This point is worth stating since much of the present debate about the role of Islam in world politics tends to downplay the political or, at least, display a one-dimensional understanding of what drives political ambition. The political behavior of Islamists, and sometimes that of all Muslims, is often treated as an exotic peculiarity that defies normal analysis and can only be explained as an extension of their faith.
Quite apart from the ethical revulsion these two narratives have provoked among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, another problem, as Kepel points out, is their remoteness from Muslims' actual, and diverse, experiences. Both narratives so reify religion as to turn political behavior into the mere reflection of an individual's attachment to a timeless set of prescriptions called "Islam," as if these were removed from the contexts in which Muslim principles and identities drive political actors. They also suggest that Muslims' politics can -- or, in the case of bin Laden, must -- be understood in relation to their faith. Yet the truth is more complicated, contested, and contingent than these two narratives allow. Neither can explain why at a given time and place a given group of Muslims chooses the prescriptions it does from Islam's vast and rich tradition to guide its political behavior. And neither can account for why other groups of Muslims act on very different understandings of Islam or why still others see their engagement with power as having only the most tenuous connection, if any, to their religious beliefs.
To play the game of politics is to grapple with the practicalities of power.
The question is, how can one have any impact on the existing order without in some way succumbing to the logic of political practicalities? The harsh truth is that however sublime or spiritual the ideals -- and Islam, no less than any other great religious tradition, can provide a dazzling array of such ideals -- their champions will need to engage with the politics of place in order to realize them. There may be many ways of doing this, and disputes about which ways are best are inevitable, but at the heart of this task lies the old political conundrum of how to engage effectively the existing power structure without compromising one's core ideals. Reflecting on this question, one realizes that political discourse is the very antithesis of civilizational discourse, even if the latter can sometimes be used polemically in political debates. The closer one looks at the multitude of hopes, prejudices, fears, and activities that constitute political life, the harder it is to meaningfully apply to a political order an overarching, homogenizing, and essentializing term such as "civilization."
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