By Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond explores the continuities and new developments in representations of Islam, politics and violence in the Middle East.
This piece is the first chapter in the E-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton.
The opposition groups appealed to Islamic themes, the argument goes, because these express the true nature of the culture. What has been striking, however, is the articulation of this Orientalist essentialism through the new discourse of Salafism.
Classified in burgeoning scholarship on the topic as a transnational movement encompassing “jihadists”, political activists and “quietists”, Salafism is becoming the paradigm du jour for understanding Islam in the 21st century.
Posing as the ideological champion of Salafism – a term which serves to supersede Wahhabism with its negative connotations – Saudi Arabia in particular has in broad terms promoted the quietists at home and the jihadists abroad, from Afghanistan to Syria, though it has in reality propagated all three globally at different times and in different contexts since the 1970s.
Salafism aligns with the Orientalist imagination of a monolithic Islamic civilization that can be reduced to a paradigm of early (Arab) generations, the period of True Islam, “after which the authenticity of the original article is progressively corrupted”, as Shahab Ahmed writes in What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (2016). Western scholarship, on the one hand, and the clerical class who administer Sharia law, on the other, are perhaps oddly at one in sharing this thinking.
Both seek to emphasize categories such as the early Islamic period, Islamic jurisprudence and Arab authenticity over a putative wave of corrupting foreign ideas, and both exhibit the scripturalist obsession with producing fixed knowledge from divine texts. Against this narrative, subsequent eras and Islamic cultures will only ever come up wanting; the immense influence, for example, of Sufism on both intellectual life and the lived experience of Muslims over centuries becomes marginalized and belittled.
A default position establishes itself in both Islamic and Western scholarship placing law rather than the practice of theological reasoning (kalām), or philosophy, or logic, or other side-lined disciplines at the heart of what is narrated as “Islam”. In the media dialectic between journalism and the commentariat, “Salafism” is becoming the West’s ideal Islam – legalistic, prescriptive, delineable, suitably Other.
To be clear, Salafism’s semantic victory in defining Late Orientalism’s constitution of Islam is not yet assured. Ideological and political disputes between Brotherhood Islamism and the Salafi trends, and their various Gulf Arab backers, is complicating the process. But the conflict is indicative of Islam’s continued domination of the social and cultural imaginaire in Middle East politics.
A typical example of this is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the Middle East (2016) by Brookings Institution researcher Shadi Hamid. The book could well have been titled Islamic Essentialism since it’s as succinct a description of the faddish essentialist position as you’ll find anywhere.
Offering a potted history of Islam that goes briskly from the Islamic tradition’s rendering of Muhammad’s life to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who is posited as Islam’s great reviver extraordinaire, Hamid declares that Islam has been in a “struggle to establish a legitimate political order” since the demise of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, which has apparently exercised the minds of all the world’s Muslims ever since because Islam “is different”.
The central conceit is that societies still holding religious belief dear require explanation for a liberal American audience that is imagined to find this odd, despite the Evangelicals, the Mormons, the Creationists, the Christian Zionists, et al. who populate the American project as it forges ahead through its third century.
Islam is of course equated with Arabs throughout, and historical and anthropological understandings of Islamic culture are shunted aside for simplistic two-dimensional normativity: executed Sudanese intellectual Mahmud Muhammad Taha’s ideas are dismissed as uninteresting, the Qur’an is declared in a breathless mix of wonderment and defiance as “God’s actual speech”, the author reveals allegedly telling details such as that his Islamist informants prefer to meet in restaurants where alcohol isn’t served, and the reader is assumed to find it exceptional that members of a ruthlessly suppressed political movement would want to die for their cause.
Hamid posits himself as the insider apologist making comprehensible the incomprehensible. We are to be shocked that opinion polls (with which think tank pontificators on Islam are notably fixated) show that zero percent of British Muslims think homosexuality is morally acceptable, though placing this in global historical perspective I don’t think many African societies, the Chinese, East Europeans and others are too hot on homosexuality (defined here, presumably, as a lifestyle choice and identity) and neither were the liberal Western societies too long ago to boot.
Which gets to the second major problem with Hamid’s thesis: if “not all peoples, cultures, and religions follow the same path to the same end point” – in other words, if modernity does not have a uniform cast to it – then what’s so unique about “the Muslims”, across all their cultural and geographical diversity, even if we accepted they were the 7th century-obsessed monolith presented by the author? Most egregious is the constant referencing of Shahab Ahmed in support of his arguments despite that fact that his work was dedicated to challenging the very essentialism Hamid trades in.
As for the notion of the caliphate as the fulcrum of Muslim existence without which life has no true meaning, it comes straight from the pages of German and British Orientalists whose mystical belief in the dangerous power of Muslim unity produced the infamous damp squib of Ottoman “jihad” announced in 1914 at the prodding of the Kaiser, who thought he could thus activate the Muslim mind for Axis Power ends.
Hamid is hardly the first to push these ideas. In L’exception islamique (2004) French politics professor Hamadi Redissi argues Islam is exceptional because it is the only major civilizational bloc he sees to have failed to enter modernity, even in a moderated form that would preserve traditional elements. This is because, he argues, there is no separation between religion and state, which fatally hobbled the efforts of the modernist reformers and allowed the clerics inordinate influence over society and individuals.
In Voyous: deux essais sur la raison (2003) deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida saw in Islam the only religious or theocratic culture that “can still, in fact or in principle, inspire and declare any resistance to democracy”, while suggesting the failure of Muslim philosophers to translate Aristotle’s Politics as a possible reason.
Samuel Huntington, who Hamid also discusses, also felt that Muslims across the board were too locked in their ways for (undefined American or Western) democratic norms. This impulse to produce a unified discourse of Islam has been one of the fundamental characteristics of Western engagement with various peoples through colonialism including Arabs, Turks, Persians and Indians, all the way up to Marshall Hodgson’s celebrated notion of the “Islamicate”, which, as his 1974 work The Venture of Islam stated in its subtitle, set itself the grandiose aim of describing “conscience and history in a world civilization”.
The Islamic turn was never solely, or perhaps at all, an internal development in Muslim political-intellectual culture. It was poked and prodded into existence by Western powers and their regional allies (Saudi Arabia under King Faisal, Egypt under Sadat) to create a bulwark against communism and Arab nationalism.
As Ian Johnson has written (A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West), three decades before the Afghan jihad, the US government State Department was hosting Muslim Brotherhood and other figures at a 1953 colloquium at Princeton University on “Islamic culture”, and the CIA was subsequently primed for casting Islam and categories such as jihad as inspiration for the Arabs to fight Soviet influence.
The turning point in the Arab sphere came in fact some 12 years before revolution in Iran: the moral collapse of the Nasserist project with the defeat to Israel in 1967. Secularism henceforth became a dirty word in Arab politics, and it’s curious to imagine that Richard Mitchell’s celebrated 1969 study of the Muslim Brotherhood (The Society of the Muslim Brothers) was seen at the time as a foray into recondite religious politics.
It is similarly clear that a movement such as the Islamic State (or “ISIS”) cannot be understood fully as either the result of internal political evolution or outside machination: there is a complex historical interplay between the two that must be uncovered in the telling.
That the discourse on a religion, a people or a culture could be manipulated by external agency at all rarely features in the essentializing literature on Islam today, in which Brotherhood-mired analysts like Hamid or the host of commentators on ISIS and Salafism riff around themes of violence/non-violence, peaceful/non-peaceful rebellion, jihad yay/jihad nay.
Whether Muslims are legitimated to rise or stay silent, revolt or protest politely is only ever a political opportunity away for these writers, contingent upon the analyst’s interest in aligning with the shifting winds of policy and funding.
Hamid is right about one thing, however: Islam, in one way or another, is indeed going to play an “outsized role in Middle East politics for the foreseeable future” and that’s because, intellectual trends and political machinations being what they are, the Islamic paradigm isn’t going away anytime soon.
Indeed, the role of state players in propagating and/or repressing Islamic groups has become starker today than ever, as states such as Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia extend their hand far and wide with moral and material support for their favourites.
The Trump administration has indicated it will take a hostile view of the Brotherhood and its calques, but whether it regards the Salafis, despite Gulf protestations about the “quietists” among them, as little better remains to be seen.
Andrew Hammond is a doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, and author of Popular Culture in the Arab World (forthcoming in 2017).