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Hermeneutics against Instrumental Reason: national and post-national Islam in the 20th century

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  Hermeneutics against InstrumentalReason: national and post-nationalIslam in the 20th century MOHAMMED BAMYEH A BSTRACT  Islamic identity and secular anti-colonial nationalism implied initially similar approaches to modernity in the Middle East. Islamic currentsof the time reinterpreted Islam in an ‘instrumental’ fashion as anaccompaniment to developmental nationalisms, elaborating their cultural aspects. However, new Islamic currents of recent decades reject secularism in favour not of instrumental Islam but of a hermeneutic one. Unlikeinstrumental Islam, in which the project was to organise society, the goal inthe emerging hermeneutic movement is to organise knowledge. Whileinstrumental Islam mirrored the nationalism of the time, articulating manyof its themes in spiritual format, the hermeneutic movement seems to bemoving away from it. Therefore it does not easily fit the concept of cultural nationalism, appearing to go beyond the nation towards a post-national and  postmodern world-view in which questions of development and cultural identityare subordinated to questions of universality, human existence and the possibility of knowledge. At the dawn of the ‘third millennium’, it has become far less clear than justthree decades ago that religion as a social force can ever be content toabdicate politics to secular forces. While it may seem surprising, this wasprecisely what Karl Marx’s early essay  On the Jewish Question  hadanticipated. There Marx criticised the project of a secular state even as hemaintained his view of religion as an expression of social defect. The state as the problem Marx saw clearly that secularising the state does not remove religion frompolitics: it only makes the state appear to society as heaven to earth. Whetherin the American separation of church and state or in French  laı ¨ cite´  , themodern state only does what god had always done, namely, police social Mohammed Bamyeh is in the Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260,USA. Email: mab205@pitt.edu. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2008, pp 555–574 ISSN 0143-6597 print/ISSN 1360-2241 online/08/030555–20    2008  Third World Quarterly DOI: 10.1080/01436590801931512  555  imperfection and, like Jesus, mediate between man and his freedom. Suchsecularism—liberal rather than communist—is familiar but does not, forMarx, solve the fundamental problem, that of the state. The Marxist critiqueof religion thus recognised its similarity to the liberal secular state. Eachsought to express something other than itself, namely the essence of civilsociety. Neither had an interest in human emancipation, only in calculatedpolitical licences. Both posited themselves, against civil society, as the onlyviable embodiment of all that was good (and hence missing from earth).Although apparently aimed at the persistence of religion in political life inthe USA after the separation of church and state, Marx’s 1843 critique aimedat a deeper problem which remains unresolved to this day. While there arestill endless squabbles in the USA over purely symbolic issues (state use of theword ‘god’, state display of the Ten Commandments, or prayer in publicschools), nothing is mentioned of the ordinary political fact that mostsuccessful politicians are expected to have a religious affiliation, attendchurch, express their faith in their speeches, ally themselves with religiousgroups, swear their oath of office on the Bible, and include in their platformspolicies that flow directly out of the religious beliefs of some constituency oranother. 1 Although contemporary European discussions of secularism, heavily lacedwith anxiety about immigrants, appear different, one can detect a similarpattern of defending secularism on the symbolic terrain—against headscarvesor religious symbols in public places—even though there is little disagreementover the substantive issues. 2 For example, there is common agreement onmodern school curricula and the integration of immigrants but also thatreligious authorities must take part in such processes. If debates in Europeinclude less religious rhetoric, it is not because the state is more secular, butbecause society is less religious. If it were not, then, as in the USA, politicaldebates would invariably be more influenced by religion. The law alonecannot change such social facts.The contemporary resurgence of religion, which appears as a co-ordinatedassault on the secular state on its (supposed) home turf in the West, to saynothing of the Muslim or even Hindu worlds, must be reconceptualised as anold problem of the modern state, rather than a new one of religiousconsciousness. It only appears in the latter form because of the assumption of secular thought that religion will become political if not expressly prohibitedfrom doing so. Instead, religion should be viewed as a sanctuary of variousconceptions of social order, conceptions that may or may not becomepolitical, depending on the circumstances of the moment.When such conceptions become political, legislative prohibition is unlikelyto stop their incursion into the public sphere or public policy. They becomepolitical when influential groups advance the case that certain socialproblems can be addressed more meaningfully in religious terms. And thisavenue is usually wide open given that religion—whether as an intellectualsystem, a spiritual mode, or a communal identity—can always appear to belarger than or apart from ordinary politics. Alternatively, whether religiousconceptions eventually become directly political may be a function of the MOHAMMED BAMYEH 556  persistent failure of secular discourses to meaningfully address concrete orwidely-felt social problems. In what follows I would like to illustrate thepoint by highlighting specific junctures in the history of public, intellectualIslam in the Middle East over the past century. Religion, secularisation andnationalism being a closely interconnected triad in the emergence of themodern world, my remarks have important implications for the thesis of thetransition from developmental to cultural nationalism. The early, instru-mental Islamic expression of these ideas tended to actually fuse themtogether. By contrast, hermeneutic Islam today suggests a move into ways of thinking less informed by the nationalist paradigm.The central thesis is that in the apparently secular era of nationalism andnation-states—ie politics, to which religion was in effect marginal for most of the 20th century—the public intellectual systems of Islamic modernityresponded through one of two major frameworks: an earlier, largelyinstrumental one and a later, more hermeneutic framework. The instrumentalpathway, which is more familiar to us thanks to its dramatic history andappearances, sought to preserve Islam by presenting it in a form that wasclosely compatible with modernist national goals. Instrumental Islam in effectresponded to secularism in kind: it was immediate and results-oriented; ithighlighted purpose and reflexivity over ritual in religious life; it emphasisedaction in the world, including political action; it was more attuned to thedialectics of combat than to the inner qualities and even meaning of spirituallife; its paradigmatic public slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ clearly specified therole of religion as an  instrument  for handling pressing social problems.Instrumental Islam did not reject secular nationalism so much as it soughtto ‘improve’ it. That was to be done precisely by combining the developmentalaspect, consisting in this or that developmentalist modernist project, with acultural aspect of a specific sort. Already in the 19th century advocates of instrumental Islam, rather than challenging nationalism, had begun to blurthe distinction between nationalism and religion and, more generally, betweenlocal or national identity and Islamic cosmopolitanism. The prominentthinkers of 19th century Islamic modernity, such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi andJamal al-Din al-Afghani, were also early defenders of nationalism. The formerdefended Egyptian nationalism even as his arguments were couched in termsof Islam, while the latter defended Arabism and outlined a distinct Arabhistory (remarkably like nationalist Christian Arab intellectuals of theperiod), even as he elaborated a larger modernist message intended for auniversal Muslim audience. Such tendencies continue into our times: IsmailRagi al-Faruqi (1921–86) moved back and forth between the two frames of identity seamlessly. In the early 1930s in Egypt Rashid Rida pointed to Japanas his model for nationalism: modernising while maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity and heritage would be precisely what instrumental Islamwished to accomplish for Muslim societies.In the phase of developmental nationalism then, instrumental Islam soughtlesstochallengesecularnationalismthantoexpandanddeepenitsmeaningandto create a space for itself among the cultural aspects of developmentalnationalism. But in the process it also altered the meaning not only of  NATIONAL AND POST-NATIONAL ISLAM IN THE 20TH CENTURY 557  nationalism but of religion itself, as well as the role it had historically played insocial life. The meaning and role of religion changes yet again in thehermeneutic pathway, which is currently on the ascendance, and about whichfar less is known. Hermeneutics presents Islam in ways that are closelycompatible with post-national 3 and neoliberal, even post-state, guides for life ina global civil society. In this caseboth the‘developmental’ and ‘cultural’ aspectsof nationalism are stripped away and Islam in this new form becomes realignedas a natural dimension of a cosmopolitan, less identitarian religious life.If reorienting religious thought alters the meaning and role of religion, itlikewise alters the meaning of modern terms as they are interpreted byreligion—eg ‘development’ or ‘heritage’. Both now appear as outcomes of spiritual experience rather than instruments of political programmes.Hermeneutically conceived, development is an element of the eternal dialecticof progress and change in the movement of an imperfect and limitedhumanity towards an infinite and perfect god. Likewise, ‘heritage’ or the‘culture’ is generalised beyond the identity: ‘our’ culture as Muslims is nolonger reliant on classifying the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Rather, a Muslimculture is immanent in the universal presence of Islamic mores beyond self-identified Muslim communities. The state, the srcinal problem, also fades asa concern as its manifold modernist failures inspire a desire for distance fromit, not a quest to take it over.Exploring the long path towards this way of thinking will be the goal of therest of this article, in which I will begin by charting the trajectory of thesecular nationalist programme, especially in terms of its unruly relation withinstrumental Islam in various countries in the Middle East, and end bydescribing the rise of the hermeneutic alternative. The national question and religion Two of the best-known events of Middle East’s modernity bespoke forms of secular consciousness in opposition to instrumental Islam: the 1924 abolitionof the caliphate in Turkey under Atatu ¨rk and the publication in 1925 inEgypt of Ali Abd al-Raziq’s  Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm  (Islam and theFoundations of Governance), which argued that Islam never intended tosupply a system of government.These two epic battle cries of secularism in two largely Muslim societies,the work of two very different types of authorities, also differed in theiroutcomes, their prehistory, and their surrounding contexts. Atatu ¨rk was apolitical leader and national hero of almost mythic proportions. Abd al-Raziq was a public intellectual besieged by enemies in the public sphere.Atatu ¨rk got his way because he was the state, Abd al-Raziq seemed to havelost the battle when al-Azhar, the most prestigious Islamic institution of higher learning, issued the infamous  fatwa  against his book, reasserting theunion of religion and state in Islam.It would appear that we have here, in two comparable Muslim societies,contrasting stories of secular success and secular failure; the state being onthe side of the secular idea determined success or failure, because ‘tradition’ MOHAMMED BAMYEH 558  could not or would not change on its own. But there is a puzzle here—in facttwo. First, the success of Atatu ¨rk and the failure of Abd al-Raziq seemed tomatter little: from the 1920s until recently the political field in both Turkeyand Egypt was effectively dominated by secular forces, and by the 1960spoliticised religion (though certainly not religious sentiment) had in factdwindled almost out of existence in both countries. Second, in both societiessecular intellectuals were caught unawares towards the end of the century bythe substantial advance of religion back into the centre of the public sphereand political life. The puzzle here—roughly similar paths and outcomes in thelong run in spite of apparently greatly different starting points—suggests thatthe dynamics of secularism and religiosity originated outside the visibletheatres of state politics or public debates.To add to the puzzle, the prehistory of each event seemed to suggest thatsecularism was more poised for success in Egypt than in Turkey. Shortlybefore the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and not theTurkish centre of the empire, had the century-long history of sustainedmodernist reforms in education, politics and the economy begun in theEgyptian enlightenment backed by the government more or less since thereign of Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century. The Egyptian reformshad begun about quarter of a century before the Ottoman  Tanzimat , hadbeen more comprehensive and had met less resistance than in the OttomanEmpire.By the beginning of the 20th century reformist triumphs in Egypt stood incontrast to the difficulties of reform in the Ottoman Empire. In Egypt theclergy, de-privileged but also co-opted since Muhammad Ali, posed far lessof a challenge to reformed government, education and law 4 than did theentrenched and institutionalised Ottoman clergy, which saw itself as a pillarof the old system and formed a cohesive power bloc. Whereas in Egypt themost important religious officer, the  Mufti  , was the famous reformerMuhammad Abdo, the highest religious office in Istanbul, the  Sheyhulislam ,continued to be held by compulsive anti-modernists out of touch with theirtime. 5 In short, throughout the 19th century, Egypt seemed to exemplifymodernity and secularism (until the British occupation of 1882) and theOttoman Empire, weighed down by long tradition and institutional inertia,moved only slowly or in unco-ordinated steps towards them.By the 1920s, therefore, the state builder in Turkey and the publicintellectual in Egypt were confronted with contrasting histories. Yet whatthey realised in common was that the question of Islam’s relation to the statehad become secondary, notwithstanding the intense debates over thedissolution of the caliphate and the tumult around Abd al-Raziq’s thesis.In both Turkey and Egypt the most urgent issue now was colonialism, notwhat to do with Islam. Egypt had been under direct British domination since1882, and the massive revolt in 1919 voiced a full-throated anti-colonialnationalism. In the Turkish centre of the Ottoman system, the gradualdisintegration of the Empire, combined with internal revolts and defeat atwar, also highlighted the national question of the very survival of ‘Turkey’from dismemberment by Western powers. NATIONAL AND POST-NATIONAL ISLAM IN THE 20TH CENTURY 559
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