Professor Salvatore began by discussing the idea of a public space in which communication – in the form of reportage, comment, debate and discussion – is a key aspect of the emergence of Modernity. These spaces included newspapers, journals, coffee houses and other public forums, from which came the key notion of ‘public opinion’. He drew attention to the work in this regard of the German scholar Jurgen Habermas, whose late 20th century account of ‘communicative action’ as a critical aspect of democratic modernity has been highly influential.
With the encounter of Muslims in the Ottoman empire and elsewhere with Europe, this new public sphere quickly took on particular importance for social reformers from the 18th century onward. Although the colonial framework was one focal point – especially in Egypt, British India and Turkey for figures like Jamal al-Din Afghani, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Abduh, Namik Kemal, Sayyid Ahmed Khan – Professor Salvatore stressed that there were indigenous themes related to Islam that remained vital. In other words, the ‘ethics’ of this Muslim public sphere had an ‘interiority’ beyond the encounter with the European Other. This is especially evident in the work of Muhammad Iqbal. Professor Salvatore noted the recent scholarly account of Talal Asad on this rich ‘interiority’.
Contemporary aspects of this legacy – with regard to the idea of the public good or maslaha, and issues of human rights – were highlighted in the introductory remarks by Dr. Amyn B. Sajoo, the series’ organiser. The talk was followed by a spirited question-answer session, focusing on the relationship between secular and religious dimensions of the public sphere.