The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West... Then came, just ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring, in which Islam did not play a role, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, whose death went almost unnoticed among Muslim public opinion. What about the “Muslim wrath”? Suddenly, the issue of Islam and jihad being at the core of the political mobilization in Muslim societies seemed to become, at least for a time, irrelevant. So what went wrong with the perception of the Western media, leaders, and public opinion? Was the West wrong about the role of Islam in shaping political mobilization in Muslim societies? Yes. The essentialist and culturalist approach, common to both the clash of and dialogue of civilizations theories, missed three elements: society, politics, and more astonishingly . . . religion.
Original essays reflecting on current events, debates in the field, and other public matters relevant to scholarship in secularism and religion.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, commentators trying to analyze Afghan support for Al-Qaeda put a great deal of emphasis on the Taliban’s sectarian orientation as “Deobandi.” Deobandis across South Asia were known for disapproval of what they took to be Sufi or Shia intercessory practices that might compromise monotheism; they also discouraged celebration of ostentatious life-cycle customs. They called for adherence to what they took to be sharia-based individual practices. Deobandis had had a long tradition of influence within Afghanistan. This influence surged with the return of the Taliban leadership, who were, in fact, largely a product of Deobandi schools in Pakistan’s frontier region where they were refugees after the Soviet invasion. The problem was that commentators took to formulating a simple syllogism: The Taliban were Deobandis. The Taliban had accommodated Al-Qaeda. Deobandis therefore were “fanatical,” “fundamentalist,” “anti-Western,” and “terrorist.”
Ten years after 9/11, Americans cope with insecurity in their day-to-day welfare at home, while contending with continued warnings of an ominous threat of violence from abroad. With all this insecurity, it is perhaps quite predictable that features of the national discourse posit a crisis of existential proportion, hitting the very fabric of our being as a nation and a people. Simply to posit that there is a crisis is not enough; a crisis begs to be resolved, to be stymied, to be put right once again. To do that, though, requires identifying and locating the source of that crisis. With al-Qaeda both everywhere and nowhere, and the challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq too complex for most of us to understand, our attention turns to the nearest, most apparent and obvious site that represents that threat.
Given the close relationship, globally, between religious political action and religious charities, it should come as no surprise that there is a long tradition of cooperation between Islamist political parties and Islamic charitable organizations in Turkey. While this relationship has been the subject of considerable discussion in analyses of Turkish domestic politics, less noticed has been the savvy cooperation between the Turkish government and Turkish Islamic organizations in implementing the country’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under the ruling AKP, or Justice and Development Party. Two recent crises, the “Mavi Marmara” incident in 2010 and Turkey’s on-going aid mission to Libya, highlight the ways in which this cooperation has allowed Turkey to assert itself regionally and are suggestive of the sophistication of its efforts to become, in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s words, “a regional power and a global player.”
For a brief moment in 2007, news of a hit Iranian television series, whose Farsi title was translated variously as Zero Degree Turn or Zero Point Orbit, proliferated across the print and digital mediascapes of the Anglophone world. The series, created by Iranian director Hassan Fathi at great expense and broadcast in a thirty-episode season on the flagship state television station IRIB1, revolves around a Romeo and Juliet plot of illicit romance, with a distinctive twist: while the proverbial Romeo is one Habib Parsa (played by Iranian hearthrob Shahab Hosseini), a Muslim Iranian pursuing his studies in France, his Juliet is none other than a Jewish classmate, Sarah Astrok (played by the French actress Nathalie Matti), with whom he falls in love.
The wave of protests shaking the Arab political regimes has quietly but forcefully made its way to Morocco. The February 20 youth movement—made up of a loose coalition of independent groups, backed by liberal, leftist, labor, and Islamist opposition movements—is leading the call for democratic change. Since February it has organized two mass demonstrations across fifty major cities and towns, drawing several hundred thousands of protesters. Social and political protests in Morocco are not new, nor do they yet threaten the survival of the regime. But the revolutionary spirit and mass appeal of the movement signal a major shift in popular attitudes regarding the monarchy’s monopoly and abuses of power.
Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. . . . The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.
More than anything, the Good (Orthodox) Muslim-Bad (Black) Muslim paradigm reveals the media’s seemingly willful ignorance of the longstanding diversity of Islamic practices within black America and of the consistently worldly, heterodox, and syncretic legacies of African American Islam. The contemporary landscapes of Muslim America have been inexorably formed through processes of cultural interaction and exchange, both between black and “immigrant” Muslims and amongst various African American Islamic organizations themselves, since “Islam,” in its many forms, began its spread through African American communities in the urban landscapes of the post-Reconstruction North.
David Lepeska’s New York Times article “Farrakhan Using Libyan Crisis to Bolster His Nation of Islam” brought the once prominent Nation of Islam (NOI) leader back, however briefly, into the limelight. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Farrakhan was a master at attracting a disproportionate amount of attention, particularly media coverage. A bright, talented, and charismatic, but provocative and controversial speaker, Farrakhan denounced the many causes of racism and poverty, and gave voice to the grievances of African Americans and other minorities, enhancing his stature even among those who chose not to join his organization.
In another example of how mass media shape and constrain what constitutes legitimate Islam and religion more generally, the New York Times published a news analysis on April 10, 2011, that explains Minister Louis Farrakhan’s recent support for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as an attempt to gain support, or at least attention, for his declining movement. I was a source for the story, but an exchange of twenty-three emails seems largely to have failed to convince the reporter of my analysis of the phenomenon as an example of pan-African politics.