By Adis Duderija
6 Sep 2016
The Muslim intellectual tradition is full of instances of contestation over the meaning and implications of many of its major concepts - such as Sunna, Salafism, Iman, Tawhid and jihad to name but the most prominent few.
Consequently, these and other major concepts in the Muslim intellectual tradition have been appropriated throughout Muslim history by various religious and/or political actors, with various degrees of success.
For many different reasons, certain groups or actors were able to monopolise some of these concepts and came to be regarded - or, indeed, simply to regard themselves - as their most faithful, if not the only legitimate, interpreters.
This history of contested interpretations is sometimes forgotten in the analysis of various aspects of contemporary Islam, including in the political sphere.
One such concept is that of Islamism (islamiyyun/islamiyyin) that emerged in the context of a modern, postcolonial nation-state in the Muslim majority world.
As it is commonly known, Islamism refers to political movements who oppose the authoritarian "secular" political establishments in the Middle East on the basis of some kind of "Islamisation" of society platform.
While some scholars such as John Esposito, Peter Mandaville and Andrew March have problematised the category of "political Islam" as homogenous, none, to my knowledge, have suggested that proponents of "liberal" approaches to Islam should themselves be labelled Islamists. I suspect this is because Islamism has become so firmly associated with conservative political Muslim movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that a terminological fusion of sorts took place, such that they have become conceptually synonymous.
This, in turn, has created further terminological difficulties when such movements have evolved in their political thinking and approach to Islam, and has sparked discussions on the phenomenon known as "post Islamism" - a term regularly applied to the Muslim Brotherhood itself in Egypt after the 1990s.
Another more recent development is the introduction of a new concept - namely that of Muslim democrats, as a substitute for "Islamist." The post-"Arab Spring" Tunisian An Nahda party is the prime example. Indeed, it was recently argued that the term "Islamism" is no longer applicable or was not suitable for this political party because of its commitment to democratic processes which warranted this new label.
One of the unfortunate consequences of acceding to or accepting such terminological changes is that this strengthens the idea that only the non-democratically minded political forms of Islam (in terms of their view of the theoretical compatibility of Islam and democracy, and not just in their largely utilitarian approach to electoral democracy, as in the case of Egypt's puritanical Islamists) are deserving of the label "Islamist."
It is imperative, I believe, that we destabilise and ultimately decouple this conceptual fusion between Islamism and conservative or puritanical expressions of political Islam, in light of the long history of contestation and appropriation of major concepts in the Islamic tradition, as well as the emergence of another distinct form of political Islam - namely, progressive Islam which has its own interpretation of Muslim intellectual history and Islamic hermeneutic.
As such, I would like to introduce a new conceptual category of progressive Islamism based on a progressive Muslim interpretation of Islam that has real political implications. Unlike the vast majority of conservative forms of Islamism, progressive Islamism is cosmopolitan in outlook, embraces constitutional democracy and contemporary ideas on human rights, gender equality and vibrant civil society.
Progressive Islamism is broadly associated with the work of Muslim scholars such as Abdulaziz Sachedina, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Hassan Hanafi, Nurcholish Majid, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Abdullahi An'Naim, Ahmad Moussalli, Hashim Kamali, Muqtader Khan and Nader Hashemi - their differences notwithstanding - to name but the most prominent few.
A progressive Islamist is someone who seriously and critically engages with the full spectrum of the Islamic tradition (turath) and considers that Islam is not just a matter of individual private belief, but that it has relevance in the political arena - but only in accordance with the principles outlined above.
In my view, this form of Islamism would offer some real solutions for Muslim majority countries which are still locked in the battle between authoritarian political regimes and conservative Islamists.
Given the ongoing importance of the "Islamic" in the lives of Muslims, and the essentially contested nature of many of the major concepts in the Islamic tradition, the neologism of a progressive Islamist would, in my view, go a long way toward problematising, destabilising and, hopefully, conceptually decoupling the concept of Islamism/Islamist - and, more generally, the concept of Islam itself - from conservative, puritanical expressions of political Islam.
Adis Duderija is Adjunct Lecturer and Research Associate in Islamic Studies the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. He was also a Senior Visiting Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Malaya between 2013 and 2016