A new understanding of the Middle East

There are multiple reasons for looking beyond Islam for our comprehension of this tumultuous region, to culture, to politics, and also to the history of capitalism, foreign interference and domination – its winners and losers. Our reviewer of Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East, by openDemocracy author Sami Zubaida, is drawn to a conclusion regarding having one’s pudding and eating it
Eberhard Kienle
2 May 2011

Published while the ‘Arab spring’ was spreading beyond Tunisia and Egypt, Beyond Islam provides more than a coherent answer to the questions raised by a public surprised to see that recent effective large-scale popular mobilization in largely Muslim countries has been neither initiated nor dominated by Islamists, nor primarily expressed in religious terms. Certainly, everybody saw the Muslim Brothers join the Egyptian protests after days of hesitation, numerous people praying in public in Tahrir Square, and Muslim preachers and Christian priests jointly addressing the crowds. However, it was no less obvious that the language used by the major protagonists of change was indifferent to religion, if not secular; that few of the dramatis personae had Islamist leanings, and that some of them distanced themselves from Islamist organizations whose views they previously had embraced. When satellite channels showed veiled women publicly denouncing the Muslim Brothers, the ‘Muslim world’ definitely seemed to be walking on its head. While written before the current events, Sami Zubaida’s latest book shows that surprise at the non-religious nature of the protests reflects the hegemony of a highly biased narrative of socio-political change rather than some unpredictable, erratic or simply novel twists and turns in events.

Conceived as an analysis of longterm change, Beyond Islam successfully contextualizes processes that have commonly been described as the revival of Islam, the rise of (political) Islam or the (re)islamization of society. By implication, the volume highlights the inadequacy of received wisdoms about the Middle East that proceed from the premise of some sort of Arab or Muslim exceptionalism.  Right from the beginning the author explicitly states his intention ‘to ‘de-sacralize ‘ the region, questioning the predominant role attributed to religion in so much of the writing on these histories and societies, where ‘Islamic’ is applied to every aspect of culture and society’ (p.1).  Derived from earlier published materials reaching back to 1995, the various chapters at the same time illustrate that even in the days of Taliban power in Afghanistan, the rise of Hamas in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon, the continued strength of the Islamic Republic in Iran, and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York - the politics of Muslim countries and actors could be fruitfully and convincingly analyzed outside the mainstream preoccupation and even obsession with ‘political Islam’ .        

Sami Zubaida demonstrates that there is more than one single reason to look beyond Islam in attempts to make sense of social change in the Muslim parts of the Middle East. First, strands of thought and political programmes promoting Islamic values  have historically coexisted alongside others that focus on the welfare of different imagined communities such as nations or on the defense of class interests.  Second, there is no unanimity as to the values to be considered Islamic. Similar to the beauty that is in the eye of the beholder, values are not ‘Islamic’ independently of the actors who promote them. Arguments couched in the ‘idiom’ of Islam (p.106) may be contradictory and mutually exclusive; by consequence, the meaning of Islam has always been contested and remains so to this day. If over the past few decades interests and objectives have increasingly been expressed in the terms of Islam, the diversity of these interests and objectives has increased as well. Today Islam is mobilized to prevent women from driving cars and to defend their political rights, to implement liberal economic policies and state-centred development strategies, to legitimate authoritarian rule and to promote democracy. At the end of the day reference to Islam has become the manifestation and manufacture of a ‘consensus without agreement’.

Most crucially, however, the increasing prominence of Islam as an idiom from the late 1920s and even more so from the 1960s is itself a historical development and an expression of broader changes that had progressively gained momentum since the eighteenth century. In fact, religion and its role and importance frequently are dependent rather than independent variables.  As Sami Zubaida explains, ‘in both Europe and the Middle East, at different periods of time, law, education, productive property and institutions…were disengaged from religious control.’ Frequently referred to as ‘secularization’, a notion which the author would prefer to replace with the concept of the ‘dis-embedding’ of religion, this ‘structural and institutional separation of social spheres from religion and its authorities’ is an attribute of ‘modernity’ that accompanied the spread of capitalism (pp.2-3). ‘It is capitalism that ushers in diverse processes of social transformation, which are not merely cultural imitation, but solvents of old social and cultural patterns.[…M]odernity in diverse parts of the world is not the product of cultural influences, imitations and ‘invasions’ from the West, but the consequence of transformations of social relations, powers and authorities brought about by sweeping socio-economic forces’(p.5) -  an argument that also challenges assumptions about ‘multiple modernities’.

The transformations necessarily produced losers and winners; even some of the latter ‘disliked [the] social and cultural effects, and the challenge they presented to patriarchal and religious controls and authorities’, while despots continued to resort to ‘religious ideology in defense of reactionary power’ (p.7).  In a nutshell, the ‘revival of Islam’ is a product of modernity and a response to the challenges that modernity poses to various actors and constituencies. As the author eloquently concludes, ‘[t]he fact that popular preachers and religious zealots continue to fulminate against deviance, looseness and immorality, to demand the stern enforcement of morality in this world and to threaten hellfire in the hereafter, is testimony to the continued popularity of sin’(p.8).       

From this historical perspective, the six chapters discussing Ernest Gellner’s concept of a ‘Muslim society’; political modernity in the Middle East; shifting social boundaries and identities; the role of cosmopolitans, nationalists and fundamentalists; the public and the private; and the continuities and contradictions of Islam and nationalism discuss in detail a number of issues that have attracted the attention of specialists and the broader educated public. Among others, these issues include the alleged ‘distinctiveness’ of Islam as a culture and civilization already critiqued in the debates about ‘Orientalism’; the historical construction of identities; concepts of sexuality and gender; alcohol; ‘Islamic’ finance and science; as well as other uses of the adjective ‘Islamic’. In the first chapter, Sami Zubaida challenges the very concept of a ‘homogenous “Muslim society”’ that was proposed and developed by Ernest Gellner. In the second chapter he extensively dwells on the transition from pre-modern politics largely based on patrimonialism to modernity marked by the ‘breakdown of primary social units and solidarities of tribe, village and urban quarter’ (p.91) - a process that entailed new ‘styles of politics’ including the highly diverse forms of modern Islamic politics in the Middle East and among Muslim migrant populations. Chapter Three shows how the ‘distinction and difference between the European and the “Muslim” Mediterranean… does not represent a deep and essential cultural cleavage, but one…in which…the formation of the European Union played an important role in integrating the European south into the north’(p.117). Chapter Four traces back the cosmopolitan history of the Middle East defined as that of ‘communally deracinated and culturally promiscuous groups and milieux’ (p.154) that are not to be confused with globally homogenized business communities and mass tourism. Chapter Five explores the boundaries between the public and the private, the doubtful nature of angelic attempts to transpose the Habermasian concept of the ‘public sphere’ to Middle Eastern contexts, and forms of resistance such as urfi mariage to Islamist encroachments on the private sphere. Chapter Six illustrates the different foci of solidarity and loyalty on which Muslims have historically built imagined communities as defined by Benedict Anderson, the nationalist underpinnings of various religious definitions of such communities, and the signs of a ‘secularist revival’ in a period in which religion based ‘umma nationalism’ (p.198) remains a popular response to external challenges.             

As Sami Zubaida points out, the relative strength of religious references is closely connected to the perception of many Middle Easterners that the economic and social changes lumped together under the label of ‘modernity’ have been imposed on them by stronger powers and forces located in the ‘West’ including Israel. ‘Capitalism, modernity and secularization had all come to the Middle East as aspects of European/ Western domination, and were conceived by many as Christian’(p.3). The unequal balance of power between ‘them’ and ‘us’ strengthens self-defenses in terms of the ‘own’ which in Muslim contexts is Islam. The process is no different from other cases in which various forms of foreign interference and domination give rise to communitarian responses and forms of identity politics. The nationalist and partly religious discourse of the extreme right in globalizing Europe is just another example. Put differently, ‘Islamization’ would be far weaker if Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere could conceive of themselves and their societies as the equals of non Muslims and their societies. Many of the ‘facebook generation’ (though not ipso facto all) protesters in Tunisia and Egypt precisely conceive of themselves as the equals not only of their former authoritarian rulers but also of the rest of the world. They are educated, know the world, sometimes operate globally, and claim the same rights as Americans or Europeans.

Steering away from anything like policy recommendations, the volume nonetheless presents an argument with obvious political implications. Europeans, North Americans, Israelis and other ‘Westerners’ afraid of the rise and continuous strength of Islam as an idiom or set of values might address this challenge by reshaping their relations with the Muslim parts of the world in more egalitarian ways. This may be an unlikely scenario as they greatly benefit from these unequal relations as exporters of commodities, providers of loans or tourists. However, they cannot have their pudding and eat it. Much of the emphasis that many Muslims put on Islam derives not from local but international and global dynamics.      


Sami Zubaida, Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East, London, I.B.Tauris, 2011, 232 pages including bibliography and index.

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