Interview with Farid Panjwani

Posted March 21, 2011

Categories: Articles, Islamophobia

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 21, 2011

Farid Panjwani is an assistant professor at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations in London. He has a background in Islamic Studies, philosophy of education, and international development and has published widely on these topics. He spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus in December 2010 about the relationship between religion and citizenship, the impact of Sharia law, and the role of Muslim faith schools.

John Feffer: Can you talk about the interaction between religious faith and civic engagement?

Farid Panjwani: It has been persuasively argued, in debates around the secularization thesis for example, that for many people – perhaps for an increasing number of people – their religious tradition remains very important. It has also been argued that much good can be inspired by these traditions in everyday life, in civil society activities, etc. Whatever one’s position on this matter, we can no longer ignore religion as a source of motivation that people might have for civic activities; the desire that some people have for what Rosenblum has called ‘religiously integrated existence’ cannot be ignored. Having acknowledged this, in my opinion, religiously inspired citizenship must be located within the limits of the separation of religion and politics in the matters of constitutional principles concerning civil liberties and the democratic processes.  Drawing upon the Rawlsian sense of political liberalism, when we talk about religion as an inspiration for citizenship, I locate it in what has been called the background culture. It is in this arena that I feel that among the sources from which one might find motivation is one’s religion.

When one looks historically, there are many examples of people’s religious faith providing them with the means to express their moral motivation, either doing socially beneficial work or giving them courage to stand up against ways or practices that have been harmful to society. In that sense, for many people, religion can provide the moral force that can help them become more moral citizens. All this I consider part of empowered citizenship.

One recent example is that of a minority Shia Muslim community, the Ismailis. Over the last century the Ismailis have involved themselves robustly in social development – in culture, education, health. They have a very strong tradition of voluntary and philanthropic activities that the community sees as rooted in its religious faith. Yet, most of the projects they have – schools, hospitals, income generation projects, etc – are non-denominational. People of different backgrounds take part and benefit. So, while rooted in a particular tradition, the approach is humanistic. The religious dimension has not been transformed in political terms. Law and ethics, power and authority have thus not been mixed.

We can perhaps approach this issue from another angle. Religious motivation in citizenship can be a positive force when it is not parochial in nature, when it moves from a particular source of motivation, a particular theology, to a more generalizable and universal paradigm. Again, Rawls is helpful here. He has this notion that we can build an overlapping consensus of values by drawing upon our separate traditions. Here one grounds universals in particular traditions. The civil rights movement, for instance, might have its inspiration in a particular tradition, but it spoke to a more universal set of values. Gandhi’s non-violent movement is another example of a movement rooted in a religious tradition but speaking in a language of universality. It is partly because of this that these movements have remained inspirational across time, space, and creeds.

But where this moral motivation remains locked in a parochial theology – and ways of looking at the world linked to a particular idea of salvation – that’s where there can be a problem. I think this is what went wrong with the Islamic economics movement. The initial impulse of it – rooted in particular narratives of Islam – raised universal concerns. If one looks at the literature that came out in 1970s and 1980s when this phenomenon took shape, it seemed deeply concerned with the issues of exploitation in financial markets, the inequality of the distribution of wealth, and the question of a fair and just society. Many people felt that their religion advised against financial practices that made a more unequal and exploitative world. If it had continued in that direction, it could have led to alliances with people in other traditions with similar concerns – a sort of overlapping consensus. But for a variety of reasons it remained locked in a particular tradition, and I am not sure that it has fulfilled its goals.

I think that religious-based empowerment is healthy when it serves as an inspiration and motivation and moves to concerns and vocabulary that have universal appeal and therefore creates links across communities rather than adding to social division.

John Feffer: I’m interested in the limits to such a concept of religion-based empowered citizenship as well as the reactions that it has generated.

Farid Panjwani: Given my understanding of the secular state as a limit case of religiously inspired empowerment, I am also interested in ensuring that citizenship inspired by religious tradition remains within these limits. It is understandable that based on the rhetoric and actions of some people, Islam in particular is seen by some as having theocratic tendencies. The Sharia is sometimes presented in this manner. But Islam is not the only case. The tension between citizenship and demands of faith are observable in many societies, particularly where there is a rise in what is called fundamentalist religious trends.  And when this happens it is understandable that there will be concerns. And such concerns are shared by Muslims and others alike.

Many Muslims who have these concerns wish to respond by appealing to Muslim tradition itself as they seek to create a space for the secular. They are doing so by appealing to particular historical phases in Muslim history or by providing fresh interpretations of the relation between religion and politics in Muslim history or simply by calling for the need for such secularity in light of the multi-religious and multicultural world we now have. Abdullahi An-Naim’s Islam and the Secular State is one example of such a work. Here it will be important to distinguish the idea of secular state from that of secular society and to avoid the misleading tendency of translating secular as irreligious or, worse, anti-religious.

Some scholars have seen religiously empowered politics as an example of liberation theology in the Islamic context. One scholar has termed it an Islamic revolutionary mobilization – seeing it as a pedagogy of resisting hegemonic forces. There is some truth in this way of approaching the matter, but one should be careful because while it may be acceptable as a resisting force, it can be very problematic when it comes into power, as we have seen in several cases.

John Feffer: One of the most controversial topics right now in the United Statesis Sharia law. How does this connect with our discussion of citizenship?

Farid Panjwani: The idea of the Sharia as God’s law is contested, and people have many different understandings of it. Instead of a singular conception of Sharia, it is better to think of it as a family resemblance of various juridical thoughts, all seeking to work out the Will of God. At its best, I see it as a work in progress, an evolving institution which requires constant rethinking and reappraisal. And this means we cannot speak about the Sharia without referring to the people who talk about it. Here again we see different visions of good life rooted in Sharia competing with each other. For some people, what was written in the 9th or 10th centuries may be the last word – but this is mainly rhetoric as these texts cannot be the last word for anyone. Texts inevitably require interpretation. Others believe that certain aspects of modern life ought not be compromised. For them, matters such as the equality of men and women provide the limiting cases of the implementation of the Sharia. The battle of ideas is going on. My sense is that the irreversible fact of diversity will be hard to dismiss and will make it increasingly difficult to sustain the idea of the Sharia being enforced by the State.

At the same time, it is hard to imagine a majority Muslim polity without some reference to the Sharia. So a creative ways of accommodation will have to be found.

In this regard, sometimes, the Sharia is talked about as a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). In general, I think ADR can be a good move particularly given the delayed and cumbersome mechanisms of state justice systems. Sometimes the Sharia-based justice system is seen as an ADR. But it is important that these modes of ADR , Sharia-based or otherwise, operate within and are governed by the framework of human rights, equality, and liberty. Many women’s groups have expressed concern about the recognition of Sharia as a respected system of law. One can understand this concern. These alternative dispute mechanisms must operate within modern civic conceptions of society.

John Feffer: U.S. and British societies are increasingly diverse. How do Muslim communities address this diversity?

Farid Panjwani: In the history of Muslim societies, the idea of an Ummah, a moral unity of all Muslims, has remained more of a sentiment than a practice. There is a doctrinal diversity in Muslim history, there are political divisions (at one point, for instance three caliphs were claiming the leadership of Muslims) and of course a rich cultural diversity.

However, there have always been an emotional attachment and an inspirational value of the idea of the Ummah. Among some Muslims in the West today there is a desire to homogenize and present themselves as a single block. In part this is driven by a feeling of victimhood. This then leads to the belief that only by coming together Muslims can resist the kind of pressures they face. The vocabulary available in the tradition then serves this purpose.

When I talk to young people I am beginning to get a sense that there is an increasing recognition that there is no other way but to recognize this diversity among Muslims. And often this is not put as a necessary evil but as a source of good. The educational system can play an important role here. There is now a growing recognition that education systems need to bring out this diversity.

John Feffer: I’d like to follow up on this question of education. What role can Muslim schools play in this process?

Farid Panjwani: In England we have what are called the faith schools. About a third of all schools are faith schools. This would be approximately 7,000 school. Officially they are called schools with religious character. Of these 7,000 there are about 140 Muslim faith schools, some of which are publicly funded.

It would be fair to say that many Muslim schools are doing a good job. As in the movie Fiddler on the Roof they are trying to hold on to what they see as worthwhile in a tradition. They recognize, if not consciously at least intuitively, that the idea of Islam can provide a sense of belonging. When they teach history, they try to bring in the contributions of Muslim scientists and philosophers and others to the history of ideas. By referring to the Muslim tradition, they are trying to overcome the historical amnesia about the contributions of the Arab and Muslims. But at the same they also realize that if their children were to compete in modern Britain, then almost everything else – economics, science, English – has to be taught as a normal school subject. I recently attended a conference in which a former head teacher of a Muslim school said that an academically successful Muslim school is hardly different from an academically successful state school, except in terms of greetings, prayers, and dress codes.

But there are also a small percentage of schools that are likely to be harmful in terms of what they are teaching. In their presentation of inter-faith relationships, or in the way the arts and music are conceived as anti-Islamic, or their attitude to certain theories of science, these schools might be nurturing a mindset that puts their students in conflict with the society at a whole. But, I think, we need to approach this as an educational problem and not turn it into a cultural or religious problem.

Earlier, we talked about intra-religious diversity among Muslims. I think, this is an area where schools have been struggling. There is hardly any Muslim school in Britain that accommodates intra-religious diversity.

John Feffer: Any final thoughts?

Farid Panjwani: Tensions between religion and citizenship may not go away – they are old. We find them in Sophocles’ Antigone and in the epic ofMahabharata. But it is possible that this tension can be made a fount of creativity.

One way to do is to think of two languages that may now be required. A language of citizenship that we may share with all other citizens and a language of tradition with which we may participate in our respective religious or community lives. Here I am drawing on Jonathan Sacks. This is not always an easy aspiration, but there are many attempts being made. It would require transformation both in the way in which secular citizenship is understood as well as the way in which religion is understood and an ongoing process of dialogue, of complementary learning as Jurgen Habermas calls it, along with open-mindedness and open-heartedness.


This is the eighth interview in special focus on Islamophobia. Earlier interviews were with John EspositoJuan Cole, the Islamic Human Rights CommissionPhyllis BennisArun KundnaniRaed Jarrar and Niki Akhavan, andWajahat Ali.

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