Renewing Islam through service?

Popular discourses about Islam don’t normally include the ‘service’ component of the faith. Even though Islam considers charity to be central part of faith. Charity is very broadly defined in Islamic terms – for instance, there are prophetic Hadith that suggest that even a kind word or smile to a stranger can be considered an act of charity. Given this, how are we to understand contemporary discourses of volunteering, service within the context of Islam. And how can we make sense of the service component of movements like the Hizmet movement (also known as the Gulen movement)? This was the central discussion that was part of Prof. Pim Valkenberg’s talk at the Rumi Forum, yesterday.

His book titled Renewing Islam by Service is an investigation into why the volunteers who serve people through the Hizmet movement do so. Seems like a simple question to answer, but the answers that he found surprised Valkenberg.

Valkenberg spoke of the impressive volunteering done by the Hizmet movement followers. He said “I quickly realized that this is called Hizmet movement (volunteers) rather than Gulen movement, because even though it was inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, he is really not the center of attention.” Mr.Gulen would rather people focus on the groups or cemaats of volunteers. Speaking of his own interest and how he came to study the movement in Europe, he said that his earlier interactions with students who were part of this movement were his first introduction.  This motive of working for the ‘pleasure of Allah’ was the interpretive key to understanding the work of the Gulen movement volunteers, he pointed out. He pointed out to the massive amount of charity that occurs during Ramadhan and also throughout the year, among Turks as an illustration of this charity. The current efforts of the Turkish government to rehabilitate the Syrians can be (broadly speaking) understood from this perspective of hospitality for the stranger.

While most narratives of revival or reform of Islam usually center on discussions of Islamism or political Islam, this perspective of looking at practices to reexamine Islam is an interesting one. It was refreshing to hear Valkenberg address the theological understanding of charity among the members of Gulen movement. Several scholars, religious preachers and reformers have addressed this question of reform. Among the more controversial manifestations of this ‘reform’ is Salafism, which seems to get a lot of bad press. While politics and religion get entangled in this debate, Volkenberg’s work suggests that it is possible to focus on the ethical and religious dimensions of these practices, while examining why these volunteers do what they do.

Their very public charity and manifestation of their values may seem controversial in a society such as the U.S., given the discomfort many have about talking about religion in public, but Volkenberg doesn’t see this as a problem. “As a Catholic, I also see that there is role for religion in addressing public issues, so I am all for movements like the Hizmet movement,” he said; arguing that perhaps Christians can learn something from such groups.

During my own visit to Turkey 2007, I saw large volunteer groups raising money for charity. I have also been consistently impressed with the scale as well as commitment to service among the Turkish diaspora I have encountered in India and the U.S. This book will certainly add to our understanding of the motivations, both religious and civic, among the Hizmet movement followers.

Photo credit : The Rumi Forum
Photo credit : The Rumi Forum

Egypt and the Challenge of Islam in the Public Sphere

“Know that you can have three sorts of relations with princes, governors and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest that you stay far from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.” – Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazzali. (d.1111)

While Ghazzali’s advise seems apt for all those Islamic leaders who are interested in ‘preserving Islam’ and ‘Islamic ethics’ in any society, the reality is quite different. Almost every time a religious group has come to power, it gravitates to acquire more power, hence becoming more ‘worldly’ than spiritual. This trend has remained somewhat consistent: from the Catholic Church to Islamist parties in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest, though some are more restrained than the others. The question that is on several people’s mind is this: Should Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still be part of the political landscape in Egypt? Despite the ban on MB and being labelled a ‘terrorist’ outfit, should the group and its cadre be allowed to participate in the political sphere? These are some questions that will continue to haunt both the Egyptian people as well as the international community. While the ground realities in Egypt preclude any rational dialogue and much of the decision making seems to be taking place in the realm of realpolitik and the struggle for survival is dictating the tactical steps that the Egyptian ruling elite is taking; strategic foresight in this case requires a different approach.

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

As the New York Times reported about the bomb blasts in Cairo today, “A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of General Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.” The mood in the country is anything but calm and factions supporting the General and those on the side of MB have become more entrenched.

Jose Casanova, one of the most eminent theorists of Sociology of religion points out, the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion is one of the key points of contention from a secular perspective. But he is careful to delineate the differences between the types of secularizations, which he identifies as being of three kinds: secularization as separation of state and religion, secularization as decline of religious practices and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. He has argued for the public inclusion of religious parties in the political sphere. His is a slightly complicated argument, but one worthy of examination.

I quote Casanova at length, where he points to the benefits of public religion: “The public impact of religious critiques should not be measures in terms of the ability of any religion to impose its agenda upon society or to press its global normative claims upon the autonomous spheres. In modern differentiated societies it is both unlikely and undesirable that religion should again play the role of systematic normative integration. But by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous pretentions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral norms or human considerations, public religions may help to mobilize people against such pretentions, they may contribute to a redrawing of boundaries, or, at the least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Like feminist critiques or like republican virtue critiques of modern developments, they will have functioned as counterfactual normative critiques.” This is a critique that many secularists in Egypt are not able to heed. Perhaps the atmosphere has become too vitiated and the camps so entrenched in their views that any discussion of alternatives seems impossible.

As Casanova points out further, the fusion of the ‘Church’ and ‘State’ that took place in the Christian domain is exceptional and the only case. Once the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, it became a salvation religion with the political structure of an imperial state. There is no reason to believe that Islam or any other religion will go this route, even with the establishment of religious communities in charge, politically. Casanova argued for the maintenance of Secularism in terms of differentiation between religion and state, and institutions and religion. Within that religion can have a role to play in public sphere, with some conditions.

New York Times also reported in a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings. While this may be seen as a way to wash their hands off any blame, there is growing suspicion that the MB was in some way involved. While these debates are ongoing and it will be years, if not decades, before there is any consensus on how best to deal with opposition parties in the country; it is important to remember, that, as Talal Asad points out the history of how Secularism came to be part of the discourse in the Muslim world. In Egypt, the introduction of European laws, in lieu of Shari’ah in the 19th century was a precursor that finally lead to the total unification of state power and abolition of the dual structure of courts, in favor of European-derived laws. This, he points out was partly as a result of European coercion and also Egyptian elite’s infatuation with European ways. The Islamists urge to gain power of the state and bring back the Shari’ah laws should be understood in this context. There is also great anger that the democratically elected government of Mr.Morsi was ousted by a coup. So, it is back to square one, for the Egyptians.

This is not to say that there is just one conception of Islam and the state. There are also devout Muslims and scholars, who have called for a ‘Secular state.’ Abdullahi An’naim, another scholar of Islam has pointed out in Islam and the Secular state that by a secular state, he means “A state that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’ah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” He further points out that it is perfectly possible for a Muslim majority state to be secular and yet remain true to Islam. In fact, this is what is needed in our modern era, when pluralism is a fact of life and homogenous populations in most countries is a thing of the past. “As a means to being religious, I need the state to remain secular,” he adds. An’naim has argued that the future of Shari’ah law is a secular state. By this he means that a state that represents Islamic ethos is one in which there is no fear of favor of any one particular religion and this in essence means a secular state.

An’naim’s is a radically different take on Islamic societies. His vision may be more applicable in our times, where any mention of religion in the public sphere is bound to raise suspicions. Although this vision requires buy-in from all parties, he does see a role for Islamist parties to participate in the political sphere. Afterall, they should not be barred from the political sphere, just because of their religious affiliation. This would be truly un-democratic and against the liberal ethos that the secularists are supposedly upholding.

Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

Almost everyday, we read about a new report or another, comparing America’s poor education performance, as compared to the rest of the world. And almost always the comparisons bring up the usual suspects: poor infrastructure, lower education funding and lack of involvement from the parents in their children’s success. While all these are valid and important points, one crucial issue often gets overlooked – the stability of the family and its impact on young adults and their learning. I learnt this harsh reality, on a recent trip to a public school in Rialto, CA. While this is a ‘wicked problem’ that brings together issues of race, poverty, unemployment and housing segregation; I believe that with concerted education, greater sensitivity on part of the parents, these problems can be addressed.

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

As this recent Op-Ed in NY Times titled Sex is Not Our Problem points out, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” While the topic of this Op-Ed is about sex education and its role in forming healthier adults, the key arguments are relevant to the discussion here too that social issues need to be addressed and blaming one gender (in this case shaming of girls) won’t solve anything. With this, the writer is alluding to distracting tactics that are often deployed rather than focusing on the real issues at hand. I believe the same is occurring in the case of families and their role in educating children. Added to this, conflicts in welfare reform, education funding get in the way of actually addressing the issues at hand.

While I am not making the conservative argument that we need more families, and lesser single parents; though there is some wisdom in that argument – I am definitely calling for greater involvement on part of the parents. As someone who has had all his primary and part of his higher education in India, I can point out one insight that may be missing in all our policy debates: How to make parents more involved. For one, Indian parents, much like their Chinese and Korean counterparts are extremely engaged in their children’s education. Some going too far, I would argue. In a conversation with Mrs. Lara, an Assistant Principal, I learnt that many of the parents in this school district are either not too engaged, or just not present. This is the unfortunate consequence of some of them being deported back to Mexico, where many of them are from. “When the recession hit, you could see hundreds of abandoned homes, and when the parents left, many of the kids were left with foster parents. And one can only imagine the amount of attention these poor souls received from them.” She pointed out.

It is well known that higher educational achievement means better job prospects and greater productivity, as this Op-Ed points out: “From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.” The real economic gains and productivity have slowed down remarkably and with the recent recession, this has exacerbated the problem. As Mr.Gordon goes on to point out further that “the gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.” Several factors have contributed to this including the retirement of Baby Boomers from the workforce, slowdown in innovation. The growing cost of education, reduced graduation rates from high school and those with bachelor’s degrees, all contribute to the problems that are outlined above.

Greater family involvement means lesser absenteeism, better grades and better changes of success, as this research paper points. While it may be stating commonly held beliefs that parents are crucial for the success of their children’s education – these factors are impeded in the U.S. by several factors, one of them being cultural and linguistic. Some parents may not feel comfortable or welcome in an environment where they cannot use their native language, which may not be English, in many cases. Cultural sensitivity on part of the school is key, in these cases, an insight that Mrs. Lara also shared.

While improving education standards and measurement techniques seems to be one of the ways to improve ‘quality of education’ as some organizations and policy institutes advocate; the real challenge may be more elementary and perhaps harder to fix, i.e., ensuring that the students have a stable and secure base from which to launch their careers as scholars. Families provide that in most cases and perhaps if we bring our attention back to where it matters, this insoluble problem won’t be so insoluble, after all.



Travelers’ tips from Ibn Battuta – A fourteenth century itinerant traveler

If someone has traveled over 70,000 miles in the 14th century, by land and sea; one can safely assume that this person knows a thing or two about travel and life, in general. Added to this, if one happens to be a religious scholar, who has access to Sultans and Princes around the world, then this person’s stories are definitely worth your attention, even if they are (partly) made up. Dr. Paul Cobb, Professor of Islamic History at University of Pennsylvania shared these insights in a thoughtful and humorous public talk at the Upenn Museum on Dec 4, about Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler.

Photo courtesy  :
Photo courtesy :

Ibn Battuta2    Dr. Cobb pointed out that while we take our travels with great seriousness, including making sure that we have our passports, visas and other travel documents in order, Ibn Battuta did not have to deal with these annoyances. Given that borders were porous and the Ottoman and Mughal empires, who were his hosts, ruled much of the civilized world then; he certainly didn’t need a passport. But there were far greater threats in his way – thunderstorms, pirates, disease, scorching heat of the sun and petty thieves. Dr. Cobb narrated a story that seems fascinating, intriguing and full of adventures and the “400 pages that Ibn Battuta devotes to India are just under 40% of the entire book,” he pointed out. The Travels of Ibn Battuta is a classic in travel writing and has survived centuries, partly because of the credibility of the scholar and also renewed interest in his work, after the French colonization of Algiers.


Beginnings of an adventure

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century scholar of Islam and originally from Tangiers in Morocco. His travels began at an early age- 22 years according to his own book and continued for 30 years. “He did not mean it to be a treacherously long journey and he admits that the motivation for his journey was the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina that every believing Muslim is supposed to fulfil.” Dr. Cobb pointed out that on route to the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta had a dream – of flying on a bird that took him to the Holy cities and then dropped him off in the Far East. His host, a religious scholar interpreted the dream meaning that he would travel to the Far East and that many adventures ahead of him. After the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta went to Iraq and Persia (modern day Iran) before taking the long land-route to Constantinople, with the intention of reaching India, which was ruled by Mughals.

In Egypt, he met several Sufis or mystics and one of them predicted that he would travel the world and meet other Sufis in India and other parts of the world. “I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them.” [Gibb, p. 24].

“One is not sure why he took the longer land route to India, when one considers that this was a time of bandits, pirates and no Air travel. Travel was long, hard, treacherous and life-threatening.” Dr. Cobb pointed out. He stopped by Konya in Turkey and then proceeded to Egypt and finally India, where he lived for 12 years, in Delhi, serving as a Qadi, or jurist. The fact that he was a learned man gave him access, prestige and gifts from patrons; who considered it an honor to support someone like him.



Islamic empire and networks of learning

The fact that Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire together owned much of the civilized world in Asia, Middle East and parts of Europe made Ibn Battuta’s travels much easier. His religious learning in Islam was a huge asset and he made a living as a judge, wherever he went. This was further augmented by the gifts he received on way from noble men and kings. Due to his stature as a scholar, people showed him respect and deferred to him, offering him gifts, hospitality and company.

As scholars have pointed out, travel and learning instilled a cosmopolitan ethic in the Islamic civilization and this was exemplified in the example of Ibn Battuta. The Sufi orders, networks of other Ulema and Mosques and Madrassas spread around the world gave him access to people, hospitality, wealth and patronage – all ingredients necessary for a successful journey. The networks of learning were strong in those days, and one’s learning guaranteed sustenance, if not great worldly success.


Travel Tips from Ibn Battuta’s life

On a lighter note, Dr. Cobb presented five travel tips, based on Ibn Battuta’s life and adventures. Abbreviated for greater impact, he described five habits of mind and heart that helped Ibn Battuta along the way:

  1. Keep an open mind – Though he was not very open minded in the traditional sense, having become the exemplar of what a ‘proper’ Muslim man should be, however Ibn Battura’s example should serve to remind us that one should keep an open mind, when confronted with ideas, customs and notions that we may not agree with; pointed out Dr. Cobb
  2. Go to School – The fact that Ibn Battuta was a religious scholar made his entire journey possible should not be discounted. His learning provided him with prestige, means of livelihood, and networks of other scholars and also the appreciation of what the world is about. Without this knowledge, one can safely assume that there would be no Ibn Battuta
  3. Bring snacks – Bring gifts and other articles that may be appreciated. Never a bad idea.
  4. Plan on changing your plans – Always have a plan B. Given how many times Ibn Battuta had to change his travel plans, due to bad weather, ill-health or other factors, it is advisable to be ready to change one’s plans, at short notice, if need be.
  5. Make friends – Though Ibn Battuta did not make mention of too many friends in his travelogue, he does point to a few significant ones, including scholars, fellow travelers and members of his entourage, which grew in size as his reputation grew, over a period of time. This is also a key lesson that one can glean from his life and travels.


For more, here is a UC Berkeley project on Ibn Battuta’s travels:




If you are university educated, be sure to thank the 11th century Iranians! – Conversations in philanthropy #7

If you are college educated, have attended a traditional university, as we know it; anywhere in the world – then inadvertently you have benefited from a system that was pioneered in Iran in the 10th and 11th century, as part of the system of  Islamic Philanthropy, i.e., the Waqf, or endowment (Arjomand 114). While it is widely recognized that the world’s first university is the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, Egypt, built almost 1000 years ago ( also as a Waqf institution), not many people know that the concept of endowments was put into practice as a public policy in the Muslim empires of the medieval ages. This is a short article that delves into the development of Waqfs and how they have impacted the field of education. While contemporary Waqfs in Muslim majority countries are not as wealthy as they were in the past, their role remains significant and key to serving social needs as well as preserving art, culture and human dignity.

photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons
photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Historical growth of Waqfs as institutions of public policy

While Waqfs are private endowments and were meant as a measure of private initiative of the wealthy, they inadvertently became entwined with the public policy of the era. As Singer points out, in its basic form, a Waqf consisted of specific endowed properties, the revenues of which were designated in perpetuity to maintain and sustain a particular project or initiative- a soup kitchen or an educational institution. This is particularly noticeable in the field of education (Arjomand 125) which I will examine briefly.

There is value in his argument that that it was the non-qur’anic Waqf and not the Qur’anic Sadaqa or Zakat that became legal policy in the Islamic empires – and provided the basis for philanthropy in Islam. The jurists developed zakat into a poor-rate incumbent on all believers to be collected by the state, but given its difficult collection, it fell into disuse and also due to corruption; fell into disuse. The Waqfs that were developed in this era were mosque-educational complexes that housed both a place of worship and a learning center, where scholarship and teaching could occur. This eventually turned into a full-fledged residential facility that was the precursor to what we call a “college.”

Students at Al-Azhar University
Students at Al-Azhar University

Maksidi argues that the college was then imported into Europe in the 12th century first by the Knights Templar of the Levant whose headquarters was in England and who founded the Inns of court in London, who must have seen madrasas in or on the way to Jerusalem, and endowed the college des Dix-Huit in Paris for 18 poor students in 1180. In the mid-13th century, the first three colleges of Oxford were founded as charitable trusts. (Maksidi 19).

He further points out that the Ottomans used Waqfs as state policy for the development of cities such as Edirne and Istanbul (Arjomand 125). Amy Singer, another scholar who has studied  medieval charity in Muslim societies corroborates this view, when she points out: “Waqfs have been extensively researched, probably as much because of the prominence of particular foundations, as because of the relatively large amount of evidence available about them. Foreign visitors and colonial rulers alike carefully scrutinized Waqfs, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, because the entire institution seemed to interfere with the establishment of modern private property regimes and the reform of landholding for purposes of agricultural modernization and development.” (Singer 92).

While I am not making the claim that the idea of an endowment itself was an innovation by the Muslim rulers (different forms of endowments did exist in Pre-Islamic Iran), the Muslim rulers did popularize and spread the notion and made it mainstream. Arjomand adds: “The law of Waqf developed in the formative years of the Islamic law i.e, 8, 9 centuries. There was influence of pre-Islamic Iranian law that impacted Waqf laws development. the Sasanian law book Maktakdan-I Hazar Dastan ( Book of thousand judgments) has helped us understand the epigraphic evidence on the institutions of private endowment for the soul or “for pious purposes” whose purpose was determined by the founder and set forth in an instrument of endowment (Arjomand 110)


Modernization and Education in the Muslim world

One of the most direct impact of the Waqfs in public policy has been in the field of education, research. While entire systems of patronage existed that perpetuated certain types of knowledge (in medieval age, as it does today), the university and madrasa became the centers of not only debate and change but also reform. Speaking of the education system in medieval era, Fazlur Rahman, one of the most prominent American scholar on Islam points out: “Medieval education became very formulaic and original thinking didn’t happen, this can explain the decline of any scientific thinking in the Muslim world, since then. The Muslim scholars also focused more on religious education, versus “worldly” education and this was a wrong focus to have. There were commentaries written on other commentaries and they had very little new things to say.” (Rahman 29).

He further argues that a kind of secularism developed in the Muslim world in pre-modern times, because of stagnation of Islamic thinking in general and because of the failure of Sharia law and institutions to develop themselves to meet the changing needs of society. (Rahman 43). One can make a case for the impact of shift in patronage systems to the schools of learning (through Waqf endowments) that made this change occur. Also, the Waqfs themselves were dealt a death-blow with colonization of Muslim countries. He uses the examples of India and Egypt to discuss how this occurred, with the death of genuine scholarship and also the unfortunate distinction between “this worldly” and “sacred or religious” knowledge, an idea that took genesis in the 13th century and that ultimately brought about the stagnation of original scholarship in the Muslim world.

Rahman points out that there has been a fear of intellectualism in the Muslim world and also this was related to patronage or support. Law brought employment, while medicine, or math did not guarantee the same kind of support. In the last 100 yrs or so, Muslims have shown an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the new (136).



Taking a close look at the development of Waqfs and Education system in the Muslim world, historically can give us insights into the current state of Muslim societies and the challenges they face. Through a clear understanding of this, one can evolve a strategy for advancement of fields of knowledge that will better serve the people of the countries and humanity, at large. I believe that Waqfs are a good lens to look at this shift in both systems of patronage and also to understand which form of knowledge was seen as relevant.

As Singer points out, philanthropy is a complete language, with its own codes, lexicon of actions that acquire meaning through a grammar of social order and syntax of significations this then becomes a part of religion, public policy, law and social norms. She further argues that to understand this requires the close study of relationship of what is being invoked and by whom, for what purposes (Singer 221).

There is also the problem of lack of scholarship in the field, as I am discovering, and something that Singer is clear about (Singer 24). She points out it is strange that barring one book by Robert McChesney, there is virtually no book length treatment of the concept of Zakat and Islamic notions charity in English. With more research and scholarly work, one can hope to unravel and unpack the story of how institutions have shaped fields of human endeavor.



Works Cited

Arjomand Said Amir. Philanthropy, the Law and Public Policy in the Islamic world before the modern era – Philanthropy in the world’s traditions. Ed by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz and Edward L. Queen II. Indiana Uni press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1998. Print.


Maksidi. Muslim institutions of learning in eleventh century Baghdad. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 24,1. 1961. London. Print.


Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1982. Print.







Political Institutions and Stability in Egypt: Can the Egyptians pull it off?

Much ink has been spilled since the start of the Arab Spring and the turn towards democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, but it turns out that we are still not too clear about the direction the region is headed towards. Despite all the scholarly insights, punditry and 24/7 news analysis and satire, we are as confused and clueless as we were in 2011. In this short piece, I will try to outlay some of the key arguments made about Political institutions, Modernization and  Democracy in the Middle East. I believe that arguments about Islam and Democracy not being compatible and facile, racist and fail to take into account the seismic changes taking place in these societies.


Political institutions, Modernization and Economic development

One of the key reasons that the Arab Spring began was the dissatisfaction with the status quo. i.e, in particular the economic disparities in countries that were under dictatorships. While the Persian Gulf countries remain awash in Oil money and are relatively immune, there is general agreement among scholars and analysts that the current revolts are a result of economic grievances, linked to lack of political reform and corruption.

            Samuel Huntington analyzed these issues in one of his earliest books, Political Order in Changing Societies[i] (in my opinion, his best and often, most unread book), where one of his key insights is that “Violence and instability are in a large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions (p. 4).” He goes on to point out that in the 1950s and 60s’, in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries “[t]he rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political participation are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change (p. 5). By his own argument, those societies that are reaching towards “modernity,” may be unstable. As he points out : ““[i]t is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder (p. 41).”

            The debate about “Islamism,” and fear of “radical Islam,” has overshadowed the real debate about challenges, or substantial needs of the populace, that those in power have to satisfy. Despite who is in power, the basics of life – jobs, security, opportunities for youth, a functional state and economy have to be provided for. Given that Egypt is a heterogeneous society, the fact that Muslim Brotherhood, ( MB) did not make an effort to reach out to the minorities’ i.e., Coptic Christians and others seems to have contributed to its fall from grace. Let us briefly look at the history of American political institutions, to look for some lessons in governance.

A page from American History: Institution building takes time!

I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true today, in the case of Egypt, as it did for America in 1838.  In one of the earlier speeches that he gave as a young 28 year old man ( His speech is known as the “Lyceum Address,”) he said: “I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny[ii].”

Lincoln’s Lyceum address in 1838 about the perpetuation of American political institutions. He was immediately concerned about the rash of violent actions, perpetuated by unruly mobs, which was spreading through much of the country But his greater concern was the difficulty of safeguarding the country’s free institutions, now that the burden of preserving had fallen to a generation that did not create them.

He was talking about the need for strong political institutions, rule of law and respect for life and property, so that no tyrant may rise from within the country. The same is true of Egypt’s condition today. The institutions that exist today are a handover of the Post-Mubarak regime and MB with its recent electoral victory was trying to come to grips with the fragile economy and an exuberant populace. While being a social solidarity movement, the MB has had no political experience, having been shunned out of the political sphere for decades. This chance to build institutions, to solidify its political credentials and also earn the respect and loyalty of those who brought them to power has been lost, perhaps by a few rash actions of Mr.Morsi and also greatly by the coup, instated by the Military.


             Despite the best analysis, scholarship and insights, no one can predict what the future of the region will hold. Will the next 50 years in Egypt resemble those under Mubarak? There are indications that this may not be true, but it is too early to say anything. What I would rather predict is that despite all the rhetoric and brouhaha about change, things haven’t really changed much, on the ground. It is not about the “mindset,” as David Brooks has argued.

            Not only is this deeply offensive and inaccurate, but is also hegemonic. While he brushes off America’s involvement in keeping Mubarak in power for decades, all in the name of stability, he goes to great lengths to argue against Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, which lasted just a year or so.

            As a parting thought, I would like to point to Turkey, Indonesia – two countries which are dealing with some of the challenges that a Muslim majority country faces, all the while balancing the needs of its minorities and ensuring there is representation and rule of law – two key ingredients of a democracy. Doesn’t this defeat the Democracy vs. Islam argument? And AKP party in Turkey is an “Islamist one,” to top it all. There are great examples and institutional and cultural norms which favor democracy, participation and upholding the rights of minorities in each of the Muslim countries. While talking of the “Muslim world,” does not help anyone, given the complexity and diversity of cultures, ways of living; it may help to draw upon some of the normative claims and examples from Islamic history, which are replete with democratic institutions and ways of consultation and Ijma, or consensus.

            I do agree with Dr.Juan Cole, when he says: “Egypt’s future stability and prosperity now depends on whether the officer corps and youth are mature enough to return to pluralist principals and cease persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood just because Morsi was high-handed. Their media has to be free and the 300 officials have to be released unless charged with really-existing crimes on the statute books. And it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is wise and mature enough to roll with this punch and to reform itself, giving up its cliquish and cult-like internal solidarity in favor of truly becoming a nation-wide, center-right, democratic opposition party.”

So, a short answer to the question, can Muslim majority countries in the Middle East transition to democracies? In short: Yes. The long answer: It depends on the conditions, internal leadership and also the extent of foreign involvement in the country. There is also a need for greater humility and acknowledgment that no one really knows how things will pan out. And also, one must remember that the American civil war lasted for four years, between 1861-65. That’s about four years and over 750,000 dead in total.

I hope the pundits are listening.

[i] Huntington, Samuel. Political Order in Changing Societies. 1968. Yale Uni. Press.

[ii]  Lincoln, Abraham. The Lyceum Address. July 5, 2013. Accessible at:

Can Turkey, Egypt become “modern?”

The ongoing contestations, protests and debates in Egypt, Turkey between the people and the leaders  is being framed as one of clash of modernity vs. traditionalism. Enough ink has been spilled trying to explain how the Islamists (read those who believe there is space for Islam in the public sphere) are harmful, retrograde and generally bad for the country in question. While this fear of Islamists have some validity- in extreme cases such as the Taliban, on the whole, I believe this apprehension and fear about the “wave of Islamization,” in Egypt, Turkey is incorrect, exaggerated and at times blatantly wrong.

Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt
Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt

The government’s repression and tackling of protestors is quite another issue, and I will not get into that here. My point is to analyze the discourse surrounding the participation of Islamist parties in the public sphere. I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of these elements and also an Orientalist understanding of politics, that may well fall short of the kind of thinking needed to understand the role of Islam in the public sphere.  

Some background

The debate about modernity and secularism is particularly important as various developments in the Muslim world are re-defining “modernity,” but this is not the definition of modernity that fits the western mould, as well-known Anthropologist and scholar of Islam, Talal Asad points out. The Arab Spring uprisings are an example of the kind of modernity that is bringing to power regimes which the western powers see as “pre-modern”. Egypt, Tunisia stand as examples of such developments, which are considered by many analysts and a few academics as NOT representative of modernity.turkey-country

The classical definition of modernity and Secularism has the implicit notion of separation of Religion and Politics, but this does not neatly fit into the definition of how politics and life in general is conducted in many parts of the world. Asad points out that project of modernity in the Muslim world (and one can argue in many societies which are non-Muslim as well) that secularism and modernity should not be seen as exclusionary terms.

“Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular[i]. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

“Modernity is a project or a series of projects that some of those in power seek to achieve…” and we forget that the notion of modernity in the west emerged at a time in history and there is an attempt from the Western powers to impose it on other societies. This is the reason there are so many problems in other parts of the world,” he adds. The fact that Asad believes that there cannot be one definition of Modernity, or Secularism or even Religion complicates matters for him and hence this can be a hegemonic discourse. This is often played out in discourses of belonging, national security and other areas impacting the state.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity[1], since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

So, how is one to define Modernity? Doesn’t this view of modernity make it almost impossible to talk about Modernity or Secularism, in an objective sense? Perhaps not. Asad points out that: “The modern nation as an imagined constructed is mediated through imagined constructs, “says Asad in the introductory chapter[2]. One of the main symbols used is that of Secularism, as all other identities and symbols are relegated to secondary importance. The mediating character of religious symbols varies in each society, he goes on to say and this is quite different even within the Western world. Take the US, France and Britain. While the US still has a significant population which believes in fundamentalist ideals and tries to influence polity, France is at a different spectrum and with its Laicite, is quite insular in its approach to religion in the public sphere.

But it is key to remember that there are constant negotiations going on in every society and no society is ever static. While the French are adamantly nationalistic and define Secular in a very rigid way, they still have Catholic Schools in which one can cover oneself (Veil) as one chooses. It’s a mistake to think of secular and religious in binary term, there are lots of cross-cultural connections and transmutations of concepts, modes of behavior and organization. Let’s now look at the notion of civil society and modernity, as being understood specifically in Turkey and Egypt.


Notions of civil society and modernity in Egypt

Among the several assumptions about the Middle East and North Africa are that “civil society,” must flourish in order for democratic institutions to take root. While this assumption has been challenged on several grounds, both religious and cultural, the fact remains that there are vibrant pockets of civil society – the sort of networks and alliances that make governance and accountability possible in many parts of the region.

Steven Cook recently wrote about the “Islamization,” of the newly formed democracies in an insightful article for the Atlantic, in which he says :Egypt’s Muslim Brothers and Tunisia’s Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur’an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines — observers tend to forget that what was Cairo’s Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak’s ignominious fall.” He clarifies what he means by “Islamized,” by adding: “By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.” Implicit in this line of reasoning is that this is somehow bad, evil and inimical to the interests of minorities, although, there is very little proof to that effect.

As a proof to show that the country is Islamizing, he cites a new amendment to the December 2012 constitution: “Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” While this may seem true, it is a fact that given the strange relationship of the Ulema ( religious scholars at Al-Azhar) and the ruling establishment, over the centuries, there has been a tension built in – one that neither gives them absolute say, nor authority. One must only remember that Mubarak quite literally managed Al-Azhar on his own terms and before him Sadat coopted the Ulema. If the country’s constitution says that Shari’ah is the source of law, doesn’t it make sense that the scholars of the most well-known university be consulted?


Turkey’s case:

Speaking of Turkey’s reform efforts in Education, Steven Cook, in the same article, mentions :In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey’s universities — a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic’s history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey’s preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey’s 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students.” What he does not mention is that these schools were severely repressed by the state, during the Ataturk era and today form one of the examples of every local community’s efforts to educate its youngsters. Students in Imam hatip schools get both religious and secular education and learn to become constructive members of society. There is again, nothing inherently wrong with this, as Cook and several other secularists assume. If anything, this move to help the graduates of these schools enter the public service is an effort to integrate these graduates, who often are poor and come from modest backgrounds.

As Fazlur Rahman, the late scholar of Islam has astutely pointed out: “The great sign of hope is the restlessness and remarkable upward mobility of intellectual life in the new educational adventure of Islam in Turkey. This is an inherent quality of the Turkish character and accrues directly from the circumstance that Turkey is starting over with a clean slate after a deliberate and extended experiment with pure secular Westernization[ii].”

One must not forget that the economy grew tremendously under Mr.Erdogan and the religious resurgence seems to be a reaction to the decades of repression by the state. It is the will of people that is being demonstrated, through the elected representatives. Here is an article from The Economist, that points to the economic growth that came under Mr.Erdogan and the need for further stability in the country. It points out: “A key selling-point for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to voters is Turkey’s economic performance. After a volatile 1990s and a huge bust in 2001, his Justice and Development (AK) government has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. In 2010 and 2011 the economy grew by a China-like 9%, leading to serious fears of overheating.” Despite, this there are serious concerns about the AKP and Mr.Erdogan’s religious leanings. Criticism of the ruling party often seems to be from a political or ideological stance, often not taking into account the historical progress of the country, and the social and religious conditions that have shaped it.

Here is an egregious example of bashing of Mr.Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. While the writer fails to acknowledge that the Turkish economy grew rapidly under his leadership, he goes on to say that the has nothing to show, but the growth of the economy – as if economic miracles happen in vacuum, without any planning or critical evaluation of the direction in which the country should head.

There are very many credible and respect scholars who have made the claim that the notions of modernity, religion and secularism are all western constructs, that emerged in the West in a specific context, under very specific time-periods and they have become a lens for the western world to look at the world. It is wrong to assume that every civilization and country should abide by these and imposing this on others is akin to hegemony. Jose Casanova, Peter Berger, Talal Asad have all made similar (if not the exact same arguments) in their books and there is good reason to believe this is the case.



What is to be done?

In conclusion, what H.A.R. Gibb, the great Orientalist scholar said about the Muslim religious leaders of medieval times, can be said equally about their secular opponents, in contemporary times: ““Modernism is, therefore, predominantly a movement of thought among educated laymen, if we leave aside the neo-Hanbalite Manar-modernists. But how is its theological content to be assessed or defined? It seldom finds direct expression in books or articles, and though, it may be reflected in the arguments and polemics of the Ulema against the spread of Secularism, we may be sure that, in the invariable habit of preachers and polemists, they exaggerate, misrepresent and distort the opinion and activities of which they disapprove[iii].”

Perhaps, journalists, analysts and students should read a bit more about the processes of modernization, the critiques of the same and also sensitize themselves to the various debates in the field before passing any judgments. While it is true that modernity is a difficult, painful and often destructive process, it need not be so. Turkey and Egypt are in a unique position to define for the Muslim world what modernity in the 21st century looks like. And I believe they should do it on their own terms – not on terms defined by others.

[i] Asad, Talal. 2003, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity,Stanford, California: Stanford University Press

[ii] Rahman, Fazlur. 1982. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Gibb, H.A.R. 1947. Modern Trends in Islam, New York. Octagon Books. Pp.49.