What’s wrong with explaining political Islam, and specifically its violent jihadist offshoots, as a necessary or inherent part of Muslim culture?  

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Mahmood Mamdani, professor at Columbia University, presents an analysis of two recent books about political Islam, one by Gilles Kepel and the other by Olivier Roy.  

Mamdani’s article is astute and easily digested, and while he presents measured critiques of both books, the three authors, at their core, agree on a central point: to explain political Islam, and specifically jihadist violence, as merely a function of Muslim culture is intellectually and historically indefensible. Mamdani’s article is devoted to offering a critique of the different approaches to understanding political Islam — Kepel’s is historical and Roy’s is sociological — that the books offer. Mamdani’s insights, however, highlight the damage that a culturalist explanation of political Islam can do.

After all, if violent jihad is explained as one of the many manifestations of culture, for the tactful liberal it becomes something shielded within the protective shell of culture; to disparage political Islam and Islamist violence would be to disparage something that is inherently valuable because it is an essential part of Muslim culture. For those who are less sympathetic to the richness of different cultures, the culturalist explanation becomes a polarizing force; borders are inappropriately and unproductively drawn between the “us” and the Muslim “them.” Happily, the voices of scholars such as Mamdani, Kepel, and Roy are effectively sounding the death knell for the intellectually feeble culturalist explanation of political Islam.  

Mimi Hanaoka

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