Islam and Feminism: Response to Hania Sholkamy

Hania’s piece recalls the classic secularist stance that faith should not intervene in politics, and that it should be contained in private. This view is lately becoming widely contested. In this reply, I argue that in the context in which these debates are taking place the ‘national state’ is not a passive observer of the development of a hegemonic religion but, in its rivalry with strong political movements in opposition, is acting to use and instrumentalise religion to spread its hegemonic power, thus enforcing religion as the basis for political legitimacy.

Many scholars have portrayed Islam as a threat to secularism, which is understood as total separation of the realm of politics from the realm of religion. I concur with Asad’s approach of not separating the two realms but rather of examining the historical circumstances in which the secular political project or the Islamist vision prevails. Arab nationalism, whether in its Baathist, Nasserist or other forms, incorporated Islam as part and parcel of its claims of difference and was a unifying ideology in the quest for building what Salame calls a ‘state of legitimation’ – a move that derives fortification from enduring social elements, rather than insisting more fundamentally upon a vision for change and innovation. Al-Azem goes further to accuse the ‘secular’ nationalist elites of obstructing a rational understanding for the Islamic cultural heritage to become the subject of independent scientific methodologies and inquiries pertaining to social sciences, using the Islamic cultural heritage as an ideological tool in the service of their regional, national or party politics. Thus, when the nationalist waves faded away, the uncritical approach to Islam and Islamic heritage remained and was easily presented as untouchable core of Arab and Muslim identity.

In the Arab world, the fusion of religion and nationalism as a brand of ‘secularism’ wielded amongst the post-colonial national elites was a clear marker of identity for these post-colonial nation-states in the Arab World. Writing on Islamism and secularism, Abd El-Baki Hermassi, for example, summarizes the differences in the important distinction between de facto and de jure secularism. Whereas in the West de jure secularism called for the formal separation of church and state, the Arab state recognized Islam as the religion of society, but de facto demobilized its political use.

Further conflicts may be noted between Islam as a religion and nationalism. In contemporary political Islamic movements, the ‘new’ meaning of Islam is inclusive of Muslims and exclusive of all non-Muslims, unlike nationalism. But like nationalism, Islam is interpreted as a political system and used for political ends, which is a threat to secularism. However, both Arab nationalism and Islamism share a concern with the modernising state because Islamism takes for granted and seeks to work through the nation-state, which is so central to the predicament of all Muslims. It is this statist project, Asad argues, and not the fusion of religious and political ideas that gives Islamism a ‘nationalist’ cast. Asad urges us not to focus on the ‘real motives’ of Islamists, but rather to look for what circumstances oblige ‘Islamism’ to emerge publicly as a political discourse, and how it challenges the deep structures of secularism.

It is not the religious text, but the political context which determines the Islamist discourse. The ‘modified’, ever-evolving version of shari’a (and not religion per se) displayed by Islamic movements raises two issues. On the one hand, it is a challenge to the discourse used by some feminist NGOs based on a liberal, individualistic notion of rights which ignores the plight of many social and political groups and movements deprived by the ‘secular’ national state from their basic civil and political rights. By putting Islam at the centre of a modified notion of Arab nationalism, the Islamists have managed to de-legitimise the feminist women’s discourse, which is portrayed as non-national and alien. On the other hand, it also poses a challenge to the rather ambivalent Arab secularism which used Islam as a source of its legitimacy. By ‘Islamising’ Arabs and ‘nationalising’ Islam, the Islamists have proved themselves successful in forging a brand of nationalism on which Islam was integral and constituted a mobilising force for the masses.

In such a context, the secularists, while pressuring and challenging the Islamists, are nonetheless losing ground by advocating the discourse of rights in isolation from the national agenda and in the absence of a mobilising organisation. Feminist NGO activism, based on short-lived projects, does not have the potential to constitute an alternative. By becoming an opposition movement against all forms of violations of civic and human rights, the Islamists have developed a political organisation. In contrast, women in NGOs have no organised constituency and the support they have, if they get it, is derived, in some cases, from a decaying de-legitimised Arab authority.


  1. Al-Azem, Sadeq Jalal (2004) ‘Hamlet wal-hadatha‘ (Hamlet and Modernity), a paper presented to al-hadatha wal hadatha al-‘arabeyya (Modernity and Arab Modernity) markaz al-derassat wal-abhath al-‘almaneyya fil al-‘alam al-‘arabi (Secular Studies & Researches Centre in Arabic World S.S.R.C.A.W)
  2. Asad, Talal (2003) Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
  3. Hermassi, Abd El-Baki (1993) ‘Islam, Democracy, and the Challenge of Political Change’, in M. Ahrens, Y. Mirsky (eds), Democracy in the Middle East: Defining the Challenge, Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  4. Salame, Ghassan (ed.) (2001) Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in The Muslim World,London: I. B. Tauris

Islah Jad
Birzeit University

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