The Difficult Path of ‘Progressive’ Islam Today



By Farish A. Noor ~ October 7th, 2006. Filed under: Syndicated Columns.

The question of how ‘progressive’ Ideas can be transmitted to Muslim societies today is a thorny one, as it raises many other related questions regarding the power relations both between the Western and Muslim worlds as well as the power relations within the Muslim world itself. At a time when Muslims the world over feel that the future of Muslim countries is under threat, and when conspiracy theories abound about the so-called ‘concerted attempts’ to undermine Islam from within and without, any attempt to work towards a radical re-thinking of Muslim norms, values and praxis is bound to solicit much controversy and suspicion, if not outright resistance and even violent reaction.

It cannot, however, be denied that some honest and objective questioning is long overdue: In so many Muslim societies today practices that have nothing to do with Islam or which may even be contrary to the values of Islam are being reproduced and re-enacted as if they were articles of the faith. The systematic marginalisation and disempowerment of Muslim women, for instance, is one glaring example of how traditional Islamic orthodoxy has been put to work to serve the interests of Patriarchy and the status quo in so many Muslim societies. Muslims may balk at the idea of Westerners lecturing them about the treatment of Muslim women and the abuses meted out to them – ranging from female circumcision to honour killings – yet one is forced to ask the embarrassing question: If Muslim (men) resent being lectured about women’s rights in Islam, then why have we been so slow in addressing the issue of discrimination against Muslim women ourselves?

It is for these simple reasons that there has to be an evident shift in the way in which contemporary Islamic thought is developed today. The calls for an Islamic praxis that is progressive is not simply coming from outside the Muslim community, but increasingly from within. Yet despite the demands for change and introspection, why has the progressive current seemed so weak?

The first point to be emphasised time and again is the simple fact that any ‘progressive’ school of Islamic thought has to take off from premises that are recognisably Islamic. Here the vocabulary and grammar of progressive Islam is of crucial importance: ‘Progressive Islam’ has to be recognised as something that progresses naturally and easily from Islam itself, and not some genetically-modified user-friendly version that has all sorts of trendy and sexy concepts grafted on to it for reasons of political correctness or public relations. Furthermore it should be noted that the Muslim public is not entirely blind to the (often clumsy) attempts to ‘modify’ Islam to suit the agendas of others. One factor that has stood as an obstacle to the development of a progressive Islamic discourse that is vernacular, local and autochthonous is the view (often correct, by the way) that these new schools of thought are precisely that: New and artificial, rather than organically-rooted and self-generating.

Now the development of an organic progressive Islamic discourse is hardly going to be an easy task. For a start the political realities of many Muslim countries – where authoritarian regimes often work hand-in-glove with reactionary conservative religious forces in order to perpetuate the status quo – makes it extremely difficult for new progressive voices to be heard. The culture of hate speech, intimidation, slander and takfir have become so commonplace in the battle for ideas that they have become routinised and regarded as the norm of public debate in many cases. How often have we heard progressive intellectuals and scholars bemoan their fate, and utter the lamentable cry ‘Its just a matter of time before I get that bullet between my eyes?’

Compounding the problem is the uneven power differentials between East and West, and within many Muslim societies themselves, which often leads us to the situation where emerging progressive voices are forced to seek help and refuge in the arms of like-minded intellectuals, NGOs, donor agencies and/or even governments abroad. It is all too apparent today that many of the progressive movements and individuals in the Muslim world depend almost entirely on Western donor funding, political protection and support and Western media publicity. (While many of the more conservative religious movements in the Muslim, Christian and Hindu worlds have been able to develop strong grassroots connections with their local constituencies, and thereby strengthen their power bases even further.)

Even more contentious is the need for Muslims to discuss openly and frankly issues that have come to the fore over the past few decades, such as gender equality, racism and anti-racism, class and power differentials et al. Because so many conservative Muslim scholars have come to regard these concerns as external to Islam and alien to the corpus of traditional Islamic discourse, the issues themselves have been cast as ‘secular’, ‘Western’ or even ‘anti-Islamic’. The plight of millions of Muslim women who suffer from the very real effects of Patriarchy therefore continues to be not addressed, and the same applies for other gender minorities within the global Muslim community. Is it any surprise then if so many Muslims have turned to so-called ‘Western’ NGOs to seek redress for problems which originate within the praxis and understanding of contemporary Islam, when they could and should be looking for the solution to these problems in their own societies? Yet whenever Muslim intellectuals, scholars, feminists and minority groups have tried to raise these concerns they have been systematically vilified and demonised, and have often been hounded out from their own communities by the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the faith’ in their midst.

Here then lies the problem faced by progressive Islamic thought today: Due to the apparent ossification of debate and self-critique within the Muslim world, the respect for alterity and difference among Muslims has waned to an all-time low. The oppositional dialectics between the West and Islam have further entrenched the cultural, religious and ideological divide between the two sides, making dialogue itself a hazardous venture that few would attempt. Lost in the midst of this are the minorities within the Muslim world: gay and lesbian Muslims, racial minorities, the underclass and the subaltern, etc who are often denied access into the space of public debate on the grounds that they are not trained as scholars of Islam, and are thus not qualified to speak on matters Islamic.

How long can this impasse be maintained? It should be obvious to us now that the rhetoric of the ‘golden age of Islam’ is simply that: empty rhetoric that has little relevance in the face of the realities of today. The progressive current, if it is to emerge at all, will therefore have to burst the banks of conservative dogma that thus far have been reinforced by both Muslim conservatives and authoritarian statist elites together. This cannot and will not be an easy or pleasant task, and can only lead to antagonism and conflict. But perhaps we might as well admit that by now change will not come easily to Muslim countries, and that a reformation of Islam from within can only be achieved through such antagonism and the productive ambiguities therein. Crisis may after all be the best and sole ally of the progressive forces today.

Leave a Reply