Between the State and Islam / the Islamic Quest for Democracy, Pluralism, and Human Rights

By Lawrence, Bruce | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Between the State and Islam / the Islamic Quest for Democracy, Pluralism, and Human Rights


Lawrence, Bruce, The Middle East Journal


Between the State and Islam, ed. by Charles E. Butterworth and I. William Zartman. Cambridge, UK and Washington, DC: Cambridge University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center, 2001. viii + 244 pages. Contribs. to p. 248. Index to p. 256. $49.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.

The Islamic Quest for Democracy, Pluralism, and Human Rights, by Ahmad S. Moussalli. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. 167 pages. Notes to p. 184. Sel. bibl. to p. 215. Index to p. 226. $55. Reviewed by Bruce Lawrence

Both of the books under review were written and published before September 11, 2001. Like all other research and reflection on the Middle East, the Arab world, and Islam, they take on a different salience after September 11 th, in large part due to public reaction to the horrors of the events of that day.

How Americans think about themselves and others is shaped and reshaped not just by the military war against Afghanistan and the domestic war against immigrants suspected of links to terrorism, but also by the propaganda war. The twin agenda of US officialdom has been to win the war abroad and to win the war at home - the latter to convince all citizens that American ideals of democracy and freedom require access to foreign oil, whether from Middle Eastern or Central Asian sources or, more likely, from both. Without the strategic priority of oil, there would be no terror; there would also be no war on terrorism.

Yet, much of academic writing has painted Islam as the problem and Islamic terrorists as an especially nasty manifestation thereof. From Israel enthusiasts, such as Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis, to global theorists like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, the constant refrain has been: the Muslim world is out of step with modernity; Western and Islamic civilizations will collide, perhaps even clash; and Islamofascism, in Fukuyama's infelicitous phrasing, will become the major barrier to the global triumph of democratic capitalism.

It is against the backdrop of constant, relentless exposition of barbaric Islam, in visual no less than in print media, that one must make sense of the two books under review. In the aftermath of September 1I th - when Islam has become the enemy for many Americans, when a Nobel Prize laureate, V.S. Naipaul, is acclaimed for having lampooned Islam as an Arab religion fostering neurosis and nihilism (see Beyond Belief. Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, 1998) - it is all the more important to hold on to a modicum of academic realism and historical proportionality. These two books provide both.

Neither of these books will please those who want to wage a war on terrorism that fixes the blame for September 11 th on civilizational conflict or Islamo-fascism. Although they move in different directions, the two books focus on a common project: to disconnect the opposition of Islam and the West by showing how state and religion need to be rethought as the crucial indices for assessing the Muslim majority states of the Middle East and Asia. Their recurrent tone is to underscore forces of skepticism, liberty, and creativity that emerge in West and Central Asia throughout the l9th/20th centuries. They conjure a wide cast of characters whose life work and legacies exceed the diatribes of Pipes and Lewis even as they falsify the grand antinomies invoked by Fukuyama and Huntington.

Between the State and Islam contains ten essays, framed by the two editors' very different approaches. Butterworth's essay is an insider's take on the academic battle for assessing political religion. Severely critiquing Mohammed Arkoun and Olivier Roy as vague and inconsistent in their approach to Islamism, Butterworth lauds John Esposito and John Voll for their exposition of particular Islamist spokespersons, among them Mawdudi, Hasan al-Turabi and Rachid Ghannouchi. In contrast, Zartman's essay concludes with a caveat against Islamism (arguing that it may, in fact, be incongruent with democracy, as the Algerian elections of 1991 demonstrated), at the same time that he confirms democracy as the wave of the future for Muslim as for non-Muslim polities (p. …

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