Multiculturalism as a political idea has gained significance with the encounter of Islam and liberalism in the West. Although the idea is not limited to Islam and Muslims in the so-called liberal societies, the debates surrounding it in the United Kingdom has taken on this unique dimension. Liberalism as an offshoot of Enlightenment has always had a troublesome relation with Islam and its advocates. Attempts have been made to reconcile the two, but with disapproval from certain quarters amongst Muslim intelligentsia and western liberals. Islam’s relation with western modernity and enlightenment, as argued by many, is espoused to be contributory and complementary.
Islamists are at pains to show how European enlightenment was partly triggered by its encounter with the mediaeval Islamic philosophical and scientific endeavours. Meanwhile, post 1960s, the critique of enlightenment values and modernity has gained currency within western academia and left-liberal circles.
Popular trends like ‘postmodernism’, ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘critical theory’, emanating from the Frankfurt school, have launched a critique of enlightenment. In today’s academia, critiquing enlightenment and modernity is a sign of criticality and progressive engagement. Even the splendid works of Jonathan Israel and Steven Pinker have not made a serious dent in the movement against the Enlightenment. Broadly speaking, contemporary problems in the world are principally attributed to the philosophies of enlightenment.
Enlightenment and modernity are the dominant discourses of the West and this in turn enables the West to claim moral superiority over the rest. Any critique of Enlightenment, according to Akeel Bilgrami, is suspected as harbouring a ‘germ of irrationality’. He writes: ‘From quite early on, the strategy has been to tarnish the opposition as being poised in a perpetual ambiguity between radicalism and irrationalism (including sometimes an irrationalism that encourages a fascist, or incipiently fascist, authoritarianism.) Nietzsche was one of the first to sense the theoretical tyranny in this and often responded with an edginess of his own by flamboyantly refusing to be made self-conscious and defensive by the strategy, and by explicitly embracing the ambiguity.’1
Bilgrami refers to this attitude as ‘cold war attitude’. Taking his cues from Bilgrami, Amir Ali attempts to develop his argument by both critiquing and advancing a more dynamic, inclusive and non-hegemonic form of enlightenment. The conservative forms of enlightenment are responsible for the impasse that is often seen between radical Islamists and conservative liberals. Ali borrows the distinction between high, mainstream enlightenment and early radical enlightenment form Bilgrami’s book titled Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment.
In the early radical enlightenment, Ali argues, the influence of Islam can be traced and this can provide the space for conceptualizing enlightenment not in oppositional terms with Islam, rather with a collaborative stance. This can prevent the self-besiegement of Muslims (radical Islamists). One major group that is a victim of such politics is the Deoband school of Islam.
In the chapter titled ‘Forward to the Enlightenment?’, the author argues that ‘every age needs to recreate its own Enlightenment’ rather than ‘complacently and idly sliding back to well-worn out notion of the Enlightenment.’ In this chapter, he talks about the history of emergence of multiculturalism in Britain, and traces its roots to the Deoband school of Islam and its relation with the colonial British authorities. This becomes the ‘template’ for British multiculturalism—‘modus vivendi’. It is derived from John Rawls, through the work of Andrew F March, which is an arrangement based on self-interest and balance of power, not a principle-based approach of what Rawls later develops with his more comprehensive ‘overlapping consensus’. Ali thinks, although commendable, in looking for Islamic sources for an overlapping consensus, one needs to understand Islamic intellectual contribution to the background of ‘political culture of western liberal democracies’. The problem with the Deobandi template of multiculturalism is that ‘Muslim presence of its own volition painting itself into a corner with a little help from multicultural friends, magnified by the media, at times justifiable and at other times not so justifiable, are pointed to the cornered Muslim presence.’
After articulating his main thesis, Ali takes us to colonial India in the chapter titled ‘The Colonial Dialectic of Difference’, in which he engages with jurisprudence and coding of Islamic law. Broadly speaking, the tensions between Burkean and Benthamite approaches to colonial law-making shaped Islamic law, popularly known as Sharia. The author uses the binary of similarity and difference to frame the issue here. For instance, Benthamite jurisprudence tends to focus on universality, treats legal subjects in a homogeneous manner. However, there is a negative side to colonial legality, that is, its codification and perception of Islamic law as rigid. The author takes the aid of Scott Alan Kugle’s work to buttress his argument that the effects of these codifications are ‘bizarre’ and ‘far reaching’.
Ijtihad, a dynamic concept in Islamic legal tradition, implies the use of reasoning to extend the general principles of Islamic fiqh (usul or root) to the specificities of new, often unprecedented concrete situations (furu or branch). This allowed a certain flexibility and vitality, unlike the utilitarian codification of the British to Islamic law. A rift is created between substantive law and procedural law along with orientalist bias and utilitarian notions. The result of this process is the Anglo-Mohammadan law. The author agrees with Kugle that it is a ‘hybrid and oxymoronic entity’ but adds that the ‘Anglo’ part dominates and hegemonizes the ‘Mohammadan’ part of the law. Ali also urges us to take a historical perspective. He takes support from John Makdisi who argues that the ‘English common law’ tradition owes itself to the Islamic law. Although there is scant space here to discuss the influence of Islamic law on common law tradition the author argues that ‘the Islamic legal system were among some of the ideas that Henry II eagerly adopted.’
The next chapter is linked to arguments of the previous chapter and is also integral to the entire argument of the book, with its focus on Edmund Burke’s relationship with Islam. In this chapter, the author walks us through highly informative historical detail. He asserts that there is a need to take a relook at Burke’s political philosophy without prejudicially ‘boxing and categorizing his ideas as “conservative”.’ Ali succinctly articulates Burke’s argument that ‘the best manner in which a society or collectivity approaches a new and unprecedented situation should be by falling back on and taking recourse to the fun-like or bank-like wisdom that is contained in a society’s past.’ Burke, as Uday S Mehta has shown, displays a greater sensitivity, humility and understanding to cultural difference. It is very attractive to multiculturalism, and unlike the Enlightenment attitude of Eurocentric arrogance. The chapter delves into Burke’s views on Indian history and also the role he played in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Overall, the author argues that Burke’s views are of great relevance to the contemporary fight against the ‘larger secularisation of society’ and for the promotion of religion and religious pluralism.
The final chapter is where the author offers his own arguments to solve the quagmire of religious pluralism and intolerance by using the Rushdie affair as a heuristic device. The relationship of Islam to radical enlightenment through the writings of Henry Stubbe is dealt with in this part of the book. In his book titled An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, Stubbe offers a positive depiction of the prophet and Islam. It is one of the first works from the West that deals with Islam positively. Radical Protestantism was ‘non-conformist and hence opposed to the Protestant orthodoxy of the Anglican Church.’ It was opposed to Trinitarianism of mainstream Christianity and drew inspiration from the monotheism of Islam. The work of Stubbe contributed to a critique of the Toleration Act of 1689. The author discusses the role of John Locke and John Toland and how they played an important role in shaping the notions of tolerance during this foundational period.
The second part of the chapter deals with the Rushdie affair. It begins with the publication of the controversial fictional novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. In a subsection in this chapter titled ‘Muslim Humiliation and Free Speech’, Ali describes the psychological harm that Rushdie’s book has caused to the average believing Muslim. He writes, ‘indeed the sheer depth and intensity of the sense of hurt experienced by Muslims needs to be reconsidered far more carefully than the dismissive reactions of Rushdie and his defenders have allowed.’ He cites Dr. Zaki Badawi, head of the Muslim College in Ealing, ‘It’s like a knife being dug into you, or being raped yourself.’ Overall, the arrogant assumptions of the Rushdie camp or by literary-liberal establishment in the name of enlightenment and freedom of expression are critiqued with full force. He even hints at the hypocrisy of the Thatcher government’s invocation of free speech to defend Rushdie, but not over the ban of Peter Wright’s book, Spy Catcher.
Lastly, the book argues that freedom of expression should not be taken in absolute terms. It opposes the positing of enlightenment and Islam in oppositional terms. This betrays the role that Islam played in the formation of radical enlightenment. The book is overall highly informative and well argued. It acquaints the reader with the latest arguments and historical evidences that helps in understanding the prejudices that exist against Islam and Muslims in general. It also puts forth the cutting-edge scholarship that challenges the entrenched assumptions of western, liberal and Islamophobic academic elite. Having said that, the book can offer certain challenges to readers who are new to these debates. It is written in a complex manner and style which can perplex the reader. The author assumes that the reader is already familiar with certain concepts. Moreover, the style employed uses many value judgments which can make the reader a hostage. Terms like Islamophobia, liberal
arrogance, orientalist bias etc., can make the reader, who wants to arrive at a more neutral judgement, wonder and put him a difficult spot.
The arguments in the book are very powerful but not entirely convincing; particularly the freedom of expression part. The book, with its focus on multiculturalism in England, ignores the views on tolerance that believers of Islam propound. They take the life of the prophet as a perfect exemplar to deal with hostile attitudes towards him and his views. They view most of the academic debates on multiculturalism, pluralism, toleration and freedom of expression irrelevant and superficial. Bringing this into the question of ‘hurt’ relating to Rushdie’s book can change our perspective on the ‘affair’.
The book is very interesting and a must read for those who are interested in issues discussed above. There is rich detail which a review cannot capture. It is a valuable contribution to the debates and is recommended for both beginners and experts in this area. It should be a part of any good library, both public and personal.
Krishnaswamy Dara is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia (Central University), New Delhi.
1 Akeel Bilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014), 280.