Islam and the West

The struggle of Muslims with and for modernity is taking place, not just in Cairo, Tehran and Islamabad, but also among Muslims living in the West. The events of 11 September have put the difficulties of this struggle into particular relief. This is the last in Roger Hardy’s series on Islam and modernity.

“The number one problem, the number one crisis that we Muslims are faced with is the modernity crisis,” Suroosh Irfani, a Muslim intellectual in Pakistan, argues.

“We have access to the artefacts of modernity – which means the media, the cable television, the tape recorder, the aeroplanes, the high-rise apartments, autobahns. But we lack the intellectual underpinning of what modernity is all about.”

For Mr Irfani, the problem Muslims face is not with the “hardware” of modernity, but with the “software”.

In other words, with such concepts as rationalism, scepticism and individualism – which many would say are among the essential features of modernity.

In the West, these concepts were products, or by-products, of a series of revolutions – ranging from the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

So can Muslim countries – should Muslim countries – follow the same route?

Scepticism and doubt

“I believe that the modern world is based on a key concept – and this is modern reason, modern rationality,” Mohsen Sazagara, a leading reformist thinker in Iran, said.

“But in the Islamic world I have to say that we have not accepted modern reason yet. I believe that every modern institution that we have tried to establish – like parliament, like republican government, like political parties, like journals and newspapers – we have founded many of them, but they are not real.”

This type of rationality has elements of both scepticism and doubt. Some Muslims are obviously deeply uncomfortable with this.

A Muslim might say: “Doubt is a luxury I and my children can’t afford. I cannot teach my children doubt. I have to teach my children certainty.”

What would you say to them?

“I say that you may choose this way, but then you have to accept that you will not live in the modern world,” Mohsen Sazagara responded.

“As a matter of fact, if we want democracy, freedom, parliament, freedom of speech – all these productions – we have to consider that behind these concepts we have to accept the modern rationality, which contains scepticism and everything.”

The role of reason has long been a subject of debate in the Muslim world.

‘End pluralism and liberalism’

Muslims believe the Koran is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

But while conservatives insist on obedience to that revealed truth, modernists – like the Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi – argue that reason enables human beings to interpret revealed truth in the light of modern conditions.

According to him, modernists suffered an important defeat as long ago as the 11th Century, during the heyday of the influential Muslim thinker al-Ghazali.

“We lost our pluralism, our liberalism 1,000 years ago. When al-Ghazali came, it was the beginning of the Crusades. He felt that pluralism, the enlightenment, might be risky, once you began to face the external enemy,” Mr Hanafi said.

This signalled the triumph of orthodoxy over reason.

According to Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim who writes on science, the “ulama” – or religious establishment – closed ranks and declared innovation out of bounds.

“This is the period when the ulama got together, and they were extremely fearful of multiple interpretations of Islam. And they saw that as feeding dissension in the community,” Mr Sardar said.

“So they tried to stop what is a key instrument of Islamic culture – namely ijtihad. Ijtihad means “reasoned struggle”. And it was very much part-and-parcel of Muslim society, using reason in all kinds of ways – scientific method, empirical inquiry, sociological inquiry.”

Speeded up modernity

This has had lasting consequences. Many Muslims argue that a neglect of science is one of the factors which has stunted educational development, producing a kind of intellectual introversion, a turning inward.

One set of challenges has to do with science and education.

But at the same time Muslims have also had to grapple with novel ideas, coming from the West, about how a modern state should be run.

The Iranian philosopher Ezzatullah Fuladvand told me: “A modern industrial society rests on at least three foundations. One is liberal democracy, one is market economy, and the other is scientific outlook – giving free rein to experimental science and not caring where the chips might fall.”

Mr Fuladvand favours what you could call a classic definition of modernity – one that’s both secular and non-negotiable.

Compare that with the credo of the Pakistani Islamist Hamid Gul, who describes the way Pakistan would look if it were an ideal Islamic state.

“There will be justice across the board. The courts will be free – they will be interpreting the Koran, and this will put all anxieties at rest.

“The education system will be equal, not class-based. Right now it is class-based. Then the economic system will change. There will be interest-free banking. The taxation will be direct – no indirect taxation. And minorities will be free to practise their religion, their way of life, their culture, whatever they wish. And feudalism will be no more,” Hamid Gul said.

Radical Islam discredited

But most Muslims do not embrace either full-blooded Islamism or whole-hearted Western secularism.

The reality is that radical Islamism has been discredited – by the experience of Islamists in power, in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan – and by the extreme violence of Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda group.

In a lot of Muslim countries there’s a lot of oppression by the Muslim governments – just practising basic Islam is seen as a threat. Whereas here the freedom exists for people to live their lives however they want

Shahan

But at the same time the Western secular model is viewed with suspicion.

Many Muslims would agree with Ziauddin Sardar, the British Muslim writer, who challenges the idea that modernisation equals Westernisation.

Small island of Islam

For Muslims in the West, concerns are different.

Shahan is a 22-year-old Bangladeshi Muslim who was born and brought up in the run-down, inner city area of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.

He is a youth worker. How does he find living as a little island of Islam in the sea of a Western secular society?

“Living in the West – obviously it’s a very materialistic society. But living here can be a big plus as well, because in this society it’s very free and people can do whatever they want to do, but at the same time, that freedom is something that’s very beneficial for Muslims.

Homa Altaf works for a Muslim lobbying group called Fair – the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, which is based in Tower Hamlets.

She tries to help Muslims who are victims of discrimination.

In the Tower Hamlets area, right-wing extremist groups have specifically targeted Muslims.

“There’s this one case quite recently, after 11 September. It was the case of an English brother – a convert to Islam. And he was being harassed by a member of a right-wing group.

“He was receiving hate-mail. He had four young children and a wife, and the whole family were being harassed. And eventually he was stabbed.

“Historically, the far right have been targeting ethnic minorities – but this was an Englishman who was stabbed not because of the colour of his skin, but because he’s a Muslim, because he has a beard and he prays, and he wears a prayer hat.”

Change since 11 September

Homa and her colleagues say the climate has changed markedly since the 11 September attack against America.

There is a brooding sense of confrontation between Islam and the West.

Many in Europe and America see the attack as proof that Islam is hostile and somehow “anti-modern”.

Many Muslims, for their part, view George Bush’s response – in launching a worldwide “war on terror” – as proof that a bullying American superpower wants to dominate the world.

But for all the sense of confrontation, some voices are arguing it is now more urgent than ever for Muslims in the West to reach out to their non-Muslim fellow-citizens.

The current crisis could lead either to greater understanding between Muslims and the West – or to greater polarisation.

Are Muslims turning their backs on modernity? On the contrary, there seems to be a tremendous thirst for it – whether in the form of material progress, or more openness and democracy.

But Muslim societies are in painful transition. Governments are reluctant to accept political change – and all too often are failing to offer a sense of direction, as conservatives and modernists, secularists and Islamists put forward competing visions of Islam and modernity.

But this internal contest is not taking place in a vacuum.

The West is not a neutral observer. It has a huge political and economic stake in the arc of Muslim countries that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia.

But George Bush is waging his “war on terror” at a time when anti-American feeling among Muslims is more passionate and more widespread than ever before.

So the “crisis of modernity” in the Muslim world is being fuelled from within and without.

Finding a solution will depend not only on how Islam engages with modernity, but on how the West engages with Islam.

Roger Hardy

© Courtesy of BBC News

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