Islam and Politics

by Fawzia Afzal-Khan


In the wake of 9/11, an event that changed world history and whose one-year anniversary is around the corner, it behooves us to take stock of the role religion and politics have played in shaping public opinion around the globe regarding the causes and the meaning of such a cataclysmic event. Since the subject of Islam has been so much at the center of these debates following 9/11, it is a truism to state that religion and politics cannot be separated. However, the statement becomes a little clearer and bolder if we one makes the next logical observation: that Islam, as we know it today, and the very methods by which we try to understand it, the discourse within which we seek to place it (what we might call the politics of Islam)- is a western, imperialist construct. I will go one step further: there is no “true” Islam separate from this context-just as there has never been any “true” or “essential” Islam (or for that matter “true” or “essential” Christianity or Judaism etc) separate from any of the different socio/cultural and political contexts throughout its 1400-year old history.

What do I mean by that? Lets look at a few widely-circulated statements from newspaper articles by John Pilger and Thomas Cahill written in the months following 9/11. Writing in the British paper The Mirror, Pilger reminds us:

Brezinski not long ago revealed that on July 3, 1979, unknown to the American public and Congress, President Jimmy Carter secretly authorised $500 million to create an international terrorist movement that would spread Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia and “destabilize” the Soviet Union. The CIA called this “Operation Cyclone” and in the following years poured $4billion into setting up Islamic training schools in Pakistan (“Taliban” means student”) Zealots were sent to CIA training camps in Virginia-where future Al-Qaeda members were taught “sabotage skills”-i.e. terrorism. Others were trained in an Islamic school in Brooklyn. In Pakistan, they were trained by British MI6 officers and trained by the SAS The result, quipped Brezinski, was “a few stirred up Muslims” ?meaning the Taliban.

(John Pilger, “The Colder War,” The Mirror, Jan 29, 2002)

In such a context, what does “Islam” signify?? Virtually nothing. As Thomas Cahill in the sunday edition of the New York Times of February 3, 2002, points out, Christian Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries spewed forth similarly hateful rhetoric as the Islamic jihadis of today, and committed crimes far worse in scale than any that the relatively impotent but angry jihadis have. What possible understanding of Christianity can we hope to cull from the ignominious era of the Crusades? The only worthwhile understanding here would be one that is sensitive to context: why did the Crusades happen when they did? How was (a certain type of) Christian rhetoric employed to stir up the masses, by whom, for what purpose/gain, etc? Just as real estate brokers tell you, “location, location, location” when considering where to buy a home, the appropriate mantra to repeat here would be: context, context, context! In fact, the best scholarly studies of the Quran and the Hadith that I know are those, such as Fatima Mernissi’s (The Veil and the Muslim Male Elite, Scheherezade Goes West etc)-which place these Islamic religious texts in their specific historical contexts, to help us ascertain their significance and help us interpret them with the hindsight afforded us by our own very different historical circumstances. One of the hadith-and ascertaining the veracity of hadiths is a science unto itself-attributed to the prophet and recalled by Abu Bakra, a longtime companion of Mohammed, who was a slave prior to his conversion to Islam, and then went on to become a notable of the city of Basra–the city where Aisha decided to establish her headquarters from whence to issue her challenge to Ali. The Prophet is supposed to have said: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” (qtd. in Mernissi’s The Veil and the Muslim Male Elite, p. 49). Now, one can either accept this hadith at face value and from it deduce Islam and its prophet’s essential misogyny toward women, or one can undertake, as Mernissi did, to ascertain its context: that is, to ask, ” who uttered this hadith, where, when, why and to whom? No Muslim is barred from undertaking such an historical and methodological investigation. And the results of such an inquiry are worth noting because they allow one to reinterpret the hadith in a non-essential, historically-informed way, that could certainly lead one away from essentializing either the hadith, or the Quran, or Islam itself. The tools and methods of such historicist research enlighten us to the fact that such a hadith was recalled by Abu Bakra, to whom the people looked for guidance and leadership, at the moment when the early Islamic state and society faced the imminent threat of civil discord, with the Caliphate of Ali (the prophet’s nephew) being challenged by the Prophet’s last wife and widow, Aisha. The historical circumstances surrounding the Prophet’s own utterance of the hadith were rather similar too: civil war was threatening to further erode the power of the Persian Sassanids, already scarred from interminable wars with the Romans, around 628 AD. There was a period of great instability within the Muslim Sassanid empire between A.D 629 and 632, and various claimants to the throne emerged, including two women. This, most likely, was the incident that led the prophet to pronounce the hadith against women. Even more interesting is the fact that recalling this hadith proved very fortuitous for Abu Bakra following Aisha’s defeat by Ali. Abu Bakra could claim that his reason for not participating in the war (on either side) was because one of the armies was headed by a woman! Such an excuse conceivably let him off the hook with Ali, who could have punished him–as he did some others–for having refused to fight.

My reason for dwelling on this example is to underscore the need to understand that access to the reality or “truth” of any religion-Islam in this case-is always already bound by the rules of discourse. Discursive reality, in turn, is a highly mediated form of representation, with those who have access to power able to represent their mediated, subjectively-inflected knowledge, as the historical truth. If we wish to draw attention to different, competing truth-claims, we need to, in the now-famous dictum coined by one postcolonial critic, “throw incendiary devices within dominant discourse.”

At this particular historical moment, then, the job of the engaged intellectual is to enunciate alternative discursive positions to those that are terrorizing us in the name of democratic secular values on the one hand, or Islamic extremism on the other.

Firstly, it is important to point out that the very assumption that “secularism” is a principle associated with the rise of democracy in the west, is an orientalist and imperialist one, which the extremists (and even some well-meaning but misguided moderates) on the “Islamist” divide repeat for historical, political reasons. Cahill is no exception. He tells us that it was the forces of Enlightenment that exalted tolerance in the west, which then led to the Christian Reformation and to the creation of societies like America where the principles of secularism took hold because America decided to take a generally agnostic view of religious truth: “you may believe what you like, and so may I, and neither can impose belief on the other.” Cahill goes on to expound that Islam too has roots to build similar tolerance, but clearly, neither the faith, nor its societies of believers around the world, have reached that historical point.

I guess Mr Cahill is unaware of the Quranic injunction,” lakum deen o kum, waaley ya din.” Translated, it goes, “my religion is mine, yours is yours.” Sounds like a pretty secular religious approach to me! Ayesha Jalal, a MacArthur award-winning historian of South Asia, puts forward another way to approach the issue of secularization: and that is, to reevaluate its meaning. I think she is quite right in pointing out that the popular consensus that a secular society is one which has managed to push religion out of the public sphere altogether is perhaps not quite accurate. After all, she observes, “even the West has not managed to push religion into the private sphere.” Witness only the phrases invoked and repeated ad nauseum by the leaders and in the media post-Sept 11th here: God Bless America etc., and the rise of Christian political parties with fundamenatlist/right wing leaders like Ronald Schill and Edmund Stoiber of the conservative German Christian Social Union and Christian Democratic Party, who did extremely well in pre-election opinion polls. “Secularization,” proclaims Jalal , “insofar as it is an open-ended historical process by which human beings assume responsibility for their affairs, is not alien to the spirit of Islam.” (Interview in the Herald, Jan. 2002, vol. 33/no.1).

How does one assume such a position of responsibility toward oneself and others? Not by talibanizing society, by letting loose a reign of terror upon one’s fellow countrymen and women in the name of anything! Not by oblierating the lives of innocents in the name of a “war on terror” as the US and Israel continue to do daily. Certainly, within the annals of Islamic History, we have examples of materially thriving, intellectually vibrant, sensually alive and spiritually tolerant societies that fit such a revalorised definition of secularization. Think only of the Abbasid caliphate under the reign of the “sexy caliph,” as Fatima Mernissi calls him, otherwise known as Harun-ar-Rashid!

To be a foreigner in the Abbasid court was not really a drawback since the culture encouraged diversity and rewarded people for speaking many langages and bringing the richness of their own backgroundsIn fact, during the AD, scholars, artsists, poets,and litterateurs came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (speaking Aramaic, Arabic, Persian and Turksh), colors (white black and mulatto), and creeds (Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sabian and Magian). It was this cosmopolitanism and muliculturalism of Baghdad that made for its enduring strength as a great center of culture

(Scheherezade Goes West, 124)

To think that the discourse of 20th century “western” secular multiculturalism has at least some of its roots in the 7th and 8th century Islamic empires of the Ommayyid and Abbasid dynasties–roots, by the way, that have been denied and systematically destroyed by the politically regressive, economically corrupt and greedy, religiously fanatic forces of BOTH the Islamic “East” and the so-called “Civilized West (the real “axis of evil,” US and Britain)– is indeed a sobering thought. Which brings me back to the point I began with: unlike Rushdie, who insists with great venom in an OpEd piece published last October in the New York Times that “This [meaning the current conflagration] IS About Islam,” as though Islam could be reduced to some simplistic essentialist label, I do not believe there is a “real” Islam any more than there is a “real” Christianity or Judaism-apart from its discursive, historical context. And that context today has created a dominant discourse in the Islamic world that is regressive, backward-looking and utterly incompatible with those values of Islamic doctrine allied with progressive thought, tolerance, and justice which, when these have been dominant, have led to Islamic societies that were “secular” in the broadest and best sense of the word.

The choice facing Muslims and non-Muslims alike today, then, is fairly simple and obvious. One that, rather ironically, was outlined by Rushdie’s narrative alter ego, Saladdin Chamcha in the infamous Satanic Verses. One of the hijackers (a woman, interestingly enough)-of a plane whose passengers are ultimately doomed to die, poses the following existential question of Faith (be it religious or political or both):

When a great idea comes into the world, a great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it. History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be timeservers, who compromise, trim and yield?

Saladdin’s response to her diatribe is: “unbendingness can also be monomania.it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last” (The Satanic Verses, 81).

Such a pity the writer of those wise words is dead. His place has been taken by Bushdie–someone not much different from the monomaniacal guntoting hijacker of his provocative novel. His path, parallel to that of terrorist hijackers of Islam, will not bring salvation to our troubled world. For that, we must learn to experience faith within a carnival of Bakhtinian heteroglossia or multiple discourses, leading to the possibility of genuine dialogue between the Self and the Other, and perhaps more importantly, of the Other within the Self.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University and can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu

Texts Quoted/Referenced:

Cahill, Thomas. “The One True Faith: Is it Tolerance?” The New York Times, Section 4, February 3, 2002, p.1.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Addison-Wesley, 1987.

—————–. Scheherezade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Washington Square Press, 2001.

Pilger, John. “The Colder War.” The Mirror, January 29, 2002.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Viking-Penguin, 1988.


Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University. She can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu

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