L'Islam de Marché: L'Autre Révolution Conservatrice

Haenni, Patrick. L'Islam de Marché: L'Autre Révolution Conservatrice.

Reviewed by Issandr El Amrani, TBS book reviews editor

In this short volume, Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni has written an introduction to the new forms of religiosity and religious expression that have taken much of the Islamic world by storm. Several of the book's chapters are of particular interest to TBS readers as they outline the central role of television in spreading these new phenomena and engendering a new form of religious outreach that invites its followers to reconsider Islam's role in their personal lives rather than in their political demands.

In this sense, Haenni's work builds on and expands on the conclusion that French students of political Islam such as Olivier Roy had reached in the 1990s, when they heralded "the failure of political Islam." If that diagnosis has been partly contested by the rise of Al Qaeda and numerous Islamist electoral successes across the Arab world, it also has been partly confirmed in the failure of Islamist groups to wholly convert their societies to the idea of a Salafist return to an early Islamic period. Indeed, as Haenni points out, there has been rising dissent among these groups against the authoritarianism and dogmatism of their leadership. These dissidents, Haenni argues, "without necessarily leaving these organizations, prefer to focus on personal salvation, self-improvement and the quest for economic success." This disenchantment with traditional Islamism coincides with the rise of new, more pious, bourgeoisie that seeks to reconcile its mercantile interests with Islam – hence the book's title, "Market Islam."

Two of the most famous practioners of this trend are the Egyptian television preacher Amr Khaled, whose TV shows draw a huge following among Arab youth, and his Indonesian counterpart Abdullah Gymnastiar, better known as Aa Gym. Haenni argues that these preachers drew directly on the model of American televangelists, not only in that they invented a new type of religious broadcasting that resembles afternoon talk shows more than the didactic one-way conservations, but also because they constructed publishing empires (books, computer programs, cds, dvds, live events, etc.) around their personality. There is a direct relationship with the American Christian model in Aa Gym's case at least since one of his closest advisors actually is a former Houston-based Presbyterian tele-preacher who converted to Islam.

The American evangelical "revolution" that began in the 1980s is not the only source of inspiration for these preachers. A contemporary revolution, that of self-improvement publishing, is part and parcel of the entrepreneurial message behind "market Islam." Preachers such as Khaled urge their followers to renounce the ambient fatalism that plagues many Arab youths and engage in a more positive, can-do view of life whose central model is the successful businessman. In the 1980s, prominent Muslim thinkers introduced concepts of what it meant to be a good Muslim that included ideas borrowed from Western self-improvement hits such as Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. By the 1990s, the Arabic translation of Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People engendered a wave of Islamic adaptations, which focus on the idea that Islam is the best path to both spiritual self-improvement and material success.

When Haenni writes of "the other conservative revolution" (the book's subtitle) he is not referring to the rise of Islamist political groups, from which many of the current leaders of "market Islam" left disenchanted. He is drawing a comparison to the rise of the religious conservative movement in the United States, which has provided a model for combining populist religiosity and America's celebration of the successful entrepreneur. "Having been converted to the virtues of the private sector and the market as well as the cause of the 'minimum state,' market Islam already appears as the ideal partner of the Americans not only in their Middle East policy, but also in the conflict of modernity that opposes it to the Europe of the Enlightenment, of secularist and statist rationalism," concludes Haenni.

L'Islam de Marché is, because of its size, a necessarily synthetic book. Its fascinating thesis deserves to be expanded into a longer work, if only because there is still too little study of the new expressions of religiosity that have appeared in the Muslim world in the past two decades. In the meantime, it should at least be translated into English to reach a wider audience.

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