Sunday, May 10, 2009

Al-Afghani's response to imperialism

In an era in which the topic of Islam and associated political movements are subject to unprecedented scrutiny, with as many books, monographs, articles and polemics on the subject as there was on communism following the Russian revolution, it is striking what is omitted. The accent of most research and exposition is on those ideas that are held to have contributed to the 'Al Qaeda' brand, with Sayyid Qutb usually cited as the doyen: 'the philosopher of terror', as Paul Berman branded him. (This in an unimaginative article which apparently arose from an afternoon's tour of New York's Islamic bookshops, and in which Berman distinguishes himself by referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a 'border dispute'). It is unfortunate that this interesting but thoroughly excavated seam continues to be mined at the expense of other backgrounds and contexts, but then it has to be this way: an appropriate moral framework for the 'war on terror' cannot begin with colonial oppression and anti-colonial revolt. Among the figures I would wish for more discussion of would be Abd-el-Krim, Mir Said Sultan-Galiev (Mirsäyet Soltanğäliev) and Jamāl-al-dīn Asadābādī "al-Afghani". Krim, as regular readers know, is the old Rifian anticolonial rebel who inspired Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara (recent correspondence has brought my attention to material that suggests he had contact with both), and who had offered his services to the Spanish Republic during the civil war. Galiev, a far more neglected figure and every bit as interesting, is the Tatar communist whose thought on Muslim National Communism was in many ways a precursor to what would become known as 'Third Worldism', and whose attempts to synthesise Islam, nationalism and communism met with Stalin's disapproval. (See Maxime Rodinson's appraisal here.) Sadly, there's not much literature available about Galiev in English beyond an inaccuracy-laden book - which at least contains some translated writings - by Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World.

Al-Afghani has had a mountainous reputation in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Iran. He was once a bit more prominently discussed in Anglophone writing about Political Islam, both because of his influence on conservative revivalist strains of Islamist thinking via Rashid Rida, and because he was seen as an example of a sophisticated Islamic reformer with liberal sensibilities. Albert Hourani's classic Arabic thought in the liberal age: 1798-1939 dealt at some length with the mysterious anti-imperialist. Nikki Keddie's now out-of-print work, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din "al-Afghani", is one of the few English language sources that contains a selection of his writings. And to give you an idea what that means, the book was first published in 1968 (it was reprinted during the Khomeini era). Though al-Afghani is generally referenced in books on 'Political Islam', the treatment is usually tentative and unenlightening. Perhaps this is because his legacy is a difficult one to assess. As Keddie points out, a certain amount of dissimulation was part of his persona. The very name "al-Afghani" results from his claim to have been born and raised an Afghan Sunni (it is no longer a controversial matter that he was an Iranian Shi'ite). In fact, while in Afghanistan, he professed to be a Turk. While in Turkey, he claimed he was Afghan. And the British thought he was a Russian agent, becxause of his attempt to persuade the Amir to side with Russia against the British Empire.

Though he was in some ways the first Pan-Islamist, there has always been some controversy over what he really believed. While some of his writing is concerned with refuting materialism, his 'Answer to Renan', written in 1883, indicates profound scepticism about religion, and he had earlier incurred the Ottomans' wrath for heretical speechifying. His vocal orthodoxy seems incongruent with the heterodox sources of his thinking. His modernism is curiously commingled with an idealized appreciation of the early years of Islam, the age of the Prophet and the first four caliphs. As a religious reformer and a defender of science and rationalism, he was also a vocal defender of traditionalism and orthodoxy, especially in his later years during which he shed his reputation as an apostate. Keddie, who treats al-Afghani's thought as a kind of proto-nationalism (see 'Pan-Islamism as Proto-Nationalism', The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 41, No. 1 March, 1969), resolves this by suggesting that al-Afghani evinced religious orthodoxy and traditionalism only when he was addressing the masses, whom he distrusted yet wanted to unite. The project of unity inhibited the project of reform. For, though al-Afghani wished to reform Islam in order to help meet the challenge of imperialism, he could offer no consistent programme without alienating a conservative constituency whom he needed to win over. His arguments against a certain kind of materialism, Keddie maintains, emphasised the practical virtues of religion, and were probably intended to bolster the cohesion of Islam vis-a-vis the West. Such a treatment, if decidedly vexatious for both his conservative and liberal admirers, seems to be consistent with al-Afghani's career.

One aspect of his life that there is no mystery about, however, is his hatred for imperialism, and particularly for the British. He opposed the British in India, in Ireland, and in Egypt. He participated in the Urabist revolt, although his role has been grossly exaggerated by his admirers. And it was his response to imperialism, particularly during his eight years in Egypt, that defined him. Here, the Indian background is essential for three reasons. First, it was in his contacts with Indian Muslims that he first became apprised of the discrimination they faced under British rule. Secondly, because it was in this context that he was immersed in an emerging pan-Islamist sentiment that British imperialism was arousing across south Asia. Thirdly, it was during his stay in India in the early 1880s that he noticed that those most explicitly embracing 'Westernisation' (an anachronistic term, but I don't know of a better substitute) were also the worst collaborators. His attacks on 'materialism' were really directed at the comprador followers of Sayyid Ahmad Khan. It shouldn't be assumed that Afghani was in some sense a supporter of 'communalism'. His Indian articles defended nationalism, and unity between Hindus and Muslims. This is not strictly congruent with his Pan-Islamism, but then Afghani was nothing if not inconsistent, and his modus operandi was to tailor what might seem to be abstract polemics over Islam, philosophy, the socio-linguistic basis of nationalism, etc., to whatever was best suited to the local situation, or to whatever would most advance the struggle against imperialism. Just as he mobilised Egypt's era of pre-Islamic greatness, so he appealed to a proud Hindu past when addressing Indian Hindus. Equally, when arguing with the Orientalist writer Ernest Renan, he mobilised his grounding in liberal rationalism, and his immense philosophical knowledge, and explicated an evolutionist view of religion that he would in obscure in other contexts.

Is it just an irony of history that a religious progressive should have inspired Rashid Rida and, later, Hassan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood? I don't think so. Their dilemma was much the same as his, even if they were devout where he was an occult atheist. They shared his hatred of the British, who had exploited Egypt ferociously before grinding its revolts with an iron fist. They agreed with him that a renewed Caliphate was the best defence of the Muslim world against colonial incursions. And they shared the elitist thrust of his thinking. Afghani's legacy is summed up by Keddie as a kind of proto-nationalism. This implies a natural progression in which religious identifications generally proceed toward national ones, but such a progression can no longer be relied upon. I would simply describe Afghani as a conservative anti-colonial nationalist. I have quoted Partha Chatterjee here before, but these quotes seem apt again:

'Nationalist thought is “born out of the encounter of a patriotic consciousness with the framework of knowledge imposted on it by colonialism. It leads inevitably to an elitism of the intelligentsia, rooted in a vision of radical regeneration of national culture”. This elite either pursues ‘modernisation’ through a period of tutelage until such time as its institutions and social bases allow for independence; or it takes a more uncompromising position against colonialism, and accentuates what is different, unique, non-Western – this movement is often behind chauvinist or fundamentalist cultural currents. For this elite to stand any chance against the colonists, it has to mobilise the peasantry (in an agrarian economy) – and since it does not intend to revolutionise their social conditions, it must appropriate their power and their consent.' (See Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought in the Colonial World, 1986)

'Indeed, both of these tendencies in the bourgeois-national elite are caught between on the one hand the desire to replicate the material modes of organisation that has made the West so effective, and on the other the desire to reinforce the national spiritual identity. Materially, the West has better means and methods; spiritually, the East is superior. In this, the justification resides for the selective appropriation of Western "modernity".' (Chatterjee quoted in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 1999)