Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe

John L. Esposito and François Burgat, eds., Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003. 304 pages.

As the political climate between many western and Muslim nations continues to intensify, the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” has reemerged in our news media, governments, and academic institutions. Muslims and non-Muslims, with varying political agendas, insist that Islam is inherently incompatible with modernity, democracy, and the West. Yet the contributors to Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe demonstrate otherwise as they examine the (re)Islamization of Europe and the Middle East and reveal the ways in which “Islamic political activism” (p. 3), or Islamism, promotes modernization.

In the first of three sections, “Issues and Trends in Global Re-Islamization,” François Burgat describes how the progressive components of Islamization get hidden under a myriad of misconceptions. The term Islamist, he asserts, often serves to essentialize Muslim political activists by depicting them as a homogenous group comprised of Islamic militants. The use of this term also “tends to strengthen the idea that Islamists are the only ones using … religion for political purposes” (p. 28), though clearly other individuals, institutions, and religious organizations use religion for political ends as well. Due to the essentialized and reductionist uses of the term, the real characteristics of Islamism as a “relative, plural, and reactive” phenomenon are rarely recognized (p. 18). These obscuring lenses blur the image(s) of Islam even more in a country like France, where issues related to religion are often relegated to the “irrational.” In such contexts, Islamist movements are constantly invalidated, though the activists’ reasons for opposition may well be rooted in legitimate political, economic, and social factors.

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