Oh, people were in room 133. I'm so sorry. OK. I wondered where everyone was. [laughs]
Please take a seat. We're just happy to have you here. Wonderful. Sorry about the room mix-up.
So, again, my name is Michele Storms. I'm the assistant dean for
public service here at University of Washington Law School. And I also
direct the Gates Public Service Law Program. And through that program,
we have a speaker series that I'm very proud that we're able to have
here at the law school, because we are able to bring in people from a
wide variety of disciplines but whose work touches on law and
public-interest, public-service concerns.
Tonight we're partnering with our law faculty and with the
Department of Law, Societies, and Justice to bring Dr. Kathleen
Cavanaugh from Galway, Ireland. Professor Louis Wolcher, who is a friend
and colleague of hers, is going to introduce her. So I just want to
very briefly let you know who he is.
He is one of our cherished faculty members. I am so delighted to
get to work with him. He's been on this faculty since 1986, has
practiced law at a firm in San Francisco, before coming to law school.
Our students have recognized him on more than one occasion as teacher of
the year, and he's also been the University of Washington's
Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.
We're very proud of his work. His research interests lie in the
fields of philosophy of law, legal and political theory, and human
rights. So it's very fitting that he would introduce our speaker, whose
primary area is human rights. And please join me in welcoming Professor
Good afternoon. And given my topic, I should say "salaam alaikum" as well.
thing, I want to say a couple of words of thanks of my own. Some of you
may know that last year I was meant to come here, in April, and because
Eyjafjallajökull decided to make himself known, I didn't have the
chance--that's the Icelandic volcano--and it was postponed.
So a special thanks to Professor Wolcher, who has helped make
sure that I am here; to Anita Ramasastry and Walter Walsh, who were with
the center, I think, about two or three years ago, as scholars in
residence, and who also helped to kind of form this link; and then to
Michele Storms and to Ann Spangler, who were fabulous at organizing my
arrival here and getting everything situated for me.
So, Islam and the democratic project. I want to explain to you a
little bit of the backdrop of why I've chosen this topic and what to me
is so important about talking about the questions of Islam now,
particularly in this sociopolitical environment.
And the backdrop to my interest in it, firstly, as Professor
Wolcher has said, I'm working on a book on the Middle East and minority
rights. And I am not the minority-rights half of the book; I'm the
Middle East half of the book.
And the one thing that I noticed, when you were engaging in the
discourse, kind of doing a critical literature review about either
questions related to "the" Middle East or questions related to the kind
of human-rights intersection with the Middle East, is that you had to
unpack so many of the narratives. You had to clear so much of the
ground. You had to take away so much of the hegemonic discourse, in
order to be able to actually look at what is it when we talk about the
Middle East, as a construct, as opposed to what is it as a reality.
And when we talk about the interface between human rights,
whatever those human rights happen to be--womens' rights, international
criminal law issues, issues related to minority rights--and the Middle
East, you had to unpack many, many of the preconceptions that were
there. And one of the biggest things that would come in between these
two questions, for me, was this question of Islam.
At about the same time as I started to work on this project,
there was the continuing fallout, post-9/11, that was not just about
what was going on in the United States but very much what was going on
And to look at the questions and the relationship between the two
of those, I spent about two and a half years studying Islamic
formulations of law.
And there, it was stunning to me to find that so much of what's
in the public domain needed, really, to be raised, because, in the sense
of really understanding Islam, we were understanding it not being an
actor but being a discourse that was so diffuse, right?
And therefore, when we were into the public domain and looking at
questions that were raised in the public domain, the first thing that
struck me is that most people, when they use the term "Islam, " have
absolutely no idea what they're talking about. And I mean that not in a
critical way, but in a way that says, "Islam is doing this." And Islam,
not being a monolith and not being an actor, can't possibly do that.
So I've begun working in a number of different areas and critical
legal projects, working with Islamic scholars, working with the Muslim
community, and really trying to pare back this discourse--not just the
discourse of what it is to work on questions related to Islam and
Islamic law, but also what it means when we talk and serve up questions
of international law, for example, because we need to start breaking it
In that way, I decided, instead of working on and talking about
the book, which is on militant democracy, which I was meant to do, that I
was going to talk in this forum about Islam and the democratic project.
So if you bear with me, what I hope to do at the very beginning
is to kind of give you the "How did we get here?" and to talk, then, at
the end, depending on time--and I hope Professor Wolcher will kind of
look at me and tell me when my time's getting close to the end--to talk
to you a little bit about Islam and what it actually means.
And I'm not sure that the transition between the first and the
second is going to work perfectly, but I'm going to give it a go. OK?
And hopefully, by the end, you'll have an understanding of what I have
come to know, which is that this question can't be looked at in
black-and-white terms. We have to look at it in gradations of gray. And
if I make you more confused by the end, then clear, I've done my part.
Now, I am going to read some of this. And I'm going to do it
because I have a tendency to go off on detours if I don't, but I promise
not just to kind of keep it to the text, to comment otherwise.
OK. I must say that perhaps living at a distance from the place I
very much call home--and I'm originally from New York City--I've been
alarmed about the narratives that have seeped into both the political
and, indeed, legal discourse post-9/11 in the United States.
I think September 11th has become one of those markers, a
watershed moment, when, for so many reasons, things changed. I think,
perhaps, it was initially a change that was most notable to people
looking in, not those here.
At first, Americans didn't ask the question that they would later ask, which is "Why do they hate us so much?"
But what developed, and indeed very quickly, was what would be
termed a War on Terror discourse, constructed by those who quite well
knew how they wanted this story to unfold. And so very quickly, this
fragile democracy was tested. And so very quickly, palpably, audibly,
loudly, I think things shifted.
And then, in the elections of 2008, another moment--or at least a promise of change--and how long ago that, also, now seems.
I think there was a sense of needing in this country, and indeed
in Europe, that something profound, perhaps, was missing, something we
couldn't quite articulate. And as such a diverse sociopolitical space
that is the United States, it was impossible to serve it up in one
And for a moment, I think, whatever the political colors or
depths of understanding, there was this sense that in this country we
were ready to move. And over the years since, as things unraveled, and
whatever direction one's political instincts would articulate that
unraveling, that sense we had--the outside we--that perhaps this
fragile, fragile democracy was willing and beginning to reflect and
capture part of itself again was beginning to fade.
A rather jarring hit came in the form of protest and rhetoric,
and a form of what I call "illiberalism, " in the public square, that
sat so heavily, at least for me, that I opted to spend a bit of time
here looking at the question of the construction of the other--in this
case, the otherness of Islam.
As a New Yorker, I've witnessed--and perhaps endured, a better
word--so much of the politics that have held the difficulties inflicted
on my city in the aftermath of 9/11 hostage.
But there was something particularly unsettling about the
rhetoric and very bitter and public sentiments expressed about the
proposed building of the Cordoba Center. And for those of you who don't
recognize Cordoba initially, this was supposedly the mosque that
supposedly was about to be built right on or facing the former World
Trade Center area.
This was not, as argued, a mosque to be built on, or even very
near, where the World Trade Center once stood. The architecture itself
is in the form of a honeycomb, disguises any notion of what we would
remotely see as a mosque.
But even if the misinformation was true, even if it was a mosque
to be built on the site, or close to, where the former World Trade
Center once stood, my initial instincts was "So what? And?"
In fact, of course, as you know, or most should know, this is
nowhere near it. It's two blocks away. And if you want to talk about
what's actually facing the site of the former World Trade Center, you
have to go past a couple of McDonald's and Burger King before you get to
I couldn't help but thinking, if this was the city that David
Dinkins referred to as "the great mosaic," do we not still believe in
the principles of freedom here--freedom to worship, freedom to hold
views that are contrary to our own, and to celebrate that diversity?
The answer, it seemed, at least to me, was found in those very
angry faces and the bellicose individuals that were meeting the Muslim
community outside of the proposed site of the Cordoba Center, which
turned its focus and fury towards Muslim members of American civil
society. These same members that were one day your neighbors, woke up
next day imaged as the enemy.
So how did we get here? My argument is that we have emptied the
content of what we would refer to time and time again as our democratic
way of life. This discourse, the discourse which has captured the
socio-legal landscape, is not about politics, at least not that which is
in the exchange of ideas. It is, rather, a depoliticized, expert
administration in the coordination of interests.
In this space, the only way to reinsert the public into the
public square is by way of fear: a fear of the other, a fear of crime, a
fear of godless sexual depravity, of excess state with its burden of
high taxes and control, the fear of ecological catastrophe, as well as
the fear of harassment. Political correctness is the exemplary liberal
form of politics of fear.
Such a politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid
multitude, the frightening rally of men and women. Such rallies, of
course, are articulated differently, sometimes in the new spirit of
prides and one cultural and historic identity, in nation and in flag.
But now even those with more moderate or mainstream views suggest
that those who are different are guests who have to accommodate
themselves to our cultural values that define the host society. If they
fail to integrate, to become unidentifiable, then maybe they need to go
back where they came from.
Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist
racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance
and respect of differences share with those who oppose the otherness,
either of domestic-born or immigrants.
They need to keep others at a proper distance. "The other is OK. I
respect them," the liberals say, "But they must not intrude too much on
my space. The moment they do, they harass me. I fully support
affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen or see or host
What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in
late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the
right to be kept safe at a distance from the others. A terrorist whose
deadly plans should be prevented belongs in Guantanamo, what the late
Joan Fitzpatrick, borrowing from Harold Koh, referred to as a
A fundamentalist ideologist should be silenced because he spreads hatred. Such people are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.
As Å½iÅ¾ek has argued, on today's market, we find a whole series
of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without
caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol, and the list goes on.
What about virtual sex, or sex without sex?
The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare, with no casualties--on our
side of course--as warfare without warfare. The contemporary
redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics
without politics, or perhaps, as Hannah Arendt may argue, a politics
emptied of freedom, a public square emptied of its purpose.
This leads us to today's tolerant, liberal multiculturalism as an
experience of the other deprived of its otherness, what I call the
The mechanism of such neutralization was best formulated back in
1948 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual who saw
himself as a moderate antisemite and invented the formula of reasonable
"We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin," he
writes, "a half-Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to
applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew. We don't want to kill anybody. We don't
want to organize any pogroms. But we also think the best way to hinder
the always unpredictable actions of the instinctual antisemitism is to
organize a reasonable antisemitism."
Is this same attitude not at work in the way we are dealing with
the otherness of Islam? After righteously rejecting direct, populist
racism as unreasonable and unacceptable for our democratic standard,
there is a tacit endorsement of the reasonably racist protective
measures of today's Brasillachs.
This vision of the detoxification of one's neighbors suggests a
clear passage from direct racism to racism with a human face. In imaging
the other, we create an otherness that can neither fit within nor
outside of our citizen selves.
Our argument, of course, is that democracy must be militant. And
yet we fail to see that it is the very measures we are trying to defend,
the very democratic values that we're trying to defend, that have posed
the greatest threat to democracy.
So if this is how we got here, how do we begin to re-narrate this
story? Certainly, I would argue that the first step is to crack, or
maybe to shatter, the hegemonic control of the narrative, to re-imagine
the space of otherness and to capture a more forensic, dare I say
enlightening, reading, to be intellectually inquisitive, to challenge,
to make conversations uncomfortable.
Such an adventure, if applied to Islam, would reveal a discourse
replete with contradistinctions, overlaps, and at times the ambient
noise so wonderfully described by Ann Mayer in her book on Islam and
As Islam is not an actor, the various readings of Islam both
depart and arrive at different interpretations of prophetic revelations.
The struggle between what I will call textualist readings and that of
contextualists move between a reading of Islam which is fixed and
immutable to one that endeavors to read the text within a specific
Now, I'm not going to have time to give what I would normally do,
which is a whole course on Islamic law and on questions related to
Islamic formulations of principles. But I do want to go through, to try
to get you to understand, to question, I suppose, when you hear someone
describing Islam in a particular way. So bear with me for the next 15 or
Although there is one Islam and the fundamental principles that
define it are those to which all Muslims adhere, there are various and
differentiated readings of scriptural sources. The important margin
allows for evolution, transformation, and adaptation to various social
and cultural environments. It gives rise to plural readings and
respective and often distinct doctrinal and social attitudes.
Although the various tendencies within Islam spring from the same
normative criteria, these differentiated readings yield differentiated
approaches to the interpretation and applicability of the norms and
principles of Islam.
What we find when examining the first body of literature is that
in this contested space, there are vibrant debates among Islamic
scholars who move between that which is broadly labeled liberal and
reformist school, to textualist or more scholastic traditionalist.
Tariq Ramadan, who is one of the, I think, most prominent and
prolific writers on Islam, has a typology of what he refers to as major
tendencies. And he talks about those being six, different tendencies
amongst those for whom Islam is a reference point for their thinking,
their discourse, and their engagement. These tendencies find narrative
in studies that specifically relate to Islam, Islamic law, and human
What emerges from this literature is that Islam and its
relationship with democracy and human rights is neither fixed nor beyond
interrogation. This is important to note, as so much of the literature
is preoccupied with questions of Islam and human rights, a rubric that
is not particularly informative.
As Mayer argues, some of these writings fail to distinguish
between principles set forth in traditional Islamic sources and the
historical patterns of interpreting these sources and the results of
contemporary governments converting Islamic law into statutes and
Additionally, writers often conflate ideals expressed within the
different readings of Islam to the actual laws, legal institutions, and
policies in Muslim countries, or read Islam as static, a point that you
will refer to and I will refer to constantly.
The scriptural reference points for Islam are the Quran and the
Sunnah. That these texts are the point of departure for any subsequent
reading of Islam is not in dispute by any school of thought, nor are the
three fundamental principles: the absolute oneness of God, the creator,
that there can be no representation of him, and that the truth of his
word is revealed in the Quran.
These principles are the axis within which different Islamic
tendencies have emerged, forming the base of what is referred to as the
Whilst these schools may converge on explicit and uncontested
core axes that are identifiable and accepted by the various trends or
schools of thought, the various religious, political, and social
expressions and actions suggest that Islam's textual references allow
And it is in these very readings that we move away from these
essential, uncontested cores that we tend to find this much more
For Muslims, the profession of faith, or Shahada, is guided by
Sharia, literally translated as "the way." In its broadest
interpretation, this concept suggests a path leading to the source. It
determines how to be a Muslim, based on a normative reading of the
For jurists and scholars of Islamic law, it forms the corpus of
Islamic law, drawn primarily from the Quran and the Sunnah but also from
the main and the secondary texts. The corpus of Sharia, as Ramadan has
noted, is a human construction, and some aspects of it may evolve, just
as human thought evolves.
And just as some aspects of the Quran and the Sunnah were
revealed over time, this renewal is not a modification of those sources
but a transformation of the mind and the eye that reads them, which are
indeed naturally influenced by the new social, political, and scientific
environments in which they live.
Mashood Baderin, who is somebody who has written extensively on
al-fiqh, which is the form of Sharia that juristic scholars have
developed, draws a distinction between Sharia and fiqh, indicating that
while Sharia refers to the sources of the revealed law, which is
textually immutable, the fiqh refers to the methods of law--that is, the
understanding derived from and the application of the Sharia--which may
change according to time and circumstance.
This elaboration was undertaken by the ulama, and the modes of
understanding of Sharia in contemporary Islamic activism are largely
reactions to the ulama's established position and the latter's defense
For both Baderin and Ramadan, Islamic law does not conform to any
fixed narrative and cannot be said to exist apart from external
influences. In terms of social commitment and political participation,
this suggests that the sources of Islamic law, transformed by mind and
eye, will reveal different readings and understanding, each shaped by
the experience and sociopolitical backdrop of the reader.
This evolutive approach, which factors in human agency,
represents one of the many readings or tendencies among those for whom
Islam is the reference point for their thinking, their discourse, and
Although it is possible to identify major trends or schools of
thought within Islam, the multiplicity of readings provides for many
more detours and points of departure, some of which are specific to a
region or to a state.
Such an extensive review is beyond the scope of what I'm going to
do here, so I'm going to limit my review to some of the major trends or
readings identified by the scholars.
I'll begin to look at the developments and the methods of Islamic
law, which is fiqh, and how these have been read into the different
orientations towards fiqh. These varied approaches interface with rights
and concepts and practices in markedly different ways.
And the reason this is important, just to go off-text for a
moment, is that many times you're going to hear terminology put into the
public domain: the issues related to jihad, for example, the issues
related to women's rights, or questions related to penalties. And there,
when it's projected, the question then becomes "Is this the only way to
And within the Muslim community, you're having such vibrant
debates, among both Muslim jurists and members of the Muslim civil
society that are trying to capture and recapture some of these normative
trends that have started to develop.
With the death of the prophet and the expansion of Islam, the
[intelligible 26:13] between what is provided for by the textual sources
or prophetic traditions and the new and emerging situations and
challenges give rise to the concept of ijtihad, or "legal reasoning."
Now, it's not agreed whether or not this should be opened. Many
scholars have said no, these kinds of reasonings were closed in the
ninth century. But yet, now, to try to bring in this corpus of law to a
much more contemporaneous situation, this reintroduction of this
question of ijtihad has been put back into the discourse.
This concept was traced to a conversation between the prophet and
one of his companions, in which the prophet asked his companion, Jabal,
who had been dispatched to serve as a judge in Yemen, how he would
decide cases in the absence of guidance from the Quran or the Sunnah.
He is reported to have replied, "I will exert my own reasoning."
As the prophet was reported to have been satisfied with the answer, this
concept was adopted and, through this concept, other methods were
developed and applied.
This allows jurists to apply an evolutive approach to the texts
and traditions. Thus, while the revealed sources of Islamic law--that
is, Sharia and al-fiqh--was completed with the demise of the prophet,
the evolved methods of Islamic law were to be the vehicle by which
jurists would transport the Sharia into the future.
As Islam's influence spread outside of Arabia, attracting
adherents drawn from diverse cultures, the number of legal schools of
reasoning also flourished. By the end of the third century, the number
of these schools was significantly reduced. Many of these schools had
disappeared or had merged together.
Whilst accepted that the Quran and the Sunnah were the primary
scriptural texts from which all other reasoning would flow, the varied
cultural circumstances linked to where these schools were developed
impacted respective interpretations of these scriptural references.
The sheer volume of interpretation of text that would flow from
these divergent sources of interpretations necessitated a system of
centrality and control, which would emerge in the middle eighth and
ninth century. Legal treaties would emerge, divided into two aspects of
Islamic law, religious worship and social relations, which would then
become the official material sources of Islamic law.
By the end of the 10th century, it was argued that most of the
legal questions that required interrogation had been completed. And by
the 13th century, the process of inquiry through ijtihad had transformed
to one of conformism, through taqlid, where all legal questions were
argued to be answered. Thus, it was to argue that Islam, at that time
period, was frozen.
It is from this point of departure that we can understand the
tendencies or orientation towards fiqh, which would emerge legal
reasoning and which still exist today.
As Lapidus, a writer on this question, historically wrote, "The
corpus of theo-legal writings that would emerge would serve to organize
Muslim societies and gain primacy in Muslim consciousness."
The Sharia, as noted, referred not only to a detailed set of
legal rulings, but more generally represents the general moral and legal
mandates of Islam, with fiqh representing the temporality of Sharia
And as al-Fado has argued, observance of fiqh rulings are necessary to ensure a perfect and successful society.
However, it is in the orientations towards fiqh where we find the
diversity amongst Muslims. Some take reference points which originate
in reasoning frozen in the 10th century.
Whilst other schools believe that the gate of legal reasoning was
never fully closed, and that as Islamic law was constructed by its
founding jurists, it should become possible to think about
reconstructing certain aspects of Sharia, provided that such
reconstruction is based on the same fundamental sources of Islam and is
firmly consistent with essential moral and religious precepts.
Such diversity in past, the departure from the axis of Islam
rejects the notion of Islam as either a monolith or an actor. The human
agency and the construction of Islamic law much again be factored in to
whether certain rights-based concepts are included or excluded from
The various readings of the Quran are revealed in the very
schools of thought among Muslims. There are a number of typologies that
endeavor to capture these trends.
It is perhaps best to understand these less as fixed points but
rather as trends or tendencies that exist along a continuum, between two
distinct points of departure, which would include the mediated
scholastic traditionalism, the literalist Salafi orientation, as well as
Sufism, and at the opposite end the contextualists, sometimes referred
to as the rational reformists.
Even as we begin to broad groupings, it is necessary to note that
while they converge closer to one or the other end of the spectrum,
they are distinct, and there are some parts of the historical formation
of each school that may give rise to movement.
I've endeavored to chart the various schools of thought along
three points, around which we provide a rather simplified taxonomy. At
the point closest to the textual end of the scale comprises schools that
adopt a scholastic or literalist approach, where all authority is
derived solely from the texts and established law.
The classical school, or the scholastic traditionalism, forms the
basis of interpretation for both classic Sunni and classical Sharia
schools and falls under this umbrella.
These schools tend to draw on the writings of scholars that lived
between the 8th and 11th century and reflect a culture in which a
particular classic jurist lived at the times the ruling were made. In
these schools, the texts are often read in a specific way that is
distinct to that particular school.
The textualist or literalist jurists of the earlier ninth century
proposed that Islamic law be inferred from the Hadith without resorting
to reason. Where there are contradiction among the Hadith's reports and
where they cannot be solved by means of isnad, or comparison, the
contradictions are to let stand, as textualists refuse to define the law
by their own preference.
The system of validation of the Hadith offered through the process of isnad, which are the citations, has had two effects.
Firstly, it made possible to record and validate the rulings of
jurists. But this has, concomitantly, led to taqlid, or legal
conformism, which has in practice often assumed a blind imitation or a
conservatism, leaving no space for ijtihad, or the interpretation, in
the absence of legal reference.
This mediated approach reads the source texts of Islam as static
and immoderate, unable to adapt or change and dialog with changing
socioeconomic or political backdrops.
There are two additional textualist trends that merit note. These
schools of thought share the literalist approach to the texts of
scholastic schools but differ in a few significant ways.
Both literalism and political-literalist Salafi schools, there is
the necessity of reference to and on the authenticity of the texts
quoted to justify a certain attitude or action, whether in the area of
religious practice, dress code, or social behavior.
However, both reject the mediated approach of the scholastic
tradition and believe that the scripts must be interpreted in an
immediate way, without scholarly conclaves.
The political literalists differ from the literalists, as they
have moved their engagement from one of isolation to political activism,
which takes from the reformists the engagement in the public sphere but
grafts this onto the literalist approach that rejects any endeavor to
modernize the literal word of the texts. And this would be very
indicative of the Taliban, for example.
Scholastic traditionalism is found in the four schools of Sunni
Islam. These include the Sharia, Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali. It is also
found in the Jafari school, which is most associated with Shia Islam.
The fatwas, or time and space-bound rulings of early jurists, are
taken rather more seriously in this school due to the more hierarchical
structure of Shia Islam, which is ruled by imams. But they are also
more flexible in that the imams have considerable power to consider the
context of a decision, which has been lacking in Sunni Islam
Adherents to this approach include the Barelwis, the Deobandis,
the al-Sunnah, the Tabligh-i Jamaat, and the Taliban. Ramadan's typology
distills several other textualists, and these are found be it from
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria.
At the midpoint is the reformist-conservative trend, which sits
roughly between the textualists and the contextualists. This approach
seeks a renewal of Sharia to allow for the formation of new fiqh, which
would allow it to respond contemporaneously to changing sociopolitical
While the reformist-conservatives believe that the text cannot be
bypassed, this approach adopts an internal dynamic between the text and
reason, which endeavors to respond to a changing sociopolitical and
economic environment. For those of you in the States that read on
Sharia, this would be primarily that espoused by people like Abdullahi
An-Na'im at Emory University.
Some of the earlier contemporary writings of the contextualists,
or what sometimes is referred to as a liberal or rational-reformist
approach, emerged during the colonial period. It's strongly influenced
by science and technology as well as the concepts like democracy that
have flowed from the West. It prefers the separation of religion from
the ordering of public and political life.
Here the orientation is one of clear division between reason and
text. Here the Quran and the Sunnah are drawn on for guidance in matters
of worship, but it is reason that is the reference point for matters
related to inter-human relations.
As Tariq Ramadan has noted, with social evolution in mind, many
rationalists believe that the Quran and the Sunnah cannot be the point
of reference when it comes to the norms of behavior and that it is
applied reason that now must set the criteria for social conduct.
Therefore, it is in the individual that must decide which aspects of the
Islamic corpus is critical to being a Muslim and what is open to
Underpinning rationalist-reformism is the idea of
self-determination, in relation to the self, the self to other, and the
self to the collective. This could apply equally to someone living in a
secular Western context as well as someone living in accordance to the
more traditional tendencies, provided that they accord the other a
similar right to religious autonomy.
This approach appears contemporaneously, as I said, in the work of Abdullahi An-Na'im, Abdolkarim Soroush, amongst others.
An-Na'im suggests a methodological approach which revisits the
process of nasks and which favor the prophetic Mecca over Medina
readings. The Mecca readings are seen to be much more open than the
Medina readings. This applied approach endeavors to engage the text
through reason rather than placing reason above the textual sources.
Abdolkarim Soroush's point of departure, however, seeks to
construct a meta-religious artifice that has at least some
extra-religious, epistemological dimensions. Soroush argues that as
justice is at the foundation of religious precepts for believers,
justice endeavors to secure and preserve rights, regulate power,
ensuring equality before the law, then surely it follows that these
rules must be implemented through these principles.
For Soroush, justice is a value that belongs to a meta-religious
category and, as such, it cannot be religious. It is religion that has
to be just.
The various tendencies within Islam and the diverse and often
contrasting approaches to interpretation and implementation of Islamic
law negate any notion of a singular Muslim view or engagement on matters
related to social commitment and political participation.
Just where the tendency of a particular school or trend falls on
the continuum between textualism and contextualism reflects, to a large
degree, the potential for what Baderin refers to as "a dialogical
approach" when applying universal human-rights law with Muslim states.
This is but a brief reading of the Islamic sources. For those of
you who don't have the background in this, I realize it's putting a lot
of information forward, but in many ways, it's not meant to clarify but
rather to confuse.
The black-and-white so often presented when we refer to Islam is
best placed in gradations of gray. The concepts and debates that
accompany prophetic revelations and scriptural sources of Islam are as
complex and diverse as its global Muslim audience.
That there are those who adopt a particular reading of Islam for
political ends is no more or less unique to the Muslim community than
the global political actors here and elsewhere who seize international
law, and even domestic law, as a vehicle for political ends, in both
cases depopulating the text from its original meaning and context.
We are most certainly in a clash, but not one of civilizations,
but rather one of what it is to mean when we say we want to protect our
way of life.
Like Arendt, I believe that we must speak about freedoms, not
democracy. And to ensure that these remain, we have to repopulate the
public square, fracture that discourse, and, for me, to revive that very
old Quaker call so long dormant--that is, to speak truth to power.