In a moment of despair, Dick Howard regrets the inability of modern theory to provide a cogent account of, what he perceives as, the ‘world (dis)order that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989’, and wonders whether ‘this incapability (is) a sign of the impotence of Western political thought’. If so, he reasons in The Primacy of the Political, why not abandon the ideological moorings of this hallowed tradition and renounce its foundational premises altogether; why not seek guidance and enlightenment elsewhere rather than trusting ‘the West to the exclusion of the rest’? Indeed, ‘why reconstruct what should properly be deconstructed, if not destroyed once and for all?’ For this critic, it is beside the point whether political theory has now been replaced by political economy, or whether ‘the critical spirit of modernity’, as insisted by some must be contained by a conservative respect for the limits of human action’. The question that haunts him is: ‘Is the Western tradition of political thought deservedly dead? Was it built on the domination of others and even of nature itself?’ Whatever the merits of such self-doubt, or of the perplexity that even ‘if a modern theoretical discourse that was not permeated by the hubris of mastery was conceivable’, the issues of power and domination would always be paramount in any account of modernity. All appraisals of the West, indigenous or alien, must therefore focus on the moral landmarks of its historical project, the exploitation of (non-Western) man and the subjugation of (non-human) nature.
If this be deemed a legitimate line of inquiry in the West, which still possesses all the vestiges of political and intellectual authority, how come that the only worthwhile calling for a Muslim public intellectual is to be pretentiously deferential to the authority of the classical heritage and have no intellectual and moral encounter with the seminal thought of the last five centuries that, unfortunately for us, has arisen outside ‘the abode of Islam’. The dire outcome of the self-referential, self-authenticating public discourse of our times is that Muslim dialogue with history has almost ceased to exist. All that we have is a castigation of the incumbent political order and an intellectual and moral posturing that produces endless ressentiment but no viable ideas. Our putatively Islamic thought is nothing more than a reiteration of its foundational principles. Unfortunately, triumphalist racist ideologies, which now have a vociferous presence in academia, also perpetuate the myth of ‘the Islamic specificity’, an ontological propensity for fanaticism, violence and inhumanity. None of this is conducive to the promotion of a mutually enlightening conversation across civilisational boundaries or helpful in the pursuit of an interdisciplinary vision of the human reality.
Works Discussed in the Review
María Pía Lara, The Disclosure of Politics, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013.
Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011.
Panu Minkkinen, Sovereignty, Knowledge, Law, Routledge, New York, 2011.
Randi Rashkover and Martin Kavka (eds), Judaism, Liberalism and Political Theology, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2014.
Graham Hamill and Julia Reinhard Lupton (eds), Political Theology and Early Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.
Dick Howard, The Primacy of the Political, Columbia University Press, New York, 2010.
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.
Ernst Kontorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1957.
Walter Ullman, The Carolingian Renaissance and the Idea of Kingship, Routledge, London, 1969
Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1993.
Erik Petersen, Theological Tractates, Stanford University Press, Redford City, CA, 2011.
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, Polity Press, Oxford, 2008.
Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, MIT Press, Boston, 2000 (reprint).
The academy, however, it appears, is not willing to underwrite ‘the clash of civilisations’ thesis as the basis of postmodern politics, as it cannot sustain the capitalist utopia of a single globalised market. Political economy is not market economy (the state controlling the market vs. the market running the state), and instead of a pluralist order of territorial states kept in check by the deterrent of power/terror and legally consolidated by the claims of sovereignty, the market demands a single, interdependent and interconnected, network of global powers and hierarchies, the empire. Not surprisingly, the academy that once relished erecting disciplinary walls and protective enclosures around ‘primitive cultures’ and ‘pagan religions’, that insulated the West from the Orient and the ‘civilised’ from the ‘barbarians’, that posited a moral, political and technical divide between tradition and modernity, is in search of a new master theory that both comprehends the globalised order of our day and makes it more palatable. Modernity, it is argued, is no longer solid and heavy but liquid and light. And so, we may add, are the discourses of power and knowledge. Islam and West are neither two incompatible, transcendence-affirming vs. transcendence-denying metaphysical worldviews, nor two clashing civilisations, religious vs. secular, but partake of a single human reality whose moral unity cannot be ruptured by the triumphalist ideologies of power and salvation. Any judicious reading of the manifestly disparate texts presented here would suggest that contemporary political thought, secular as well as Islamist, presented as postmodern theory or medieval history, does not deserve to be confined to two separate mental worlds. Reading these works in conjunction not only opens fresh vistas but also affords an opportunity for the discovery of an ‘Islamic option’ in the intellectual currents of our time. The life of the mind knows of no logical or ideological apartheid.