The Potential for a Democratic Islam

Article excerpt

The Potential for a Democratic Islam Political Islam, World Politics and Europe, by Bassam Tibi, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Books, 2008, 311 pp.

Reviewed by Daphne Burdman

Bassam Tibi examines Islamist expansionism both in Muslim and Western societies, a phenomenon that appears in violent and deceptively peaceful guises. He presents a penetrating and analytical study of the West's inability to comprehend the underlying ideologies of Islamism, which is crucial if it hopes to effectively confront this increasingly dire situation. By demonstrating its essential structure, Tibi also examines the potential for democracy in societies where classical Islam prevails.

Tibi defines his book as a "social-scientific study" and not a theological analysis. He views "religious activism" as a social fact. However, he accepts the self-image of jihadists as "true believers [their] new world order of 'hakimiyyat Allah/God's rule." He argues that "religion has become politicized" and "politics has become religionized." Quoting Sayyid Qutb (1906-1996), the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who stated "....Islam is meant for the entire globe," he traces worldwide jihadist terrorism to this expansionist ideology and dismisses as "deceit" excuses that these actions are manifestations of outrage over Western policies in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

From the overall tone of the book it is clear that Professor Tibi is also a strong advocate of the Muslim world. He criticizes violent hegemonic expansionism which he sees as destructive not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims themselves by deflecting the latter from a constructive course to build a better society.

Professor Tibi is particularly qualified both professionally and personally to write this detailed and thoughtful study because of his unique understanding of both Islamic and Western cultures. Tibi was born in Damascus, Syria, to a family of notable Islamic scholars. As a boy he studied and memorized the Qur'an in the traditional way, yet at that early age questioned his teachers regarding the Muslim assumption of superiority. After receiving his Baccalaureate from a Damascene French lycée, he went to Frankfurt University, Germany, earning degrees in social science, philosophy and history. At the "Frankfurt School" with teachers such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, he embraced the "rationalism" of Max Weber. He correlates this rationalism with the tradition of medieval Islamic rationalism found in al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroës, and Ibn Khaldun (ninth to fourteenth centuries CE), the pinnacle of which is considered the "Golden Age of Islam." Tibi defines himself as both a reformist and a practicing Muslim.

Tibi, who heads the Department of International Relations at the University of Goettingen, Germany, is A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University, USA, and was previously visiting professor at Harvard University and other US universities. He has authored 27 books in German which have been translated into 16 languages, and seven books in English.


Tibi disagrees with Huntington's Clash of Civilizations concept. He maintains that the "clash" is within Islamic societies, and not between Islamic and external societies. Previously, he disagreed with Fukuyama, who postulated the "End of History" at the conclusion of the Cold War, but is now conditionally in agreement with him since Fukuyama has acknowledged Europe as a new battleground of Western values versus values of the European Islamic diaspora.1

Tibi views today's jihadist/militant radical Islamists and Islamism (deriving from the thought of Hasan al-Banna (1928) and Sayyid Qutb, with additional contributions from Ayatollah Khomeini) as a new creation. He sees its politicization as an invented tradition and a manipulation of the basic Islamic theological concepts of jihad according to the Qur'an. This has led to the establishment of a "transnational totalitarian organization" aimed at destabilizing the political hegemony and cultural values of Western and democratic nations, while also targeting so-called moderate Islamic nations. …


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