From anthropology to politics: the myth of the fundamentalist Arab Muslim mind


Many would have noticed that western leaders and countries seem to shift from one position to another about the wave of revolts in the Middle East and Arab world. One prime example: Tony Blair, who incidentally is the official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, shifted from praising Mubarak on Wednesday 2 February 2011, to praising the protests for democracy on 13 February. At the same time, in those interviews, he first presented the Muslim Brotherhood as a dangerous para-terrorist organization and then ending in declaring that politicians should “not be hysterical about them, they are not terrorists or extremists”. Although we need to acknowledge that each revolt finds its raison d’être in local contexts and issues, we have also to recognize that Arab youth in the region want a change: they wish to end the long post-colonial period of time marked by dictators at the service of western economic and geopolitical interests.

This revolt is not just against the tyrants but also against the ‘system’ and, as I will explain below, against how the “civilized” West feels entitled to manage the “civilizable” East. To understand this process, we need to make sense of how Arabs, Muslims (and in this case the Middle East) has been conceptualized. As we shall see, anthropology since the 1970s has had lots to say about it and, as some may be surprised to come to know, has directly – but even more so indirectly (nearly subconsciously) -deeply influenced political scientists and then politicians and policies.

The emphasis on the role that the Islamic holy text plays in the formation of extreme political ideas, particularly in the form of strict structuralism, is certainly not an innovation of populist, right-wing literature that aims to capitalize upon the September 11 tragedy. Much before the event that has definitely marked the end of the post-Cold War era and started the era of the War on Terror, the anthropologist Gellner (1981), for instance, suggested an extremely essentialised view of Islam, seen as a social blueprint. Indeed, Gellner’s central argument concerning Islam argued that Islam cannot change. Far from being the religion of living Muslims with opinions, ideas, feelings and identities, Gellnerian Islam is an essence that remains constant in its model. So much so that Hammoudi (1980), for instance, has suggested that Gellner, by ‘brushing aside all history’, has just imposed his convenient social–political model of Islam onto a Muslim reality that is instead extremely complex (see also Varisco 2005 and Marranci 2008).

Gellner has suggested that Islam, being a markedly secularisation-resistant religion, is also the most vigorously fundamentalist. According to Gellner, Islam, as a religion, shows some ideological historical elements conducive towards fundamentalism. First, Islam is a scriptural faith that claims to be the perfect and final one. Secondly, there is no room for new prophets, because Muslims consider Muhammad the seal of prophecy. Thirdly, Islam has no clergy, and, therefore, no religious differentiation is possible. Finally, Islam does not need to differentiate between church and state because Islam ‘began as a religion of rapidly successful conquerors who soon were state’ (Gellner 1981: 100).

Yet, for Gellner, the most important aspect of all is the ‘trans-ethnic’ and ‘trans-social’ characteristic of Islam, because, Gellner has argued, it does not ‘equate faith with the beliefs of any community or society [...] But the trans-social truth which can sit in judgment on the social is a Book’ (1981: 101) so that no political authority can claim it. It is in this centrality of the ‘Book’ as ultimate authority and in the division and tension between what Gellner has defined as high Islam (urbanised and based on scripturalism) and low Islam (based on kinship and the charismatic power of the saint) that the fight for puritanism has led to the development of a religion, Islam, resistant to secularisation.

Now, these Gellnerian observations may seem to have only a scholarly value and few may grasp the consequences of his analysis on how the Middle East has been made sense of. Yet Gellner’s analysis has a weighty, and somewhat dramatic, conclusion: he has stated that Muslims ‘could have democracy, or secularism, but not both’ (1981: 60). In other words, if Muslim societies have democracy they would inevitably see secularism eroded in favor of an increasingly Sharia-based state. Therefore, only a dictatorship can impose a secular model of society, because it can manipulate and control, and so limit, the role and influence of Islam within society.

This explains both the support that Middle Eastern dictators have from western countries and the above words of Tony Blair about how positive Mubarak was. The perception is that Muslims should not have a real democracy and western countries become extremely worried about any democratic movement that is not fully controlled or managed towards the ‘managed democracy’ desired by the west: a democracy that can, if needed, turn into dictatorship if the popular Arab Muslim vote contradicts the interests of the US and European states. Gellner’s theorem became and becomes realpolitik.

Some may notice that dictators such as Saddam or Gaddafi have however often employed a religious, even jihadi, discourse against the west. Are they not dangerous fundamentalists? Bruce Lawrence has argued that this is not the case (1990). He has discussed Islamic fundamentalism in the wider framework of a theory of fundamentalism. Hence, according to him, Islamic fundamentalism needs to be properly delimited as an analytic category to be useful within the overall analysis of the religious phenomenon called fundamentalism. First, Lawrence has suggested that the ruling elite cannot be regarded as fundamentalist, because fundamentalism is a protest and an opposition toward any form of power that is not guided by a divine scripture.

Lawrence has indeed argued that ‘being at the center of power rather than on the margins, this excludes themselves from that vital quality of fundamentalists: to oppose the prevailing ethos rather than to embody it; to advocate change rather than to maintain the status quo’ (1990: 191). Lawrence has suggested that Islamic fundamentalism is anti-nationalistic because fundamentalists recognize the non-Muslim origin of nationalism. Muslim nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, furthermore, are in competition because of, as Lawrence (1990: 200) has suggested, ‘the holistic challenge of nationalism to the holistic claims of Islam’.

Therefore, Lawrence has argued that Islamic fundamentalism, which has its apogee in the surprising Iranian revolution, has its roots in the failure of Muslim nationalism, which was unable to manage the decolonisation process properly. If, Lawrence has hypothesised, the transition had been successful and Muslim nationalism developed along the Western line of democratic politics, Islamic fundamentalism would never have existed or, in the worst case, it would be marginal in both its political and social influence.

Yet the anti-nationalism of Islamic fundamentalism, he has suggested, is not homogenous. Although the Sunni fundamentalists completely reject the idea of nation and nationalism as foreign to Islam, the Shi’a fundamentalists attempt to modify nationalism so that it can fit their theocratic and ideological concept of the state. Therefore Lawrence does not suggest that the social political dynamics in which the different fundamentalisms develop have no impact on the different forms of fundamentalism in the Islamic world, because, as he has pointed out, there is no ‘single reaction characteristic of all Muslims’. Nonetheless, he has also argued that in the case of Islamic fundamentalism,

The parameters of possibility are framed by two poles: first, mediation of the Book within tradition and, second, the level and degree of colonization. In every instance, the importance of political statutes for Muslim identity and the hegemony of modern state apparatuses have meant that the battle between modernism and fundamentalism in Islam is joined in the public order, above all in the capital city.

(Lawrence 1990: 225)

Notwithstanding that Lawrence has not mentioned Gellner’s Muslim Society (1981), and that Gellner has not mentioned colonialism, Lawrence’s limited ‘parameters of possibility’ seem to be no less optimistic than some of Gellner’s conclusions about Muslim society. The idea that the history of Islam, or Islam as a religion, can explain Islamic fundamentalism is certainly not limited to Gellner. Although we can safely say that Gellner was the pioneer of such essentialisation of Islam, as well as the godfather of what I have called comparative reductionism and Eurocentric historical evolutionarism (see Marranci 2009), other scholars have offered similar views.

What is happening in the Middle East today, and even taking into consideration the local aspects of the revolt, the tribal interests and the economic factors, shows a very different reality from a monolithic Muslim mind controlled by the symbolic dimension of theology. Muslim Arabs are not, in other words, homo theologicus. The revolts–marked by the young age of those whom started it–show that many Arab Muslim youths, after losing faith in the US in the 1980s, have also lost their hope in the traditional Islamic movements.  Moreover, the violent methodology of Al-Qaeda has totally alienated the majority of Muslims.

Hence, these movements are something which scholars have to understand by going beyond academic stereotypes and the tendency to over-focus  on the ‘social’. These revolts are expressions of an individuality that is rooted in a social movement, which is expressed through global dynamics. Islamism-as it has been called– but also democracy may no longer be the same after the developments of these revolts.

5 thoughts on “From anthropology to politics: the myth of the fundamentalist Arab Muslim mind

  1. Pingback: C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Closing the week 8 – A need to read list of the uprisings in the Middle East

  2. Pingback: Een democratische omwenteling in de Arabische Wereld? Deel 9– 9 ثورة ديمقراطية في العالم العربي؟ جزء « Mijn hersenspinsels en gedachtekronkels

  3. Pingback: From anthropology to politics: the myth of the fundamentalist Arab Muslim mind » The Pakistan Forum

  4. Pingback: Islamic Fundamentalism. It’s Perception and Influence on Muslims and Afghanistan « Lebs295's Blog

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