Understanding Islam and the West: Critical Skills for Students

Understanding Islam and the West: Critical Skills for Students

by Nathan Lean


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As the world’s second-largest faith and by some accounts the most fast-growing, Islam is often at the forefront of intense public conversation in debates about politics, international relations, globalization, modern society and culture.

From the rise of ISIS and revolutions in North Africa and Middle East to more tempered discussions about what it means to be a Muslim in the West and foreign policy making, this student focused textbook, unpacks how we talk about and represent Islam, its place in and relationship to “the West”.

Supported by an accessible introduction, real-world case studies, a glossary of terms and discussion points at the end of each chapter, Nathan Lean offers students a comprehensive and alternative framework to Islam and the West in the 21st Century

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786602107
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 03/26/2018
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 716,958
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nathan Lean is the author of several books, including The Islamophobia Industry (Pluto, 2012).

Read an Excerpt


Reversing Rhetorical Foundations

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

— Richard Kipling, "The Battle of East and West," 1889

The pedigree of the worldview that divides the globe into East and West dates back millennia. While some may trace its origins to the medieval period when the arrival of Islam in the seventh century prompted European Christians to understand the new religion using labels and categories that implied geographic partitions, others have pointed to ancient Greece and Rome as the birthplace of this divide. It was within the budding city-states of Athens, Sparta, and later the islands of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, they argue, that the cultural components of "Western civilization" were nurtured into a coherent and unified identity that would soon come to be differentiated from other emerging "civilizations." Regardless of the varying historiographic accounts, however, one thing is certain: the images, narratives, and discursive elements that convey the idea of a bifurcated world within which the religion of Islam and "the West" are situated on opposite sides have persisted. I suggest that it remains today the single-most powerful paradigm for discussing Muslims and their relationship with, and actions within, various global communities.

Over the past four decades, a steady stream of scholarship has addressed the alleged strengths or weaknesses of the purported Islam-West divide, beginning in 1978 with Edward Said's Orientalism and continuing through the latter part of the twentieth century with Bernard Lewis's 1993 volume Islam and the West and Samuel Huntington's controversial 1996 thesis on the "clash of civilizations." For the most part, the trend within academia has been to push back against the work of the latter two, who favor cultural explanations for conflict over other possibilities. With the attacks of 9/11 inaugurating the arrival of the twenty-first century, that project became more pronounced, and a plethora of scholarly and popular writing emerged that aimed to reject essentialist representations of Islam and answer pressing questions about its violent interpretations. Researchers and other specialists asked: Are Islam and "the West" in conflict? Is Islam incompatible with democracy? Are Islam and human rights irreconcilable? How about Islam and women's rights? In the pages of dozens of books, and in conference halls of world capitals like London, Brussels, and Washington, D.C., these inquiries were addressed, and notwithstanding a few exceptions, the answer at each juncture along the way was, invariably: no — there is not an inherently conflictual relationship between these things. Despite episodic moments of violence or even prolonged wars between Europe and United States, on the one hand, and Muslimmajority countries on the other, there is no reason to believe that Islamic religious tenets pose an existential threat to the so-called West. Similarly, while authoritarianism grips many Muslim-majority countries within the Middle East, the question of the compatibility between Islam and democracy has often been addressed by acknowledging commitments to free and fair elections in places like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. When it comes to issues of human rights or women's rights, scholars have deployed analogous arguments: bad examples here or there are no reason to suggest wholesale incongruity between an entire world religion and certain ethical or moral commitments that are considered universal.

These arguments, on their face, are quite plausible, and there is much value, I believe, in efforts to show nuances and complexities that are absent in the media or in public conversations. Yet at the same time, there is also something immensely unsatisfying about participating in discourses that presume a dualism, even if the objective is to suggest that the relationship between the two parts is not one of incompatibility and conflict. In this book, I argue that despite the good information that has resulted from aims to heal perceived fractures between Islam and "the West" or Islam and democracy, the wrong questions are being asked and answered. Buying into the notion that "Islam and the West" and its derivatives are appropriate frames of reference for discussions about the two is to accept, from the outset, that the nature of the alleged relationship between each side is worthy of inspection, scrutiny, or debate. More valuable, I suggest, is an approach that questions the governing discursive framework altogether. In other words, instead of asking about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, it is more helpful to ask: What do we mean when we say "democracy" or "the West"? How about "Islam"? What presumptions are packed into the idea that there is, indeed, any singular entity against which an entire world religion can be suspended in a state of inquiry or comparison? Might our uncritical use of phrases like the West, human rights, or women's rights imply a normative understanding of those things that is based on a presumably American or European model? Similarly, might this discourse reveal far less about any real essence of Islam or "the West" and more about how those of us who participate in that discourse perceive those things?

What is ultimately concerning about the uncritical use of language in this regard is the possibility that it presents for misunderstanding or worse. By failing to unpack fully the assumptions that are built into the words and phrases that we so commonly use to characterize the world and our relationships with others, we unknowingly entrench some of the very ideas upon which stereotypes and prejudices rest. In this chapter, I propose that we begin to think more carefully about discourse on Islam and "the West" by identifying and problematizing three of the key elements that constitute it. They are: reification, essentialism, and misplaced agency. While other elements exist, it is my contention that these are among the most common. Additionally, I believe that they are worthy of special consideration because of the ease with which they slip into the epistemological and discursive frames that we cannot so easily resist. Highlighting them as potential traps to avoid will, I hope, offer students and other interested parties an occasion to reflect on the ways in which their linguistic choices have a direct bearing on the world and the way that they hope to see it.

Reifying Islam, Muslims, and "the West"

Using the simplest language possible, reification is the mental process of making something that is abstract a "thing" in the world. In other words, it involves taking an idea and thinking about it, talking about it, or acting upon it, as if it existed beyond the confines of our imaginations. This often involves assigning psychological or otherwise human characteristics to concepts as if they had the capability to possess such things to begin with. We all participate in reification. It is more common than one might believe, perhaps even so routine to basic human expressions that we do not even know that we are doing it. For example, consider the often recited phrase "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." Of course, there is no such thing as "Mother Nature" in the world, only a sequence of natural events that we have totalized and personified as a single operating force. Indeed, it is impossible to "fool" those elements, yet we talk about the universe, weather, and other processes of Earth as if such a thing were plausible.

Among the most reified of concepts, though, is religion. The esteemed Canadian scholar of Islam, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has been credited with calling attention to this idea in his influential 1962 text The Meaning and End of Religion. Smith critiqued the notion that abstract beliefs, not the convictions and actions of people, had come to characterize religion, and he argued, in fact, that there is no such thing as "religion in general," nor are there distinct religions such as "Islam," "Christianity," "Buddhism," or the like. Importantly, Smith was not denying that the phenomena we so often think of as religion do not exist or are of little importance. Rather, he identified what he perceived as the problematic tendency to objectify ritual practice and other external signifiers of faith and uphold them as religion, or in specific iterations, as Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism. Another way to think of it is this: imagine a scenario in which all of the world's people suddenly disappeared. Would religion, like fruit hanging from tree branches, remain in abundance on Earth? If we were to return, would we find it there waiting for us? Would we see Christianity piled up in one corner, separate from Islam in another, and still Judaism or Buddhism or other faith traditions in distinct spaces? These questions may seem rather trivial, but the underlying point is not inconsequential: when we discuss religion, it is important that we not lose sight of individual experiences of faith and spirituality, and suppose that there is something "out there" in the world called Islam, for instance, to which those people who identify as Muslims subscribe and move in lockstep. To be more precise, Islam (and indeed all religions) is a dynamic and changing subject rather than an object, an analyzable and living phenomenon rather than a staid abstraction, and ultimately a vibrant tradition of people that converge in certain areas and diverge in many others.

As Steven A. Haggmark has noted, the process of reification is most often carried out on the basis of establishing enemies or foil opposites. The diverse and multivalent experiences of people around the world whom a given group perceives as different or threatening are compressed into and bound by a single category that defines their existence. In the case of "the West," various European and North American countries are distilled into a single descriptor that presumes shared qualities between them. In the case of "Islam," Muslim-majority populations from Morocco to Bahrain are abruptly labeled based on a predominant religion. Absent from this process is the recognition that not all of the people or places that are lumped into these categories are the same. In many cases, they are quite different. The political, religious, and social climates of Tunisia and Pakistan, for instance, are hardly identical, though both are often placed beneath the banner of "Islam." The way that Muslims in Malaysia interpret their religion may differ from Muslims in Saudi Arabia; Bosnian Muslims may share little in common with their coreligionists in Iran. Yet the simple fact of these individuals' shared "Muslimness" is often thought to be sufficient to describe them using the word Islam. Of course, beyond the differences in religious expression that exist between people of different nationalities, even Muslims of the same nationality do not necessarily hold identical beliefs. Within Egypt, for example, it is possible to find Muslim women who wear the veil, attend Friday prayers at the mosque, and view their familial role in ways that the outside observer may deem subservient. It is also possible, however, to find women who do not wear the veil or deem prayer as an especially important part of their daily lives yet nonetheless identify themselves as Muslims. So as not to play into a problematic secular-religious dichotomy, it is also critical that we consider the reality of a spectrum that presents the possibility for as many different religious interpretations as there are people in any given place.

Likewise, it would be unhelpful to think of "the West" as a homogenous bloc of people whose worldviews are, if not identical, even similar. More accurately, it is global events, historical circumstances, and other dynamics of an ever-changing world that have given meaning to the idea of "the West" over time. Let us not forget that France and Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, marking the beginning of World War II and placing them out front as the leading members of the "Western Allies." It was not until two years later, after the December 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor, that the United States, which is often perceived today as the bastion of "the West," entered the war. This would suggest that between 1939 and 1941, the United States was not entirely part of what was considered "the West." Similarly, over sixty years later, when the United States was rallying support for the invasion of Iraq, France adamantly opposed the idea, formally protesting and refusing to send troops. This political move placed France (along with Canada, Belgium, New Zealand, and Sweden, who also opposed to war) outside of what was considered "the West" at that time.

While it is the case that "the West" is often defined based on ostensibly shared political characteristics, it is also important to note that the idea of cultural unity among the nations and peoples that are thought to comprise it is largely a myth. Though once considered Christian, the North American and European spaces that claim the mantle of "Western civilization" are increasingly diverse in terms of their populations' religious affiliations. With the rise of globalization, the perceived dividing line between "Islam" and "the West" has blurred as Muslim immigrants to various European countries have settled, raised families, and established progenies that have grown up fully Muslim and "Western." Changes in the racial makeup of Europe and the United States have occurred, too. Polling data has consistently shown that white majorities in these spaces are dwindling and will soon be outnumbered by other racial or ethnic groups. According to Pew Research, for instance, by 2065, the estimated 441 million Americans will include some 78 million immigrants and nearly 81 million people born in the United States to immigrant parents. war.

To see how reification plays out in news headlines and public discourse, let us examine a few examples. When columnist Roger Cohen of the New York Times proclaimed in the wake of the 2015 attacks on the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that "Islam and the West" are "at war," several questions became incumbent: Who represents "Islam" and who represents "the West"? Is it reasonable to suggest that some Muslims who lash out against European or American targets are epitomic representatives of all of Islam, and if not, why describe them with such an all-encompassing label? Likewise, who represents the so-called West or decides that it — and all of it — is "at war" with an entire religion? More to the point of the fallacy of reification, though, were questions about how a world religion and an ill-defined geopolitical entity could even engage in war. After all, "Islam" and "the West" are ideas — they are abstract categories that are only as powerful as the people who believe they are useful for framing religious or political beliefs — and cannot, in and of themselves, square off against one another on a battlefield. As we will discuss in more detail below, Islam cannot act, nor can "the West"; only people — Muslims and "Westerners" — can. The idea that because some people who follow Islam and some people who consider themselves as part of "the West" see their relationship as contentious and then act accordingly, is an indictment of those particular people and their beliefs, not an indication that the imagined communities to which they claim belonging are "at This notion of a reified "Islam" as an antagonist of "the West," carrying out various actions as if it were human, is seen again in then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 claim that "Islam hates us." In just three words, Trump established a cleavage between the world's second-largest religion and "us," by which he presumably meant the United States, thereby suggesting a national "we" of which Islam was not a part. Like Cohen, he took the actions of some violent Muslims and supposed that because they found inspiration for those actions within religious doctrines, the problem lay not with those particular people, but with "Islam." Just as it cannot wage war, by now it should be clear that neither can Islam hate anyone or anything because Islam is not a human being that can possess emotions and other feelings, let alone act upon them.


Excerpted from "Understanding Islam and the West"
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Copyright © 2018 Nathan Lean.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Chronology / Introduction: A Clash of Civilizations or a Clash of Representations? / Part I: Identity Politics / 1. Reversing Rhetorical Foundations / 2. From Prose to Policy: A Discourse of Dualism / 3. Foreign Enemies, Domestic Threats, and the Media / Part II: Religion, Language and Society / 4. The Misappropriation of Arabic Words / 5. The Soft Prejudice of “Western” Expectations / Part III: A Clash of Representations / 6. The New “ism” Enemy: Islamism / 7. The Illogical Search for “Moderate Muslims” / 8. Understanding “the West” as an Ideological Enemy / Conclusion / Glossary / Bibliography / Index

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