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Muslims and the Challenge of Historiography: An Interview with Salman Sayyid (Part One)

[Badshahi Mosque (King’s Mosque). Photo by Ujphotos via Wikimedia] [Badshahi Mosque (King’s Mosque). Photo by Ujphotos via Wikimedia]

From the perspective of an increasing number of Muslim intellectuals, discussions around the prospects of Islamic societies charting their own political futures are fraught with pressures to engage in the application of Western liberal (and neo-liberal) values as a means of validating such intellectual projects. Thus, the challenge facing thinkers in these societies is one of de-linking Eurocentric assumptions from internal discourses on autonomy of Muslims. In the first of this two-part interview with Salman Sayyid, author of Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order, Sayyid proposes the steps necessary for “clearing” space to enter into such discussions. In particular, he highlights the need for Muslims to understand the role of history in the formation of political agency and calls for critical engagement with the historiography of Islamic societies. Junaid Ahmad conducted the interview in Lahore, Pakistan. He was assisted by Sania Sufi and Osama Iqbal.

Junaid Ahmad (JA): Dr. Sayyid, your earlier work, in particular A Fundamental Fear, was a scathing critique of existing accounts the rise of Islamism as well as what it signifies. It was a bold and innovative engagement with “critical theory” and the question of Islam and Islamism. But in some ways, your latest book is even more provocative and audacious—and not simply because of its title, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order. It deconstructs the Eurocentrism embedded in the mantras of Western power today, or the discourse you term "Westernesse." One of the functions that you say this recent work of yours serves is to offer a "clearing" of/for the seemingly omnipresent orientalist tropes to which Muslims are forced to respond. Can you explain this notion/function of "clearing" that you speak of?

Salman Sayyid (SS): In the context of the argument of Recalling the Caliphate by clearing I mean the opening up of a space that allows for us to have sustained conversation about Muslim autonomy. Anyone trying to engage in a serious manner with the possibility of Muslim autonomy is immediately confronted with a series of challenges. These challenges turn and divert any consideration of Muslim autonomy into a conversation about secularism or liberalism or relativism, etc. For a Muslim to speak requires him or her to answer a series of questions which are leading, if not misleading, so one can easily become trapped and diverted in trying to demonstrate that Islam is not inherently misogynist or Muslims are not fundamentally anti-intellectual etc. So clearing is both a disclosure and a dismissal. It is a dismissal of the arguments of those who oppose Muslim autonomy, and the disclosure of a possibility of Muslim autonomy that is obscured by Islamophobia. 

JA: You are right to point out that many Muslims become trapped in the first part of this “clearing” process, or solely responding towards Orientalist discourse. Since neoliberal institutions of power—whether academic or political—shape dialogue, it becomes even harder for any genuine discussion of Muslim autonomy to exist. How can Muslim intellectuals engage in such a conversation if they are lost amidst constant reactionary dialogue? Does your latest book offer any advice?

SS: The task of clearing is not something that is done once and forever. Like the struggle against dust, it is unrelenting, but it cannot become an end in itself. A discussion of Muslim autonomy has to include both critical and poetic elements. The advice that Recalling the Caliphate offers is that the task of Muslim autonomy cannot wait for an auspicious conjunction, but needs to begin here and now. This task has to include not (only) more exhortations to greater piety, but also broadening and enriching the sense of the Islamicate. Muslim autonomy requires not only Muslims to know their deen but also to know their history. I would argue that without a historical sensibility any understanding of our deen will be stilted, and simply reproduce and reinforce Orientalism.

In general Muslims are more literate in their canonical heritage than their history. It is the recovery of Muslims as world-makers and history-makers that is crucial to this task of Muslim autonomy. In practical terms it means challenging Eurocentric historiography and learning the history of Muslim agency. It means changing the frame of reference bequeathed to us by the colonial order and internalized by the Westoxicated, and presented as the truth. It means that those who support Muslim autonomy have to work with a purpose to articulate a counter-narrative rather than being apologists for Eurocentrism.

JA: Can you speak about how the post-9/11 and “war on terror” world order has attempted to mould and shape Muslim discourse, and specifically demonstrate how the problematic of “Muslim apologia” actually plays out on certain social and political issues? For example, there has been much inquiry into whether Islam is compatible with democracy. Many of course believe that is a useful discussion to be pursued by Muslim societies. You however problematize the entire debate around democracy. Please elaborate.

SS: I argue that democracy is best understood as a form of “good governance” specific to a particular historical trajectory and cultural formation. So, for instance, the fact that European colonial empires of countries such as Netherlands, France or Britain are presented as being democratic even when the overwhelming majority of their populations had no significant political rights. This is why democracy refers not so much to a system of government but rather whether a particular country is considered to be pro-Western or not. This is why it is so difficult to imagine a country that is considered to be simultaneously anti-Western and democratic. This is why when the Palestinian people elect Hamas in fair and free elections the United States and European Union cut off any aid to occupied Palestine and work to undermine and overthrow the Hamas government. 

Given that the signifier of democracy is deeply attached to Western identity, I am not convinced that fighting to stick that signifier to another ensemble of practices and institutions is that useful (e.g. the claims that shura is democracy). I think such practices are rather timid and defeatist. I would like to suggest something else.  

The “war on terror” and the associated austerity programmes have helped to create a neoliberal and neoconservative “historic bloc.” The consequence of this hegemonic formation is that space for dissent, difference, for insulation from arbitrary authority is beginning to shrink. For example, in Britain legislation has been introduced which threatens to take away children from parents deemed to be radical Muslims. It was reported on 27 July 2015 that four hundred children under twelve were referred to the British authorities as being radicalized, including a three-year old. The legislation leaves rather vague what is considered to be radicalization. A senior member of the British police suggested signs of being a radical Muslim may include: not celebrating Christmas, not drinking alcohol, supporting the boycott of Israel. All these restrictions which go against a common understanding of democratic practice do not seem to dent claims made by British politicians that they are a democratic country. This evacuation is producing a form of totalitarianism made tolerable by modern technology’s ability to extract information and exert control over ordinary people’s lives by stealth. 

An opportunity now exists for Muslims to reclaim a social space insulated from the intrusions of the surveillance state and unaccountable mega-corporations. Muslim societies can aspire to be attuned to their pre-colonized history in which the exercise of authority was limited. Such a goal does not require many resources, nor does it demand much expenditure. It only requires a willingness to institutionalize the incompatibility between zulm and everyday expressions of Muslimness, and it in this light that we can best capture the sense of the shura not as the application of an ossified rulebook, but rather as a means of insulating people from exercise of arbitrary power.

JA: One of the constant reminders throughout your work is the difference between historiography and history. You have become well known for the way in which you describe a certain Eurocentric narrative as going from "Plato to NATO," a historical account which highlights a certain teleology and sequence of events that posits the “West is/as best.” Speak a little bit about the function of Eurocentric historiography in this regard, and the effects it has had on the non-Western world, and on the Muslim world particularly.  

SS: It is important to understand the role of history in the formation of political agency. Imagine a person without a memory—to what extent would they be a person? Imagine the loss of memory is not just forgetting their name, failing to recognize faces of people close to them, but even forgetting how to speak, forgetting what words mean. We would wonder whether such a person could function independently–even if physically they had no other impairment. Memory is not just about the past: it is rather the possibility of being able to act in the past, by orienting oneself to the future.  

History is a kind of a memory of a collective. But of course, history is not an exact reproduction of the past. Such a task is impossible, not only empirically, but more importantly, because a straightforward record of the past would be meaningless. Any such record would need to select what constitutes the elements of a record. History is not a straightforward record of the past, but a reconstruction of a record of the past. Historiography is simply a recognition that all history is not a transparent disclosure of the past, it is a rhetorical art which seeks to influence its audience’s view of the world by changing their understanding of representations of the past. 

For Muslims the challenge of historiography is two-fold: Islamicate history has been replaced by nationalist historiography. It is becoming more and more difficult to tell the history of the Ummah and as a consequence it becomes difficult to project the Ummah into the future. For example, take the history of Pakistan. It is dominantly framed in the context of South Asia–which reflects the boundaries produced by colonial cartography. As a consequence Pakistan appears as an illegitimate presence, in an essentially “Indian (i.e., “Hindu”) sub-continent.” According to this Indological perspective the Pakistan project appears as an affront to the natural order of things. Hence, Pakistan’s formation remains obscured by a focus on the minutiae of negotiations and play of vanities, unable to account for the Pakistan movement as a collective will. Or take the way in which nationalist historiographies in the Balkans and Levant and Anatolia have converged to deny the legitimacy of the Ottoman state and read it as an empire similar to European colonial-imperial formations.  

The second problem as you mention is to do with the nature of Eurocentric world history, which determines the direction of travel and destination of all societies. The closer the society is to becoming Westernized, the more it is considered to be progressive, modern, i.e., on the right side of history. Given that Europe/Christendom is in many ways invented by being contrasted with the Islamicate, the price for Muslims to become part of history’s stream is to become ex-Muslims. Thus Muslims are stripped of their history, and destined to become like people without memories, unable to act in present or project themselves into the future.

JA: Many liberals argue that religion and state should be separate in order to ensure equal treatment for all. You say that such a reductionist binary, where religion is deemed as backwards and secularism as liberatory, is based on European Enlightenment thought and not Islam. Could you please elaborate?  

SS: In Christian Europe most non-Christian religious minorities were progressively eliminated often with great violence. In Muslim lands non-Muslim religious minorities have generally persisted. Until the end of the eighteenth century, with all possible caveats, as a general observation, if you were a religious or ethnic minority, you would most probably be better off living under Muslim rule rather than under Christian or European rule. Unfortunately, we tend to read the links between minority rights and “religious” based states through the prism of Christian history projected on to the rest of the world. Nor is it the case that non-religious states are less likely to undermine the status of religious minorities, as the experience of European colonial regimes and Communist regions demonstrates. There is no necessary link between a state based on religion and the prosecution of religious minorities. It is not whether a state is based on religion or not which is the issue but rather how religion and state are being conceptualized in such statements.

The category of religion is basically an Enlightenment reading of Western Christianity. In relation to this reading, religion is defined and that definition is used to classify the rest of the world. The transformation of a description of a particular European historical experience into a universal axiom is a hallmark of Eurocentrism. Eurocentric liberalism I would contend has very little contribution to make to the future of the Islamicate, or to the people of Muslimistan. Reading Lolita in Tehran or Islamabad or Istanbul or Djakarta or Cairo does not mean you are not parroting Orientalism. This is why it comes as little surprise that Westoxicated liberals have nearly always been de facto firm supporters of so many tyrannies throughout Muslimistan.

It has to be remembered that liberalism has historically been compatible with racism, imperialism and colonialism. Liberalism without a commitment to a popular agency is not necessarily an emancipatory force. 

JA: How can Turkey be seen as a model for other Muslim countries? Is it possible to learn something from the Turkish experience and maybe apply to other Muslim countries such as Pakistan?

SS: The question is rarely of finding the right model. Clearly, the success of the AK Party in transforming Turkey in a period of ten years can serve as inspiration and an illustration at the possibility of reform through electoral success. I do not see how it can be a model that is to be applied. Firstly, the idea of applying models is the hallmark of technocrats, and the reduction of the political to mere administration.

In countries like Pakistan there has been a long history of borrowing “off-the-shelf” plans and models, and looking for technical solutions to what are fundamentally political problems (e.g. the Punjab government’s use of neo-liberal technocrat advisors such as Michael Barber to run its education system by imitating the measures followed by Blair-Brown-Cameron governments). Technocrats can administer and implement whatever the conventional wisdom is, but they cannot create or fundamentally innovate, or give purpose. Pakistan and similar Muslim countries which have the potential to be more than the patrimony of a clan or a dynasty need a paradigm of their own, based on the radical appreciation of their own situation, circumstances and ambitions. Pakistan has to have a model that reflects its needs and the needs of its people and recognizes the distinct characteristics of the country. 

Secondly, the reforms that Erdogan and his colleagues have enacted have been made possible because they have an agency capable of such political work. In Muslimistan you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movements, groups, or parties that are capable of being agents of sustained and serious reforms. So before Pakistan models itself on Turkey, you have to ask who will do this modelling? What movement, group, party is willing to undertake a radical reform of the existing system?  If reformers in Pakistan or other Muslim countries were serious about learning the lesson of Turkey, they would learn the importance of having a popular political party that can organize and mobilize. A political party which can articulate a narrative that gives the country a purpose and directions so that reforms are coherent and accumulative rather than haphazard and transitory. What is needed is an organization or organisations which are serious and committed to reform, both socio-economic and intellectual and cultural, rather than simply making payments to international creditors.

Thirdly, one of the most important factors in Turkey (and also Iran), which is often overlooked, is that neither of these countries were fully colonized in the way that most countries in Muslimistan were. The colonization they experienced came as an auto-colonialism in the form of Kemalism. It is not a coincidence that the “Islamist” revolution in Iran and the transformation in Turkey have been able to create a space for the exercise of national sovereignty in these countries. Without sovereignty, democracy is limited (since it can always be trumped by diktats from abroad) and therefore the ability to formulate meaningful reforms is highly restricted. For Pakistan and other similar countries decolonization is a necessary precondition for meaningful reform. So if you want to imitate the success of Turkey in the last decade, then you commit to a program of decolonial reforms and organizations, and understand the context of the Turkish transformation. 

JA: You mention that populist parties are a necessary step towards any concrete, positive transformation in Muslimistan. In countries such as Pakistan where the masses tend to vote based on patronage, and not ideology, how do we integrate Islamism in such a society? In other words, what is a response to those who regard Islamism as a utopia rather than a practical political outcome? Are there any specific challenges for states such as Pakistan where imagining Islamic decolonial spaces often time seems bleak due to a complete breakdown of social and political institutions?  

SS: First, we need to stop succumbing to the staples of Orientalist scholarship which continue to dominate the analysis of Pakistan. It is not the case that electoral politics in Pakistan can be seen as uniquely conditioned by patronage rather than ideology—such is the case everywhere in the world, including the United States and United Kingdom. There are of course differences in the structures of patronage–but it is not the case that the voters there are more ideological than in other places. Second, if someone is interested in the well-being of Pakistan and its people, than they need to be clearer about the challenges that Pakistanis face. This means not to exaggerate the difficulties. Hope is necessary for any program of improvement. There is no complete breakdown of social and political institutions. If that was the case, Pakistan would be like Somalia, Libya, Iraq or Syria–it is not. The problem is of the political system rather than the raw capacity of the state itself. In which case, reforms and improvements have to be directed at the political processes. This means the recognition that electoral victory is the culmination of a process of intellectual and cultural reform. It means that instead of focusing on a figure like Erdogan or Khomeini, we need to see them in the context of developments of wide-ranging counter-narratives, populated by intellectuals, activists, and civil society organisations. Imagining a decolonial future for Pakistan is a way of inscribing hope for something better. Without such an inscription the alternative offer—even if couched in the lexicon of a new Pakistan—will remain unrealized.


[Click here to read Part 2 of this interview]

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