The Islamism Debate. Ed. By Martin Kramer. The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University, 1997. Pp. 178. $12.95.
Israels role as the ideological outpost of Western civilisation has conferred upon its academic scholarship a highly visible colonial veneer. Little wonder that in the present work it takes upon itself the daunting task of advising the governments of the West whether they should base their policies on human rights or whether the sober tents of Realpolitik should determine their conduct in international affairs. The Israeli academics assume therefore the awesome responsibility of deciding for the gullible and amateurish scholars of the West, whether they should enter into a dialogue with the proponents of Islamist order or whether they should debate with them. Needless to say that with the burden of this modern-day civilising mission also comes the disquieting thought that Islamism may after all be the order of the future. However, if so, the scholars duty is to reveal its essence by deliberating such manifestly intractable ontological questions: Is it democratic or totalitarian, pragmatic or ideological? Alternatively, the academic has to respond to such immediate emotions: whether there is no cause for panic or whether one should expect the worst!?
The most noticeable novelty of this work is its candour which has at least the merit of exploding the myth - ritually solemnised by the more pontifical of the academic pundits - that the scholarly vision is objective and non-participatory. The editor of the volume, for instance, unabashedly concedes that the contributors are all leading protagonists in the Islamism debate and that they argue their cases with varying combinations of evidence, analysis and polemic.! Or, in plainer language, The Islamism Debate is an a partisan's account of the Muslim reality whose protagonists have no pretence to any scholarly competence beyond the apology of the Western regime. This much may be understandable, even acceptable, as an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the self-articulations of all political identities, be these Western or Islamic, Israeli or Arab. Is one, however, to conclude from this confession that the Israeli scholarship feels that with respect to Islam and its politics, the self-authenticating Western discourse need not be encumbered by any epistemological and moral constraints at all?
A related though far more distressing question, upon which all of us need earnestly reflect, arises out of modernity's 'political' view of the world and concerns politics relation to the ultimate scheme of things. Is the ultimate goal of the political will, today invariably incarcerated in the body-politic of the secular state, to remove even the fig-leaf of morality in international politics? Does the inevitable logic of our world-order, the secular system of sovereign states, oblige every political thinker, whatever his/her academic or scholastic mask, to renounce the universalist humanitarian ideal and appease the tribal idol of raison détat? By accepting the perforce contingent and transitory order of the parochial polity as 'sovereign', don't we, sadly, betray the enduring ideals of the moral imperative? And when the political self shifts its antagonistic gaze from the clash of parochial states to the war of universal civilisations, the outcome can only be the emergence of a neo-Manichaean discourse that segments our human community (a contradiction in terms according to the political vision!) into a godly us and an ungodly them. Some, though certainly not all, of the protagonists of the Islamism debate who articulate their positions here are, in my opinion, guilty of this, far from venial, sin. Their ire against Islam and everything Islamic should certainly alert us to the fact that the imperial ideologues of the West are merely the mirror-images of the xenophobic revolutionaries of Dar-al-Islam.
Paradoxically, the most compelling arguments against the restoration of an atavistic, Manichaean view of the world are also found in this collection of, often sharp and at times quite spirited and crisp, essays. Indeed, it is to the credit of the overseas scholars, who, reflecting the concrete interests and humanitarian outlooks of established polities like France and the United State, vehemently reject the alarmist and supremacist readings of Muslim politics propagated by the native Israeli lobby. For instance, the French savant Francois Burgat expresses his weariness against the inquisitional mood of the scholarly establishment by protesting that the more I am asked to comment on politics in general and violence in particular in the Arab world, the more I feel I should refrain from invoking the words "Islam," "fundamentalism," and "Islamic movements" and the more I conclude that dominant representation of political violence in the Middle East tends to be "over ideologised." Or, in a more telling way, he exposes the duplicity of the Western, French, response to the civil war in Algeria by throwing the following challenge: Give me any political party in the West, he says, and I will transform it into the Armed Islamic Group within weeks, if I employ the same methods which have been used against the Islamic movement, with our funding, over the past five years.!
Similarly, there are other voices that speak in less alarmist tones. The American analyst Graham Fuller, for instance, believes that the West should not panic before the Islamist challenge, for the responsibilities of power will make Islamists conform. Robert Setlof, looking at the same phenomenon from the citadel of power in Washington, also comes to the insight that the United States has Muslim friends and interests and must defend them. Nor may one construe Ann Elisabeth Mayers plea that the West should not merely talk about human rights, it must also employ one standard or see its influence wane, as being inimical to Islamic conscience or detrimental to Muslim interests. Indeed, not even Daniel Pipes tirade against radical Islam, in spite of his track record, be faulted, for the rationale for his censure is, inter alia, dependent on the insight that the genius of traditional Islam was quietist, societal and consensual, whereas modern fundamentalism is consumed by militant, etatist and this-worldly passions. Oliver Roys dispassionate analysis about the subjugation of Islam by the fundamentalist state, and the subsequent withdrawal of Islam from most (public) fields likewise disturbs the monotony of the alarmist refrain. Finally, we must not forget that both the incentive and the patronage for the conference that resulted in the publication of this volume came from the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who became the most prominent victim of Jewish terrorism and fundamentalism! No one is justified therefore in espousing, or defending, a Manichaean, black and white, view of the political world.
If the Israeli effort at the monitoring of the Islamism debate is being faulted here, it is not because that it is Israeli but because that its political realism constitutes the obverse side of moral timidity. In the absence of more irenic, but by no means less prominent, Anglo-American scholars of contemporary Islam, such as John Esposito, John Voll, Dale Eickelman, James Piscatori, Fredric Denny, Tamara Sonn and others, the debate on Islamism degenerates into a sermon to the already converted. Neither is there any effort to engage the Muslim in any kind of moral or even pragmatic dialogue: Islamism is a threat to Western interests and the discourse about its containment is a Western prerogative. Islam as such, represented by Muslims as such, has no place in this assembly of experts who, like Viceroys of the Raj, denounce the evils of the natives who wouldnt be ruled by them! One really wonders who is morally more reprehensible, the Muslim fundamentalist who preaches an intolerant and exclusivist worldview or the Western supremacist who practices it!
Needless to say that the Western effort to carry out a dialogue, or debate, with Muslims can be meaningful only if it moves beyond the temporal politics of Islamist state to the transcendent order of Islamic faith, only if it is willing to put under moral scrutiny the secularist solution to the human condition. Unfortunately, there is no sign that such a dialogue may ever come about. At any case, it is yet to begin.
(Printed in The Muslim News (London), 14-21 July, 1998.