Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A panel on "Islamic State" at Boston University tomorrow (Apr 23rd)

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in a serious and reasonable discussion on the Islamic State or ISIS, then there is an opportunity for you at Boston University. BU's Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations is hosting a panel, Interdisciplinary Approaches to the "Islamic State". It looks fantastic and I'm planning on attending it. Here are the details:
This panel seeks to transcend the focus on political and strategic concerns that has often dominated the treatment of the rise of IS/ISIS/ISIL in the media and bring some critical nuance and historical context to the way this phenomenon is generally discussed. Four scholars from Boston University will present (Kecia Ali, Michael Pregill, Tom Barfield, and Noora Lori) and four scholars from other institutions in the Boston area will respond (Jessica Stern, Franck Salameh, Mia Bloom, and Ken Garden). 
This is the inaugural event associated with Mizan, the new digital scholarship initiative headed by Michael Pregill, Interlocutor of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations. We hope that those of you in the Boston area will be able to join us for what is sure to be an informative and stimulating conversation! 
When: Thursday, April 23, 2015 @ 4:00 to 6:30 PM 
Where: Pardee School of Global Studies, 121 Bay State Road, First Floor 
This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to smscinst@bu.edu
If you live in the Boston area, come to the panel.

One of the panelists is Kecia Ali. She has a nuanced and interesting take on both ISIS and its critics. Here is a short piece by her, ISIS and Authority, where she addresses Graeme Wood's now (in)famous Atlantic article What ISIS really wants:
Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes. 
Wood is right about some things and wrong about others. ISIS is laying claim to the tradition and the texts they cite are in what we may call the canon. Still, to quote approvingly and without clarification Haykel’s contention that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” seems quite a stretch. To be sure, it is not the job of religious studies scholars (or U. S. presidents) to judge which groups are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” Rather, we must understand how various actors make claims to represent, understand, or further their tradition. That does not mean there are no distinctions that can be made, no criteria by which to situate those religious claims in a historical and social framework. 
Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics. Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.” 
But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts, and these actors, are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they? 
These specious criticisms are nearly impossible to counter, even when those spouting them do not necessarily offer more nuanced or methodologically sophisticated answers. The simple appeal to widespread scholarly agreement leaves me unconvinced.
And here is her central point on tradition and authority:
The most troubling thing about the Atlantic article is the static definition of tradition that Wood uses. In his view, tradition is a body of texts. Legitimacy emerges from texts. Practices consonant with the texts – or that are interpreted as being so – are therefore “Islamic.” Muslims who say otherwise – as he admits the overwhelming majority do when confronted with ISIS – do not have much ground to stand on. But the rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea either. Too frequently, the weapon of “scholarly consensus” has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.
Read the full article here

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