Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago, 1988).

This book addresses the perennial questions of conceptions of development and modernity in relation to authenticity, heritage and tradition. The central problem for Binder is to determine the conditions under which bourgeois liberalism can be incorporated in the political and social structures of modern Islamic countries. Under present circumstances, he argues, it seems unlikely that a secular liberalism can have any appeal. Liberal Islam, however, can hardly be said to be dominant at present in relation to fundamentalist scripturalism. So the inquiry “must be limited to an examination of the discursive shaping of [the liberal] paradigm and the conditions under which it may become dominant.” Subsequent chapters, however, do not follow this quest systematically, but raise pertinent questions from considerations of diverse theories and approaches, ranging over theories of development, the question of capitalism and the uniqueness of the West, “deconstructing Orientalism,” and, in Binder’s most distinctive contribution, discussions of modern Arab thinkers who have written on these issues.

Egypt, where the major intellectual and ideological battles of the century were fought, provides most of Binder’s examples. He starts with ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s attempt to separate religion from the state and politics and the rejection of this alternative by practically all sections of Islamic opinion, thus anchoring the search for political alternatives within Islam. Liberalism would have to come in an Islamic form, and would have to contend with fundamentalist Islam opposed to political and religious pluralism.

Binder explores possibilities of reconciling liberalism with fundamentalist Islam in examples from subsequent debates on ‘Abd al-Raziq, especially the work of Muhammad ‘Imara, a prominent Islamic liberal. These intellectual efforts, however, have had little effect on organized politics, which on the Islamic side has been dominated by the Muslim Brothers and their offshoots.

A long chapter on Sayyid Qutb contains an interesting and original interpretation of this intriguing Islamic figure. Binder’s interpretation lays emphasis on Qutb’s aesthetic approach to the Qur’an, which distinguishes him from the scripturalist fundamentalists of the Brothers. He concludes optimistically that “Qutb’s Schwanengesang opens at least a philosophical path for the cooperation of fundamentalists and contemporary political movements of both the right and the left.” The only political paths that have actually followed from Qutb’s ideas, however, are those of extreme and messianic Islamists such as the Jihad group.

Binder starts most of his chapters with forays into modern (or “post-modern”) social theory. This is a refreshing feature in a book on the Middle East, a field noted for its theoretical paucity, even when the theories seem to be only obliquely relevant to the issues in hand. One of the lessons to learn from Derrida or Foucault, though, is to distrust concepts of totality, whether textual or social. These include Marxist totalities of modes of production — “feudalism,” “capitalism,” “socialism,” or recent innovations of “the tributary mode” (Samir Amin), and classes based on them as unitary political subjects.

Other relevant forms of totalization are cultural, as in notions of “Islam” and “the West.” Many of the authors discussed in this book operate in terms of one or another of these sorts of concepts, and Binder does not clearly distance his own discourse from these. He is critical, for instance, of the intellectual essentialization of Islam and the West as distinct and antithetical entities. Yet he seems to slip into positions which imply these distinctions, as when he argues that bourgeois intellectuals using Western rhetorical forms, and in so far as their political discourse is adapted to Islam (rather than nationalism), must deny the philosophical raison d’etre of the discursive formations they employ. The epistemological situation in many Muslim countries, he states, is still “pre-bourgeois,” while the West is progressing intellectually to a “post-bourgeois” condition. In this discussion, Binder seems to be coming dangerously close to the notion of a mentality which precludes Muslim intellectuals from the philosophical bases of secular ideologies. This is antithetical to Foucault’s concept of “discourse.” Discourses do not inhere in subjects but form parts of institutions and practices. An individual subject can participate in several discourses — in this case religious, technical, political and so on. During the period of dominance of secular political discourses of nationalism and socialism, many personally devout Muslims participated without mixing them with the religious discourses of their faith, which then seemed largely irrelevant. In many political arenas, definite boundaries marked off the two discursive and institutional spheres. Lebanese Shi‘a, insofar as they were politicized, threw in their lot with sectors of the left, many sharing in its ideology and objectives. Early Kurdish leaders, though mullahs, spoke the language of nationalism, not Islam.

Such a separation is much less likely at present. This follows the transformation of political fields and discourses after the Iranian revolution, and is not the product of some essential mental construct. Many of the writers under discussion, as Binder shows, have started from an intellectual or discursive context dominated if not by Marxism then by Marx-speak. This includes Tariq al-Bishri, who seems to have taken elements of this discourse even into his present position of Islamic authenticity. An important element of Marx-speak is the constant reference to classes as unitary political subjects, directly represented on the political stage, the most important being of the bourgeoisie and their smaller brothers, the petite bourgeoisie.

An axiom of this discourse is that liberalism has some intrinsic link to the bourgeoisie, except under the abnormal conditions of “Bonapartism” when some cowardly sectors of the bourgeoisie make deals which limit their liberty. The search for the preconditions for liberalism, therefore, becomes a search for the conditions for the dominance of the bourgeoisie. Their opponent in the Middle East is the national or nationalist authoritarian state (on the model of Nasser), which is judged to be in the hands of the petite bourgeoisie, a category which seems to comprise an extraordinary range of characters including all state functionaries, army officers and intelligentsia. Given that these categories are the primary source of political activists throughout the political spectrum, it follows that all politics, except for the illusive bourgeois liberalism, becomes “petite bourgeois.” Certainly the Islamists fall into this category, as would the Nasserists and the Communists.

The search for the preconditions of liberalism proceeds, then, to attempt to determine the possible grounds for convergence or compromise between the two bourgeoisies on terms favorable to the bourgeoisie and their liberal predilections. These grounds, under present conditions, must include Islam. The question of reconciling liberalism to fundamentalism arises again, in relation to classes, and receives no more of a satisfactory answer than on the level of ideology. Since the social groups defined as bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie have contributed cadres and constituencies to a whole range of political positions and struggles, as categories of political analyses, these concepts are blunt, if not useless.

Where does liberalism fit into the problematic of authenticity? The early attempts by ‘Abduh and others to present democracy and constitutionalism as legitimately Islamic are unconvincing and, to Islamists, hopelessly tainted with “imported ideas.” Of the writers discussed in the book the most interesting in this respect is Tariq al-Bishri, who moved from a leftist position (with marxisant tendencies) to one sympathetic to Islamic politics, in search of Egyptian authenticity. This authenticity, al-Bishri reckons, includes pluralism, both religious pluralism of Muslim and Copt (the subject of one of his major books) and political pluralism. Political pluralism dates back no further in Egyptian history than the episode of the “liberal” pre-Nasserist regime, its main components being the Wafd (bourgeois liberal) and the Muslim Brothers (petite bourgeois populist). It would appear, then, that the only “non-authentic” element of recent history is the Nasserist state and ideology. Yet other writers have maintained that the directive bureaucratic state, such as that of Nasser, is most authentic in Egyptian history, going back to Pharaonic times and continuous in a “hydraulic” society. The game of authenticity is open to many constructions.

Binder’s foray into the theoretical problematic of authenticity in the existentialist tradition and in hermeneutics does not lead to any illuminating insights in the discussion of al-Bishri and others, nor does it make the pillars of authenticity any less shaky. What makes al-Bishri’s project particularly pertinent is his preoccupation with maintaining religious and political pluralism. The obvious question is how compatible is this quest with his attempt to establish the Islamic current and his overt support for it?

A more pertinent consideration of the question of liberalism would have to deal with possibilities and constraints for such courses of development within existing political and social structures. Who are the guarantors of the Egyptian political system now? The bureaucracy? The army? Can they accommodate true political pluralism and choice? Above all, can this system cope with the looming economic and demographic crises? These problems at present seem to feed into the Islamic current, the major merchants of authenticity, for whom liberalism does not seem to count for much. Will al-Bishri and other residual liberals be able to alter its direction? Will the guarantors of the political system respond with combat or accommodation?

This is a book worth reading mainly for its important and interesting discussions and insights, its informative and detailed discussions of major modern Arab thinkers and its serious concern with theoretical issues. Binder pursues his larger project of seeking the preconditions of liberalism sporadically, mostly in relation to the possibilities of liberalism in the work of the thinkers under discussion and under certain developmental conditions. His concluding chapter does not seem to draw the threads from the preceding discussions and outline the possibilities and constraints of liberalism in a systematic manner.

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "Binder, Islamic Liberalism," Middle East Report 171 ( ).
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