Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics / Islam and Secularism in the Middle East

By Munson, Henry | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics / Islam and Secularism in the Middle East


Munson, Henry, The Middle East Journal


Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, by L. Carl Brown. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. vi + 223 pages. Bibl. to p. 236. Index to p. 256. $27.50 cloth. Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, ed. by John L. Esposito and Azzam Tamimi. New York: New York University Press, 2000. ix + 208 pages. Index to p. 214. $55 cloth; $18.50 paper.

In the introduction to Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, L. Carl Brown states that he disapproves of those "who believe that God has given them a clear message of what is required and has also mandated that they employ any means necessary to impose that message on others" (pp. 4-5). He is thus less than wildly enthusiastic about the militant Islamic movements that he discusses in this book. He says, however, "I have made a conscious effort to be fair to those religious radicals whose ideology and actions I deplore" (p. 5). Brown's "oldfashioned" good sense in dealing with such issues is refreshing.

Middle Eastern studies suffer from moral myopia. On the one hand, some scholars seem determined to defend political Islam and ignore the problems it raises with respect to human rights and peace. On the other hand, some scholars vilify Islamism with no attention to the very real social and nationalistic grievances that fuel it. L. Carl Brown avoids both of these extremes.

Brown correctly notes that the conventional wisdom that religion and politics are not separated in Islam is inadequate. He argues that "Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious authority" (p. 80). He also stresses the predominantly quietist political role of Islam, as represented by the maxim "Better sixty years of tyranny than one hour of anarchy" (p. 54). Being an anthropologist, this reviewer would have liked to see more attention to the apolitical character of Islam as it is lived by most 20th-century Muslims in their everyday lives. But Brown is, as he puts it, "an old-fashioned historian of the modern period emphasizing political and, to some extent, intellectual history" (p. 4). He demonstrates just how valuable such history can be.

With respect to the militant Islamic movements of the 20th century, Brown suggests that they are responses to problems found in much of the Third World and that "religio-political radicalism is a global phenomenon" (p. 134). He discusses Hasan al-Banna, Mawlana Mawdudi, and Sayyid Qutb as exemplars of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism and the Ayatollah Khomeini and `Ali Shari`ati as exemplars of politicized Shi`ism. …

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