When Western professors drink the Islamist Kool-Aid

This is a great example of what sometimes gives academic scholarship a very bad name in the non-academic world. [Note: almost as soon as this posting went up on Ibishblog, the link to the paper became inoperative, but can still be accessed online in cached form, see citation below] This genius of a professor attempts to argue that there is no such thing as Arab secularism, except among a “Westernized-globalized class” which is not only inauthentic, but is also by definition an agent of imperialism and “Orientalism.” The essential idea here is that because secularism as an aspect of contemporary political life originally arose in a European context, it is therefore not only alien to the postcolonial world, apparently especially the Middle East, it is also by definition a mechanism of Western colonialism and Christianity. The plain implication is that Islamists are “authentic” whereas Arab secularists are simply co-opted tools of Western culture and authority and part of an “inauthentic” elite that is alienated from its own history and culture, and all aspects of genuine popular sentiment. The author even tries to Shanghai the ever-abused Edward Said as an authority for the view (not original to himself, but still preposterous) that “Secularism is Orientalism. And Orientalism is Christianity.” If there is anything that defined Said’s thinking and his intellectual and political affiliations it is his passionate commitment to secularism in all its forms. He even described his methodology of literary criticism as “secular criticism.” Since Said spent much of his career promoting “secular criticism” against habits of thought arising from Orientalist traditions, one can only imagine how he would have reacted to the suggestion that what he was doing was, in fact, not only Orientalism, but also, at its heart, religious Christianity.

As with so much of low-level academic discourse, this pigs-breakfast of a paper attempts to dress up an extremely simple and indeed simplistic idea – in this case, that Arabs are naturally and authentically religious and that secularism is not only alien but hostile to the Arab way of life – and dress it up in all kinds of laughable jargon and dubious citations. The title of the conclusion, “when/where time becomes space,” is extremely provocative, to the point that it ought to be impossible to write something banal on the subject (this proves not to be the case). The problem is that this formulation has absolutely nothing to do with what the author is trying to say, it just sounds sexy. All he is a really doing is supporting the idea that Hamas is an “authentic” and legitimate political movement that supposedly represents the Palestinian majority, whereas secular nationalists in the PLO are simply agents of colonialism and “Christianity.” This guy has obviously not bothered to consult the trajectory or the ebb and flow of Palestinian opinion polls over the past, say, 10 years.

All of this is itself fetishizing and indeed entirely “Orientalist” (in the worst sense of the word) in that it, in effect, posits an essential characteristic to Arab culture and political life (religious affiliation, not to say fanaticism). It takes sides in the current major political and social divide in the Arab world firmly on the side of the most reactionary and authoritarian forces, that is to say the religious ultra-right, and stigmatizes anyone who would suggest that religious heterogeneity in Arab societies mandates that reasonable government ought to be neutral on matters of religion (that is to say, a properly secularist point of view).

Worse still, it makes one of the most fundamental errors to be typically found in academic writing on postcolonial realities: it treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which the postcolonial world (or the academic in question) can simply pick and choose which elements of modernity it wishes to pull off the shelf and put in its basket, leaving others for the next customer. Quite obviously, it doesn’t work that way. Social, economic and political modernity, which is and has been an ineluctable and pervasive force in the colonial and postcolonial worlds, carries its own inbuilt logic of connections, dichotomies, causes and consequences. It is absolutely ridiculous to take one troublesome aspect of modernity in a postcolonial environment (in this case secularism in the Arab world) and dismiss it as an inauthentic imposition of Western colonialism, as if all or many of the other aspects of modernity were somehow less “inauthentic” or less of a tool of colonialism. Modernity is a package deal; you take it or leave it. And, since pre-modern formations were generally unable to successfully resist or remove colonial domination, and for many other reasons, the embrace of modernity in the postcolonial world has been irreversible for well over 100 years.

However, the very dumbest aspect of an incredibly dumb argument is this author’s apparent belief that contemporary Arab Islamism (or other religious politics) are somehow less influenced by European culture, colonialism and modernity than are secular nationalist forces. The only way to arrive at this conclusion is to fall hook, line and sinker for a completely ahistorical and obviously fraudulent claim on the part of Islamist parties to be resurrecting or continuing some form of premodern, precolonial tradition in the face of the “onslaught of Western culture.” In fact, of course, all forms of Islamism in the Arab world (and beyond) are entirely the products of modernity and the postcolonial experience, as least as much as secular nationalism ever was. Islamists are not trying to “return” to anything, they are building something entirely new and entirely modern, however reactionary and obscurantist, and they know it.

Is it possible to imagine the Muslim Brotherhood movement and network of political parties arising outside of the context of an emerging Arab modernity and without crucial influence of the Leninist revolutionary model? How can any form of Salafism, even apolitical religious versions, be read as anything other than a product of the same colonial and postcolonial realities that also and equally gave rise to secular nationalism at the same moment? Is it possible to imagine Ayatollah Khomeini’s “vilayyat e-faqih” innovation, which is a complete departure from all traditions of political-clerical authority in the Islamic world, arising in any other context than Iran’s postcolonial modernity? Al-Qaeda, as a virtual organization that often exists more on the Internet than anywhere else, is positively postmodern. Plainly, all of these gestures are as much a consequence of modernity as they are some kind of reaction to it, and while they certainly claim forms of superior cultural and religious “authenticity,” it requires a genuinely profound ignorance to accept these fatuous assertions.

The reality is that all political formations in the contemporary Arab world, including Palestine, are the products of the postcolonial experience and emerging forms of modernity. They are equidistant from both tradition and from colonial and Western influences, and claims of “authenticity” are transparent propaganda designed to appeal to credulous and politically unsophisticated constituents. Sadly, some Western professors are not only drinking, but have developed a positive addiction, to this particular brand of Kool-Aid.

[ the paper in question is:
Roger Heacock, “Of the Advantages (and Perils) of the Deficit of Securalism in Contemporary Palestinian Political Culture,” in Roger Heacock (ed.), “Temps et espaces en Palestine,” Beyrouth, Liban, Institut français du Proche-Orient (“Études contemporaines,” no. 25, p. 293-305), 2008.]