In his book Religion and State, L. Carl Brown paints the picture of a changing Islam. An Islam that, having undergone two centuries of tremendous upheaval, no longer deserves—if ever it did—to be pigeonholed by what Brown declares to be an ignorant and biased media. According to Brown, Islam must be understood in its own modern context, and evaluated on its most recent developments. Not that Brown discounts the impact of tradition in the Islamic world: he spends the first seven chapters guiding the reader through a thorough history of post-Rashidun Islamic political thought and action. A considerable amount of attention is devoted to examining the effects of colonialist occupation on the Islamic population, and the advent of the Islamists, whose anti-colonialist roots are not overlooked. The book also deals fairly with the Shiah contribution to Islamic political history. Overall, Brown has crafted a comprehensive account of what the sources of political unrest in the Muslim world may be, while remaining hopeful of its progress forward. It seems that Brown also attempts to influence the reader toward the opinion that the Islamic political debate should center on its more moderate aspects.
In describing the distant history of the Islamic political landscape, the author posits that Islamic culture, regardless of where it exists, is inexorably linked to the Middle East. The author argues that the language of revelation, the sacred geography of the early Islamic community, and the importance given in Islam to following the example of its early religious figures, all play a central role in influencing Islamic culture in non-Middle Eastern countries (whose populations constitute a majority of the world’s Muslims). This influence, according to Brown, leads the West to confuse the true aspects of the Islamic faith with the “Middle Eastern cultural legacy.”
Compounding this problem of perception, Brown argues, is a tendency in the West to view Islam as wholly different—exotic even—encouraging a long-held belief in the West that Muslims are a primitive people; at the very least, difficult to understand. Brown claims that this perception of the Islamic world is preposterous, as Islam is a sister religion to Christianity and Judaism, the three having developed in the same immediate geographical area.
The author proposes that this bias against Islam in the West, especially by the media, is not so much due to differences in religious practice and orthodoxy, but rather to a long-standing tradition of religious enmity. The historical clashes between the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Empires, is, according to Brown, still being played out by those who have yet to reconcile their feelings toward the most recent—and most rapidly popular—of the three great monotheistic faiths.
Brown does an excellent job of correlating this tradition of misperception in the West with the advent of colonialism. Moving his commentary into modern Islamic political history, Brown illustrates how dramatically—and perhaps negatively—the colonialist occupation influenced Islamic political though and action. Perhaps the author’s most striking observation (and one that he contends still fuels Islamic disdain for the West today) is of the overwhelming embarrassment felt by the Islamic world upon being subjugated by the colonialists. At the time, Islamic civilization was well accustomed to its own success. The advent of colonialism, Brown writes, posed a novel, dual threat to the Islamic empire: the occupation of Muslim lands by an overwhelmingly superior military force, and the infusion of an advanced culture, at once attractive in its ideas and materiality, yet also dangerous and threatening to traditional Islamic principles.
The latter part of the book tracks the various movements that arose in opposition to colonialist rule, ending with the role that the legacy of these movements plays in the modern Islamic political arena. Brown shows how the liberal use of religious rhetoric by these movements necessarily linked the goal of independence from colonialist occupation with a revival of the Islamic faith, setting the stage for a confluence of agendas that still permeates Islamic political circumstance. More importantly, at least as far as the West is concerned, Brown theorizes that the religious message of these “Islamist” groups forever framed the conflict with the West as a religious one, fueling an inexhaustible supply of passion in Islamic populaces that continues to be exploited by traditionalists everywhere.
Majority opinion around the world would probably concur with Brown that Islam is misperceived in the West, and that Western opinion of the Islamic world should reflect the diversity of culture and ideas that are present in modern Islamic populaces. In his effort to support the movement of Islamic politics into the modern era, however, the author seems overly dismissive of a genuine, albeit controversial, religious revival that is occurring in many Islamic countries around the world. This revival, although often misguided by activists with questionable aims, represents the pride and soul of a great civilization. While Brown does not seem to support the wholesale adoption of Western innovations by the Islamic world, he might do well to give more credit to indigenous movements in Muslim countries that aim to balance Western cultural domination through the integration of modern innovations into a distinctly different, yet not alien, Islamic society.
Book: Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics
L. Carl Brown
Reviewer: George F. Howard