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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)
The revolutionary fervor that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa since December of last year has generated much commentary, most of it surprised not only that protests across the region seemingly emerged out of nowhere, but that they have not hewed to an expected script. The expected script of course would feature calls for an Islamic alternative to current regimes. The expectation that Muslims can only think in terms of Islam is long standing and deeply rooted and confirmed by events like the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Islam and politics, and as a corollary Islam and violence, have thus been firmly conjoined in the public mind and pundit's commentary, aided in large part also by an industry of Islam studies generated by academics, who have been relegated the task of explaining political Islam.
Clearly the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” are not the “revolt of Islam”. The soundtrack of these revolutions indicates otherwise. If the soundtrack of the revolution has been secular, and its means peaceful,how then do we understand and teach Islam? Whither Islam ? Clearly it hasn’t been entirely absent from the latest revolutions. For while the soundtrack of these revolutions has been about regime change, accountability and the reforms that would guarantee that, there has been the occasional “Allahu Akbar” to be sure, and more importantly there has been the Friday prayer, that ritual which most of all has been read as an incitement to violence. Friday prayer instead now occasioned community and very powerfully symbolically represented peaceful resistance to state violence, if not a secular act. The impact of this image of prayer as an act of peaceful resistance and of multiconfessional inclusion has arguably gone further than any effort to represent Islam as such in the voluminous production of “understanding Islam” literature.
Nevertheless, an adherence to the deterministic lens with which Islam is regarded persists, one that depends on a reductive referencing of Islamic texts. To wit, a research presentation I attended once posed the question of the “Islamicness” of blue jeans, given the absence of any Quranic guidance on the issue. It was concluded that the Quran’s silence on the matter might account for the lack of blue jeans in the dress of Gulf Arabs. Less ridiculous is the recent commentary on Osama Bin Laden’s death, which has given rise once again to fears of the “revolt of Islam”. As pernicious is the use of same by opposed regimes in the Middle East itself. (Hence the framing of current revolutionary protests by threatened regimes as sectarian and Islamist, chaos generating and violent. Orientalist despots indeed.)
How is it that Islam remains omnipresent and omnipotent? To a large extent it is due to the convergence of two discourses that have served each other admirably; the orientalist, and the Islamic modernist/salafi. As we all know, orientalism has governed much knowledge production about the region until the recent past, feeding and receiving from public fears about Islam that it reproduced in scholarly guise. Less considered is the role of Islamic modernists and their salafi successors, who have established the mantra that Islam is din wa dunya. Muslims reformers in the 19th century asserted Islam’s all-encompassing relevance both as defensive reaction to western critique of Islam’s defects, and as a response to the religion-marginalizing project of modernizing states. Islam became the object around which Muslim reformers fashioned a new relevance for it, extending its mandate beyond the personal to a “way of life”, in the manner that saw the veil transition from social custom to “religious obligation”.
Paradoxically, both Muslim reformers, and colonial authorities and their academic auxiliaries, thus reduced the history of Muslim experience to a handful of normative texts, which then became the basis either for colonial domination, or various forms of resistance to it. And so it remains. So tenaciously so that virtually every teaching text that in any way deals with the Middle East, or Muslim majority societies, will begin with a review of the Prophet’s lifetime and definition of Qur’an and hadith, the five pillars of Islam, and that original sin of sectarianism, the succession crisis of 632, from which Muslims apparently have never recovered. From there one proceeds to the religio-political institution of the caliphate, unique to Islam, and another failure from which Muslims have never recovered and have ever since tried to resurrect. The reduction of Middle Eastern history and the historical experience of its peoples to such a ludicrous narrative can best be appreciated if one were to apply a similar plot to say the history of the European subcontinent – in which case one would begin with a biography of Jesus, discuss the Bible, and proceed to outline how the failure of a holy roman empire led to a protestant movement that defines Europeans and the relations with and between their states to this day.
The salience of such a narrative for both the west and salafis regarding Islam has withstood the best efforts of more recent scholarship that historicizes Muslim experience and considers its variety over space as well as time. Briefly, historians have unpacked the conjoining of religion and politics by problematizing the nature of Muslim identity in the lifetime of the Prophet, reexamining the nature of the succession crisis after his death, noting the effective separation of “church” and “state” in Islam as early as the 8th century, describing the evolution of a religious law outside the purview of the state, exploring the secular political theory devised by scholars of the classical period (10-12th centuries), and the secular court cultures and sciences patronized by a range of elites in Middle Eastern society. In the field of religious studies, a robust literature has helped to display the range, variety and multivalent expressions of Islam in the social and spiritual lives of Muslims. And scholars of more recent periods have used archives to flesh out the economic, social, and gender experience of people in the Middle East, from the vantage of various disciplines including history, literature, gender studies, and anthropology. Theoretical frameworks adapted from these disciplines, as well as conceptual frameworks emerging from within area studies (such as Hodgson’s notion of Islamicate societies) have all contributed to recovering the myriad historical experience of Muslims, and problematizing the binary and/or essentializing lens with which Islam has been viewed. All have suggested that Islam is a historical process, and that, depending on time and place, it has variously helped to define social, legal, or ethnic groups in Islamic societies. Where it has historically helped to provide political legitimacy or a political program, it has done so provisionally and more often than not ephemerally.
And yet the presentation of Islam in and outside the classroom remains one of a primordial constant, ontologically gripping and flattening the experiences of peoples in the Middle East. To some extent this is due to the hold of a periodization determined elsewhere which continues to be applied to the Middle East and to separate an isolated “pre-modern” past from a “modern” present distinguished primarily by the region’s interaction with the west. The “past” continues to be another country for those traveling in the present; if they treat it or teach it, it is by reference to the clichéd (the Prophet, Qur’an, five pillars, caliphate, sectarianism, etc).
Another problem in my view is the nature of available teaching material. With the exception of a handful of textbooks produced by scholars of Middle East history and political science, most of us rely on materials produced by non-specialists whose narratives are informed by the agendas of publishers seeking to reach as broad an audience as possible. Very few of us collaborate on developing teaching material that reflects the methodologies of, and nuanced findings that result from, our own research, succumbing instead to the easily available and accessible of the marketplace. The continued privileging of original research in our profession, curricular and programmatic demands of the departments in which we teach, the lack of time and funding for developing collaborative teaching material, and the isolation imposed by disciplinary boundaries and inherent periodization of the field itself, all seem to conspire against the production of teaching material that better reflects the state of the Middle East, and the states that constitute it. The need remains for teaching material that provides for a deeper and richer, multivalent narrative.
No doubt the orientalist/salafi narrative of Islam will continue to persuade, and continue to be useful to reactionary elements, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, and whether state or non-state, yet one thing the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” has forced on us, is the rethinking about Islam if not its omission. This is an opportunity that should not be lost. And perhaps in this conference that opportunity has emerged, not only for discussion, but also for a decision to collaborate beyond this moment in producing an alternative.
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