Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam

By Wemple, David | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1991 | Go to article overview

Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam


Wemple, David, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


By Edward Mortimer. New York: Random House, 1982. 432 pages. List: $7.95; AET: $5.95 for one, $7.95 for two.

Until the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 ascension to power in Iran the Muslim world had been, to all but a few scholars and political analysts, largely out of sight and out of mind. The Islamic revolution changed all of that in an instant. Suddenly, "Islam" was thrown onto the world stage with an urgency that was both frightening and unavoidable.

Although the author was a Middle East correspondent for the London Times when the book was written, he was still, by his own admission, "naive" about Islam. He envisioned it as something like Roman Catholicism: a set of creeds and beliefs that neatly quantified the subject, allowing it to be antiseptically and definitively studied. Instead he discovered that Islam was, among other things, a model of society, a way of life, a "secular religion," and even "much more than a religion." It was "everywhere and nowhere." If we fail to appreciate this central fact, he writes, we are condemned to misunderstand, perhaps with tragic consequences, not only Islam, but those societies which profess its ideals.

Rather than focusing on Islam's tenets, Mortimer has looked at what Muslims in six societies think, do and say. He can, he writes, only define Islam as "the religion of the Muslims, and a Muslim, for me, is simply one who calls himself that."

In each of the examples (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, the Soviet Union, and the Levant/Nile valley), the author has examined Islam's response to the West's political and military ascendancy and its adaptation to each society's unique characteristics.

Saudi Arabia, for example, was founded as a nation-state at a time when there had been minimal contact with the West. The extremely conservative rulers of the Kingdom took their cue from Arabian society's basic nature. In a culture where the very concept of a "secular state" -- relegating religious life and the workaday world to separate spheres -- was alien, the nation's ruler was to become a secular king, not a religious leader (e.g., imam or ayatollah). Nevertheless, the legitimacy of Saudi kings has rested in large measure upon their respect for Islam's religious scholars, the 'ulama.

Turkey, on the other hand, imposed a purely secular state in the 1920s upon a population that was almost entirely Muslim. Turkey has kept a foot in either world, strengthening ties with the Muslim world while, at the same time, remaining within that most Western of alliances, NATO. Pakistan, by contrast, adamantly rejected India's multi-confessional and secular character in 1947, when it established itself as an avowedly Islamic nation-state.

According to Mortimer, Arab nationalism in the Levant/Nile valley is still wavering in its commitment to any of these three models of adaptation. The region, he believes, oscillates between a "secular nationalism" which emphasizes the commonality of all those who speak Arabic, and an "Islamic nationalism" which sees Arabs as the rightful leaders of an Islamic revival.

As for the position of Soviet Muslims, the author suggests that, despite what many in the West may want to believe, it is possible that Moscow had not brutally subjugated its Muslims in any classic colonial manner. Rhetoric about "self-determination" aside, he sees Moscow as having worked hard to integrate Muslims into the larger culture while making impressive efforts to preserve their cultural heritage. …

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