Muslim Progressives Should Not Be Too Conceited Themselves
Posted Nov 1, 2005

Muslim Progressives Should Not Be Too Conceited Themselves

By Farish A Noor

Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure and honour of attending several conferences, workshops and lectures on, and by, that constituency of individuals otherwise known as ‘Progressive Muslims’. I have to say that it is always a pleasure for me to attend these meetings, as I find myself in the company of like-minded individuals who share a common outlook on life:  the shared commitment to demonstrate to Muslims that Islam is indeed a living, vibrant faith that is cognisant of the realities of our times and capable of rising to meet the challenges posed by globalisation; the shared belief that Islam is a universal creed that extols the virtues of a common, united and equal humanity; the belief that Islam is a religious of peace and love that brings humanity together in an inclusive manner, and so on.

But of late these meetings have also left me with some lingering doubts that refuse to go away. I have tried to grapple with these insecurities and tried to give them a name, but it was only after the last meeting of ‘progressive Muslims’ that the words came to me. I recall an encounter with a Muslim women’s rights activist from Africa. In the course of our discussion, I noted, perhaps sarcastically, that all of her references in her presentation were European or eurocentric ones. I then casually asked her about the state of women’s organisation among the Islamist groups in her country. Her reply was stark and immediate: “Oh, we dont talk to those people. They are all fanatics and extremists, not moderates and liberals like us.”

This neat division between ‘moderate/liberal’ and ‘fanatic/conservative’ strikes one as too good to be true. Any academic or intellectual worth his salt would balk at the thought of using such simplistic dichotomies, for the simple reason that we know - and ought to know - that the world is not as simple as that. Life and human phenomena cannot simply be compartmentalised into such neat categories and all social phenomena are invariably connected and overlapping in one way or another. True, this may make it hard for us to distinguish between the ‘progressive conservatives’ and ‘radical liberals’ and ‘militant democrats’ and other hybrid constituencies, but the fact remains that such hybrid categories do exist and have existed all along.

Thus from the scientific point of view (and here I confess to belong to a scientific community for once, that of political science) talk about ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Islam is just a matter of sematic acrobatics and wordplay, often disguising the reality that Islam and Muslims are far too complex to be cut up into such neat little chunks.

So why do we, the so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims, continue to use such misleading terms to describe ourselves? It is odd considering the fact that most of us ‘progressives’ happen to be perfectly rational adults who would never describe ourselves as ‘progressive Malaysians’ or ‘progressive Pakistanis’, yet feel it perfectly natural to describe our religious identity in the same terms.

More troubling is the fact that these dichotomies do not simply materialise out of nowhere, or drop down from the sky at random. Talk of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Islam today, in the post-11 September world that rests under the long shadow cast by Washington’s military-hegemonic apparatus, is no mere accident. It has to be stated time and again that such dichotomies exist in a world that is saturated by power and divided by differentials of power; and that all dichotomies are likewise shaped and marked by such power differentials as well.

The distinction between ‘progressive’ Muslims and ‘conservative’ Muslims may not have been invented by the Neo-Cons who rule the roost in the White House, or the repressive regimes that blight the landscape of the Muslim world, but it cannot be denied that they have also profitted from such distinctions. President Bush Junior’s warm embrace of the concept of ‘progressive Islam’, and his establishment’s support for ‘progressive Muslim’ issues and personalities comes at the cost of expelling other
Muslims from the domain of the civilised, rational, normal and acceptable.

Already we have seen many a repressive Muslim government or regime hijacking the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘moderate’ in order to whitewash the authoritarian structures of power they control, and to sell themselves as exemplary models of ‘progressive Islam’ at work.

Should we - Muslim intellectuals, activists, scholars - who are fighting for reform, democratisation and human rights in Islam also fall into the same trap by using the same divisive language and logic that was once used to distinguish between ‘good niggers’ and ‘bad niggers’? Surely the responsibility now falls upon us, Muslim intellectuals, to radically interrogate and deconstruct the use of these terms, especially when we ourselves are located within that same hotly contested discursive terrain.

What right have we to lay exclusive claim to the use of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘moderate’ Islam if we fail to note the fact that even among those who fall into the ‘conservative’ camp there are and have been genuine attempts at reform, modernisation and adaptation?

When I raised this concern to the African activist I met at the last conference I attended, her response was: “so are you calling for some kind of revolution then? If we blur these boundaries surely we risk confusing the situation even more.” Well, the fact is that the situation is already confused as it is, and all the carpet-bombing by the American Air Force is not going to provide us with a neater, flatter playing field. But by deconstructing the use of such terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Muslims we would be living up to our vocation and duty as Muslim intellectuals and do some intellectualising for a change.

And let us not forget that those ‘Muslim conservatives’ we are so inclined to banish beyond the pale of civilised community are fellow Muslims who are likewise grappling with the challenges of the globalised age we live in. By engaging with Islamist conservatives and fundamentalists, we ensure that the frontiers of discourse and dialogue remain open, and the possibilty of genuine constructive change remain with us. The alternative is the exclusionary politics of expulsion and non-dialogue, a deafening silence that divides the Muslim world and dooms our efforts to uplift humanity as a whole.

by courtesy &  2005 The American Muslim  republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.