The malaise of the world of Islam persists; make no mistake about it. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the killing of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya alongside other members of the diplomatic staff is not an aberration, at least not in the sense that it has been presented in some corners. Nor were the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 an aberration, despite claims to the contrary. Political pundits tend to speak of a pre-9/11 era and a post-9/11 one. This is useful as a rhetorical tool in the political arena and as a way to shape the social memory of the American people in a particular way. And it is true that the tragic events of that day brought to the average American the awareness of belonging to a larger and dangerous world. It was certainly a day that marked a turning point in the lives of many people within the United States. War and conflict ceased to simply be events happening “somewhere else,” in lands that a large number of young Americans would have had a hard time pointing to on a map. It goes without saying that countless lives were affected around the world, as a result of the various wars that occurred in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
However, these attacks were the product of a much longer history. Here, I am not writing about what many political analysts and historians have convincingly shown concerning the connection between the rise of global radical Islamist networks and the policies of Washington during the Cold War. It is certainly beyond question that the Truman Doctrine in its later manifestations guaranteed the support of various American administrations to reactionary right-wing Islamist groups, with the goal of curbing the rise of leftist forces within the so-called Third World. I am also not writing about the fact that particular global economic policies produced in the rich North created and continue to create extreme socio-economic conditions that have prepared a fertile ground for extremist behavior. Nor am I writing about the serious impact of wars and conflicts that have devastated whole communities and engendered chaos and despair among innocent civilians. All these elements are certainly relevant to any discussion of regional and global politics. And I do not want to give the impression that they should be taken lightly. Far from it. I insist that any serious engagement with the state of affairs in the regions that have historically been dominated by “Islam” as a religious and civilizational framework must include a surgical analysis of these elements. That being stated, I also insist that the malaise of the world of Islam has a very important religious component to it.
I do not want to join the chorus of voices that have, in a very simplistic fashion, claimed that Islam needed its own reformation on the pattern of Christianity, searching along the way for the “Muslim Luther.” Many historians of religion would find these anachronistic and ahistorical claims nauseating, to say the least. Nevertheless, we must pay close attention to the religious dynamics of the world of Islam since the onslaught of a merciless modernity. Without getting into the debate of what precisely modernity is or when it exactly emerged, I would argue that modernity was a serious challenge to both Christianity and Judaism within the European context. The claims of traditional theologies were put under close scrutiny and both the Christian and Jewish traditions had to respond, adapt, and re-invent themselves over time. Importantly, this process was internal to European societies; Christians and Jews participated in an integral transformation of these societies. When we consider the world of Islam, we must remember that modernity enters it first and foremost through European imperialism and colonialism and on the back of an unquestionably hegemonic agenda.
Rather suddenly, a proud “abode of Islam” دار الإسلام, that had historically been perceived by its communities and individuals as one favored by God, was facing an unprecedented onslaught from “infidel” outsiders with largely superior technology. This is not the space to deal in detail with all the implications of these events. What is of particular interest to me here is that the interaction between Islam and modernity remained highly ideological. “Islam” became the identity marker of those fighting the occupier and was thus generally viewed as a static entity that, for Muslims, guaranteed stability and unity and, for the Europeans, symbolized backwardness and inferiority. Rather than a critical engagement with modernity of which the highly sophisticated intellectual trends of the Islamic tradition were certainly capable, what occurred was an impoverishment of Islamic thought and its use as an ideological tool. The few Muslim intellectuals that broke with the norm remained a small minority and were unable to withstand the strong tides of a stifling conservatism.
Even after the European armies left, “Islam” continued to play a similar ideological role in the structure of the newly formed nation-states, giving legitimacy to governments that lack popular support. Political and educational institutions were harnessed to maintain the status-quo. It is not surprising that ultimately, the only true opposition would come from people raising the banner of an ideologized Islam that was presented as more authentic than the official Islam of the governments. The huge loss is that theological reflection remained largely absent. This is different from the often claimed ijtihad اجتهاد, which in the premodern Islamic legal tradition came to mean something specific, namely the effort of the jurist to derive legal rulings أحكامfrom the sources (Qur’an and Hadith) by using particular methodological tools (especially analogical reasoningقياس ). Ijtihad has become in the modern world a catch-all term for independent reasoning, though one could argue that there is little “independence” to speak of in reality. The theological reflection that I mean here is one that goes much deeper than these superficial modern forms of ijtihad. Theological reflection, based on deeply digging into the rich Islamic tradition and on critically engaging modernity, would have opened the door for novel theological perspectives to emerge and to enrich the radically different contemporary world. Instead, what continues to shape the social memory of young generations of Muslims is an interpretation of Islam that severely limits theological reflection. Islam continues, therefore, to be a politically charged identity marker, leading to outbursts of emotions about what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an attack on “sacred” symbols. In the hands of the extremist fringe within Muslim communities, this has the potential to be deadly, as we unfortunately witnessed in Benghazi. It is crucial for Muslims today to rediscover their rich heritage at a much larger scale and with a much more open attitude on one hand, and to seriously engage what is intellectually produced around the world on the other hand. Such steps are crucial if those who belong to the domain of Islam are to effectively counter readings of Islam that are extreme and harmful to the legacy of Islam, to the well-being of Muslim communities everywhere, and more importantly to our shared humanity. There are many signs that this is already happening, although negative developments still garner the most attention on media outlets worldwide.