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Volume 8, No 3, Fall 1998 [back]

A Fundamental Fear
-- Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism

Bobby S. Sayyid; Reviewed by Tanju Çataltepe

Zed Books, 1997,
ISBN 1 85649 412 8

There are numerous efforts to explain, or explain away, the emergence of "Islam" as a political force in the Muslim countries. The revolution in Iran is the event that brought the problem of Islam to the top of the agenda for the policy makers of the rich and the powerful countries ("North Atlantic plutocracies" in Bobby Sayyid's terminology). And the armies of academics were soon turning out papers, books discussing the phenomena. Bobby Sayyid provides a critique of the major strains of the "Fundamentalism/Islamism" scholarship and gives an alternative framework to situate the Islamist emergence.

Bobby Sayyid ultimately argues that Islamism is a challenge to conceptualization of the West as the universal and that it is an attempt to articulate an alternate --Muslim-- subjectivity. After convincingly demonstrating the uselessness of the category of "fundamentalism" in the first chapter, Sayyid declares that he is going to write about "Islamism". Sayyid says, "an Islamist is someone who places her or his Muslim identity at the centre of her or his political practice. That is, Islamists are people who use the language of Islamic metaphors to think through their political destinies, those who see in Islam their political future."

The criticism of the use of "fundamentalism" as an analytical category focuses on fundamentalism as it relates to women's bodies, political pluralism, and conflating religion and politics. These are three main characteristics that are commonly associated with fundamentalism (read as "irtica" in the Turkish context) as familiar in the Turkish scene. Sayyid demonstrates that exercising control over women's bodies (for that matter men's as well) is not a hallmark of fundamentalism but of all governments, be they fascist, communist, liberal Western plutocracy. Sayyid says:

"It could be argued that imposing the end of the veil is not the same, in principle, as enforcing the wearing of the veil. The former is 'liberating' and, therefore, is not an exercise in control but its abandonment; the latter conversely, is restrictive and, as such, can be considered an exercise in control. In other words, control is only exercised when it is a restriction. But why should the enforced removal of the veil be considered liberating and the enforcement of the veil be considered restrictive? It is only by assuming there is a 'natural' female subjectivity (what Elizabeth Spelman calls an 'essential woman') that it is possible uncritically to equate veiling with a restriction...

"... When white women of the nineteenth century saw veiled women, they understood it to be a sign of cultural backwardness and female subordination. They did not make the same assumptions about their own clothes [Victorian corsets], which for them did not signify female subordination --because they did not signify cultural backwardness. Cultural backwardness --that is a culture not modelled upon a European template-- manifested itself in female subordination. By focusing attention on the veil, the critics of the veil have often neglected far more serious issues."

In fact, this theme of uncovering the hidden assumption of the West as the universal in various critiques, analysis of the Islamism is the main project of Sayyid in this book.

The claim that fundamentalism is distinguished by its rejection of political pluralism boils down to equating fundamentalism with dogmatism which is certainly not the province of fundamentalists alone. As Sayyid says, "If the category of fundamentalism becomes simply a description of strongly held beliefs, then it is clear that even the most 'radical democrats' or postmodern bourgeois liberals have a fundamentalist core."

As far as conflating politics with religion is concerned, Sayyid points out that to see this as a peculiarity of fundamentalism is to assume that there is a natural division between church and state. This assumption is again another universalization of the Western history as the model for human history. This idea relies on western Christianity as the model of what a religion is.

Emergence of Islamism as a force in Muslim societies is explained usually by one or more of the following:

  1. Inability of the secular elites to meet the hopes and aspirations of their people;
  2. Authoritarian nature of post-colonial regimes resulting in an erosion of the civil society and leaving the mosque as the only viable public space;
  3. Post-colonial mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie through recruitment into the administrative ranks of the state did not give them real power, resulting in a crisis of the petty bourgeoisie;
  4. Reactions to uneven economic development and to disruptions of rapid urbanization;
  5. A nativist response to inclusion in a western-dominated global system.

All or some of these may be true in any given Muslim society, however, as Sayyid argues, the questions still remains: Why Islamism, but not another competing ideology, such as liberalism, socialism, etc.?

For answers Sayyid looks at the post-colonial regimes of the Muslim majority states. These are "Kemalist" regimes. Sayyid uses Kemalism as a metaphor for all these post-colonial regimes even though their strategies may be different. In this sense Kemalism has existed since the 1870s. Kemalism of Mustafa Kemal holds an important position among the Kemalist regimes because by abolishing the caliphate, it helped to legitimize the idea that national identities as expressed as nation states as the only credible political community. Moreover Kemalism achieved its coherence by its antagonistic relation to Islam. Paradoxically, the attempts of Kemalist regimes to exclude Islam from the political domain positioned Islam as possible location for an alternative political discourse. That is, Kemalists politicized Islam.

Sayyid also points out the relationship between orientalism and Kemalism:

"To modernize, the Kemalists had to westernize, but the very nature of westernization implied the necessity of orientalization since you can only westernize what is not western, that is what is oriental. Thus, to westernize you had first to orientalize: one had to represent the oriental, before one could postulate westernization as an antidote. To reject the Orient in the name of the West meant the articulation of the Orient as 'the Orient'."

This description should be familiar to any student of the Turkish scene. The pronouncements of various flavors of Kemalist "left" to plain vanilla Kemalists reflect this attitude. A particular example would be the popular psychology books of Dogan Cüceloglu with their neat comparative tables of the modern (read as the West) versus the traditional (read as the Orient) modes of thinking, behavior etc.

However, Kemalist regimes could not establish a total hegemony, they could not displace Islam completely in every sphere of life. As various Kemalist regimes falter and fall into crisis, Islamism emerges as the political alternative. The crisis and the internalization of Kemalism is different across the Muslim world. And with Khomeini Islamism becomes a counter-hegemonic movement. Sayyid notes that "If Kemal Ataturk can be presented as an icon marking the culmination of various projects of westernization, then the figure of Khomeini marks the end of Kemalism." In fact, the infamous Time magazine list of the "men of the century" included Khomeini but not Ataturk; maybe another sign of the end of hegemony of Kemalism.

Since the Kemalist discourses present Islam as the symbol of anti-modern, when the crisis of Kemalism coincided with the crisis of modernity, Islamism emerges as the only alternative political discourse. Other possible alternatives, such as liberalism, social democracy, etc., that could have emerged as alternatives to Kemalism are riddled with being part of modernity. Thus, they cannot escape from the larger crisis of the discourses of modernity.

Then there are various attempts to salvage modernity (and implicitly the universality of the West) by showing that Islamists are really another form of modernity. This is similar to the arguments favored by the advocates of liberalism in Turkey. Sayyid does a through critique of these attempts. A silly but common manifestation of this modernity of Islamism is the use of modern means (cassettes, videos of sermons, computers, ...) by the Islamists. A more sophisticated approach is to identify various elements of the Islamists' discourse as western, sort of claiming a copyright for political terminology. These claims are difficult to sustain as Sayyid's analysis shows. Sayyid writes:

"The battle between eurocentrism and the logic of Islamism is really a conflict about genealogies -- a struggle about how to narrate the future world. The western discourse is a product of a number of projects which narrate the world in terms of the continuity of the West. The limit of Europe comes when groups of people begin to articulate their position on the basis of the rejection of Europe's claims to copyright."

Overall, this is a highly recommended book for those interested in the emergence of Islamism as a political force. It would be helpful to be familiar at least with Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism, as well as some recent scholarship in the field of cultural criticism. I would like to conclude with Sayyid's words of conclusion:

"No doubt Islamist tide will ebb and flow over the coming years, no doubt Islamists will suffer disappointments, and will advance and retreat. But as long as there are Muslims the promise and fear of Islamism will remain, for in the end, for us Muslims, Islam is another name for the hope of something better."

©1998 anadolu
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