- Polyvalent Islam in the Public Square
Is there a coherent narrative about Islam and Muslims at the end of the first decade of the 21st century? On the evidence of recent books addressing the topic, the answer would have to be an emphatic and unequivocal NO. The greatest challenge is to sort out relevant themes. In what follows I argue that there are three such themes. Two engage [End Page 133] Islam as an isolate, whether analyzing it in relation to local and global politics (Bernard Lewis and Graham Fuller); or foregrounding the search for Muslim exemplars, be they soldiers for pluralism and peace (Omid Safi and Tariq Ramadan) or heroes from the past (Ali Allawi and S.H. Nasr). A third theme perceives religion itself to be a pivotal player in cultural politics; Islam is not the sole player but rather a major contestant, along with Christianity and other proselytizing religions, in the global sweepstakes to determine the "winner." At the national level, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri and Akbar Ahmed espy the playing fields of North America, specifically the United States, while Ruth Marshall offers the test case of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. Equally important is the transnational dimension of this same ongoing contest for souls, which is provided by Eliza Griswold, as she crisscrosses the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.
The books selected are representative, not exhaustive, of the spate of publications recently published on Islam, Muslims, and religious contact or combat. Only one of the books has the Middle East as its principal focus (Bernard Lewis), while another does not even address Islam directly (Ruth Marshall). Yet all endeavor to project Islam qua religion into the public square as the single, salient factor that will continue to shape or disrupt global comity in the 21st century.
It would be impossible to survey the current state of media fixation on Islam without looking at the distinctive role of Bernard Lewis, who is renowned for his artful way of making a double interpretive move. First, as an historian, he claims to speak about the entire Muslim past, and then, as an avowed Zionist, he argues that the Arab-Israeli struggle is at the heart of all Muslim politics, not just in the Middle East but also in the Far East (Indonesia) and the Far West (America).
Both claims could be and have been challenged. Yet Lewis, now a nonagenarian, soldiers on, convinced not only of the rightness of his cause but also of his own persuasive power to deliver the same message again, and again, and again. Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East contains nothing new. In this case we have 13 essays culled from the last two decades. They were given in various forums; most of them are reprinted here without alteration. Lewis provides a...