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Human Rights Quarterly 22.2 (2000) 625-629

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Book Review

Islamism, Secularism, and Human Rights in the Middle East

Islamism, Secularism, and Human Rights in the Middle East, by Mahmood Monshipouri (Boulder: Lynn Rienner Publishers, 1998) 257 pp.

Mahmood Monshipouri seeks to turn opposition into coalition. In the modern human rights discourse in the Middle East, where contested issues usually find Islamists against Western secularists, he argues that the two should instead coexist harmoniously in the Muslim world. He posits the following as the central theme of his book: "fusing secular and Islamic principles can effectively promote human dignity." 1 His study begins with three chapters addressing conceptual issues relating to Islamism, reform, human rights, and political and social [End Page 625] history, followed by individual analyses of three Muslim countries: Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran.

In his study of these three "non-Arab Muslim countries," Monshipouri sets out to examine the dynamics between contemporary and Islamic forces in the current human rights discourse in these regions. He says that each of these countries has experienced the rise of Islamism and a decline of secularism, and their political leaders have both pursued pragmatic and moderate policies and stressed the significance of Islamic ideology. For example, Monshipouri evaluates the impact of secularization in each country. He asserts that secularization had a radicalizing impact on religious groups during the era of the Shah in Iran, whereas in Pakistan, it has always coexisted rather uneasily with Islamism. In Turkey, Islamism seems to have grown out of an evolutionary grassroots democratic movement. However, the Turkish experience represents "a test case of a secular system that has failed to come to grips with its Islamic heritage." 2

Monshipouri covers a lot of ground in his book. He is thorough in his inclusion of scholars and leading personalities, mentioning everyone from Sayyid Qutb, Hassan Turabi, and Abdol Karim Soroush to Abdullahi An-Naim, Akbar Ahmed, Richard Bulliet, and Donna Arzt. He skillfully sketches details of the relevant history, intellectual movements, and recent critical issues important to his study, exemplifying his belief in an "integrated approach" that places ideological studies within the multiple and shifting economic, social, and political contexts. Targeting many false stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, Monshipouri's study is a positive contribution to the Western human rights discourse in many ways. He reminds readers that in many regions of the world secularism was often accompanied by oppression, economic instability, and elitism. Monshipouri also ably contests Western paranoia of an "Islamic conspiracy" as simplistic and based on inaccurate apprehension, emphasizing that Muslim-orientation does not necessarily mean radicalism. For example, he points to the "modern-minded Muslims" in Turkey who sought Turkish membership in the European Union simultaneous to membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. 3 As for the current "lack of progress" on human rights issues in the Muslim Middle East, Monshipouri puts the blame equally on secularists and Islamists, and he asserts that dialogue between them is the remedy.

But as one moves through Islamism, Secularism, and Human Rights in the Middle East, one gets the impression that the title is misdirected. Not only are Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran not strictly in the "Middle East" but, also, Islamism as a coherent philosophy is underdeveloped in this study. He fails to delve deeply enough into the internal Islamist discourse and philosophy of secularism to enable his readers to critically analyze the potential success of the dialogue and fusion that he advocates between the two. His book reads more accurately as a human rights-focused historical survey of Islam and Muslim movements in the modern human rights era than a study of "Islamism" and "secularism."

In his discussions of Islamism and Islamic legal issues, Monshipouri repeatedly [End Page 626] posits radical Islamists against "enlightened," "pragmatic," or "dynamic" interpretations of Islam, advocating the latter as a desirable alternative modernism to Western secularism. However, he fails to provide sufficient detail to give the reader a clear picture of exactly what this "enlightened Islam" looks like in his mind. Hints might be collected from positive references...


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