Arguing Islam after the Revival of Arab Politics

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By: Nathan J. Brown

London and New York: Oxford University Press. 296pp. $29.95, ISBN: 9780190619428

Volume: 6 Issue: 1

January 2018

Review by:

Moja Ennaji

University of Fes

Morocco

This book is original and timely. I think it has almost everything a modern book on Middle East politics after the Arab Spring should have – a reliance on both fieldwork and narrative techniques, an openness to new theories of public space, sociology, anthropology, and political science that promise better outcomes, illustrations with real data sets that show the cultural and political perspectives and specificities of this region of the world. The book raises useful questions with step-by-step answers that help the reader work out how to understand the challenges facing Arab politics and society in the post-Arab Spring era. It is a sophisticated book that truly provides an elegant and useful analysis of the interaction of religion and politics in the region.

This is a book for readers and researchers who are already familiar with theories of politics and public sphere, but who may not know the complexities of Arab and Muslim societies.  The title of the book and the introduction seem to indicate that this book is suitable for those who are interested in Islam and the Islamic movement in the Middle East and who want to know how political discourse, activism, and religion impact on policy-making and democratizing the region.

What is interesting about this book is that it focuses on several types of public sphere and analyzes how they interact together. It investigates political conversations in small groups in public and private circles, debates in public squares and mosques, discussions that take place in social and regular media, and debates in institutions like parliaments, especially the political discussions and clashes that take place between opposing parliamentary groups before agreeing or voting on legislation.

However, I have two problems about this book.  First, it gives the impression that religion and politics can go together, but we know for a fact that one of the reasons for the violence and civil wars in the region is the overwhelming power of Islam and its utilization in politics as “the main language of public debate”, as the author states. Religion has its own discourse and perspective, and it is actually problematic for public life and for human rights. The Middle East would do better if it could separate religion and politics.

Second, although the book discusses amply the role of religion in advancing political debate and democracy, it does not refer to jihadist groups systematically perhaps because they are violent or are situated outside recognized official institutions. Yet, I think one cannot discuss religion in politics without including jihadism and jihadists who use religion for political ends and who have their conversations displayed mainly in social media. They also aim at re-Islamizing society and at changing policy and the nature of politics. Moreover, they do have an impact on political debate and policy in many Muslim countries.

While the book focuses on religion, it develops a comprehensive approach to understanding the revival of Arab politics which has a significant impact on policy, and how Arab peoples assess their political systems and governance structures. It also argues that there is much variability in religious debate and the revival of politics in Arab countries.

The book describes the various facets of the ideology crisis in the Arab world and the revival of the public’s interest in politics despite the restrictions of public freedoms imposed by authoritarian regimes.  The book explores the numerous strategies used by politicians, religious groups, activists, and media to surmount these difficulties and to increase their chances of influencing policy-makers. It reveals the remarkable influence of political and religious divergence and conflicts of interests, and the role they play in youth’s integration, participation, and achievement.  The book also nicely reveals how the government uses the political argument to silence public voices and shut out the opposition in this region.

The book is divided into three major parts.  Part I begins by defining and explaining concepts such as “politics”, “publicity”, and “argument”, and then turns to discuss publicity, religion, and the revival of politics (Chapter 1). The reader is slowly and clearly led through how Arab societies are struggling to achieve democratic rights by showing concern for political matters and by using religious discourse, wavering between tradition and modernity (Chapter 2).

Part II discusses a number of arguments used in the public and private spheres to describe and deal with political and social problems, in relation to the state’s cultural and political perspectives and governance (Chapter 3). It investigates the various features of spaces where politics is discussed in the Middle East, and how these spaces interact with each other, and how Islam and the Islamic law (shari’a) are used and argued in the public debate (Chapters 4 and 5).

In Part III, the author describes Arab constitutions and the multitude of voices of the public sphere, tracing the sociocultural ramifications of public politics for policy outcomes. He analyzes how politics and religion are discussed in the contentious public sphere leading a remarkable argument about religion (Chapter 6). In chapter 7, the author focuses on the family law, showing a strong separation between the law as it is practiced and the law as it is understood. He argues that such arguments which are divorced from reality are rarely taken in account in policy-making.

The book equally researches the more practical issue of textbooks in schools. It shows that the political and religious arguments operate in these textbooks, and provoke heated discussions and disagreements, thus “sharpening divisions” and widening the gap between different social and religious groups in society. However, these divisions do not have a significant impact on policy (Chapter 8).

The book ends by a reflection on the political revival of the Arab world in post-Arab Spring, illustrating that this political dynamism, which gave rise to powerful public debates, has been restrained by challenging political realities and structures (Chapter 9).

In sum, while the book brings out the deep-seated tensions and contradictions in the socio-cultural fabric of Arab societies, it underlines how Islam functions, impacts and integrates the political arena of the Arab world today. As such, it is a significant contribution to understanding the Middle East politics and society, and the role of Islamic traditions and the ramifications for policy outcomes and governance across the region.

Reference

Ennaji, Moha (2014). Ed. Multiculturalism and Democracy in North Africa: Aftermath of the Arab Spring. New York: Routledge.

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