Monday, November 24, 2008

Islam in the West Part II

"There are a number of reasons that might explain why Said says nothing about Islam. He might have intended to write only of the West. He might not know enough about Islam. He might have felt that it was sufficient instead to name those of whose work he disapproves. He might have felt it best to say nothing rather than to say some one thing. He might believe that it is inappropriate or impossible or even hostile for any outsider to speak of a belief system which he does not share. Whatever his reason, Said says nothing and says nothing about why he says nothing" Leonard Binder (1988).1

Said like the practitioners of "critical scholarship" had nothing to say about Islam for all these reasons and one more: his academic generation drew upon the experience of the 1960s and 1970s. They were products of late-Cold War third worldism, which they had worked into an epistemology and which could be summarized in three words: resistance, revolution, liberation.They expected radical change, but of a very specific kind. After 1967, so their argument went, American-engineered schemes for the Middle East could no longer be concealed behind the remote threat of Soviet expansion. Peoples of the region first and foremost, the Palestinians, followed by other Arabs and Muslims would rise up against the hegemony of the United States and its clients, especially Israel. There were forces at work, deep in Arab and Muslim societies, which would no longer submit to a skewed order devised solely to preserve American interests.These forces were progressive. They would not only undermine the old order; they would construct a new order that would raise up and empower the excluded: workers, women, students, intellectuals, refugees. The duty of the sympathetic scholar was to study these forces, prove their potential on a theoretical level, and support them as a practical matter. As the progressive forces seized the initiative in Middle Eastern capitals, their allies would do the same on American campuses.

Blinders and Blind Spots
As an assessment of what had gone before, this analysis was arguable. As a prediction of what was to come, it was lamentable. For as Said prepared the ground for the successful overthrow of the existing order in Middle Eastern studies, in the Middle East itself only Ayatollah Khomeini enjoyed any success in the art of overthrow.
The Achilles heel of Orientalism, and much of the "critical scholarship," was its very narrow conception of the forces of change in the Middle East. Orientalism made no mention of modern Iran at all, or indeed of any movement framing its agenda in the language of Islam. To Said's mind, it was an orientalist trope to invoke "the return of Islam."2 "History, politics, and economics do not matter" to the orientalists, wrote Said mockingly. "Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland."3 In many contexts, Said insisted upon writing "Islam" with quotation marks, as though it were a category created solely by and for orientalists. That "Islam" might actually serve to mobilize movements more readily than ideologies of left and right seemed not to occur to Said at all. Malcolm Kerr, in his review of Orientalism, was struck by the omission: "Does Said realize how insistently Islamic doctrine in its many variants has traditionally proclaimed the applicability of religious standards to all aspects of human life, and the inseparability of man's secularand spiritual destinies? What does he suppose the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood are all about?"4
It was a valid question, and one that Said consistently dodged. His Covering Islam, published in 1981, represented a scramble to cover the gaping hole in Orientalism. Said's indictment of the media and "experts" for their failure to anticipate or explain the revolution in Iran was very much a diversionary tactic, given Said's own failure to do the same in a book published only two years earlier. Nor did he risk offering an interpretation of his own. The closest Said came to an account of Islamism was to blame the orientalists: according to Said, Muslim Orientals, subjected to orientalist demonization, had entered a reactive mode, "acting the part decreed for them" by the experts.5 By this logic, Said could trace every Islamist excess to Western prejudice, and eventually he did. In 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa (edict) condemning the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses. "Why is that ignorance there," asked Said, "if not for the disregard, indifference and fear with which things Islamic are considered here? . . . Islam is reduced to terrorism and fundamentalism and now, alas, is seen to be acting accordingly, in the ghastly violence prescribed by Ayatollah Khomeini."6 This mode of argumentation conveniently absolved Said and followers of the difficult job of accounting for Islamist deeds. Instead, each Islamist action became another opportunity for the repetitive and ritual denunciation of Western prejudice against Islam.
Still, the "return of Islam" was an unwelcome surprise to Said and Saidians. Even more surprising (and, for Said, unpleasant) was the way many Islamist "returnees" read Said's texts. Almost invariably, they understood them as anti-Western, pro-Islamic polemical tracts and deployed them as intellectual ammunition against Islam's "enemies," including secularists in their own societies. By choice or by ignorance, Said had disregarded the prior existence of an elaborate discourse of anti-orientalism within the Muslim world. When these Muslim readers opened Orientalism and Covering Islam, they perceived nothing new, and read them merely as "insider" confirmation of long-standing suspicions that Western scholars were agents of their governments, that Western scholarship was part of a conspiracy to defame Islam.
In the 1980s, as Iran's revolution resonated abroad, this reading produced some unexpected coincidences. For example, in Orientalism, Said determined that American hospitals and universities in the Middle East were tainted by "their specifically imperial character and their support by the United States government."7 (Leftists of the MERIP group had leveled the same charge against the American University of Beirut in 1975, describing the university as a "base of operations" funded from Washington and bristling with"sophisticated equipment in the field.")8 It was a telling coincidence that when a militant Islamist movement arose among the Shi'ites of Lebanon in the 1980s, its zealots saw these institutions in just this light and deliberately targeted university and hospital personnel. (By that time, all of these personnel were in Lebanon against the advice of their own government, and had remained there out of sympathy for Lebanese and Palestinians.)
AUB drew much of the fire. In 1982, the university's president became the first American taken hostage in Lebanon. After the abduction, Malcolm Kerr arrived in Beirut to serve as president. Kerr was a son of AUB, a founder and past president of MESA, a supporter of Arab causes and the lone American critic of Said's Orientalism. That he continued to reject Said's premises was obvious from his inaugural address in Beirut. In it, he pointed to the evolution of AUB "from a university offering Western culture to the Arabs, to one that promotes both Western and Arab cultures and implicitly looks for a symbiotic relation between them, in the best tradition of European Orientalism."9 In 1984, Kerr was gunned down outside his office, by assassins who must have seen this symbiosis and its best tradition as forms of imperialism.There was much irony in the fact that Said and the "progressive" scholars, from the safety of American universities, should have delegitimized the one university in the Arab world where academic freedom had meaning, thanks to its American antecedents.10 There was irony in the fact that the Beirut hostage-holders of Islamic Jihad should have offered Said's Covering Islam as reading to their captive audience of hostages.11 And there was irony in fact that so many secular intellectuals actually living in the Arab world should have regarded Said's Orientalism as a hostile text ammunition that their Islamist opponents fired off as proof of the innate hostility of the West toward the Muslims.12Islamists surprised Said and followers again in 1989. Rushdie, a novelist with an eye for influential critics, admired Said and shared the professor's political sympathies and antipathies. He also praised Said's courage. "Professor Said periodically receives threats to his safety from the Jewish Defense League in America," said Rushdie in 1986, "and I think it is important for us to appreciate that to be a Palestinian in New York ?in many ways the Palestinian is not the easiest of fates."13 But as it happened, Said's fate became infinitely preferable to Rushdie's, after Khomeini called for Rushdie's death in 1989. It was ironic that Rushdie, a post colonial literary lion of impeccable left-wing credentials, should have been made by some Muslims into the very personification of orientalist hostility to Islam. Just as ironic was the fact that Said ?who had stoked the fires of suspicion in the Muslim world ?had read Rushdie's book in manuscript and failed to see the risks in publishing it.14
There was still more irony in the tendency of some supporters of the death edict to invoke Orientalism and Covering Islam as evidence for the prosecution disregarding Said's personal posture of solidarity with the besieged novelist.Said later admitted that Orientalism's embrace by the Islamists was "the one aspect of the book's reception that I most regret," and that Orientalism could "only be read as a defense of Islam by suppressing half of my argument."15 But Said's surprise at this regular misappropriation of his work underlined his own failure to anticipate Islamism, and the ways it might make him complicit in its sweeping indictment of the West. In fact, it was easy for Islamists to suppress half of his argument because he made it sotto voce. In a new introduction to Covering Islam, fifteen years after the Iranian revolution inaugurated an era of excess in the name of Islam, the most criticism Said could muster was this: "recourse to a hazy fantasy of seventh-century Mecca as a panacea" was "an unattractive mix that it would be rank hypocrisy to deny."16 This reservation now stated, Said immediately proceeded to issue new indictments against American scholars and journalists who had tried to say something more. No wonder Islamists so readily discarded this half of his argument: in quantity and style, it seemed insubstantial and pro forma.In sum, Said was repeatedly surprised not only by the force of Islamism, but by the way Islamists recuperated his criticism of orientalism for their own purposes. As this failure of imagination became clearer, Said protested that it was not his business to explain any of the messy realities of the Muslim world: "I say explicitly in [Orientalism] that I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are."17
His job was simply to criticize others. Following his lead, scholars merely repeated stale assurances that kidnappings, hijackings, bombings, and the infamous fatwa did not represent Islam ?without any explanation of why those Muslims who committed and applauded these acts thought otherwise.No one outside academe believed that American stereotypes were to blame for the Muslim movements that lived up to them. The expert refusal to narrate left a very wide field to those who would ?a handful of scholars and many more journalists who tried to interpret "unattractive" news that came out of parts of the Middle East during the 1980s. Whatever their shortcomings, at least this group of commentators did not answer every media query by accusing the media of distortion, or respond to every act of violence against Americans with denunciations of American ignorance and bias.In the 1980s, the refusal of the academics to move beyond their banalities set the scene for a revealing instance of intellectual poaching. As the Middle East filled front pages, Martin E. Marty, an authority on the history of American Christianity at the University of Chicago, came up with the idea of a project that would compare fundamentalisms. He then retailed this idea to the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Some of the most stimulating studies of Islamism came to be written under these auspices. Predictably, MERIP Reports and the MESA Bulletin published disdainful critiques of the Fundamentalism Project, but even Said had to acknowledge that the resulting five volumes included "often interesting papers."18
The Fundamentalism Project conveyed a subtle but powerful message: if the new leaders of Middle Eastern studies persisted in their refusal to address the issue of Islamism head-on, the organizing initiative would come from outside, and the overheads would go elsewhere.
Esposito's Islam
As the 1990s opened, the American public demanded a more substantial interpretation of Islamist movements. That demand was met by an academic entrepreneur who arrived from the far margins of Middle Eastern studies.During the first part of his career, John L. Esposito never studied or taught at a major Middle East center. He completed a doctorate in Islamic studies at Temple University in 1974 and then spent nearly twenty years teaching comparative religion and Islam at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Massachusetts. His early published work dealt with Pakistan and Muslim family law. Had he continued along this trajectory, he would have remained obscure even by the standards of Middle Eastern studies.But a fundamental transformation had occurred in the field, opening space at the center for someone positioned at the edge. The rank-and-file of MESA were drawn increasingly from academics like Esposito, at lesser universities and colleges. Many of them were teaching the most basic courses on Islam, with enrollments driven by bad news from the Middle East. They were on the lookout for sympathetic texts on Islam ?pitched lower than Orientalism, uncontaminated by anti-Americanisms, preferably even written by an American which they could use in their classes and recommend to their departmental colleagues. Esposito met the demand. In 1984, he published Islam and Politics, followed in 1988 by Islam: The Straight Path. These were the first of a series of unpretentious, clear, and favorable books on Islam that would become relative best-sellers and go through many editions. In 1988, Esposito was elected president of MESA.
Oxford University Press commissioned him to edit a four-volume encyclopedia of the modern Islamic world and seemed content to publish everything else he produced. In 1993, Esposito arrived at Georgetown University, where a Palestinian (Christian) donor endowed a Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to support his work.19 In short order, Esposito assembled a group of like-minded colleagues ?two of them, like himself, past presidents of MESA. Grant money began to flow in for conferences and projects. By the mid-1990s, Esposito could claim to speak from the very summit of the field.Esposito understood that Said's message, despite its immense academic success, carried too much Palestinian, postcolonial, and progressive baggage. To move it beyond the campus, the message needed reformatting, with an ear to the American mainstream. If most of the wider American public respected an argument framed in the language of national interest or moral principles, Esposito would provide it. If most of the American public were amenable to the argument that religion deserved a place in public life, Esposito would make it. If most of the American public were concerned by the possible emergence of "the Islamic threat," he would get them to read his book by titling it The Islamic Threat.This technique owed much to his Muslim mentor.
At Temple University, Esposito had prepared his thesis under Ismail R. Faruqi, Palestinian pan-Islamist and theorist of the "Islamization of knowledge," around whom there had developed a personality cult. (Faruqi and his wife were later murdered by an unstable acolyte.) As the years progressed, Faruqi increasingly inhabited a gray zone between scholarship and political activism, his ideals growing ever more radical as he moved through successive stages of Islamist enlightenment. Faruqi opened the world of Islamist activism to Esposito, who was welcomed on Faruqi's recommendation in places as far-flung as Pakistan and Malaysia. Esposito, without choosing Islam, nonetheless became a convert to Faruqi's mission which, according to the former, consisted of "present[ing] Islam in Western categories to engage his audience as well as to make Islam more comprehensible and respected."20 Esposito embraced Faruqi's method. Americans would never understand a presentation of Islam in its own categories ?that would take more knowledge and empathy than most students, journalists, and officials could be expected to muster. But they might see Islam and Islamist movements more favorably, were they presented in Western categories. Fundamentalism was one such category, but it had strong pejorative associations, more likely to excite suspicion than respect. Why not place Islamist movements in the political category of participation, or even democratization?
The popularity of this idea within the field had roots in a widespread frustration. While other parts of the world democratized through the 1980s, the Muslim Middle East did not. While experts on Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Russia went off to advise new governments on the mechanics of democratic transition, the experts on the Middle East stayed home. Kings and presidents-for-life would not be moved; the most visible opposition movements called for an Islamic state. The Middle East looked like an exception, at a moment when "exceptionalism" was being denounced as an orientalist thought-crime.To resolve this anomaly, Esposito came forward to claim that Islamist movements were nothing other than movements of democratic reform. Only orientalist prejudice, of the kind dissected by Said, prevented American observers from seeing past external form to this inner quality. Americans would "have to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy" to comprehend "Islamic democracy that might create effective systems of popular participation, though unlike the Westminster model or the American system."21 This idea that Americans suffered from an ethnocentric understanding of democracy soon reverberated throughout Middle Eastern studies. Historian Richard Bulliet, on-and-off director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University (and self-described "consultant to the Department of State")22 declared (in a Washington conference) that the defining of democracy was part of "a world hegemonic discourse of Western cultural imperialism." He urged "the reshaping of the concept of democracy within world terms in which there is a dialogue of discourse and not simply a Western hegemonic discourse."23Armed with this indictment of American ethnocentrism, academic experts could now assert that every Islamist state or movement was either democratic or potentially democratic.
Historian John Voll, Esposito's closest collaborator (whom Esposito would bring to Georgetown from another remote outpost, the University of New Hampshire) appeared before a congressional committee in 1992, where he pleaded on behalf of Sudan a place without political parties, ruled by a military junta in league with an Islamist ideologue. Voll described the Sudanese regime as "an effort to create a consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political participation," and then delivered this opinion: "It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as basis for definition, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic."24 And so American congressmen were instructed by the president-elect of MESA that a country with no political parties, presided over by a coup-plotting general, ridden by civil war, with a per capita gross domestic product of $200, still might qualify somehow as a democracy. This was not deliberate self-parody; it was merely Esposito's logic advanced ad absurdum.As for Islamist violence, this was deemed beyond the bounds of approved research. Dwelling upon it would only reinforce stereotypes. After all, announced Esposito, "most" Islamic movements had reached the conclusion that violence was "counterproductive." "They speak of the need to prepare people for an Islamic order rather than to impose it."25 Therefore, promised Esposito, the violence that had marred the 1980s would recede, and "the nineties will prove to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West."26
Yet despite these assurances, there seemed to be no shortage in the 1990s of Islamists still prepared to live up to orientalist expectations. Acolytes of shaykhs angry at America continued to plant massive bombs ?inside the World Trade Center in New York, near an American barracks in al-Khobar, outside American embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. Tourists in Luxor, bus riders in Tel Aviv, and pedestrians in Algiers all became the targets of lethal and indiscriminate attacks. Not all of the Islamists ?perhaps not even "most" of them ?had heard that violence was "counterproductive."Whenever such an act occurred, scholars who had promised a waning of the violence entered a state of denial. After the World Trade Center bombing, Columbia's Richard Bulliet organized a conference ?not to explain the appearance of terrorism in his city, but to confront "a new anti-Semitism" against Muslims, driven by "the propensities of the non-elite news media to over-publicize, hype, and sell hostility to Islam." These media were the real fanatics. "Some Muslims from New York are going to be tried for seditious conspiracy to commit criminal acts," he warned ominously. "A guilty verdict will send a chill of fear throughout America."27 This was typical of the hyperbole popularized by Said ?and it was just as misplaced. When "some Muslims" eventually were found guilty, there was no chill of fear, and no new anti-Semitism. Americans, in their basic fairness and respect for due process, saw the bombing trial as a straightforward criminal case. In their coverage of the arrests and trial, "non-elite" journalists and commentators again outperformed the tabloid academics, who had been indoctrinated by Said to expect only the worst from America beyond the campus.From the Islamists, these same scholars expected only the best. Islamists were either moderate or moderating, moving steadily toward a rational accommodation with changing reality. The Palestinian Hamas was a case in point.
In 1993, Foreign Affairs opened its pages to Bulliet, who considered the "possibility that a Hamas campaign of violence could cause the Rabin government to fall and return the Likud Party to power." Given the track record of Hamas, this did look like a cause for concern. "But that outcome seems unlikely," Bulliet reassured his readers, "since it would amount to Israel playing into the hands of the spoilers. Violence, therefore, will probably be deemed too great a risk by Hamas leaders."28 The prophet did prophesy falsely: two years later, a violent campaign of suicide bombings by Hamas did return the Likud to power, with implications for the balance of the decade. Academics blinded by the paradigms of Said and Esposito continued to be surprised not only by America, where they lived, but by the Middle East, which they studied. Still, the expectations of their academic milieu remained very predictable, and as long as they met them, they remained safe and secure behind its impenetrable defenses.

Muslim Luthers
Were there any Muslim activists who deserved to be explained, and not just explained away? Yes: the leading lights in the "Islamic reformation."The idea of "Islamic reformation" perfectly fit the agenda of presenting Islam in Western categories. It first surfaced in journalistic usage."Islam is now at a pivotal and profound moment of evolution," wrote the journalist Robin Wright in 1992, "a juncture increasingly equated with the Protestant Reformation."29 Islam was experiencing "a new spirit of reform," she wrote in 1993, "addressing some of the same issues ?such as the relationship between church and state ?central to the 16th-century Christian Reformation."30 "The reformers' impact is not merely academic," she wrote in 1996. "By stimulating some of the most profound debate since Islam's emergence in the seventh century, they are laying the foundations for an Islamic Reformation."31The analogy received academic legitimacy two years later. It came not from Esposito, whose base within a Jesuit-run institution effectively ruled out his deployment of the Reformation trope. Instead it came from Dale Eickelman, a Dartmouth anthropologist. "If my suspicion is correct," he wrote in an article entitled "Inside the Islamic Reformation," "we will look back on the latter half of the twentieth century as a time of change as profound for the Muslim world as the Protestant Reformation was for Christendom."32
This was exciting news for the practitioners of Middle Eastern studies, who were frustrated by the sheer persistence of old leaders, old orders, and old conflicts. Now they, too ?so they persuaded themselves ?were witnessing the most important moments in Islam since its revelation, or at least (in Bulliet's words) "the most exciting period in Islamic religious history since the twelfth century."33Did Eickelman and others realize that the heralding of an "Islamic reformation" echoed a classic orientalist trope? Nearly forty years ago, the political scientist Manfred Halpern criticized orientalists "because they often sympathetically, but perhaps with Christian parochialism no less than forbearance, await a Moslem reconsideration of Islamic theology as a sign of an Islamic Reformation and hence neglect the social and political revolution that instead is under way."34 A. L. Tibawi, an earlier (Muslim) critic of orientalist scholarship, also writing nearly forty years ago, was genuinely offended. "Orientalists, and more particularly those who are Protestants, cannot free themselves from what might be called the inevitability of the Reformation," he complained. Western anticipation of a Protestant-like reformation insinuated what earlier Western polemicists openly denounced as Islam's "falsehoods" and "defects."35 "Orientalists mask their distaste for their subject by calling for reform," observed MERIP's indictment of Middle Eastern studies twenty years later. "Islam needs a thoroughgoing Reformation of its own in order to gain vitality and meaning," to exit a state of "weakness, inadequacy, and stagnation."36
The resort to the Reformation comparison in the 1990s was but one more example of how academics kept recycling old analogies, probably without even being aware of it.But for the Reformation analogy to be persuasive, there had to be identifiable reformers. A major project of Middle Eastern studies in the 1990s thus became the quest for a thinker who would nail his theses to the mosque door. In the early 1990s, the searchers fixed upon Rashid al-Ghannushi, an exiled Tunisian philosophy teacher and leader of that country's Islamist movement, in whose writings some heard an echo of support for pluralism. Ghannushi once spent six months speaking and travelling in the United States, and Esposito, for one, pinned high hopes on him.37 Something of the exalted reputation of Ghannushi in academic circles was conveyed by a course description of an offering on democratic theory at Tufts University, where students would examine the thought of "Ghannoushi, Habermas, Havel, Huntington, Jefferson, Madison."38 But on closer listening, one could also hear disturbing echoes in Ghannushi's line, especially his fierce denunciations of conspiracies by "Jewish Masonic Zionist atheistic gangs," and his expressions of support for some of the least accommodating Islamists.39
This kind of rhetoric tended to obscure whatever innovation could be detected in his writings.In the mid-1990s, the spotlight fell upon the Tehran University philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, a disillusioned son in the revolution. "Supporters and critics now call him the Martin Luther of Islam," gushed Robin Wright, "a man whose ideas on religion and democracy could bridge the chasm between Muslim societies and the rest of the world."40 Soroush was an American academic's dream, who mixed his Islamic sources with citations from Hume and Kant, Kuhn and Popper. The enthusiasm of the academics even got him an article in Time. ("He has the West paying attention, too," the magazine confided. "The Council on Foreign Relations in New York recently issued a 56-page study devoted to Soroush's political thought.")41 Most American academics got a chance to hear the philosopher on one of his American lecture tours. But Soroush (whose courage was undeniable) did not appear to have a substantial following in Iran, where few people beyond university campuses understood his obtuse method of reconciling disparate thought.In the late 1990s, the mantle briefly settled upon the shoulders of Muhammad Shahrur, a Syrian civil engineer who had published an 800-page tract on the Qur'an in 1990. "A publishing event is sweeping the Middle East," enthused Eickelman in a 1993 piece for the MESA Bulletin. "From the Arab Gulf to Morocco a modernist, not to say liberal, interpretation of the Qur'an by a Syrian civil engineer who interprets his own scriptures has become a best-seller." Shahrur's 800-page tome was an appeal for the application of human reason to the Qur'an, much in the spirit of the "Islamization of knowledge."
Eickelman suggested the book might be "an intellectual equivalent in the Arab world to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind."42 But five years later, he offered a far more ambitious analogy: "Shahrur's book may one day be seen as a Muslim equivalent of the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in 1517."43 In 1998, Eickelman brought Shahrur to Chicago, where he was unveiled before an assembled MESA conference. Few were impressed.It is a recurring theme: the Western sympathizer sets out for the East in search of a Muslim thinker, who is then presented to Western audiences as forerunner of a great reformation. The English poet-explorer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the Victorian enthusiast for Islam, set the first precedent more than a century ago, when he announced that the ideas of Jamal al-Din "al-Afghani," the Iranian activist and philosopher, "stood in close analogy to what we have seen of the re-awakening of the Christian intellect during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe."44 Afghani once allowed one of his admirers to introduce him to a London audience with these words: "He is the Luther of the new Reformation, and I trust that he will persuade the English people to move their Government in our favour."45 Each of the Muslim Luthers of the 1990s was seized upon and discarded by American enthusiasts in rapid succession, as it became clear that none of them could "deliver," at least not in the ways expected by their foreign admirers. Traditional Muslims were bound to reject them, believing like Tibawi that "perceptible 'reform' cannot be effected in the doctrines of the faith without diminishing or canceling their validity."46 Nontraditional Muslims did not need them either. "Secularization is already a de facto reality," wrote one of them, the Moroccan scholar Abdou Filali-Ansari, even though "the equivalent of the Christian Reformation" was "far from having been achieved."47
But rather than focus upon that de facto reality, America's Middle East experts remained obsessed with a handful of Muslim "thinkers," who were debating issues in principle that had been resolved in practice.The reality of secularization owed nothing to the Muslim thinkers paraded on American lecture tours. It owed everything to the state. Muslim liberalism "still has many voices, some of them very creative and of considerable talent," historian Aziz Al-Azmeh acknowledged, "but the most important [one] is the Arab state, which has embraced Islamic modernism as its own."48 American academics, by their preoccupation with would-be Luthers, succumbed to the occupational hazard of overestimating the role of intellectuals. And by discounting the state, they failed to discern the deeper processes of state-generated and state-sanctioned secularization that had expanded the scope for social change, and would block the ascent of Islamism to power.

Vested Interests
By the end of the 1990s, Islamism seemed less like the dawn of a new age and more like a lunge for power that had failed. It was a Frenchman, Olivier Roy, who as early as 1994 had the courage to publish a book entitled The Failure of Political Islam and to write of the Middle East as having entered the stage of "post-Islamism."49But few in the United States had any interest in concurring; for while political Islam may have failed in the Middle East, it had been a spectacular success in American academe. The high profile it had conferred upon certain scholars had produced tenure, grants, book contracts, and even directorships of centers. Yvonne Haddad, another MESA president stabled at Esposito's center, admitted that "since 1979 many members of MESA have had a meteoric rise in their careers." One of her colleagues confided to her "that if someone were tracking his achievements he should have a stamp engraved on his forehead reading 'Made by Khomeini.'"50 "Islam has become the center of political and moral discourse throughout the Islamic world," announced Columbia's Bulliet, adding: "Right prediction, it seems, has its rewards."51
In a paradoxical way, these academics needed the "clash of civilizations." Strife sustained the flow of rewards. After all, it was now their responsibility to sustain the institutions of Middle Eastern studies that they had seized. How many resources within the university could they command if their phones stopped ringing and their deans did not see and hear them quoted in the national newspapers and on public radio? And how would enrollments hold up if Muslim movements failed to hit the headlines? When Bulliet at Columbia taught "The History of Islamic Society, from Muhammad to the 20th Century," or Voll at Georgetown taught "Islam and the West," were they not banking on the eternal appeal of the orientalist cliche? Who needed reified Islam now?"For the foreseeable future," predicted Esposito in 1997, "the conditions and issues that have spawned Islamic revivalism and political Islam will continue. . . . Understanding the nature, record, and potential impact of political Islam is more critical than ever."52 "I see no reason to suspect that the appeal of political Islam, in some form, will lessen in the coming years," Bulliet told a Washington conference in 1998. Quite the opposite: Islamic politics, he announced, would "become increasingly important in our pondering of American policies toward the Islamic world."53
These were plausible arguments ?but only if terrorists like Osama bin Laden were included under the rubric of political Islam. After all, the edicts of bin Laden, not the tomes of the "reformers," had the most "potential impact" on America and its policies.But in the 1990s, as in the 1980s, the academics refused to study those very Muslims whose radical interpretations of Islam put them on a collision course with America. Bin Laden was a case in point. The academics were so preoccupied with "Muslim Martin Luthers" that they never got around to producing a single serious analysis of bin Laden and his indictment of America.54 Bin Laden's actions, statements, and videos were an embarrassment to academics who had assured Americans that "political Islam" was retreating from confrontation. If they mentioned bin Laden at all, it was to dismiss his influence. "Focusing on Osama bin Laden," wrote Esposito in 1998, "risk[s] catapulting one of many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources (state and nonstate, non-Muslim and Muslim) of terrorism as well as the significance of a single individual."55 Potential sources of terrorism may have been diverse, but there could be no doubt by 1998 which source had the most "potential impact" on America, and which source was most likely to seize "center stage."And so while the academics brooded over the "diversity" of terrorist threats, it was left to journalists and terrorism experts to follow the bin Laden trail and predict the dangerous trajectory of his school of political Islam. The academics then protested against the worrisome conclusions of other experts and dismissed the warning signs. "The threat of terrorism has spawned a big industry, and has struck fear and horror in the American psyche," complained Sarah Lawrence professor Fawaz Gerges, whose book on U.S. policy toward Islamic movements was inspired by the Esposito paradigm:
Should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the U.S. government's assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist "experts" indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios? Does the terrorist industry, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?56

It was easy to envision multitudes of academics nodding in agreement. Gerges published his complaint exactly six months before terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.In retrospect, the new elite in Middle Eastern studies had failed to ask the right questions, at the right times, about Islamism. They underestimated its impact in the 1980s; they misrepresented its role in the early 1990s; and they glossed over its growing potential for terrorism against America in the late 1990s. Twenty years of denial had produced mostly banalities about American bias and ignorance, and fantasies about Islamists as democratizers and reformers. These contributed to the public complacency about terrorism that ultimately left the United States vulnerable to "surprise" attack by Islamists. But there was no serious debate over Islamism within the field itself. Middle Eastern studies were so heavily invested in one interpretation that few dared to challenge the collective migration from one error to another. Dissent could be found only in think tanks that encouraged it, and in the Middle East itself, among intellectuals with a nearer and more acute angle of vision on Islamism in practice.Even before the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, some portions of the general public had begun to write off academic "expertise" on political Islam. The loss of public confidence reflected the yawning gap between the actual conduct of Islamist movements and their representation by the academy. The camp led by Esposito assured America that "most Islamic movements are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic."57 But as an exasperated Gerges admitted, "time and again, Islamists have proven to be their own worst enemies" by "being equivocal about democratic norms, human rights, peaceful relations with the West, and the use of terror in the pursuit of domestic political goals."58
Most Americans could tell that the professors were engaged in special pleading, a suspicion confirmed by the countless discrepancies between academic punditry and Islamist word and deed. How long would it take for this failure to register within the academy? The academics ?remote from the Middle East, distant from Washington, accountable to no one ?could probably muddle through another decade without a reckoning. As long as they engaged in the ritual of condemning the public, the media, and the government for ignorance of Islam, they could be reasonably assured of the solidarity of their guild. But by the middle of the 1990s, the contraction of Islamist movements had left a vacuum in Middle Eastern studies. What would fill it? Salvation seemed to reside in the discovery of "civil society." The result would be yet another lavishly funded intellectual failure, on a scale only America could afford.

1 Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 120-21.
2 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), pp. 107, 225, 316.
3 Ibid., p. 107.
4 Review of Orientalism by Malcolm H. Kerr, International Journal of Middle East Studies 12, no. 4 (December 1980), p. 545.
5 Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), pp. 52-53. "Not that there really is not an Islamic revival independent of the reactive process." There was ?but to Said, it was not clear whether the terms "Islam" or "Islamic" did justice to its diversity.
6 Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, eds., The Rushdie File (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 165.
7 Said, Orientalism, p. 294.
8 [Peter Johnson and Judith Tucker], "Middle East Studies Network in the United States," MERIP Reports 38 (1975), p. 15.
9 "Inaugural Address of President Malcolm H. Kerr," December 3, 1982, AUB Bulletin 25, no. 4 (December 13, 1982).
10 Another irony was to follow, for at an opportune moment Said completely reversed his view of the American universities in the Middle East. "The modern American university seems the last utopian place," he told an interviewer in 1997, "a liberal ideal that has helped the Middle East, in its manifestations in Cairo and Beirut." See "Conversations with Outstanding Americans: Edward Said," Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1997. The reassessment was timely. In 1999, Said collected an honorary doctorate from the American University in Cairo, and was received enthusiastically by a crowd of 1,000 at the American University of Beirut."The atmosphere was almost like a carnival," reported the Beirut Daily Star (July 7, 1999).
11 "A few English books were brought for us to read," recalled Rev. Benjamin Weir, one of the hostages of Islamic Jihad. "In one way or another they all centered on topics the guards thought we ought to know. Some of the books were about the Iranian revolution, others about the history and development of Shiite religious thought. One book, by a Columbia University professor, dealt with the misunderstanding of Islam in the West." Benjamin and Carol Weir (with Dennis Benson), Hostage Bound, Hostage Free (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), p. 156. More specifically: "There became available a few books in English, provided not only for our recreational interest but presumably for our education. There was Edward Said's Covering Islam." See Benjamin M. Weir, "Reflections of a Former Hostage on Causes of Terrorism,"Arab Studies Quarterly 9, no. 2 (Spring 1987), p. 157.
12 See in particular the criticism of Said by the Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse," Khamsin 8 (1981), pp. 5-26.
13 Salman Rushdie, "On Palestinian Identity: A Conversation with Edward Said," in his Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London: Granta Books, 1991), p. 171.
14 Said read the book in typescript. "He didn't anticipate what Khomeini would do," said Said of Rushdie. "My impression was he was expecting the novel to have an impact. He said it would shake up the Muslims. But he never expected it to bring about a threat to his life." See W. J. Weatherby, Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1990), p. 108. Nowhere does Said say he himself thought that publication of the text might endanger Rushdie.
15 Afterword to 1994 edition of Said, Orientalism, pp. 330, 332.
16 Introduction to 1997 Vintage Books edition of Said, Covering Islam, p. xv.
17 Afterword to 1994 edition of Said, Orientalism, p. 331.
18 Introduction to 1997 Vintage Books edition of Said, Covering Islam, p. xvii.
19 John L. Esposito, "A Man and His Vision," in Hasib Sabbagh: From Palestinian Refugee to Citizen of the World, ed. Mary Jane Deeb and Mary E. King (Washington, D.C.: The Middle East Institute, 1996), pp. 71-82. "Georgetown University declined requests for exact funding information," reported a sympathetic news item in 1996. Eleanor Kennelly, "Catholic Georgetown Mecca for Islamic Study," Metropolitan Times, February 7, 1996.
20 Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, s.v. "Faruqi, Isma'il al-Raji" (John L. Esposito).
21 John O. Voll and John L. Esposito, "Islam's Democratic Essence," Middle East Quarterly 1, no. 3 (September 1994), p. 11.
22 Bio in Timothy D. Sisk, Islam and Democracy: Religion, Politics, and Power in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1992), p. 84.
23 Quoted in ibid., p. 59.
24 Hearing statement of John Voll, May 20, 1992, Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Islamic Fundamentalism in Africa and Implications for U.S. Policy (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993), pp. 65-72.
25 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 166.
26 Ibid., p. 207.
27 Richard W. Bulliet, "Rhetoric, Discourse, and the Future of Hope," in Under Siege: Islam and Democracy, ed. Richard W. Bulliet (New York: Middle East Institute of Columbia University, 1994), pp. 4, 7.
28 Richard W. Bulliet, "The Future of the Islamic Movement," Foreign Affairs 72, no. 5 (November-December 1993), p. 43.
29 Robin Wright, "Islam, Democracy, and the West," Foreign Affairs 71, no. 3 (Summer 1992), p. 133.
30 Robin Wright, "Muslims Open Up to Modern World," Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1993.
31 Robin Wright, "Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions of Reformation," Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (April 1996), p. 64.
32 Dale F. Eickelman, "Inside the Islamic Reformation," Wilson Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 1998), p. 82.
33 Bulliet, quoted in Sisk, Islam and Democracy, p. 60.
34 Manfred Halpern, "Middle Eastern Studies: A Review of the State of the Field with a Few Examples," World Politics 15, no. 1 (October 1962), p. 116.
35 A. L. Tibawi, "English-Speaking Orientalists: A Critique of Their Approach to Islam and Arab Nationalism: Part 1," Islamic Quarterly 8, nos. 1-2 (January-June 1964), p. 41; idem, "Second Critique of English-Speaking Orientalists and Their Approach to Islam and the Arabs,"Islamic Quarterly 23, no. 1 (January-March 1979), p. 6. The notion of an "Islamic reformation" was simply "another attempt to change the Muslim view of Islam, and to bring it as near as possible to Christianity, or, better still, to the Protestant form of Christianity."
36 [Johnson and Tucker], "Middle East Studies Network," p. 20.
37 "Symposium: Resurgent Islam in the Middle East," Middle East Policy 3, no. 2 (1994), pp. 15-16.
38 Course on "The Future of Democracy," offered by the Tufts University Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship, MSANEWS/199701/19970121.9.html
39 All these themes recur at length in an interview by IntraView, February 10, 1998,
40 Robin Wright, "Islam's Theory of Relativity," Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1995.
41 Scott Macleod, "Democracy vs. the Ayatullahs: Abdelkarim Soroush Challenges Iran's Regime," Time, June 23, 1997. The reference is to the report by Valla Vakili, "Debating Religionand Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdolkarim Soroush," Council on Foreign Relations, January 1996.
42 Dale Eickelman, "Islamic Liberalism Strikes Back," MESA Bulletin 27, no. 2 (December 1993), p. 167.
43 Eickelman, "Inside the Islamic Reformation," p. 84.
44 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt (London: Unwin 1907), p. 102.
45 Quoted in Nikki R. Keddie, Sayyid Jamal ad-Din "al-Afghani": A Political Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 359.
46 Tibawi, "English-Speaking Orientalists," p. 42.
47 Abdou Filali-Ansari, "Islam and Secularism," in Islam, Modernism and the West, ed. Gema Mart抧 Mu杘z (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999), pp. 133-34.
48 Aziz Al-Azmeh, Islam and Modernities (London: Verso, 1993), p. 33.
49 Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
50 Yvonne Y. Haddad, "Middle East Area Studies: Current Concerns and Future Directions" (1990 Presidential Address), MESA Bulletin 25, no. 1 (July 1991), pp. 1-2.
51 Richard W. Bulliet, "Twenty Years of Islamic Politics," Middle East Journal 53, no. 2 (Spring 1999), p. 190.
52 John L. Esposito, "Introduction," in Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform?, ed. John L. Esposito (Boulder: Lynne Rienner: 1997), p. 13.
53 Bulliet, "Twenty Years of Islamic Politics," p. 195. This was the keynote speech presented at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute.
54 For the lone (and telling) exception, see Bernard Lewis, "License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin's Declaration of Jihad," Foreign Affairs 77, no. 6 (November/December 1998), pp. 14-19.
55 Esposito added mention of bin Laden to the third edition of his book, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? Full text at
56 Fawaz A. Gerges, "The Ultimate Terrorist: Myth or Reality?" Daily Star (Beirut), March 12, 2001. His book: America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
57 Esposito, The Islamic Threat, p. 212.
58 Gerges, America and Political Islam, pp. 241-42.


Abdel Halim Hafez said...

This article is sooo biased !

You weaken your arguments when you misrepresent someone's views in order to criticize them.

There are some aspects of Edward Said's work that can and should be criticized. But you are so intent on discrediting him that you sound like a third rate polemicist.

Said was a secular humanist, a staunch critic of islamism, and a proponent of complete separation of religion and state.

He explained clearly at numerous occasions why he did not talk about "Islam". It has nothing to do with what you say. He just felt, and rightly so, that generic expressions like "Islam", or like "The West" are not relevant categories or pertinent concepts when discussing sociopolitical issues. Using all-encompassing catch phrases obscures the real issues.

You misrepresent what Kerr said. He made a corporatist defense because he felt that a literary critic should not have written about Middle East Studies. He later recanted his point of view.

What you insinuate about Said being somewhat responsable for Kerr's fate is ridiculous.

Said, like Nietzsche, like Sartre, like all great thinkers was recuperated by people who did not understand their work. This does not make Nietzsche responsible for nazism or Said responsible for islamism.

There are so many half truths and misleading insinuations in your article that you are no longer credible when you make reasonable points.

Too bad you let your emotions control what you wrote.

daSetan_7 said...

Thank you very much Abdel Halim Hafez for your sincere and transparent comment. I do appreciate your sincerity.

I do aware of the fact that Said is a proponent of complete separation of religion and state. Even, I also aware of his explanation of the inappropriate usage of generic expressions like "Islam" and "the West" when discussing sociopolitical issues. But, you have to bear in mind that it symbolizes what is actually happening in the real world, that today's world has been divided into segments such as the West, the East, Islam etc. And, to my mind, such division or compartmentalization does not obscure the real issues that we are facing nowadays.

I do respect your comment on Kerr. But that is my interpretation on what he said. The issue is quite vague, and it is not surprising to me if people may come with many interpretations.

I dont deny the fact that sometimes I put emotions in my writings, especially when I discuss issues pertaining to Islam.

daSetan_7 said...

By the way Brother Abdel Halim Hafez, may I know who are you? And where do you come from?

Abdel Halim Hafez said...

Oh, I am just a Jordanian graduate student who stumbled upon your blog yesterday for the first time. I don't have anything against you personnally. I don't even know who you are and where you speak from.

I just felt that you were grossly unfair. Said was a courageous and decent man who sacrificed his personal confort to fight prejudice and racism everywhere.

He did not pander or attempt to please his audience. When he spoke to a US audience, he addressed their prejudices. When he wrote in Arabic papers, he addressed arabic and islamic prejudices and mistakes.

He was constantly vilified by fanatical right wingers in the United States because he was a progressive, by Islamists because he was a Christian Secular, and of course by fanatical zionists because he was a Palestinian.

Yet, he kept fighting injustice everywhere and looking for humanistic approaches and solutions.

Now he is dead and resting in peace.

And I felt you were making biased or dishonest comments about the dead man and insinuating that he was responsible for things he had nothing to do with and repudiated many many times. He was one of the first to condemn Khomeyni and he even clashed with Foucault because he felt Foucault was misguided in his enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution.

That's all. I respect your point of view but I felt it was not balanced.

daSetan_7 said...

Shukran ya Akhi. Yumkin, anta ta'rifu Said minni.

But honestly, I did not have any intention to insinuate things that he did not do. It's solely my humble opinion about his writings. Perhaps I should read more about him after this.

Are you doing graduate study now? Where? And what course?

By the way, I am about to finish my master degree in anthropology.