics every decade or so in English-speaking countries, in order to “extract, both from active debate, and from the theories and intuitions which surround it, the principal ideas through which modern political beliefs find expression.” Where does this undertaking lead if applied to the active political discourse of contemporary Middle-Easterners?

First, there is an abundance of slogans conveying the impression that the only real alternative to the ills of the moment is a return to religion (or to traditions linked to religion). The best known are “implementation of Sharia” and “Islam as the solution.”

What is important to recognize is the extent to which such slogans have been called into play in order to address the challenge of modern European political concepts. As the German Islamicist Reinhard Schultze has observed, during what is known as The Awakening (“Al-Nahda”) of the early 20th century in the Arab world, Islamist political parties discovered ways of expressing such concepts in a vocabulary of their own, assimilating Islamic to European discourse in a way that had little to do with religion per se.

The seemingly irreducible opposition between Islamic and modern discourses is, therefore, a recent construct—one that has led to the confrontation between conservatives (sometimes termed fundamentalists) and modernists that has been a feature of the Middle East political landscape over the last few decades.

What the latest Arab Awakening has shown is that while this conceptual confrontation was going on, an unsuspected wave was gathering strength in the form of a new political language. This has involved the coinage and dissemination of new concepts and categories that encapsulate aspirations and hopes of a new generation in ways that are aligned with contemporary political ideals and, at the same time, adjusted to the particular conditions of local populations.

In some cases, there is a complete equivalence between the European and Arabic terms. Thus, “democracy,” “human rights,” and “civil society” are now rendered in Arabic by dimukratiya, huquq al-Insan, and mujtama’ madani.

In other cases there have been “adjustments” or outright neologisms. “Rule of law” has thus become “a state bound by law and respectful of rights” (dawlat al-Haq wa al-Qanun) or “a state made of institutions” (dawlat al- mu’assassat)—as opposed to a state made by and for individuals.

Here one should stress the decisive role played by the written press. As much attention as has been focused over the past year on the role of the Internet and social media in fostering the Awakening, it was the written press that lay the groundwork by popularizing this language over several decades.

On the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Damascus as well as of Rabat and Riyadh, there is now a new language of politics. It is not a simple translation of ideas familiar to English speakers, but it articulates modern views of the rights and aspirations of the populations.

The remarkable fact is that this language is used by all parties, Islamists included. It therefore provides universal yardsticks by which all things are measured, including concepts rooted in tradition or religion. In a way, religious views are vindicated and justified through the medium of modern norms.

Thus, in an interview for Time World September 4, Christophe Ayad asked the Islamist commander of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdel Hakim Belhadi, “Are you in favor of the establishment of an Islamic State in Libya, or of Sharia?”

“In Libya, we have lived 42 years without a constitution, without law, without justice,” Belhadi answered. “That’s what led to the fall of this dictatorial regime. We want a civil state that respects the law and rights, a state that applies justice.”

It remains true that different languages are spoken at the same time. Concepts like sharia, jihad, ijtihad have even made their way onto European tongues, although with distinctive connotations. Within Muslim contexts, they do refer to tangible perspectives and are meant, in some circles, to express concrete expectations. The alarm they cause in the minds of Westerners may sometimes be justified, but not always for the reasons they think.

The attempts to revive old notions do not offer the challenge that most people see. On one hand, they forcefully seek the moralization of public order. In popular circles, where illiteracy still prevails, and where people have not been exposed to modern written literature, the way to express the need for what in the West would be described as “basic decency” (absence of gross abuse of power, or widespread corruption, or general cynicism) seems to be derived from traditional religious expressions.

This is what lends slogans such as “Islam is the solution” their meaning and their strength, and what explains the success of Islamists everywhere. They have been in the opposition for so long, repressed and rejected by the elites, and they have found the words to articulate the disgust of the gross misbehavior of those in power—words that resonate with popular feelings for a return to basic rules of decency. The Islamists are now reaping the fruits of speaking to the people in the language they understand.

However, this makes a number of misunderstandings possible and even easy.

Sharia is popular among ordinary people because it refers to the idea of a moral order, and because it still has the prestige of a system that helped protect communities from the extreme excesses of despots. The despot could be restrained because it called on a divine, absolute rule of law—law given by God, lying beyond the manipulations of men, including the richest and most powerful.

Unfortunately, the Islamists are prepared to extract the contents of this traditional legal system from their early social and historical contexts, and incorporate them into a contemporary system of law. Although the codification of Sharia began to take place in the 19th century, such harsh specifics as the notorious criminal law penalties were implemented with caution. In today’s world, that moderation may be missing.

Vested interests exist throughout the awakened Arab world. Elites that have made substantial profits from the old regimes—the military leadership in Egypt, Syria, and Algeria; the rentier-bourgeois in the Gulf, Morocco, and Tunisia—will not cede power easily. They may seize the opportunity to cry wolf again and attempt to frighten Western countries into coming to their support against the danger of radical Islam, or may shower populations with gifts (as was done recently in Saudi Arabia and, to a modest degree, Morocco) in order to make them forget their aspirations for rights.

What may be more dangerous in the medium and long-term is the forceful preservation of obsolete forms of religious scholarship, which cultivate optical illusions about the Islamic heritage and enforce the view that the past holds ideal alternatives to modern principles and approaches to governance.

Which will prevail? The new currency of concepts that emerged as defining categories for addressing aspirations—and, it is important to stress, for valuing various political claims, including those put forward by Islamists? Or the currency that those generally called salafists purvey as enabling a return to traditional forms—which is used by some regimes to sow confusion and delay democratization?

This is the struggle to watch in the coming years. But if the feelings of the people for their authentic heritage and for the moral compass it provides prove the strongest, it is the categories of modern democracy, of the rule of law, which will prevail.


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