SHATTERING THE MYTH: Islam Beyond Violence. By Bruce B. Lawrence. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. 237. Price HB £17.95. 0-691-05769-9.
In popular Western imagination, Islam continues to be portrayed as the barbaric Other, alien and hostile and worthy of the contempt and wrath of the civilized and peace-loving West. Sometimes, even when scholars intervene in the cultural debate, and thereby shift its locus from the journalistic to the academic preoccupations, the apocalyptic mood persists. It is to Bruce Lawrence’s credit that he makes it a part of his academic calling to expose the spurious intellectual foundations of this situation. In the present volume, consciously conceived as a counter-assault on the Islamophobic myth, he provides such a sober, erudite and informed analysis of Muslim political reality that the facile argument about the ‘Muslim rage’ collapses. Even so, Shattering the Myth is a temperate academic reproach whose only concession to vulgar passions is perhaps its somewhat grandly ambitious title.
It is in the nature of Lawrence’s enterprise that his study straddles popular and learned discourses; on the one hand, as a cultural argument, it wrangles with those prophets of doom who would reduce Islam to the role of the Anti-Christ in the coming ‘clash of civilizations’, on the other, as a historical survey of Muslim polities where women, under the onslaught of misogynist fundamentalism, have been reduced to invisible non-persons, it begs for scholarly attention. It is the ambition to weave the multiple levels of women’s history and interests into the meta-discourse of global economy and politics that confers upon this study its specific intellectual profile. However, this distinctive posture does not render Lawrence’s work either strikingly original or unequivocally radical. For what he presents in some fifty pages is a fairly conventional analysis of previously published sources, most of them academic and secondary, that deal with the constitutional developments in Iran, Pakistan and Egypt where fundamentalist sensitivities have collided with feminist aspirations. (Regrettably, the Muslim majority nations of Southeast Asia are absent in this account.)
Lawrence’s account of the infamous Shah Bano Case in India which helped publicly frame, in antithetical and contrasting terms, issues of gender parity and religious identity is significant. According to Lawrence, the two points that emerge from this interface of ‘women as an independent category’ and ‘the judiciary as a crucial dimension of governance’, are: (1) women alone are made to represent the cultural norms that apply to men and women alike; (2) legal struggles involving women’s rights not only reflect ‘boundary markings between Muslims and other communities’, they also expose ideological rifts within the Muslim community itself. That a case involving a Muslim woman litigant achieved such notoriety only in modern India, and not in neighbouring Pakistan or Bangladesh, believes Lawrence, is due to the relatively independent status of the Indian judiciary. Equally significant, however, is the fact that believers in Muslim majority states are continually reinterpreting their sacred law through a host of societal institutions and therefore do not regard litigating in a state-sponsored court of law crucial to the protection of their rights. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s modernist reading has nothing to say about the metaphysically discordant conceptions of law espoused by Islam and modernity. Nowhere is there an inkling that while according to the modern theory the creation of law is by the will of the State - that it recognizes law as law formally only when it becomes crystallized by the institutional will of the state - the Islamic tradition conceives law as existing before the State. Little wonder that the formalistic focus on law pre-empts any ‘cross-cultural’ reflection on justice
Loosely structured around three topics, Islamic sociopolitical movements, women as the key index of Muslim identity and the foreboding of ‘an unexpected Muslim difference in world affairs’, Lawrence’s book is full of occasional insights and flashes of illumination. Nonetheless, as an exercise in hermeneutics or as a coherent statement about the reciprocity of violence between Islam and the dominant order of modernity, it is less convincing. It does not have the maturity and perspicacity of Bruce Lawrence’s earlier works, such as Defenders of Faith (London, 1990) that won the author the American Academy of Religion’s ‘prize for excellence in historical studies’. Part of this may be attributable to the unnecessary haste with which the book seems to have gone to the press: not only does it contain the occasional mistake (Muhammad Ali Jinnah, it reports, reigned Pakistan during 1947-50! (57)) or the inevitable misprints (126, 140 etc.), but it has sizeable chunks of the text repeated after a short interlude (147 and 153). A whole sub-section (‘The Future of Islamic Fundamentalism’, 149-56) appears to have been inserted in the wrong chapter (‘The Shah Bano Case’; instead of in the end?) and the analysis of the Islamic rhetoric and corporate economics of Malaysia has been overtaken by the recent, unfortunate, developments there!
Lawrence finds it necessary to begin by first establishing his credentials: ‘I approach this task conscious that I am limited as well enabled by what I am. I am male. I am Anglo. I am upper middle class. European in ancestry, I was born in America. Raised non-Muslim, I remain non-Muslim.’ (10) However, more than demonstrating the author’s ‘political correctness’, this confession testifies to the prevailing regime of uncertainty that renders every contemporary Eurocentric discourse far less authoritative than the erstwhile Orientalist one. Nor do self-contradictory statements help Lawrence establish the validity of his epistemological claims. For, the declaration that ‘I am not a postmodernist humanist .... I continue to scan metanarratives in the pursuit of local histories...’ (11) does not cohere with the outrageously postmodernist leveller that ‘all human language is derived, all is socially conditioned.’ (93)! Further, when he endorses the Nietzschean assertion, made by Ihab Hassan, that ‘there is a will to power in nomenclature, as well as in people and texts’ (40), his ideological affinities are fully revealed.
Behind all the arguments concerning Islam and politics, acknowledges Lawrence, remain two axiomatic claims, that of Christianity being the norm of religion, and/or that of modernity superseding it (16). Significantly, he himself is not free from this evolutionist position. For to insist that modernity ‘transforms every kind of theology or philosophy into a species of ideology that matches the requirements of the present age’ (158) is to accept the metaphysically and morally fundamentalist claim that the quest for transcendence and religious meaning has been rendered obsolete by the march of time. Similarly when he theorizes about the ‘Christian wariness of power’ or maintains that ‘Christians are ill at ease with power’ (164), he indulges in ideological transactions for which there is no collateral in actual history. Far more revealing of Lawrence’s ‘naming’ of the Prophetic regime in Medina as ‘armed polity’ (87). As a political scientist, he must know that all historical order is perforce coercive and that there is no polity without arms. This is as true of medieval Christendom and the modern West as it is of Islam. Islam did not invent political power, nor can it unilaterally renounce it. The myth of ‘Islamic violence’ will be shattered only when the even more potent myth of Western supremacy is abandoned.
S Parvez Manzoor