Global Dialogues

Beyond the West: A Critical Response to Professor Challand’s Approach to the Arab Transformations

When analyzing politics and society in the Arab and Islamic world, it is admirable and important to break away from a Western-centered analysis. This move is not sufficient though. There is a temptation to continue to fall back on theories and rhetoric that have emanated from the west and have informed exactly that from which one attempts to break away. Furthermore, when discussing public discourse in the Arab world, it is imperative that one addresses the importance of Islam and its continuing vital role in Arab and Middle Eastern politics, despite Western scholarship’s tendency to suggest a historical end that involves the marginalization of religion. I appreciate Professor Challand’s posts in Deliberately Considered and the admirable move of breaking away from Western-centered analysis, but I think his posts suffer from theoretical temptation and an insufficient appreciation of the role of Islam.

It is true that civil-society is more than “NGOs and the developmental approach which imagines that the key to progress is when donors, the UN or rich countries, give aid to boost non-state actors, in particular NGOs, in the ‘developing south’” as Professor Challand asserts in his post “The Counter-Power of Civil Society in the Middle East.” I believe, though, that one must also conceive of civil-society and democratic institutions as more than a source for “collective autonomy” using other than secular slogans in the tradition of Tocqueville and Hegel.

Writing a history of democracy would have to include analysis such as de Tocqueville’s, but we should also remember that de Tocqueville wrote:

Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Quran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.

Tocqueville criticized Islam for allowing no deviation from its laws which to his mind covered all aspects of private and public life. But he failed to recognize the diversity of civil-society and the capacity for democratic institutions embedded in Islam’s structure and its ability to adapt to changing times, in part because it does not possess the characteristics of Catholicism. Ernest Renan later argued that Islam is not able to develop its own modernity, diverging from Tocqueville, but making the same mistake of essentializing Islam in a static history, laying ground for much of today’s claims that Islam and democracy are incompatible. These assertions often mobilize a rhetoric that promote tired tropes of “separation of church and state” and that democracy is contingent on secularism.

In fact, secularism has a much different meaning in the Arab world than it does in the West for two reasons. Islam never had a clerical hierarchy (although this phenomenon developed in Shi’ism later, albeit in a much different way than Catholicism) and therefore never had to answer the same questions regarding state-church relations that were prevalent in European political history. Despite this fact, Islam and the state did evolve separately due to negotiations of autonomy and the political domains of Islam and the state. “Secular” as European vocabulary to describe the dichotomy between Christ’s heavenly body and earthly body, once represented by medieval kingship and later by the Church, is not the same in Islam. In fact, the lack of a hierarchical authority in Islam and its partial reliance on consensus, or ijma’, is precisely what lends to it the ability to foster civil-society and diverse political groups, as well as various “schools” of law. An example is the mass proliferation of diverse Sufi brotherhoods in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. According to Richard Bulliet, “By the eighteenth century, there were thousands of Sufi brotherhoods reaching into every Muslim community and spreading knowledge of Islam into new lands.”

Furthermore, “secular” as a modern political concept in the Islamic world has come to mean the marginalization of the clergy and Islam in favor of modern military organizations, state-run schools, and state-sponsored religious institutions. The secular Arab dictatorships, which are currently undergoing fundamental changes, have implemented these practices and have been some of the most brutal regimes in the world. The attempt to relegate Islamic politics to the sidelines, a process which included the state’s co-opting of previously autonomous religious institutions, such as Islamic universities (al-Azhar University in Egypt is an example) and charities (waqf), only resulted in the alienation of segments of society that have been forced to take up alternative political methods, which sometimes include violence.

It is also untrue that the language of current opposition movements in the Arab world is a “secular re-imagining of the people as a united nation,” as Professor Challand calls it, presumably meaning that religious language is abandoned in favor of modern political vocabulary. Currently in Jordan, protests involve a number of groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood (or the Islamic Action Front, as it is called in Jordan), as well as many other opposition and counter-opposition groups. Many of these parties use discourse that is couched in Islam and ethnicity (especially Jordanian vs. Palestinian ethnicity and nationality).

In closing, Castoriadis’ analyses and modern political thought that relies heavily on Marxist theory, though they make valuable contributions to interpreting revolution and revolt, are simply inadequate to explain Islamic politics. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 serves as a lesson as to how intimately connected revolution, democracy and religion are now connected in the Muslim world. While secularism supposedly goes hand-in-hand with the development of democracy and the modern state, it was Islam that opened revolutionary potentials, democratic and anti-democratic. The Iranian experience revealed how transformational potential can be and has been heavily steeped in Islamic political theology. The revolution was not only a watershed in Islamic and Iranian politics but also a wake-up call for critical observers, who previously expected an unfolding of modern history that would increasingly push religion out of politics. In order to effectively understand the Islamic world, scholars and analysts must not only re-evaluate the theories on which they rely, as well as history and historiography, but also their rhetoric and the words that they mobilize.

  • Benoit Challand

    I read this right after a class on civil society in the Middle East, arguing for the need to include religious (and therefore also Muslim) associations in that category. Nice coincidence!

    I will try to respond through a later post, but the article of mine to which Alexander Nachman refers to, was published in March 2011, at a time when religious symbols had not returned so massively in public discourses in post-Mubarak Egypt or post-Ben Ali Tunisia. So, yes, now discourses of citizenship in these post-revolution countries are enmeshed with religious discourses. But in Libya or Bahrain, it is significant that the revolutionary movements have refused to use religious categories and speak the (secular) language of equality, citizenship, and participation.