Creating a Constituency for Secularism: Questions for Lama Abu-Odeh

Source: The Century Foundation

Author(s): Lama Abu-Odeh

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Thanassis Cambanis: There’s a trend that’s really taken hold in analyses of Middle Eastern politics and culture, exemplified by the writers Talal Asad and the late Saba Mahmood, which holds that the only way to critically investigate Islamism is on Islamism’s terms. One reason this approach is attractive is because for so long the West dismissed indigenous perspectives from the Middle East. But the Asad–Mahmood position has arguably stifled debate in a very harmful way, because of the way that it polices and silences anyone from the region who criticizes Islamists. Critics are branded “native informants” or “imperial lackeys,” and are expelled from the public square. We’re eager to hear you pull this dilemma apart, as you did in your wonderful review of Mahmood’s book a couple of years ago.1 Can you explain your argument to us?

Lama Abu-Odeh: Sure. The project of the Asad–Mahmood camp is really part of a larger academic event that has happened over the past two decades, which is the Islamization of knowledge about our region. The idea is that the way to understand our region is through an Islamic lens. It argues that we must analyze the big event that has happened over the past one hundred years in the Arab world as a form of secularization carried out by the state and a Westernization of knowledge. They interpret the Islamic revival movement that started in the mid-1970s as trying to fix that. It’s an approach that’s very sympathetic to the Islamic revival. And of course, I’m very critical of that approach, primarily because I am a feminist. I think that the Islamic revival movement has had a terrible impact on women, and it’s basically given social conservatism an ideologically Islamic twist. It’s taking a socially conservative society and making it more so.

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