There is a trap in the study of religion and politics. All traditions are equally susceptible to it, but as Tamir Moustafa suggests in his new book, Constituting Religion, the temptation may be especially strong when it comes to contemporary state politics surrounding Islam and Islamic law. The trap is to conflate Islam as a fluid and diverse set of traditions with specific forms of state Islam and projects of Islamization. This conflation is so common that it can be difficult to see. After all, few Islamization projects present themselves as departing from the “real” Islam.
Moustafa teaches us to avoid this trap. Malaysia has two parallel legal systems: one understood to be secular or civil and the other Islamic. This binary does not reflect a pre-existing Malaysian religio-legal landscape: it constructs it. Describing the historical processes associated with the creation and entrenchment of this binary, as this book does, makes it possible to see that what constitutes “Islamic law” and who participates in “Islam” are simultaneously theological, legal, and political questions. Iza Hussin’s powerful book The Politics of Islamic Law also does this difficult yet crucial work.
In Malaysia, there is a polarization between liberal rights and Islamic rites. The legal system continually breathes new life into this distinction, as religion is judicialized. This binary between rights and rites polices the boundaries of legal possibility and casts alternatives below the threshold of socio-legal legibility. It is not only a state project. NGOs, the media, advocacy groups, and ordinary citizens are all swept up in a legal and discursive storm. All perpetuate the binary.
Easily submerged in this tsunami of litigation and popular mobilization is the distinction between Islam and projects of state Islamization. Islam comprises a fluid set of traditions, of ways of being Muslim that are both contingent and coherent, which can be reduced to a single interpretation only through extraordinary interpretive license and, some would say, violence. Nowhere is this collapse more evident than in popular interpretations of Islam and Islamic law. A particular understanding of the latter has captured the Malaysian legal imaginary:
The finding that most lay Muslims understand Islamic law as a legal code yielding only one correct answer to any given question is a testament to how the modern state, with its codified and uniform body of laws and procedures, has left its imprint on popular legal consciousness . . . Whereas Islamic jurisprudence is diverse and fluid, it is understood by most Malaysians as singular and fixed. Implementation of a codified version of Islamic law through the shariah courts is assumed to be a religious duty of the state. And, indeed, it appears that most Malaysians believe that the shariah courts apply God’s law directly, unmediated by human agency.
All survey results are partial and over-simplified, but Moustafa’s are convincing in suggesting that this capture runs deep. The distinction between Islamic law, in all of its diversity and internal complexity, and specific state projects of Islamization has crumbled not only for scholars and public authorities but also in the eyes of ordinary Malaysians. This means that criticism of a legal initiative that is understood as “Islamic” is seen as an attack on Islam in general. As a result, conventional readings of Article 3(1) of the Malaysian Constitution (“Islam is the religion of the Federation”), which emphasize its ceremonial and symbolic meaning, are “not only pronounced unfaithful to the Federal Constitution; they are said to ‘challenge Islam’ itself.”
Nowhere is the centripetal force of the religion trap more evident than in the landmark Lina Joy case. Joy, a Malay Muslim convert to Christianity, sought not to have her religion listed as Islam on her national identity card. But the Syariah Court refused to recognize her conversion out of Islam, and when the Federal Court rejected her appeal Joy fell into a jurisdictional abyss. In a nationwide survey conducted at the time, 96.5 percent of Muslim respondents said that the Malaysian government should regulate apostasy because Islam forbids it. Faced with these statistics, many analysts would tumble head first into the religion trap, attributing the result to “Muslim intransigence” surrounding apostasy. Moustafa, to his credit, steps around the trap, concluding that “rather than drawing popular attention to the variety of possible positions concerning apostasy in the Islamic legal tradition, the polarized framing around the case appears to have strengthened a view that the state is obliged to prevent apostasy.”
The conflation of a state-centric, racialized, and ethnicized set of legal interpretations of Islam (Malay=Muslim) with Islam in its entirety is troublesome. It renders certain forms of solidarity unimaginable, certain ways of relating unfathomable, and certain understandings of both Islam and liberalism unthinkable. It sits at the troubled core of contemporary misunderstandings of religion and state in Malaysia and elsewhere. It shapes popular consciousness, media accounts, international advocacy, scholarly production, educational policy, and legal discourse. It closes off positions that defy the liberalism-Islam binary.
It was not always this way. As one elderly ethnic Indian man told Moustafa, “Thirty-five years back, we didn’t have these issues. Everyone was happy. I went to school with the Chinese and Bumis. We really mingled around. There was no problem. But now come a lot of issues. They are segregating the people. It is government policy that they’re segregating us.”
Moustafa suggests a way out of this impasse. Anglo-Muslim law, he explains, is not the “full and exclusive embodiment of the Islamic legal tradition.” Liberal secularism, too, is not an unchanging monolith that exists outside of particular legal and political contexts. Neither Islam nor liberalism exists as an autonomous, pure, or coherent formation. Rather, “binary forms emerge as a function of the institutional environment in which Islam and liberalism are represented.”
Though perhaps underplayed by the author, there are important comparative applications of this argument. I read Constituting Religion while cruising the Nile as faculty host on a Northwestern alumni tour. It got me thinking about the situation in counterrevolutionary Egypt, where it has been over five years since Sisi declared the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist group. Egypt has since been in the grips of what Atef Said calls “anti-MB hysteria.” Conspiracy theories abound. One of our guides claimed that the Brotherhood is indistinguishable from ISIS and that former President Mursi was never elected. Another insisted that Mursi tried to give away the Sinai to the Palestinians and that tunnels full of terrorists linked Gaza and Egypt until Sisi blew them up. Emergency courts are jailing dissidents of all stripes on a daily basis. It is forbidden to celebrate the anniversary of the 2011 revolution. Posters praising Sisi adorn every dusty intersection and half-finished construction site.
The repression extends beyond Egypt. In February of this year former New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick was denied entry into Egypt and detained for seven hours incommunicado without food or water before being escorted to a London-bound plane without explanation. None of this is surprising given the Trump administration’s proud complicity in Sisi’s repression. American journalists and others are paying a price for a US administration that joins Sisi in celebrating the death of Egyptian politics, all politics, but perhaps especially those politics with an oppositional flavor designated as “Islamic.”
In Sisi’s “with us or against us” mentality, opposing the regime makes one a disloyal Egyptian and a terrorist. On this violent landscape, the “moderate” Islam that is tolerated is that which supports the regime. That state-sanctioned Islam, or so the regime hopes, will eventually extend its coercive reach to occupy all social, legal, and political spaces. It will encompass and stifle not only the MB but also a vast array of dissident Islams that support neither the MB nor the regime, as anthropologist Yasmin Moll explained compellingly after Mursi’s ouster. The religion trap tightens its grip.
Anand Vivek Taneja is surely right that in the face of these developments one of our jobs as scholars is to “challenge and expand established ideas of what constitutes (and who participates) in the discursive tradition of Islam.” Moustafa’s nuanced account of the Malaysian legal and religious field helps us along this path by alerting us to a fatal trap in the study of religion and politics. The stakes are high. If we fail, the temptation to collapse Islam into a particular project of Islamization, Christianity into some version of Christian nationalism, or—as the debate rages over American support for Israel—Judaism with a particular project of Zionism, may prove irresistible.
Thanks to Brannon Ingram and to my winter 2019 graduate seminar “Religion, Race & Politics: Global and Imperial Perspectives” for their helpful suggestions on this piece.