Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Çemil Aydin (CA): The book deals with the intellectual genealogy and politics of the notion that all Muslims in the world share civilizational and geopolitical unity. I was surprised how anti-Muslim hostility relies on a notion of global Muslim unity threatening Western hegemony. This is different from anti-Semitism, where Jews were depicted as internal enemies. It is also different from anti-Black racism, which does not include an active fear of a global unity of black skinned people geopolitically threating white hegemony. While there has been persistent fear of geopolitical Muslim solidarity, modern Muslim intellectuals and political leaders often turned that idea into a hope for international solidarity and even subaltern visions of cooperation against white supremacy.
In The Idea of the Muslim World, I tried to show the modern imperial roots of these new geopolitical notions and discuss why it persisted from the 1880s to the 1980s, despite the radically different political contexts. As part of this genealogy, I address the issues of so called “exceptionalism” of the Muslim critiques of the liberal international order, based on nation states. Observers of contemporary Islamism or other transnational political projects in Muslim societies often insist on the exceptionalism of Muslim religious traditions, which somehow encourages pious Muslims to challenge the notion of national borders embedded in the Westphalian state tradition in the name of the borderless imagination of the Muslim world, or ummah. This exceptionalism assumes that, due to the nature of the Muslim faith, the transnational political imagination of Muslims naturally resists a nation-state division of the world, and that good pious Muslims would show discontent with the existing nation-state-based international order. Assuming that colonialism and nationalism divided the ummah, Islamism and Pan-Islamism would have programs to reunite them. We rarely ask why we explain politics in Muslim communities and societies more in relation to their faith tradition and in relation to an imagined civilizational identity and historical memory of Muslim-ness than anything else. There seems to be an unquestioned implicit presumption that Muslims are different in their attitudes to politics compared to Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or Catholics. I argued that the narrative of Muslims divided by European colonial designs is a myth, and in fact idea of the Muslim world did not precede but rather was co-constituted by the colonial experience of the nineteenth century. In fact, racialization of Muslims via their religion created the imagination of geopolitical unity, turning colonial fear of Muslim menace into a hope of anti-colonial solidarity. Otherwise, Muslims were never politically united before European colonialism.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CA: This book deals with the topics of Empires in world history and the way race and racialization via religious markers played a crucial role in the transition from an imperial world to the contemporary order of nation states. It also deals with the debates and literature on Pan-Islamism and the Caliphate, offering a new interpretation of some of the key turning points such as Ottoman jihad in WWI. The last chapter is mainly about Cold War literature, as it highlights the importance of both the global cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, and the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in reviving a particular discourse of Muslim World solidarity after decolonization. Last but not least, the book deals with questions of non-Western internationalisms, strategies of resisting Western hegemony, and the legacies of anti-colonial discourses for post-colonial period.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CA: In my previous book on Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian visions of world order from the 1880s to 1945 (Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia, Columbia University Press, 2008), I have argued that the roots and content of transnational discourses on Islamic civilization were shaped by particular Muslim globalist discourses during the high age of imperialism, in a period ranging from the 1880s to the 1920s. This was a period of imperialism driven globalization, which facilitated an intra-Islamic world exchange of ideas on issues of European hegemony, “Islamic decline,” modernism and other historical-textual issues. This process produced a set of shared themes and ideas characterizing transnational Muslim thought about local and global concerns of disparate Muslim societies. The fact that a transnational identity of “Muslim” emerged by the turn of the twentieth century was no exception in world history, because other global identities, such as “white,” “Western,” “Asian,” “black” or “Christian” developed around the same time due to what I call the “geopolitization of globalization.” The appeal of Pan-Islamic, Pan-Asian, Pan-African and Pan-Slavic ideas for both nationalist movements and various empires of that time demonstrate the power of transnational identities associated with this new geopolitical thinking.
The main question of the current project relies on one of the main findings of my previous book: Given the striking parallels between Pan-Islamic thought and its counterparts in Pan-African and Pan-Asian movements in the era of empires and colonialism, why is it that, after the process of decolonization, a transnational Muslim identity seems to have persisted in new forms, while the significance of other transnational non-Western identities gradually declined?
In the current book I tried to explain how the modern narrative about the Muslim world and imperial global order emerging in the late nineteenth century ended up persisting across three generations from al-Afghani and Anwar Pasha to King Faisal and Khomeini. While discussion this long period continuity and change, both book deals with the dilemma of strategic essentialism that subaltern and racialized Muslims, with reference to Islamic World versus Christian White hegemony, had to resort so that they can create spaces of liberation and to advance their emancipatory agenda. Pan-Africanist intellectual such as DuBois similarly needed to speak on behalf of the black race to resist racial discrimination and otherization. Other Subaltern groups had to embrace the category African, Asian or Muslim world in order to talk back again the discourses of their inferiority by Western/Christian publics. Muslimness, at some level, functioned like Blackness, allowing solidarity for progressive and liberation goals in the face of existing heterogeneity of Muslims or Black skinned societies across the globe. The book notes the emancipatory value of this strategy at least within a temporal framework when the generation of anti-imperial and anti-racist thinkers needed to free themselves from the subjugation of oppressive regimes justifying its hegemony by utilizing the superiority of Western civilization, Christianity and white man’s burden, but discuss how same set of assumption affected post-colonial politics. Without rejecting subaltern actors “strategic essentialism” of Muslim unity against colonial and neo-colonial oppression offers a hope of intersectional emancipation through solidarity of the oppressed, the book examines how different imperial and national political actors could also utilize this idea of Muslim solidarity for their strategic purposes and betray the very subaltern Muslims they are claiming to help.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CA: My primary audience is students of modern world history and world politics. The book was written for a general audience and can be used in undergraduate classes. Readers of Foreign Affairs magazine, for example, are trying to figure out what happens when “the West” is not as powerful as a century ago, and “the rest” is asserting its values and political will on a global stage. They are especially asking why “the Muslim World” is taking a more active role in world politics today, and how the Muslim narratives of the world are challenging the Eurocentric master narrative. This group of readers erroneously assumes that there was a homogeneous Muslim World before Western imperialism, and now this Muslim world is asserting its rejection of Western modernity and values. I want to highlight to these readers that Muslims were never united before the nineteenth century, and they always lived under the rule of various Empires, in close proximity and in cooperation with non-Muslims, and their imperial belonging mattered. I want this group of readers to notice the implications of the argument that the geopolitical category of the Muslim world emanated from the racial logic of the age of late nineteenth-century European imperialism, and did not precede it.
Another intended group of readers are those who believe in the existence and unity of Islamic civilization, its golden age, and its current decline. Non-Western observers of political Islam, for example, do not think that this is a recent phenomenon, and see it as an authentic “Islamic” alternative to the Eurocentric world order and its Western values. Some attributed essential authentic Muslim values to various jihadist groups like al-Qaida, and other saw a kind of Muslim view of the global order behind the assertive regional claims of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There are also many Muslims who lament the decline of their civilization, hoping to revive it. Without going into as much detail, the book suggests that Muslim reformist intellectuals embraced the idea of Islamic civilization to defeat the notion of their racial inferiority. If Muslims had a civilization in the past and it contributed to the rise of the West, they could not be racially inferior. I think this strategy was highly successful in countering the Western civilizing mission ideology, and in aiding the decolonization process and helping liberation movements. Yet, the same story does injustice to the historical experience of millions of people in the past. People who happen to be Muslim or Hindu in India shared many commonalities and separating them as members of Islamic and Hindu civilization is not only inaccurate but also politically dangerous. The same is true when we write the story of the Ottoman Empire as a history of Islamic empire, without much attention the all the diverse human beings that belonged in this imperial experience.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CA: I am currently working on a side project about the 1970s and the 1980s, to understand how the transition from narratives of socialism and capitalism, or left and right, was replaced by the framework of Islam versus the West. This transition occurs in a very short period of time across the Middle East, and Iranian revolution of 1979 has a lot to do with it. But there is an important background in the 1970s with the 1973 War, oil boycott, Camp David accords etc. There is an equally important unfolding of this narrative during the 1980s around the events in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine.
J: How has the reception of the book been thus far?
CA: Different reviews of the book have concentrated on different aspects, and I am thankful to my colleagues for their close readings and engagement. The book will be published in Turkish next summer, and I expect a new set of critical readings in the context of Turkish intellectual scenes today. It is also being translated into Persian. I am especially glad to see readings of this book’s main argument as a way of decolonize modern Muslim thought from the formative experience of the late nineteenth century. By historicizing the idea of the Muslim world, I was partly hoping to liberate the notions of ummah, and emancipatory ideals of Muslim solidarity, from its geopolitical manipulation. There have been successful examples of this path in various forms of justice oriented Muslim legal and theological reinterpretation of texts and traditions.
Excerpt from the Introduction
What Is the Muslim World?
Roughly a fifth of people now living are Muslims. Their societies, located in every corner of the globe, vary in language, ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, culture, and wealth. Yet throughout modern history, Muslims and non-Muslims have appealed to an imagined global Muslim unity. One need only look at the headlines to see that this unity does not exist: today, the very people who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims target other Muslims as their enemies; Muslim societies are more divided than ever, riven by civil wars and protracted conflicts across borders. Even so, the illusion of Muslim unity persists.
This illusion is captured most succinctly in the universally popular notion of a “Muslim world,” with its own collective history and future, often contrasted with a putative “West.” But we rarely question the historical roots and conceptual shortcuts inherent in such terms. Since when do political leaders, intellectuals, and everyday people talk about a Muslim world? How has it encompassed a civilization, religious tradition, and geopolitical unit? Why are the same people who take for granted the existence of a Muslim world reluctant to talk about a Christian world, an African world, or a Buddhist world in the same way? Why has the idea of the Muslim world become so entrenched, despite the obvious naïveté of categorizing one and a half billion people, in all their diversity, as an imagined unity?
When President Barack Obama made his 2009 address “to the Muslim world” in Cairo, he was confirming the modern assumption that there is a global Muslim community to be engaged. Obama was trying to undo the damage President George W. Bush’s war on terror had done to America’s image among Muslims. To that end, Obama praised the historical contributions of Muslims in areas such as algebra, medicine, navigation, and printing. He also criticized Americans’ negative stereotypes about Muslim faith traditions. He mentioned the positive moral values of these traditions and lauded American Muslims. This was a kind of sweetener before he put forward his government’s views about the political tensions between the United States and diverse Muslim societies. It was an odd gesture. Would it be acceptable, or even sensible, to appeal to the contributions of East Asian civilization, Buddhism, and Confucianism before addressing America’s political disputes with China?
Alongside Obama and so many others in the so-called West, Muslim leaders and intellectuals rely on the notion of the Muslim world to describe, simultaneously, the geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition of diverse millions. About two decades before President Obama’s speech, in January 1988, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of the Muslim world, urging the Soviet leader not to be misled by the capitalist West and to study the spiritual and political values of Islam. Khomeini ended his letter by declaring, “The Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world, can easily fill the vacuum of religious faith in your society.” How did we arrive at this point, where a fantastical entity could be so present, so prevalent in political thinking? Why are so many Muslim and non-Muslims political leaders, intellectuals and religious figures comfortably base many of their arguments and decisions on the idea of the Muslim World without reflecting on the accuracy of the generalization that this term signify?
Contrary to widespread assumption, the term “Muslim world” does not derive from ummah, a concept as old as Islam, which refers to the Muslim religious community. Instead the Muslim world began to develop in the nineteenth century and achieved full flower in the 1870s. Also mistaken is the belief that Muslims were united until nationalist ideology and European colonialism tore them apart. This is precisely backward; in fact, Muslims never dreamed of global political unity until the peak of European hegemony in the late nineteenth century, when poor colonial conditions, European discourses of Muslim racial inferiority, and Muslims’ theories of their own apparent decline nurtured the first arguments for pan-Islamic solidarity. In other words, the Muslim world arrived with imperial globalization and its concomitant ordering of humanity by race. The racialization of Islam was bound up with its transformation into a universal and uniform religious tradition, a force in international politics, and a distinct object in a discourse of civilizations. Political strategy and intellectual labor made this new reality, and both Muslims and European Christians took part.
The eve of World War I was the high point of perceived global Muslim unity. In the fall of 1914, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire drew on the authority he had cultivated as caliph of the global Muslim community to declare jihad on behalf of the Muslim world. Yet even then there were strong expressions of Muslim loyalty to the Ottomans’ enemies: the British, French, Dutch, and Russian empires. Competing Muslim and non-Muslim conceptions of the Muslim world wrought dramatic changes over the next decade. The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 inspired self-reflection and debate on Muslim-world identity in an era when modernizing ideologies of nationalism and bolshevism threatened to obviate other political forms.
During World War II, the notion of the Muslim world remained a centerpiece of Great Power propaganda, as both Axis and Allies sought Muslims’ support. But afterward, at the peak of decolonization during the 1950s and the 1960s, the Muslim world receded. No successor rose to anchor the Muslim world, as the Ottomans had. Indian independence and the messy partition of Pakistan sapped the influence of Indian Muslims, who, for a century, had been able to sway global affairs by pressuring and cajoling their British overlords. In this period, few journalists and scholars referred to Islam as an explanatory factor in world politics.
But it was not to last. Amid interrelated political events from Arab-Israeli conflicts to the Iranian Revolution, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a resurgence of pan-Islamic patterns of thinking born in the imperial age. The Muslim world was again seen as a geopolitical unity, even though Muslim societies were by then ruled by more than fifty postcolonial nation-states.
How to explain this resurfacing of century-old tropes during the 1980s despite the radical transformation of the global system? Gone was European imperial hegemony in Muslim societies. Gone was the Ottoman caliphate. And there were all those nation-states. Yet the discourse of Muslim unity survived. It returned through the renewed racialization of Muslims and in the form of post–Cold War Islamist ideologies. The persistence of the geopolitical idea of the Muslim world from its peak in World War I to the present is not an outgrowth of shared history or immutable ideology within Muslim societies. It is, rather, a function of the civilizational and geopolitical narratives concocted in encounters of Muslim societies with European empires, reconfigured according to the exigencies of the Cold War.
The central aim of this book is to demonstrate the origins and understand the appeal of these narratives in which the Muslim world lives alongside the Christian West. I therefore offer a critical genealogy of the idea of the Muslim world, showing how, starting in the late nineteenth century, pan-Islamists and Islamophobes have used the assumption, ideal, and threat of Muslim unity to advance political agendas. Together, and in tension, they created the Muslim world for their own strategic purposes and positioned it in everlasting conflict with the West. I hope that by recovering the imperial context in which essentialized ideas about Islam and the West developed, we will come to appreciate the historical contingency of the Muslim world, to understand more fully the role of religious identities in international affairs, and to reflect on ways in which the overlap of race and geopolitics limits struggles for rights and justice.
The idea of the Muslim world is inseparable from the claim that Muslims constitute a race. The distinction of the Muslim world and the Christian West began taking shape most forcefully in the 1880s, when the majority of Muslims and Christians resided in the same empires. The rendering of Muslims as racially distinct—a process that called on both “Semitic” ethnicity and religious difference—and inferior aimed to disable and deny their demands for rights within European empires. Muslim intellectuals could not reject the assumptions of irreducible difference but responded that they were equal to Christians, deserving of rights and fair treatment. The same conception of Muslim unity and difference justified appeals to Muslims as a global community during World War I and World War II. Racial assumptions also ensured that later subaltern and nationalist claims for rights would be framed in the idioms of Muslim solidarity and an enduring clash between Islam and the West, giving rise to the Islamism and Islamophobia of the 1980s and beyond.