A distinctive form of Muslim politics: Islamism and Post-Islamism Conference in Turkish Review• Aug 16th, 2015 • Category: News
A Distinctive Form of Muslim Politics
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the institution of the Caliphate in 1924, Islam has become a focal point of reference for a variety of pan-Islamist movements, intellectual arguments and political activists. During the Cold War period, modern Muslim thinkers such as Abdul A’la Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati believed that Islam could provide a superior alternative form of governance to both capitalism, represented by the US, and socialism, represented by the former Soviet Union. Within this Cold War context, modern scholarship adopted the term “political Islam” or “Islamism” to identify a distinctive form of Muslim politics, referring to a political agenda that aims to establish an Islamic political order through a state whose governing system and principles are directly derived from its legal system, known as the Shariah.
The end of the Cold War saw large sociopolitical shifts that took place in the wake of Iran’s “Islamic” Revolution in 1979 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. After disillusionment set in in Iran in the mid-1980s and the intensification of the global decade of Islamism throughout the 1990s, French political scientist Oliver Roy asserted in his “The Failure of Political Islam” that the Islamist movements oscillated between two poles: a) a revolutionary pole — a top-down approach in which Islamization occurs through state power, and b) a reformist pole — a bottom-up approach where Islamization occurs through social and political movements. Although both poles attempt to bring about an Islamic state via differing methods, Roy argued that neither the top-down nor the bottom-up approach to advance the Islamization agenda had been successful. Consequently, the failure of political Islam has given birth to the formulation of a new discourse called post-Islamism, propounded by Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat. In the light of Roy’s work, Bayat’s articulation has served in scholarship as an analytical category, a kind of substitute for modernism in Muslim societies, whereas Roy’s has been understood as a historical category announcing the dead end of Islamism. Bayat’s concept of post-Islamism as a category of analysis in understanding the religious and political transformations in Muslim societies after the Cold War era has been embraced by many in the field of political Islam.
However, a revival of Islamist movements over the last decade has left many questioning the on-going relevance of this project. Islamism and Post-Islamism: Religious and Political Transformations in Muslim Societies, an international conference organized by the School of Religion at Queen’s University, brought together established scholars from around North America as well as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, Indonesia, France, Germany, Lebanon, Italy and the United Kingdom to debate the nature of current Islamic revitalizations and their implications for the continued validity of post-Islamism in contemporary scholarship. The two days of the conference witnessed many stirring presentations followed by even more passionate and thought-provoking discussions. Nine panels, each representing a separate theme within Islamism and post-Islamism, gave way to the multifaceted nature of post-Islamism, each stimulating the ongoing discussion with a new angle. Besides the high intellectual caliber and integrity of the conference, of particular note were the keynote addresses given by scholars Bayat and Abdolkarim Soroush. Originally brought together by Bayat in his article “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society” in 1996, the two have since been at the forefront of the discussion on post-Islamism. Both have contributed significantly to scholarship on Middle Eastern politics and society and their conjunction at the conference solidified the relevance of post-Islamism in our contemporary context, regardless of its conceptual challenges.
In his keynote address, “Post-Islamism and its discontents,” Bayat provided the audience with his current conceptualization of post-Islamism. For him, post-Islamism — both as a project and a condition — does not aim to secularize but to reconcile Islam with rights, freedoms and democracy. In response to the recent criticisms Bayat’s concept has received, he admits that post-Islamism is not free of contradictions. While he observes elements of liberalism in the idea and practice of post-Islamism, he sees the term “liberal” problematic in describing his concept since some post-Islamists have more respect for liberties than others and some have settled in less liberal democracies. Bayat then moved on to defend the use of “post” — a term synonymous with “after” — because he understands it not as a benchmark for historical change but as the rise of a qualitatively different rhetoric and socio-political metamorphosis. To address the recent uprisings of neo-Islamism, which pose conceptual challenges for post-Islamism, Bayat has responded by arguing that in the post-Cold War, post-socialist and neoliberal context in which we belong, Islamism has become increasingly more associated with its ideological enemies in the West through practices of marketization and privatization. Accordingly, these neo-Islamism camps, such as the Islamic State, resort to confrontation or violence as a means to set themselves apart from a world of commonalities. Finally, though, Bayat does not recognize ISIS or other neo-Islamist movements as a threat because they fail to offer more as a state or confederation.
In his keynote speech, titled “Post-ideological Islam,” Soroush expanded on his understanding of ideology by explaining his theory of the expansion and contraction of religious knowledge. He stated that Islam is a series of interpretations of Islam; there is no pure, real or divine copy of Islam. He explained that this is because Islam is — and has been — so contingent on human reason, knowledge and time. Good examples of Soroush’s principle are two major players in the Iranian revolution of 1979. The first is Ali Shariati, who represents a historical understanding of Islam as a revolutionary ideology — as opposed to the secular conception of revolution — by recognizing the changes religion has undergone over its history. Shariati hoped to idealize Islam through his historical approach to Islam and use it as a means for identity and guidance. On the other hand, Ayatollah Khomeini took an “ahistorical” approach to Islam. As a cleric, he took the position that Islam was perfect and unchangeable and accordingly, a return to “pure” Islam and guidance by Shariah law would mend the socioeconomic problems Iran was facing. Soroush pointed out that both of these thinkers’ ideas led to the unfolding of a distinct “Islamic ideology” that was obsessed with the creation of a revolutionary Islamic state and the application of Shariah law as the main goal. This strict adherence to the main goal, Soroush concluded, left many modern Muslim societies lacking in ethics and morality. Therefore, for Soroush, post-ideological Islam will have to deal with the issues of ethics, social justice and pluralism since Islam in its ideological form was mostly used for sociopolitical control.
Each of the first five panels of the conference offered different lenses through which their audiences engaged with the characters of Islamism and post-Islamism. The first panel, “Islam oscillating between Islamism and post-Islamism,” provided a context for the historical unfolding of Islamism and eventual deviation from that religious-political ideology to the project of post-Islamism. Topics included the development of Islamic law and its contingent relationship with the historical contexts, situations and locations; the shift from post-Kemalism to post-Islamism; and the shift from a state focus on law to an emphasis on morality. Similarly to these presentations, the second panel, “Case studies,” gave these ideas a specific location and timing. Presenters’ case studies discussed the root causes and religious-political shifts mentioned earlier with the examples of Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria and Senegal. While all of these states have experienced Islamism and post-Islamism in their own ways, all share the commonality of an anti-colonial perceptive, a Muslim community and a consolidation of identity. The third panel, “Islamism, modernity and the ‘official religion’,” focused on the idea of the consolidation of identity and the state using the ideology of Islamism. The application of Islamism was understood by many Muslim societies and their leaders to be the solution to states’ social, economic and political problems. Islamist state policies and national identity were understood to be an adequate challenge to hegemonic Western socioeconomic structures that had been imposed on many Muslim nation-states. The fourth panel, “AKP and transformation of Islamism in Turkey,” discussed the religious-political shift of Islamism to post-Islamism from a more micro perspective. Presenters specifically addressed the ideological problems the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey has faced through the movement because many Muslim societies have, more or less, experienced the same situations. In its approach, the AK Party has aimed to become more inclusive in terms of gender, religion and representation, especially in a post-Arab Spring context, although the post-Gezi period challenged the party’s inclusive agenda. The last panel, “Arab Spring, Islamists and social movements,” examined the influence Islamists had on Arab uprisings and their relationship to social movements. According to the speakers, Islamism was one of the major causes of the Arab Spring, in addition to youth and social movements. These panels ultimately provided their audience with a comprehensive approach to the history, theory and practice of Islamism and post-Islamism in Muslim societies, giving sufficient context to the remainder of the conference.
The second day’s panels explored three main topics that would benefit from further research and analysis. The first one addressed issues of women, gender and sexuality. Although the topics varied considerably, each panelist’s research brought a different perspective. For example, many women in Trinidad and Tobago consider themselves to have freedom and respect from men, whereas the same women view Iranian Muslim women as oppressed. Conversely, another panelist spoke about how Iranian Muslim women created social change and a social solidarity economy to bring about economic justice between the sexes. It was interesting to hear how different Muslim women view other Muslim women differently. The second topic explored the evolution of Salafism and the relationship between Salafism and post-Islamism. Panelists demonstrated the complexity of the Salafism phenomenon in recent history, especially purist Salafism in Saudi Arabia and Salafi moderation in Egypt, by pointing out the signs of continuity (Islamism) and change (post-Islamism) within the volatile Salafi camp. The third topic covered Southeast and East Asia, exploring the developments of post-Islamism through two papers. The first one illustrated Muslim theologian Javed Ghamidi’s post-Islamist discourse on the use of violence by non-state actors in South Asia, while the second paper showed that the fight to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia has not proved successful, therefore “post-Islamist urbanism” emerged as a Muslim counter-strategy to reproduce Islamic values and presence in urban spaces, thereby diversifying and multiplying the sites of struggle in the public sphere.
The conference ended with a roundtable discussion with Bayat and Soroush, moderated by Prof. Mehmet Karabela and Forough Jahanbakhsh of the School of Religion at Queen’s. The discussion provided the participants with an opportunity to pose questions on the changing faces of political Islam and the possible futures of post-Islamism. Both Bayat and Soroush highlighted the notion that Islamism seeks action-oriented change, while post-Islamism is currently more theory-based and struggling to translate theories into action. Nonetheless, Soroush concluded that Islamism was, and still is, more successful than post-Islamism, particularly because Islamism provides an inflated sense of identity and tells you “who you are,” whereas post-Islamism inherently lacks this advantage since it values plurality and diverse identities.
By: Mehmet Karabela