Language Matters: a post-election Re-reading of Islamist Political Thought

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[W]hy is it that in religion such importance is given to jihad that the Qur’an pronounces the judgment of hypocrisy upon those who shirk and evade it? Jihad is but another name for the attempt to erect the system of truth, and the Qur’an declares jihad to be a touchstone on the same footing with a man’s faith. In other words he who has faith in his heart will neither be content with the domination of the system of evil, nor will he grudge the expenditure of life and wealth in the struggle for erecting the system of truth. If one shows weakness in this matter, his faith itself is doubtful. What can anything else beside then profit him?...The man who professes faith in this religion cannot fulfill his duty only by trying as far as possible to pattern his life on Islam. The nature of his faith itself requires that he should concentrate all his effort upon wresting leadership from unbelieving and corrupt men to entrust it to the righteous, and upon erecting the system of truth that has been ordained for the conduct of the world according to the will of God. Because this end is unattainable without the highest degree of collective effort, there must exist a righteous community committed to the principle of truth and devoted to the sole purpose in the world of erecting, maintaining, and properly realizing the system of truth (Mawdudi 1954, 160-1).

The fact that some Islamist thinkers sanctify violent struggle in such terms does not mean that all those who advocate or engage in jihad endorse violence.21 Nor does it imply that those who claim to kill for Islam are entirely without ulterior motives, those manipulative purposes and psychological motivations that even the most rarified scriptural arguments can express or serve ( R. Euben 2002b). What the preceding analysis does suggest, however, is that the reduction of this view of jihad to irrational blood lust, the self-interested grab for temporal power, or a door through which to pass into the hereafter miss a crucial dimension of its significance and appeal: for true believers, jihad is no less than an enactment of a divine imperative to remake the foundations of collective life. In this respect, Islamist views of jihad can be seen as part of a longstanding association between violence and political foundings upon which no particular culture or historical epoch has a monopoly. This association and the “legacy of violence” it bequeaths to future generations are no less apparent in those radical revolutions of renewal that move by way of the sword from the margins to the center than those political foundings that claim to create something out of nothing (Connolly 1995, 251). In either case, the toll of such brutality can be immeasurable, for in addition to the victims who suffer directly, the “practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world” (Arendt, 1972, 177).


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1Binaries such as West/non-West, West/Islam carve up the world in ways that obscure critical points of engagement and commonality between them as well as the complex of differences subsumed within each term. As will become clear in the following discussion, however, it is not possible to simply dispense with such terminology. Here they should be understood as representations rather than accurate historical, cultural or territorial descriptions.

2“Fundamentalism” was coined in 1920 specifically to describe Protestant evangelicals anxious to (re)establish the Bible as the authoritative moral compass for American life, infallible not only in regard to theological issues but also in matters of historical, geographical and scientific fact. It is revealing that was no equivalent for “fundamentalism” in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, until the need to approximate the English term called for one. Usuliyya, derived from the word for fundamentals or roots (usul), has emerged as an Arabic name for Islamism, but its currency is due to the way it approximates the English “fundamentalism” rather than any correspondence with aspects of the Islamic tradition. On the contrary, “usuli” is associated with scholarship on the roots and principles of Islamic jurisprudence, and experts in this discipline are often referred to as al-usuliyyun. In a 1995 interview, the spiritual leader of the Hizballah in Lebanon, Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, rejected the terminology of fundamentalism/usuliyya as more revealing of Western projections than Muslim revivalism.

3“Islamism” is not, however, universally accepted and is frequently invoked with caution and caveats. An Algerian writer has argued, for example, that Islamism wrongly implies that those who claim the name have captured the essence of Islam, and thus its use is no more appropriate than calling David Koresh a Christianist (cited in Bennoune 1994, 37, n. 1)

4Qutb (1906-1966), perhaps the most important thinker of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has also become one of the most influential architects of contemporary Sunni Islamist political thought, a stature that has prompted one journalist to dub him “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror” (Berman 2003).

5Qaradawi (b. 1926), an Egyptian now living in Qatar, is by far the most prominent scholar and preacher in Sunni Islam at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He is the founder of Islam Online, a major website that professes to provide authoritative guidance to Muslims on all matters of faith and practice.

6The Constitution of Medina was an agreement the Prophet had entered into with the local communities, including Jewish tribes, upon his emigration from Mecca to Medina.

7Michael Gillespie (1999, 7-10) argues that the rereading of history, geography and culture through the prism of this sense of “the West” began no earlier than the nineteenth century. The idea of a timeless and bright line between West and East is also challenged by Jeremy Brotton’s (1998, 90, 96-97) study of the diplomatic and intellectual exchanges between Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period. Brotton shows not only the extent and amity of such exchanges, but a persistent uncertainty about where, precisely, Europe ended and Asia “began.”

8Ancient Greeks understood themselves as geographically west of the barbarians, but not Western in the contemporary sense, that is, as both a cultural and historical category.

9Steven Runciman’s (1954, 3: 480) work on the Crusades, for example, demonstrates a “long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident out of which our civilization has grown...”

10Many political scientists prefer to define democracy in terms of procedures designed to realize popular rule, including free, competitive and fair elections, along with state protection of certain rights and liberties. Such a formal, minimalist definition has the advantage of detaching democracy from questions of origins and offering a standard to which all governments may be held regardless of culture and place. As Keith Topper (2005, 205-207) argues, however, it also tends to sidestep critical questions about the substance of representation, power, responsiveness and accountability that are central to democratic politics.

11For a late nineteenth century assessment of the prospects for a “Muhammadan Reformation,” see Blunt 1882, 132-73.

12Eickelman and Piscatori 1996, 37-39, 131-35; Zaman 2006. Such fragmentation has in many ways been accelerated by the explosion of digital cultures which promote, among other things, a “form of empowered amateurism” (Mirzoeff 2002, 6).

13Banna (1906-1949) founded the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in 1928, an organization that has spawned branches throughout the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and beyond, and has directly or indirectly inspired virtually every Sunni Islamist group now in existence.

14Fatima Mernissi (1991, 99) has gone as far as characterizing Islamist preoccupations with the place and purity of Muslim women as an obsession.

15Mutahhari (1920-1979), a student of Ayatollah Khomeini, is widely recognized as one of the most important intellectuals associated with the movement culminating in the Iranian revolution of 1979.

16The Islamist journal Sawt al-Jihad occasionally features “women’s voices” in the form of role models named, for example “umm al-shahid” (Mother of the Martyr), although it is unclear that these “voices” are actually those of women.

17Women’s participation in the “production of official Islamic knowledge” has a long history, although they have often done so in relative obscurity and without the benefit of education in the Islamic sciences that has legitimated direct engagement with the sacred texts (Cooke 2001, xiv; Badran and Cooke 2004). Pioneering attempts to read gender equality off Islam are also not confined to writing by women, as evinced by Qasim Amin’s Tahrir al-mar’a [The Liberation of Woman] (1899) and Mumtaz `Ali’s Huquq-e niswan [The Rights of Women] (1898).

18Hailing form the Indian subcontinent, Mawdudi (1903-1979 ) was one of the most prolific Islamist writers of the 20th century. Over a career extending from the 1920s to the late 1970s, Mawdudi both formulated and popularized key themes in Islamist discourse.

19Anxieties about the particular susceptibility of Muslims to irrationality, insularity and fanaticism have a long and distinguished pedigree in Euro-American history and political thought. See, for example, Renan 1883, 3.

20Rahman (b. 1938) is the blind Egyptian cleric who served as religious guide to Sadat’s assassins. In 1995, he was convicted of “seditious conspiracy” in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing. He is currently serving a life sentence in a Federal penitentiary.

21Even as he spoke of a new era of jahiliyya and of jihad, Mawdudi himself stopped well short of recommending or condoning the actual resort to violence in the manner many other Islamists did. As Nasr (1996, 70) observes , Mawdudi’s organization, the Jama`at-i Islami, “has avoided violent social change and has instead viewed the path to the Islamic state as lying within the existing sociopolitical order.”

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