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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)
I have always thought we need to find better ways to teach political Islam. Recent transformations in the region seem to both underscore the problems with so many readers and course syllabi on the topic. It may also point the way toward a transformation in our thinking and teaching.
Should we even be devoting entire classes to Political Islam now that the uprisings in the Arab region have contradicting longstanding claims that the only real opposition to the region’s authoritarian regimes was Islamist (which, of course, was the justification for maintaining an unjust status quo)? My concern is that an entire semester on political Islam seems to lend those groups and individuals who fall under that characterization undue importance and so much of my scholarship is aimed at demonstrating that Islamism is not the only game in the region. Courses more broadly construed as Arab or Islamic political thought would introduce students to the broader range of intellectual and/or ideological traditions in the region. More comparative approaches—for example, on religion and politics, would render political Islam less exceptional than it is commonly perceived to be.
My pedagogical aim in teaching this topic has been to give students a sense of the variety and complexity within and among Islamist groups and movements and to draw their attention to historical and contextual socio-political and economic conditions that have contributed to their emergence, development, change over time. Frederic Volpi’s recently published reader goes a long way toward meeting this aim. I would like to think that the transformations in the region mean that we no longer have to spend quite so much time cutting through the security lens that students bring to the subject. However, I know that many of my students, cued by their media “education,” will read the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia as expressions of the aspirations of “Facebook youth” who want join the club of secular, liberal democracy and come to my class raising the spectre of Islamists who want to hijack that project. This means that the task of adding complexity to our vision of political Islam remains quite unfinished.
But it is enough to teach political Islam as Islamisms (plural) in context? The tendency in such classes (and scholarship on the subject) is to draw up that spectrum by assessing each individual and group according to how they measure up to notions of democracy, toleration, and moderation—and these tend to be measure according to how much anger, rejection, and violence they demonstrate (particularly toward “the West). It seems to me that we are long overdue for a perspective on political Islam that gets beyond these traditional dichotomizing obsessions.
The people who went into the streets to protest to fight for political change and social justice showed little interest in defining their uprising in totalizing terms as either Islamic or secular; neither did they situate their demands in opposition to either secularism or Islam. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of these popular uprisings is the way in which they call into question the main interpretive lenses through which the politics of the Arab and Islamic world has been viewed: a dichotomy between religion (Islam) and secularism. Despite the many critiques to which this thesis has been subject, it has somehow endured as perhaps the main narrative for explaining what the Arab region was thought to lack: democracy, development, modernity. In my view, what these revolutions have decisively underscored is the need to see Islam as either the problem or the solution to the most pressing political and economic problems in the region.
Some have seen these revolutions as substantiating claims that Islamism had failed, both intellectually and politically. The sort of historical narrative implicit in the notion that Islamism was a phase that has now passed is highly problematic. It neglects the fact that Islamist ideas and groups are still very much a part of politics in the region. It posits Islamism as a problem to be overcome on the path to something more modern when, if the uprising have shown us anything, it is clear that most people generally associated their frustrations with unpopular, repressive, authoritarian, corrupt states. It also depends upon a secular-religious dichotomy that cannot be sustained when looking at the character of eithers states or oppositions in the region. More recently scholars, such as Asef Bayat, have both criticized and revised the notion of “post-Islamism” to suggest that the anomalies of Islamist politics has opened up a productive space that is neither anti-Islamic nor un-Islamic nor secular—a perspective which much of the current protest activity seems to substantiate.
This is the real challenge: harnessing the opportunity provided by this historic event that my students have actually lived through in order to get them to think more broadly and deeply about how these protests disturb or dislocate our familiar understandings of states and opposition in the region. How then do we find a language for studying the politics of region in the region that does not translate back into those categories?
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