The Chronicle of Higher Education: Information Technology

From the issue dated September 13, 2002

See also an online conversation with Khaled Abou El Fadl

Islamic Studies' Young Turks

New generation of scholars deplores problems of Muslim world and seeks internal solutions


When Edward W. Said reviewed Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response in the July Harper's, he didn't mince words.

An "intellectual and moral disaster," he called it, an "ideological portrait of 'Islam' and the Arabs" suited to "dominant pro-imperial and pro-Zionist strands in U.S. foreign policy." He objected to Mr. Lewis's argument, widely cited since September 11, that the Islamic world has become "poor, weak, and ignorant," ruled by a "string of shabby tyrannies" whose principal opponents are theocratic revivalists even more hostile to modernity than the despots who oppress them.

The very problem Mr. Lewis posits -- that something has gone terribly wrong in the "lands of Islam," and that Muslims have tended to blame others for it -- is, in Mr. Said's words, "fabricated."

Disagreement between Mr. Lewis, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and Mr. Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has framed much of the scholarship on Islam and the Middle East since the publication of Mr. Said's seminal Orientalism (Pantheon Books) in 1978. But the landscape is now changing as an emerging group of Muslim scholars shifts the terms of the debate.

That group is beginning to ask precisely the question that Mr. Lewis posed. Whatever they think of his work as a whole, the question "What went wrong?" and the vital corollary "How can we make things better?" are central to their project.

Mr. Lewis, now in his 80s, has been a towering figure in scholarship on the Islamic world for several decades. Though written before the terrorist attacks, What Went Wrong? (Oxford University Press) was excerpted in The New Yorker last November and quickly became a best seller when it was published in January.

He argues that while the Islamic world was at the forefront of human civilization and achievement for several centuries, it has been in a protracted state of decline during the modern age. Once vitally engaged with the outside world, it has turned inward and views the West with increasing hostility and paranoia. It has become intolerant, insular, and obsessed with its own victimization.

Many Muslims have a "strong, visceral reaction" to Mr. Lewis that has "nothing to do with the merits of his arguments," says Seyyd Vali Reza Nasr, author of Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power (Oxford University Press, 2001), who recently left a position as associate professor of political science at the University of San Diego. "It has everything to do," he says, with Mr. Lewis's reputation as a leader of the intellectual camp associated with Zionism and hostility toward Islam.

But "why is it that Bernard Lewis is one of the few people asking this important question?" wonders Nader Hashemi, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto, who is writing his dissertation on secularism, democracy, and Islam. "Why are Muslims not asking the same question?"

Shifting Sands

Mr. Hashemi and other dissident Muslim thinkers -- including Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge University Press, 2001) -- oppose not only the authoritarian regimes that rule most Muslim countries, but also the Islamist movements that have risen to prominence in recent decades. These scholars, who regard such movements as reactionary rather than liberating, call for a radical transformation in the very structure of Islamic civilization -- an opening up of Islamic societies to dissent, toleration, political pluralism, women's rights, and civil liberties.

Do those ideals have a place in Islam? In the forthcoming The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Beacon Press, November), the Kuwaiti-born Mr. Abou El Fadl writes that it would be "disingenuous to deny" that the Koran contains verses that lend themselves to "intolerant interpretation," like the one that enjoins: "Whomever follows a religion other than Islam this will not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he will be among the losers," and the one that exhorts Muslims to battle unbelievers "until there is no more tumult or oppression, and until faith and all judgment belong to God."

What Islam's holy book offers are "possibilities for meaning, not inevitabilities," he argues. Moreover, he writes, other passages, which "have not been adequately theorized by Muslim theologians," espouse tolerance and pluralism: "To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people," and, "Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief."

Thus, not only can the Koran "readily support an ethic of diversity and tolerance," but Islamic civilization "was pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various social and religious denominations" for centuries, Mr. Abou El Fadl writes. As contemporary fundamentalists are "increasingly shutting off the possibilities for a tolerant interpretation of the Islamic tradition," turning "its richness and humanism" into "a distant memory," the task for Muslim reformers, he contends, is to champion an enlightened interpretation of Islam compatible with pluralism, toleration, and human rights.

To be sure, there are differences among the new dissidents. Some, like Mr. Abou El Fadl, are devout Muslims, much of whose scholarship deals with the Koran and Islamic theology. Others are more secular, including Emran Qureshi, an independent scholar who is co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection, The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy (Columbia University Press, 2003). They approach Islam more on cultural and political than on religious terms.

One dilemma for the emerging Muslim scholars is the possibility that they will be perceived as intellectual sellouts, aligned with supporters of Israel and U.S. foreign policy. "Fouad Ajami Syndrome," the Iranian-born Mr. Nasr calls it. Mr. Ajami, director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University and author of The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (Pantheon, 1998), is highly critical of both Arab politics and much of the Arab intelligentsia. He is on the editorial board of Foreign Affairs and a consultant to CBS News. Mr. Nasr describes him as "the Anwar Sadat of Middle East studies." While it no doubt took courage to break ranks, Mr. Ajami is viewed with enormous suspicion by fellow Arabs for doing so, and for being welcome in the corridors of official power -- for becoming, in their eyes, an Arab Uncle Tom.

Mr. Nasr says the new dissidents run the same risk: "Are you there because you want a job at Yale? Are you there because you want a MacArthur award?"

But while some of the new dissidents' criticisms of the Islamic world coincide with those of American neoconservatives, the Muslim scholars differ in key ways. They support the Palestinian cause and are bitterly critical of many aspects of U.S. foreign policy. And while many neoconservatives see Islam as an obstacle to democracy, the Muslim dissidents believe that reform can draw on the Islamic tradition itself.

New Paradigm

Key to their project is a call for a rethinking of the role of the Muslim intellectual. The Arab intelligentsia has failed to challenge the region's "wildest and most paranoid fantasies," wrote Kanan Makiya in a recent essay in Dissent. A professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University and author, most recently, of Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (W.W. Norton, 1993), the Iraqi-born scholar argues that instead of undertaking "the hard work of creating a modern, rights-based political order," Arab intellectuals have helped fuel a "conspiratorial view of history" that ascribes "all the ills of our own world to either the Great Satan, America, or the Little Satan, Israel."

The new dissidents are similarly critical of much of the scholarship in Middle East studies, particularly of a body of work that regards Islamist social movements as expressions of "civil society" and "resistance" to the state. Over the past decade, studies in this vein have multiplied and become one of the dominant currents -- some say the dominant current -- in the field. The dissidents believe that such studies soft-pedal the reactionary, repressive politics of the Islamists and obstruct the transformative, self-critical work that needs to be undertaken in the Islamic world.

One representative of this current is John O. Voll, a professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, at Georgetown University. In 1992, he testified to a Congressional subcommittee about the Sudanese regime, an amalgam of military despotism and Islamic theocracy, that seized power in a bloody coup in 1989. He described it as "an effort to create a consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political participation." The regime allowed no opposition parties and made dissent a capital offense. Even so, to judge the Sudanese government as undemocratic, he said, was Eurocentric.

That kind of thinking, says Mr. Qureshi, the independent scholar, is deeply problematic. Regimes like Sudan's should be unequivocally condemned and opposed, he argues, not rationalized and defended. "Far too often, the crimes of indigenous oppressors are tolerated or passed over in silence" by scholars. It is the responsibility of the intellectual, he says, to condemn authoritarianism in all its forms, whether secular or religious.

Mr. Voll concedes that the Sudanese regime has committed human-rights violations, but says he was defending the "conceptual basis" of its rule. "There are many different forms of democracy, and what they were attempting to do in theory was to create a consensual form of political participation."

In debates about the politics of the Islamic world, something of an ideological sleight of hand has taken place, says the Indian-born Mr. Qureshi. While Islamic fundamentalism is deeply authoritarian, in recent years many of its adherents have adopted the leftist rhetoric of anti-imperialism. Many scholars of the Islamic world thus identify Islamic "militants" with the politics of protest and opposition, he says, portraying them sympathetically as grassroots rebellions against U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes. While he agrees that U.S. support for such regimes should be criticized -- indeed, harshly -- he says that by approaching opposition movements with the tunnel vision of anti-imperialism, these scholars have become blind to internal problems in Islamic societies.

As an example he cites scholars' failure to recognize what he sees as the menace of Wahhabism, the highly puritanical sect of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. That was brought to the fore by journalists, not academics, in the aftermath of September 11, he notes.

Overstating the Case?

Critics of the dissident scholars say they are overstating their case. Mr. Said dismisses their argument that Arab and Muslim intellectuals have largely avoided critical introspection. While there is "some justice" to the claim with respect to Muslim scholars in the West, where, he says, Islam "has been attacked and vilified," he doesn't think the argument holds up abroad. "I have never been to a gathering in the Arab world or amongst Arabs elsewhere at which this issue is not debated," he says. "These questions are being asked."

As for the argument that the Islamic world is in desperate need of more tolerance, pluralism, human rights, and civil liberties, Mr. Said agrees but adds that "we need a lot more of it over here, too."

Mr. Hashemi regards such an attitude as "inadequate and disappointing." The Islamic world lacks the most basic liberties inherent in the democracies of the West, he argues. Mr. Said's most insightful work, he says, is "not about the internal problems facing the Arab-Islamic world, but rather the West, its literature and culture, and the legacy of its empires."

As for resistance among scholars of Middle East studies to criticism of the Islamic world, perhaps the divide is a generational one. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Sudanese-born professor of law at Emory University and author of Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse University Press, 1990), says that while the critique of Orientalism became of central importance for Mr. Said's generation and for younger scholars influenced by his landmark book, the new thinkers see their task as different. For them, the critique is a given; it's been done. "There's nothing new about the imperialists or the Orientalists or the Israeli lobby," and scholars can get "trapped into a defensiveness" by expending their critical energy in those directions, says Mr. An-Na'im.

He does not expect scholars whose intellectual projects have revolved around the critique of Orientalism to suddenly shift their focus. "That generation is too invested in that paradigm," he says, adding that they have become "even more defensive" since September 11. Rather, he says, one should listen to the "new voices" -- those of Mr. Abou El Fadl, Mr. Hashemi, and Mr. Qureshi, for example -- for the "way forward."

Like Mr. Abou El Fadl, Mr. An-Na'im is a devout Muslim who confronts the tensions between traditional Islamic law and universal standards of human rights, and who believes that reform can be grounded in Islam itself. He acknowledges in his writing that Sharia, or Islamic law, involves "drastic and serious violations" of the rights of women and non-Muslims. But he argues that there is a larger message within Islam that transcends those aspects of Sharia that are antithetical to a modern understanding of human rights. "The fundamental and eternal message of Islam," Mr. An-Na'im writes, is one of justice and "the solidarity of all humanity."

"In view of the vital need for peaceful coexistence in today's global human society," he contends, Muslims must recover that humanistic message and transform their societies accordingly.

The Islam and Human Rights Fellowship Program, which he directs at Emory, brings scholars and activists from throughout the Muslim world to develop "Islamic arguments for their work," he says. "There's a whole generation now who are taking the issues to the next step."

Precarious Position

Whatever the stance of Arab and Muslim intellectuals living in the West, says Mr. Nasr, author of Islamic Leviathan, their message must resonate in the Islamic world itself. While he supports the efforts of the new dissidents to stimulate critical dialogue among Muslims, he thinks the larger conversation that needs to take place will "only partially involve scholars in the United States."

Diaspora Muslims have "made the journey to the other shore" -- they are "displaced intellectuals who then become irrelevant," he says. In fact, Islamists in their home countries are "eager to ship them abroad," where their work will be harmless, Mr. Nasr says. Once they are in the West, they "write and work for Americans. They write for tenure and for jobs. They write for Western consumption. They don't really talk to their own communities."

Mr. Abou El Fadl says the intellectual climate in the Islamic world is overwhelmingly inhospitable to dissident voices. Arabic translations of several of his books have been prepared, but publication had to be canceled in the face of threats by Islamists as well as Saudi pressure, he says. (He adds that he has received death threats from Muslim "fanatics" angered by his writings.)

Writing and teaching at a distance from the societies they are trying to change gives dissident Muslim scholars some advantages, says Mr. An-Na'im. "Because of the space they have and the resources available to them, they can make arguments and develop ideas" essential to the reformation of the Islamic world.

To succeed, of course, their efforts will have to take root in that world, not just among intellectuals but among the Muslim masses, he and Mr. Nasr say. "The question for us is how to create conditions for us, the reformers in the West, to communicate and create constituencies in Muslim societies," Mr. An-Na'im says.

On the other hand, asks Mr. Nasr, "in societies that are rapidly losing their middle classes, and whose middle classes are becoming irrelevant, how are they going to support reform?"

One of the harshest critics of Middle East studies regards the work of the new Muslim dissidents as significant. Martin Kramer, editor of Middle East Quarterly and author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), says it's no accident that almost all of the dissidents come from outside the discipline of Middle East studies, where he believes the Said paradigm is hegemonic.

Still, he questions what impact the criticism will have beyond the "safe haven" of American academe. "It can be done as an intellectual excercise. Books can be written. Tomes can accumulate on the shelf. Does that constitute a reformation? I think not. The reformation isn't simply the thinking through of another interpretation of Islam, more in accord with the modern age. It's spreading that interpretation of Islam to Muslims themselves."

Turning the Tide?

Mr. An-Na'im sees the post-September 11 situation as positive, insofar as it confronts Muslims with essential questions about the Islamic world and its future. Mr. Abou El Fadl agrees. The events of September 11 require "a serious introspective pause," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Muslims "should reflect on the state of their culture and the state of Islamic civilization."

Recent developments suggest that the tide might be turning in Muslim intellectual life. One is the publication of a United Nations study by a group of Arab intellectuals. "The Arab Human Development Report 2002," released in July, warns that Arab societies are suffering because of their oppression of women, the absence of political liberties, and a self-insulation from books and ideas from the rest of the world. Of particular significance, according to Ziauddin Sardar, author of Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come (Mansell, 1985), is that the report's authors "place the blame for these problems squarely on Arab states themselves."

"They make short shrift of the scapegoat theories so common in Arab self-justification," he wrote in the New Statesman, a left-of-center British magazine.

Also in July, the government of Malaysia convened an international conference on "Islam and Politics" in order, it said, to promote "progressive Islamic thought." Scholars from Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States gathered to discuss such topics as "Islam, Human Rights, and Democracy" and "Islamic States Post-1945: An Assessment."

"Are some of the values that underlie human rights, women's rights, and democracy incompatible with certain conceptions of Islam?" asks a promotional flier for the conference. "What would be the scope and extent of reform that would be required in Islamic thinking to enable Muslim societies to uphold these values?"

Those are precisely the kinds of questions that Mr. Qureshi and Mr. Hashemi plan to take up in a new journal, Salam. They want the journal, for which they are seeking a financial backer, to be a forum for critical introspection and dialogue for Muslims throughout the diaspora.

Such developments could be viewed as supporting Mr. Said's claim that there are myriad "counterorthodox" voices within Arab and Muslim intellectual life. The new dissidents, alternatively, believe that things are -- slowly -- beginning to move in the direction that they are urging.

Mr. Nasr points out that the things that give Muslim scholars in the West a platform from which to speak -- degrees from Western universities, positions within secular institutions -- are not viewed by religious Muslim scholars in the Islamic world as authorizing those diaspora scholars to speak about Islam.

Mr. An-Na'im wants to challenge that. A key element of the dissidents' project, he says, is to redefine authority in the Islamic world, to "shift the basis of authority and of religious discourse from the clergy to a secularized, liberal discourse, thereby challenging the hegemony of traditional voices within Islam." That poses a dilemma for Muslim reformers, he argues -- "how to retain credibility as internal agents of change while being critical of the beliefs and practices of their own community of believers."

The goal, he says, is "not to compete on the old grounds, but to create new ones."
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 49, Issue 3, Page A14

See also an online conversation with Khaled Abou El Fadl

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education