Sunday, 3 August 2008

Progressive Islam and a Critique of Edward Said's Theory of Orientalism

It may be too soon to try and deconstruct how I feel about the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life but if I don’t write them down now I may never get round to it. I don’t want to spend too much time delving into the politics of the summer school. The Arab/Israeli conflict was very much at the heart of the school with participants from the Holy Land. There were few occasions when the subject didn’t turn back to the conflict. It was very difficult for me to listen to the concerns of both Arabs and Israelis. Both have suffered but in amongst all of that they still sat side by side and had a laugh now and again. We had an interesting task of a group presentation in which one group, with Arabs and Israelis, had a humorous discussion exposing the prejudices they had about each other. Nothing was resolved but exposed some of the issues at stake. Humor is a good way of sitting outside of the serious issues and talking about them. Maybe this is a good first step to conflict resolution.

As you all know, I was reluctant in going to this summer school but now feel that it was a wonderful experience. Meeting with Professor Adam Seligman and listening to him was for me one of the highlights. It is Adam’s firm conviction that the knowledge of different faiths and religions is ‘knowledge for building a good city, differently’ which in my understanding pushes for the knowledge to aid communal harmony and not its convictions. This is a pretty similar argument to the Ford Foundation project on Social Justice Philanthropy which I led a few years ago in which I argued that faith communities need to start working on social justice issues as opposed to arguing about the similarities between them theologically.

So here is where the summer school helped me define my own goal and aim. That there are many religious people out there who create networks with those from different faiths in order to do some good in society, regardless of there traditional or progressive views. For example in order to feed the hungry in developing countries does one really need to understand the theology of the faith based relief agencies such as Islamic Relief or SCIAF? Of course not!

It is with the same method that the so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ who are presented often with their highly platitudinous comments on Islam’s peaceful side are a welcome sight to the non-Muslim communities or even the media. It is not the concern of the non-Muslim to challenge progressive or conservative Islamic theology. Those who do are quickly dismissed. There were key non-Muslim academics who undertook a critical enquiry into Islam in the past but then came Edward Said with his book Orientalism in which he lambasted non-Muslim interest in Islamic studies as a conspiracy of neo-colonialism, if the colonial power had fallen then knowledge of the ‘orient’ would keep the colonial spirit high, Said argued. This is one of the reasons why I am greatly saddened that non-Muslim academics of Islam are forever having to justify their existence. I’m sure there are some out there who do not want to see Islam progress but why do Muslims paint them all with the same brush? I believe the reason is to manipulate the situation. A lot of Muslims abuse the terms Islamophobia and Orientalist in order to uphold and propagate their conservative views. A clever game is then played to silence criticism from non-Muslims. So who is seeking progress if the progressives have been silenced and the non-Muslim labeled as Orientalist and Islamophobic?

I see a bright future for Muslims in Scotland (I can only comment on my ‘patch’ so I will not be too ambitious about the rest of the world!). I find it detrimental to my own faith and spirituality to sit back and accept views on Islamic theology which I don’t believe in. In the very essence of freedom of speech the views of the progressives cannot be silenced. This is not the same as setting up a relief agency in conjunction with Christians or Jews. The stakes are much higher, the future is at stake. In my opinion most of these voices that we always hear are highly politicised and void at root of God’s love, true liberty and progress. I do believe that this bright future can only arise if we all live out an Islam and love of God that is rooted in our Scottish soil. The path for those stuck in the romanticised ideals of medieval Arab Islam is simple and unchallenging but realising that God’s love and beauty also flourishes in our beloved thistle is one which seeks a more adventurous soul.

1 comment:

  1. Salaam Alaikum,

    Interesting commentary on the spinning of Said's work "Orientalism", however I think on the other side there is the danger that you have over simplified things. I believe Said also has posited some productive and legitimate critiques of Colonialist Academia and their publications of Islam. Despite his ramblings on somethings which had absolutely nothing to do with anti-Eastern sentiment. Have you read Ibn Warraq's critique?

    Coming from Scotland, we have a long tradition of Christian Missionaries who worked within so called Academia and often presented an extremely biased view of Islamic History and views of the life of Muhammad.