Bassam Tibi, Islam between Culture and Politics (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 271.
Islam between Culture and Politics is Professor Tibi’s 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 Tibi’s 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 Tibi’s 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)].
Finally, Professor Tibi discusses the possibility of a hybrid Islam – a European Islam that accepts the constitutive principles of European modernity — democracy and laicism — and treats Islam as a cultural attribute. It is interesting to note that even though Tibi is working with a frozen and essentialzed notion of Islam, without which he cannot distinguish between the Islam and political Islam, he is willing to accept a European Islam which is essentially a thin shell with European values at its core. Here again Professor Tibi’s uncritical submission to the idea of modernity biases his analyses. He demands accommodation from Islam, a supposedly rigid and not so open tradition but does not make a similar demand of Europe which brags of openness and tolerance. This analysis also suffers from a lack of critical evaluation of Europe and its long history of Islamophoebia, religious intolerance and racism. Perhaps if Europe remained true to its values, Muslims may have to make very little adjustment. Professor Tibi perhaps must ask why Europe, especially France, demands that Muslims must culturally mutate in order to assimilate. His call for a Euro-Islam accepts uncritically the intolerance and inhospitality of Europe to cultural and religious diversity that Islam brings. 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 book’s most important contribution.