Review of Seyed Javad Miri, Islamism and Post-Islamism: Reflections upon Allama Jafari’s Political Thought
(University Press of America, Inc., 2014), pp. 108, £31.95
Reviewed by Sara Tafakori
This book is an attempt to critique the presumed homogeneity of dominant narratives on Islam as both religion and a political force. The author problematises ‘post-Islamist’ scholarship, which, he argues, suggests that Islamism in the Middle East can be transcended. He proposes, instead, a form of ‘democratic’ political Islam as the future of the region.
Key words: Post-Islamism, essentialism, Orientalism
This book seeks to address key Western misconceptions around political Islam, while developing an avowedly non-Eurocentric view of Islamism’s advantages and limitations, in part through a discussion of the political thought of the Iranian theologian Allama Jafari (1923-1998). The book begins by expressing a timely concern with the restricted representational modes of imagining political Islam, pointing to the aggravated brutality associated with ‘Islamism’ when one conducts an image search for the term online. The author aims to unpack what he identifies as consistent trends of essentialism and Orientalism embedded and employed in the dominant modes of knowledge production on ‘Islamism’. He problematises the selectivity and reductiveness of modes of representations which are, for the most part, built on Eurocentric paradigms (xvi; also see 4-5), and which he describes as undermining non-normative and competing discourses (xvi).
The discussion which follows takes as its key point of reference the 1979 Revolution in Iran which overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy and led to the establishment of the present Islamic Republic. The evolution of the Republic furnishes the context for the book’s examination of ‘Islamism as a modern school of political philosophy’ (xvii). The author develops a distinction between a legalistic or ‘jurisprudentialist’ Islamism and a more egalitarian, democratic and ‘compassionate’ Islamism, both of which were present in the 1979 revolution (he overlooks the political significance of other political strands at the time). He argues that jurisprudentialist Islamism has been present in the building of the state apparatus since the establishment of the Islamic state, whereas democratic Islamism has been left out in the cold.
Miri expounds on what he means by democratic Islamism through a sympathetic critique of the writings of Allama Jafari, one of the most influential thinkers in Iran, on the connection between politics and Islam. A particularly moot point for him is Jafari’s notion of Islamic political governance or management, which would promote the ‘spiritual’ dimension in public discourse. However, he criticises this notion as insufficiently open to the notion of popular political participation: ‘if the governor or managing body did not fulfill their duty then in what fashion could people make them accountable?’(25). In this sense, he aligns Jafari with the tradition of jurisprudentialist Islamism, where, in his view, the jurist claims to be the authoritative interpreter of the divine text and allows of no other interpretation.
Despite the title of the book, ‘post-Islamism’ is addressed only in the Epilogue, which seems to occupy the place of a conclusion. Here the author briefly considers the work of Asef Bayat (1996). Miri argues that far from having arrived at a post-Islamist moment, Muslim-majority societies have not gone beyond Islamism: the ‘fundamental factors which brought about Islamism discourse to the public square…have not changed yet, i.e. people’s demand of [sic] a visible form of religiosity’ (85). Thus he narrows down the task facing Muslims to that of constructing a democratic Islamism. Hence, the real issue facing Iran and other Muslim-majority countries, according to the author, is not whether to do away with Islamism itself, but whether democracy should be embraced as a universal value which can re-energise political Islam, or rejected as a specifically ‘Western’ value. He himself opts for the former, characterising Islamism as ‘one of the most progressive political ideologies in the Muslim world provided it is interpreted within the frame of democratic spirit [sic]’ (7). Here, he criticises those who would reject democracy on the basis that it is against ‘“our religion”, “our tradition”, “our national character”, or our “heritage”’ (6-7). Nevertheless, this seemingly anti-essentialist framework is built up on the basis of a thoroughgoing essentialism, whereby Islamism is argued throughout the volume to be a comprehensive, single and authentic unity, which represents an all-encompassing political present and future, ‘rooted in the soil of Islam as a revealed religion which has shaped the mind and heart of people in the vast empire of Islam for more than a millennium’ (xvi).
Moreover, post-Islamism, in Asef Bayat’s conceptualisation of the term, is neither un-Islamic nor anti-Islamic (Bayat, 2007: 19). Bayat himself has noted that his conceptualization has been wrongly perceived, and that the term should be seen more as ‘an analytical category’ rather than as ‘historical’ or chronological (Bayat, 2007: 18). His usage refers to transformations in the thinking of the ruling elite in post-revolutionary Iran, rather than in other Middle Eastern countries, and particularly to what has come to be known as the ‘Reform era’ – the term used to refer to the eight years of the more liberal presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005). He defines post-Islamism as that which ‘wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity, to achieve what some have called an “alternative modernity”’ (19). Here, then, Islamism addresses its own shortcomings in order to normalise and institutionalise itself. This further brings to the surface the vulnerability of Islamism in post-revolutionary Iran to internal power struggles and the fragility of its legitimacy and efficacy in society.
The present author, on the other hand, contends that ‘there is no doubt that the future of the Muslim world belongs to Islamism and all other forms…are doomed to disappear’ (4). Within this frame, Islamism becomes an all-embracing term which elides, firstly, political tensions between differing and competing strands of thought in post-revolutionary Iran, and, secondly, singles out political Islam as an ahistorical ‘collective fate’ decreed by Muslim destiny. This, in turn, throws into question the author’s earlier criticisms of Orientalist and essentialising assumptions; after all, he proposes a corresponding essentialism by deploying Islamism not only to characterise the present, but also as forming the only possible future for politics in the region.
This seems to partake in what Sadik Al-Azm called ‘Orientalism in reverse’ (2000), in other words, a discursive strategy which inverts the essentialist dichotomies of classical Orientalism as defined by Edward Said (1978). As Gilbert Achcar (2013) explains, ‘Orientalism in reverse’ involves the notions that Islamic Orient and the West are antithetical, that the emancipatory path of the Orient cannot and should not be measured in the terms of a Western social science-based epistemology, and that Islamism is the only way forward for Muslim-majority societies (Achcar, 2013: 42-3). The volume, in spite of the author’s warning against equating Islam with Islamism, itself engages in such a conflation whereby Islamism as a political movement or governing system is merged with Islam as religion and Islam as tradition or culture (3-10). This intertwinement seemingly constructs an inherent connection between Islamism as an institution and Islam as a belief. Thus the author states that ‘people in Muslim societies tend to have a visible religiosity’ (p.80) and argues that Islamism is the ideal form of governance for ‘Muslims who insist on having visible religiosity in the public sphere (7)’. Firstly, this amalgam undermines the status and rights of minorities living in Muslim-majority countries; and secondly, ironically, it ignores the embedded power relations and struggles at play in his example country, Iran, where this ‘visible religiosity’ in many instances is enforced by the government – for example, through compulsory veiling – and continually maintained through its systematic suppression of various political oppositions and social and cultural movements.
The framing of Shia Iran as the most politically dynamic example of Islamism leads to the reductive presentation of Sunni thought as having been ‘frozen due to the autocratic rule of the dynastical kingdoms in most Arab countries’ (12). This in turn largely neglects and undermines the vibrant and multiple mobilisations and uprisings of ordinary people across the region, which came to be known as the Arab ‘spring’. Accounting for such mobilisations, Islamist or otherwise, could have contributed to a more inclusive account.
The book is more anecdotal and less tightly structured than I have so far suggested. Nonetheless, this work is of interest for its attempt to critique both Orientalist and Occidentalist narratives from a situated Middle Eastern perspective, while it also reveals the difficulty, for postcolonial scholars, of developing an alternative narrative to either set of normative conceptions.
Achcar, G (2013) Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism. London: Saqi Books.
Bayat, A (2007) Islam and Democracy: what is the Real Question? Amsterdam: University Press.
Sadik J Al-Azm (2000) ‘Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse’, in Macfie, A.L (ed), Orientalism: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, pp. 217-238.
Said, E (1995) Orientalism. 2nd edition, London: Penguin.
Sara Tafakori is currently undertaking a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies at Manchester University. She obtained her BA and MA in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of Tehran and worked for several years as a journalist in Iranian print media. She completed her second MA in Gender Studies, with particular reference to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, at SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include: affect; biopolitics; gender and sexuality; migration and diaspora; (post) Islamism and Iranian social media.
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