We live in difficult times. For those who care about the Muslim world, Muslims or non-Muslims, the realities that we see are deeply disturbing.  No one can deny that the Muslim World is presently mired in a deep crisis. For those Muslims living in western democracies the situation is very much better but nevertheless there is the depressing reality that:

  • on the one hand, the religion which they love for its values and message of compassion and justice for all has, in recent decades, been hijacked by the violently extremist global movement known as Jihadi Salafism, a pastiche ideology composed of terrorism, nihilism, fundamentalism, conservatism, takfirism and Islamism
  • and on the other hand, many face discrimination and attacks from the extremist right-wing phobia industry and its supporters (be it phobia against Muslims, Jews, blacks, or the LGTB community) who, in their ignorance, swallow simplistic rhetoric dressed-up as analysis

In either case, be it Jihadi Salafist ideology or extremist right wing Islamophobia, both are predicated on emotional projection and deep rooted and self-referential prejudice, which shuns the complexity of the truth for the simplicity of misrepresentation and conflation. They are in agreement in their hatred for the independent thinking well educated.

Ironically, the Jihadi Salafists and the Islamophobes are in agreement in proclaiming that their narrow, proscriptive, essentialised interpretation of Islam is the only authentic understanding of the richly diverse faith of one quarter of humanity.

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For them there is no possibility of congruence between universal humanistic values and Islamic values, no point of meeting between Western civilization and Islamic thought.

Rather, they assert together that Islam is against democracy, human rights, pluralism, equal citizenship, intercultural understanding and peaceful co-existence. And that it requires violence.

How can we respond? We do we stand?  We start by recognizing that:

The PROBLEMS of the MUSLIM WORLD

The problems of the Muslim World and the challenges facing Muslims all around the world are not theological inevitabilities nor are they ultimately produced and driven by Islam. They are, in fact, economic, political, social, cultural and religious constructions, albeit to varying degrees dressed up in religious garb and justified with religious language.

Several reasons can be cited as aggravating factors of the current crisis facing Muslims: these include the asymmetrical power relations between the World’s socio-economic and political centre and its periphery, wild capitalism, imperialism, colonial past, Western domination, corrupt Muslim power elites etc.

Dependency theory, World System theory and hegemonic world order theory all seek to explain why in many parts of the world, underdevelopment self-perpetuates itself.

As Foucault has shown us, power is not just embedded in agency and structure but is diffused everywhere and it is embodied in discourse, knowledge and regimes of truth. Thus, hegemonic power asymmetries vis-à-vis not only international relations and political economy but also Bourdieusian cultural capital, education, art, science and knowledge constantly work at the expense of the subaltern or underdogs of the world.

And it is no secret that almost all Muslim majority countries and Muslim minorities in different corners of the World suffer from these challenges.

And, globalization coupled with neo-liberal economic practices has only been increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, the North and the South, the center and the periphery.

Thanks to all sorts of push and pull factors, brain drain from the politically oppressive and economically poor Muslim-majority polities to the advanced economies only worsens the situation.

All to commonly, in the international arena, nation-states unashamedly state that their interests are the ultimate objectives. Hard-nosed ‘realists’ dismiss ethical foreign policy as naïve fantasy.

Human rights tend only to be remembered in international relations when they can be used as instruments of pragmatic utility in a nation-state’s constant negotiations with the other nation-states. Unfortunately, no nation-state is an absolute exception to this dark aspect of international relations.

When push comes to shove, Kantian cosmopolitanism and caring for the other only exist at a rhetorical level. Virtually all nation-states work with oppressors and dictators if their national interests require them to do so.

All of this is true. All of these realities need to be problematized by social scientists and intellectuals. And all have to be constantly and relentlessly resisted, if not challenged.

THE NEED FOR MUSLIM AUTO-CRITICISM

There are clearly big problems with the international system that need to be addressed.  At the same time, however, we all of us have a responsibility to examine ourselves and see how we can be a positive force for change.

As the Chair of Islamic Studies, I believe that one of my primary moral, scholarly and intellectual obligations is to invite my co-religionists to self-reflexively question themselves, their societies and their polities.

This is also required by the new direction of academia which asks of its practitioners to not just be abstract armchair philosophers but to consider the social implications and impact of their work and research.

Muslims must know that they are not simply passive observers or objects of history in the making. They have agency and they have responsibility. Blaming the other for our own faults may make us feel good but does not solve our problems. It is better to spend much of our energies on problems that we can deal with and possibly solve.

There are encouraging examples of Muslim auto-criticism in Muslim intelligentsia. Proponents of civil and progressive interpretation of Islam such as Fethullah Gulen in whose name this chair is endowed, and his intellectual predecessor Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, primarily focused on the faults, mistakes, deficiencies of Muslims themselves and the need to face up to challenges such as ignorance, poverty and non-cohesive Muslim societies, stemming from lack of social capital.

The question is how we popularize the practice of self-criticism to the wider masses. It is saddening to see that compared to Islamists and extremists, the impact of progressive Muslim leaders and scholars has been limited.

TRIBALIZATION OF MUSLIM POLITIES AND OTHERING

Muslim societies are full of ethnic, sectarian, cultural and ideological groups with strong bonding capital but with little to none bridging social capital, empathetic acceptance and intercultural understanding. This has paved the way for post-modern tribalization of Muslim societies and polities. In such contexts, othering or otherization becomes the norm.

Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor explains how otherization undermines social cohesiveness: when people are not included in their tribe; the others are commonly classed as beasts or subhumans. It then becomes too easy to justify treating them with disrespect and even waging war against them.

And this is where Islamist ideology has the upper hand since it is based on binary oppositions and othering.

Many millions of Muslims all over the world are under the influence of Islamists who have for the last century kept blaming the Western hegemony, modernity, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism but never themselves for the failed Muslim World.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH ISLAMISM?

Islam is a religion and as all other religions, it is about spirituality, being a good human with civic, social and cosmic responsibilities. Problems arise when it is reduced to a narrow political ideology: Islamism.

Islamists have transformed Islam into an ideology to challenge Western hegemony, colonialism and imperialism. Islam has been instrumentialised by Islamists for political purposes, politicized and its focus on spirituality and morality disappeared.

Islamism is of course not a monolithic ideology but rather a spectrum of political ideas about government, state, society and citizenship.

As a result of a Third World syndrome, almost all clever and bright students in the Muslim world study either medicine or engineering but not Islamic studies, Islamic jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, sociology and political science.

Some of those doctors and especially engineers become Islamists since they are more inclined to thinking in binary opposition terms and to positivist patterns of thinking.  Some studies have found that having been educated to think in terms of reductionist models based on empiricist-certainty engineers eagerly seize hold of the claim that ‘Islam is the solution’. They are also more in need of cognitive closure. All these are the bases of Islamist ideology or they resonate with Islamism.

The majority of Islamists are moderate and they are willing to accept democracy and pluralism. But as numerous cases have tragically demonstrated, depending on the context, opportunity structures and lack of constraints, some Islamists can easily pass beyond exclusivist Salafi rhetoric to embrace violent judgmental action and become Jihadi Salafists.

These Salafists generally favor rigidity at the expense of flexibility; certainty at the expense of ambiguity; literalism at the expense of contextualization and interpretation; and binary opposition thinking such as “dar al-harb” versus “dar al-Islam” at the expense of diversity, sophistication and intercultural understanding.

They tend to hate the unfamiliar and have low levels of empathy. They prioritize identity politics over spirituality.

WHY ARE ISLAMISM AND SALAFISM SO EFFECTIVE IN MOBILISING THE YOUTH?

There are of course many reasons that we social scientists can identify whilst acknowledging that there are many more that we do not yet know. From the perspective of the Chair in Islamic Studies, let me begin by focusing on the Muslim World’s crisis of knowledge production.

Islamists and Salafists generally attract disillusioned and alienated Muslim youth who struggle to define their identity in a post-truth world that they perceive to be producing only injustices and misery for Muslims.

For the most part, the traditional moderate Islamic scholars (ulama) have not been able to develop Islamic social, cultural and political discourses, frameworks and paradigms that are in tune with this age and that address real life challenges.

Some of the reasons of ulama’s inability and intellectual impoverishment can be identified:

Straight-jacketed by Islamic jurisprudence which was developed and “codified” before the other branches of Islamic epistemology

A deficit of authority, prestige and status in the age of the modern nation-state

Development of knowledge both in breadth and depth. Before they were well informed of contemporary culture and knowledge because they were steeped in it and it was knoweable by any one person. Today, ulama-hood is impossible for any one person.

A deficit of ilm (nowledge), hikmah (wisdom), irfan (sagacity)

A deficit of critical thinking, creativity and stopping-and-thinking activity

A deficit of self-confidence, increasing conservatism and lack of innovative zeal

The paralyzing hegemony of binary oppositions and increasing inability for abstract thinking and sophistication

Sadly, we must acknowledge that the Muslim World has not had Einsteins in Islamic jurisprudence of the stature of Abu Hanifa for several centuries now. The gate to ijtihad was virtually closed to a great extent and the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that is supposed to be dynamic to make Islam relevant to changing times and spaces has frozen.

As for Muslim legal pluralism, an area that I have been working on for the last two decades, literature has shown, for practicing Muslims, God’s laws are important. Nevertheless, their reinterpretation and skillful contextualization have either been frozen or have been left to the mediocre members of the ulama.

This mediocre ulama class that, as a group, is not very intellectually capable and that is not well versed in the Zeitgeist has failed to re-interpret Islam and Islamic law in tune with the current time and space.

Moreover, Islamic jurisprudence has been left very immature in the areas of politics, international affairs, modern understanding of equal citizenship, diversity, pluralism, good governance, mechanisms of political opposition, peaceful transfer of power, secular law-making on mundane issues and so on.

There is an urgent need for a cosmopolitan fiqh and theology of civil or progressive Islam.

But even influential Islamic scholars such as Fethullah Gulen who has paved the way for two generations of Turkish practicing Muslims’ internalization of pluralist co-existence, intercultural understanding and Anglo-Saxon secularism have not yet  – from an Islamic jurisprudential perspective – elaborated at length on these issues.

They have been too busy with so many other important issues that also needed urgent attention.

And, unfortunately, the Muslim World has not been efficiently able to create an ethos of division of labor between Islamic intellectuals, ulama and faith-inspired social movement leaders.

I argued in 2000 at a Harvard University Islamic Law conference-that even if Islamic movement leaders do not have time to articulate and produce contemporary Islamic knowledge and new Islamic jurisprudential responses to the new realities, they could, through their many thousands of sympathizers and followers, disseminate the ideas and knowledge of the other scholars who did not have followers. Yet, this too has not happened, or at least not to the extent that is so very much required.

THEOLOGICAL DEPRIVATION

All these have resulted in what I call “theological deprivation”.

This gap has been filled by Islamists’ and Salafists’ energetic, compatible, self-confident, challenging, masculinist and easy to comprehend rhetoric. Salafists advise the youth to jettison centuries of Islamic scholarship, tradition, contextualization and diversification.

Thus, young Muslims who are not satisfied with the clumsy knowledge production of the ulama started claiming that they can directly go to the fundamental sources of Islam and can decide for themselves.

On the surface, this sounds more rational but results have frequently been disastrous. These – what I dubbed, in that Harvard conference back in 2000 – “micro-mujtahids” act like amateur teenage surgeons who have read the fundamental books on medical surgery and started operating on live human bodies with fatal consequences.

Many Islamists and also almost all Jihadi Salafists are such micro-mujtahids.

In the free-market of ideas, they generally go unchallenged or easily triumph over traditional ulama who cannot match their demagoguery and zeal that ostensibly address to Muslim youth’s alienation, identity crisis, social and political concerns and their perception of unjust world.

One of the side effects of this theological deprivation emerged when Islamists rose to power in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and Turkey.

These Islamist rulers, either openly or in their parallel or underground world of “Islamist legal pluralism”, got many Islamist scholars to produce tailor-made fatwas for othering, polarization, oppression and corruption.  The slogan that “Islam is the solution (to all our problems)”  was transformed, de facto, into the self-serving justification that “Islamic jurisprudence permits our corruption and oppression since we are doing all these for Islam’s global hegemony!”

By using Althusserian ideological apparatuses of the state, they have been able to easily propagate these ideas and fatwas nationally, transnationally and globally and fabricating consent of their grassroots who in the long run are harmed by the Islamists’ policies.

THE “IGNORANCE” OF THE ISLAMOPHOBES

There are -of course- no Islamist monopoly on bigotry. Their mutually constitutive others, Islamophobes also suffer from a twisted understanding of Muslim history and Islam.  Of course, a differentiation should be made between ideologues and foot soldiers. In the post-truth era, ideologues knowingly produce false information about the other and their audiences do not wish to scrutinize the post-truth information as it suits their prejudices and personal and tribal expectations.

History has shown that almost all religions have been abused for socio-economic and political purposes by their fanatic and immoral adherents. There is no Islamic exceptionalism on this matter.

Rather than vainly blaming religions that have always been either used for good purposes or abused for bad purposes depending on the morality of the individuals, groups, societies and states, we need to focus on the conditions, factors, structures and agencies that turn religions into uncivilized and even fatalistic ideologies.

It is true that as it is, the Muslim World unfortunately keeps producing problems. But, we must not fall into the trap of essentialism and argue that Islam is innately and inherently problematic.

Its longer history shows that it was able to produce a remarkable civilization, a civilization that was friendly with intellect, sought knowledge and produced, science, philosophy and arts.

Farabi, Avicenna, Ibn Rushd, Ghazzali, Kharezmi, Ibn Khaldun, Muhyaldin Al-Arabi, Mevlana Jelaleddin-i Rumi and many others like them were all practicing Muslim children of Islam.

Many thousands of good Muslims with turbans, long beards and long white robs throughout Islam’s golden centuries had produced hundreds and thousands – perhaps even millions – of works on philosophy, Sufism, transcendent theosophy, ethics, metaphysics, science, engineering, alchemy, chemistry, astronomy, astrology, sociology, mathematics, medicine, ophthalmology, physics, psychology, art, calligraphy, pottery, music, poetry, literature, logic, exegesis and jurisprudence.

Today they are disregarded both by the Salafists who want to jettison Islamic tradition and history and imprison it to its first century and Islamophobes who prefer to see only the bad examples. The names that I just mentioned are not even seen as Muslims by many Salafists.

And their mirror-image counter-parts, the Islamophobes, wrongly think that these Muslim scholars were ‘secularized’ ‘non-practicing’ Muslims; that is why they were so “good”!

HOW TO TACKLE DOUBLE THREATS OF ISLAMOPHOBIA AND SALAFISM

A brief perusal of Islamic studies, Muslim history and sociology of Islam refutes both radical Islamists and Islamophobes who want to portray a twisted, ahistorical and fabricated version of Islam and Muslim culture.

But these two ostensibly opposite ideological camps consistently, mutually and symbiotically reinforce each other at expense of Islam, Muslims, intercultural understanding and the peaceful co-existence in the World.

This is a fatalistic and even dystopian vicious cycle that has threatened not only the Muslims and the Muslim World but also the entire humanity. It will go on and on unless it begins to be creatively and pro-actively challenged and broken down.

I hope that I have been able to show that two of the main reasons of this notorious vicious cycle are a lack of knowledge in Islamic studies and a lack of intercultural understanding.

This vicious cycle could only be broken by production and dissemination of knowledge that does not only inform minds but also facilitates critical thinking, self-reflexivity, empathy, openness to others and intercultural exchange.

I am hoping that this Chair will play a humble but constructive role for this noble intellectual and scholarly endeavor.

The Chair aims to address real local, national, transnational and global challenges and contemporary burning issues affecting Australia related to Islam, Muslims and the Muslim World with an academic and research output.

With this aim, the Chair will seek to provide academic and research leadership in:

  • Islamic studies;
  • Sociology, politics and political economy of Islam and the Muslim World;
  • Interfaith and intercultural studies; and
  • Cultural diversity and immigration studies.

The chair will try to expand the limits of knowledge and inform the public debate with cutting edge scholarship and high quality mixed-method, inter and multi-disciplinary research in social sciences and humanities

It will also provide research training, Masters and PhD training and post-doctoral level fellowships to develop and lead a vibrant research team of critical thinkers and disseminators of knowledge in interreligious, interfaith and social inclusion agenda.

The Chair and its team will be eager contributors in public policy, advocacy and commentary in related areas, issues and concerns.

It will build cooperative strong relationships with professional groups, government and non-government organisations, overseas institutions, other academics, industry and the wider community.

Those of you who know the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization’s vision and mission will acknowledge that the Chair is positioned perfectly in this institution.  Each and every one of the research streams of the ADI that are on human rights, culture, diversity, identity and governance are directly relevant and related to the Chair in Islamic Studies and Intercultural Understanding.