Middle East – Islamism and Reformism – Article by Ali Abootalebi – 9 April 2012



A couple comments about the state of world Islam…I realise by daring to make comments, I might as well put the lightning rod on my head, so I’ll save everyone the trouble and affix it to my cranium now.

This article by Ali Abootalebi in the Middle East Review of International Affairs (yes, published in Israel) makes some interesting points about the difference between “traditional/fundamentalist” Islamic countries and “Islamist/reformist” Islamic countries.

Feel free to boggle at the conflation of “Islamist” and “reformist” there – this is part of the fun of reading Dr. Abootalebi’s article. What most Westerners mean by “Islamist” is not “reformist”, but it’s interesting that Abootalebi makes that connection, because there are now a group of political parties and organised groups in the Middle East (in places like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) that explicitly see themselves this way – as both part of an expressly Muslim political movement and as reform-oriented.

Of course, maybe one can oversell the orientation to reform, which Dr. Abootalebi does – “Most of today’s Islamic movements resemble Catholic Liberation theologians who urge active use of original religious doctrine to better the temporal and political lives in a modern world. Islamist or Islamism more accurately describes their forward-looking, interpretive and often even innovative attempts to reconstruct the social order.”

That seems somewhat wishful thinking to me. I think a clearer understanding of what these “Islamic democratic” parties represent is a willingness to change if necessary – grudging concessions to broader reality rather than enthusiasm for a different take on religious tradition (which I think is more what liberation theology is). If you want a good example of a more “liberation theology” take on Islam, try Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad…but nothing like that is happening in these countries at the moment. I agree that the “Islamic democratic” parties are heading in the right direction, but it’s clear this is within certain limits, we are likely to see evidence of this soon enough in their actions.

The faultlines are clear – the “Islamist/reformist” parties are still more Islamist and less reformist when it comes to peace with Israel, when it comes to treatment of non-Muslim minorities and “apostates”, and when it comes to the rights of women, to name only the most obvious examples. Will the “Islamic democratic” parties hunker down and preach old time religion on these matters, or will reform continue?

It would be nice to believe in Dr. Abootalebi’s view of what’s happening, but it seems a little optimistic.

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