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May 21, 2006 10:46 am

Sadiq al Azm on Islamism and Islam

About twenty years ago, as an undergraduate auditing a class on Arab Political Thought with the Syrian philosopher Sadiq al Azm, I got it into my head to interview Edward Said in one of the campus's political magazines. The idea, as I remember it, was to query Said on same aspects of Al Azm's famous critique of Orientalism, among other things.

I wrote to Said and got a disappointingly tepid response back, but no outright rejection. A few months later, Said came to campus to give a lecture, and I approached him after the lecture to inquire about his interest in doing the interview."I don't want to do it!" he muttered, waving me away with exasperation. And that was that.

To the best of my knowledge, Said published no response to Al Azm's critique of Orientalism anytime in the twenty-some odd years between the publication of Al Azm's piece and Said's death. One wonders about the conception of intellectual exchange behind that decades-long silence. One wonders, also, about the sort of profession that looks on such silence with equanimity. If there is a principle at work here, it is this: a Big Name can evade major criticisms of his career-making book with impunity so long as his critics are, by"accepted" criteria, a bunch of"nobodies."

Those thoughts came to mind while reading this interview with Al Azm in the Dartmouth Free Press, an undergraduate magazine at Dartmouth College. (The interview was conducted in February on the occasion of a conference given at Dartmouth in Al Azm's honor.) The difference between Said and Azm—blustering arrogance versus confident receptivity—is telling. The interview turns out to be an interesting one, well worth reading all the way through, but a few passages are especially worth highlighting.

This first passage tells us something interesting about the relation between Islam as such and Islamism, or political Islam. Al Azm is making specific reference to Iranian Revolution, but he clearly intends his comments to apply more generally:

There is nothing in Islam to justify a republic. They call it an Islamic Republic, and in many ways it functions like a republic. They have introduced the standard Western form, like a council of ministers, the elected assemblies, elections, the president, and they are just a continuation of the Iranian state apparatuses under the cloak of Islam. [W]hen they get to power, they find it literally impossible to go back to any institution that is recognizably part of the history of Islam...They have found hardly any place where they can apply or direct genuinely any of the institutions of Islamic history...Besides the appeal to sharī‘a even by the Islamists for purely repressive purposes, when the repression is over, then everything becomes lax again…everything happens, sharī‘a or no sharī‘a.
This insightful passage explains why contemporary Islamism is a strange amalgam of Islamic theology and Western totalitarianism. In fact, nothing in Islam justifies any workable polity. To the extent that a political ideal emerges from the Qur'an, the ideal is tyranny—the relation of rulership that obtains between God and his subjects. To the extent that a conception of law emerges, it is authoritarian, repressive, and paternalistic. To the extent that a specifically Islamic political ideal emerges from Islamic history, the ideal in question is jihad: a specifically religious expression (occasionally sublimated in non-belligerent pursuits) of the ideal of the Homeric hero.

No wonder that such a religious conception leads in practice to a politics of tyranny, warfare, sexual repression and death-worship. The specifically Islamic elements lead in no very specific political direction on their own, but each is perfectly compatible with totalitarianism. Hence the appeal of totalitarianism to Islamic political thinkers who take Islamic norms sufficiently seriously to want to translate them into political practice. In this (complex) respect, the Islamic religion is at the heart of the troubles of the Islamic world. That, of course, was the very thesis of Al Azm's 1968 book, Self-Criticism After the Disaster. It is interesting but unsurprising that no English translation of the book currently exists. (There is a short description of Al Azm's book in Fouad Ajami's The Arab Predicament. Those with J-STOR access can check out his extensive 1998 interview in The Journal of Palestine Studies.)

Notable exceptions aside, such views as Al Azm's are rarely expressed in the academy--and especially rarely expressed in the field of Near East Studies. From his unique vantage as emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus, and Visiting Professor in the Department of Near East Studies at Princeton, Al Azm explains why:
DFP: Do you believe the open debate on Islam, the open intellectualism, has died out?
SaA: I’ve seen in, for a while now, scholars, colleagues, especially in Europe and in America, a kind of feeling of intimidation. They were holding themselves back from making a serious critical judgment of Islam. You stopped being able to criticize Islam. I do not think that is a good or salutary result. The debate created this atmosphere of intimidation where you can say only good things about [Islam], and when you say only good things about it you are really idealizing it. Whenever you want to say something critical or point out a flaw, you tiptoe around it and use euphemisms. I was not feeling happy at all with that…I’ve also felt that some scholars have become apologists for Islam. I don’t think you are helping the Muslims or helping our society by becoming an apologist.
Such claims are, I suppose,"merely" anecdotal. But since anecdotes are the epistemic foundation for all further evidence of this sort, I don't see why that should be an obstacle to taking it seriously. The question is whether they will.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Michael Savage is a ridiculous individual. I'm not sure one can identify him so squarely with the Republican Party.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I think there is a coherent idea of a solution, and it's classical liberalism.

Any strategy for reform in the Muslim world has to include the following: (1) restoring or granting women's rights, (2) economic liberalization, (3) free speech, (4) establishing some sort of mosque/state distinction by rolling back sharia, and (5) reforming the educational system.

Progress on any or all of those five things (preferably all five) will go a long way.

I don't think it's a matter of backing political parties, because the party system is for the most part so hopelessly corrupt. It's a matter of grass roots organization, e.g., through NGOs and other organizations. Women's rights NGOs do excellent work in Pakistan, for instance, and have made significant strides in protecting women's rights.

A free market is a must. Socialism is unjust, unproductive and violative of property rights. Capitalism is the reverse of those things. When Muslim countries finally give individuals control over the economy, their productivity will improve, as will their morale and their prospects for the future. The person who seems to have some of the best ideas on this score is a guy named Hernando de Soto, who belongs to no party. Another person who does excellent work on this issue is my friend Tom Palmer, who runs a website called "Lantern of Liberty." I'll put links to both of them in a separate post.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I guess I don't see the problem with "unfettered capitalism," understood as a system of free markets in which individual rights are protected against force and fraud. Capitalism can give rise to abuse and corruption, but so can anything, including a pragmatic non-ideological government committed to regulating the "excesses" of the market. By itself, abuse and corruption are no argument against any system unless that system is specifically prone to a lot of it.

The problem with Turkey is that it goes some of the way toward the principles I mentioned but not sufficiently far. Perhaps I should also have mentioned procedural rights and due process, which is where Turkey has its problems.

A good website to look at may be the Minaret of Freedom site run by Imad-ad-din Ahmad. I don't subscribe to his views, but it could be the sort of site you are looking for.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Here's Minaret of Freedom:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Here's Lamp of Liberty; I mentioned it before:

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/20/2006

Professor Khawaja,
Isn't the difference between the "ideal" and the practical reality the crux? I was not arguing against capitalism. It seems whenever an objective look at the reality of a philosophy, religion, economic system or other such issue, it is perceived as being "anti". How can there be advancement in any field if to question it is dismissed as being against it?

Therefore, my "issues" with the "abuse" of the system are relevant to the actual harms being caused. While a person, or a corporation in the legal guise of a person has their right to property, everyone has the right to clean air, water and to not be killed through toxic waste (think 3-Mile Island or the Love Canal).

Yes, it might be unfair to point to these. They were egregious errors and not indicatave of capitalism in general... but they are the reality. They have happened and I have no doubt they will happen again.

Like with history, we should learn from our mistakes. They want to drill in the ANWR and they are telling us that they are better at this stuff now. Yet, just a month or two ago an oil tanker drifted away from the dock and crashed into the shore!

To criticize it does not meen to deny the benefits of the economic system. What it does do is try to make sure that the abuse that does happen is minimized. There are over 2,500 Superfund sites that will cost the taxpayers $billions to clean. Companies have not paid into this fund in over 12 years. I cannot eat the fish that I catch at my river due to PCB's. Those are costs that are supposed to be paid for by the companies due to their causing the problems.

The Savings and Loans scandals of the 1980's cost of $billions. The ENRON, Global Crossing, TYCO and MCI. The loss to investors was catastophic to many and undermines the very core of the capitalist system.

I am not sure about the individual rights protected from force and fraud. There is democracy which is a political system versues capitalism which is an economic system. The political system is the one that would be doing the protecting against force and fraud, and this is equally probable in socialism or communism or even national socialism as you pointed out.

Anyway, I didn't want this to turn into a debate over capitalism. I agree that it is the best system available but I do not believe that it is perfect.

As for Turkey. It is not perfect. A man was on trail recently in Turkey for writing about the Armenian genocide. However, a man was on trial in Austria for denying the holocaust.

The form of democracy and captialism in the middle-east may not resemble ours. That, I believe, was my point with using Turkey as an example. Do we accept it and work with them as respected equals or do we set ourselves up as the moral superiors and cast aspersions.

I know I could not feel amiable to developing a relationship with someone that was always tsking and wagging their finger at me becuase I didn't measure up. I imagine the Arab world feels a bit like that too. Yes, they may want the things we have, but they can still be resentful at the way they are treated.

To what degree will the western countries decide whether or not the democracy and capitalism is of the right sort?

Are we asking or expecting a sort of shift in culture, religion, politics and economics that has taken us decades, even centuries to slowly evolve, to happen overnight?

Even with out time to accimate to the changes brought about here in the west, we still have acrimonous debate concerning the direction we are going.

I believe that we need to encourage countries like Turkey. The shift will be gradual, but it will happen. Most importantly, it will happen from within.

How? By democratic process that are home grown and supported by the people creating them. By using what capitalistic beginnings and encouraging them. The companies will become more sophisticated, their rights and protections will become more easily attained while because of their growing influence. Education will be driven by companies needing better educated workers and the workers will be wanting better wages. Also, as they become more educated they will want to express their beliefs.

So, yes. I do believe that capitalism is the basis for making a change. I believe that the economic hardships in the Soviet Union were a part of the reason why it fell apart.

The more that I think about it... it really is too bad that we were not able to bring Turkey into the formation of the Iraqi process. It isn't perfect, but it is a very good foundation to start from.

I appreciate your time with your replies. I will check out the websites you linked and take a look at them.

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/18/2006

From what I am gathering while doing a brief review of IDL from their website, it primarily has to do with economic reform and ownership of property. Which allows people the opportunity to have a vested stake in society. Private property gives access to capital and opportunity.

While I agree with that, if I have a criticism of some of the extreme abuses of capitalism that does not equate to socialism, Marxism or any other ism. It is an attempt to take capitalism out of the realm of theory and into the reality of where there is much evidence of corruption and abuse. I hope not to need to itemize some examples. That it is sufficient that unfettered capitalism is not always going to be what is best for society.

I was encouraged to see that Egypt was one of the people working with IDL.

I would love for women to have full civil rights. I am a father of a daughter who is just graduating high school. I would hate for society to limit her potential.

Economic liberation too would be wonderful. Not in the NAFTA model because I do not believe that it has shown the benefits that were promised. When I ask Republicans/Conservatives why this might be they tell me simply that the companies are not doing anything illegal and to stop being a socialist.

Freedom of limitations on speech from the government is something that should be a first civil right.

The separation of church (mosque) and state should be there too.

Reforming the educational system is going to be very closely tied to the freedom of speech and the separation of religion and state.

The bottom line, as I see it from the start, is that even in America, where we consider ourselves true believers in these principles, there are some that want to label an opponents ideas or beliefs as heretical, sinful or immoral.

I look at those same types of thoughts combined with Islam and I don't see a solution. However, I do believe that we need to continue to model it regardless. That is why I always argue that it isn't necessary or desirable for a City/County/State or Federal government to "sponsor" a religious celebration... if for no other reason than to help the Christians in Muslim countries.

There seems to be some progressiveness in the fact that Egypt and a couple of other large Muslim countries are interested in IDL... however, it will be a long process and the road may not look like what we believe it should look like.

Again, I have to go with Turkey as the best example... it has many of the ideals that are listed, but still not considered "western" enough.

This is a long and drawn out process for an American to get his head around the issues and to dispel many of the misconceptions. I really do appreciate your replies....

Maybe this is not in your field, maybe it is too basic. But possibly something along the lines of a Modern Islam 101 discussing the issues, history and possible solutions, such as IDL would be a great Blog for people who are serious to learn and not just cast stones.

If you aren't interest, then maybe you know a good site that is along these lines?

Truthfully, my interests have been predominantly in the Byzantine Empire and the Succeeding Ottoman empire since I was stationed in Turkey back in the early 1980's.

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/18/2006

Just as I spoke of President Carter, who knew that it would be just a little later I get this message from MediaMatters?

On the May 16 edition of his nationally syndicated radio program, Michael Savage declared that former President Jimmy Carter is a "Jew-hater" and a "war criminal" who "is like Hitler" because of his criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank. Savage added that Carter is a "communist, anti-American, anti-Semitic bastard" who has "caused worldwide Islamic terrorism to proliferate around the globe."

I cannot believe that the responsible Republican party of my youth has turned into this mockery of intellectual discourse. It makes me want to cry really.

Darren Michael Peterson - 5/18/2006

Mr. Khawaja,
I have a thumbnail bit of knowledge about Islam and of history. Therefore, I can look back and even during the times of great Islamic cultural times, I can see that it was based on power over the people.

Whether it was in collusion with the Mullahs or in a more antagonistic role.

Institutions like the AEI believe that simply by introducing western means of government and free-market economics they will be able to "free" the Muslim world from the oppressors... while possibly many of the Muslims are not interested in being "freed" in that sense.

The examples of the Islamic radical groups in Egypt and Algeria come to mind. They could possibly achieve power in a true democratic election. I remember hearing or reading somewhere, that democracy was the only political system that it is possible to vote itself out of existance (badly paraphrased).

Thus, the history of Islam governance has really been about oppression. Islam itself is based on the surrendering of self, in a sense.

Often times I see papers presented from so called "think tanks" like AEI and CATO where they are really nothing more than documenting the obvious. Such as the justifications for the war with Saddam. Most people, even at a 5th grade level could give a fairly good rationale for the overthrow of Saddam.

What is often missing, and what I desperately would love to see, is a coherent idea of a solution.

Even Turkey, as the best example of a secular Islamic state, is having a difficult time. They require a military that is able to step in and take power if a religious group attains power. They outlaw the wearing of the traditional head dress for women from offical functions, to include school.

Yet, Turkey is having a difficult time becoming "acceptable" to the west when you look at the difficulty they are having with entry in the EU.

I know that there are many moderate Muslims, some whom I have called friends over the years. From Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other places.

It would be intersting to see America take the lead in respecting Islam while having a firm set of agreed upon principles that are not arbitrary and would be held to all nations, regardless of religion.

Jimmy Carter tried something like this when he was in office... where he believed that we should deal with contries according to their record on human rights. Those who are the outspoken defenders of this type of policy seem to find it expedient to forget their criticizm of President Carter.

Is there any moderate Islamic organization or faction or anything of that sort that is worth learning more about?

Thank you.