Post Islamism? Questioning the Question (Part 1)
Abdullahi Gallab recalled in his posting of June 18 that the term “post-Islamism” was coined by the sociologist Asef Bayat. Bayat used the term in his now famous 1996 article “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society” to characterize a new historical phase into which he saw Iranian society transitioning following the death of Khomeini in 1989. What he wrote is instructive to the conversation we are having on this blog, not, in my estimation, for how post-Khomeini Iran echoes the situation in contemporary Sudan (for I don’t think it does), but rather for revealing many of the assumptions that underlie the attempt to label the Sudanese state (or its society) as post-Islamist. Bayat wrote:
By “post Islamism” I mean a condition where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, symbols, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism get exhausted, even among its once ardent supporters. As such, post-Islamism is not anti-Islamic, but rather reflects a tendency to resecularize religion. Predominantly, it is marked by a call to limit the political role of religion. In contemporary Iran, post-Islamism is expressed in the idea of fusion between Islam (as personalized faith) and individual freedom or choice… [my emphases] (i)
For Bayat, then, post-Islamism as a category of analysis does not differ markedly from at least one branch of the greatly challenged “secularization thesis” (ii) which argues that, following the failure of religion as the foundation of political authority at the level of the state, religion’s public role is diminished and it begins to function primarily as a kind of “personalized faith,” the possession of the freely-choosing, voluntarist, subject rather than imposed from above. To use Charles Hirschkind’s framing of such analyses, for Bayat, post-Islamism is characterized by free deliberation around questions of religious truth rather than the discipline of the state or an orthodoxy. (iii)
In a later article, Bayat begins to back away from the claims of resecularization which he makes in his earlier essay (“post Islamism is neither anti-Islamic, un-Islamic, nor is it secular. Rather it represents an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty”). In this article, post-Islamism seems to become a stand-in for “Islamic liberalism” or “modernism” (“Muslim societies are undergoing a post-Islamist turn characterized by rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past”). (iv) We should note that while this “post-Islamist” liberalism or modernism is perhaps distinguishable from what Bayat calls pre-Khamenei Islamism, I am not sure how distinguishable it is from what we might call Hasan al-Turabi’s Islamism, for example. The fact that the Islamists of Sudan (as elsewhere in the Muslim world) are characterized by their attack on the idea of the “˜ulamaa‘, as well as by the gathering of diverse Muslims groups under the umbrella of the jabha (the front), suggests the kind of doctrinal tolerance towards Islamic plurality that Bayat identifies only with “post-Islamism.” (v) Further, Islamists in Sudan such as al-Turabi often speak in the familiar liberal language of rights. Finally, unlike theorists who pose a progressive human decline from the time of the Prophet such as the salafiyya, Sudanese Islamists are certainly future oriented: this is of course the very idea behind their concept of tajdiid (renewal). (vi) Thus, if a turn towards religious plurality in the face of a singular voice, a focus on rights instead of duties, and an orientation towards the future instead of the past denotes “post-Islamism” for Bayat, and such a state of affairs was already the case under the Sudanese Islamists of the early inqaadh, we are forced to question not only the coherence of the analytical category of “post-Islamism,” but perhaps of “Islamism” as well. I’ll discuss this point more in the following.
In this later article to which I have just referred, Bayat argues that “post-Islamism” is both representative of a “condition”””that is, the intellectual exhaustion of Islamists and of Islam itself, as a political solution, following the failure of “a phase of [political] experimentation””” and what he calls a “project”: that is, the conscious attempt to conceptualize a new political future which transcends Islamism.(vii) As is evident from the present discussion on this blog, those who today suggest that Sudan may be transitioning into a post-Islamist period (or at least argue that Islamism as a political project has disintegrated) tend to see this new period of malaise in a similar way to Bayat’s model of the “condition:” that is, as a kind of intellectual exhaustion by the Sudanese Islamists themselves which allows them to critique the present impasse, but not to put forward any productive solutions for how to emerge from it.(viii) Indeed, such exhaustion among Islamist intellectuals was evident in my time in the field, both in the books which were circulating and in the conversations I had with Islamist leaders and intellectuals themselves. Take Hasan al-Turabi, for example, who said to me in an in interview in February of 2007:
People became obsessed with politics because it was the new thing. Like when someone is about to get married he just thinks about the one he wants to marry and forgets everything else. It was like this. We said for the first time since the Righteous Caliphs (al-khulafaa’ al-raashidiin): here comes an Islamic Government!!! Nowhere else [had this appeared], except with the shi”˜a in Iran. So because of this it became an obsession. We forgot culture. We forgot education. We forgot society. We forgot the mosques. There was no one among us who went and worked in a mosque. [We all went to the] government offices: army, customs, embassies, police forces… And our children, all of them, we put in political positions for which they were not prepared, but they were tempted by them. We corrupted so many people! … And [in so doing] we left society [unguarded] and the Sufis came and worked in it, and the Salafis came and worked in it. The Salafis came because our work was over there, in public life, without a base [in society]. When we looked back to our base we realized that it became full of (itmala bi) Sufis and Salafis.
Here we see al-Turabi very much echo the sentiments of Abdel Wahab al-Effendi that he expressed in his posting of April 13 on the present blog regarding the irony that it was precisely the Islamists rise to political power that destroyed the Islamic Movement (and, like al-Effendi, al-Turabi also casts al-Turabi as the villain!). For al-Turabi, evidence of the failure of Islamism is that society becomes filled with Sufis and Salafis, whom he elsewhere characterizes as primarily concerned with practices of the purification of the self(x) or with ritual matters that have no bearing on the future of the umma.(xi) On this point, Prof. Hasan Maki (a well-known and oft-quoted Islamist) once responded to a question I had posed to him in an interview about “Sufi revivalism” by asking: “But is this [phenomenon] really an awakening (sahwa) of religion or is it a fading away (khufuut)? … Because what we [as Islamists] call this renaissance (nahda), this religious awakening, means its politicization (ta’siis al-diin).” Islamist activists and scholars thus understand the failure of Islamism to be evidenced by their ownfall from grace (both politically, as in the case of al-Turabi, and socially, as displayed by the lack of popularity of their shaykhs among the people) as well as by the rise in their place of movements that they understand as not properly suited to address the issues that concern the contemporary umma.
My problem with the idea of “post-Islamism” is that I believe that in posing it as a term of analysis we are taking the words of such Sudanese Islamists too much at face value: that their failure means the failure of Islamism as a whole. Indeed, a key piece of evidence in support of the thesis of the failure of Islamism that has been cited in the present blog conversation (and elsewhere) is that even the Islamists themselves recognize such failure. Yet, before addressing the question of whether the splits and divisions within the Islamic Movement””as well as the seeming move away from state-operated Islamic projects of social reform such as the “Civilizing Project” (and the subsequent move towards a security-based and capitalist pragmatism)””are evidence of a transition of the Sudanese state into a post-Islamist phase, it is crucial that we go one step further than al-Turabi and Hasan Maki and untangle the fortune of Sudanese Islamists from the idea of Islamism.
i. Asef Bayat. 1996. “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society,” in Critique: Critical Middle East Studies, no. 9 (Fall 1996), pgs. 43-52. Page 45.
ii. See for example Jose Casanova. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, for an explanation and critique of this thesis.
iii. Charles Hirschkind. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press. Pgs. 105-8 where he criticizes such deliberation vs. discipline dualism in the study of contemporary Islam.
iv. Asef Bayat. 2005. “What is Post-Islamism,” ISIM Review 16, Autumn 2005. Page 5.
v. Note that I am distinguishing here between doctrinal and political tolerance, as ruling Islamists certainly were quite intolerant of Islamic groups who were not willing to line up behind the political ideals of the jabha. As for religious doctrine, the jabha was””and is, in its new incarnation as the NCP””a rather diverse gathering of Muslim groups, from Sufis to Salafis, though one also can’t deny figures such as al-Turabi’s vanguardism and reformist goals in relationship to other Islamic groups.
vi. In this regard, Hasan al-Turabi is famously said to have proclaimed, regarding the companions of the prophet Muhammad and the righteous salaf who came after them, “nihna rujaal wa humma rujaal“ (“we are men and they are men”) in order to denote that these heroes of the past are no more capable of interpreting Islamic tradition than we are in the present.
vii. Asef Bayat. 2005. “What is Post-Islamism,” ISIM Review 16, Autumn 2005. Page 5.
viii. See for example the paragraph that precedes the conclusion in Abdullahi Gallab’s May 31 posting “Is Sudan a Post-Islamist State? II.”
ix. See, for example, Al-Tayyib Zayn al-“˜Abdin. 2003. Maqaalaat “˜an al-haraka al-islaamiyya fi al-suudaan. Khartoum: daar al-sudaaniyya lil-kutub, where he mourns the death of the Islamic Movement due to the transformations it went through when it entered the palace in an article entitled “rahmat allah al-haraka al-islaamiyya.”
x. The purification of the self is called tazkiyyat al-nafs, which can occur either through the purification of doctrine, “˜aqiida, as in the case of the Salafis, or through supererogatory worksip, nawaafil, as in the case of the Sufis.
xi. Though al-Turabi himself does not use the term, the Salafi group Ansaar al-Sunna, are commonly known by their detractors as “ulama al-hayd wa-l-nifaas,” that is, “the scholars who are interested in matters of women’s menstruation and issues of childbirth,” that is the details of ritual purity (tahaara) rather than issues such as politics.
Noah Salomon is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, currently resident at Columbia University