The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East

In The Culture War Over Islam Continues, Daniel Philpott suggests that the interpretive frameworks through which the Orlando tragedy has been read in the US represent a polarization between two reified positions: the “hawk position” which demonizes Muslims and the “dove position” which negates any association between Mateen’s professed religious affiliation and the underlying structural drivers of conflict at work. Scholars of the Middle East — who have long been committed to exposing and fighting orientalism as a feature of Western interpretive frameworks for Islam (religion), Islamism (as a political ideology), and Muslims (as followers) — have eloquently exposed reductionisms, essentialisms, and bias in the American discourses on the Orlando crisis. These discourses are critically important to counterbalance the hawks’ discourses, some of which have perpetuated discourses of xenophobia and fear mongering.

There are multiple dangers involved, however, if scholarly contestations by Middle East academics fighting orientalism spatially (in the West) and temporally (specific to the phase following Orlando) are exported to the Middle East. In many regions, while there are multiple struggles for political, economic, and social justice, there is also a struggle against deep structures that seek to circumscribe spaces for multivocality and inclusivity. Discourses that condemn all critiques of Islamist political forces as Islamophobic can lead to a muting of the voices of activists locally such as Islam el Behery who, as a Muslim scholar, sought to expose certain teachings by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious teaching, that encroach on freedoms. Al Azhar filed a blasphemy lawsuit against him, and he ended up with a five-year prison sentence. Other than responses by some secular Muslim scholars and activists in Egypt, Behery’s case generated very little solidarity from around the world.

Dove-like discourses in the US have repeatedly reminded audiences that those who affiliate themselves with ISIS are not Muslims. Fine, but caution is needed when this discourse travels to the Middle East, where there is a struggle by reformers to make institutions such as Al Azhar take a categorical stance against movements such as ISIS. So far, Al Azhar has refused to declare ISIS as apostates even though some of its scholars have no qualms defining the country’s non-Muslims in those terms. It won’t make much of a difference for ISIS whether it lies in the “in” or “out” box set by Al Azhar’s demarcation, but the significance of such a demarcation lies in the message it sends to Muslims worldwide. When ISIS is seen simply as part of an unruly crowd on the margins of the Muslim community (khawaraj), this is dramatically different than when they are seen as outside of Islam altogether. There has been a struggle to press Al Azhar to take a stance against those who kill in the name of Islam. In other words, whereas the struggle in a post-Orlando US is to challenge those that claim allegiance to ISIS as followers of Islam, the struggle in other parts of the world is for Muslim scholars to get Islamic political forces and institutions to represent radical movements as anathema to Islam. This points to the importance of not only recognizing locally situated discourses and interpretive frameworks, but also being aware of the potential dangers of exporting the language, framing, and standpoint used in one context (such as that of Orlando) to one radically different in the Middle East.

About the author

Mariz Tadros

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