Islamic Activists: The Anti-Enlightenment Democrats

  • Book Title:
 Islamic Activists
  • Book Author:
Deina Ali Abdelkader
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After teaching about Islamic activism for around ten years, it came to my attention that, although much has been written about the topic since 9/11, we have very few works that address the leaders of populist Islamic movements. A handful of literature addresses their writings but fewer still compare and contextualize these leaders.

Because I have been unable to find a book aimed at the general public and students of the Muslim world that transfers this knowledge in a succinct and clear way, I have attempted in this book to fill this gap in the literature.

The objective of this book is twofold: First, to familiarize its audience with popular Islamist leaders, their ideas, and their writings. The three leaders were chosen because they combined “moderate” political activism with ideological activism.

Second, to analyze one of the main controversies between Western secular democratic theory and contemporary Islamist writing about governance.

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the inevitable conflict between reason and faith underlies the stress on secularism as a prerequisite for democratization. One of the most important components of this book is to compare the Islamists’ ideas and how they diverge from the dichotomy between reason and faith that is accepted in Western political thought.

This book is designed to fill a gap in the literature on Islam and politics; it should be useful to students and general readers who want to know more about the Middle East as a region and about contemporary Muslim political ideology.

The purpose of this book lies in its attempt to clarify and present a discourse unfamiliar to the Western world, but on its own terms.

Chapter one introduces the reader to the ideological differences that exist between Western liberal thought and Muslim thought.

It also clarifies the purpose of the book and its emphasis on Islamic political thought. The second chapter provides an historical example of a Muslim jurist who ties reason to faith. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters discuss and present the lives and ideas of three contemporary Islamists: Qaradawi (a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt), Ghannouchi (the leader of the Renaissance Movement in Tunisia), and Yassine (the leader of the Justice and Benevolence Party in Morocco). The final chapter binds the book in a discussion of democracy and whether it is preclusive of faith.

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The conclusion therefore ties all the chapters in its pursuit of a definition of democracy or its semblance in the Muslim world.

It is impossible for the breadth of this study to discuss everything that pertains to Islamic governance and therefore women’s issues are not presented. T

he focus of the book is on the general ideological and legal principles that could potentially later be used to decipher the position of women in society and other equally important issues in the details of an Islamic just society. However the rudiments of those details lie in the theoretical analyses and this is where the book’s emphasis lies. The book offers insights into what and how Islamists think about the shape of an ideal government based on their own writing.

The uniqueness of this book lies in presenting the Islamists’ ideas in their own words to the Western audience. The chapters about Qaradawi, Ghannouchi, and Yassine, enable the reader to experience the Islamists’ points of view directly in their own words. A comparison of the roots of democratic ideology with the Islamists’ ideal government also sheds light on the semblance of important issues such as the meaning of justice and equality without having to render faith. I am indebted to Pluto Press for their support and suggestions. I am also hugely indebted to John Voll for his comments when this manuscript was just an idea. My friend and colleague Emad Shahin also guided me along they way.

Introduction Orientalism, Islamic Activism and Rational Thought?

Historical events have regularly shifted the normative bases for the study of Islamic activism. For example, the stance of scholars and the public towards Islamic activism following the 1979 Iranian Revolution was quite different from that during the Afghan resistance to the Russian occupation.

The events of September 11, 2001, precipitated yet another tectonic shift in attitudes toward Islamic activism. Once again, public construction of Islamic activism as monolithic—and, in this case, malevolent—challenges any nuanced study of Islamic movements.

Scholars must revitalize research agendas to discern differences among movements and leaders. Furthermore, it is essential to recognize the importance of moderate Islamic activists who are reshaping and redefining certain views and legal precepts in the Islamic faith.

 The age of scientific revolution in Europe came hand in hand with an assumed supremacy of rational thought. The West equated modernity with all things rational. Hence the divergence in today’s world between Islamic thought (contemporary and classical) and the constructs of Western modernity.

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For example, Ernest Gellner (1992) writes about being an “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist” as opposed to an “Islamic Fundamentalist”. In his writing, he emphasizes that1 Sociologists have long entertained and frequently endorsed the theory of secularization. It runs as follows: [in] the scientific-industrial society, religious faith and observance decline.

One can give intel- lectualist reasons for this: the doctrines of religion are in conflict with those of science, which in turn are endowed with enormous prestige, and which constitute the basis of modern technology, and thereby also of modern economy. Therefore, religious faith declines. Its prestige goes down as the prestige of its rival rises. (Gellner 1992: 4)

The binary division between rational versus irrational has continuously represented the strongest point of contention between Western and Islamic thought. The Islamists’ call for a return to sharia law, or for following the days of “al-Salaf al-Salih” (the righteous predecessors) has been assumed to mean a return to a historical golden age, an idea that reeks of romanticism, the arch-opponent of rationalist thought and the very symbol of irrationality.

This binary view of the rational versus the irrational, the Western versus the Islamic, the modern versus the traditional, has led to isolation and detachment in the contemporary analysis of Islamic political movements.

However, more importantly—as I am arguing in this book—it has also dismissed the argumentation methods and the use of human reason that Islamic jurisprudential thought has left as a legacy. Fiqh is a relevant if not crucial part of contemporary Muslim society whether it is political or apolitical in nature.

Roxanne Euben’s Enemy in the Mirror critiques the Western theoretical discourse for its total disregard for the relevance of metaphysics in contemporary political life (Euben 1999: 14). Euben states:

For the reflex to dismiss fundamentalism as irrational or pathological is not merely a product of the almost habitualized prejudices and fears operative in the relationship between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ but, as I have argued, also a function of the way a post-Enlightenment, predominantly rationalist tradition of scholarship countenances foun- dationalist political practices in the modern world. (Euben 1999: 14)

Euben’s contribution and purpose in her book centers on the argument that fundamentalism is becoming more rather than less powerful, and that those who are worried about the challenge fundamentalists pose to liberal or democratic theory assume that fundamentalism signifies the resurgence of the irrational, the stubborn persistence of archaic and particularistic, or the veil that masks what are essentially structural tensions.

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Such stories function ultimately to discredit adherents as fanatical lunatics or agents of regressive chaos, or to reduce fundamentalist ideas to mere conduits; they all miss the opportunity to understand the appeals of fundamentalism (Euben 1999: 15).

I would like to take Euben’s concerns a step further by arguing that not only is the Enlightenment fixation affecting our understanding of modern  Islamic movements and their appeal, but that this fixation is also limiting, if not obliterating, a practical and serious discussion of Islamic legal and political literature.

Euben recounts that the study of Islamic activism is continuously subjugated to an analysis of the Islamic activist’s political behavior, while there is a total detachment in this analysis from how the fundamentalists (activists) themselves understand and describe their actions (Euben 1999: 24).

In studying Islamic Activism, one finds there is very little literature that explains the current Islamic discourse on change.

Euben indicates that scholars have intentionally refused to analyze Islamic political theory because of a Western aversion to all things Islamic. This rejection stems from the aversion also to anything religious, as opposed to our contemporary Cartesian Enlightenment “truths”. That unwillingness to understand and explain the Islamic vision of the state and Islamic peoples’ aspirations for Muslim society has led to the current failure in communication with “the Other”.

Thus, every time we are faced with Islamists winning elections in a certain country or with Islamists who get involved in terrorist acts, we have no threshold knowledge to provide us with the analytical and logical tools to comprehend current issues in Muslim societies. The logical question then about Islamic Activism is: If there is change, what will this change entail?

As Butterworth notes in his article “Prudence versus Legitimacy” (1982), there are no progressive steps towards an understanding of how social institutions will function beyond rallying popular support, thus indicating the need for a “third wave of thinkers” to address the particular details of justice according to Islamic law (Butterworth 1982: 110).

Butterworth’s call for clarity is a concern for a number of researchers on Islamic Activism, for example, Haddad stresses that the challenging task is to understand “change to what?” (Haddad 1991: 7).

Esposito criticizes the Islamic Activists’ focus on the failures of the incumbent governments, rather than “defining the…

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