An Occidental Islam - Between Culturalist and Reformist Expediencies

Published on Saturday, March 18, 2017

In the west, the discourse on Islam has been greatly shaped by contentious debates on the role of the state. The germination of radical ideas among the European-Muslim millennials and recent terrorist attacks across Europe has bolstered the edifice of the populist right-wing ideas, and there is a rising trend in the popularity of the far-right political parties who promulgate such ideas. The current scenario in the Western world is pretty much an evocative picture of the pre-Second World War political turmoil. The shadow of a disintegrated European Union looms on the horizon. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump rose to power hurling disparaging remarks towards Muslims while promising a Muslim ban and extreme vetting of the Muslim immigrants. In these altercations, the culturalists and the reformists, the two different schools of thought gained prominence offering very different connotations of the Islamic pedigrees and culture in their attempt to dispense with the problem of "Radical Islam."

Both the Islamist and Western culturalist cliques maintain that there are irreconcilable differences between Islam and the western civilization. In neoconservative views, the Muslim Diaspora in the Occident poses a grave threat to the social fabric as the Western governments failed to recognize the insurmountable differences between the western and Islamic ethos and values. Drawing an analogy between Islam and Communism Western critic Bernard Lewis argued,

"Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth;...The traditional Islamic division of the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, two necessarily opposed groups, of which- the first has the collective obligation of perpetual struggle against the second, also has obvious parallels in the Communist view of world affairs." (1)

The portrayal of Muslims as a homogenous group and Islam as a totalitarian idea is a fictitious one and rather incongruous with the vast ethnic, linguistic and cultural nuances among the followers of the world's second largest religion. Such incorrigible views have a totalitarian disposition of their own and are very much antithetical to western humanistic values. Furthermore, they are often brought to the fore while defending Western interventions in the Middle East and perpetuating Israeli aggression in Palestine. Reformists deprecate the culturalist position arguing that the retrograde Islamization measures and perversions of the pre-modern Islamic jurisprudence are in lieu responsible for this apparent cultural conflict. They reminisce about the Hellenization process in the Islamic civilization and the lost tradition of cultural borrowings from the West during the Golden Age of Islam. Between the extremists and modernists, the Muslim world is enmeshed in a struggle for Islam's soul, they argue. In curtailing the threat of Islamist extremism, the reformists proffer a 'war of ideas' that the West should concoct vis-à-vis forming the Muslim identity in an anti-extremist mold. British Muslim Reformist Maajid Nawaz postulates,

"We're currently faced with two entirely different challenges – facing down Islamism and jihadism on the one hand, and advancing human rights and democratic culture on the other." (2)

Despite being propitious, the reformist proposition is not impervious to scrutiny. The reformists are often willing to utilize the state apparatus to mete out a hermetic version of Islamic mores that is congenial to them: a political expedient that blithely ignores the multifaceted Islamic heritage ab initio, and withal hands over to the western states the prerogative to wield clout in defining an official version of Islam. A state-endorsed version of Islam eviscerates the quintessential "Separation of Church and State" principle of secularism which prohibits the state from meddling in religious affairs or endorse a particular religious view. The servile phalanx of Muslim reformists empanelled by the state often ends up silencing legitimate concerns over Western foreign policies. Western parameters thus shape the contour of Muslim identity. The Muslim mavericks who dare to contravene the provisos of this official reformist agenda see their civil and political rights circumscribed.

Both the culturalists and the reformists endorse a counter-radicalization program designed especially targeting the Western Muslim milieus. Such measures serve the state security apparatus the leeway to prop up the legitimacy of the mass surveillance programs on its Muslim citizens. Moreover, these programs are shrouded in secrecy, fallible and often devise subterfuges to lure Muslims towards extremism. In the USA, the provocateurs employed by the FBI not only encourage their Muslim targets to carry out terrorist attacks but often provide the means and opportunities. Many of these provocateurs are Muslims themselves who work for financial gains or forced to work for the FBI to avoid petty criminal charges or escape deportation. A covert program called the "Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program" or "CARRP," run by the United States Citizenship and Immigration services makes sure that "immigration benefits are not granted to individuals and organizations that pose a threat to national security." (3) In 2006, the Tony Blair government launched a counter-insurgency program called "Prevent" within its own borders. Based on its murky radicalization theory, the program often misinterpreted dissent of the Muslim youth concerning the "War on Terror" policy as inclinations toward extremism. At the same time, through an endless cycle of slavish fidelity, Muslim minorities are constantly expected to prove their allegiance to the state.

As British terrorism researcher Arun Kundnani observes,

"According to official theories of radicalization, an atmosphere in which political opposition to US imperialism cannot be freely expressed by Muslims prevent terrorism. But in reality, the more those angry at foreign policy see their community paralyzed by fear and reluctant to express itself openly, the more likely it becomes that some will end up supporting terrorism." (4)

Ideas don't always transform into action. Hitherto both schools have propounded the same reductionist approach that limits terrorism within the boundaries of ideological contents without considering the socio-political stimulus and the roles of the state and non-state actors. By seeking state tutelage in deciding the future of Islam, both the culturalist and reformist positions have manifested their predisposition towards absolutism; a rather banal imitation of the Middle-eastern clerical despotisms. Enshrouded by the endless and multifarious coinages, both groups purvey the same remedy: Muslims as a monolithic block under all circumstances should be governed under the caveat of 'state of exception.'


  1. Bernard Lewis, "Communism and Islam," International Affairs, 30: 1, January 1954, 9
  2. Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
  3. Muslims Need Not Apply: How USCIS Secretly Mandates the Discriminatory Delay and Denial of Citizenship and Immigration Benefits to Aspiring Americans, American Civil Liberties Union, August 2013
  4. Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terrorism

***This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.

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