International New York Times’ Problematic Definitions of ‘Islam’ and ‘Modern’

The International New York Times (September 24, 2015)

Headline Reads: Islam’s Tragic Fatalism

In a opinion piece on Thursday, author Mustafa Akyol argues that ‘fatalism’ – arguing that a disaster was ‘God’s Will’ serves as a cover for inadequate safety measures too often. Akyol incorrectly characterises the problem as a ‘global Muslim problem’. Rather than lay the blame at the door of elites, Akyol crudely blames all Muslims. In this, he homogenises Islam, and this contributes to Western misunderstanding about the religion – and indeed, the region.

There also seems an assumption that being ‘modern’ and being ‘secular’ are one and the same in Akyol’s writing. He argues that ‘even in Turkey, which is more modern and secular than Saudi Arabia’, the problem of fatalism exists. This off-hand remark runs roughshod over articulations coming from within the region of a Muslim modernity. In short, one can be both ‘modern’ and ‘religious’, and Akyol’s writing presupposes the opposite.

Moreover, Akyol argues that ‘Muslims live within cultural codes largely defined’ by Hanbali ‘dogmatists’. In so doing, he seems to deny ordinary Muslims to ability to forge their own Islam. Perhaps more importantly, his argument has the subcontext  that there is something inherently ‘Islamic’ involved in elite corruption. Given that such arguments are not made about corrupt elites elsewhere in the world, it is misplaced to look back to early Islamic theology to explain fatalism today.

Akyol’s piece homogenises Islam and then demonises it. Neither are useful for critical debate over the role of religion in politics.

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