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Khan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Adrian College in Michigan. He
is on the board of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Center for Balanced
Development and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.
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Review by Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D.
Bassam Tibi, Islam between Culture and Politics (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 271.
Islam between Culture and Politics is Professor Tibis second attempt after Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991), to show how Muslim failure to cope with the demands of modernity has resulted in the politicization of Islam and the creation of political Islam.
Professor Tibi begins his book, Islam between Culture and Politics, by announcing his ability to detach himself from Islamic tradition while simultaneously confessing his attachment to the tradition of German modernity (p. xiii). Professor Tibi seems to be laboring under the impression that remaining loyal to the tradition of modernity does not constitute a cultural bias. His entire project suffers from an uncritical submission to modernity. He accepts the socio-political organization of modernity as the uncontested destiny of humanity and sees all departures from it as aberrations that need to be reconstituted. He therefore rejects not only contemporary manifestations of Islam but also contemporary manifestations of modernity (the postmodern condition) which he rejects as cultural relativism. Any attempt to understand Professor Tibis analysis must take cognizance of this philosophical peculiarity.
Islam between Culture and Politics is divided into four parts. The first part discusses the Islamic worldview and develops the idea that Islam is a civilization. The second part describes how Islamism has emerged as a defensive response to the systemic level restructuring that has taken place due to the globalization of modernity. In part three Professor Tibi describes the pathways to Islamism. He describes how Islamic law the Shariah is appropriated as the central principle of political Islam and also discusses the Islamization of education as the means to the politicization of Islam. In the final section he discusses the possibility of mediation between Islam and the West through the emergence of a European Islam.
For Professor Tibi the thing that needs explanation is the distinction between Islam and political Islam and in order to do so he argues that Islam is a cultural system and a civilization without any given political dimension. He makes these assumptions explicit in several places in the book (p. 3. p. 29, p. 118). Since this is the cardinal purpose of the book, I think it begs critical scrutiny. Tibi claims that Islam is a faith and a culture but not a political idea. He divides the space that we call as civilization into three exclusive cultural, religious and political spheres. He also assumes that culture and politics are mutually exclusive domains. This is highly problematic compartmentalization of life and in spite of its Habbermasian pedigree untenable.
This erroneous assumption is especially outrageous in an area where often culture is used as an independent variable to explain political structures. For example many political scientists of the comparative persuasion argue that the authoritarian nature of Middle Eastern culture may explain why democracy has not triumphed in the Arab world. If Professor Tibi disagrees with this line of inquiry, he should engage with it and expose its limitations. It would be an interesting exercise because like him, this particular line of inquiry too takes European modernity as a cultural standard by which other civilizations are measured.
When Tibi explores the
dynamics of Islam and the West he calls them both as civilizations. If Islam has only
cultural and religious dimensions and not a political element then is it fair to compare
it with the West which has three dimensions, religion, culture and politics (democracy).
Islam should by Tibis stand point not constitute a civilizational but only as the
religio-cultural element of some other, say the oriental civilization. Perhaps Tibi should
step back and concede that while Islam does include a political theology as part of its
discourse, the contemporary Islamists narrative is new and not necessarily authentic in
its Islamic character because it is merely a defensive response to modernity and not a
natural progression of Islamic intellectual tradition. He does not need to deny the
inclusion of politics within the Islamic realm in order to brand political Islam as a
post-colonial artifact. But if he does try this gambit then he must deal with the
Georgetown school of thought, John Esposito and John Voll, who argue the authenticity of
the contemporary Islamist discourse as a part and parcel of Islamic tradition of Tajdid (renewal) and Islah (reform). In this book he successfully
ignores this important and even dominant discourse in the area [John Esposito and John
Voll, Islam and Democracy (OUP, 1998) and John
Voll and John Esposito, Makers of Contemporary Islam
(OUP, 2001)]. In spite of
some critical problems, Professor Tibi does make an insightful attempt to bring
sociological and anthropological theory to bear on a subject that is often studied only in
geopolitical context. This perhaps is the books most important contribution.
In spite of some critical problems, Professor Tibi does make an insightful attempt to bring sociological and anthropological theory to bear on a subject that is often studied only in geopolitical context. This perhaps is the books most important contribution.