Beyond Stereotypes...Beyond 9/11: A Critical Reflection on Muslim-Western Encounters

The tragic events of 11 September have reduced Islam to a religion almost without a history of satire or demotic content. The chief agenda of this brief paper is to critique Orientalist generalisations with respect to Islam and Muslims in the 9/11 context. In so doing, the paper will attempt to deconstruct narratives of jihad (literally ‘struggle’) and ‘clash of civilisations’. Secondly, the paper will briefly consider some old and new intellectual inputs which give clues to the potential of Islam as a repository of great ideational traditions congenial with renewal and reform of intellect and of politics.


Background: 9/11 in a Globalising World
Two observations are in order. The first is that self-criticism is the lifeblood of ‘progress’, however that term is defined. The need to exercise self-assessment by looking inwardly, not outwardly (e.g. blaming Arab and Muslim problems on Zionists, US imperialism, international capitalism) is urgent in the Muslim world. Absolving the ‘self’ from all wrongdoing contradicts with Islamic ethics of individual responsibility (al-mas’uliyyah al fardiyyah). Similarly, implicating the ‘other’ is an easy way out. It neither betokens taking moral responsibility for one’s actions nor squares with promoting one’s agency. For Muslims to indulge in the familiar diatribes waged against the ‘West’ or the ‘United States’ solves nothing in terms of how to combat stereotypes or engage in badly needed reform and renewal.


Even a courte durée of the past thirty years of the history of the Muslim–Western encounter demonstrates how the lack of self-criticism on both sides has largely deepened mutual exclusion and misunderstanding, with the subsequent exchange of Manichean symbols. Nasser (1970), Khomeini (1980), Saddam (1990) and bin Laden (2000) stood as icons of an ‘Islam’–‘West’ divide in a thirty-year-long arc of crisis punctuated by mutual violence, distrust and stereotyping. The events of 11 September are illustrative of intensified cross-border flow of information, people, capital and technologies throughout the world.[1] They are a good example of ‘bad’ globalisation.


Globalisation empowers and disempowers; it simultaneously creates centres and margins; it facilitates the ‘travel’ of ‘benign’ and ‘malign’ technology, of ideas for ‘greening’ the world and others that lead to environmental degradation or deforestation.[2] It may equally have to live with low-key levels of violence if globalisation as the embodiment of free flows of people, ideas and goods- the building blocks of interdependence [3] -is to expand. As the coalescence of these flows entails the interpenetration of people, cultures and goods, some equal loss of autonomy and control becomes inevitable.[4]


To an extent, there has been some change to the tectonic plates of globalisation since 11 September, with measures put in place for greater policing and scrutiny of the flows of people and goods (in others words, of capital). The upshot is twofold. Firstly, with regard to the loss of autonomy and control, some actors will be more equal than others. The freezing by the United States of the assets of Islamic financial institutions, suspected of being fronts for global terrorist networks, illustrates this point. From this perspective, the notion of globalisation as ‘free flow’ becomes suspect. ‘Free flow’ for whom, and on whose terms?’ one might ask. This calls into question the legitimacy of a globalisation regime that stems or regulates ‘free flow’. A globalisation regime dictated by the imperatives of security and order would militate against values of equality and freedom, to the detriment of interdependence and pluralism. A global blanket freeze on Islamic banking institutions, which may not be directly linked to funding terrorism, may be antithetical to doing business in a globalising economy, as well as being discriminatory. But it is conceivable, given the nature of globalisation, that in some cases funds belonging to Islamic financial institutions or organisations are used by merchants of death, manipulating both Islamic texts and fellow Muslims whom they recruit to their fights. The point here is that a global ban on all Muslim economic activities under the pretext of a global war against ‘terror’ may be legally justifiable. But that does not make it morally right. In short, the onus here is on scholars, policymakers, leaders and business people to rescue globalisation from the risk or excesses of ‘securitisation’ in the post-11 September world.


Thus globalisation risks becoming synonymous with hegemony and the imposition of value-laden interpretations for facilitating, post 9/11, a freeze on the assets of Islamic banking institutions[5] rules out selected actors from the public sphere of globalisation. More importantly, especially in the case of Islamic networks, such economic sanctions interfere with revered traditions of mutual obligation (tarahum) that Muslims have practised for centuries in a very borderless fashion. Pan-Islamism, by ‘enjoining the good’ (amr bi al-ma’ruf) and affirming membership of Islam’s global community of believers via solidaristic acts, transcends geography, ethnicity, class, gender and colour. Historically, Islam has not been coterminous with the territorial state, even if contemporary Muslims live in nation states. Muslims have in the main accepted the territorial state. But challenges to central authority and rulers’ legitimacy continue to be mounted in a number of Muslim states (especially after the 2011 revolutions begun in Tunisia in January 2011).


Despite Orientalist representations of Islam as being bereft of civil society and civic values,[6] Islam has historically expanded and maintained its community (ummah) through globally non-territorial and non-governmental networks of association, bound together by theistic values of brotherhood and sisterhood, mutuality, self-help and active participation (amal). Obligatory alms-giving (zakat) and voluntary charity (sadaqah) have historically empowered community and limited government. Schooling and social welfare, for instance, have only very recently been largely claimed by the post-colonial state in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. To this day, social welfare remains a fiercely contested arena for control between the central state and Islamist movements in many parts of the Muslim world. Islamists have been adept at filling any void unoccupied by the state, concomitantly providing welfare services and recruiting rank and file for purposes of political mobilisation and organisation.


Generally, anti-globalisation discourses dwell on morality and identity as keys to protecting Muslim sovereignty and particularity, something that globalisation’s homogenising ‘culture’ is taken to threaten. Again, Henry and Springborg distinguish between ‘globalisers’ and ‘moralisers’ in the Middle East.13 Moralisers include Islamic movements that reject frames of moral reference outside Islam and any socialisation and acculturation inspired by Western secular value systems.


From this perspective one cannot but notice the contradictions of some moralising discourses. When the notion of justice is invoked the implication is that it is intrinsic not only to the making of Muslim identity and community, but also to Islam’s unique morality. But for lack of self-criticism it never occurs to many religious moralisers that achieving justice by killing thousands of innocent civilians (which in many literalist discourses is read as jihad ‘holy war’) is immoral. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are guilty of this kind of contradiction. So are other religion-based discourses that suffer from literalism, making culture the centrepiece of their quarrel with globalisation.


These post-9/11 reformulations of globalisation (owing to increased ‘securitisation’ of Muslim revered traditions such as voluntary alms giving) and the resulting tension with certain Western powers, namely the US, has obfuscated the reality of a diverse Islam and Muslims, as argued below.


The Many Faces of Islam
The events of 11 September have bared the ugly face of racism, ethnocentrism and essentialism in many parts of the Western and Muslim worlds. For all of the academic facilities, intellectual resources and information technologies at people’s disposal, little has been achieved in terms of enhancing greater understanding or dialogue. The caricatures and the stereotypes attributed to Islam and Muslims, as described in Said’s celebrated work Orientalism, published some twenty-five years ago, continue to resonate in many cultural discourses. It seems that generalisations, against which Said cautions, are still commonplace. Construction of the Muslim ‘other’ still feeds on contrasts between Western superior civilisation and technology and Muslim inferiority. These conscious and sometimes subconscious misrepresentations about the Muslim ‘other’ have equally manifested themselves in the aftermath of 11 September in the form of Orientalism in reverse.[7] Bryan Turner strengthens Said’s critique of Orientalist modes of discourse by articulating how contrast is central to self–other definition. The ‘West’ is not what the ‘Orient’ is (e.g. despotic or unruly). So if Western cultural discourses define Muslims by a static Islamic tradition, essentialising Islam into a religion bereft of civility, rationality and humanism, their literalist counterparts misrepresent the ‘West’, assuming it to be a monolith united by consumerism, imperialism and moral profanity. The need for a more responsible and proactive scholarship in combating essentialism of all kinds has never been more urgent than after 11 September. In this vein, I now turn to performing some disaggregation in relation to Islam and Muslims in order to shed more light on the Muslim perspective in the aftermath of the events of 11 September. The Islamic tapestry is both rich and vast, and the voices of Islam are thus diverse. Islam today is a truly globalised and polycentric community with more than one billion adherents, representing different regions, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, languages and social classes, and varying degrees of social mobility and literacy. A look at the membership of the Islamic community confirms this dazzling diversity: Al-Farabi (873–950), Avicenna (980–1037) and Averroes (1126–98); Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Malcolm X; Murad Hoffman and Roger Garaudy; Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin; Imam Khomeini and Kemal Atatürk; Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarno, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina; Naguib Mahfuz and Salman Rushdie; Omar Sharif, Cheb Khaled, Imran Khan and Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens); Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. The above diversity is united in its globalised Islam, literally a submission to the ideals of the religion revealed to the prophet Muhammad some fourteen hundred years ago. There is no diversity without specificity.


Specificity derives from local experiences of Islam in various places and times. Thus, although globalised across frontiers everywhere and differences of all kinds, specificity is what gives expression to diverse interpretations, and inevitably, to a multitude of localised experiences of Islamicity. That is, these experiences are brands of localised Islam. At least two anthropologists—Dale Eickelman and Abdul-Hamid el-Zein—have articulated ideas in which they aver the existence of ‘Islams’, as opposed to ‘Islam’. The main difference between the two is that whereas Eickelman distinguishes between ‘Islams’ and ‘Islam’, el-Zein is of the view that there are only ‘Islams’, as opposed to an all-encompassing ‘Islam’.[8] A plethora of questions about Islam in the modern world and relations with non-Muslims in general continues to divide Muslims. For instance, the way in which the ‘woman question’ is resolved, discursively or politically, cannot be expected to unite all Muslims. Impoverished Bangladesh is distinguished by an overall visibility of women in the public sphere, having had at least two women accede in the past to the premiership (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina). Nor has Islam been hostile to female premiers in Pakistan (the late Benazir Bhutto who eventually was murdered), Turkey (Tansu Ciller in the 1990s) or, most recently, Indonesia (Megawati Sukarno). Women in the Arab world have yet to be given similar opportunities—but this cannot be blamed on Islam. However, Islam may be confused with local experiences, the nature of hierarchy and the structures of male-led authoritarianism in many Arab states. The Arab Spring to an extent is changing this – and the fact that there is one democratically elected parliament in the Arab World in which women gained nearly 30 per cent of the vote in October 2011 in Tunisia bodes well for de-gendering politics. 


The French Muslim and ex-communist Garaudy or the German Muslim Murad Hoffman cannot be expected to see eye to eye with fellow Muslims on every aspect regarding the question of how to correlate Islam with Western powers or with modernity. Similarly, a gulf of difference separates Yusuf Islam, the English-Greek Muslim and former pop superstar, from his fellow Muslim, the Saudi- Yemeni Osama bin Laden, who is alleged to be the mastermind behind the 11 September attacks on the US. The two would undoubtedly differ on how best to protect Muslim rights or to secure distributive justice from the UN or world powers. Yusuf Islam’s understanding of his new religion leaves no room for violence: What most people—and that includes many Muslims—fail to recognise is that the Koran repeatedly calls on believers to repent, to uphold the rule of civility and not to take the law into their own hands. So clerics and extremists who call for the assassination of civilians outside the recognised bounds of the Islamic state without due process are wholly out of line with the limits and spirits of Islam. The Koran again states:


‘And do not let your hatred of some people cause you to transgress [the law]’…The Koran expressly declares: ‘If anyone kills a person, except (through due legal process) for murder or spreading discord on the earth, it will be as if he has killed the whole of humanity’. Today, I am aghast at the horror of recent events and feel it a duty to speak out. Not only did terrorists hijack planes and destroy life, they also hijacked the beautiful religion of Islam and split the brother-and-sisterhood of mankind, many of whom are still sorrowfully ignorant and unaware of each other.[9] 


The above quotation reads legality and sanctity of life in Islam’s divine texts. Nowhere does it defend the killing of civilians or refer to the often misused and abused concept of jihad in relation to the attacks of 11 September. Bin Laden’s statement, by contrast, resonates with religious metaphors, all of which make the tragedy that befell the US almost God-sanctioned: ‘There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that’. Yusuf Islam’s reading of the same divine texts wholly contradicts bin Laden’s characterisation of killing and destruction as ‘godly’. Further on, bin Laden adds ‘when God blessed one of the groups of Islam, vanguards of Islam, they destroyed America. I pray to God to elevate their status and bless them’.


Neither textuality (referring to Qura’nic texts and scripture) nor the pressing of the right buttons—e.g. by invoking the plight of the oppressed Palestinians or the dying children of Iraq— can make the acts of the men who perpetrated the murder of civilians in the US ‘godly’ or heroic. Bin Laden’s statement depersonalises violence, referring not to its victims but rather to an abstract or dehumanised ‘America’. Regardless, bin Laden’s brand of Islam and the strategies it deploys to achieve its objectives, even if these meet with lots of sympathy amongst millions of Muslims, attract widespread opposition. Muslim leaders condemned the attacks of 11 September, knowing too well that this newly emerging type of ‘global terror’ can cross any frontiers, especially after it proved its sophistication and deadliness against the only remaining superpower. Note, for instance, how in a recent audio recording, released to al-Jazeera in June 2002, one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants, Suleiman abu Ghaith, threatened new operations around the world – and these took place from Madrid to Tunis.[10]


One bias, which the attacks have rekindled, is against political Islam in particular. A great number of Islamist movements and leaders have expressed unequivocal indignation at the attacks. It would be wrong to tar political Islam with the brush of terrorism and literalism, thus not distinguishing between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ activists, in terms of both discourse and praxis, a point I will return to later. Again, the first Arab Spring elections in Egypt and Tunisia showed the Islamists to play by the rules of the democratic game. The excerpts given below, from leading‘ulama (learned scholars), amply underscore two points. Firstly, there is no single Muslim perspective on the attacks of 11 September. Secondly, the majority of opinion amongst knowledge-makers, i.e. amongst religious scholars who have high public and media profiles, does not confer a mandate upon bin Laden’s violent strategies.


That is not to say that dissident ‘ulama, in some parts of the Muslim world, did not or do not endorse bin Laden’s actions. This they do either by abstaining from condemnation or, overtly, by incriminating the US in crimes against Afghans, Palestinians, Iraqis etc. For instance, dissident cleric Sheikh Hammoud bin Oqla Shu’aibi views the US as an ‘infidel’ state, the same language used in bin Laden’s statement, opposing the Saudi regime’s support for US military retaliation against, and intervention in, Afghanistan. He notes that ‘whoever supports the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel’. His answer to such support does not differ from bin Laden’s strategy: ‘it is a duty to wage jihad on anyone who supports the attack on Afghanistan’.[11]  His compatriot Salih bin Muhammad al- Lahidan, who chairs the Kingdom’s Supreme Judicial Council, differs: Killing the weak, infants, women, and the elderly, and destroying property, are considered serious crimes in Islam…Viewing on the TV networks what happened to the twin towers…was like watching doomsday. Those who commit such crimes are the worst people. Anyone who thinks that any Islamic scholar will condone such acts is totally wrong…This barbaric act is not justified by any sane mindset… This act is pernicious and shameless and evil in the extreme.[12]


The stances taken by the two scholars do more than simply reflect the discord between establishment and popular religion. More importantly, they underline the genuine variability in interpretations of Islam’s divine texts. Textuality is one factor. Context is another. It is not difficult to imagine why Islamist movements such as Hamas or Jihad in the Occupied Territories, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, would not condemn what happened on 11 September. The specific context of Israeli occupation, which these groups deem to have been made viable by US political and material support, means that they could not condemn bin Laden’s strategies without invalidating their own use of violence. Thus, even amongst the learned scholars of Islam there are those who make a clear distinction between anti-Israeli violence, including suicide bombing, and the attacks of 11 September. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, one of the foremost contemporary scholars of Islam anywhere, uses such bifurcation in his religious rhetoric.

Making Islam reducible to jihad often happens both from within and from without. Literalists reduce Islam to jihad (never-ending holy war) and Orientalists take that motif to be the essence of Islam. When literalists fail to read democracy in Islam, Orientalists reproduce that narrow reading as representative of a unitary Islam, failing to appreciate alternative discourses or interpretations. From this perspective, literalists and Orientalists produce mutually reinforcing discourses. Both are essentialist; both are non-nuanced. When literalists produce a textuality that marginalises or excludes women, Orientalists construct that textuality into textbooks and knowledge that caricatures Muslim women into nameless human beings with no rights, dissolving Islam into a religion that is inhospitable to women. Likewise, when unrepresentative Muslims or fringe movements deploy violence it becomes the only template by which Islam is identified and known: ‘militant Islam’. The mode of discourse described above articulates how ‘literalists’ and ‘realists’ order the world.


The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the resurgence of political Islam in many parts of the Muslim world and the taking of Western hostages in the Lebanese civil war all contributed a great deal to the ‘demonising’ of Islam. At another level, realists are obsessed with the search for threat in general. The reduction of security to the single question of how to defend state borders and interests has yielded the conventional wisdom, which has informed international affairs in the post-war world. One of its premises is that balance of power is essential for preserving the Westphalian state-centric order. From this perspective, forecasting sources of threat or identifying the villains in that statecentric order is the one business realists do extremely well. Thus, Huntington searches for evidence implicating Muslim countries in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. He probes what he calls the ‘Confucian–Islamic connection’, sounding alarm bells over transfers of such weapons from China to Muslim states.[13] 


In so doing, Huntington is not only demonstrating that Islamophobia is ‘real’, but also that he is a ‘realist’ par excellence. The subtext of his realist search is the association of Muslims with violence. Again, even if indirectly, Islam is dissolved into a warlike religion and civilisation. Huntington’s Islamophobia reveals his realism, leading him to urge the US to close ranks with its European partners and form an ‘Atlanticist policy’, with the aim of ‘protect[ing] and advanc[ing] the interests and the values of the unique civilisation they share’.[14]


Furthermore, he gives a clear expression of his fear of ‘inter-civilisational war’ waged by the Muslim or Confucian ‘other’. The discourse could not be more ‘realist’: “A global war involving the core states of the world’s major civilisations is highly improbable but not impossible. Such a war, we have suggested, could come about from the escalation of a fault-line war between groups from different civilisations, most likely involving Muslims on one side and non-Muslims on the other...”[15] 


Barber’sJihad vs. McWorld has a polarity that makes this work similar to Huntington’s Clash of civilizations. The clash in Barber’s work is between the forces of ‘tribalism’ and of ‘globalism’. Thus, his clash is between, on the one hand, the world of ‘jihad’, a world united by the parochialism of the tribe and cultural polarisation, and on the other hand, ‘McWorld’, which is shorthand for another monolith united by economic and technological advancement.[16] It does not take much analytical skill to work out on which side Muslims are placed. Why Barber chooses ‘jihad’ and not, for instance,shura (consultation) or for that matter ta’awun (cooperation), both of which are important and valorised within Islam, is not clear. In general, duality is much more potent than diversity in the construction of ‘otherness’. Barber ignores those millions of human beings who happen to be Muslim and at the same time Westerners or Muslim migrants living permanently in Europe and North America. Millions of these are most probably avid consumers of the Internet, are globe-trotters, hybrid creatures whose cultures or politics defy clean labelling. Migratory movements today make the marking out of dualistic divides very problematic. Barber’s divide is another example of the dissolution of Islam into a single master code: jihad. Muhammad Ali or Yusuf Islam would be very difficult to fit within a tight box labelled ‘jihad’.


It seems that the world we live in has moved on, becoming very complex. But knowledge-makers have not moved on, still clinging to old dualistic frameworks for analysing and understanding fellow human beings and world affairs. This, it has been shown, is as true of Muslims as it is of non-Muslims.


Seeking the Enlightenment of Islam...Beyond Mutual Exclusion
The Arab-Islamic world is extremely diverse. Literalists and realists collude in representing Islam as unitary, dissolving it into single essences, such as jihad. In so doing they obliterate particularities of time, place and interpretation of the divine scripture. The mesh of de-territorialised and localised Islamic symbols, idioms and metaphors interact with globalising dynamics, giving rise to different practical and discursive outcomes vis-à-vis the events of 11 September. The dazzling diversity described in this essay does not square with the spectre raised by some theorists of a single Islamic civilisational unit pitted against an equally monolithic ‘West’. This diversity is manifest in Muslim contests regarding the juridical basis for martial struggle within Islam. In relation to 11 September most Muslims condemn the attacks. Discourses by Sunni learned scholars corroborate this point. Some Muslims, however, choose to differ.


One area that invites further research is the possibility of a linkage between autocracy, extremism and political or religious violence. Repression, exclusion and ignorance can easily be implicated in the creation of extremists, like those connected with the attacks of 11 September. More importantly, in this context, ignorance of the intellectual Arabo-Islamic repertoire is the laboratory in which resistance to holistic renewal is incubated. In the new millennium, rediscovery of the potentialities of this heritage, especially on the back of the Arab Spring fervour, is a must if the Arab world is to adapt itself to political conditions synonymous with the occulted traditions of enlightened Islam: tolerance of and coexistence with ‘otherness’, democratic and consultative government, social justice and free inquiry.


The following section briefly elaborates the idea of renewal by looking at fragments of the heritage when considering or judging the worth of its moral and intellectual potentialities. These ideas will be raised by looking at important inputs, which show that the potentiality of Muslim Enlightenment does exist. However, it will need academic freedom and more rigorous and innovative knowledge-making practices to help translate the potentiality in to actual Muslim Enlightenment.


Looking Ahead: Which Muslim Heritage?
The Muslim heritage especially that which engaged with Greek philosophy through cross-fertilisation, mapped out a trajectory for the argumentative Muslim seeker of knowledge to continue the tradition of disputation and interpretive ethos. This is useful when thinking about the potentiality of Islam in relation to questions of tolerance, mutuality, and above all else good government or democracy. May be there is no such fixed and single understanding of democracy. Democrats do not possess it; nor can Muslims be expected to do either. However, it is the interpretive and argumentative Muslim repository that can, at least partially, illuminate, for modern Muslim seekers of knowledge, a path, a trajectory, and a framework for designing questions about how to think about democracy within Islam. It is a ‘workshop’ on democracy and Islam with a plethora of questions to ask and no expectation to produce answers. For, that is the essence, if there is one, of both Islam and democracy: openness to interrogation and open-ended-ness – projects of determinate indeterminacy.


Today that workshop continues, even if with less vigour than under the supervision of the great doctors of Muslim knowledge-making such as al-Farabi in the 9th century. More recently, the work of the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd on the nature of religious discourse and exegesis, which pushes the thesis of historicity further than some Muslim sensibilities can bear, probes the techniques of ta’wil (allegorical exegesis) in which religious discourse seeks to monopolise truth and manipulate meaning.  Integral to Abu Zayd’s undertaking divine texts is the stress of historicity as an ‘objective’ and “scientific” way of knowing the texts.  Abu Zayd valorizes the historical context of revelation.  For him losing contextuality dilutes and humanises textuality.  The practice of ihdaru ‘l-bu’di ‘l-tarikhi (invoking the historical context), that is, leaving the historical context out, one of the tools he attributes to the religious discourse’s manipulation of meaning, humanises the sacred texts.  He considers this act of humanisation a self-interested and selective tool as it leads to a rationalized rendering of textuality. 


Abu Zayd follows the interpretive tradition of medieval Muslim forebears, relativising the rationalized renderings of the sacred texts and of human meanings, readings and renderings attached to divine text.  His ijtihad, the putatively human vocation of rendering provisional and fluid meaning, accepts the inevitability of fallibility and variability, rejecting singular and fixed interpretation. As a Muslim seeker of wisdom, Abu Zayd rejects manipulative religious discourse assuming the place of God in becoming the final source of knowledge, especially as a result of the closing of distance between the object and subject of knowing, via a series of ruptures:  between historical context and modern-day reading; and between dalalah (signifier) and maghza (significance).  Pristine revelation as a teleological discourse is immutable.  Abu Zayd calls this fixed element of revelation din (religion) which he distinguishes from al-fikru al-dini (religious rationality), the continuously changing by-product of human interpretations of the original sacred texts. The utility of his method lies in its potentiality for helping frame questions about how to continue the disputative Muslim tradition, with special reference to the question of democracy. Egyptian Khaled Abou El Fadl’s scholarship is founded on the disputative method and interpretive ethos bequeathed by figures of great stature in the history of Islamic thought such as al-Farabi. Like his compatriot Abu Zayd, El Fadl, too, considers  the problematic of democracy through the vista of Isalm’s humanistic spirit, relying on divine scripture and other medieval canons.  He does this through a juridical authorial lens, noting the potentialities of fleshing out the normative substance of Islam, which he generally views as not contradictory with democracy.  “Ultimately, the Qur’an, or any text, speaks through its reader. This ability of human beings to interpret texts is both a blessing and a burden. It is a blessing because it provides us with the flexibility to adapt texts to changing circumstances. It is a burden because the reader must take responsibility for the normative values he or she brings to the text. Any text, including those that are Islamic, provides possibilities for meaning, not inevitabilities.” [17]


Abou El Fadl addresses the nature of the linkage of Islam and democracy from the standpoint of how democracy serves Islam as a facilitator of implementing the divine assignment of vicegerency, with Muslims obligated to normativise justice and equality.  “By assigning equal political rights to all adults, democracy expresses that special status of human beings in God’s creation and enables them to discharge that responsibility.”[18] What is evident here is the harmonisation technique deployed by al-Farabi amongst other medieval Muslim seekers of knowledge. It is part and parcel of the perennial Muslim search for hikmah (wisdom) to design the much idealised community in which it is possible to “search for ways to approximate God’s beauty and justice,” without rejecting Godly sovereignty or the morality He sanctions as part of the divine will. [19]


This is where the encounter of Islam and democracy seem to be eternally destined to disputation and open-ended discussion. Islam is not an empty space nor is Democracy. They cannot be expected to be always reconcilable. But where Islam is concerned its construction of good governance exhibits sufficient indeterminacy to intersect, even if partially and sufficiently in the satisfaction of service of the public good, with the normative design integral to democracy.   Abou El Fadl lists the notions of public interest[20] ( al-masalih al-mursalah), blocking the means to illegality [21] (sadd al-dhari’ah), consultation [22] (shura), enjoining the good and forbidding the evil [23] , the ensuring of the welfare of the people [24] (tahqiq masalih al-‘ibad), and the rights of God and the rights of people. [25] But all of these are a matter of interpretation, and by implication ongoing interpretation. They do not contradict with the norms of democracy and do at the same time meet with the Godly sanctioned ‘good’ within Islam, intended in the big scheme of divine will to deliver humans from self-harm and the harm of tyranny. 



This is a minimalist working definition of the concept of globalisation. See the fine work edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew, The global transformations reader: an introduction to the globalisation debate (London, 2000). For a critical analysis of globalisation see Justin Rosenberg, The follies of globalisation theory (London, 2000).


For more details see Jan Aart Scholte,

Globalisation: a critical introduction

(Basingstoke, 2000).


Jeremy Brecher,

Global village or global pillage: economic reconstruction from the bottom up

(Cambridge, 1998).


For a good analysis of interdependence in a globalising world see R.J. Barry Jones,


and interdependence in the international political economy: rhetoric and reality

(London, 1995).


This observation is based on a definition of globalisation by Mittelman as a ‘coalescence of varied transnational processes and domestic structures, allowing the economy, politics, culture and ideology of one country to penetrate another’. See James Mittelman, ‘The dynamics of globalisation’, in James Mittelman (ed.), Globalisation: critical reflections (Boulder, 1997), 1–19: 3.


Edward Said,


(London, 1978).


For more on the question of Orientalism in reverse see Larbi Sadiki, ‘Occidentalism: the “West” and “democracy” as Islamist constructs’, Orient 39 (1) (1998), 103–20. Turner,

Weber and Islam

; see also Bryan S. Turner,

Marx and the end of Orientalism

(London, 1978).


Dale Eickelman,

The Middle East: an anthropological approach

(Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1989);

Abdul-Hamid el-Zein, ‘Beyond ideology and theology: the search for an anthropology of Islam’, Annual Review of Anthropology 6 (1977), 227–54.


See ‘Text: bin Laden’s statement’, Guardian, 7 October 2001.


Neil MacFarquhar, ‘Al-Qaeda says bin Laden is well, and it was behind Tunis blast’, New York Times, 23 June 2002.


See Caryle Murphy, ‘Muslim leaders speak out’, Washington Post, 13 October 2001.


Murphy, ‘Muslim leaders speak out’.



Samuel P. Huntington,

The clash of civilisations and the remaking of world order

(London and New York, 1998), 188–90.


Ibid, 312.




Benjamin R. Barber,

Jihad vs. McWorld

(New York, 1996).


Khaled Abou El Fadl et al,

The Place of Tolerance in Islam

(Boston, Beacon Press, 2002), 22.


Khaled Abou El Fadl et al,

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy

(Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2004), 6.


Ibid., 9.


Ibid., 13.


Ibid., 13.


Ibid., 16.


Ibid., 18.


Ibid., 23.


Ibid., 27.