It was their final conversation. She would soon die, although neither of them knew it at the time. St. Augustine and his mother waited for a ship that would take her across the sea, to Africa, where she had raised him. She had always prayed he would become a Catholic; now, after many years, he was one. “There we talked together,” he writes in his Confessions, “she and I alone in deep joy.” This common joy stemmed from their shared company, but also their shared belief in God.
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Today marks the first anniversary of the self-immolation of a young street seller in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. How is Tunisia doing one year on? According to Jean Daniel, the French commentator and founder of Novel Observateur, in his “Islamism’s New Clothes” article in the December 22, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, the answer is: very badly. In his view, the recent elections in Tunisia amount to a “counter-revolution.” It would appear from what he says that the elections could only count as a revolution if they had followed the script of a French model of 1905 laïcité --the most religiously “unfriendly” form of secularism of any West European democracy. Such a model, in a more extreme form, was imposed by the state in the authoritarian secularism under Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia without free elections from Independence in 1956 until the Arab Spring. Having witnessed, and written about, over fifteen efforts at democratic transitions and having visited Tunisia three times since the start of the Arab Spring, I would argue the opposite: A much more appropriate description of the political situation in Tunisia is to call it the Arab Spring’s first completed democratic transition.
Under its congressional mandate to “examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks…[and] make a full and complete accounting of the[ir] circumstances,” the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission Report, begins with a narrative timeline. In the simple past, in a voice devoid of interiority but rich in temporal data, the Report tracks movement in time and space.
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.
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.