Has Politics Let Us Off the Hook?: Reflections on Islamic Studies

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by Ruth Mas

Editor’s note: This post is part of a broader conversation on scholarship in Islamic Studies that was sparked by two recent articles, one by Omid Safi and one by Aaron Hughes. The Bulletin will be hosting a series of scholars in Islamic Studies weighing-in on this topic, so please stay tuned!

You may gather from the question that my title poses that I got Stuart Hall quite wrong when he argued that to ignore the politics of intellectual work was to be let off the hook by theory. But, like all good arguments, Hall’s is more complicated, more nuanced. The reason that I pose the question from the other side, so to speak—the side that believes you cannot cultivate political practice without also cultivating reflection—is because there is something unrelenting and forceful which is at stake in the study of Islam and, above all, because there has been no way of getting around its political aspects in the last decade and a half. I suspect that as a consequence, all of us for whom the study of the Islamic tradition in the field of Religious Studies is a serious intellectual practice feel guilty that the work we do has hardly changed the conditions of the lives of Muslims around us. Being a scholar of the Islamic tradition in these times has pushed many of us into defending political positions, often in very public ways, and to argue for the manner in which we have staked them within and outside the field. And for many the production of critical knowledge as a political practice is embattled and precarious. But what happens when, overcome by a desire to make a difference and to have some effect on the world, politics takes the place of intellectual work? This is still Hall’s question but let me pose it differently: Has the formulation of political projects, stances and questions that we hope will intervene in the world let us off the hook theoretically?

A recent debate between Aaron Hughes and Omid Safi couldn’t make the stakes of this question any clearer. Their exchange and the responses that have weighed in through various fora are a testament to the instability of the field, its lack of simple origins and its many trajectories. Islamic Studies has always been in a state of interruption and disruption by political forces that usher in new ideas and new spaces for theoretical work but perhaps none has been so fracturing on the field as the events of September 11, 2001. The urgency that it has fabricated and even forced on us as scholars has made our struggle to establish the space that connects critical reflection to politics seem insurmountable. And yet, as Hughes and Safi know, these issues did not originate with the attacks on the Twin Towers in NYC. It should go almost without saying that this event has marked the field in significantly different ways than it has other fields and this difference merits attention so that we can be clear about the critical projects that we want to produce. The fact that September 11 was able to exert such pressure on the field has a lot to do with how Islamic Studies has attempted to meet the demand for all too quotable sound bites by rational, loving and liberal Muslim subjects to speak for the tradition. This is what has become the Muslim scholar’s burden and indeed the burden for everybody working on the study of Islam. But what if the problem is also that the manufacturing of this urgency has given politics its alibi—the alibi which allows politics to masquerade as theory and which can so quickly and acrimoniously fold back into a deafening (or deaf) contestation over who gets to speak and how, who gets to be represented as part of the field, and even who gets to be ignored?

It worries me that I will be taken to say that we have to get beyond, or worse, leave behind, the struggles for recognition that hound the debates over the positionalities of insiders and outsiders in Islamic Studies. I am not. I want to be very clear that these debates contest in very important ways the normative study of the Islamic tradition in the field of Religious Studies and produce some of the grist of the theorising we do. They are the reminder that if nothing else, theory is not self sufficient, it needs to be politically relevant and it needs to be in irresolvable tension with politics. I am simply saying that there is more to focus on or we will utterly and completely miss the point of why and how these debates come to be in the first place. The debates themselves cannot be allowed to stand in for a serious, sustained and critical consideration of the grounds on which questions about the representation of Muslims and the Islamic tradition are posed and answered. To be very precise, I think that engaging with these grounds is what will constitute the advance of the field, and what September 11 has offered us is the opportunity to radically reconsider how they have been presented to us. After all, wasn’t September 11 an important moment in the dissolution of a unified historical and political project, the site where the advance of a liberal and secular politics faltered? What does this then mean for the study of Islam within the field of Religious studies, a field that has so proudly defended the questions of religious experience and now the questions about the experience of religious people? Is it going to be able to stake its own wager and its own critical project in the wake of this dissolution? What will the theoretical turn of the field after September 11 look like and what does it acknowledge as having the privilege and authority to do that no other field does?

I attempted to come to terms with some of these questions in a recent article entitled “Why Critique?” which addressed the beginnings of the debate between Hughes and Safi. Therein, I called into question the spectre of objectivity that pretends that our critical intellectual practices are impartial and scholarly when the foundations of humanistic enquiry, both theoretical and political, are established by the continual attachments of secularism to Christianity. What does this mean for the study of the Islamic tradition when its scholars take these claims of objectivity for granted? It seems to me that, at the very least, the study of the Islamic tradition confronts and even contests the discriminating operation of Western theory. What we have on the theoretical agenda is the need to examine in more detail the political significance of the modernist stance in the foundation of critique, and the contexts of colonialism and empire which continue to sustain it. These are the grounds that I am speaking of and the problem is that that they are now all over the map. Aren’t we all, Muslim and non-Muslim, working within the very instantiation of the modernist enterprise of critical and theoretical projects? Is this not Talal Asad’s great lesson for the field? So, how do we get out of it, can we, and where does this leave us? Do we do it by finding within the Islamic tradition the source of the critique of the secular presuppositions of what is increasingly the normative understanding of intellectual practice? Maybe, but then we will also have to deal with the fact that in many ways this very tradition contributed to the project of European enlightenment and has its own pre-modern (i.e. pre-secularising) secular genealogies, however much it was later subjected to the government apparatus that the latter put into place.

I am not convinced that simply delving into the past to find authentic notions of tradition, or modalities of being Muslim, is enough to have these stand up to the post-Christian secular demands made by powerful modern states. And this has to do with the impossibility of authenticity, as much as it has to do with the force with which secular political and intellectual projects are promoted as impartial and consequently, how aggressively Muslims, scholars, and Muslim scholars, are made to conform. But I am convinced that we must agree with Michel Foucault and refuse what he called the blackmail of the Enlightenment which obliges us to position ourselves as either for it or against it. We are in it and, for good, for worse, for all of us, these are our grounds, whether they have been thrust upon us or not. We will each hold different positionalities within them of course, some that are more resistive than others. If we have to come to terms with an intellectual and political legacy that has been imposed on many of us by force, then the good news is that contained within this legacy is what Kant espoused as a “limit-attitude” which allows us to analyse and reflect on its limits, politically and theoretically. The question that remains is: How are we going to reflect on those limits and for whom? Will we be able to reform the Enlightenment, and its limits, with the Islamic tradition, that is, with something other than what the Enlightenment has explicitly produced and endorsed?

Understanding the constitutive and political nature of the representation of Muslim scholars can instil in us the need for serious theoretical work but only if we reflect on all of its complexity and think all its fronts together. Once you hit, politically and theoretically, the Enlightenment and how people continue to live and die for its values, the world’s your limit. To stop at the politics is to miss the boat intellectually. It is to pass up the chance to engage what Hall described as “the essential nature of intellectual work and critical reflection, the irreducibility of the insights which theory can bring to political practice, insights which cannot be arrived at in any other way.” It means, as he put it, to “really know, not just pretend to know, not just to have the facility of knowledge, but to know deeply and profoundly.” At a historical juncture that is demanding political relevance, I am arguing for theoretical courage or at the very least critical attention be paid to the demand for relevance that has been foisted upon us and to the grounds which such a demand obscures. This is to say that we can never be off the hook theoretically. Aware of its own limits, theory’s call to mobilise and to resist occurs precisely at the site where the political is asserted. This is the site where theory demands the most.

Ruth Mas is a Visiting Scholar at the CCLPS-Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies, at SOAS-University of London. She holds a position as an Assistant Professor of Critical Theory and Contemporary Islam in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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18 Responses to Has Politics Let Us Off the Hook?: Reflections on Islamic Studies

  1. While I admire the struggle of Ruth Mas to articulate a problem within the field of Islamic studies, the statement of that problem seems to epistemologically confused at critical points. It would take far too much space in this comment to point out each of these points of confusion.

    But, just to take one: the author’s attempt to state her problem is itself putatively objective, and hence by her own understanding of the term, to presume a modernist epistemological position. There is no way out of this position, if we want to communicate with each other. But, it does not entail carrying all the baggage of what we might identify as an (upper case) modernist program. These two conceptions of modernism need to be separated out so that we are clear about what we are talking about. For example, we can rightly criticize the doctor – knows – best position typical of high modernism from simple and necessary attempts to establish certain, admittedly conventional, “facts” that can be the basis of common discussion. The problem with the ” doctor knows best” position is that it proceeds as if it was not based upon common conventions of speech, but somehow “natural “.

    Let me suggest, therefore, that the author separate out – even into bullet points – a series of questions that she believes are critical to her problematic. Then, we can go at them one by one. For example, I think her assumption that our scholarly work should actually influence Muslims is itself highly questionable and should be made explicit as a matter for criticism and discussion.

    There is much more to say, but I think I may be taxing readers to go further.

    • Ruth Mas says:

      I don’t think the problem (or struggle) is mine but a general one which defines the position in which the field finds itself. In order to clarify this position several terms need to be defined carefully and separated out, namely, modernism/ist, upper case modernist program and high modernism and the one that I am discussing, which is modernity.

  2. Excellent piece. Your call for courageous theorizing that is not contingent on the political is very well taken. This reminds me of the fury against religious studies and international relations after 9/11 because scholars in those fields could not “warn” America about the imminent danger they were facing. This a great plea for a conscious theory that is committed to the human experience in all its diversity. I’m reading a book by a postcolonialist (Iain Chambers) on our received notions of the Mediterranean and he makes the same arguments about our blindness to other ways of dwelling in the world and other ways of being in time which are all too often consigned to the dustbins of the ‘enlightened’ world. Theory should haunt and perturb the present, not appease it and simply react to it. Yes, there is more to focus on beyond the default position of enlightenment teleology and Western modernity. Courage will come from those who can openly recognize the increasing dissolution of that frame of thinking, seeing and writing the world, which 9/11, as you say, has instructed us so clearly. In other words, I hope that one day the famous picture Bourdieu took in Algeria in the 1950s of a veiled woman on a scooter (we still marvel at many of these sights today) will cease to invoke only stark, opposite worlds doomed to never converge.

    • Ruth Mas says:

      Thank you Nabil. Keeping theory in tension with politics is indeed a difficult thing and I admire my many colleagues who strive to make their work politically relevant in their battle against the restraints of politics and forms of governance. My hope is that we can now galvanise that relevance against the normative structures that underpin our thinking.

  3. Sian Hawthorne says:

    This is such an insightful and helpful response to a debate that seemed to be heading to bull rutting territory. It’s also a useful follow-up to your outstanding ‘Why Critique’ article and I’ve been very surprised to see how little the main interlocutors appear to have taken from it judging by their recent exchange. I wondered though if you might be willing to say a bit more about what you understand by the ‘theory’, its irreducibility, its difference from or relationship to critique, and how you would configure its affiliation with the Kantian frame of the ‘limit-attitude’.

    • Ruth Mas says:

      Both critique and theory are reflective and purport to change that in which they participate. The difference between the two is that in theory, reflection also has the quality of distance. There is something more strategic in critique, something that is quite attentive to the issue of power and I use it in the Foucauldian sense of genealogy. Following him, I would align the practice of genealogy to the filling in, or addressing of the limits of the Enlightenment, all the while, as I have argued, working from within them.

      • Sian Hawthorne says:

        I think what is interesting in some of the responses you’ve received here (hi Ivan!) is the way in which, to a significant degree, they repeat the debate between Habermas and Foucault and also by implication Habermas’s extraordinary misreading of Foucault. Habermas’ elevation of intersubjective communicative reason as the antidote to what he sees as Hegel’s wrong turn in the story of modernity that he, Habermas, tells, seemed also to be implied in one of the comments on your piece but I think it is worth remembering that one of the biggest flaws in Habermas’ conception is the failure to take seriously the will to power and the differential relations that individuals and groups have to the circulation of power. As you know, Habermas seems to imply that Foucault undergoes a deathbed conversion to those values that Habermas claims are true to the Enlightenment, largely because he reads Foucault as offering more sympathetic reading of Kant at the end of his life than he had earlier. However, what Habermas misses is that Foucault goes to some lengths to argue that there is no point in simply denouncing the era of modernity that the Enlightenment appears to announce because we are still part of it; it still circumscribes and determines the questions we ask and the means by which we attempt to answer them. It’s not a matter, therefore, of now standing in a relation of difference or externality (or objectivity) to it, and as I understand it, that is effectively what you have been arguing in your blog post and, of course, in your ‘Why Critique’ article. So the role of the critic-theorist must be, I think, to work the grist of this legacy because it is constitutive. I think the difference between Habermas’s interpretation of modernity and that of Foucault’s is that the former understands it as a historical period or point of transition whereas the former poses it as an attitude or ethos. This conception of modernity, and of the role of Kant’s essay in defining it, is why I think Foucault is right to situate his own work as faithful to the Enlightenment project. I think that those of us working in Religious Studies and those working in Islamic Studies are all faced with the task to rethink that project—Talal Asad has long argued this as we know and I remain baffled as to why he is so often wilfully misread and misrepresented on this point—and I’m so grateful for you laying out the stakes in the way that you have here and elsewhere.

  4. A M says:

    This is a wonderful addition to the debate that started with Safi’s article.

    Safi’s initial endeavor to lay out the current state of Islamic Studies in North America was a formidable one. He has a lot to cover. Unfortunately it left me confused. At certain points he seemed to indirectly advocate the position of an apologist, a media spokesperson, a theorist, an activist, and somewhere in all that, an academic. As a student who has taken several classes in Religious Studies on Islam, I have never encountered an example of his “minefields of proselytism.” I wouldn’t have taken those classes, otherwise. It also baffles me that he would focus the majority of his piece to “Muslim scholars in the Study of Islam.” It’s as though he were saying all Scholars of Islam are Muslim, or, even more problematic, that the only scholars that matter are the Muslim ones. Such an emphasis makes him fall into his own trap where he pleads with scholars to situate themselves in theory and to engage in what Hughes succinctly puts as “the Western tradition of scholarly discourse.” It seems to me that Mas is trying to get at the underlying causes of the issue that sets up Safi’s trap, whereas Safi attempts to inadequately deal with its consequences.

    Regardless, I thank the author for a great post that engages in the underlying theoretical questions and tensions broached in the other two articles, and I particularly commend the author for articulating her point without any of the ‘mud-slinging’ that we have seen in the previous posts.

    • Ruth Mas says:

      Safi is an academic who intervenes in many different spheres and is a tireless critic of local and international politics. He thus wears many hats and is probably nudging the rest of us to branch out a little more. What is of interest to me here is how all these different fronts can be thought through together. You point out the issue of proselytism raised by Safi and it is an interesting one especially in relationship to the question of apologetics that Hughes brings up. The shift from one to the other, their attachments to secular and/or religious political frameworks, and what has yoked, however unevenly, the two in this exchange, merits more attention.

  5. A M says:

    And what is Safi’s obsession with the 11th of September and his seemingly advocating an apologist’s view? I am so glad that Mas said that this started before 9/11. It’s like giving bigotry an excuse for how it started. And, it’s the same trope used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombing of Sudan, etc. It’s like, for Muslims in the United States especially (but probably all of N. America), this is how we count time: BC/AD, AH, 9/11.

    • Ruth Mas says:

      I like how you put this: (BC/AD, AH, 9/11)

      There is a definite impetus to streamline Muslims into the historical trajectories and the chronologies of Western states that is facilitated when one is, or thinks, in crisis mode. If you’d like a copy of a piece on this topic that I wrote (On the Apocalyptic Tones of Islam in Secular Time), please do contact me directly.

  6. Alexander Perry says:

    I think Dr. Mas’ response to the Hughes-Safi debate asks academics within the field to engage in critical work. Critical not in the sense that it critiques or defends Muslims or non-Muslisms (either terrorist, politician, or academic) but critical work that examines the constitution of questions being asked and responded to. This curtain of constitution, left unexamined, leads us to participate in polemical debates on who is an insider/outsider rather than productive scholarship. As scholars, understanding the larger impact of questions that are being asked, in what contexts they originate, and most significantly how do these questions and responses constitute and preserve an identity based on the unexamined aspects lost to certain discourses.

    Dr. Mas has aptly asked the field of religious studies broadly, and the field of Islamic studies particularly, to recognize the force of constitution that cannot be removed from political actions and scholarship used to justify those actions. Instead, if I am not mistaken, Mas clearly states the field needs the theoretical courage to examine why, at this historical moment, political relevance is demanded of the field’s discourse, and most importantly HOW this demand impacts the questions asked, scholarship produced, and how the significant Christian-Western grounds of such a political demand are obscured and legitimized by academics continuing debates when continuing discourses without critically examining a debates constitutive grounds.

    • Jonathan Peterson says:

      Well put, Alex. Particularly the point about how the demands for relevance shape discourse production and the power dynamics therewithin. I’m left wondering, in light of this, what the stakes of, as you put it, “continuing debates… without critically examining a debates constitutive grounds” are? It seems to me that Mas points out the necessity for a particular courage to point to that power dynamic which demands relevance, founding the opportunity to glean how positions can be distorted and skewed to various degrees in order to answer to particular political demands, but less obvious would be how these power dynamics influence discourse production about ongoing debates on theory itself.

      • Alexander Perry says:

        Jonathan,

        I think you make a great point. It is up to scholar who engages in critical work to not only answer a question, or refuse in some cases, but to answer in such a way which reflects the affect of such a response. Therefore, truth no longer becomes the primary judge of the worth of a scholarly position. Instead truth is placed in relation to the effects produced by how a response constitutes the boundaries and context of a debate as well as the force it exerts upon individuals to exert their own agency.

        The stakes, or larger impact of a piece of scholarship often resides outside or transcend the curtain of the truth claims made within the paragraphs of the writing, although they are entirely dependent upon the discourse. Unexamined, the normative claims empower scholarship that, like a two party political system, simply supports or rejects the validity of a single central idea. Critical scholarship brings those claims into the actual discussion and decentralizes the center bound by the unexamined. Critical scholarship is not interested in simply asking if something is true, false, good, or bad. The stakes are in actually asking who is effected, what the effects are, and most importantly how as scholars our work affects others.

  7. Josh Becker says:

    Strenski is misconstruing Mas’s point. Mas is not arguing for a “putatively objective” stance that conceals some “modernist epistemological position.” She clearly stated (via Foucault) that one should not be seduced by the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment, alluding to the aporia of modernity. Thus the task that awaits reflecting on the problem of the relation between theory and political practice in Islamic studies is far from just avoiding an epistemological position, or separating “high modernism” from “common conventions of speech.”

  8. Jonathan Peterson says:

    At a time when ‘theory’ as an enterprise of critical thinking has either been the target of much scrutiny and even skepticism within the field of Religious Studies, or has been cast to a position of exteriority rendering it impotent in the context of more politicized debates, it is refreshing to seriously consider what it is that Dr. Ruth Mas is proposing.

    Succinctly, and with every effort to avoid a facile sort of reductionism, I think one important aspect of Ruth Mas’ position addresses the problem of the politics of authorization. It’s abundantly clear that the post 9/11 political and academic environment has necessitated the production of discourse about Islam and its relation to a seemingly stable ‘secular’ value set, and in the wake of this imperative to produce discourse certain voices, whether by groups or individuals, are taken to be authoritative. This isn’t surprising in least, and is indeed quite obvious, but Mas’ position urges scholars to query further into the stakes of taking certain positions as authoritative when attempting to describe seemingly non-homogenous populations in totalizing terms.

    Mas pushes the point further. The positionality of authoritative statements is often concealed, yet in reality these statements are deeply embedded within theoretical and thus political contexts and contingencies which can often be traced to value sets which are clearly neither impartial or objective, epistemes which operate from the often slipshod assertion of clear and visible borders between the secular and the religious. Critical studies and theory is no exception. Theory as an enterprise divorced from politics is an illusion, an illusion which is at the very root of the problems of objectivity. Instead, theory as a critical exercise always takes as its object, whether explicitly or implicitly, particular political and social circumstances – thus, her statement regarding Foucault’s warning of a ‘blackmailed enlightenment’.

    In this way, Omid Safi’s point regarding how the endeavor of theory can establish itself within the academic study of Islam becomes particularly important. Taking theory itself as an exercise clearly rooted in a system of politics eradicates the problems of an objective positionality without relegating itself to the unexacting and seemingly tepid sphere of relativism. Interestingly enough, it is not ‘theory’ which ought to be deployed as a tool to explain Islam to the academy and larger audiences, falling into the hackneyed traps of authorization and authority. There’s another opportunity in the critical enterprise – critical studies and the academic study of Islam allows us to point to the shadow spots of our own thinking and its relation to Enlightenment epistemes. Theory affords the all too essential self-reflexive turn towards our own assumptions of the world. As Foucault aptly states: “Practicing criticism is a matter of making facile gestures difficult.”

    • AA says:

      Ruth Mas has launched a timely intervention into the problem of critique, as it operates (in numerous guises) in the so-called academic theorizing about Islam. Based on the exchange between Safi Omid and Aarron Hughes, it becomes apparent that the relation between theory and critique has not been thought out in certain domains of Islamic studies. That relation is often taken for granted, as “theory” (with the whatever… privilege of that name) is assumed to pass for “critique.” Scholars who rush to call for a critical approach to Islam (and religion) need to interrogate precisely that relation, asking more “critical” questions about why we often assume that Islam remains an object of critique in our secularism. In other words, it seems to me that we need to ask more critical questions about the sovereignty of critique itself. Mas’s article “Why Critique?” (with others) poses a set of similar questions.

  9. Ruth Mas says:

    Alex, you are making me think. It seems to me that in order for our intellectual practice to be effective as a practice of critique, it should be situated somewhere between “the art of not being governed quite so much” and the transformation of the subjects who practice it.

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