Though it was originally published before the iconic events of 9/11, now more than a decade ago, S. Sayyid’s A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (1997) has assumed even more timely significance since its first appearance. In this pioneering book, Sayyid provocatively suggests, and one can still see the logic of his proposition, that we must see political Islamism as a particular phase of decolonization of Muslim political cultures. Sayyid took the rise of Islamism as a challenge to ‘Western’ political hegemony, and particularly its self-congratulatory declaration of the End of History. That proposition still demands attention.
When exactly was the moment of ‘the rise’ of political Islamism? The Iranian revolution of 1979; or before it, back in the 1920s when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood; or even before then, during the Tobacco Revolt in Iran in 1890, when a clerical fatwa triggered a major anti-colonial movement; or perhaps even earlier than that, when Jamal al-Din al-Afghani commenced a massive pan-Islamist movement in the 1860s; or perhaps in the 1850s, when the Babi movement shook the Qajar foundation to its roots? Or is it after all of these: in the 1980s, when the Taliban appeared in Afghanistan; or the 1990s, when Hezbollah and Hamas entered the political map of the Arab world in earnest; or was it after September 11, 2001 perhaps; or even later when the Muslim Brotherhood completely took over the Egyptian revolution of January 2011? All of these dates and events (and others) can be used to mark a particular phase of Islamism in one direction or another, some of them indeed as marking the decolonization of the Muslim mind, others in fact its opposite. Sayyid was spot on (as the British say) in noting that we had to see political Islamism as an integral part of decolonization. But there is a period of gestation right before that decolonization, which is actually the mark of a deeply colonized Muslim mind that defined its identity in terms decided by its colonizers. This much was known and understood from Albert Memmi to Ashis Nandy.
In his seminal book, Sayyid suggests that Muslims were now after offering a master signifier to counter and balance the one offered by ‘the West’. He also takes issue with those critical thinkers who had begun to speak of multiple Islams by way of opposing the Orientalist manufacturing of an essentialized Islam. By the time we read Sayyid’s take on postmodernism and post-structuralism, we know that he is after something more critical than just a reading of political Islam, namely, the modes of knowledge production about Islam. Those modes and moments of knowledge production about Islam, we can all concur, were contingent on two critical factors: (1) who was producing that knowledge and by what authority and purpose, and (2) what regional or global event, or set of events, had occasioned this new phase of knowledge production about Islam.
A decade and a half into Sayyid’s argument, this point in particular remains steadily critical – with a crucial twist. Since the publication of my Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2006), I have been arguing that the fictive delusion of ‘the West’ is no longer a valid or legitimate interlocutor for the post-colonial world. We (people hitherto at the mercy of this delusional phantasm of power and domination that calls itself ‘the West’) are no longer talking to ‘the West’. We have finally come to realize it for what it is: a mirage. It does not exist.
Upon this recognition, then, the world at large does not corroborate the work of Orientalists by producing a militant Islamism that reverses the angle on the selfsame object of curiosity. The particular intellectual developments trying to grapple with the end of modernity, or the crisis of the subject, are almost exclusively a European preoccupation (philosophical or moral), with little or no consequence to the rest of the world, unless and until the fact and phenomenon of coloniality and the passage through that epistemic challenge becomes the primary focal point of our dismantling the myth of ‘the West’.
A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism marked a critical stage in that transformative period. Eurocentrism is no longer an irksome reality. It has become positively blasé. Of course Europeans are eurocentric. Why should they not be? They asked Molla Nasreddin where the centre of the universe was, and he said where he had nailed his donkey on the ground. The same is with eurocentrism. The question is no longer why are Europeans eurocentric, but why should anyone care? That euro- at the commencement of eurocentrism has, in fact, imploded; it is so deeply troubled and anxiogenic that it can no longer function as a colonial catalyst of thinking for any other regime of knowledge.
Sayyid was right when he traced the origin of Islamism to eurocentrism, though the origin of that binary could be traced back to a much earlier period than the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini – to the intellectual forebears of Khomeini like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani or even Sheykh Ahmad Naraqi, who had originally formulated the notion of Velayat-e Faqih. But Sayyid had identified something else: the politics of identity, which has become particularly poignant for Muslim émigrés to Europe and the US, where in the face of rabid Islamophobia that particular politics of identity has become even more acerbic. There are an increasing (however limited) number of disenfranchised Muslim youths in Europe who are attracted to the murderous adventurism of ISIL, which seems to them to be the only way to combat the racist Islamophobia – from mass murderer Anders Breivik to the so-called new atheists like Bill Maher and Sam Harris – that engulfs Europe and the US. That politics of identity is today definitive to the European Union, or its spectre, to the degree that this ‘Europe’ only recognizes itself in so far as it can imagine its alterity in the bearded face or scarfed head of a Muslim person.
Sayyid correctly diagnosed the fact that the rise of Islamism was the end of the myth of ‘the West is the best’. But the same challenge had in fact corroborated the myth of ‘the West’ itself. In the aftermath of world-historic events in the Arab and Muslim world, marked by the Arab Spring and the Green Movement in Iran, the very relevance and authenticity of that delusion is now depleted.
Books like A Fundamental Fear are registers of where we are and how far or how little we have moved towards a geography of liberation that has left the self-centring focal point of ‘the West’ and the eurocentrism it entails behind and allowed them to become the local and nativist mythologies that the incoming anthropologists of a new worldliness might consider worthy of their ‘fieldwork’. Until then, every book that is written about ‘Islam’ is also a book about its doppelganger, ‘the West’.
Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies
and comparative literature, Columbia University
New York, Doha, November 2014