The politics of presence

By: Asef Bayat

2015-Muslim Youth and Its Politics” with Prof. Asef BayatCongruence between Islam and democracy is not simply a philosophical issue, but a political one. It is a matter of struggle. The pertinent question is not whether Islam and democracy are compatible, but rather how and under what conditions Muslims can make their religion compatible with desired notions of democracy; how they can legitimize and popularize and inclusive reading of their doctrine in the same way democrats have been struggling to broaden narrow (white, male, propertied, and merely liberal) notions of democracy.
Drawing on the experience in Iran and Egypt, one can see in detail how and under what conditions Muslim social forces may, or may not, be able to get Islam to embrace a democratic ethos.
In the aftermath of a revolution in which they had participated massively, Iranian women faced an authoritarian Islamic regime that imposed forced veiling, gender segregation, and widespread surveillance and revoked the pre-Revolutionary laws that favored women. Women responded by deploying their “power of presence” in the public sphere and through deliberate campaigns articulated largely in religious idioms. By their daily resistance and struggles, women conveyed a reading of Islam that promoted gender equality and egalitarian ethics, denouncing the Islamization of the state that interfered in private lives. Piety was to be a choice rather than an obligation. In contrast, Egyptian middle-class and well-to-do women followed a new conservative religiosity, or active piety, which accompanied widespread veiling, indifference to gender hierarchy, and values that reinforced patricarchal relations.
Facing similar social control, the young in Iran took up parallel social and political aspirations. In fact young people in both countries tended to reimagine Islam in ways that suited their youthful sensibilities. With the state as the target of their struggle, Iranian youths engendered one of the most remarkable youth movements in the Muslim world. The struggle to reclaim youthfulness melded with the effort to attain democratic ideals. In contrast, Egyptian youth, operating under the constraints of “passive revolution”, opted for the strategy of “accommodating innovation”, attempting to lodge their youthful claims within the existing conditions. In the process, they redefined dominant norms and institutions, merged divine and diversion, and aopted more inclusive religious mores. Yet this subculture took shape within, not against or outside, the existing regime of moral and political power.
The post-Islamist intellectuals in Iran went beyond systematically enunciating what Muslim youths and women voiced in daily life. They transcended revolutionary and nationalist ideologies, consciously embraced modernity, pluralism, and human rights, while also cherishing faith and spirituality. Their “postcolonial” position in rejecting the dichotomy of a “national” self versus the “Western” other further distanced them from Egypt´s intellectual class, who were imbued with nationalism and moral politics. Engulfed by the pervasive “Islamic mode”, the Egyptian intelligentsia converged with the major actors in society to share the language of nativism and conservative moral ethos. Only the urban poor exhibited a remarkably similar politics in the two countries; they tended to practice their folk religion and pursue pragmatic relations with both Islamist and post-Islamist movements.
Rather than reducing the explanation to differences in Sunni and Shiá doctrines or in political cultures, the logic should be to sought in the consequences of “revolution” versus “social movement” – the fact that Iran experienced an Islamic revolution without an Islamic movement, while Egypt developed an Islamist movement without a revolution.

from: Asef Bayat: Making Islam Democratic. Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford University Press, Stanford 2007

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