What is Islam – this disturbing, radical excess that represents the East to the West, and the West to the East? Let me begin with the relationship of Islam to Judaism and Christianity, the two other religions of the book.
As the religion of genealogy, of the succession of generations, Judaism is the patriarchal religion par excellence. In Christianity, when the Son dies on the cross, the Father also dies (as Hegel maintained) – which is to say, the patriarchal order as such dies. Hence, the advent of the Holy Spirit introduces a post-paternal/familial community.
In contrast to both Judaism and Christianity, Islam excludes God from the domain of the patriarchal logic. Allah is not a father, not even a symbolic one. Rather, God is one – he is neither born nor does he give birth to creatures.
This is why there is no place for a Holy Family in Islam. This is why Islam so emphasizes the fact that Muhammad himself was an orphan. This is why, in Islam, God intervenes precisely at the moments of the suspension or failure of the paternal function (when the mother or the child are abandoned by the biological father). This is also why Islam represented such a problem for Freud: his entire theory of religion is based on the connection between God and “the father.”
But even more importantly, it is this that inscribes politics into the very heart of Islam, since the “genealogical desert” makes it impossible to ground a community in the structures of parenthood or other blood-ties. As Fethi Benslama puts it, “the desert between God and Father is the place where the political institutes itself.”
In Islam, it is no longer possible to ground a community in the mode of Totem and Taboo, through the murder of the father and the ensuing guilt which brings brothers together – hence Islam’s unexpected actuality. This problem is at the heart of the Muslim “community of believers” – the Umma – and accounts for the overlapping of the religious and the political (the community should be grounded directly in God’s word), as well as for the fact that Islam is at its best when it grounds the formation of a community “out of nowhere,” in the genealogical desert, as a kind of egalitarian revolutionary fraternity. No wonder, then, that Islam is so appealing to young men who find themselves deprived of family and social networks.
As Moustapha Safouan has argued, it is this “orphanic” character of Islam that accounts for its lack of inherent institutionalization:
“The distinctive mark of Islam is that it is a religion which did not institutionalize itself; it did not , like Christianity, equip itself with a Church. The Islamic Church is in fact the Islamic State: it is the state which invented the so called ‘highest religious authority’ and it is the head of state who appoints the man to occupy that office; it is the state that builds the great mosques, that supervises religious education; it is the state again that creates the universities, exercises censorship in all the fields of culture, and considers itself as the guardian of morality.”
Here we can see how the best and the worst are combined in Islam. It is precisely because Islam lacks an inherent principle of institutionalization that it has proven so vulnerable to being co-opted by state power. Therein resides the choice that confronts Islam: direct “politicization” is inscribed into its very nature, and this overlapping of the religious and the political can either be achieved in the guise of the statist co-option, or in the guise of anti-statist collectives.
[Extract. Appeared in ABC on May 10th 2012.]