chapter  1
32 Pages

Religion, State, and Culture: Beyond Islamic Exceptionalism

In the current political climate, it is hard to mention religion (or, to be more precise, Islam) without bringing to mind the new orthodoxy of the ‘clash of civilizations’ which is trying to explain much of the world’s political turmoil in terms of a clash between the West (secular modernity) and Islam (religious tradition). In trying to probe the reasons for the stubbornness of ‘tradition’ in many parts of the world, most notably in the Middle East, the reasons for the ‘backwardness of Islamic civilization’, and to explain (to use the title of one of Bernard Lewis’s recent books, 2002) ‘What went wrong?’ earlier in the region’s history, Islam is treated as a coherent, self-sealed and self-explanatory culture, and as the main obstacle in front of Islamic countries seeking full membership in the exclusive club of ‘modernity’. Increasingly and in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11 the question of religion is seen as a decidedly ‘Islamic’ question; and culture (reduced to Islam) is viewed as the primary factor behind social existence and political action. Lewis and co. and their enthusiastic followers are not alone in this overtly exaggerated assumption of cultural essentialism. This ends up in defi ning societies in terms of some deeply embedded cultural ethos, and lining up a rational Occidental culture against a rigid, stagnant Oriental culture and religion. The response in the ‘Islamic world’ to this vision of historical development has been twofold. Many share the basic assumption of Lewis and others and have begun the process of ‘self-examination’, mapping the religious/cultural traits as the key reason for failure in their engagement with modernity (Matin-Asgari, 2004). Others, while challenging the Eurocentrism of ‘Islamic Studies’ and pointing out the neglect in recording the contribution of ‘Islamic Civilization’ in science and economy, do share the basic assumption of ‘uniqueness’ of ‘Islamic’ culture and civilization. Hamid Mowlana belongs to this latter camp.