Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment
February 25, 2015 8:38 AM   Subscribe

After every terror attack the call rings out for the Muslim world to become modern. Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.

Yet it cannot escape the attention of any westerner who has travelled to a Muslim country that for the people there, the challenge of modernity is the overwhelming fact of their lives; the double imperative of being modern and universal on the one hand, and adhering to the emplaced identities of religion and nation, on the other, complicates and enriches everything they do. To anyone outside the west, it is self-evident that there is more than one way to be modern – a truth easily observed in any developing country. Modernity is at the best of times a tension, a dislocation and an agitation, producing – in a phrase from Nietzsche that expresses a kaleidoscopic weirdness of perspective – “a fateful simultaneity of spring and autumn.”
posted by standardasparagus (70 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm still trying to figure out the policy failures that led to large areas of America coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God.
posted by Karaage at 8:51 AM on February 25, 2015 [46 favorites]


In addition it seems very odd to call for a Muslim enlightenment when ISIS et al.'s whole reason de etre is to reject/prevent/undo the spread of enlightenment values.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 9:09 AM on February 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


It also seems odd to call for a Muslim enlightenment when there already was a Muslim enlightenment, and it got destroyed by people trying to murder everyone in it.
posted by corb at 9:14 AM on February 25, 2015 [30 favorites]


That's a good point too
posted by mrbigmuscles at 9:20 AM on February 25, 2015


Thanks for posting this. I work with Muslim college students and see them trying to work these things out in their lives every day. I'm glad I didn't have to do all that when I was 19. A new sort of privilege, I suppose...
posted by jmccw at 9:29 AM on February 25, 2015


This is similar to the War Nerd's piece on the influx of modern/western lifestyle features to the Arab world, , where he says, "The truth about the clash of civilizations you hear people discussing is that it’s all the other way: The Mall is invading Islam, the Mall is taking over. There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina, but there damn well are US-style malls in even the most conservative Islamic countries."
posted by palindromic at 9:43 AM on February 25, 2015 [20 favorites]


In addition it seems very odd to call for a Muslim enlightenment when ISIS Republican Party et al.'s whole reason de etre is to reject/prevent/undo the spread of enlightenment values.

FTFY. I tried explaining to a conservative friend that in my estimation, there are broad agreements between conservative American doctrine and Sharia. He looked at me like I had a third eye.

Some people you just can't reach.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:47 AM on February 25, 2015 [23 favorites]


The mall is just a deluxe version of the bizarres they've always had. The malls in Dubai might look like ones in the US, but women get thrown out for showing too much skin, the restaurants don't serve alcohol, you can't get bacon on your cheeseburger. The only cultural change is that you don't have to bargain in the bigger stores.
posted by w0mbat at 9:50 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


This isn't the imputation of Hubert Védrine or French schoolteachers only, or commentators foreign to the Muslim world. Intellectuals like Malek Chebel [+ French] are stating the same thing.
posted by nicolin at 10:00 AM on February 25, 2015


Boko Haram literally means rejection of what we think of as civilized values.
posted by anadem at 10:07 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina

Not the Muslim kind, anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:08 AM on February 25, 2015 [33 favorites]


The winner of the Iranian Barista Championship was just denied a visa to participate in the World Barista Championship here in Seattle. The coffee & modernism aspect makes it all seem very metaphorical to me. I'm thinking about writing a snippy letter to the authorities.
posted by tychotesla at 10:09 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


The modern bit I'd like to see embraced is to stop trying to balance religion and the rest of their life. That balance is the part many of us feel is lacking in modernness. They are entitled to their opinion and religion you say. Yes.
posted by Bovine Love at 10:09 AM on February 25, 2015


w0mbat; bazaar, I'm pretty sure you meant.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:10 AM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


tychotesla: "The winner of the Iranian Barista Championship was just denied a visa to participate in the World Barista Championship here in Seattle. The coffee & modernism aspect makes it all seem very metaphorical to me. I'm thinking about writing a snippy letter to the authorities."

The reply:

Thank you for your concern. We would like to discuss this further with you. Please visit our warehouse in downtown Chicago.
posted by Splunge at 10:17 AM on February 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


That's certainly a concern I've been weighing. My primary source of income is dependent on me flying, and the idea that that could be turned against me is kind of terrifying. On the other hand, Coffee, Iran, modernism, Seattle... maybe it's worth it (I do not have kids). A few years back there was a poster exhibit exchange between Seattle and Tehran, and it's the kind of event that ends up being influential in subtle ways.
posted by tychotesla at 10:30 AM on February 25, 2015


West to Muslims:

"OK, so one of the leaders of our most powerful country got a little out of control there, and started an unjust and illegal war that killed more than half a million innocent Muslims (conservatively estimated -- though not by Conservatives, go figure) in Iraq, displacing millions more and destabilizing the entire region.

Sorry about that!

But shit happens, and it's time for you forget all that ancient history and become Enlightened!"

And what, stop killing Westerners in little dribs and drabs and start murdering on an industrial scale the way we do?
posted by jamjam at 10:31 AM on February 25, 2015 [18 favorites]


They are entitled to their opinion and religion you say.

I'm not entirely sure what the point is you were trying to make. But when you strip away all the politeness, there is a part of "Enlightenment values" that pretty much says no, you're not entitled to your religion, if your religion doesn't fit inside a rather closely-circumscribed box. I don't think you can get around that. A significant part of the Enlightenment struggle in Europe was to take away temporal power from the Church and the clergy, while also re-basing civil law on something other than religion as a source of its legitimacy. That's not a trivial part of the whole thing. People died for that.

To speak of Enlightenment Values is to basically say, pretty flat-out, that no, you can't be a modern state and be a theocracy at the same time. You can't have a legal system that's based on religion and be legitimate. They are incompatible.

The fact that there are morons running around in both Europe and the US who reject these premises because they support a return to Christian theocracy (or refuse to admit that they weren't living in a Christian theocracy all along; e.g. the Ten Commandments people in the US) doesn't really serve as a counterargument as much as it shows it's not an entirely settled issue. It's still a work in progress, and it's not necessarily an irreversible social rachet mechanism that can't be turned back with enough effort.

I am pretty much a believer that the Enlightenment is the best thing to happen to human civilization in the last few centuries, based on the widespread evidence that theocracies are pretty much uniformly terrible places to live especially for non-believers; it seems like an experiment that we've run enough times that we can say with very high confidence that non-secularism sucks. But I think that history also shows that attempting to ram secularism down people's throats tends not to go well, either.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:36 AM on February 25, 2015 [80 favorites]


Nicely said, Kadin2048. I'm not sure what point I was trying to make, either; I've not fully fleshed out my problem in my head, but it goes something like this: I'd like to see Islam (and every religion for that matter, though some are ahead of others) get to be a lot more personal and a lot less institutional. Enlightened as you say. But invariably, I get "they are entitled to their religion". Ok, fine. But I'd still like them to have it a lot more personal and less institutional.

Raming secularism down peoples throats does not work, indeed. Kind of like trying to force people to be free, can't be done until they want to be free (which mostly involves not wanting other people to dictate what they can and can't do on a personal level, and more importantly, them not wanting to dictate what other people can and cannot do on a personal level). Corrupting values has worked pretty well over the long run, though. Long live McDonalds and Hollywood!
posted by Bovine Love at 10:46 AM on February 25, 2015


In the West, the Enlightenment has degenerated into physicalist scientism, leaving a spiritual/intellectual void that makes it easy pickings for anyone with a spiritual/intellectual agenda.
posted by No Robots at 10:52 AM on February 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


Of course, the Western age of enlightenment was a time free of internal conflict. The West during that time certainly didn't affect any other civilizations in the world in a negative way. Certainly no one with any political power at all in the West now would argue against an Enlightenment idea like the separation of church and state.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:54 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


How about cutting down on big loose labels like "Enlightenment" and producing an itemized list of reforms that all governments would do well to institute, viz.:
- Freedom of expression, of the press, and of the media;
- A distinction between political power and religious authority, hinging on the definition of religion as a private belief that is not binding on those outside one's own religious community;
- The freedom to abandon or change one's religion;
- Equality of the sexes...
I could go on, but ok. In all of these areas, we in Europe and North America could definitely stand to see a lot of improvement. But in most of the Islam-dominant countries they are simply unimaginable. Let's not fool ourselves. Freedoms don't arrive on the point of a gun. The change must come from local actors, and there's no hope of that occurring today. Nonetheless, I don't think it's improper for people to wish to see such reforms as the above, historically deriving from the eighteenth-century revolutions, extended to other parts of the world; nor is it an act of prejudice to think that people benefiting from them live better, longer and happier lives.
One of the saddest ironies in the whole mess today is that Iraq and Syria, though obviously terrible places to live pre-2000, had a stronger secular basis than any of the other states in the region, and the combination of US invasion and fundamentalist militias busted it.
posted by homerica at 10:54 AM on February 25, 2015 [13 favorites]


That is an excellent piece; thanks for posting it. Anyone who wants to begin to understand the Muslim world’s experience of modernity should read it. The heart is in the details, the wonderful life stories he summarizes, but the generalities are well said too:
The experience of modernity cannot be reduced to various rites of passage through which the west has passed. Modernity is the shared predicament of all who discover or are discovered by new values and technologies – and a description of the pleasure and pain that follows. [...]

Few westerners have considered how bruising it is to be constantly reacting to another’s invention, statement or action: always being told to “catch up” or improve. This is the situation that so many Muslims have found themselves in over the past two centuries. But this is the backstory that has made Islam’s engagement with modern values more suspenseful, more despairing, more suffused with the “simultaneity of spring and autumn”, than anywhere else in the world.
posted by languagehat at 11:02 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


The mall is just a deluxe version of the bizarres they've always had. The malls in Dubai might look like ones in the US, but women get thrown out for showing too much skin, the restaurants don't serve alcohol, you can't get bacon on your cheeseburger. The only cultural change is that you don't have to bargain in the bigger stores.

Bacon or no, you CAN get a cheeseburger, which doesn't mean nothing.
posted by Dysk at 11:03 AM on February 25, 2015


Excellent comment, Kadin2048.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:03 AM on February 25, 2015


What would people calling for a "Muslim Enlightenment" call what the Ottoman Empire did in the 18th and 19th centuries? They were pushing for less religious involvement in government. They were inspired by European Enlightenment thought. A lot of the regions that these people are seeing as not having had an Enlightenment were part of the Ottoman Empire. Afghanistan and Iran have had more secular governments within living memory of a number of MeFites (and of people living in those places). Those things won't magically make everything better forever in any country they're tried in.
posted by Anne Neville at 11:41 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


What would people calling for a "Muslim Enlightenment" call what the Ottoman Empire did in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Could it be that there's no such thing as a 'Muslim' enlightenment, there's just enlightenment that happens in a majority Muslim country? If so, you've got the right place, but the wrong time. You want Ataturk.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:47 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


- Freedom of expression, of the press, and of the media;
- A distinction between political power and religious authority, hinging on the definition of religion as a private belief that is not binding on those outside one's own religious community;
- The freedom to abandon or change one's religion;
- Equality of the sexes...
[...]
But in most of the Islam-dominant countries they are simply unimaginable. Let's not fool ourselves.


There's a trend in Western thought on Islam and on the Islamic world that tends to elide all "Muslim countries" and Islamic theocracies. But there are plenty of states that are reasonably called the former and are decidedly not the latter. We ignore Mauritania, Tajikistan, Jordan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Maldives, Niger, Djibouti, Pakistan, Senegal and many others at our peril.

Now many of those countries don't meet all of the criteria you've laid down, and I'm not for a moment pretending to claim any of these countries wouldn't benefit from reforms. But there's an awful lot of Muslims in the world that live in places that don't meet up with the stereotypical picture we have of "the Muslim world".

Why do I bring this up? Because comments like w0mbat's above:

The mall is just a deluxe version of the bizarres they've always had. The malls in Dubai might look like ones in the US

just show that many people automatically default to thinking of particular parts of the Muslim world (termed the "Middle East", although that term doesn't really have any clear consensus on meaning) that isn't representative of most Muslims' lived experiences.
posted by thegears at 11:54 AM on February 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


Does this mean I need to re-read Malaise of Modernity again? Because I can't remember a damned thing from there after reading it. I suspect that means poor comprehension.

I will happily read this article, though. Maybe it will provide some context.
posted by LD Feral at 12:00 PM on February 25, 2015


Of course, before the Enlightenment in Europe, they had a century or more of truly nasty religious conflict. The Thirty Years War and the French wars of religion come to mind. Even places that didn't have all-out war had things like persecution or expulsion of religious minorities. Can you get something like the European Enlightenment without that kind of run-up?
posted by Anne Neville at 12:04 PM on February 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


The article makes reference to an ambassador who wrote letters home about his impressions of England, either under the name of Mirza Muhammad Saleh Shirazi or Mirza Abu al-Hasan Khan Shirazi, and I can find snippets in other works, but I wonder if there isn't a compiled/translated-to-english version, because I want to read this.

Ideally without the years of study it would take to appreciate the language used.
posted by LD Feral at 12:45 PM on February 25, 2015


I have been reading No God But God by Reza Aslan (previously), and he agrees with Anna Neville. The thesis of his introduction to this book is that an Enlightenment is happening in Islam currently, and that's the source of the violence we've seen. He also says that the violence is mostly among Muslims. That it sometimes spills over into the West is indisputable, but the primary enemies of ISIS and the like are not Americans or Europeans, but moderate Muslims.
posted by chrchr at 12:45 PM on February 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


but the primary enemies of ISIS and the like are not Americans or Europeans, but moderate Muslims.

Just saw that come in. I... never considered that angle; thanks chrchr.
posted by LD Feral at 12:54 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Australia's Prime Minister, Toned Abs, has recently been doing this exact thing:
“I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”
Even though dozens of Muslims leaders have done so over the years, particularly in the wake of the Sydney Siege. Responses from the Muslim community have been poor. Also responses from everyone else.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:04 PM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


If we in the West saw something like the Thirty Years War (where between 25 and 40% of the population of Germany were killed) happening in the Muslim world, would we let them get on with it till everybody was sick of fighting, the way it happened in Europe? People were burned alive (as part of witch hunts), too. Killings of suspected witches tended to be done in public, so they probably would have posted videos on the internet had they been able to do so. That's the sort of thing that happened in the century or so before the European Enlightenment.
posted by Anne Neville at 1:19 PM on February 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Can you get something like the European Enlightenment without that kind of run-up?

It would be nice to think that one of the benefits of history would be the ability to learn from it and do better, rather than just being endlessly doomed to repeat it.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:39 PM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think that whether you call it an Enlightenment or not, its clear that something Enlightenment-ish has been going on in the Middle East for the past several years. I agree wholeheartedly with the author's annoyance with Westerners calling for something that's been ongoing rather than supporting those who are trying to bring it about.

Many Muslims would doubtless welcome an increasingly secular society with open arms, and in fact they're doing so. It's accompanied by a lot of rather justified concern about losing any cultural identity and the West (especially America) being rather like a sort of beige Borg, but it's happening and many Muslims are pretty happy with that state of affairs.

But, of course, there's the Muslims who aren't happy with that state of affairs, and they have tools at their disposal that earlier opponents of Enlightenment didn't have, all the force multipliers that make guerrilla war effective just to begin with. Not to mention the absolutely fantastic way that modern communications makes it possible to connect with people who feel the same way you do and collaborate on projects. That last makes both Al Qaeda and Uber workable.

When we add in the problem that the West has been collectively shitting on the Middle East in order to more efficiently extract oil, things get more confused than they already were. I don't think it's at all coincidental that the overwhelming majority of Islamic terrorists come out of the Middle East rather than Indonesia. Most Muslims are East Asian, yet most Muslim terrorists are Middle Eastern. I can't help but suspect that the evils the West has inflicted on the Middle East are a major component for that.

Further, due to the history of the regions, in the Middle East you've got a lot of people with political power who depend, to one extent or another, on the backing of Islamic religious authority, and I'd argue that the intertwined history in the West of the rise of the Enlightenment and the fall of the aristocracy has many of them concerned for their own power.

Pre-Enlightenment the power structures of the Church and State in the West were deeply interdependent [1]. The priest said God approved of the king, the king used his armies to protect the priest. The Duke's brother (or cousin, or whatever) was the Archbishop. Not that there weren't conflicts between what we'd term secular and religious authority, but to a very large extent one of the products of the Enlightenment was the very concept of authority as being broken into those components.

Once religion was put into its box and turned into a thing separate from secular authority, the question of why people should bother having kings became a lot more pressing.

Islam, like Judaism, is an explicitly totalitarian thing, while the totalitarian aspects of Christianity were more a matter of practice than explicitly coded in the holy text of that religion. It isn't just a religion, it's a religion, a tax and legal code and a political system rolled into one. Unlike Judaism, where the rest got dropped off a long time back and most Jews tend to ignore the political, legal and tax stuff, there's still plenty of places where the stuff I'd classify as secular that is built into Islam are still very much in power. And for the authorities in those areas reducing the power of the religion brings their own semi-secular power into question.

I don't think it's at all odd that Saudi Arabia is funding ISIS, the power elites in Saudi Arabia know that their authority, power, and money rest on religious foundations (well, and the US government backing them). The Arab Spring was a direct threat to the House of Saud because it was in part an Englightenment-ish movement and they saw themselves becoming as irrelevant as the scattered remnants of the European aristocracy are.

And Kadin2048 is dead on as well. Not only are the semi-secular power elites threatened, but so too is the core of the religion. Christianity used to be like Islam is today: a totalitarian system that encompassed every aspect of life. Then it got put into a box labeled "religion" and all the non-religious parts got chopped off until all that was left were some men in funny hats handing out crackers. The old fire, the old power, is long gone though there are plenty of people who want to bring it back.

And that's a lessening of Christianity. I'd say it's a welcome and necessary lessening, but I can see how even a Christian in the 1700's who supported the Enlightenment could be disturbed by seeing the might of Christianity extinguished.

Any Islamic Enlightenment must, necessarily, involve Islam being put into a box and becoming a lesser thing than it is today. And I can see how even a liberal Muslim who agrees in general with that agenda might be disturbed by it as well.

******

I'll also add this: to date exactly one nation outside Europe and the USA/Canada has successfully modernized without massive assistance from the outside and that nation is Japan.

I suspect that another aspect to the issue, and another reason why Muslim nations like Indonesia aren't seeing the sort of violence that brings calls for a Muslim Enlightenment, is that like the leaders of the nations that have failed to modernize, the leaders of the Middle Eastern nations haven't actually understood the true magnitude of the problem.

The article describes a constant game of catch up, of (Middle Eastern) Muslims always feeling as if they are involved in a social version the Red Queen Hypothesis [2]. And that's happening largely because they've got resources the West wants, so they're getting (in addition to the constant threat of US invasion) an influx of money.

And that can be spent on the cool toys the West produces. But there's always more cool new toys and you're never caught up, you're never "modern" because what you bought last week is already obsolete.

This is the problem China faced, and in large part by looking at the failure of China to succeed the leadership of Japan in the 1870's chose a radically different path. Partially of necessity, Japan had nothing the West wanted and so was unable to buy the toys that signified "being modern".

I'll pick on Saudi Arabia here for a minute, because just like China it has vast resources the West wants, it is getting a massive influx of money from the West, and it is in the trap the article described. People there are tired, they're beaten down. No matter what happens they are playing a never ending game of catch up. You buy the Mercedes coupe, and now SUV's are the in thing.

Doing what Japan did, which was to engage in a nationwide project of building factories, roads, and all the other infrastructure that makes the toys possible is difficult and not certain to work. Worse, it too is an ongoing project (just ask Americans as we watch our own essential infrastructure crumble because our power elites found that they could get more money by ignoring infrastructure problems and pocketing the money earmarked for improvements and maintenance to the infrastructure).

Muslims in Indonesia don't have that problem, they don't have the massive influx of money that makes buying the toys possible. They're stuck with the problems of crushing poverty instead.

But the Middle Eastern Muslims, like the Qing Chinese before them, have a different problem: their elites are squandering the money they have on *buying* the toys instead of *making* the toys.

That Meiji era Japan got power elites who were actually willing to undertake the incredibly hard, and chancy, work of building up their nation into a true power seems to be a matter more of colossal good luck than anything else. Certainly the average Japanese wasn't more ambitious, or more educated, or more driven, than the average Chinese, or the average Suadi Arabian subject.

I would argue that to an extent we're seeing the power elites of the Middle East squandering the opportunity to escape the game of catch up and become true world powers, and buying the apathy of the non-elite populations by hooking them into the game of catch up. The average person, whether Japanese, American, or Saudi, is going to just go along with whatever the power elites push them towards, call it laziness, or apathy, or a justified focus on their own immediate problems, the result is the same.

So the Middle East plays catch up and resents it, which in turn feeds the Islamist minority, which in turn props up the power elites who buy off the plebes with a few baubles that force them to play catch up.

[1] Not that the priest and king were singing Kumbaya together, and not to deny or minimize the power struggles between the secular and religious authorities of pre-Enlightenment Europe.

[2] Which says about evolution that basically a species must run as fast as it can just to stand still relative to the other species.
posted by sotonohito at 1:51 PM on February 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


17th century religious war was exactly the sort of thing which occupied David Hume when he was writing his History of England. He was desperate for society not to go back to that. He was actually a fan in his History of moderate tolerant religion of the C of E variety - avoiding the extremes of 'enthusiasm' and 'superstition', he's not the hardliner that many people think despite his personal atheism. The Enlightenment involved a lot of 'moderate' religion and often the idea that you could prove moderate tolerant religion with 'reason'. It's not an impious age.

I think it sometimes gets mixed up with the real revolutionary stuff - which was the Higher Criticism, which mostly came later because once you start thinking of the Bible as a critical fallible book - just a book - then real changes and challenges become possible. Add Darwin and it became even easier to think the unthinkable, that women weren't created to be subservient by a Creator, and as you refuse the traditional binary gender roles underpinned by scripture, liberation for LGBTI people eventually, over quite a long timescale, became possible too.

It's much harder to challenge these things when they're woven into an unchallengeable sacred text, protected by law. (Blasphemy laws in the West are in some cases still on the statutes today and have been used in living memory, but they were being used to earnest to shut down and jail booksellers as late as the middle of the 19th century, in for example, Scotland and England. The Enlightenment didn't get rid of those.) I wonder if people say 'Enlightenment' in these cases a bit carelessly when what they really mean is the process by which the Bible was desacralized and (mostly) defanged, allowing people increasingly to think different thoughts about how the world should be. That came later.

[I've crossposted with Sotonohito]
posted by Flitcraft at 1:53 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm still trying to figure out the policy failures that led to large areas of America coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God.

Um, it's not like this sort of thing hasn't been present throughout US history.

Not that that's any consolation.
posted by aught at 1:58 PM on February 25, 2015


"To anyone outside the west, it is self-evident that there is more than one way to be modern"

This claim reminds me of reading about subaltern theorists who argue that developing nations are faced with the task of recovering an authentic, historically-rooted identity after having experienced post-colonialism/imperialism/Westernism (based on my limited understanding of this). Alternatively:

Gayatri Spivak's line of reasoning was developed in Geographies of Postcolonialism (2008), wherein Joanne Sharp proposed that Western intellectuals relegate other, non-Western (African, Asian, Middle Eastern) forms of knowing—of acquiring knowledge of the world—to the margins of intellectual discourse, by re-formulating said forms of knowing as myth and as folklore. wikipedia

But while I strongly agree with the sentiment, I would disagree with the logic of the suggestion that there are multiple ways to be modern. I would argue that modernity entails certain known constraints without which you would not have a society that could be reasonably called "modern". Science is one such constraint: While I can envision Japanese versus American physicists who differ in their communication practices (which show in the flow/organization of their written discourse i.e. published academic papers) and different topical interests (i.e. different subfields of physics), in the end it's still all under capital-s-science. You can have different flavors of science but the underlying values—metascientific notions and principles such as replication, verifiability, etc., would share a large overlap of commonality (even if the implicit philosophies may differ). So that reflects at least one necessary condition of modernity, as a starting point.

In turn, whereas if by that pullquote the author meant "modern" in the Nietzschean sense as described in the article, then the literal point of the statement is trivial. I hope he's a better author than that, or maybe I'm misreading something…

I'm Chinese American and feel the criticism (or, the criticism being criticized by the author) applies to China. Ancient China is renowned for technological inventions, but I'd frame it as an objective sociological truth that no parallel Enlightenment of values (including a more scientific way of thinking and looking at the world) happened there. Are modern Chinese people's lives " coterminous with a strenuous, ceaseless engagement with all that is new"? Um, you bet?? But that again seems like two notions, or mental models, of "modernity" talking past one another.
posted by polymodus at 2:11 PM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


The thesis of his introduction to this book is that an Enlightenment is happening in Islam currently, and that's the source of the violence we've seen.

There are other major conflicts going on in the ME as well, which complicate things: between secularists/militarists/royalists and political Islam; between Sunni Arabs and the Islamic Republic of Iran; between the West and challenges to Western interests in the region. Amazingly, Israel is falling further and further down on this list it seems. There has not been much direct conflict between political Islam (the Mulsim Brotherhood, AKP in turkey) and the jihadists, though. They seem to work alongside each other against common enemies, at the moment. This is making the situation in Libya very complicated, where secularists are outraged that the UN wants to form a unity government between unelected Islamist militias supported by Turkey and Qatar who have tacitly supported jihadists, and the elected government that was pushed out of Tripoli. Libya is an interesting place to watch right now. "The next six months ...."

Paying the price of a failed Libya
But during the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, the Islamist groups emerged from hiding and from abroad. They headed straight to the frontlines, bringing their experience to bear on the battlefield.

The middle-class, people such as Salwa and Miftah, who had benefited from the national institutions created by Gaddafi's policies and the diasporic Libyans, did not have the will to die. They stayed behind, talking to their Western interlocutors.

It was these discussions in hotel lobbies that blinded the Western governments to the realities of politics in Libya. When Nato came in, it delivered the advantage not to the middle-class and the diaspora, but to the Islamists.

And the geopolitical tensions have exacerbated this mess. Right after the fall of Gaddafi, Qatar and Turkey rushed in to help support the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pushed an anti-Brotherhood agenda across North Africa, and backed Haftar's war against the it in Tripoli and Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi. This regional cold war broke the political process and helped create two parliaments, and two prime ministers.
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:11 PM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Islam, like Judaism, is an explicitly totalitarian thing

This is not true, and it's part and parcel of the essentializing discourse that makes it so hard for Westerners to even begin to understand the Islamic world. Shi'ism, for instance, is explicitly apolitical; the only person considered worthy of ruling is the Imam of the Time, or Hidden Imam, who disappeared (or "went into Occultation") in 873. Since then, Shi'ites are supposed to avoid politics where possible. The Ayatollah Khomeini altered that with his theory of the rule of the jurisconsults, but that was a startling innovation that only got anywhere because he managed to seize power (with the help of the socialists he then brutally suppressed). Islam is immensely complicated, and it doesn't help anyone to make simplistic statements about it.
posted by languagehat at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


languagehat, you might be interested in the 2014 text The Shi‘ites of Lebanon:
Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists
by Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab.
Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab: There were several reasons for writing the book. In the last two decades we had read several books on Shi`i Islamist movements, particularly Hizbullah, which presented secular ideologies and Communism simply as those forces and ideas that the Islamists rejected. None of the studies accounted for the way in which Shi`i Islamists in Lebanon engaged with Communism, as well as with secular frameworks and practices, especially those of the modern state. We wanted to tell a story in which the interface of the secular and the sacred would be explored and their dichotomization problematized. Another reason for writing the book was to combine a knowledge of the legal and theological Shi`i tradition with an understanding of modernist Islamist approaches and interpretations. Most of the studies on Shi`i Islamists, particularly on Hizbullah, do not draw links between their political-military activities and this legal and theological tradition developing at the hawzas (seminaries).

The book delineates distinct secular processes and ideas that shaped the modernists, the Communists, and the Islamists. It explores the overlays between the secular and the religious, revisiting sectarianism, the Lebanese state, and the Shi`a’s varied relations to the state. More specifically, it discusses the Islamists’ approaches to religious modernism and Communism, and the type of civil arenas they shaped through a culture of resistance (“thaqāfat al-muqāwama”) and the self-initiated application of the shari`a in the area of `ibādāt (acts of worship) that function largely outside the rubric of the state.

Historical developments in Iraq, particularly the attraction that Communism held for numerous students at the Shi`i hawzas, form an important part of the book. This part provides a corrective to the underlying reasons for the clerical discourse of takfīr (declaring blasphemous) against Iraqi Communists and challenges the oversimplified view that Communism preached atheism, and that the Shi`i exemplars in Najaf and their followers were simply defending society against rampant atheistic practices. In fact, the book tries to show how important religious symbolisms were to mainstream Shi`i Communists. The section on Iraq is also important given the fact that major Lebanese Islamist thinkers, such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, and founders of Hizbullah, such as Abbas al-Musawi, Subhi al-Tufayli, and Hasan Nasrallah, lived and studied in Najaf for a period of time.

posted by standardasparagus at 3:28 PM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


It would be nice if people could learn from history. But one thing you learn from history is, you don't see a lot of people learning from history.

The Saudi royal family, and other elites in the Middle East, might have more to lose than their power and money in a change of government. Ask the Romanovs what can happen to monarchs in a revolution.
posted by Anne Neville at 3:42 PM on February 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


languagehat, I think we may be talking past each other due to my use of the term "totalitarian". I'm not using it in the sense of "a system of government which is oppressive", but rather in the sense of "a system which encompasses the totality of human activity". And the Koran and Hadith, just like the Torah and Talmud, specify rules for just about everything from a legal code, to taxation, to inheritance, to sex, to diet, to hygiene, etc.

It is certainly true that Shi'a Islam rejects non-Caliphate Islamic states. But that doesn't make Shi'a Islam any less a religion/ideology/system/thingie that, in theory anyway, encompasses the whole of human existence.

Obviously there's a great deal of disagreements among Muslims about whether or not they want Islam to be the totalitarian system it is written to be. I'd argue that's rather the whole point of the linked article, that there are a great many Muslims who, like their Christian counterparts who rejected the totalitarian form of Christianity that existed back in the 1700's, have decided that they'd rather practice a non-totalitarian form of Islam. An Islam that **doesn't** extend to all areas of human existence, but rather is a religion in a box and outside that box human affairs are governed by other, non-religious, mechanisms.
posted by sotonohito at 4:39 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is pretty interesting:

Iqtisaduna
Our Economy (Arabic: اقتصادنا"Iqtisaduna") is a major work on Islamic economics by prominent Shia cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Written between 1960 and 1961, and published in 1982, it is al-Sadr's main work on economics, and still forms much of the basis for modern Islamic banking.

In Our Economy, al-Sadr strives to show that Islam has answers to problems of the modern world by presenting an Islamic alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He rejects socialism on the basis that Islam distinguishes between the individual and the ruler in an Islamic state in a manner that requires a distinction between private and public property. However, he also rejects capitalism's notion that private property is justified in its own right, arguing instead that both private and public property originate from God, and that the rights and obligations of both private individuals and rulers are therefore dictated by Islam. He also rejects the conclusion that this makes Islamic economics a mixture between capitalism and socialism, arguing that capitalism and socialism each come about as the natural conclusion of certain ideologies, while Islamic economics comes about as the natural conclusion of Islamic ideology and therefore is justified entirely independently of other systems of economics.
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:42 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Tahtawi's account of his time in Paris is available in English, An Imam in Paris
posted by BinGregory at 5:04 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


The real muslim enlightenment would be muslims questioning whether there is a god at all, and questioning the probable motives for writing the Koran in the first place.
posted by w0mbat at 5:17 PM on February 25, 2015


We shouldn't necessarily expect any group that overthrows Islamic rule in, say, Saudi Arabia to be pro-Western or pro-American. Revolutionaries don't always like the people who were friendly with the previous rulers, for some reason. See the Napoleonic Wars and the Cuban Revolution for examples.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:50 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


homerica: But in most of the Islam-dominant countries they are simply unimaginable. Let's not fool ourselves. Freedoms don't arrive on the point of a gun. The change must come from local actors, and there's no hope of that occurring today.

I absolutely disagree. Change _cannot_ come from local actors when foreign actors put so much effort into subverting it. The most infuriating thing is reading online [or worse being lectured] about how this is all our own fault. If only we said no to terrorism, or said no to fanatical Islamists, or had democratic governments. Well hey, thanks for letting us know that that's the problem, we'll be right on it!

Frankly it is insulting to have this represented as an internal struggle, or an issue of religion, or plain terrorism. These are foreign militias, supported by foreign governments, wreaking havoc and committing atrocities for which none of their sponsors will be held responsible.

Since citizens of the "Muslim world" are being held responsible for the acts of terror [which wasn't a problem when all the people dieing were Middle Easterners], I think it's only fair that citizens of the "Enlightened World" be held responsible for the actions of their governments. After all, you live in democracies and actually are directly responsible for your elected representatives.

So here's the thing, those terrorists running around? You armed them, you trained them, and you've been happy having them do your dirty work here. Maybe when the dust settles we'll be able to discuss reparations, until then you can all shove your "Enlightenment".
posted by xqwzts at 6:35 PM on February 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


^^ That is rant-y and not intended at anyone in specific btw, just a general expression about how it feels to read a lot of the articles being spewed online these days.
posted by xqwzts at 6:37 PM on February 25, 2015


xqwzts: "I think it's only fair that citizens of the "Enlightened World" be held responsible for the actions of their governments. After all, you live in democracies and actually are directly responsible for your elected representatives."

You don't seem to know much about how the political process in the USA works. The "people" don't choose our elected representatives in the USA. That is an illusion that you're buying into like many Americans. The elite with the most money and connections choose our "elected" representatives. How else can you explain the fact that the candidate with the most funding almost always wins?

It's not the people of the USA who are to blame for these massive blunders. It's the few, very powerful and very rich elites in the USA who are responsible.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:34 PM on February 25, 2015


It's not the people of the USA who are to blame for these massive blunders. It's the few…

Call me Chomskyite but I'd agree with xqwtzs in that we may not be to blame, but we "the people" are responsible, in a particular way more so than the elites because we enable them.
posted by polymodus at 11:37 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's very simple, we just load the drones with How To Have An Enlightenment leaflets and drop those in between the bombing runs.

Interpreting islam to muslims
posted by BinGregory at 11:38 PM on February 25, 2015


InsertNiftyNameHere: It's not the people of the USA who are to blame for these massive blunders. It's the few, very powerful and very rich elites in the USA who are responsible.

My point being that it isn't any different elsewhere, and it's pretty hypocritical/stupid to blame ordinary citizens in other countries, where they have significantly less agency to control or curb their governments. You can't leave out the first part of my statement: "Since citizens of the "Muslim world" are being held responsible for the acts of terror".
posted by xqwzts at 3:59 AM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


How else can you explain the fact that the candidate with the most funding almost always wins?

Funding a probable loser is throwing away money. Funding a probable winner is an investment.
posted by Bovine Love at 4:05 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Of course, it would be much easier if everyone in the Middle East agreed that a modern secular state, like a modern European state, was a desirable goal. Problem is, not everyone does. Neither did people in France or Germany in the French wars of religion or the Thirty Years War.

The other problem with trying to learn from history is that history is chaotic. A small change in one seemingly inconsequential thing can cause huge changes later on (see the entire genre of alternate history for examples). Predicting the outcome of a historical event is a lot more like predicting the weather than it is like predicting where the planets will be (and even that is chaotic if you look at long enough time scales...).
posted by Anne Neville at 6:37 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


> languagehat, you might be interested in the 2014 text The Shi‘ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists by Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab.

I am indeed, thanks very much for that!

> languagehat, I think we may be talking past each other due to my use of the term "totalitarian". I'm not using it in the sense of "a system of government which is oppressive", but rather in the sense of "a system which encompasses the totality of human activity". And the Koran and Hadith, just like the Torah and Talmud, specify rules for just about everything from a legal code, to taxation, to inheritance, to sex, to diet, to hygiene, etc.

OK, I understand better where you're coming from; thanks for the clarification. It still gives me hives to see Islam and Judaism held up as in any sense "totalitarian"; it feeds right into a common and vicious discourse about those Other religions and enables caricatured images of believers. I have never known a single Jew or Muslim who thought they were, or acted as if they were, part of "a system which encompasses the totality of human activity." I have, on the other hand, known a number of left-wingers (and, of course, proud atheists) who did think and act that way. I'm a lot more worried about political than religious totalitarianism.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on February 26, 2015


xqwzts: "My point being that it isn't any different elsewhere, and it's pretty hypocritical/stupid to blame ordinary citizens in other countries, where they have significantly less agency to control or curb their governments.

I agree 100%. But my point is that any thinking American doesn't blame ordinary citizens of any country for the current troubles. Most of this crap is blowback from earlier shitty US policies.

I don't blame ordinary citizens of another country any more than I blame ordinary americans for the blunders of the USA. It's our leaders who may be "elected" or not who are to blame.

The ordinary people of the world have far more in common with one another than they do with their "leaders."
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:17 AM on February 26, 2015


polymodus: "It's not the people of the USA who are to blame for these massive blunders. It's the few…

Call me Chomskyite but I'd agree with xqwtzs in that we may not be to blame, but we "the people" are responsible, in a particular way more so than the elites because we enable them.
"

Honest question... How do you propose we solve that problem? I don't see a solution short of revolution, and that's never going to happen.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:22 AM on February 26, 2015


And revolution is not a solution, as has been proven over and over again. Many broken eggs, no omelet.

I'm afraid that problem cannot be solved in the present state of humanity. Either we evolve so that we don't need to follow Big Leaders any more, or we die off, hopefully before rendering the earth uninhabitable for too many species. It gives me a lot of pain to say this; as an anarchist I've been trying for decades to figure out how to get from here to there, but every passing year tells me that it is not currently possible. (It feels like being an opponent of slavery a few thousand years ago, when every advanced civilization depended utterly on slavery; you could theorize all you wanted, but nothing was going to change in your lifetime or for many, many generations. Depressing, but there it is.)
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on February 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Of course a lot of people in the West would like to blame Islam for the way the Middle East is. That means it's not our fault, and we don't have to do anything differently if we don't want to. We can try to help the benighted heathens if we want to, but it's not our fault and we don't have to do anything if it's inconvenient. It couldn't be because we, oh, I don't know, invaded a Middle Eastern country on a false pretext and toppled its government. It couldn't be because we support an oppressive government because they keep the oil flowing to us. It couldn't be because we re-drew national boundaries for our own convenience. If those things are the problem, we might have to stop doing them. We might even have to, oh the horror, pay more for oil, or use less of it! If we admitted that we screwed up, we might have to pay to fix things, or even let some of those awful non-white, non-Christian people come to live in our country! Can't have that, it's got to be because the Muslims haven't gotten off their asses and had an Enlightenment like we did. Let's go tell the poor ignorant heathens the proper way to practice religion!
posted by Anne Neville at 7:57 AM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Or, you know, maybe it isn't one thing. Maybe there are a variety of factors. Middle East problems (like everyone else's problems) somewhat predate oil extraction. Clearly western meddling has affected things, but you can't blame it all on any one thing.

Pointing out that one thing might be a problem does not preclude other things being a problem.
posted by Bovine Love at 8:24 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


@KarlreMarks: "The western left-liberal impulse to say 'blame us for everything' is a perverse form of ethnocentrism. The world still revolves around us."
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:12 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The western left-liberal impulse to say 'blame us for everything' is a perverse form of ethnocentrism. The world still revolves around us."

I don't think it's ethnocentrism, as such, to claim that the United States' governmental intervention in the Middle East has contributed to instability over the years.That's pointing to concrete actions that clearly had a major effect.
posted by thegears at 9:42 AM on February 26, 2015


Bovine Love: Pointing out that one thing might be a problem does not preclude other things being a problem.

No it doesn't, but being "unenlightened" isn't one of the problems.

I think there's something to be said about the convenience of blaming Islam as a religion [though those same people might know a handful of Muslims they wouldn't apply that to; though there are sizable populations in the region that are not Muslim.] It helps dissociate from them, it makes it easy to see them as an other, easy to not have to bother empathizing, easy to blame them for being victims. Politicians like that because it absolves them of any complicity or responsibility: their victims, well they probably deserve it.

I also think that lumping everything up as "Middle East problems" doesn't help. This is a large area with different cultures and peoples and nations, and Middle East is such a generic term [and so often misused] it helps generalize about hundreds of millions of people. And if you wanted to generalize, well "Middle East problems" is still wrong: the nations involved [and being destroyed] span North Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Central Asia.

So to lump all these disparate people in one easy group, and make it simple to blame them based on that, we find the convenience of blaming Islam. Fifty years earlier and the blame would be on godless Communism. A hundred years earlier and "brown" would probably suffice as a reason.

And that's where segments on Fox News, or CNN, or the Daily Mirror, or Al Jazeera - or articles online, or soundbites from politicians - come to play. More and more it becomes an image problem: All these soundbites about Islam being so backwards, its adherents must be living in the dark ages, the rest of the world evolved from that a hundred years ago. So if they're that far behind, maybe they have to be terrorized and occupied and fight it out like feral animals.

It becomes easy to say stuff like:
Anne Neville: Of course, before the Enlightenment in Europe, they had a century or more of truly nasty religious conflict. The Thirty Years War and the French wars of religion come to mind. Even places that didn't have all-out war had things like persecution or expulsion of religious minorities. Can you get something like the European Enlightenment without that kind of run-up?

Being apathetic or downright blaming the people is easy when they're so different. If American media wasn't so widely disseminated, and American culture didn't permeate globally as it does, if most of the world saw Americans as an unknown: and all we had to judge by was Jesus Camp, what image would we have of the average American then.

There hasn't been a Bono, Eno, and Pavarotti moment that humanizes the people. But there have been others which actively undermine that humanization.
"The idea was simple, instead of doing what the news does, which is entertain you, I wanted to do something that the news rarely does, make a person care about the issue...I wanted young people in Europe to see the people in the war, I didn't want them to see politicians or religious leaders or military spokesmen."
Bill Carter
posted by xqwzts at 10:01 AM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


"The other problem with trying to learn from history is that history is chaotic."

Very true this is why there is no established Historigraphic "science" that can fit all data models.

The recent Riyadh metro project is another example of western influence. IMO.
I remember my father telling me about a building project in SA. All the principles were there and the head western builder said "it looks good YM, does it not?"

"It does not look good, it looks necessary"

Thanks for posting this. (Billy carter, oh geez)
posted by clavdivs at 3:15 PM on February 26, 2015


We ignore Mauritania, Tajikistan, Jordan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Maldives, Niger, Djibouti, Pakistan, Senegal and many others at our peril.

I'd add Indonesia to that list, it is one of the world's biggest democracies after all.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:53 PM on February 26, 2015


"History is marked by alternating movements across an imaginary line that separates East from West"

-Herodotus.
posted by clavdivs at 7:11 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


@hahellyer: "The pseudo-leftism that infantalises Muslims as automatons without agency is more similar to right-wing bigotry than it cares to admit."
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:47 PM on February 27, 2015


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