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  • Islamic Liberalism
  • Shaul Bakhash (bio)
Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies by Leonard Binder. University of Chicago Press, 1988. 399 pp.

The recent Islamic revival in the Middle East has often taken the form of cultural assertiveness, hostility to the West, and rejection of Western forms of economic and political organization, including capitalism and democracy. Exponents of the Islamic revival argue for the superiority of the "Islamic" way (variously defined) of organizing polities, economies, and societies. In Islamic Liberalism, Leonard Binder, professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, sets himself an intriguing and significant task: to examine whether liberal democratic regimes may nevertheless emerge in the Middle East in spite of—or even partly as a result of—the Muslim awakening.

Binder's underlying assumptions deserve a brief summary. He notes that the Islamic resurgence is taking place in the Middle East at a time when power tends increasingly to be concentrated in the state. Middle Eastern states, moreover, have tended to be dominated by petty—bourgeois interests (for example, bureaucrats and small shopkeepers)—not the most fertile ground for liberal democracy. But Binder also argues that these strong states, if they are not "autonomous" (that is, insulated from pressures from their various constituencies), may advance the interests of the emergent entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. He notes that in Turkey and more dramatically in Egypt, the state-dominated economy is in partial retreat, and that a similar, if less pronounced trend is evident in Syria and Iraq. He argues that some states in the region may already be described as bourgeois states, or at least as "embryonic bourgeois states," [End Page 117] even if the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie in these countries remains politically weak.

But the emergence of bourgeois states does not guarantee the emergence of liberal polities. In some forms, bourgeois or capitalist states can also be authoritarian and antidemocratic. Since secularism is in decline and is thus unlikely to serve as a basis for political liberalism, Binder believes political liberalism will not succeed in the Middle East without "a vigorous Islamic liberalism." "At the moment," he writes, "the Islamic resurgence and the rise of capitalism appear about to converge or clash. The question is whether their confluence can lead to the establishment of liberal government, or whether it is more likely to lead to an anticapitalist authoritarianism of the state, to an obscurantist rejection of modernity and capitalism, or to the emergence of a repressive, authoritarian, capitalist state."

Binder seeks to answer this question by examining the manner in which Arab and Islamic thinkers, and a number of Western scholars, have treated such issues as the relationship of Islam and politics; the capitalist and Marxist roads to modernization; the possibility of a third, "Islamic" route to economic development; the encounter of Islamic societies with the West; and the thorny problem faced by Muslim societies that wish to accept Westernization without surrendering their unique cultural identity. He examines these issues from a number of perspectives (secularism, Islamic fundamentalism, Marxism, Islamic "authenticity," Islamic liberalism, and Edward Said's critique of "orientalism"), concentrating on one or two major authors for each perspective. For example, Ali Abd al-Raziq, whose 1924 book arguing for a separation of religion and politics caused an uproar in his native Egypt and earned him a rebuke from the chief clerics, is the prism through which Binder examines the secular approach to politics. Similarly, the work of Abdallah Laroui, a leading Moroccan intellectual, serves to illustrate the attempt to conceive of a liberal polity that incorporates and draws on the Islamic tradition.

But Binder does more. He ushers us into the debate that such writers and their work have engendered within the Arab world, allowing us to listen in on the dialogue of Middle Eastern thinkers not only with the West, but among themselves. He also enters into a dialogue with these thinkers himself, attempting to expose the philosophical underpinnings of their ideas, seeking out those elements in their thought that might further (and those that might impede) the emergence of a liberal politics. Binder is explicit about his own "prejudices": He is eager to see political liberalism—which he defines as embracing pluralism...


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pp. 117-120
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