Awakening Islam Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia
Stephane Lacroix Awakening Islam Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 2011, £22.95
ISBN: 978-0-674-04964-2, 328 pages, 1 map
The surge in Arab revolutions since January 2011 has surprised many scholars and policy makers for one reason. The revolt is not currently orchestrated by the much studied Islamists. Since the 1970s, Western academics preferred to see the Arab world through the prism of Islam, which has become the constant variable that explained everything- stagnation, resistance to democracy, oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and recently terrorism. The majority of academics ignored a limited number of texts written by nuanced scholars who argued that we must go beyond Islam to understand the many social, political and economic problems of the region. Yet Western obsession with security after 9/11 and so-called Islamic radicalism meant that the academe had to follow suit and privilege the study of Islamists- many are seen as terrorists in the making. Privileging Islam as the only explanatory factor allowed policy makers in the West and the Arab world to avoid facing unpleasant realities such as demographic explosions, unemployment, poverty, corruption, authoritarian rule and abuse of human rights.The recent fall of authoritarian Arab regimes in Tunisia and Egypt at the hands of young and frustrated population proved that Islam alone can never and will never explain the Arab world. Yet the metanarrative persists.
Stephane Lacroix’s book is a product of the opening of the Saudi research field to French scholars in the aftermath of 9/11. After decades of so-called “Saudi Studies” being monopolised by Anglo-Saxon scholars, French academic institutions saw a window of opportunity at a fleeting moment of worsening Saudi-American relations. Institutional bridges were built between one of the most prestigious French political science Institutes and King Faisal Foundation, whose director, Prince Turki al-Faisal was key figure in Saudi Intelligence services. The result was the publication of several books on Saudi Arabia, including the one under review.
Awakening Islam focuses on the failure of Saudi political Islam and the fragmentation of its religious field, thus echoing the argument of Oliver Roy and many other observers. Building on previous research, Stephane Lacroix offers a detailed and elaborate description of the main Saudi contestants. He links Saudi Islamism to the exiled Arab Muslim brotherhood cadres who in the 1960s were welcomed in Saudi Arabia. The result in his opinion is a fusion with local Saudi Salafi discourse, creating in the process what is commonly known as al-Sahwa al-Isalmiyya, the Islamic awakening. This fusion had a solid institutional base in Saudi schools and colleges of religious higher education.
The Islamic awakening was not monolithic. It evolved, mutated, and fragmented into mainstream and splinter groups, all claiming to be heirs to an unprecedented Islamic renaissance. Although Lacroix acknowledges that Saudi Islamists were not simply blind followers of Arab Islamists, he does not give sufficient consideration to this statement, which became an excuse official Saudi figures propagated in order to absolve their own indigenous Islamists from any wrong doing after 9/11. Lacroix does seem to endorse this official view although he acknowledges its limitations.
Explaining why the religious field fragmented and resulted in a thwarted Islamic awakening, Lacroix does not give sufficient attention to state oppression as a determining factor. Instead, he argues that the state encourages ‘sectorisation’, a strategy of fragmenting intellectual and religious communities.
Lacroix is good at explaining the outcomes of the awakening failure. In his view, an Islamo-liberal trend that is more in tune with global discourse on democracy and human rights from an Islamic perspective emerged in the late 1990s. Furthermore, resorting to spectacular violence, a violent Jihadi group made its presence felt.
The book invokes the contested notion of post-Islamism, a phase that scholars like Asef Bayat and others believe is reached in several Muslim countries. It refers to the proliferation of the discourse of human and civil rights within Islam after a long time of emphasising duties. In Saudi Arabia, Islamists are constantly defining and redefining themselves. Some may have moved towards post-Islamism.
But the mistake is to see Islamism through the sole prism of success or failure. It is an evolving project that mutates. One of the main shortcomings prevalent in research on it is privileging text over context. Not many scholars take a grass-root approach that highlight class, urbanisation, education, and other factors that contribute to its strengthening, weakening or total failure.
The book is a product of serious scholarly interpretive and linguistic skills. It should appeal to specialists, although novices may find it difficult to read.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is Professor of Social Anthropology at King’s College, London and author of a History of Saudi Arabia and editor of Kingdom without Border and Dying for Faith.
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