An excerpt from “Europe Against Islam” (April, 1997):
“If religion is often thought of as a major danger, “Islam” is often represented as a uniquely intractable instance of active religion in the modern world. In the modern world “religion”has-or at any rate, we believe that it should have-its proper appointed place. Islam, presented as a “religious civilization,” is a construct not only of the media but also of intellectual discourse. That is the discourse in which the rich and diverse history of Muslim societies across three continents and one-and-a-half millennia is reduced to the essential principles of a distinctive “religious civilization. ”
Such essentialist characterizations of “Islamic civilization” are carried out sometimes sympathetically and sometimes with hostile intent, but in either case they prompt people to explain the many authoritarian .or violent trends in Muslim countries in terms of an essential “Islam.” There are several objections to such an explanatory procedure, but I shall confine myself here to the most obvious: No liberal in the West would suggest that the Gush Emunim in Israel represent the essence of Judaism, or that the assassination of abortion doctors in the U.S. by pro-Life activists represents the essence of Christianity, Liberal scholars today would rightly object to the suggestion that the powerful authoritarian campaign throughout India for Hindutva (which some observers have likened to Nazism)” expresses the essence of “Hinduism”;yet Western writers continue to identify an essential “authoritarianism” in Muslim countries and attribute it to Islam’s monotheistic beliefs.
The Western intellectual discourse on ”Islamic civilization’’ goes back at least to the first half of the nineteenth century, but in our own day scholars (von Grunebaum, Gibb, Watt, Lewis, Crone and Cook, Geertz, Gellner, and many others) have continued to reproduce it. This discourse is not invariably hostile, but it does make it possible to represent the contemporary Islamic revival as the outcome of a civilizational essence reacting violently in self-defence against the challenge of Modernity. I contend that the very idea of “civilization” -a nineteenth-century invention-is not helpful for thinking constructively about the cultural and political problems of our time. On the other hand “tradition”-often falsely opposed to “modernity” and “reason” since the Enlightenment-is a far more promising concept. Continue reading