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Identity Crisis

By: Jeffrey Bristol
June 27, 2017

he 1960s are back, this time with a postmodern spin. Rather than civil rights and Vietnam, students today focus on safe spaces and identity. Postmodern identity ranges from ethnic background to genders—Facebook offers 58 gender designations.

Over the past three decades, the academic fusion of identity with political activism has meant subdividing humans into ever more specific identities, theorizing about how the social world shapes them, and coming up with political strategies to raise awareness about how others perceive and abuse marginalized groups. Postmodernism assumes perceptions and perspectives, rather than nature or discoverable truth, shape social reality. To “identitarian” students and professors who employ the postmodern framework of analyzing and unmasking “discourse,” campuses are primarily political arenas, not educational institutions. There is always a new awareness to be raised, and right to be conferred.

“Islamic” identity has recently come on strong, with threatening rhetoric towards Jewish students on college campuses and Democratic politicians eschewing the phrase “Islamic extremism.” Having a proper definition for “Islamic” has high global stakes, but simultaneously theorizing and politicizing “Islam” has diminished our understanding.

Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam?, tackles this difficulty. As a religious tradition, “Islam” is both too broad—many societies, quite different from one another, are Islamic—and too narrow: culture is defined by more than religion. Calling both Albania and Bangladesh “Islamic,” for example, is accurate, but falsely suggests the countries’ similarities are more important that their differences. Marshal Hodgson worked around this problem in his seminal The Venture of Islam (1977) by distinguishing between the “Islamicate” cultural milieu and the Islamic religion. Many Muslims live in France, for example, but France is not an Islamic country, and French Muslims are not part of the Islamicate. In contrast, Iraqi Christians are part of the Islamicate, even though they are not Muslim. In What Is Islam?, Ahmed rejects this distinction in favor of affirming a unity between Islam’s culture and religion. One is born Islamic and dies Islamic, personal religious or moral choices notwithstanding. The Iranian Christian, Jew, atheist, and French-born Muslim alike are Islamic, and equally Islamic as the Iranian Muslim.

But what about Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher? As a product of Islamic medieval civilization, but also a Jew, he shared the same cultural milieu as his Muslim neighbors, but differed in religious beliefs and influences. For Ahmed, Maimonides is “Islamic” regardless of his religious and family background. By enforcing culture and religion’s strict unity, Ahmed’s Islam takes a tautological turn—neither Maimonides’s beliefs nor deeds make him Islamic. Rather, Islam is part of his identity, something that he is.

But Ahmed leaves us no clues for identifying Islamic individuals or contexts. Somehow, we’ll know Islam when we see it. While this allows him to make the novel claim that Jews and Hindus are as Islamic as faithful Muslims, it also removes precision from the theoretical tools we use to analyze political and social regimes, minimizing his definition of Islam’s utility.

Ahmed’s definition ultimately serves Islamic identity politics, an agenda What Is Islam? promotes. By eliminating clear divisions in the Islamicate world, Ahmed can more easily present a unified front, redeeming the religion from its more extreme adherents and turning non-religiously Islamic individuals, such as Maimonides, into primarily religious figures. Ahmed presents Islam as a tradition characterized by overwhelming diversity. A few stray elements’ nefarious acts dwindle in comparison, and its openness outstrips the legalistic confines that characterize much modern Islamic practice and lead many to become terrorists. In his hands, Islam seems like a tolerant, diverse, open faith.

Another recent book, Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism, shares the view that Islamic identity is unique and argues that, consequently, the relationship between government and religion in Islamicate societies is singular. Since religious Islam began concomitantly with the Islamic state, there is no separation between the two. He argued that Islam and Islamicate states are thereby incompatible with our liberal, international order, necessitating new political structures. History, however, is not destiny, and religion does not predict social organization. Judaism, for example, was political at its birth before it transformed itself into an apolitical religion after the Diaspora. The Jewish rejection of politicized Judaism became so ingrained, that even Israel’s reconstitution could not reanimate the idea of a Jewish political state. Hamid gives no reason to believe that Islam is incapable of following a similar course, or that some other reconciliation between religion and the state could be realized in Islamic countries.

Hamid cherry-picks his examples, presenting selective, narrow case studies that misrepresent the whole. Many Islamic countries have maintained political stability and development, integrating a religious public with a nation-state: Examples include Morocco, Jordan, Senegal, Mauritania, and Malaysia. Moreover, it is not clear that Muslims cannot integrate into non-Muslim countries. While Hamid is clearsighted about the integration problems facing Europe’s Muslims, he ignores Canadian and American Muslims who have integrated successfully…including himself. Hamid opens Islamic Exceptionalism with a memory of his family’s Thanksgiving dinner discussion of Islamic history. What situation could better demonstrate that Islam can adapt to a non-Islamic political context?

Unfortunately, Hamid ignores the complexity of the Islamic world’s political life. The diversity among Islamic countries undermines Hamid’s effort to focus on the Arab world as a unit and make judgments about its political solvency. Many Arab countries are experiencing serious problems, but these have much to do with political structures, not just religious ones. Strongmen ruling as quasi-socialists is no substitute for the enduring rule of law.

Identity politics encourages a dangerous appeal from authority: an author’s work gains legitimacy not through its reason or merits, but through its creator’s superficial and cultural characteristics. Reza Aslan’s Zealot suffers as a result of this fallacy. He claims to pull his presentation of the “historical Jesus” from history’s pages, but elevates his own identity to a prominent analytical role. His in-depth discussion of his own religious history—from secular Iranian, to Evangelical Christian, to atheist, to Islamic convert—inspired his interest in the “real” Jesus Christ. He claims these different identities to position himself as an expert above and beyond, yet submerged within all viewpoints: the perfect guide to disclose bias, a conceit which only sublimates his own. He reveals his bias through selective use of history, biblical text, and occasional willful textual mistranslations, all serving to distort the record, making his Jesus seem novel. When Zealot is compared with other, related works, however, such as Mustafa Akyol’s recent Islamic Jesus, the rhetorical verve and personal assertions ring hollow. We are left less with real evidence and argumentation than with empty sensationalism that serves to illuminate not Jesus but Aslan.

Taken together, these books advocate religious and political reform using scholarly language and methods. They prove, however, that the desire to understand the world is not the same as the desire to change it, and that one of them must yield to the other. Ironically, for a theory that lauds diversity, identitarianism reduces it, imprisoning individuals within the attributes ascribed to their identities. Ultimately, the scholar’s unique identity-based perspective becomes an epiphenomenon unrelated to any deeper insight.