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Reviews 28 July, 2013

A Return to the Questions: Azmi Bishara’s New Intellectual Project

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Mohammed Jamal Barout

Jamal Barout is an Associate Researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, where he also is the Head of the Research Department. Barout has contributed or authored exclusively a total of 30 published books. Barout’s research work is focused on questions of modern Arab thought and modernity; education and human development; development and demographics; foreign migration from Syria; and development forecasting studies. He has worked for a number of governmental and international agencies in Syria, including as an Advisor to a number of projects run by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Syria; the UN Population Fund; and the International Migration Organization. Barout was the main author of “Syria 2025”, published in 2007 and the main author of the National Reference Report on the State of the Syrian Population. In addition, Barout has held positions at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO) in Aleppo, where he was a Visiting Scholar from 2007 to 2010, and was a guest lecturer at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University in 2008 and was also a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Graduate Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.

Introduction

Religion and Religiosity forms part one of Azmi Bishara's new and comprehensive intellectual project, which encompasses a three part series under one common title: Religion and Secularism in Historical Context. Part two centers on theorizations of secularism and secularization, as well as the historical and intellectual background of their development. Part three focuses on the categorization and analysis of Ottoman and Arab models, particularly those that developed during the Ottoman Tanzimat and after, when the state system grew out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, Bishara's endeavor is intellectually comprehensive in terms of its premises, issues, and problematics, and places itself in the current moment of important change. Its significance, thus, can be found in the implicit relationship between ideas and major transformations. This intellectual project can be considered a continuation of Bishara's foundational project on the Arab nation, as expressed in his books Civil Society and The Arab Question.

Part one, Religion and Religiosity, therefore, represents the theoretical and analytical introduction to Bishara's wider project on religion and secularism in their historical contexts.[1] With the onset of modern ages, it would be impossible to understand secularism and secularization without understanding religiosity, with its composite nature and various dimensions, including, among others, its significant social and institutional role. Likewise, it is not presently possible to understand the continuation of the religious in its various manifestations or create new directions, visions, interpretations and systems, without having an understanding of secularism and secularization. Secularization, in this case, is considered a composite historical, socio-political process that challenges the theoretical or grounding systems in force. This allows one to talk of secularisms in the plural, not just of a single secularism. Thus, part one of the series centers on religion and religiosity while connecting to the issues of part two and three. The question is: is there a need for such a book in the context of a wider volume on religion and secularism in historical context?

Producing a new book on religion and religiosity, a field already saturated with research and the subject of major, wide-scale, and extensive debate within Western intellectual production, albeit to a relatively limited degree within Arab thought, can only be legitimized, intellectually and academically, provided there is a critical perspective on the material that has been accumulated. This accumulation may indeed be achieved, but its issues, problematics, and intellectual limits remain open to recurring examination. Perhaps the critical perspective that Bishara has chosen in dealing with this corpus allows him to consider part one as the "preface" of the project in the sense that it is a critique seeking to found a vision and avenues for understanding, analysis, and investigation. For this reason, the introduction is not restricted to a single chapter; rather, part one forms an introduction to the project as a whole. It is as though the author wishes to construct his project on foundations that he has rebuilt and reclaimed. This implies an ambition to lay the theoretical underpinnings of the study, such as the basis of Islamic jurisprudence, and to ground an epistemology, in the narrow sense of the fundamental principles of a discipline. The pure theoretician relies on the foundations they have formulated and from which they start, while the adherent to the school of thought works within the scope of the foundations.

This preface (or part one of the project) is formed out of this aspiration to re-ground the field, but without claiming to construct a philosophical theory. Because Bishara steps out a number of foundational concepts in this preface, it will not allow one to gauge just how productive of ideas it is until the project appears as a whole. Some of these concepts are: "...it is impossible to understand religiosity in our times without understanding secularism and secularization";[2] "there is a religiosity without belief, but there is no religion without religiosity";[3] "knowledge-based faith is different from mystical faith  ... religious experience is distinct from the experience of the sacred";[4] "religion is neither superstition nor widespread wrong ideas, and atheism is not a scientific theory";[5] and "faith is not susceptible to refutation".[6] Finally, he says, "the essence of the process of uncovering differences in thought and social spheres is the process of uncovering distinctions within religion itself and between religion and other phenomena. From this perspective, the process of differentiation begins with the separation of God and the world, which is then followed by mediation between them and their re-separation"[7] and "the distinction between secularism and secularization".[8]

Some of these concepts are present in critical thought; the concepts' sources, as well as the dynamic relationship between the concepts and their sources, could easily be identified to see what has been adopted and what has been reconstructed. What gives Bishara's concepts the character of a foundational effort, however, is the construction of a grounding perspective that sets up conceptual, theoretical, and analytical tools capable of producing ideas. The seriousness of his project is latent in this perspective. In fact, there is no original thinker who has not tried to lay a theoretical grounding, which is what distinguishes the intellectual from the academic in the classical sense of the term. This also means that the author approaches the process of philosophy, in that the attempt to construct a philosophy consists in laying foundations at the most advanced level. The fact that "laying the ground" was an aspiration of Bishara in this project is clearly seen in his  adoption of  the writing style of modern foundational philosophers, such as Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume, particularly when using the formula, "In that..." which places questions and issues in the dense linguistic context of rationalist philosophy.[9]

In its attempt to establish fundamental principles and lay foundations, and follow the critical school's method and new directions in anthropology, history, and sociology of religion, this preface re-examines many prevalent theoretical concepts in an attempt to construct interpretive and analytical tools that demonstrate a rethinking of the religious, outside of the traditionalist doctrinal perspectives that block efforts to delve into the question. Equally, the approach is outside the naive "scientistic" perspectives, with their theoretical, intellectual, and philosophical deductions inherited from materialist and dahrite[10] (in al-Afghani's terms) trends of the 19th century philosophy of progress. This philosophy critiqued religion as if it were critiquing a collection of superstitions and myths, without dealing with the intellectual structure of faith or the social phenomena in human societies, including those that had been responsible for major strides in the process of modernity and secularization.

The formulation of the issues in an effort to transcend these two perspectives, the "traditionalist" and the "scientistic," may have been influenced by the fact that both are present in Arab culture to a greater extent than in Western culture, which by means of critique has gone beyond, and continues to surpass, them, toward new horizons and perspectives. From the outset, this points to the strategic location of intellectuals in their culture and society as they enter into a major new process of social transformation that might be comparable to the two previous ones. The first period of great change came after the collapse of the Ottoman state, and led to independence and the building of the nation state. This was followed by the collapse of the young independent, or post-colonial, states and has led to the fracturing of the new regimes. Their implosion marks the entry to the current stage.

The link between Bishara's project and Arab societies' entry into what one may term the third major social transformation is that the indicators and manifestations of this stage have, by means of a newly present and influential theoretical and political force, reopened questions about the religious, the civil, the secular, the political, and the institutional system required for a new model of the state, as well as the social contract understood outside of the perspectives inherited from the first and second stages of transformation and from the prior preparatory stage during the Ottoman Tanzimat. Even so, in the preface, Bishara breaks with the everyday history of contestation prevalent in the current stage of transformation concerning the relationship between religion, state, and secularization to approach these issues on a deeper level, thereby laying the ground to produce ideas that can operate over the long-term history of ideas. For this reason, Bishara's political outlook in this book appears bounded by his essential outlook as an intellectual, though he is practicing politics within the modern concept of the intelligentsia, where the intellectual is neither an "expert" nor an "academic" guarding the status quo, but a critical intellectual deeply involved in the process of transformation. To use Mohammed Arkoun's metaphor, the intellectual is no longer the village doctor confined to his clinic, but the village doctor immersed in all the town's problems. This does not mean that this preface is divorced from the latent concern of the intelligentsia, which is the concern for change starting with the liberation of the "abused and humiliated" majority oppressed by authoritarian Arab regimes, but it is an introduction to what is to come in the following parts of the work, on a profound, rather than day-to-day, political level. 

 

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*This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.



[1] Azmi Bishara, Religion and Secularism in Historical Context, Part I: Religion and Religiosity (Beirut: ACRPS, 2013), p. 9.

[2] Ibid., p.405.

[3] Ibid., p.223.

[4] Ibid., p.19.

[5] Ibid., p. 245.

[6] Ibid., pp. 48-9.

[7] Ibid., p. 405.

[8] Ibid., p. 406.

[9] Ibid., p. 19.

[10] "The Dahrite system [...] does not acknowledge any Creator of the world." T.J. De Boer in The History of Philosophy in Islam, trans. Edward R. Jones, (New York, Dover publications, Inc.: 1967, p. 80). [editor's note]