Jeffry R. Halverson and Nathaniel Greenberg, Islamists of the Maghreb (London: Routledge, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jeffry Halverson (JH): The Muslim Brotherhood has been one of my research interests since I was a doctoral student, so the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt and across the Maghreb were especially interesting to me. A good amount of the existing literature, and certainly the popular media, tends to make sweeping international generalizations about Islamism as an ideology, and I was interested in looking at the individuals behind the different Islamist parties that grew to prominence after the Arab Spring, such as Ennahdha, as a break from that trend. Each of them reflect the unique circumstances and histories of their countries, rather than adhering to some monolithic Islamist template.
Nathaniel Greenberg (NG): I have been deeply invested in studying the Arab uprisings since protests began in Tunisia in December 2010. I was living in downtown Cairo at that time, and I later traveled to Morocco where I witnessed the outset of that country’s wave of protests on 20 February 2011. I remember being struck by the disparity between my experience of events on the ground and the dominant narrative in global media, in particular the way in which the region’s many social complexities were being lumped together by the twenty-four hour news cycle. It is well understood now that January 25 and January 28 in Egypt, for example, represented two distinct movements. My work on this book and with Jeff Halverson in general has been driven by a desire to understand the latter of those two trajectories.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH: It explores the diversity of contemporary Islamist thought across the Maghreb, not only by country but also within these countries. It also details the way local histories have shaped these Islamist movements, in contrast to the popular assumption that Islamism is simply a strict literalist application of the Quran to public life in defiance of Western norms for modernity.
NG: Among the issues we tried to tackle, for example, was the degree to which the material restraints of the political environment in the postcolonial context drove the various strands of the movement’s intellectual identity. Rached al-Ghannouchi (leader of Ennahdha in Tunisia) was illustrative in this regard. It was not until his imprisonment in 1981 that he was able to draft his magnum opus, al-Hurrayat al-‘ama fi al-dawla al-Islamiyya (Public Liberties in the Islamic State). And it was not until his being forced to leave Egypt in 1964 (following a tiff between Nasser and Bourguiba) that he traveled to Damascus where he met members of the Syrian brotherhood and discovered the influence of Mustafa as-Siba‘i. It was only then that he decided to abandon his initial enthusiasm for Nasserism and pan-Arabism and to devote his energy to the cause of Islam.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH: In my previous book, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, I addressed the impact that the demise of Sunni theology (‘ilm al-kalam) has had on contemporary Sunni Muslim discourse on the relationship between religion and state, and I focused on Egypt and the Muslim Brothers. In this book, my co-author and I moved west and were much more interested in the lived realities of people in the Maghreb, rather than focusing on the intricacies of Islamic thought. And this is evident in the references Islamists of the Maghreb makes to works of literature and memoirs from these countries.
NG: My first book, The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz (1952-1967), was a work of cultural studies in the classical sense, dealing with a specific socio-historic context and looking at two particular genres, film and the novel, through the lens of a single cultural producer: Naguib Mahfouz. The primary source material we dealt with in this book is of course very different. But the socio-historic context through which we read the rise of political Islam is essentially the same, i.e. the decades of decolonization beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the present day. The literary genealogy of political Islam varies from that of Arab novelists like Mahfouz, but not radically so. In both camps you find the preeminence of turath, of the Qu’ran, of a particular intellectual struggle grounded in the experience of colonialism. In this sense, I imagined the book as an extension, rather than a departure from my primary interest in Arabic literature.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH: I hope anyone interested in Islamism or the Maghreb will have a look at this book, including people in the United States government.
NG: A disgruntled graduate student wandering the halls of a library fifty years from now looking for something different.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH: I’ve continued my trajectory westward and I’m currently working on an article about a revivalist movement in Senegal.
NG: I’m continuing to focus on the Arab uprisings. My current book project examines the impact of information operations on the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. I also have an article coming out on Arabic Sci-Fi.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
Since the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin)—grandfather of all Islamist groups—rose to power through democracy, albeit with great subsequent turmoil under the reign of President Mohamed Morsi. After only one year in power, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup on July 3, 2013. Morsi and large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood members now sit in prison and face execution amid international outcries. As noted at the onset, Egypt is not part of the Maghreb. Rather, Egypt is typically designated as a key part of the obscure transcontinental and historically fluctuating entity known as “the Middle East.” Depending on who uses the term, it may even include countries like Pakistan. The fact that Egypt is discussed periodically in this book should not confuse readers into thinking that the Maghreb and the Middle East are the same. They are not, and, geography aside, the two regions have significant historical and cultural differences. In fact, Egypt is the only “Middle East” country located in Africa, unless one chooses to include countries such as the Sudan, Eritrea, or Djibouti. However, this study does not envision “the Middle East” in this manner.
At present, there is a controversial view in the United States of America that Islam, the dominant religion of the Maghreb, is not a religion but a political ideology. A similar view has been espoused in parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands. This is a problematic and provocative thesis tied to Islamophobic and anti-immigrant political agendas. But the fact that such a claim exists at all illustrates how pervasive secular assumptions about religion have become in the United States and elsewhere. The thesis rests on the assumption that the existence of laws and political institutions in Islamic thought and texts (e.g., Qur’an, Hadith) somehow removes Islam from the contested category of “religion.” And by “religion,” proponents of this view appear to mean a set of beliefs (“faith”) about transcendent matters that inform ethics, morality, rituals and a set of communal activities, but little or nothing else. Obviously, if we were to apply this litmus test to all the religions of the world, including Judaism and Catholicism, very few (if any) religions would meet such a narrow and deliberately restrictive definition.
On one hand, this problematic conception of “religion” reflects the prevailing Protestant culture of its proponents (which includes non-Protestants). As we know, beginning in the sixteenth century, Protestants in Europe stressed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) and not through works, nor through the intermediary role of the Pope (an absolute monarch) and the Roman Catholic Church. But this is only part of the story. Protestantism was not a revolt against the role of religion in politics in general (but against the papacy), and it was never about keeping religions restricted to the private sphere; reducing religion to a set of beliefs, moral platitudes, and weekly worship services. Far from it. John Calvin and the Protestant Grand Council of Geneva saw no such separation between religion and politics. Indeed, they saw fit to execute the Spanish polymath Michael Servetus at the stake for his heretical rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism. Likewise, the Protestant Pilgrims and Puritans who settled in New England saw no separation, and looked to the Bible as the basis of their laws and political institutions. The examples are numerous. Hence, the idea that religion is only a set of beliefs, separate from the realm of law and politics, is not a product of the sixteenth century Reformation but the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. And it came about through fierce and violent struggles, such as the Thirty Years’ War.
Religion has always been intertwined with law, politics, and all other areas of individual and communal life. It is only in cases where religions have failed to attain a level of dominance and power (e.g., Jainism) that we find little attention given to such matters. But for Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many others, the idea of separating religion from public life is a break from historical precedent and tradition. It is a modern European innovation. Separating religion from public life is the outlier. Not Islam. That said, we must ask an important question. What exactly do scholars mean when they refer to “political Islam” as something distinct from traditional Islam or Islam in general? This is the question we now seek to address.