Why can’t Muslim Societies be more like a Globalised West?

By Alastair Crooke – Conflicts Forum

Islamism is not some irrational kick against modernity; it is accessible to reasoned understanding.

Many commentators on Islam make the same mistake: They instinctively assume that Muslim resistance to western globalisation reflects the inability of Muslims to accept the social and structural change that ‘modernity’ requires. Muslims, in this view, fail to rise above the ‘closed’ world of cultural traditions, and to embrace change. They shy away from, or react against the ‘choice’ offered by modernity.

The Philosopher, Henri Bergson, writing in 1932, suggested that one reason that some intellectual societies – for which he coined the term ‘closed’ societies – were unable to evolve into ‘open’ societies was that religion arises as a kind of mental habit that binds human intelligence to the instinctive drive for solidarity and continuity. Some societies were simply incapable of lifting themselves above these ‘cultural constraints’ to embrace dynamic society. Karl Popper in his ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ further refined Bergson to imply that ‘closed’ societies were profoundly inimical to the idea of human freedom.

That Muslims would become the archetype of Bergson’s and Popper’s ‘closed’, static society in this western narrative was inevitable: The stage had already been set by the historicist view of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire was typecast by one historian as resembling a decaying, rambling old country house, inhabited by eccentric lodgers, living in a vacuum of initiative, or any will to restore its leaking fabric – waiting in vain and privation to be reorganised and digested by a new and dynamic owner.

This profoundly Eurocentric view of the Ottomans, now contested by contemporary historians, sat comfortably with the views of those such as Richard Cobden and Jean Baptiste Say, articulated in the mid-nineteenth century that new European and American thinking would usher in a millennial age of peace: Free trade would promote peace between nations. “The theory of markets will necessarily scatter the seeds of concord and peace”, and Cobden believed that the spread of market principles and free trade would create a peaceful order of free countries in Europe – and ultimately in the Middle East.

This latter prospect has remained an enduring western vision of utopia, despite it failing, over and over, to acknowledge the tragedies to which it gave birth in Muslim societies. The Ottoman ‘decaying estate’, of course, eventually got its new owners – The westernised ‘Young Turks’, and Kemal Ataturk.

The impact of these western ideas, and the drive to construct the powerful, ethnically unitary, centralised nation-states in their societies – that was necessary to enforce structural change – for Muslims was an absolute disaster: It was a tragedy that created millions of victims – as it had in Europe and the US.

But it also, unexpectedly, facilitated the emergence of a revived Islamism that had revisited its roots in order to find new solutions to its plights. From this crisis, and from insights drawn from its intellectual traditions, and from the Qur’an, Islam began a journey on a discovery to a new ‘Self’. A journey that it is far from ended; but which already has re-established Islam as a dynamic political, social and economic force. It is this event, which has been almost erased and swallowed up by deterministic explanations that reduce Islamism to a parody of the open/closed society template.

It is thirty years now since the Iranian Revolution, and fifty years since the first Islamist resistance movement was formed. Yet many in the West remain bemused: why is there an Islamist resistance at all: They cannot understand how Muslims can fail to see the inevitability of western-style technical modernity and its globalisation. ‘What are Muslims resisting against’, it is asked?

In Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution, I argued that Muslims are not opposed to globalisation,The Revolution is a refusal to accept an understandingof the Self, or of the world about us, dominated by contemporary western consciousness nor to science, nor to change, per se. On the contrary, they embrace all three. The Revolution, rather, is a ‘Refusal’ – A ‘grand refusal’ to accept an understanding of the Self, or of the world about us, dominated by contemporary western consciousness. Islamists sought to recuperate an alternative consciousness – one drawn from its own intellectual tradition that would stand in opposition to the western paradigm.

Islamism, in short, is not some irrational kick against modernity – It is no whimsy of divine caprice; it is accessible to reasoned understanding.

Western ‘modernity’ essentially has stood on two pillars: The first has been described by historians as the ‘Great Transformation’. It began in Europe in the eighteenth century, and was based on a moral philosophy that saw human welfare yoked to the efficient operation of markets, as indicted earlier. Humans, pursuing private desires and needs, would intersect with others, through the market mechanism, to maximise not just individual welfare; but community wellbeing too.

Closely associated with this was another idea, taken up by English Puritans that had its roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history: It saw the ‘invisible hand’ of Providence also at work in politics to bring about another ‘ideal’ outcome. This view held that the jostling and hurly-burly of political contention between the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the earliest society – had given rise to a spontaneous harmony and political order. From this political ‘market’, English Puritans believed that the Anglo-Saxon institutions representing the epitome of personal freedom and justice, had spontaneously emerged.

Such key ideas about politics and economics were transported to the Americas with the Pilgrim Fathers to become, for those such as Thomas Jefferson, the archetype for the US system of government. The concept of the nation-state, democracy and human rights all flowed from this Protestant current.

These powerful ideas have dominated western thinking for more than 300 years; but by the 1920s, they had brought Islam to the brink: Islam was in crisis – holding on by its fingernails.

Of course, the ‘Great Transformation’ in Europe came about neither naturally, nor spontaneously. It was the product of massive state intervention and a growing system of institutional control. Making markets ‘free’ and efficient was, and is, an artefact of state power.

Historians now describe the Transformation as an utopian project that would be incompatible with any contemporary form of democracy: the transformation had brought stresses that took nineteenth and twentieth century Europe to the brink of revolution – and beyond.

Its impact on Muslim societies was no less traumatic: In the century leading up to Islam’s crisis in the 1920s, the ‘Great Transformation’ had been exported to the Muslim world. There was a rush by the West to create ethnically unitary nation-states in the former western provinces of the Ottoman Empire: A powerful centralised nation-state was seen as the only structure with enough instrumental strength to force through the social changes required to impose market liberalisation on Muslim societies.

As in Europe earlier, the impact of ‘Transformation’ was truly horrific. Justin McCarthy has detailed how five million European Muslims were ‘cleansed’ from their homes between 1821 and 1922 – as the West leveraged Christian-majority nation-states in the former Ottoman western provinces.

The anti-religious Young Turk determination to emulate Europe’s secular liberal-market modernisation came at terrible cost: In the attempt to create an ethnically unitary and secular Turkey one million Armenians died, 250,000 Assyrians perished, and one quarter of a million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were expelled. Kurdish identity was suppressed, and finally Islam was demonised and suppressed by Ataturk. Islamic institutions were closed; and the 1400 year old Caliphate was abolished.

Islam was in crisis. These events were being repeated – albeit less bloodily, but no less disruptively throughout the region – Disorientated and demoralised, under siege from enforced secularism in Turkey, Iran and elsewhere, and with Marxism filtering away its younger members, Islamists embarked on a journey of discovery. In common with other peoples in crisis, Islam sought a solution to its problems by finding a new ‘Self’.

The Islamist revolution is much more than politics: it is an attempt to shape a new consciousness

Islamists returned to the Qur’an for insights. The Qur’an is not a blueprint for politics or a state: It is, as it states frequently, nothing new. The Qur’an is a ‘reminder’ of old truths, already known to us all. One of these ‘old truths’ is that for humans to live together successfully it must be in a society which practices compassion, justice and equity.

This is the insight which lies at the root of Political Islam.

It is a principle which represents a complete inversion of the ‘Great Transformation’. Instead of the pre-eminence of the market, to which other social and community objectives are subordinated, the making of a society based on compassion, equity and justice becomes the overriding objective – to which other objectives, including markets, are subordinated.

Islam is not therefore a form of social democracy. Social Democracy accepts the principle of market efficiency; but attempts to mitigate its effects on those who are its victims: Islamism, by contrast, seeks to invert the market paradigm completely by placing justice, equity and compassion as the objective to which end, markets and other political objectives are to be subordinated.

It is revolutionary in another aspect: Instead of the individual being the organisational principle around which politics, economics and society is shaped; the western paradigm again is inverted. It is the collective welfare of the community in terms of such principles – rather than the individual – that becomes the litmus of political achievement.

In short, Islamists are re-opening an ancient debate – one that lies at the heart of both western and Islamic philosophy: Originally posed by Plato – the latter questioned the ends and purpose of politics: Is politics no more than a race by politicians as to who can claim to satisfy human appetites, desires and wants more fully; or is there ‘telos’ – in other words, a ‘higher purpose’ to politics – such as justice, for example?

Of course, the answer that you give to this fundamental question may determine how you structure democracy to achieve whichever ‘end’ you select. Iranian thinkers were influenced by Plato’s answer; and consequently have been influenced by his ‘Republic’.

Some westerners are troubled that after two hundred years of settled opinion, their vision is being questioned anew. One American conservative commented to me that with René Descartes, the West had discovered ‘objective truth’ through science and technology. It had made the West rich and powerful and Muslims could not bear that, he believed: they knew that ultimately they would be forced to acquiesce to western ‘truth’. But what is taking place is very far from this simplistic vision, and of great significance.

The Cartesian methodology has indeed exercised unparalleled hegemony over the last few centuries. And, applied across the range of science, political and social thinking has made the Europeans – and the Anglo-Saxon world in particular – uniquely rich and powerful.

Descartes had separated between the material world of ‘real’ things – to be touched, tasted, felt or viewed – that were to be explained and classified through scientific rationality; and on the other side of this rigid frontier, lay ‘ideas’ associated with fantasy, superstition, magic and illusion. There was ‘reality’; and, separate to this, the make-believe and illusionary figments of human thinking unrestrained by reality.

This narrow duality formed the stepping-stone from which leaped-up the ‘western Self’, and individualism, in its many variants. The Cartesian methodology, taken further by others in a logical extension of his initial work, however, would prove to be irreconcilable with another process of thinking, another ‘consciousness’, which was much more deeply-rooted in the human psyche.

The Cartesian system – whatever its apparent virtues – not only removed the vital conceptual ‘space’ in which this other consciousness could operate, it also destroyed the very tools, the mechanisms, by which this ‘other consciousness’ impacted on, and transformed the human being. It emptied this other grand narrative of civilisation, Islam, of meaning; and of power.

Descartes’ twist to earlier thinking was indeed epoch making: He did away with – effectively abolished – the idea of any meaningful order that lay beyond, or outside of the ‘Self’ – Or, of ‘good’, or of truth, being embodied in that ordering; or found in the cipher of symbolic meaning in the world about us.

He destroyed any space that such a conception might have occupied, by dividing the world rigidly between the real and the unreal. Effectively it was the rejection of the substance of what F. Edward Cranz called ‘conjunctive knowledge’ – even if Descartes himself clung to the husk of religious sentiment: The ‘sacred’ could either become literal – and functional; – or be disparaged as superstition.

It is not possible to make sense of the Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event too

The Islamist revolution therefore is much more than politics: It is an attempt to shape a new consciousness – to escape from, and challenge, the most far-reaching pre-suppositions of our time. It draws on the intellectual tradition of Islam to offer a radically different understanding of the human being, and to escape from the hegemony and rigidity of the Cartesian literalism. It is a journey of recovery of insights from that ‘other history of Being’, as Henri Corbin the French philosopher, termed it, that is far from over.

It has many shortcomings and setbacks – as recent events in Iran have shown – but its intellectual insights offer Muslims (and westerners too) the potential to step beyond the shortcomings of western material consciousness. This is what excites and energises: As a Hesballah leader replied to me when asked what the Iranian Revolution had signified for him, he said unhesitatingly that Muslims felt themselves free to think; to think for themselves, once again.

It is not possible therefore to make sense of the Iranian or wider Islamic resistance without understanding it as a philosophic and metaphysical event too. It is the omission of this latter understanding that helps explain repeated western misreadings of Iran, its Revolution and also of events in the region.

Hesballah are using techniques that stand outside of the usual repertoire of western politics in order to transform Muslims. It is not because Hesballah provides better community services that its leader, Seyed Hassan Nasrallah, is revered throughout the Muslim world.

Hesballah is using myth, archetypal narrative and symbolism to explode the Cartesian severance between subject and object, and between objective reality, on the one hand, and fantasy, make-believe and superstition, on the other. Hesballah uses these means to re-ignite creative imagination. The opening of this intermediary layer in the Cartesian dualism allows people to begin imagining themselves in a new way; and by imagining themselves differently, to begin to act differently. As they begin to imagine themes differently and act differently, the way they see the world about them, changes also.

Of course there is another side to Islamism: Islam, like Christianity, has witnessed, from the outset, a struggle between a narrow, literalist and intolerant interpretation in opposition to the intellectual tradition grounded in philosophy, reasoning and in transforming knowledge.

Perversely, for the past fifty years, it is to the literalists, often called ‘Salafi’ that the West has looked to circumscribe perceived ‘threats to its interests’ arising from the upsurge of revolutionary spirit among Islamists – in a mirroring of Cold War containment thinking.

America and Europe turned to a more docile and apolitical variant of political Islam, which they believed would be more compliant. But in so using the literalist ‘puritan’ orientation, the West has misunderstood the mechanism by which some Salafist movements have migrated through schism and dissidence to become the dogmatic, hate-filled and often violent movements that really do threaten westerners, as well as their fellow Muslims too.

The Western backing of narrow literalism and dogma in an effort to contain the intellectual revolution within Islam, paradoxically has left the Middle East a less stable, more dangerous and violent place. Western policy has empowered a current of literal thinking in Islam that is indeed narrow, intolerant and anti-heterodoxical. These are the movements that are narrowly opposed to all western intrusions into their society.

But possibly of far greater significance than the inflation of the current ‘bubble’ of literalism to the global future, is the recovery within that other ‘grand narrative’, Islam, of an alternative consciousness – another process of thinking that carries the intimation of a possible escape from Cartesian hegemony. In the long run – as the prevalent western paradigm erodes in the wider world – this may assume huge importance.


Posted on January 19, 2010, in Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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