Ali Eteraz: Roots of Islamism I

Ali Eteraz has written a series of 7 Articles in Comment is Free (Guardian UK) on the future of Islamic politics and theology. The sum total of them all is very brilliant. (Though I would disagree with a few individual points/points of emphasis).

The first three deal with Islamic Reform, Islamic Reformation, and the rise of Islamism.

The key point is that from within the Muslim world, the Islamic Reformation has already commenced (for at least 200 years now). The Reformation, contrary to opinion in both the West and (some) within the Islamic world, is not an inherently stabilizing and modernizing force. The Christian Reformation brought about illiberal revolutionary & reactionary forces from both the left and right. John Calvin and crew set up a theocracy in Geneva. Luther aligned himself totally with the German princes, calling for the slaying of the Peasants Revolt (Protestant radical left).

The Reformation, above all, is the destruction of the traditional clerical elite–who is theologically and morally conservative but politically quietist (hence its total support for modern dictators and classical caliphs/rulers/kings). The Reformation is the coming of individualist interpretations.

Eteraz writes:

This leads to an important conclusion. Extremists, being dissenters to Islamic traditionalism, are not merely a reaction to external pressures like western foreign policy (which they are), but also a reaction to the traditionalist response (or lack of response) to internal problems as well. Ibn Taymiya would not have led attacks against the hypocrite kings had the traditionalists of that time spoken up against them. Bin Laden hates not just the West, but the Saudi royal family and the clerics who prop it up by not criticising it. Sayyid Qutb did not just villify people in the US, he castigated the village of his childhood as well. Extremism is not just an irrational conflagration; it is rational, though misguided, dissent.

The individualist interpretations (like the Christian Reformation) will lead to massively different interpretations–many of them right-wing and illiberal. Other call for a renewed ithjihad (like Irshad Manji). The problem with this call alone is that ithjihad–individual interpretation outside the control of traditional clericalism–can lead to Bin Laden as much as to feminist Islamic points of view. Bin Laden is not a cleric. He is a “Luther” like figure, here I stand and I can do no other, he says from a Pakistani cave. And like Luther’s use of the printing press, al-Qaeda has the internet and its video studio.

In integral terms, this is because ithjihad or the Islamic Reformation more generally when translated is an external only affair (flatland theology) and therefore has no real way to distinguish between different levels of theological and political depth.

So I think Eteraz is right that the call for a Reformation is not right, more that it is simply happening and will continue and there is nothing to be done except hope to influence that train in a better direction.

Eteraz on this point (article #4):

It means that Islamic rationalism – the act of a Muslim using his (or her) individual reason to access the Quran and Islamic tradition – has triumphed so emphatically that both Muslim liberals (Wadud) and illiberals (Qutb), rely upon it. It means that the whole time people have been talking in terms of civilisations, we should have been talking in terms of individuals, because reason is an individual act. In fact, some of the most unsavoury characters of 20th century Islam have essentially confirmed that there won’t be any turning back from Islam’s individualist revolution.

In the next post I’ll deal with his parsing of Islamist (modern) right-wingism versus jihadism and his call for an Islamist left.

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Published in: on November 1, 2007 at 9:06 am  Comments (1)  
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