Agonistic Islam


Mohammed Ben Jelloun

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

Copyright © 2002 by Mohammed Ben Jelloun, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Should we postcolonials (with Muslim backgrounds) either join the "successful" master against the "jealous" slave or choose one among equally greedy and power-hungry "masters"? Should we, with Francis Fukuyama, join triumphant secularism and the "progressive" West against defeated religion and "reactionary" Islam ("We Remain")? Or should we, with Samuel Huntington, choose one among equally hegemony-seeking civilizations? Should we either secularize Islamic societies or essentialize Islamic civilization; either Christianize Muslim human individuals or Orientalize resistant Muslim culture; either convert the Same or enslave the Other? Fukuyama and Huntington don’t leave us many options: either the "no borders" moralism or the power politics of imposed borders; either the Eurocentric Idealism of monocultural modernization or the equally Eurocentric Realism of a hierarchy of civilizations.

  2. This essay contests both postcolonial replies to the U.S. discourse on Islam; it objects to the multiculturalist reply to the American Idealists as well as to the transculturalist reply to the American Realists. Section one introduces the postcolonial critique of the discourse on the necessity of secularizing Islam, held by propagandists for a post-Cold War Idealism (Fukuyama). Multiculturalist critics are passed in review: first liberal Will Kymlicka and communitarian Charles Taylor, followed by postcolonial Anouar Majid. Then, partly through comments of "late Marxist" Slavoj Zizek, criticism is directed at the rootlessness and the patronizing attitude of non-agonistic multiculturalism. Section two introduces the postcolonial critique of the essentializing discourse on Islam, held by propagandists for a post-Cold War Realism (Huntington). The focus is here on a single critic, Edward Said. And criticism is leveled at his uprooting attitude and the vagrancy of his transculturalist formulations.

  3. Finally, section three displays my own idea of an Islamic culture of agonism (ta'âkuzia) and my idea of the roots of Islam being in old ta'âkus (agon) practices -- Sulaymân al-Bustânî (1:191) used the word ta'âkus (arguing with one another), which is derived from the Arabic name for a fair, 'Ukâz. Indeed, the view I present holds that ethical reasoning must proceed within the context of a community's traditions and cultural understandings. I propose that criticism should proceed by drawing on conceptual, factual, and moral resources that are themselves available through one's culture, writ large . . . namely, in my own understanding of Islamic culture, through a certain culture of pre-Islamic Arabia. However, the view I present is only seemingly or partly communitarian. In fact, is is basically agonistic as it objects to established views on international relations and, insofar as it draws on a larger, maybe world-wide, human tradition of inwards and outwards, intra-community and inter-community contest and competition, it recommends the self-overcoming ideal from pre-Socratic Greece to contemporary globalization society.

  4. Fukuyama claims that the Muslim world is centuries of immaturity behind the West, making the assumption, for example, that the ongoing Iranian internal Islamic process of dissension is a Reformation stage in a European model of universal progress ("Islam's Clash, "Their Target"). Basically, this makes him a Eurocentrist. In fact, the urge for the necessity of secularizing Islamic societies has better representatives among today's liberals. "Reformation liberalism" (Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, as they reacted to the atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War of religions) is indeed well represented -- and has significant opponents too, in line with the "Enlightenment liberalism" of John Stuart Mill.

  5. Fukuyama’s natural law claims and his dissociation from positive law, in this context, fall short of the sophistications of Habermas’ "cosmopolitan law," for example, not to mention the "realistic utopia" of John Rawls in The Law of Peoples. It is indeed no longer self-evident that the discourse of rights necessarily need be based on some deep metaphysical assumptions about the ahistorical "truth" of these rights.[1] Justifying rights with reference to the equality of men, the value of freedom or the virtues of republican government, apparently, need no longer invoke ontology and metaphysics or divinely revealed "natural law" (see Peter Jones).

  6. Grounded as it is in the philosophically pragmatic framework of the last two decades’ political-theoretical debate, much of recent argumentation for rights proceeds from a "political," in contradistinction to a traditionally more philosophical or "comprehensive," view of man and society, a view which is therefore abstract and yet not ahistorical. The so-called "political" or "postmodern" liberals such as Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Richard Rorty have indeed renewed the urge for the separation of private and public life, for state neutrality or indifference vis-à-vis people's cultural, religious, moral, and philosophical commitments. This, in turn, has made even more stringent the separation between church and state, and likewise the demand for secularization. Meanwhile, liberal as well as communitarian and postcolonial multiculturalists argue against the Eurocentricities of these secularizing urges.

  7. According to Will Kymlicka, Rawls’ solution, the much discussed "overlapping consensus," is unsatisfactory for Muslims and liberals alike, as it both violates "external protections" and accommodates "internal restrictions." The fact that Rawls’ theory is more secular than Kymlicka's or his liberalism less comprehensive and ideological does not make them more sympathetic to the demands of non-liberal societies (164). Nor does his flirtation with communitarians and his strategy of endorsing autonomy only in political contexts rather than as a general value make his liberalism more credible (163).

  8. Kymlicka thinks that his proposed legislation, providing "external protections" for religious communities and ethnic minorities, seeking differentiated citizenships, and being willing to support self-government and secession rights may be more "tolerant" and satisfying for the demands of non-liberal societies than the containment of religion and culture within the borders of private life. He thinks also that his objecting to "internal restrictions" within the protected societies is more consistently liberal than making, as Rawls does, uncritical state-centric assumptions, urging for common citizenship, and enforcing individual rights on the basis of a "political" liberalism and a public life.

  9. For Rawls, secularism and liberalism are tolerance, not necessarily autonomy, and definitely not group rights. For Kymlicka, while secular tolerance is necessarily autonomy, [2] liberalism is both autonomy and group rights. Indeed, for Kymlicka, not only secularism was a contending option to granting special rights to particular religious minorities; separating church and state meant precisely individual freedom of worship:

    In the sixteenth century, European states were being torn apart by conflict between Catholics and Protestants over which religion should rule the land. These conflicts were finally resolved, not by granting special rights to particular religious minorities, but by separating church and state, and entrenching each’s individual freedom of religion. Religious minorities are protected indirectly, by guaranteeing individual freedom of worship, so that people can freely associate with other co-religionists, without fear of state discrimination or disapproval (3).

  10. Rawls has not explained, Kymlicka says, why people who are communitarians or Muslims in private life should be liberals in political life (162), communitarianism and Islam not being particularly apolitical. Kymlicka’s own response to both communitarians and liberals is: Let Islam be political but, while providing communities with external protections, avert internal restrictions on members! However, he doesn’t say either why Muslims who are receiving external protections should be renouncing internal restrictions -- as we shall see, communitarian toleration is better at managing the "internal restrictions" and the self-determination of non-liberal communities.

  11. Thus, Charles Taylor finds that liberalism, secularism, and autonomy are anchored in Christian faith. After all, aren't they derivatives of the Christian/liberal individual freedom of worship, or conscience, or choice, besides the historical fact that secularism was a Christian solution to a strictly Christian conflict?
    Liberalism is no possible place of meeting for all cultures, it is the political expression of an entire spectrum of cultures which is impossible to combine with another spectrum of cultures. Besides, liberalism in the West, as many Muslims are aware of, is not so much an expression of the secular post-religious outlook which happens to be popular among liberal intellectuals but a more organic outgrowth on Christianity -- at least when considered from Islam’s alternative point of view. The separation of Church and State originates from the oldest Christian civilization. Its first forms were entirely different from ours, but the foundations of modern development were laid. The very term secular belonged originally to Christian vocabulary (Taylor, opening of section V).

  12. Adding both a global and leftist perspective -- the socialist self-determination of large-scale faith communities -- Anouar Majid attacks secularization straight in the name of Islamic self-determination. Rejecting the secular liberal model as one of the unexamined premises of contemporary Western thought, his attack invokes earlier arguments about "the structural similarity between the secular epistemological vision and the imperialist epistemological vision," and about imperialism as "no more than the exporting of a secular and epistemological paradigm from the western world, where it first emerged, to the rest of the world" (al-Masseri 403 qtd. in Majid 118). For him, secularism is the ideological embodiment of capitalism, the alternative to secular modernity being a faith polycentrism: a confederation of theocracies with a socialist vision, including a reformed Islam and South American Catholicism and Christian liberation theology (21, 148-51).

  13. Unlike Kymlicka, Majid hardly values "cultural membership" instrumentally. Not from the point of view of pure individual autonomy and freedom, at least. He considers liberal freedom, individualism, and human rights not universal values discovered by Europeans, but Eurocentric formulations historically and ideologically linked to the development of capitalism -- whereas Islam provides true or alternative visions of egalitarianism and social welfare. Also, he is more like the Taylor who, when defending his native Quebec, argues that cultures which have animated and given meaning to human societies over a considerable time simply have, or should be presumed to have, objective moral value (see Seglow 174). Postcolonial Majid says: "My defense of Muslims' rights to their identities and memories is motivated exclusively by my strong belief that only secure, progressive, indigenous traditions, cultivated over long spans of time, can sustain meaningful global diversities and create effective alternatives to the deculturing effects of capitalism" (vii).

  14. Is the critique provided by liberal, communitarian, and postcolonial multiculturalists not justified? One writer, Slavoj Zizek, thinks differently indeed, making the following point: Multiculturalism is a patronizing attitude because of the distance taken by the multiculturalist subject, his true position being rootlessness and "the void of universality." Also, patronizing multiculturalism is the paradox of a rootless Eurocentrist (or "indirect racist"), who "doesn’t oppose to the Other the particular values of his own culture"; Zizek compares this to "a colonizing without the colonizer coming from some particular nation state." He then insists that it matters little or nothing whether the center of an imperial structure is "inside" or "outside" the structure, that it matters little or nothing as long as we have a "privileged universal position" (44). For example, obviously to him it doesn’t matter whether the center is held "inside" a federation, say by the Rawlsian "political" liberal, or "outside" a confederation, by the liberal or communitarian or postcolonial multiculturalist.

  15. Clearly, Zizek's sort of criticism is directed basically at liberal pluralism and liberal toleration, applying even reflexively to any leftist or working-class patronizing, for example, and to any cultural distance or rootlessness, should it be embodied in the best thinkable confederation of world socialist theocracies. However, though acceptable when delivered to the liberal multiculturalist -- including in communitarian and postcolonial versions -- Zizek’s criticism neither applies to the agonistic multiculturalist nor to multicultural self-determination as such, nor does it justify the necessity of peoples and communities being secularized.

  16. For a long time, multicultural self-determination has been under "leftist" baiting. Indeed, unlike Fukuyama, Rawls, and so many others, Zizek argues for secularization from a "leftist" point of view. Claiming neither natural nor positive law, his arguing for secularization resembles instead Majid’s arguing against it. He would, though by homonymic suggestion only, associate multiculturalism with "the cultural logic of multinational capitalism."[3] He would also make the strategically flawed assumption that mainstream liberalism is multicultural -- not secular -- or that the cultural logic of globalization is multi-national and diversifying -- not trans-national and homogenizing.

  17. Is it really so that every (Eurocentric) patronizing discourse is racist or indirectly racist, as Zizek inflammatorily says it is? He does, indeed, insist that it matters little or nothing if the center of an imperial structure is "full" or "empty." That is, as long as we have a center, it doesn't matter if we "fill" it with our particular race, ethnic group, territory, nation state, ideology, policy, etc. or with merely general abstract principles. He couldn't care less about gradations and scales, as to whether the center is one of a coercive empire or a voluntary association; whether it is about a strategic alliance for hegemony or an organization for equal sovereignty and the law of peoples; whether merely Eurocentric "human rights" are involved or, instead, the idea of a universal respect for the Other and the equality of chance for all cultures.

  18. Is, then, any and every kind of multiculturalism a (Eurocentric) patronizing gesture, as Zizek thinks it is? Are multiculturalism and internationalism impossible without outer guardianship? Do we have to be rootless to be multiculturalists?  What if the "patronizing" center is not "outside" and if our multiculturalist is rooted "inside"? Indeed, our multiculturalist need not be some ghostlike neutral observer. So, besides being multiculturalist, s/he is also committed to, and improves, one of the worldviews involved in the structure, namely the point of view of her/his own culture. And, besides being a perspectivist, s/he also believes that only one perspective at a time -- her/his -- can be true (Owen 147, 160-161, 167). And yet, s/he is no absolutist or fundamentalist, believing instead that worldviews must be proven in fair contests. Ours (being more than an ironic communitarian) is actually a heroic multiculturalist, one who takes risks, gives challengers a real chance, opposes none of their internal cultural restrictions, requiring only and always her/his culture to be challenged by theirs -- and thereby requiring only their own overcoming of their internal "herd" restrictions.

  19. Now, does the idea, very popular among colonials and postcolonials, of peoples’ self-determination necessarily involve a (Eurocentric) patronizing and racism, as Zizek shamelessly suggests? I don’t think it does. Not if we can think of a center that is not yet or nothing essential anyway; not if the center is still an empty place where everything is to be defined; not if it is an arena where nothing is settled once and for all.  Not as long as the center is a contest and the "patronizing" is democratic and consented. Not if the liberal self-determination, or the prerequisites of freedom of (international) access and equality of (international) chance, is there to enable an agonistic self-overcoming. And most definitely, postcolonials cannot afford to decline an "offer" that is being open only a short time to come -- an "offer" that world "liberals" already threaten to withdraw for the sake, as they say, of individual human rights.

  20. Fukuyama mentions Islam only in passing as an "extremely non-uniform religion which acknowledges no central theological authority," insisting instead on the necessity to secularize Islamic society ("Islam's Clash"). To the contrary, while addressing Huntington’s notion of monolithic and homogenous civilizations and his essentializing of Islam, Edward Said develops manifestly an agonistic argument. His essay, "The Clash of Definitions," is thus also about the contest of definitions.

  21. What Huntington calls "civilization identity" is according to Said "a stable and undisturbed thing, like a room full of furniture in the back of your house" (581). To people who speak solely of the clash of civilizations, he says, "cultures and civilizations may change, develop, regress, and disappear, but they remain mysteriously fixed in their identity, their essence graven in stone, so to speak" (584). Said objects namely to the large-scale essentialism involved in Huntington, contending that there is no universal consensus whatsoever agreeing to some six-civilizations system (584; Huntington first mentioned a "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization" ["The Clash" 25]). Said means also that neither is there a consensus among members within "civilizations": "statements about what ‘our’ culture or civilization is, or ought to be, necessarily involve a contest over the definition. Anyone who has the slightest understanding of how cultures work knows that defining a culture, saying what it is for members of the culture, is always a major and, even in undemocratic societies, a democratic contest. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revisited, debated, re-selected, or dismissed" (577).

  22. However, Said's essay is about the contest only, not the competition, of definitions, because whether it questions the consensus from outside or inside civilizations, its point is entirely about contesting those monopolistic definitions being made by participants with possible dominant or favored positions. It is not really about competing with fair rivals and peer participants, by suggesting new and challenging definitions. To be sure, Huntington’s large-scale essentialism, his rigid cultural structures and inflexible civilizations system, do not allow for any continuous separation and individuation of cultures, any permanent competition of ethical ideals, and any perpetual creation of new identities. But neither does Said’s radical cosmopolitan hybridity: "There are no insulated cultures or civilizations. Any attempt made to separate them into the water-tight compartments alleged by Huntington does damage to their variety, their radical hybridity. The more insistent we are on the separation of cultures and civilizations, the more inaccurate we are about ourselves and others. The notion of an exclusionary civilization is, to my way of thinking, an impossible one" (587).

  23. Actually, both men reject cultural agonism. Indeed, whether by way of the clash or by way of the pooling of civilizations; whether by way of a zero-sum game of domination and robbery or by way of solely mutual borrowings; whether by way of Realistic exclusions or by way of an Idealistic global inclusion, nothing really new is taking place. No culture and no civilization are being individuated; no persons with integrity and no global agonal community are being self-created or self-overcome. The very terms in which Said addresses Huntington are either those of an us-versus-them conflict or the harmony of an already-given global 'us': "Why do you pinion civilizations into so unyielding an embrace, and why then do you go on to describe their relationship as one of basic conflict, as if the borrowing and overlappings between them were not a much more interesting and significant feature" (585).

  24. Indeed, the "agonism" of Said’s argument has obvious limitations, as when he says: "Within each civilizational camp, we will notice, there are official representatives of that culture or civilization who make themselves into its mouthpiece, who assign themselves the role of articulating ‘our’ (or for that matter ‘their’) essence. This always necessitates a fair amount of compression, reduction, and exaggeration" (577). His swerve from agonism is also apparent when he says: "Rather than accepting the incredibly naïve and deliberately reductive notion that civilizations are identical with themselves, and that is all, we must always ask which civilizations are intended, created, and defined by whom, and for what reason" (586). Here, while the suspicion argument may still introduce or allow for agonism as a competition of alternative ethical (re)constructions, the solely anti-essentialistic argument, on the other hand, may well entail pure ethical nihilism and lead to systematic political separatism -- Said’s option here being Idealism, of course.

  25. In fact, Huntington is at least critical about the usual discourse of the "international community" and the Idealism of the automatic harmony of civilizations ("The Clash" 39-40; The Clash 310-311, 318; "Lonely Superpower" 40). He is, obviously, a rather careful observer of the politics of ethnic and religious difference, not easily subscribing to theses about a global homogenizing or a global melting pot. Said, instead, readily evokes the trans-nationalist trends in world politics, referring to World system theorists when necessary (590). He insists on "the overwhelming evidence that today’s world is in fact a world of mixtures, of migrations, of crossings over." To him, the real question is "whether in the end we want to work for civilizations that are separate or whether we should [ . . . ] try to see them as making one vast whole" (587).

  26. The rootlessness of the "cosmopolitan hybrid" has aroused a lot of skepticism. For example, Anouar Majid, even though falling short of the critique Said addresses to Huntington’s large-scale essentialism, makes the following point: As long as s/he does not question his/her secularist assumptions, including such notions as individualism, human rights, and freedom, the postcolonial critic -- be s/he Gayatri Spivak or Edward Said -- cannot speak for his/her society. Majid considers "unconvincing" the status Said confers on the migrant or the exile as the best situated intellectual and a privileged reader of culture in the age of global capitalism. He thinks "Said's 'worldliness' [. . .] may also evoke images of a utopian cosmopolitanism unachievable in the present capitalist system." To Majid, postcolonial intellectuals in the West are simply products of imperialism and "need to (re)educate themselves in their own cultures and histories, a venue that has been denied to them by neocolonial models of education and social organization" (28-29).

  27. What options, beyond the secularizing or the essentializing of Islam, are being left to postcolonials, in particular those with a Muslim background? What other options than either handing one’s destiny over to a multicultural liberalism or submitting to the condition of a fated transcultural cosmopolitanism; either surrendering to a distant pluralism and a distant toleration or accepting a rootless pooling and a rootless hybridity; becoming either the patronized or the vagrant? Is there no better way to deal with Islamic society?

  28. I think it has by now become rather common sense that the average Muslim is no more fascinated by secularism, modern (Fukuyama) and postmodern (Rawls, Rorty) alike, than the average Westerner is by fundamentalist Islam. That is, of course, not to say that liberal multiculturalism (Kymlicka, Taylor) may be more pleasant for Muslims or as pleasant as it can be for Westerners. Nor is it to say that an agonistic multiculturalism may be equally acceptable to Westerners and Muslims. However, even "tolerating" non-secular Islam cannot, or can no longer, do. The fact that the Islamic cultural challenge is not being accepted and taken seriously by the West is humiliating enough for the Muslim. I think Westerners need, instead, to challenge non-secular Islam, culturally speaking, requiring in return only that Muslims too be equally "tolerant" and challenging.

  29. More particularly, I think that only those multiculturalist postcolonials with a Muslim background, and those among them realizing in particular the wittiness and importance of being both culturally rooted and globally participant, only they can really do something about it and undertake an immanent critique of Islam. Indeed, being a participant in global cultural self-determination need not contradict being rooted in the cultural self-overcoming of one’s local ethnic or religious community. It must be possible to make a contribution outwards and inwards simultaneously, to both foreign and domestic cultural competition, to the making of one’s collective identity and one’s personal identity respectively.

  30. The point, then, is no longer one of only asking, for example, whether and in what respect the "multiculturalist" traditions (the millet system)[4] of the Ottoman Empire or the Spanish caliphates did represent alternatives to modern secular "toleration," but about the importance of re-interpreting one’s tradition, redefining one’s "civilization," taking sides in disputed matters, and contributing with personal original views -- ethical, esthetic, and epistemological, though not essential -- about one’s identity.

  31. This category of postcolonials is in a better position, indeed, to value the Islamic right and duty of the community member to ijtihâd (jurisprudential interpretation of religious texts, not to be confused with the liberal individual freedom of conscience or choice) and hence the Islamic precluding of any central authority charged with the task of interpreting the religion to the faithful -- there is no Church phenomenon in Islam, no dogmatic authoritative power, no pontifical authority, no dogma-defining council (Corbin 15). Only they may best take in phenomena in Islamic history such as the remarkable proliferation of schools of thought and political parties which followed the prophet’s death -- also, phenomena, extreme indeed and yet common enough during the prophet’s lifetime and much later on (`Abd al-Râzeq 69), such as the great Arab poet Abû t-Tayyib Ahman ibn al-Husayn (915-965) known almost exclusively as al-Mutanabbî ("the one pretending to be a prophet"), as he had been openly challenging Qur'ânic language. Only they are the sort of people to track these traditions and ask whether the Islamic divine call and the prophet’s literary miracle (his only claimed religious miracle), the Qur’ân, not only transgressed but also perpetuated the pre-Islamic `Ukâz spirit of cultural agonism.

  32. In what respect is pre-Islamic Bedouin culture comparable to pre-Socratic Hellenic civilization? In what respect is the Arabic `Ukâz societal model from fifth century A.D. comparable to the Greek agon societal model from before fifth century B.C.E.? These are the questions to be asked, indeed. Now, we know that a good Arab poet had even more authority than the chief of the tribe: he was, as they say, the prophet of his tribe, its leader in peace-time, and hero in war-time. When a poet achieved a name for himself, celebrations and feasts were held and the tribes came from everywhere for congratulations (al-Bustânî 1: 189).[5] Does this make the fair, the literary festivals, and the Arabia-wide contest of poets and orators comparable to the Greek arena, to an entire public life of contesting poets and orators, dramatists and sophists, musicians and athletes, educators and pupils? Indeed, in what way was the cultural contest of Arab tribes and peoples comparable to that of the Greek city-states? [6]

  33. The competition of the Hellenes, for which Homer fixed the model and in praise of which Hesiod and Heraclitus spoke, marked every aspect of social life -- sports, the arts, philosophy, politics, education. It was art and game, rivalry and creativity, in one. For the ancients and their ideal of an agonistic community
    . . . the aim of agonistic education was the well-being of the whole, of state society [staatlichen Gesellschaft]. For example, every Athenian was to develop himself, through competition, to the degree to which this self was of most use to Athenes and would cause least damage. It was not a boundless and indeterminate ambition like most modern ambition: the youth thought of the good of his native city when he ran a race or threw or sang; he wanted to increase its reputation through his own; it was to the city's gods that he dedicated the wreaths which the umpires placed on his head in honour. From childhood, every Greek felt the burning desire within him to be an instrument of bringing salvation to his city in the competition between cities: in this, his selfishness was lit, as well as curbed and restricted. (Nietzsche, "Homer on Competition" 192)

  34. The Fair of `Ukâz, on the other hand, was the most famous gathering-place for competition and boast in Arabia.[7] It was the place where the finest literary works (al-Mu`allaqât) were selected, and the institution whereby all literary celebrities got sanctioned -- great women poets like al-Khansâ´ for example. The tournaments in poetry and oratory were not only artistic but also political, intellectual, and religious. Poets and orators spoke there for their peoples and tribes, vaunting and defending their Gods, values, and political standpoints.[8] We don’t know if the Arabs did practise any kind of limitation on discourse monopoly (ostracism) as the Greeks did when they removed the pre-eminent individual to stimulate competition further. But we do know that, towards the end of this epoch, some of the orators proceeded even as seers [kuhhân] in their performances; that a Qur’ân-like literary genre became rather familiar to the visitors of `Ukâz at the time, including the younger Muhammad (Muruwwah 1: 283-286).

    * * *

  35. We have considered three postcolonial perspectives on Islam and global cultural relations: the multiculturalist perspective, while denouncing secularization, is inclined to the Realist essentialization of Islam; the transculturalist perspective, while denouncing essentialization, is inclined to the Idealist urge for secularization. The third perspective avoids these weaknesses. Here, the fair, whether as historical example or mythical narrative, whether as model or metaphor, proves to function both as an Islamic immanent critique and, following the ancient Greek agon, as a timely and global source of inspiration. Having said that, the question of whether "Agonistic Islam" is an Islam for the cultural Muslim primarily, not for the Muslim faithful, is, to say the least, an open one. But as for whether "Agonistic Islam" may be a contribution to a global arena of peoples, I think there is no doubt about it. This perspective cannot be, for example, a worse or more unjust reply to Rawls' unilaterally declared "law of peoples." I believe the perspecitve of "Agonistic Islam" should definitely inspire the international postcolonial legislator.


    [An acknowledgement: I would like to thank David Owen, for his encouragement and inspriation, and Deborah Wyrick for very helpful comments on this essay.]

  1. A comparative study of Islamic legislations (of countries as different as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Tunisia, Indonesia, Pakistan), though definitely clarifying for the liberal-communitarian debate of the last two decades is, of course, beyond the reach of this essay. Back

  2. For Kymlicka, "if liberalism can indeed be seen as an extension of the principle of religious tolerance, it is important to recognize that religious tolerance in the West has taken a very specific form -- namely, the idea of individual freedom of conscience (156)." Back

  3. The essay is entitled "Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism"! Back

  4. In the Ottoman Empire, Muslims, Christians, and Jews were all recognized as millets (self-governing communities), and allowed to impose restrictive religious laws on their own members. Kymlicka describes the "millet system" as "a federation of theocracies," which was generally humane, tolerant of group differences, and remarkably stable. But it was not a liberal society, for it did not recognize any principle of individual freedom of conscience (156-157). Back

  5. Compare with Homer's ranking as a Greek prophet and demigod (al-Bustânî 1: 191). Back

  6. Sulaymân al-Bustânî (1856-1925) translated the Iliad of Homer into Arabic verses with a 200-page historical and literary introduction to the author and his works. First edited in Cairo 1904, Ilyâdhat Homîros is an impressive comparative study in the literatures of old Greek heathenism and pre-Islamic Arab Jâhiliyya. The book compares the 150 years of "pre-Islamic renaissance" (an-nahda al-jâhiliyya) with poet Imru' al-Qays at its height 90 years before Islam, to the centuries around Homer in 900 B.C.E. (1: 117). It compares Arab heroes like `Antara to Greeks of Achilles' calibre, and the Arabic "hanged poems" (al-Mu`allaqât) to the Greek great tradition of epic poetry (1: 173). Finally, it compares the rather "primitive" war, Harb al-Basus, to the more spectacular Trojan War (1: 168) and compares the Arabian traditions of competition -- athletic, as was illustrated by the forty years' war that followed a disputed racing between Dâhis and al-Ghabrâ, and intellectual, as in the ta`âkuzia debates (1: 191) -- to the great Greek tradition of agonism. Back

  7. "These fairs were in some sort the centre of old Arabian social, political, and literary life. It was the only occasion on which free and fearless intercourse was possible between the members of different clans" (Nicholson 135). Back

  8. Note that the performing poet did not stand for the contest as some "independent candidate." Nor did he choose to just stand for any community. The self-overcoming of the Bedouin poet within his tribe was also the self-overcoming of his tribe through Arabia's cultural fairs. Indeed, three conceptions of the individual are to be carefully insulated here: the liberal individual is the autonomous, free-choosing and self-chosen one; the communitarian is the culturally authentic (Taylor 30), self-realized one; the agonist is the man or woman of integrity, one who is self-invented, self-mastered and self-overcome (Owen 117-19, 143-46, 161-64). Recall also, liberal self-determination has little or no bearing on cultures as collectives, while communitarian recognition and agonistic challenging are required for cultures as collectives too. Moreover, liberal individuals (or atoms) have ontological priority. They are mostly identical, possibly unique. Liberal identity is mostly abstract (cosmopolitan or/and state-centric), possibly culturally hybrid. On the other side, communitarian and agonistic individuals (or members) are socially "embedded," even when the individual is a social and ethical ideal. They are different individualities and their cultures too have their own personalities -- both Taylor (30) and Nietzsche (Guery) are Herderians in this respect. Communitarian and agonistic identity or difference is culturally rooted -- cultural agonism is not conciliable with hybridity, as William Connolly seems to claim in his more recent formulations (Deveaux 15). Lastly, in (Arendtian) liberal agonism, the focus is strictly on individuals, strictly on citizens in "denationalized states" (Deveaux 6-9). Thus liberal agonism is an absteraction from cultural community as well as from global "individuation" -- that is, from inter-community, inter-ethnic, inter-cultural, inter-national, inter-civilization contentions (Deveaux 6-9). In (Nietzschean) communitarian agonism, on the contrary, contention is both within and between communities, the agonistic community being no paradox. Back

Works Cited

`Abd al-Râzeq, `Ali. "Le califat comme institution politique." La Pensée politique arabe contemporaine. Ed. Anouar Abdel-Malek. Paris: Seuil, 1970. 66-71.

al-Bustânî, Sulaymân (Sulaïman al-Bustâny). Ilyâdhat Homîros. Beirut, Lebanon: Dâr al-ma`rifa, 2 vols.

Connolly, William E. Why I am not a Secularist. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Corbin, Henri. Histoire de la philosophie islamique. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.

Deveaux, Monique. "Agonism and Pluralism." Philosophy & Social Criticism 25.4 (1999): 1-22.

Fukuyama, Francis. "Their Target: The Modern World." Newsweek special issue Dec. 2001-Feb. 2002: 58-63.

---. "Vår delade mänsklighet" (original title: "Islam’s Clash with Modernization"). Dagens Nyheter (Swedish newspaper) Torsdag 6 dec. 2001: B2.

---. "We remain at the end of history." The Independent 11 Oct. 2001.

Gibb, H.A.R. Arabic Literature: An Introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Guery, François. "Nietzsche, Herder et l'idée d'un people." Philosophie politique 8 (1997): 199-207.

Huntington, Samuel P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs. 72. 3 (Summer 1993): 22-49.

---. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 1996.

---. "The Lonely Superpower." Foreign Affairs. 78. 2 (March/April 1999): 35-49.

Jones, Peter. "International Human Rights: Philosophical or Political?" National Rights, International Obligations. Ed. Simon Carney, David George, and Peter Jones. Colorado, USA and Oxford, UK: Westview Press, 1996: 183-204.

Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Majid, Anouar. Unveiling traditions: postcolonial Islam in a polycentric world. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

al-Masseri, Abdulwahab. "The Secular Epistemological Vision." American Journal of Islamic Social Scientists 11 (fall 1994): 403.

Muruwwah, Husayn. An-naz`ât al-mâddia fî al-falsafa al-`arabia al-islâmia. Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1980. 2 vols.

Nicholson, Reynold A. A Literary History of the Arabs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Homer on Competition." On the Genealogy of Morality (and other essays). Ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson. Trans. Carol. Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 187-94.

Owen, David. Nietzsche, Politics and Modernity. London: Sage, 1995.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Said, Edward E. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Seglow, Jonathan. "Universals and Particulars: the Case of Liberal Cultural Nationalism." Political Studies XLVI (1998): 963-977.

Taylor, Charles. "The Politics of Recognition." Multiculturalism: Examining "The Politics of Recognition". Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2nd ed, 1994. 25-73.

Zizek, Slavoj. "Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism." New Left Review 225 (Sept.-Oct. 1997): 28-51.

Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 6 Issue 3
Back to Jouvert Main Page