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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.
     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 oppress them.
     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 in January.
     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.

[Editor's Note: The complete article is free at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

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