The second category of writers dominating the Orientalist landscape is comprised of Neo-Orientalists “whose writings clearly post-date the linguistic turn and the beginnings of the critique of orientalist methodology” (Volpi, 2010:30). Many of these Neo-Orientalists are former students of prominent traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie. Neo-Orientalism, much like its predecessor, takes as self-evident Muslim societies’ resistance to democratization. They claim that through idiosyncratic cultural factors proper to Islam, its incompatibility with Democracy can not only be uncovered but also explained. This reinforces the idea that two incompatible ethics and perspectives are colliding in the Muslim world: the anarchical ethos of a social organization based on religious kinship, and the universalism of democratic and liberal values. “The legitimacy of the politics of the nation-state is hence understood as too particularistic for loyalty to the divine, and, alternatively, seen as undermined by the particularism of kinship-based ideological localism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This depiction of Muslim societies as either too weak or too unruly, and Muslims as too particularistic on one hand, and on the other hand not particularistic enough, “represents a continuity from Orientalist to Neo-Orientalist thought” (Tuastad, 2003, 594).
Daniel Pipes—one of the main advocates of Neo-Orientalism—despite his modest visibility in the academic field remains popular in the policy-making community through his ties to the Republican Party, as well as his work for the US State Department. Inspired greatly by Bernard Lewis, he defines and distinguishes Islam from Christianity by putting the emphasis on the politicized nature of Islam as predicated in traditional Orientalist thought. Islam unlike Christianity, which concerns itself solely with matters of grand moral instructions, offers a “script for political action” (Pipes, 1983:11).
“Along with faith in Allah comes a sacred law to guide Muslims in all times and places. That law, called the Shari’a, establishes the context for Islam as a political force. However diverse Muslim public life may be, it always takes places in the framework of Shari’a ideals. Adjusting realities to the Shari’a is the key to Islam’s role in human relations. Hence, this analysis emphasizes the role of sacred law, the mother force of Islam in politics” (Pipes, 1983:11).
As a chief proponent of the war on terrorism, Pipes traces back what he qualifies of Islam’s hostility toward the West to ‘premodern Muslims’ disdain toward Europeans’. “The Qur’an predisposed Muslims to pay scant attention to Christians; then the actual behavior of West Europeans repulsed the umma even further” (Pipes, 1983:78). Much like Lewis, he believes that Islamism represents the latest expression of Islam’s inherent and customary antagonism toward Western civilization. In the advent of Europe’s success as a civilization imbued with military power, Islam’s resentment toward the West grew. Today, it mostly “represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force” (Pipes, 2015: 181). He states that contrary to the “politically correct narrative” that emerged in the post 9/11 context, asserting that militant Islamic violence is a fringe phenomenon rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, the masses in the Muslim world are in fact supportive of the Islamists’ cause. According to Pipes, the Western World’s greatest nemesis in the person of Osama bin Laden, enjoyed wide and deep support in Muslim countries. “With the exception of one government staged anti-bin Laden demonstration in Pakistan and very few prominent Islamic scholars, hardly anyone publicly denounces him” (Pipes, 2004:58). While Pipes rejects as fallacious any criticism highlighting the essentialist nature of his analysis, he remains nonetheless committed to depicting Islam as profoundly antithetical to democracy and modernity.
Traditional Orientalism speculated that Islamic orthodoxy and weak Muslim societies tend to promote political quietism. “Islamic submission favored fatalism, a lack of critique, and despotism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This would explain why Muslim communities—unlike their Western counterparts—did not develop the kind of civil societies conducive to sound politics, progress, and modernity. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the birth of an Islamic State, shattered these Orientalist assertions pertaining to the supposed weakness of Muslim societies. “The revolution in Iran has brought a moribund Islam back to political center-stage after a lengthy absence” (Kramer, 1980:13). It became imperative to provide a renewed and reformed explanation of how societies previously thought to be weak could generate a revolution capable of defeating state power. “An influential thesis was delivered by Patricia Crone, who has been described as the most persuasive and rigorous of the neo-Orientalists” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). According to Crone, Islamic civilization was unique in the way that it refused to legitimize political authority.
“The ulema defined God’s law as haqq al-‘arab, the law of the Arabs, just as they identified his language as the lisan al-‘arab, the normative language of the Bedouins, the consensus being that where God had not explicitly modified tribal law, he had endorsed it. This resulted in a tribal vision of sacred politics where kings were rejected and God’s community was envisaged as an egalitarian one unencumbered by profane or religious structures of power below the caliph, who was himself assigned the duty of minimal government” (Crone, 1980:62).
This argument implies that the Iranian revolution, which triggered the sociopolitical phenomenon known as Political Islam in the 20th century, was not the result of an organized civil society expressing its political will through revolutionary means, but rather the inevitable outcome of Muslim societies’ inherent instability. The political norms of Islam as established by Sharia law produce an environment in which it is virtually impossible for any government to survive (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Sooner or later every regime comes to be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the Muslim masses. Islamism simply provided an outlet through which they could strip all legitimacy from existing political authorities, while simultaneously calling for the restoration of an “all-encompassing Islamic law, based upon the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (…)” (Kramer, 1996:147).
This generates a setting where the elaboration of a contract between state and society becomes all but impossible. “That society withholds its support from political authority not only makes the state unstable but also obstructs the development of a true civil society, as no ‘organic state’ has been able to emerge in the Arab world” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). By reiterating the idea of a lack of basis for constitutional and representative government in Muslim societies, scholars such as Crone and Kramer are demonstrating the undeniable continuity between Neo-Orientalism and traditional Orientalism.
Crone’s allegation that Islam is devoid of the fundamentals of constitutional and representative governance crucial to societal development echoes back to Kedourie’s claim that the precepts of democracy are essentially alien to Muslim political traditions. In the Neo-Orientalist paradigm, Islamism is essentially the result of weak democratic traditions in the Muslim world. Kramer argues that in its discourse on democracy, authenticity, women, minorities, and pluralism, Political Islam is essentially “a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology” (Kramer, 1997:163). Its advent is reminiscent of the surge of ultra-nationalist movements throughout East Europe in the wake of the Soviet bloc’s breakup. “By any reading, this discourse evokes not Havel or Walela, but Le Pen and Zhirinovsky” (Kramer, 1997:163).
Islamic movements are, in Kramer’s critique of Political Islam, more about national liberation and power, than individual liberties and politics (Kramer, 1997:163). Islamism’s contention is that Islam offers a system of belief that could do what no foreign/alien doctrine ever could; mobilize the believers, inculcate discipline into their ranks, and inspire them to make the necessary changes and sacrifices (Ajami, 1992:62). He draws an even closer link between Islamism and the national right in Europe, by indicating that they both use populism in the form of mass mobilizations generated by anger and despair, in order to drive their respective movements to the forefront of the political landscape.
“It is generally agreed that Islamism arose from the failure of Arab (and Iranian and Turkish) nationalism. Not only is this obvious, one might go further: Islamism represents a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology. Nationalism, leavened by religion, thus becomes a hyper-nationalism” (Kramer, 1997:163).
Both traditional Orientalism and Neo Orientalism ignore largely the influence of colonialism and imperialism on Muslim societies. Instead what is put forward is a reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Islam as an entity possessing an “anti-modern core (….) that doomed any further political development of the world’s fastest growing religion” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Neo-Orientalism’s penchant for explaining polity and political phenomena through cultural binaries resonates quite well with the current political atmosphere. The assumption that certain cultures are inherently chaotic and violent is an integral part of the Neo-Orientalist exceptionalist thesis proclaiming Islam to be the antithesis of Western civilization, and a potential civilizational threat.
“The intrusion of political Islam into Europe is contributing to turning it into a battlefield between the secular and the divine in the course of the return of the sacred. It is perplexing to watch the contradictory reality of Europeans abandoning their faith while the global religionization of politics and conflict enters Europe under conditions of Islamic immigration”(Tibi, 2014:153).
III) Critical Neo-Orientalism
Unlike Neo-Orientalists who simply reject the criticism leveled against their field of study, critical Neo-Orientalists recognize the legitimacy of such criticism, while still remaining convinced that Orientalism is by far the best possible approach to the study of the Orient and Islam. Critical Neo-Orientalism is based on the idea of undertaking a constructive engagement with Orientalism through a reform of the problematization of Islam as it was traditionally conceptualized in Orientalist thought. This approach represents an effort to try and distance the field of Islamic studies from rigid analytical frameworks, and Orientalism’s natural penchant toward “textual and historical over-determination” (Volpi, 2010:42). “The exegesis of the Quran (…) thus often replaces socio-economic and socio-historical investigation” (Burgat, 2003:6). Instead it is the “hermeneutic character of the Islamic tradition” that is being highlighted, which according to critical Neo-Orientalists allows for the flexibility and the openness of current politico-theological discussions (Volpi, 2010:42).
The proponents of this new form of Orientalism wish to reiterate the complexity and diversity of the socio-historical contexts of Muslim societies. The obsession with uncovering a model Islamic society imbued with a Muslim Mind has rendered Orientalism blind to the non-textual traditions influencing and shaping contemporary Islamism. It is this oversight that critical Neo-Orientalism hopes to address through new interpretive efforts attempting to make sense of the present in the light of the past, without however becoming obsessively beholden to the past.
“Disoriented by this experience, Western intellectuals have tended to take refuge behind a kind of Maginot Line of enlightened rationalism. From these entrenched positions they excoriate ‘fanaticism’, ‘backwardness, and ‘Muslim fundamentalism’. The West, they seem to be saying has gone beyond all that: let it now go its own way and let Islam—irretrievably alien, intellectually inaccessible, and repugnant—wallow in its barbarism” (Kepel, 2005:19).
While traditional Orientalism emphasized the impact of Oriental despotism on Islamic polity, with a powerful state and unorganized society, Ernest Gellner adheres instead to a different notion of Islamic polity. Much like the Neo-Orientalist Patricia Crone, Gellner “present the opposite picture of a weak state, short on legitimacy and vulnerable to internal threats from a solidary community under ulama leadership and to external threats of the tribes” (Zubaida, 1995: 153). Ernest Gellner—renowned philosopher, social theorist, and anthropologist—was probably the most famous and articulated proponent of critical Neo-Orientalism. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive understanding of Muslim politics, he developed a coherent model of Muslim society. Eager to avoid any ethnocentric bias susceptible of influencing his endeavor, he built his model “against a wide canvas of philosophical, theoretical, and cross-historical references (…)” (Zubaida, 1995: 152). Gellner’s model is not only historical in nature; it also has the advantage of being sociological. The historical component of his model draws a great deal from the work of Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Arab historian.
Following in his footsteps, he constructed a dialectic between city and tribe “each with its own peculiar form of religion, and the dominance within the urban form of ulama leading a solidary community based on scripture and Divine Law” (Zubaida, 1995: 155). Gellner’s Muslim society is characterized by a weak state and a strong culture. The state is simultaneously threatened by the intractability of the tribes (pastoral nomadic/Bedouin society), and the ability of the urban and sedentary society to “withhold the symbols of legitimacy” (Gellner, 1983:55). Culture however is strong since it is entrenched in urban society where it is instrumental in forging “the bonds of community based on the Law and on the authority and leadership of the ulama” (Gellner, 1983:55).
He analyzes Political Islam through a similar historical perspective, and formulates a more nuanced analysis—than the Neo-Orientalists—attentive to the complexity of this phenomenon and the challenges it poses (Gellner, 1983:55). Militant Islam according to him possesses a “historical undercurrent, which lately acquired special significance to the Muslim masses because of the frustration of religio-nationalist hopes (…)” (Abun Nasr, 1985:73). The Islamists’ project is to reject the political authority of the nationalist elites, while calling for the production of a new kind of orthodoxy. These same militants are also rejecting the traditional religious authority of the ulama criticizing them vehemently for their willingness to serve the same national structures “which curtail the application of the prescription of the shari’a to acts of devotion and norms of family life” (Abun Nasr, 1985:85).
The influence of what came to be dubbed the French School (Roy, Kepel, Burgat, etc.…) is also quite noticeable in critical Neo-Orientalism. They are mostly known for their body of work dedicated to examining the failure of nationalism in the Muslim world and the rise of Political Islam. As an alternative to traditional Orientalist approaches, they chose to explain the strength and resilience of Islamism through the “mechanism of path-dependency” (Volpi, 2010:42). What characterizes their approach “is a progression of the theorizing of the emergence of Islamism from the local to the global” (Volpi, 2010:42). Each one focuses on a specific region—Roy (Afghanistan), Kepel (Egypt)—and develops his expertise on that basis (Volpi, 2010:42). In order to avoid falling into the predictable essentialist construction of Islam so prevalent in Orientalism, they presented instead new and refined narratives attempting to explain the multiple processes through which Islamism is socially constructed.
“To measure its full impact we need to identify its many dimensions and investigate the different periods of gestation, the networks, the line of communication (…) and ideas that composed it (…)” (Kepel, 2002:62).
In his argument against modern versions of Orientalism—such as Neo-Orientalism—Roy states, “historical and cultural paradigms are misleading to the extent that they do not help us to understand what is new” (Roy, 2004:15). However, there are important downsides to path-dependency approaches since they also exhibit some of the same flaws plaguing previous Orientalist narratives. If the central thesis of his famous book The failure of Political Islam (1994) was indeed to demonstrate the collapse of the Islamist project, then one cannot ignore Roy’s complete disregard of the many other forms of Islamism not linked to the rather violent brand of this phenomenon.
Many other strands of Islamism blossomed in the twentieth century, rejecting completely armed militancy. Movements focusing on “Wahhabi rigourism, Tablighi pietism, and Salafi puritanism grew in strength quite independently from these militant political movements” (Volpi, 2010:43). What Roy has effectively showcased is not the failure of Islamism as a whole, but rather a particular strand of Political Islam predicated on violent militancy. By making the militant and revolutionist branch of Islamism the central component of his analysis—at the detriment of all the other developments of Political Islam in the twentieth century—Roy recreated the same grand narrative he was attempting to transcend.
“The ultimate experience is of course jihad, which for the Islamists, means armed battle against communists (Afghanistan), or Zionists (Palestine), or for the radicals, against renegades and the impious” (Roy, 1994:15).
What ensures the perennity of Orientalism in the study of Islam is the reciprocal relationship that exists between this field of expertise and a theoretical main interpretation of the Islamic tradition (Volpi, 2010:43). It cements the notion that through historical and textual readings of Islam, contextualized by Western intellectuals, every trend, event, and development in the Muslim world will be understood. It reinforces the reliance on a Muslim Mind—as theorized by traditional Orientalism—to be uncovered through “an appreciation of history and the Scriptures” (Volpi, 2010:43). The assertion that Orientalism is a cordoned off tradition that not only relies on self-validation, but is also resistant to any sort of criticism (internal or external) remains very apropos (Turner, 1994:31). The continued reliance on rehashed Orientalist clichés ensures the semantic and historical continuity between critical Neo-Orientalism and the previous forms of Orientalism.
 Arabic word meaning scholars. This term is mostly used for scholars specialized in Islamic theology.
Understanding Orientalism Series:
Understanding Orientalism and its Genesis: Read here
Orientalist Discourse and the Concept of Islamism (part 1): Read here
- Abun Nasr, Jamil M. (1985). Militant Islam: A Historical Perspective. In Ernest Gellner (ed.), Islamic Dilemmas: Reformers, Nationalists and Industrialization, pp. 73-93. Berlin: Mouton Publishers.
- Ajami, Fouad (1992). The Arab Predicament. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Burgat, Francois (2003). Face to face with Political Islam. London: IB Tauris.
- Gellner, Ernest (1983). Muslim Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kepel, Gilles (2005). The Roots of Political Islam. London: Saqi.
- Kepel, Gilles; Roberts Anthony, F (2002). The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Kramer, Martin (1980). Political Islam. London; Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
- Kramer, Martin (1996). Arab Awakenings and Islamic Revival: the politics of ideas in the Middle East. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
- Kramer, Martin (1997). The Mismeasure of Political Islam. In Martin Kramer (ed.), The Islamism Debate, pp. 161-173. Tel Aviv; The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv.
- Kramer, Martin (2003). Coming to terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists? Middle East Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, pp.65-77.
- Pipes, Daniel (1983). In the Path of God. Islam and Political Power. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.
- Pipes, Daniel (2004). Miniatures. Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
- Pipes, Daniel (2015). Nothing Abides. Perspectives On The Middle East And Islam. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
- Roy, Olivier (1994). The failure of Political Islam. London: L.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
- Roy, Olivier (2004). Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Tibi, Bassam (2014). Political Islam, World Politics and Europe. From Jihadist to Institutional Islamism. London; New York: Routledge.
- Tuastad, Dag (2003). Neo-Orientalism and the new barbarism thesis: Aspects of symbolic violence in the Middle East Conflict(s). Third World Quarterly, Vol.24, No.4, pp. 591-599.
- Turner, Bryan (1994). Orientalism, Postmodernism And Globalism. London: Routledge.
- Volpi, Frederic (2010). Political Islam observed: disciplinary perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Zubaida, Sami (1995). Is there a Muslim society? Ernest Gellner’s sociology of Islam. Economy and Society, Vol.24, No.2, pp.151-188.