Academic journal article Humanitas

Mysticism in Contemporary Islamic Political Thought: Orhan Pamuk and Abdolkarim Soroush

Academic journal article Humanitas

Mysticism in Contemporary Islamic Political Thought: Orhan Pamuk and Abdolkarim Soroush

Article excerpt

  "You know, I've had enough of big ideas." (2)

Whether due to Western-style schemes of "development," Marxism, nationalism, secularism, or Islamism, the Islamic world has suffered its share of ideological activism. What these ideologies share is a "big idea," or ideology, that purports to transform the Islamic world into a modern post-industrial economy, Marxist utopia, collection of nations, liberal democracy, and caliphate, respectively. Today, Muslims find themselves torn between some version of secularism that wishes to remove "irrational" Islam from public life, and an Islamism that wishes to direct the totalizing political control of Islam into all facets of public and private life. Things are more complicated in Iran, where one finds an unpopular clerical establishment confronted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's millenarian faith in the return of the Twelfth Imam. In Turkey, a Turkish prosecutor, with the support of Islamists and secular nationalists, charged its top novelist, Orhan Pamuk, who later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, with defaming the Turkish nation for comments he made about Turkey's historic mistreatment of Kurds and Armenians; the charges were subsequently dropped. (3)

One does not need to be an "orientalist" suffering post-colonialist Schadenfreude to recognize an eerie sense of unreality in these phenomena. The West has had no shortage of ideological "big ideas" that owe more to the imagination than to political philosophy. Political philosopher Eric Voegelin calls such ideologies "secondary realities" which involve a refusal to perceive things as they are. They are not simply subjectively held opinions, distorted by the "prejudices" we all bring to our understanding of the world. "Prejudice," after all, is nothing more than pre-judged data, that is, opinion. Ideology understood as "secondary reality" differs in kind because it involves a desire to rearrange the world according to one's will. Such willfulness, taken to its extreme, resembles more the conspiracy theorist who sees things when there is nothing to see, or the erotically obsessed who thinks his beloved reciprocates his love when she does not, than the prejudiced "orientalist" who more modestly brings along his cultural baggage to understand inadequately a foreign culture. The ideologue resembles more Plato's tyrant, whose imagination has destroyed his intellect, than the prisoner of the cave. An example from the Muslim world is Sayyid Qutb's distortion of Islam, where its traditional praxis gets transformed into the esoteric knowledge of a revolutionary vanguard, or when the statement, "there is no coercion in Islam," presupposes the revolutionary vanguard has already eliminated a field of action in which it might be possible to choose to become a Muslim. Ideology, understood as secondary reality, is about intellectual trickery, and, as such, it makes rational discourse with ideological activists extraordinarily difficult. (4)

Western attention is usually drawn toward Islamists and less often to the efforts among Muslims to theorize more authentically about their own existence. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush analyze the ideological movements of their societies in terms comparable to Voegelin's, and experiment with mysticism, not as an escape from the ideological furnace, but as a means of recapturing a more authentic experience of reality characterized by existential openness.

Pamuk's impatience regarding "big ideas," seen in the epigraph of this essay, captures a promising though vulnerable sentiment one finds among intelligentsia in the Muslim world. Pamuk's novel, Snow (published in English in 2004), documents how "big ideas" convulse his Turkish homeland, where Islamists and secularists indulge in ideological fantasies that leave little to no room for a moderate and rationally informed political existence. (5) The main character, Ka, is a mystical poet whose meditations serve as experiments in personal existence amidst ideological rubble. …

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