Kramer: The Islamism Debate
The literature on Islam and "Islamism" continues to be produced at a frenzied rate. Scholars and journalists in the West who write on those issues enjoy the governmental and media attention that this subject receives. Popular culture in the West still is fascinated by the "exoticism" of Islam. This book contains contributions (with one exception) from a conference held at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University in 1996, which was funded jointly by the American and Israeli governments. The essays, by well-informed specialists in the field, are consistently thoughtful, even if one disagrees with their conclusions. However, only the contributions by François Burgat, Daniel Pipes, and Olivier Roy can be said to be original.
Daniel Brumberg's chapter suffers from a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, he warns that the reading and analysis of Islamist literature is an art that can be mastered only by a trained eye (p. 18). Trained in what, we are not told, although it is implied that such training requires familiarity with a Muslim propensity toward deception and duplicity. Yet, after engaging in that fashionable practice of excessive textualism, by which the analyst reads and interprets words--mostly in translation through the services of Foreign Broadcast Information Services (FBIS) and Joint Publications Research Services (JPRS)--of fundamentalists, Brumberg tends to dismiss those words and texts as manifestations of the desire to deceive Western audiences. He also unnecessarily dramatizes the importance of a tape that `Abbasi Madani made (pp. 26-30).
Burgat's essay is quite interesting and provocative (especially given the venue of the conference). He has a simple message: The Islamist movement is the product of a political cleavage in society, a socioeconomic fracture, and a cultural fracture. Although this has been said before in his treatment of the political cleavage he views the Islamist movement as a mirror image of the brutal and oppressive power structures of the state. Pipes, also, makes a unique attempt at interpreting the Islamist movement in terms of its imitation of Western ways and ideas, although he begins his essay by an exaggerated characterization of Islamist leaders as Westernized individuals (pp. 53-54). However, many Islamist leaders and members never have been to the West, and some are not even educated to the degree that would allow them to have a literate command of the Arabic or Persian languages.
Pipes's approach, however, requires some attention because experts of Islam often dwell on what they see as Islamic "peculiarity" or the "exceptionalism" of Muslim phenomena. Pipes explains how Islamic fundamentalism has produced Christian-inspired institutions and structures that have more in common with the Christian West than with the touted "Islamic Golden Age." His section on Friday-as-Sabbath is particularly interesting (pp. 57+n58). It is odd that Pipes mentions the "mysterious" poisoning of pigs owned by Arab Christians, presumably by Muslim neighbors (p. 64). Unless he has examined personally some of the assassinated pigs, Pipes owes his readers documentation for this bizarre "fact."
Similarly, Roy makes a very interesting case regarding the shaping of Islam itself by legal and political structures. In his own words, "It is more the law which defines Islam than Islam which defines the law" (p. 72). He elaborates on his hypothesis by studying the Iranian case in which political power determines how Islam is presented. He concludes by denying the possibility of Islamic totalitarianism because the shari`a, in his opinion, protects the family from any intrusion by the state.
While Claire Spencer presents a brief account of the European attitude toward Islam (assuming there is such a monolithic view), Robert Satloff speaks as an arrogant representative of the American government. He should be excused: His predecessor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is now the State Department's top man on the Middle East. He invokes such clichés as: "nothing succeeds like success" (p. 103) and argues that the way American foreign policy is made causes "no harm" (p. 103). Maybe he excludes from his assessment the plight of Palestinians, Kurds, Iraqis, Blacks in South Africa, Nicaraguans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghanis, Iranians, Japanese, Grenadans, Panamanians, Mexicans, and Libyans. Satloff's approach to foreign policy-making is unabashedly realpolitik, although he finds it convenient to invoke principles. He maintains that the United States stands for "democracy, rule of law, government by the consent of the governed, and more" (p. 110). However, he asserts that it is wise in foreign policy to ignore--or lower the level of support for--those principles when necessary, citing the example of Saudi Arabia (p. 110). He also strongly argues against a universal policy of democratization: For him, the United States should support democratization only when it leads to the victory of pro-U.S. forces (p. 111). Of course, he is articulating what has been a staple of American foreign policy throughout history. On top of this, he urges Washington to allow the Algerian military dictatorship to decide what is best for the country and assures readers that things are getting better over there (p. 112). Satloff also argues that Arab-Israeli peace--on Israeli terms, of course--will bring in the kind of stability, prosperity, and bliss (p. 113) that one encounters in messianic literature.
Ann E. Mayer's brief essay includes a strong condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to human rights. While it is certainly true that the fundamentalism of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity clashes with human rights, it cannot be ascertained that Hamas, for example, is responsible for more human rights violations and killing around the world than, say, the U.S. government. Furthermore, Mayer pays too much attention to the texts of Islamic fundamentalists and needs to study violations of human rights with less fixation on Islam as a framework. Murder, torture, and persecution need not carry a religious label unless one assumes that Islam, according to that infamous cliché of classical Orientalists, covers all facets of life for Muslims. Finally, Kramer presents a strong denunciation of Islamic apologetic in Western academia, as if the Jewish/Christian Zionist apologetic is less influential in the West. He also rejects the universality of rights and values clearly favoring the association between democracy and one particular (fortunate) group of people to the exclusion of others.
In sum, this book is a serious contribution to the debate on Islamism. However, one finds it ironic--if not disturbing--that this book contains not one essay by a Muslim, on a subject dealing with the future of one billion Muslims of the world and how the West should deal with them. This should never mean that people should be disqualified from writing on a a subject due to their religion, nationality, ethnicity, or gender. But voices of Arabs and Muslims of the West, long suppressed over the years, should be heard.
As`ad AbuKhalil is associate professor of political science at California State University, Stanilsaus, and research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley.