SOAS University of London

October - November Issue of The Middle East in London out now

30 September 2017
Middle East in London Cover October - November 2017

Recent times have witnessed the increasing role of religion as a political force in many parts of the world. It is now widely believed that the rise of various forms of Islamism worldwide, the New Christian Right in the USA and the BJP in India are all symptoms of a ‘post-secular’ age.

The chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State are also seen by some as particularly acute symptoms of the crisis of the secular state in the ‘Muslim World’. These developments in particular have revived ideas of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’, especially the view that Islam and secular liberal democracy are incompatible. Likewise, in the West the question of religion-state settlements, something thought to have been resolved centuries ago, has been posed anew especially in connection with Muslim minorities. This has been a particularly contested issue with relation to sharia and to what extent it should be accommodated by national legal systems in Europe and the United States.

Increasingly, the conventional understanding of ‘secularism’ as fostering pluralism and religious freedom is being questioned, and it is argued that some forms of secularism have not been as neutral as they purport to be and have discriminated against religious minorities rather than encouraging pluralism and equality (for example the debates surrounding laicité in France). This has led to attempts to rethink secularism in more pluralistic and democratic forms.

In Insight in this issue Sami Zubaida discusses the nature of ‘fundamentalism’ and argues that it should be understood as a reaction against the outcomes of cultural and institutional secularisation. Hadi Enayat outlines the basis of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ and the ways in which it has been challenged or reaffirmed in light of recent events. Philip Wood discusses certain practices in the Abbasid Caliphate that might be considered ‘secular’ by today’s standards. Sevgi Adak writes on the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) in Turkey and the expansion of the religious sphere during the AKP era. Corinna Mullin explains why the political turbulence following Tunisia’s first election post-revolution cannot be attributed to a simple clash between the country’s secular past and its Islamising present. Simon Perfect analyses how leading contemporary figures in the UK have attempted to address the competing demands of faith and party, citing the resignation of Tim Farron to show how toxic religion can be for the ambitious politician. Meanwhile, Sham Qayyum reminds us that the very term ‘religion’ is often a crude shorthand for the interplay of faith, praxis and culture.

Finally, this issue includes our usual brief review of recently published books as well as more in-depth reviews of Hadi Enayat’s monograph Islam and Secularism in Post-colonial Thought, Rana Abdulfattah's Tiger and Clay: Syrian Fragments and Reza Zia-Ebrahimi’s The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation.

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