The ‘Non-Debate’ in the Muslim World: Revisiting the Ethics of Difference in Islam. (part 1)
By Farish A. Noor and Dyala Hamzah
“What many Muslims forget is that positive social solutions are offered by societies, and change cannot come about unless these ideas are realised through debate and social interaction. What is required here is a collective effort at the level of the masses including people from all walks of life. (But) the problem we face is that there are still some elites who claim that they alone have the right to interpret Islam. They do not trust the intellect of the common man… Unless there is a serious attempt to sit down and negotiate and work together, positive changes in society will not take place.”
—Interview with Prof Muhammad Khalid Masud, ‘We no longer communicate, we just go to war’, (2002)
Since the publication of Olivier Roy’s ‘The Failure of Political Islam’ (1994) (1), both activist-Islamists and scholars of the phenomenon of political religion have wondered aloud about the future trajectory of Islamism. Some, such as Bobby Sayyid (2) have argued that political Islam will retain its relevance as long as it remains as the only alternative counter-hegemonic force to stand against the advances of globalisation. Others, including this writer (Noor, 2004) have argued that political Islam may yet succeed if it manages to addresses universal concerns that exceed the Muslim ummah.(3)
In this regard, it is perhaps too early to conclude that political Islam, or rather the manifestation of a popular Islamic political religiosity, has failed worldwide. We cannot and should not conclude that Islamism is dead simply because so many Muslim countries are in a state of political, economic and structural turmoil: the breakdown of the state apparatus in many developing Muslim countries is rather a symptom of the failure of many a postcolonial regime/government in the age of globalisation, rather than a fault of Islam per se. Likewise we cannot conclude that political Islam has failed simply because some Muslim regimes have been toppled courtesy of the B-52 bombers of the American Air Force!
However, if there is a crisis in political Islam, it is this: For many years now, we have witnessed the rise of more and more Islamist groups who claim for themselves the exclusive monopoly over the form and content of Islam itself.
Muslim societies have become more and more narrowly defined, its public arena increasingly contracted thanks to the contestation of terms and the growing culture of intolerance among Muslims themselves. Since the radicalization of the global Islamist movement following the death of Sayyid Qutb, more Islamist groups have emerged claiming that they alone have the right to speak of, for and to Muslims on terms that are deemed ‘authentically Islamic’. The net result of the collusion between repressive states and conservative Islamist movements has been the limiting of the public sphere for discourse and debate; accompanied by the inevitable closure of the Muslim mind.
This was most clearly demonstrated by a number of important – though unrelated – events that have taken place over the past few years:
In the spring of 2001, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz ibn Abdallah Al al-Shaykh, issued a fatwa condemning suicide attacks in the name of Islam.(4) Though the fatwa in question was actually ‘issued’ via an interview in a London-based Saudi newspaper (the daily al-Sharq al-Awsat), the few sentences that addressed the question of suicide bombings were later taken up in the Egyptian press and were perceived as a desecration of the icon of Palestinian resistance – the ‘martyr/shahid’. In the spurious and emotional non-debate that was staged in the press following the initial report, it became evident that the mediatic space was simply being used by a deafening majority of Egyptian ulama, as a staging post to launch a counter-fatwa campaign against the Saudi mufti. Far from discussing the legal arguments deployed by the Saudi fatwa, or from acknowledging the embededness of the fatwa in the Saudi national context, and by no means engaging in a meaningful debate about the issue of terrorism and moral means of resistance, the Egyptian counter-fatwas were in effect hijacking the Palestinian cause to serve national agendas- one of which was the parading of Egypt as mouth-piece of Arab public opinion, and the representation of its ulama as the conscience of the global Muslim community.
Of late we have seen similar instances of non-debates taking place in other parts of the Muslim world. In Malaysia, a raid on a popular disco carried out by the country’s ‘morality police’ led to the arrest of about a hundred Malaysian youths. Subsequent reports on the event pointed to the systematic abuse, humiliation and harassment of the youths concerned at the hands of the state-sponsored vigilantes. Following the media exposure of the event, some Muslim groups have come out in protest against what they see as the abuse of the law and the fundamental liberties of Malaysian citizens. Other Muslim groups have come out in defence of the vigilantes and have called for continued moral policing in the country. What is evident however is the fact that neither side has really managed to engage in an open debate with the other on terms that are mutually acceptable.
Most recently, on 18 March 2005, a landmark event took place in Manhattan, New York, when the Islamic scholar Dr. Amina Wadud led a public mixed-gender Friday Juma’ah prayer. Despite Dr. Amina’s long and proven record of standing up for Islam and the rights of Muslims the world over, and despite the stand she has consistently taken on issues of human rights and socio-economic inequalities; she and the organizers of the prayer event were summarily branded by their critics as ‘those who had strayed from the true path of Islam’. In the non-debate that ensued slander was poured on the character of Dr. Amina in particular, culminating in a fitnah campaign designed to destroy her standing and credibility both as a woman and a Muslim. Adding another twist to the demonisation campaign against her, Dr. Amina was then linked to a host of other actors and agents worldwide, in an attempt to create a chain of equivalences that linked her to other unrelated events and developments.
In all these unrelated cases, a pattern can be seen: It would appear as if the ethics of differences of opinion has gone out of the window a long time ago. Rather than engaging with the argument of the Other on a rational, intellectual basis, we have instead been fed a steady stream of lies and innuendo intended for no other purpose than character assassination: The fatwa of Shaykh Abd al-Aziz was taken out of context and re-presented as a critique of the Palestinian struggle instead (thus foreclosing any debate on the issue of terrorism). The condemnation of the heavy-handed and abusive methods of Malaysia’s morality police was re-presented as a defence of hedonism and rampant debauchery in turn. Dr. Amina’s landmark role as the first woman to lead a mixed-gender Juma’ah prayer – the spiritual dimension of which was entirely overlooked – was re-presented as a closet attempt to undermine the fundamental tenets of the faith. In these cases, the detractors not only failed to address the points that were being raised by the fatwa/protest/prayer in question; but seemed to be going out of their way to re-present the issues so as to create the impression that Islam/Muslims were being undermined and attacked from within. The attempts to link some of the actors (such as the association of Sisters in Islam with Dr. Amina), despite the fact that they have agendas and priorities of their own, also added to the conspiracy theories that are currently circulating in many parts of the Muslim world.
How and why has it come to this? One would hope that Muslim societies would be able to address the challenges that stand before them in an open, tolerant and adult manner. Yet the non-debates that we have seen thus far seem to reinforce the stereotypical view that Muslim societies are structurally unable to develop fora of discussion that are constitutionally guaranteed and enforced. This raises the most elementary question of all: Does such a thing as a ‘Muslim public space’ actually exist?
Where is the ‘Public Space’ in Muslim societies? Or does it exist at all?
In this day and age, when talk of ‘civil society’ and the ‘democratisation process’ is ever-so-trendy in political, technocratic and NGO circles, there seems to be the unstated understanding that developments in the contemporary Muslim world mirror those that are taking place in other parts of the world, notably the developed North. This assumption, however, is both historically incorrect as well as politically misleading as it overlooks the very simple and obvious fact that practically every single Muslim-majority country is under the state of military, dictatorial or authoritarian law/government.
Be that as it may, we shall proceed – tentatively at least – with the common understanding of the concept of ‘public sphere’ for the sake of the argument we are trying to put across. Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere has recently been recast in an interactionist definition as a locus of shared anticipation and an ever-widening sphere of reciprocity.(5) He describes the dynamics of the public space as the civil competition over the definition of public interest.(6) Simply put: In order to publicly state what we think is right for society and others we need to enter into a collective discursive space and speak according to the same rules and standards as others – as equal partners on a shared and level discursive field. The state, in turn, plays the role of guarantor in ensuing that this space remains level and open to all, though it has to be remembered that the state can also be an impediment/threat to the public sphere as well.
But here is where Habermas’s model reaches its limit: For while such an open, plural discursive space and culture may be realizable (to some extent) in the Western European world (albeit due to historical factors that are contingent), the same cannot be said to be the case in many parts of the developing world. There are three important differences that we need to take note of:
Firstly, the ‘public sphere’ is less than an open, plural and equal playing field in the Muslim world today due to the emergence of a religious hegemony that is monopolized by religious elites (often closely allied to the state) who claim that they have the privilege, right and responsibility to define the form and content of religion for all. (This, incidentally, is not a problem unique to the Muslim world, as the developments in India also point to the rise of right-wing Hindu political elites who lay exclusive monopolistic claims to the discourse of Hinduism as well). As a result of this religious hegemony, the status of the individual enunciator and his/her subject position has become more important than what he/she has to say. It is ever-so-common to hear/read of a speaker being interrupted even before he can begin his sentence with the query: “What right have you got to speak on Islam? Are you a Muslim? Which Islamic school did you go to? etc”.
The net result of this is the development of a public arena where all may listen but not everyone may speak. It is so common these days to hear and read of Islamist elites who claim that they alone possess ‘authentic’ knowledge of Islam while other members of society are presented as being of a secondary/inferior status and not even allowed to utter their opinions in public. The exclusion of qualified Muslim scholars like Dr. Amina Wadud from the (predominantly male) Muslim academic/intellectual sphere being a case in point. What aggravates matters in some cases is the reluctance of the so-called ‘progressive Muslim voices’ and ‘non-Muslim’ actors to engage in the reclaiming of language of the conservatives themselves; by, for example, contesting the use of terms like ‘Jihad’, ‘welfare’, ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’. This absence of etymological engagement in Muslim societies is the sign of another absence—that of the critical-rational deliberative procedures which make up the very foundation of a public sphere.
Secondly, we have to consider the structural impediments to communicative action which stand in the way of the creation of a public sphere in our societies. It has to be remembered that no public sphere can be sustained outside constitutional guarantee and enforcement; but how is this even possible in the context of many Muslim-majority countries today where the state has either collapsed or, worse still, where the political elite themselves are the biggest threat to the country’s constitutional framework and the rule of law? The authoritarian, dictatorial and/or downright oppressive rule of Muslim elites guarantees the failure of public debate, for it is the elite themselves who are the impediment to the emergence of a free, open and plural public sphere.
Added to this culture of authoritarian/dictatorial leadership is the tendency of Muslim political elites to utilize the tools and logic of the nation-state to confine the scope of public debate within the parameters of ‘national interest’: One of the biggest political obstacles that the Progressives (Muslims, Christians, Hindus) face today are the political realities of geopolitics in an age where the nation-state is still the dominant paradigm for both governance and international relations. Talk of the ‘common good’ then gets subsumed under the rubric of national (nation-state) interests and geostrategic needs.
This is why, for instance, Progressive Muslims get so much flak from their detractors who constantly claim that they are in the pay of Washington or the Western Neo-Con lobby. It also explains how and why the fatwa of the Saudi Grand Mufti could be taken out of context, re-appropriated by the Egyptian press and deliberately re-cast as a critique of the Palestinian cause. The predominance of nation-state/national concerns contributes as well to the minimalisation of shared universal categories and the further erosion of a common public language/discursive space where discussion on matters such as rights of women, minorities, non-Muslims etc ends up being relegated to the secondary register.
Simply put, our understanding of what constitutes the ‘public good’ is often framed in terms of the nation-state we reside within. So talk of the emancipation of women and respecting the rights of non-Muslims inevitably gets framed within the agenda of the nation-state where pre-existing values and hierarchies (notably Patriarchy) are maintained instead. The Conservatives’ response to the Progressives’ call for equality for women is met with the reply: “Yes, yes, we believe in the equality of women too- but let us concentrate on other priorities first, like building our economy and fending of the evil invasion of the West!”(7)
Thirdly, this deliberate narrowing and re-framing of the public space has much to do with deontology and intentionality as well. The narrowing of the public space and the foreclosure of public discourse in the contemporary Muslim world was not by accident, but rather by intent. This could only happen thanks to the discursive strategies used – by both oppressive Muslim political elites as well as conservative Muslim groupings – to control, police and ultimately restrict the access to the shared public space in the first place. Here state censorship and the intimidating tactics of right-wing Muslim conservative groups compliment each other: In all the cases we mentioned above we come across the now-familiar tactics and strategies of disinformation and distortion.
From the deliberate misrepresentation of intent (as was the case in the treatment of the Saudi fatwa) to the sustained fitnah and slander against groups like Sisters In Islam and individuals like Dr. Amina Wadud, we have seen the systematic inflation of the debate without the expansion of room for public entry and participation. The two factors – the narrowing and foreclosure of public space and the discursive tactic of slander and misrepresentation – in fact go hand in hand. We therefore cannot talk of, or even hope for, development of public sphere in Muslim societies unless we are prepared to engage in a serious discursive analysis and critique of the strategies that have been used to silence us (which include both the demonisation campaigns of rightwing movements as well as state censorship). It is that which we shall turn to in the second part of this paper.
Farish A. Noor is a political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, and researching the phenomenon of religio-political movements in South and Southeast Asia.
Dyala Hamzah is a researcher at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. She is one of the former editors of Egypte/Monde Arabe and has translated al-Farabi’s Treatise on the Intellect. She works on the history of ideas and sociology of knowledge of the Modern and Contemporary Middle East.
(1) See: Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
(2) See: Bobby S. Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Rise of Islamism, Zed books, London, 2002.
(3) See: Farish A Noor, Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, 1951-2003. Malaysian Sociological Research Institute (MSRI), Kuala Lumpur, 2004.
(4) See: Dyala Hamzah, Is there an Arab Public Sphere? The Palestinian Intifada, a Saudi Fatwa and the Egyptian Press. In Armando Salvatore and Mark Levine (eds) Religion, Social Practice and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2005.
(5) See: Dale F. Eickelman and Armando Salvatore. “The Public Sphere and Muslim Identities”, Arch. Europ. Sociol., XLIII, I (2002), p. 92-115.
(6) See: Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989 (1962) and “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 421-62, 1992.
(7) Incidentally, it should be noted that this preponderance to limit the scope of public debate according to the needs of the imaginary nation-state is also not unique to Islam. In the case of India, progressive Hindu intellectuals/activists who have called for a critical re-reading of fundamental concepts such as the caste system have also been told that the internal discursive and institutional reform of Hinduism has to come after the triumph of Hitdutva ideology and the success of the Indian nation-state.