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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Islam, the West and Modernity

"Did the perpetrators of 9/11 really see themselves as striking a blow against freedom and democracy? Is hatred of freedom the passion that drives militantly political Islamist extremists today? If so, you won't find it in jihadist discourse, which typically focuses, not on freedom and its opposite, nor on democracy and its opposite, but on discipline versus decadence, on moral purity versus moral corruption, terms that come out of centuries of Western dominance in Islamic societies and the corresponding fragmentation of communities and families there, the erosion of Islamic social values, the proliferation of liquor, the replacement of religion with entertainment, and the secularization of the rich elite along with the everhardening gap between rich and poor...

Herf and others see the Islamist doctrine as boiling down to a call for cutting off heads, cutting off hands, and clamping bags over women. There's no denying that radical Islamists have done these things. Yet radical Islamists themselves see the main conflict dividing the world today as a disagreement about whether there is one God, many gods, or no God at all. All the problems of humanity would be resolved, they contend, if the world would only recognize the singleness of God (and of Mohammed's special role as his spokesperson).

Secular intellectuals in the West don't necessarily disagree about the number of gods. They just don't think that's the burning question. To them — to us — the basic human problem is finding ways to satisfy the needs and wants of all people in a manner that gives each one full participation in decision making about his or her own destiny. One God, two gods, three, none, many — whatever: people will have differing views, and it's not worth fighting about, because settling that question will not help solve hunger, poverty, war, crime, inequality, injustice, global warming, resource depletion, or any of the other ills plaguing humanity. Such is the secular position...

Western customs, legal systems, and democracy look like a project to atomize society down to the level of individual economic units making autonomous decisions based on rational self-interest. Ultimately, it seems, this would pit every man, woman, and child against every other, in a competition of all against all for material goods.

What looks, from one side, like a campaign to secure greater rights for citizens irrespective of gender, looks from the other side, like powerful strangers inserting themselves into the private affairs of families and undercutting people s ability to maintain their communal selves as familial and tribal networks. In short, what looks from one side like empowering each individual looks, from the other side, like disempowering whole communities.

The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a "clash of civilizations," if that proposition means we're-differentso-we-must-fight-until-theres-only-one-of-us. It's better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting. Muslims were a crowd of people going somewhere. Europeans and their offshoots were a crowd of people going somewhere. When the two crowds crossed paths, much bumping and crashing resulted, and the crashing is still going on.

Unraveling the vectors of those two crowds is the minimum precondition for sorting out the doctrinal bases of today's disputes. The unraveling will not itself produce sweetness and light, because there are actual incompatibilities here, not just "misunderstandings." When I started working on this book, I read my proposal to a group of fellow writers, two of whom declared that the conflict between the Muslim world and the West was promoted by hidden powers because "people are really the same and we all want the same things"; the conflict would fade away if only people in the West understood that Islam was actually just like Christianity. "They believe in Abraham, too," one of them offered.

This sort of well-meant simplification won't get us very far.

On the other side, I often hear liberal Muslims in the United States say that "jihad just means 'trying to be a good person,'" suggesting that only anti-Muslim bigots think the term has something to do with violence. But they ignore what jihad has meant to Muslims in the course of history dating back to the lifetime of Prophet Mohammed himself. Anyone who claims that jihad has nothing to do with violence must account for the warfare that the earliest Muslims called "jihad." Anyone who wants to say that early Muslims felt a certain way but we modern Muslims can create whole new definitions for jihad (and other aspects of Islam) must wrestle with the doctrine Muslims have fleshed out over time: that the Qur'an, Mohammed's prophetic career, and the lives, deeds, and words of his companions in the first Muslim community were the will of God revealed on Earth and no mortal human can improve on the laws and customs of that time and place. This doctrine has forced all Muslim reformers to declare that they are proposing nothing new, only restoring what was originally meant. They must deny that they are forging forward, must insist that they are going back to the pristine original. That's a trap Muslim thinkers must break out of.

The modernist Egyptian theologian Sheikh Mohammed Abduh wrote famous books showing that the Qur'an actually prescribed science and certain (but not other) modern social values. He cites scriptural declarations to show that in marriage the Qur'an actually favors monogamy over polygamy. His case is convincing but he clearly came to his task intending to find support for monogamy in the Qur'an. It was a conclusion he had already reached. The question is, from what other source did he derive this conclusion? Was it not rational thought applied to the deepest principles of shared human life?

The role of women in society is no doubt the starkest instance of the incompatibility between the Islamic world and the West, an issue much in need of intellectual unraveling and deconstruction. Every society in every era has understood the powerful potential of sexuality to disrupt social harmony and every society has developed social forms to check that power. On this point, the disagreement between Islamic and Western culture is not about whether women should be oppressed, as is often represented in the West. Well-meaning folk on both sides believe that no human beings should be oppressed. This is not to deny that women suffer grievously from oppressive laws in many Muslim countries. It is only to say that the principle on which Muslims stand is not the "right" to oppress women. Rather, what the Muslim world has reified over the course of history is the idea that society should be divided into a men's and a women's realm and that the point of connection between the two should only be in the private arena, so that sexuality can be eliminated as a factor in the public life of the community.

And I must say, I don't see how a single society can be constructed in which some citizens think the whole world should be divided into a women's realm and a men's realm, and others think the genders should be blended into a single social realm wherein men and women walk the same streets, shop the same shops, eat at the same restaurants, sit together in the same classrooms, and do the same jobs. It can only be one or the other. It can't be both. From where I stand, I don't see how Muslims can live in the West, under the laws and customs of Western societies, if they embrace that divided-world view, nor how Westerners can live in the Muslim world as anything but visitors, if they embrace that genders-shuffled-together view...

Many points for discussion, even argument, simmer between the Islamic world and the West. There can be no sensible argument, however, until both sides are using the same terms and mean the same things by those terms — until, that is, both sides share the same framework or at least understand what framework the other is assuming. Following multiple narratives of world history can contribute at least to developing such a perspective.

Everybody likes democracy, especially as it applies to themselves personally; but Islam is not the opposite of democracy; its a whole other framework. Within that framework there can be democracy, there can tyranny, there can be many states in between.

For that matter, Islam is not the opposite of Christianity, nor of Judaism. Taken strictly as a system of religious beliefs, it has more areas of agreement than argument with Christianity and even more so with Judaism — take a look sometime at the laws of diet, hygiene, and sexuality prescribed by orthodox religious Judaism, and you 11 see almost exactly the same list as you find in orthodox, religious Islam. Indeed, as Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad once noted, until recent centuries, it made more sense to speak of Judeo-Muslim than of Judeo-Christian culture.

It is, however, problematically misleading to think of Islam as one item in a class whose other items are Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Not inaccurate, of course: Islam is a religion, like those others, a distinct set of beliefs and practices related to ethics, morals, God, the cosmos, and mortality. But Islam might just as validly be considered as one item in a class whose other items include communism, parliamentary democracy, fascism, and the like, because Islam is a social project like those others, an idea for how politics and the economy ought to be managed, a complete system of civil and criminal law.

Then again, Islam can quite validly be seen as one item in a class whose other items include Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, Western civilization, and so on, because there is a universe of cultural artifacts from art to philosophy to architecture to handicrafts to virtually every other realm of human cultural endeavor that could properly be called Islamic."

--- Destiny Distrupted History Of The World Through Islamic Eyes / Tamim Ansary


If freedom is understood as religious freedom, the freedom to be decadent and the freedom to govern oneself under a secular framework, Islamist extremists do indeed hate freedom
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