Islam in Public: New Visibilities and New Imaginaries
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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 173-190



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Islam in Public:
New Visibilities and New Imaginaries

Nilüfer Göle


Islam has acquired new forms of visibility over the last two decades as it has made its way in the public avenues of both Muslim and European societies. New faces of Muslim actors using both secular and religious idiom are appearing in public life; the terms of public debate are being transformed by the eruption of religious issues; Islamic films and novels are becoming popular subjects of cultural criticism; new spaces, markets, and media are opening up in response to the rising demands of recently formed Muslim middle classes. Islam carves out a public space of its own as new Islamic language styles, corporeal rituals, and spatial practices emerge and blend into public life. On the one hand, public Islam testifies to a shift in the orientation of the Islamic movement from macropolitics toward micropractices, and on the other hand, it challenges the borders and the meanings of the secular public sphere.

As Islam makes a move into national public spheres, the consensual principles and homogeneous structure of the national public spheres are unsettled, but so are those of the Islamic movement. Indeed two different phases of contemporary Islamism can be distinguished. 1 The first phase, starting at the end of the 1970s [End Page 173] and reaching its peak with the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, is characterized by mass mobilizations, Islamic militancy, a quest for an Islamic collective identity, and the implementation of a political and religious rule. In the second phase, the revolutionary fervor declines, the ideological chorus gives way to a multiplicity of voices, and a process of distancing and individuation from the collective militancy takes place leading to an "exit from religious revolution." 2 In this phase, after the assertion of a collective and exacerbated form of difference, Muslim identity is in the process of "normalization." In the "second wave" of Islamism, actors of Islam blend into modern urban spaces, use global communication networks, engage in public debates, follow consumption patterns, learn market rules, enter into secular time, get acquainted with values of individuation, professionalism, and consumerism, and reflect upon their new practices. Hence we observe a transformation of these movements from a radical political stance to a more social and cultural orientation, accompanied by a loss of mass mobilization capacity, which led some researchers to pronounce the end of Islamism and the "failure of political Islam." 3 But a more cultural orientation does not mean a less political one. Indeed, instead of disappearing as a reference, Islam penetrates even more into the social fiber and imaginary, thereby raising new political questions, questions not addressed solely to Muslims but concerning the foundational principles of collective life in general.

An analytical concern at the level of ideologies (such as Islamism) or of political formations (such as the state) cannot explain this process of interpenetration and dialogical relation. The public visibility of Islam and the specific gender, corporeal, and spatial practices underpinning it trigger new ways of imagining a collective self and common space that are distinct from the Western liberal self and progressive politics. Exploring these Islamic makings of the self and the micropractices associated with it will lead us to understand new social imaginaries and the transformations of the public sphere in a non-Western context.

Non-Western Publics

Although the idea of the public is Western in its origins and its basic features are understood as universal access, individualism, equality, and openness (Öffentlichkeit), it circulates and moves into contexts other than the West. The ways in which these concepts, ideas, and institutions travel and are adopted in non-Western [End Page 174] contexts depend on local agencies and cultural fields. The experience of colonization in India, for example, or voluntary modernization in Turkey have shaped the ways in which the public sphere is imagined and institutionalized. Studying the adoption of modern concepts at the level of language, their entry, translations, and transformations--namely the history of concepts (Begriffsgechichte)--can reveal the diversity of meanings and trajectories and...