Thursday, February 05, 2009

Islamism: What's in a Word?

I went to a lecture and exchange today featuring the Southeast Asianist scholar Donald Emmerson. He is writing a book with a colleague that amounts to a debate concerning the use of the word "Islamism" and the validity or lack thereof of self-censorship when confronting such a charged term. This colloquium was a presentation of his thought process with reference to his colleague's counter process. It raised some issues that are dear to my heart.

So, pursuant to a challenge issued at the event by the scholar Olivier Roy, I will start by providing a definition. Islamism, in my view, is the ideological use of Islam to influence state and society to adopt Islamic policies and practices. The term may be new, but the practice is old. I find it risible to suggest that Islam is just a religion, and political action should not reflect upon it. Islamists, like fundamentalists of all stripes, draw on their religious heritage to justify their campaigns, whatever they may be. All religious textual traditions contain irresolvable antinomies precisely so that they can be used variously to argue for peace and war, love and hate, acceptance and rejection. So no matter how violent or moderate the Islamist, they are from the religion and they argue their own legitimacy from the religion.

Enough of me.

Emmerson proposed a little diagram to explain his argument about the validity or lack thereof in self-censorship in addressing a term like "Islam ... I am not going to reproduce the graphic because I am not sure if it is proprietary or if he wants it bandied about. But he counterposes accuracy and considerateness, so that something that is accurate and considerate is contextualization; something that is considerate but inaccurate is denial; something that is accurate but inconsiderate is candor; and something that is inaccurate and inconsiderate is stigmatization. Nice, and I htink you can see where this is going.

I thought Emmerson produced a lengthy and erudite rationale for sometimes using the word so long as it well-grounded. His colleague ... I cannot for the life of me remember the name ... refuses to use the term ever. And the aforementioned Olivier Roy thinks it is a perfectly fine term ... he claims to have invented the phrase moderate Islamist in 1984 ... and uses it whenever he bloody well pleases, just so long as it is well-defined.

The subsequent comments and Emmerson's responses represented an erudite debate about language, usage, the role of scholarship in the world, and methodology. A knee-jerk response might be to find it all pointy-headed and airless, but that was just not what was actually happening. Emmerson pointed out that scholars actually have an increased role in public debate these days; I hasten to point that the notion that involvement in public debate justifies a given scholarship is a kind of tyranny of relevance. But it happens to be true in this case. There are many scholar talking heads on the news shows and especially on PBS. They too get rounded up into the sound-bite hell of modern broadcast TV, but they do have the opportunity to introduce terms and perspectives that would have been lost in earlier eras.

So the first issue is this ... since language matters and since language is fluid ... sometimes like water, sometimes like glass, mostly like something in between ... public rumination on the particulars of language has a high function. This is hardly confined to the present. I am presently reading Peter Brown's excellent The Rise of Western Christendom and he relates how the seizure of Latin by the church during Carolingian times liberated the vernaculars to develop much more freely ... and all of that arose as part of the debate about precise terminology and usage. In the case of "Islamism", the media use the term increasingly as equivalent to terrorist, and this certainly serves purposes. But simply to surrender a term, especially in these days of aggressive and ephemeral appropriation, is to surrender a discourse. No matter that one might lose eventually in a debate, one always needs to make one's points. So at the least, that function was served today.

At one point Emmerson argued that he had tried to change his usage of Islamism from representing a political Islam to representing a public Islam. I thought this was a dangerous slide because public does not need to represent an attempt to enforce a politico-religious ideology. But another participant had a sharper notion as a counterpoise to Emmerson's idea that public was broader (and, by my way of seeing his point, more forgiving) than political. This young man with an Arabic accent said that in repressive societies you can include secret activity in the political and that might be broader than the restricted realm of the public. So the public protestation of devout Islam in a repressive circumstance might be seen by authority as a challenge, and hence Islamist, but it is more readily tolerated and subsumed that secret political activity which is decidedly thereby Islamist. Because, as always with religion, it comes back to the state. There is no Islamism without looking at the state.

But more interesting to me than this ramble is this curiosity. Why did Emmerson choose to write a book that amounted to a dialogue, and to include in this book the responses of 12 selected contributors? Why not mount this on some kind of web site, and make it a dynamic experiment in public scholarship? The reason is two-fold ... first of all, the academe at its highest levels has been incapable of finding a route into the new modes of publication, and no one has risen to take the bull by its horns, as it were, to force the issue. So, secondly, Emmerson seeks to freeze something in time, to make a monument. But the time for monuments is passed, and the Emmersons of the world lose the immediacy of their arguments by fixing them in a book. This sort of argument is Internet-worthy, but not book-worthy because by the time it appears its urgency will have passed.

In my work, there are no excuses. The new technologies press in on us every day, and the urgency is constantly present. It's time for that to be true of the scholars who inhabit the sandstone building a stone's throw from the modular unit where I toil for wages.

This post developed vastly differently from what I imagined as I walked to the train tonight ... but here it is nonetheless.

Photos by Arod . Gawd noze why I chose these, though gawd noze everthang so it must be rite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing your insights. Another thought about why Emmerson chose book over blog: A blog often has a nasty habit of arguing back. Therefore, a blog is riskier. But you're safe with me and you're not going to get an argument from me, since I agree with the point you made.