Printed in The Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 22, No 1 (October-December 2002), Pp. 5-15

 

 

Metaphysics or Politics?

 The Clash Between Two Orthodoxies

 

 

Despite all attempts to unmask reason, science and secularism as a few among the many possible narratives that may or may not capture some truth about our human world, the discourse of politics is still hostage to what Foucault once expressed as ‘the blackmail of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Enlightenment’. For contemporary political thinkers still find it exceedingly painful, if not impossible, to overcome the dubious and nefarious dichotomy of ‘politics’ and ‘metaphysics’. They are both unwilling and unable to renounce the Enlightenment’s claim that only the modern man, who has acquired the gift of self-consciousness and who creates his own values and goals, is fully human. Politics, accordingly, may not be grounded in any trans-rational and transcendent vision of the ultimate; its focus must be the historical rather than the metaphysical, its temper rational rather than emotive, and its spirit secular rather than religious. Any claimant to historical order, Islamic polity including, must therefore abandon the transcendent moorings of its theology and purge its political rhetoric of the metaphysical dross of the medieval times, if it is to be accorded permission to join the modern, ‘civilized’, world.

 

Unfortunately, the current discourse of politics is degenerating into a virulent indictment of Muslim activism and an atavistic exercise in the vilification of Islam itself. Primeval passions rather than reasoned arguments inform the public debate, just as invective and diatribe are the order of the day. Not even academic outputs, hallowed by their claim of ‘scientific’ objectivity, provide any solace: theirs is an idiom that is as crassly utilitarian and self-aggrandizing as that of the media. Nor is there an abundance of intellectually and morally challenging studies emerging from other quarters, which, though remote from the Muslim’s revivalist concerns but offering humane ideas and insights about the political realm, may merit our attention. All one encounters today is polemics and calumny; or, facts, upon facts, unredeemed by any theoretical vision at all! Given this situation, when simply remaining within the ideational ambit of Islam is becoming more and more of a political challenge and a personal liability, it is matter of some relief that we occasionally come across incisive works, like the ones presented here, which neither insult the Muslim’s intelligence nor banish him/her to the netherworld of barbarity and inhumanity. As such, they demand our close involvement, for they may assist us in our strivings to envision a future where being Muslim in the world is less of a historical curse and more of a moral calling. Given also the fact the two discourses, modernity’s search for legitimacy in the age of postmodern relativism and Islamism’s espousal of a transcendent basis for political existence, are now firmly locked in a polemical embrace, it is but natural for the Muslim thinker to be attentive to the philosophical debate that involves the modernist establishment itself. Hence, this survey will begin with ideological controversies that are symptomatic of the inner tensions of the modernist discourse today.

 

 

BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS REVIEW:

 

The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. By Jürgen Habermas. Ed. by Ciaran Cronin & Pablo De Greiff. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999. Pp 300. ISBN 0-262-08267-5.

 

The City of Man. By Pierre Manent. Translated by Marc A. LePain. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998. Pp 225. ISBN 0-691-01144-3.

 

Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. By Roxanne L. Euben. Pp 239. ISBN

 

Any contemporary Muslim effort to strike a bargain with modernism and overcome the aporias of modernity must contend with the formidably fecund thought of Jürgen Habermas, undoubtedly the most resolute defender of European reason and normative modernity today. Not only is Habermas indispensable to any Muslim dialogue with modernity, significantly because he is the last of the philosophers committed to the modern project who neither upholds Hegelian historicism nor ascribes to the transcendent rationality of the sovereign subject of Enlightenment, he has also been introduced to the readers of this journal in an earlier review essay (Faith and Law: At the Cross-section of Transcendence and Temporality. MWBR, 18:3, (Winter 1998), pp. 3-11). Habermas’s present work, a collection of essays written during the last decade, provides a very convenient access to the exciting world of his political philosophy. Further, as the title of the work insinuates, the themes treated here are all to be found on the borderlines of the political discourse, demanding both scrupulous detachment and intimate involvement, a task for which, judging from the evidence available here, Habermas seems eminently suited.

 

As someone who unabashedly rejects both ‘moral realism and modern value-skepticism’, Habermas belongs to those moral philosophers and political theorists who feel that their task is ‘to provide a convincing substitute for (traditional) justifications of norms and principles.’ (79). His is, then, a project of discovering a normative basis of modern political existence, without the a priori authority of any transcendent referent. The introductory chapter of the volume, ‘A General Analysis of the Cognitive Content of Morality’, offers a synoptic account not only of the traditional, Christian and monotheistic, scheme of moral order, but also of the four alternative attempts, viz. that of ‘moral realism’, ‘utilitarianism’, ‘metaethical skepticism’ and ‘moral functionalism’, to fill the axiological vacuum created by ‘the death of God’. The dilemma of ‘secular’ moral philosophy, according to Habermas, is that ‘it must renounce God’s eye viewpoint; as its contents, it can no longer appeal to the order of creation and sacred history; and, as regards its theoretical approach, it cannot appeal to the metaphysical concepts of essences that undercut the logical distinctions between the different types of illocutionary utterances.’ (11) In a post-theological, post-metaphysical discourse, the justification of moral utterance (the raw data of morality) comes, in his view, through their ‘cognitive content’. Needless to say that Habermas’s whole opus is an endless reflection on the meaning and significance of this putative ‘cognitive content’, which is for him a matter of ‘communicative rationality’ and ‘discourse ethics’.

 

Habermas panoramic examination of the cognitive landscape of the moral discourse of our times is - though it cannot be held against him - neither exhaustive, nor non-partisan. However, in terms of its erudition, incisiveness and lucidity, it is an extremely rewarding piece of writing. (Yes, Habermas is far more accessible in this volume than in his earlier works, where the proverbial turgidity and opacity of his German style always posed a formidable obstacle to the average reader.) Apart from supplying a philosophically perceptive summary of the all-encompassing morality that informs and sustains the traditionally theistic worldview, it is distinguished by its critical posture towards ‘secular’ epistemic options. Nonetheless, with the underlying assumption of the modernist worldview, namely that with ‘the transition to modernity, the ‘objective’ reason embodied in nature or sacred history was displaced by the ‘subjective’ reason of the human mind’ (79), he has no quarrel.

 

Not surprisingly, Habermas can confidently assert that ‘after religion and metaphysics’, communicative agreement (Ijma´ in the Islamic parlance) ‘represents the only remaining source on which the justification of a morality of equal respect for everybody can draw.’ (23). Further, cognizant as he is of the fact ‘the question of justice’ exposes the limit of ‘the ethical point of view’ (27), he is convinced that ‘neo-Aristotelian approaches fall short of the universalistic content of morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everyone.’ (28). (Habermas distinguishes between ‘value-orientations’ (Wertorientierungen) and ‘obligations’ (Verpflichtungen). The former, value-orientations and evaluative self-understandings of individuals and groups, are judged from the ethical point of view; the latter, duties, norms, categorical imperatives, from the moral point of view (26).) Thus, for Habermas, ‘the abstract question of what is equally in the interests of all goes beyond the context bound ethical question of what is best for me or us.’ (28). In sum, though in this general survey, Habermas expounds the theories of other thinkers, his critique reveals his own voice. Hence, one may justifiably argue that it is the question of justice, ‘what is equally in the interest of all?’, that underpins the Habermasian morality of discourse ethics.

 

Far more relevant to our own inquiry is Habermas’s extended comment on John Rawls’s celebrated thesis about ‘overlapping consensus’ (‘“Reasonable” vs. “True”, or the Morality of Worldviews’; Chapter 3) that evolves into a penetrating critique, elucidating Habermas’s own views on the nature of the political. Rawls’s well-known slogan that ‘justice is fairness’ implies that it is a ‘free-standing’ conception that moves ‘entirely within the domain of politics’ and leaves ‘philosophy as it is’. However, such a claim about the autonomy of politics from philosophy is contingent upon a specific understanding of the political. For when the ‘political’ is conceived in such a way that it stands in opposition to the ‘metaphysical’, it leads to controversies that, in Habermas’s opinion, cannot be so easily resolved. That there exists a consensus in modern societies concerning the neutrality of justice with respect to the extant, though often competing, worldviews may be an entirely justified strategy in the face of religious and cultural pluralism, but it does not follow that ‘political theory can itself move entirely within the domain of the political and stay clear of stubborn philosophical controversies.’ (77). Arguing against Rawls’s separation of the philosophical and the political on the basis of (some flimsy) distinction between “reasonable” and “true”, Habermas believes that ‘reasonable citizens’ cannot develop and overlapping consensus so long as they are prevented from jointly adopting a moral point of view which is prior to, or independent of, their individual doctrines. In other words, even an overlapping consensus requires the cement of normativeness. For Habermas, it can only be found in ‘the proceduralist conception of the public use of reason’.

 

Modern societies, whose growing pluralism Rawls’s doctrine is designed to address, are premised on the sovereignty of the political. What this principle presupposes it that not only is the political independent of the religious (and often, in practice, of the moral), but that political values also have priority over non-political values. In other words, unless there exists a prior acceptance of these normative claims of modernity, indispensable for the constitution of power in modern societies, Rawls’ proposal about the neutrality of justice towards competing worldviews cannot work. Even Rawls recognizes that an overlapping consensus is possible only among citizens who acknowledge that in cases of conflict, political values outweigh all other values. This holds true even for Habermas who concedes that ‘the priority of political values is a requirement of practical reason.’ (93). Interestingly, the sovereignty of the political, of practical reason, yields a theory of coercion which makes legitimate the subjugation of worldviews that do not posit the political as the highest value (worldviews adhering to a trans-political, trans-existential, transcendent order of ultimate reality). Habermas may therefore unabashedly proclaim that ‘clearly a requirement of practical reason to which comprehensive doctrines must submit if an overlapping consensus is possible can only be justified by appeals to an epistemic authority that is itself independent of worldviews.’ (93. Italics added.)

 

With the postulation of such a transcendent locus of epistemic authority, an authority that is independent of worldviews, Habermas manages to buttress Rawls’s scheme of ‘justice as fairness’, but he does so at the cost of abandoning Rawls’s original claim about the separation of politics and metaphysics. For what Habermas proposes in the name of practical reason is nothing less than a metaphysics, a metaphysics of politics. Indeed, his ‘theory of politics’ is a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ (worldview) that now acquires its own centre of uncontested, transcendent, power (epistemic authority). Little wonder that a fellow German moral philosopher, Ernst Tugendhat, who like Habermas is a protagonist of discourse ethics, has no qualms in admitting that in the post-theological, post-metaphysical scheme of governance ‘intersubjectivity …. takes the place of the transcendent pregiven.’ (23). Practical reason, thus understood as the supreme epistemic authority, has the function of establishing the sovereignty of the political community over matters that in classical liberalism belonged only to individual conscience. Any representative body, which follows ‘the proceduralist conception of the public use of reason’, may now decide upon any question; say, the truth of Darwinism, the historicity of the Holocaust, or the obligation of self-mutilation (Read: Jewish/Muslim custom of (Male) circumcision). Surely, Rawls’s liberalism and Habermas’scommunitarianism’- politics without metaphysics and politics as metaphysics – are separated by a wide ideological gulf, even if they both promote the regime of modernity.

 

Habermas is by no means a conservative, authoritarian thinker, oblivious to the virtues of dissent and diversity. In fact, he is quite the opposite. Thus, if his thought occasionally tilts in that direction, it is so, because as a pragmatic thinker, he is concerned with the problem of governability. Further, he is fully cognizant that without some legitimate theory of coercion, the political ceases to be political. The coercive in his thought, however, is organically linked to the discursive, deliberative, democratic. He sees it as the epistemic authority of practical reason. Of course, it is a metaphysical postulate that is grounded in the arrogant claims of radical humanism, which recognizes no value in the universe except human subjectivity and which discerns no telos in nature except the self-realization of the human will. Human subjectivity, when objectivised as a democratic community that submits to the epistemic authority of proceduralist, practical reason, is, in his opinion and in those of all modernists, sovereign: it may do anything. There are no limits - theoretical, moral, theological - to its legitimate power. Needless to say, this is one claim of Habermasian political philosophy which Islamic conscience can never submit to. 

 

Habermas is generally recognized to be the last defender of Enlightenment reason, whatever his caveats or reservations regarding its nature and dynamics. He is, however, by no means a prisoner of its legacy or hostage to his own tradition: his thought is continually appropriating new themes, revising itself and advancing. He is even, as the suggestive title of the present work shows, trying to address some of the central issues of contemporary life from the outer limits of modern discourses. Hence, the present work, which is a companion volume to his earlier study, Between Facts and Norms, contains much reflection and inquiry that is both radical and humane. Apart from the synoptic account of post-theological moral discourses (‘How Rational is the Authority of the Ought?), or his debate with the political liberalism of Rawls, the volume contains ample discussion on the history and future of the nation-state, human rights (‘The Struggle for Recognition in Democratic States’), the meaning of deliberative politics (‘On the Internal Relation between the Rule of Law and Democracy’), and much else that is singularly instructive and gratifying. For all his/her reservations about its secular parameters, the Muslim has no right to ignore this work: it does introduce us to the intellectual and moral world of the modern, ‘enlightened’, man, displaying his assets and resources but also exposing his dilemmas and anxieties.

 

In contrast to Habermas, whose project involves a modified defence of Enlightenment reason, Pierre Manent, Professor of Philosophy at l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, appears to have made it his calling to act as its prosecutor. In fact, his is as formidable a philosophic indictment of Enlightenment’s erroneous image of man as is ever likely to emerge from any quarter. And yet, Manent neither speaks in a shrill tone, nor displays any rancour or malice. There is no trace of any foundational critique or perspectival, trans-worldview, polemics either. Modernism is ambushed on its own ground. The colossal devastation of modernity’s ideational landscape that Manent brings about is accomplished by taking the moral and cognitive claims of Enlightenment thinkers quite seriously and by scrupulously following the trail of modernist arguments to their, often unenlightening, ends. The City of Man is an exciting and liberating tract of philosophical inquiry that reveals the dark side of Enlightenment thought, its aporias, demons and netherworld, in the most incisive manner imaginable. Manent continues the tradition of profound philosophical critique of modernity initiated by Leo Strauss, and he is just as meticulous, perceptive and unforgiving as the great master himself.

 

Manent’s work defies all categorisation and labelling. It does not present itself as a postmodernist tirade against the discomforts of modernity. Nor may it be compared to the traditionalist’s kulturkritik, or a believer’s bombast against modernity’s ‘renunciation of transcendence’. It does not belong to the genre of philosophy, sociology or anthropology, though it examines all these disciplines and presents its argument in the most sophisticated philosophical mode possible. Perhaps, it does belong to the category of ‘philosophical anthropology’, though its dialogue is exclusively with the Western tradition. Despite the intensity and depth of its analytical acumen, it is a lucid presentation, always demanding and rewarding but never arcane and inaccessible. For any victim of ‘the modern condition’, afflicted by alienation, Angst and loss of meaning so characteristic of our age, but especially for the Muslim oppressed by the dictatorial regime of Enlightenment discourses, Manent’s work is indispensable.

 

Manent starts his inquiry by examining the modern claim for ‘the authority of history’; for the experience of history, every modernist insists, is the most decisive and profound experiences of modernity. (In fact, the modern position is that consciousness of being modern is fundamentally and radically different from all other forms of human consciousnesses, traditional, classical, pre-modern, even non-Western. The conscience of being man tout court has therefore no further validity.) Modernity is then nothing but the authority of the present moment and the conviction that ours is the best of all existent, actual, historical worlds. Through a very judicious reading of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws – the first major philosophical work that takes becoming modern and living in history as its theme – Manent demonstrates convincingly, the Moderns were able to renounce the authority of the Ancients and replace it with that of the contemporary English regime of commerce and liberty.

 

However, Montesquieu could proclaim the pre-eminence of the modern regime, the superiority of modern ‘liberty’ over ancient ‘virtue’, on the basis of a new, sui generis authority that ignored the time-honoured classification of political regimes on ‘natural’ criteria. His move also entailed rejecting the ancient idea of Nature, the sine qua non of classical philosophy, which, through the faculty of reason, united man and cosmos in a single realm. Without the existence of a timeless and constant order of nature, there is no comparison possible between various regimes, ancient and modern. With the rejection of Nature, and the impossibility of knowing the best regime, ‘valid for all times and climes’, also comes the shock that ‘reason can no longer provide a reasonable account the human problem as a political problem.’ With this insight, the venerable definitions of man as “political animal” and “rational animal” are both, as it were, thrown in the dustbin of history! For Manent, it is clear that though this regime has been called ‘The Age of Enlightenment’, ‘a glorious phrase that reverberates with the words Reason and Nature’, it actually deals a deathblow to both. For the active principle, the sovereign notion, of the Age of Enlightenment is neither Reason nor Nature, but the “present moment.” (16).

 

The same moral havoc, Manent contends further, was wrought with respect to the Law. The modern man discovered his ‘fundamental right’ in the commanding need he has for survival in the state of nature. Hence the idea that ‘man is all he is prior to any law, political or religious, becomes a central element of the democratic man’s self-consciousness.’ Of course, the individual, who is solitary, weak and helpless, cannot live without the state and law. Still, the law he demands is only to protect his nature, a nature that exists prior to any law. Little wonder, the law of the modern state, liberal law, is ‘a simple instrument of nature that does not, in principle, modify or perfect nature.’ Modern law is purely instrumental. For Manent, this signifies that law is no loner substantive: it is no longer a means of expressing or fulfilling man’s nature or his supernatural vocation. Further, modern man’s unremitting pursuit of ‘liberty’ also reveals that ‘the law he seeks ceaselessly and continually becomes the law he flees.’ Hence, the fundamental contradiction of the modern condition:

 

‘Modern consciousness negates the ancient regime of law in the name of nature and at the same time it negates nature in the name of liberty. Precisely because it is unaware of it, this equivocation gives common consciousness its singular confidence and its capacity to be diffused. Thanks to the double negation, modern man feels very sincerely and very modestly superior to all things which are either law or nature and above all else all the humanities that came before him. But does not modern philosophy, which is forever concerned to reveal an ever more radical historicity beneath the progress that excites popular opinion, itself remain deceived by this duplicity that is otherwise quite evident?’ (49).

 

The visions of history and sociology, it is well known, are intimately related in modern consciousness, even if there also exists an unmistakable tension between the two. Nevertheless, it is by means of society that modern man comes in contact with and comes to know his new element, history. For Manent, thus, contemporary society is history that has become ‘the route that is followed, the truth that is accepted, and the life that is shared.’ But by its cultivation of a new science, sociology, modernity takes another fateful turn away from the political philosophy of the Ancients. Manent argues that while pre-modern political thought in general took its bearing from the viewpoint of the actor, the citizen or the statesman, modern sciences, sociology and economics, adopt the viewpoint of the spectator. This shift to a more objective ‘scientific’ viewpoint entails, however, that the human agent is not accorded any real initiative; rather, his actions or works are deemed as the necessary effects of necessary causes. What is lost in the scientific, deterministic world of sociology is thus the very condition of liberty which the modern man idolizes. (According to Emile Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, ‘social life develops according to rules that are independent of the will of man.’) Another paradox, then, that elicits the following comment: ‘Sociology is constructed as a science comparable to and parallel with the sciences of nature in taking its object as something other than the nature of man and in deliberately refusing to take man’s nature as its object. …..  Sociology as a science, or “science of man” as it will soon be called, exists only by refusing to be the science of the nature of man.(54. My italics.) In the final analysis, Manent claims, even Reason is abandoned in modernity, as it is eliminated from real human actions, but gets incarnated in the scrutinizing gaze of the scholarly spectator.

 

Sociological language, everyone knows, has by now become the official vernacular of modern democracy. It has replaced the determination of Nature with the determination of Society. Nevertheless the rhetoric of freedom persists. For the modern man reconciles the realm of freedom, which is his essence, and the realm of necessity, which is his social and political world, by separating man from citizen, state from society, politics from (universal) morality. Among the separations that feed the sociological viewpoint, however, the one between citizen and man, according to Manent, is decisive, as it brings with it and establishes rupture of the human world: ‘Thus the sociologist’s analytic scrutiny separates the state from society and from the church. The body politic that the ancient law held together is dismembered into three great parts, each one subject in turn to further subdivisions. The state is divided according to the “separations of powers”; the church is divided into sects; and society is divided into an indefinite number of “groups”. From now on life will be lived in the “age of separations”.’ (82)

 

The regime of separation is also legitimised within the Hobesian solution, the modern solution as it were, which, in the constitution of the state, first posits a state of nature, then, abolishes it by the unlimited power of the sovereign, and finally reaffirms each man’s liberty with no intrinsic limits. It ‘consists in radically separating these two aspect of affirmation and negation and attributing to each a different “moment”… Each makes itself the extreme in such a way that all human claims, after being seen in the first moment as absolutely unjustified inasmuch as they were claims to power, in the second moment find themselves all justified as liberties or claims to liberties.’ (177). This separation, according to Manent, underlies the modern distinction between state (realm of power) and society (realm of liberty). The consequence of this is that ‘in Europe, for the first time a religion loses strength over a long period of time at the same time that the body politic grows strong, without any new religion appearing to replace the first.’ (84). We may add, however, that secularism that replaces Christianity in Europe gradually turns into a ‘religion’ and acquires all the passion and militancy of its predecessor.

 

Having disposed off ‘the Holy Trinity’ of modernity, History, Sociology, Economics, Manent turns his attention the hidden dimensions of modern man and the triumph of his will which has given us the morally sovereign human being who is a horror to the believer and would surely have been an enigma to the ancients. It is modern man’s self-definition as ‘will to power’ and his concept of political regime as ‘sovereign’ that is the ultimate cause of Manent’s distress: ‘Once the claims to power have been subjected to the greatest power men can imagine, the only legitimate absolute power, the Sovereign, they undergo a remarkable mutation: they are all justified. … To define man as desire for power is simultaneously to accuse him and to justify him.’ (176) In Manent’s exposition of the modern man, there is much to accuse him but little to justify; he remains for him a ’political and moral mystery’, the one defining himself as having rights, sovereign in his conduct towards nature, arbitrary creator of his laws and morality, fully conscious of his uniqueness, but caught like a fly in the spider’s web of social and economic forces. Surely, this is gem of a book that humbles its reviewer more than it rewards its reader.

 

In Roxanne L Euben’s sensitive multidisciplinary study, provocatively and aptly entitled, Enemy in the Mirror, we encounter all the problems, polemics and aporias of modernity in a cross-cultural context; problems which, in their Western environment, Habermas finds challenging and Manent distressing. Euben is acutely aware that the putative clash between Western modernity and Islamic revivalism is fast turning into an ideological context between two orthodoxies. Or, so, she contends, it is depicted in the powerful Western discourse of secularism. Nevertheless the irony is that history is showing no inclination to redeem the claim of hegemonic theory; for, ‘at the very moment political theory is coming to terms with the end of foundations, political practice is spinning off into a world driven by foundational certainties.’ Or, in plainer language, religion has not disappeared from politics, whether local or global. In a situation like this, one may, of course, view international politics as a new Cold War, global in its scope, binary in its opposition, violent in its practice and civilizational in its passions. The most infamous protagonist of this Hobesian paradigm is of course, Samuel Huntington whose apocalyptic vision, even if captures the popular mood which cultural supremacists find tempting, sends shivers down the spine of scholars like Euben.

 

In this work, Euben is not concerned with the human costs of hegemonic politics but with the misery of triumphalist discourses: it is a theoretical response to a practical conflict, an epistemological argument in a political debate. The tragedy of modernist discourse is its poverty: in its analyses and theorization of Islamic fundamentalism and activism, it elicits no insights, promotes no understanding and produces no self-criticism. (Of course, this does not surprise the Muslim reader who searches in vain in order to find anything comparable to the constructive restoration of modernity that one finds it in Habermas, or the incisive debunking of its ideological claims that is the treat of Manent.) The Manichean categories, Islamic fundamentalism-Western secularism, tradition-modernity, politics-metaphysics, East-West do not make any sense in an interconnected, albeit interlocked, world. There is, then, in Euben’s study much sensible, cogent criticism of prevailing Western modes of articulation on Islamic revivalism and a generous sampling of their untenable postulates.  

 

The two principal insights on which this study is premised are: a) the essentially comparative vocation of political theory and, b) the inability of modernist discourses to pay heed to the meaning of the fundamentalist worldview. The cue for the latter is provided by Hannah Arendt who insists that ‘the fundamental assumption of social sciences (is) that they do not have to concern themselves with the substance of a historical and political phenomenon, such as religion. …. But only with the function it plays in society.’ (Arendt’s emphasis.) To view the phenomenon of Islamic activism, which she reluctantly calls ‘fundamentalism’, from a purely functionalist and instrumentalist perspective is not only that it ‘overdetermines the equation of political Islam and menace’, it is a travesty of religious convictions as well. Euben can certainly bring home this point with the right dose of irony: ‘It is surely not the case that moral beliefs are selected as are tools in a hardware store, chosen only for their efficiency, or because the store was out of all other brands.’ Later, she switches on to a justified tone of reflective sobriety: ‘Although it is certainly true that ideas are often adopted and discarded for a variety of reasons, including instrumental ones, religious convictions – as all convictions worth the name – are far too complex to either reduced to an opinion in the marketplace of ideas or minimized as a “refuge that provides emotional peace and comfort.”’ (48).

 

Euben’s willingness to search for the meanings of the fundamentalist worldview brings her in contact with the writings of Sayyid Qutb: a full chapter is devoted to his ‘political theory’. It is a perceptive piece of political and religious analysis that is always sensitive, often sympathetic but never uncritical. It is however by no means a pioneering effort by a Western political scientist, though it is essential to Euben’s own argument against Muslim fundamentalists’s putative anti-modernism. Her analysis of the founders of Islamic modernism, `Abduh and Afghani, supplies the focus for the following chapter (‘A View Across Time: Islam as the Religion of Reason’) and is also meant reinforce the claim that Islam is not antithetical to modernity, or at least, it has not always conceived itself in these terms. The penultimate chapter (‘Inside the Looking Glass: Views within the West’) partly deals with the intra-Western debate that is sensitive to the ambiguities and discomforts of modernity, and partly supplies a rebuttal to the fundamentalist’s reductive claims.

 

Euben concludes her gratifying analysis by claiming that the ‘insistence of Sayyid Qutb’s Islamic fundamentalist thought on divine sovereignty is a rebuttal of and an antidote to rationalist discourse itself, that is, the Western discourse that has posited reason as the source of truth, knowledge and authority.’ If Qutb may be deemed as a critic of modernity, it is so because he rejects its ‘metaphysical’ claims about the sovereignty of man and his moral autonomy from divine imperatives. Fundamentalism is a Muslim attempt to ‘re-enchant’ the world that has become disenchanted through reason, science and secularism. Muslim and Western critics of modernity (she brackets Qutb with Taylor and MacIntyre) are trying ‘simultaneously to abolish, transcend, preserve and transform modernity.’ In a word, theirs is a dialectical aufhebung of modernity rather than a gratuitous and a priori negation of it. ‘What this means’, Euben concludes,  ‘is that the resistance to a world of radical doubt, and the “yearning for meaning” such resistance is said to provide, cannot be explained away as the inability of certain personalities, groups, or cultures to “cope” with the imperatives of modernity. Rather it reflects an increasingly vocal and transcultural preoccupation with limits of modern rationalism and the concomitant conviction that we “may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us.’ (167).

 

Certainly, Euben has produced a study that not only delivers the much needed reprimand to the hubristic secular thought of the West, but which also surveys the ideational, rather than the ideological, landscape of Muslim activists with intelligence and critical acumen. By weaving the two perspectives together, intra-Western and trans-Western, she gives her readers a genuine taste of intellectual adventure and moral empathy. Like her predecessors, Leonard Binder (Islamic Liberalism) and Armando Salvatore (Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity), with whom she shares not only the focus and the method but also the conclusions of her study, Euben has produced a work that enriches our understanding of the interface of modernity and Islam. As such, it must be welcomed by scholars and laymen alike.

 

I do however have some qualms regarding her deployment of the Weberian perspective and terminology of ‘disenchantment’ and ‘re-enchantment.’ The magical, animistic and pantheistic connotations of these terms, which point to an immanentist conception of the world, are, I believe, against the uncompromisingly transcendalist consciousness of Islam. Further, I regard these Muslim ‘fundamentalists’, inasmuch as their political vision is pre-eminently immanentist, as the children of modernity. Because of this, their politics of ‘foundational certainty’ is not the appropriate answer to the plight of the modern man. For that answer, we must turn to Islam’s non-negotiable commitment to transcendence, which has no room for the sovereignty of man and which alone is able to abolish the antinomy of politics and metaphysics. Transcendence also trumps the foundational certainties of politics. For transcendentalism is founded not on the foundational certainty of reason but that of faith. As such, certainties of faith cannot be the certainties of politics. The God Question, to put it forthrightly, is not dead; neither in the heart of man, nor in the politics of the human city.

 

 

 

Stockholm                                                          S Parvez Manzoor