September 13, 2002
Islamic Studies' Young Turks
by Danny Postel, Chronicle
of Higher Education
When Edward W. Said
reviewed Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle
Eastern Response in the July Harper's, he didn't mince words.
[Editor's Note: The complete article is free at the
of Higher Education.]
An "intellectual and moral disaster,"
he called it, an "ideological portrait of 'Islam' and the
Arabs" suited to "dominant pro-imperial and pro-Zionist
strands in U.S. foreign policy." He objected to Mr. Lewis's
argument, widely cited since September 11, that the Islamic world
has become "poor, weak, and ignorant," ruled by a "string
of shabby tyrannies" whose principal opponents are theocratic
revivalists even more hostile to modernity than the despots who
The very problem Mr. Lewis posits --
that something has gone terribly wrong in the "lands of Islam,"
and that Muslims have tended to blame others for it -- is, in
Mr. Said's words, "fabricated."
Disagreement between Mr. Lewis, an emeritus
professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and
Mr. Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at
Columbia University, has framed much of the scholarship on Islam
and the Middle East since the publication of Mr. Said's seminal
Orientalism (Pantheon Books) in 1978. But the landscape is now
changing as an emerging group of Muslim scholars shifts the terms
of the debate.
That group is beginning to ask precisely
the question that Mr. Lewis posed. Whatever they think of his
work as a whole, the question "What went wrong?" and
the vital corollary "How can we make things better?"
are central to their project.
Mr. Lewis, now in his 80s, has been a
towering figure in scholarship on the Islamic world for several
decades. Though written before the terrorist attacks, What Went
Wrong? (Oxford University Press) was excerpted in The New Yorker
last November and quickly became a best seller when it was published
He argues that while the Islamic world
was at the forefront of human civilization and achievement for
several centuries, it has been in a protracted state of decline
during the modern age. Once vitally engaged with the outside world,
it has turned inward and views the West with increasing hostility
and paranoia. It has become intolerant, insular, and obsessed
with its own victimization.
Many Muslims have a "strong, visceral
reaction" to Mr. Lewis that has "nothing to do with
the merits of his arguments," says Seyyd Vali Reza Nasr,
author of Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State
Power (Oxford University Press, 2001), who recently left a
position as associate professor of political science at the University
of San Diego. "It has everything to do," he says, with
Mr. Lewis's reputation as a leader of the intellectual camp associated
with Zionism and hostility toward Islam.
But "why is it that Bernard Lewis
is one of the few people asking this important question?"
wonders Nader Hashemi, a doctoral student in political science
at the University of Toronto, who is writing his dissertation
on secularism, democracy, and Islam. "Why are Muslims not
asking the same question?"
Mr. Hashemi and other dissident Muslim
thinkers -- including Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law
at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Rebellion
and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
-- oppose not only the authoritarian regimes that rule most Muslim
countries, but also the Islamist movements that have risen to
prominence in recent decades. These scholars, who regard such
movements as reactionary rather than liberating, call for a radical
transformation in the very structure of Islamic civilization --
an opening up of Islamic societies to dissent, toleration, political
pluralism, women's rights, and civil liberties.
Do those ideals have a place in Islam?
In the forthcoming The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Beacon Press,
November), the Kuwaiti-born Mr. Abou El Fadl writes that it would
be "disingenuous to deny" that the Koran contains verses
that lend themselves to "intolerant interpretation,"
like the one that enjoins: "Whomever follows a religion other
than Islam this will not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter
he will be among the losers," and the one that exhorts Muslims
to battle unbelievers "until there is no more tumult or oppression,
and until faith and all judgment belong to God."
What Islam's holy book offers are "possibilities
for meaning, not inevitabilities," he argues. Moreover, he
writes, other passages, which "have not been adequately theorized
by Muslim theologians," espouse tolerance and pluralism:
"To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God
would have willed, He would have made you a single people,"
and, "Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures,
the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the
Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their
Lord and they will not come to fear or grief."
Thus, not only can the Koran "readily
support an ethic of diversity and tolerance," but Islamic
civilization "was pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various
social and religious denominations" for centuries, Mr. Abou
El Fadl writes. As contemporary fundamentalists are "increasingly
shutting off the possibilities for a tolerant interpretation of
the Islamic tradition," turning "its richness and humanism"
into "a distant memory," the task for Muslim reformers,
he contends, is to champion an enlightened interpretation of Islam
compatible with pluralism, toleration, and human rights.
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