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Early Islamist responses to Western challenge
Early Islamist responses to Western challenge
The fall of the 19th century and dawn of the 20th C, saw a shift in the balance of powers from the World of Islam to that of the ascending West.
Thursday, October 4,2007 15:38
by Soumaya Ghanoushi islam21.net

The fall of the 19th century and dawn of the 20th C, saw a shift in the balance of powers from the World of Islam to that of the ascending West. In the eclipsing Islamic world, three tendencies emerged in response to the Western challenge, in its military and administrative faces essentially. The triumph of the rising forces of the West over the waning Othoman empire at the end the 60 day Vienna siege, the withdrawal of the latter and the subsequent appropriation of many of its lands, presented Muslim consciousness with its most tormenting dilemma. Faith in the infinite superiority of its culture and value system, however, remained untouched, unwavering amongst Muslim elite and society alike.

Military threat was nothing new to the far stretching Muslim empire, with which the brutal Mongol and Tratar invasions made it only too well aqcuainted. But the strength of the Islamic civilisation made it apt to disperse such dangers and incoprporate them within its general framework. Its experience with the West was of an utterly new order, a "decrepit giant" in confrontation with a nascent modern West armed with all the weapons of coercion and mastery its modern technology afforded it. Ever since, the Islamic map was divided into three major intellectual currents:

1- the camp of the bureaucrat, of the army official and sultan courtier who sought to benifit from the West"s advances in the governance of its administartive and military affairs.

2-the tendency towards conservatism which saw the West in its assaulting military dimension wholly, thus resolving to shun it entirely, if it is to preserve the integrity of traditional social fabric. The bearers of this banner were the traditional ulamaa and the vast sectors of the Muslim masses.

3-The response of the Islamic revivalists, who recognizing the advances of the West, endeavored to revive and renovate Islamic references, in light of the accomplishments of the modern age, with the aim of corroborating Islam"s historical presence. This tendency"s pioneers from al-Afghani and Abdah to rasheed Ridha and Hassan al-Bannaa remain vastly influential throughout the Islamic world.

The Islamic intellectual and political map is, to a large extent still governed by these three strategies, which remain in perpetual interaction and polarisation. A brief glance at the Iranian situation today, reveals the same intellectual and political equation dominating the othoman scene of 18/19th C. Within an Islamic ground of legitimacy these strategies of conservatism and reformism are in endless conflict, polarization and entanglement.

A reflection over the three experiences, presents us with the following lessons:

1- The term muhafadhah, conservatism, islah or reform must of necessity be purged of value-judgment, since both are dynamic processes, not closed or dogmatic bids. Indeed, one may be a conservative in many respects and an avid reformist in others. Conservatism may prove to be of crucial necessity, a vital defensive mechanism and a shield against dissolution desintegration and annihalation.

At other times over-reverence for the past and the jealous exclusion of innovation could only lead to the decay of a people, leading to its evanescence from history altogether.

Reform and conservatism are expressions of the internal movement within which the socio-political forces are engaged. It is these forces supported by their societies which must shoulder the burden of defining the structure and linguistic determination of the process within which they are active, paying no heed to external projections.

Language is never neutral or transparent, it is immersed in power games, it mirrors the socio-political strategies which rule the day. There was a time when Mohammed Ali (in 19th C Egypt) was described as "the greatest reformer of his age). No sooner than "this greatest of reformers" manifested a desire to unveil himself to the eye of history, in a bid to inherit the Othoman giant he turned into the "greatest of threats". More recently, Gorbachev the Perestroika leader, who brought the demise of the vast soviet empire, just like Yeltsin his corrupt ageing predecessor, was held with the greatest contempt by his people, but declared an emninent renovator in the West.

2-There undoubtedly is a real need for reform, but the principal question remains one of determining the forms, priorities and strategies of this project. The key point here is that any attempt at reform and modernisation that seeks to proceed with no concern for the interests and needs of the Muslim masses will certainly turn into a means of upward despotism and oppression or to the dissolution of the internal socio-cultural fabric of Muslim society.

Any process of renovation must be conscious of its priorities, future horizons and perspectives, so it preserves its equilibrium and integrity. This demand is vital in view of the power balance where Muslims find themselves, one which remains in favour of the Western forces which are overwhelmed with the will to dominion and mastery.

So long as it holds in its iron grip the command of world resources, the west will continue to haunt Muslim consciousness, and the minds of elites from other civilisations, Chinese, Indian or Russian. Diminishing the wide gap between the powerful West and these will only be possible through a well reasoned, long term startegy of reform vividly aware of its order of priorities and societies" needs as well as those of future generations.

History has not as yet come to its close, but is still overflowing with fresh unexplored possibilities and beginnings.It is indeed high time for the Muslim elite to emancipate itself of the contemptible myth of the uniqueness of the Western gate to modernity.

Poltical Islam

The term "Political Islam" is amongst a whole range of terms that have gained currency within the Western discourse during the last two decades, following the eruption of the Iraninan revolution in particular. Such terms as "Political Islam", "fundamentalism", "Islamic fanaticism", "Islamic dogmatism".. have been used within the academic establishment, the media and the political discourse to stereotype Islam and the movements active within the Islamic hemisphere.

We all know that language is not a transparent medium or a neutral instrument, but is overwhelmed with power strategies. Language not only reflects world views and modes of life,it articulates and dictates them such as to preclude any possibility of separating terminologies from their contexts. This is most evident in the dictionary the entire Western discourse makes use of in relation to Islam. In such a discourse the imagination becomes intertwined with fear nad resentment, history with present power structures and polarizations. We thus inevitably find ourselves dwelling in the battle grounds of the crusades, in the frontiers of Vienna seeking to fend the Othomans off and prevent them from seizing the very heart of Europe. The image of Islam imprinted in Western consciousness finds its roots in the sermons of the Christian clergy and texts of the church theologian. The question reigning over those medieval minds was: How was it that this distorted false Mohamedian sect that sprung from the arid deserts of Arabia, came to conquer the centres of civilisation in the East?

The answer they put forward with a great deal of awe, fear, self resentment and fascination was: Islam"s historical successes do not invalidate its claims as a true revelation.

This stands in sharp contrast with the answers furnished by the ascending modern west to the phenomenon of "deficit" "decadent" Islam. The "failures" of the Muslim world are all imputed to the very essence of Islam, characterized as the epitome of non-rational despotic, fundamentalist dogmatic religions.

This vision of Islam was further fuelled by liberation movements in their struggles against Western imperialism, with the event of the Iranian revolution and the emergence of Islamic opposition movements.

One does not necessarily have to comply with the agenda of Islamic movements or share their emphasis on the political at the expense of the cultural and civilisational dimensions of Islam, with the ideal of the state over and above that of "ahli society" (a danger stressed by such Islamist reformist thinkers such as Tarik elbishri, Munir Shafeeq, Rashid Ghannoushi). Such differences do not warrant a full fledged endorsement of the term political Islam, a comprhensive connotation employed to chracterize Islam in general.

Reservations against such a term are further called for by the desire inherent in the use of political Islam of having an Islam devoid of its political aspects. I use political here to denote all involvement in public affairs. The silent bid that stands behind the usage of the term under discussion is one of obtaining a non-wordly ascetic Islam, the highest form of which is thus to be sought in ascetoric mystical sufism. In brief a folkloric, toothless dervish Islam.

Since Islam is a fully wordly religion that preaches presence in this world, politics (in its general meaning) remains one of its many means to the reform of and interaction with the facts of reality. It is a vital means, but one that still does not transcend to the status of a goal.

We find ourselves in an previleged position, having a variety of terms from within the Islamic discourse to choose from. At the forefront of these are the terms of "Islamic reform" and "Islamic revivalism", which are more authentic and richer in positive connotations and thus more suitable for use in reference to Islam.

Fusion of natinal identity with "political" Islam

It is certainly the case that the Islamic trend is intimately connected with the circumstances and problems with which each Islamic country finds itself confronted. This to a large extent is what accounts for the great diversity amongst the various configurations of the Islamic phenomenon on the levels of their agendas, priorities and claims, as well as for their complexities. This, in fact serves to refute the stereotypical vision overwhelming academic and media circles in the West, which tend to view Islamic movements as purely homogeneous entities, referred to as "Islamic fundamentalism", waging a vicious crusade against the West and all the accomplishments of the modern age. An "unprejudiced" reflection over the Islamic map is sufficient to unveil the political complexities and intense diversities in the intellectual dicourses of these movements.

Just like any other great socio-cultural phenomenon bearing the stamp of its local and regional burdens, memory, history and socio-political condition; the Islamic movement reflects the particularity of its situation in the claims it presents, the order of political priorities to which it subscribes and intellectual discourse it champions.

Furthermore, differences between multitude Islamic trends manifests itself even within the same country, in Egypt"s Islamic jamaat and Ikhwan , in Algeria"s Fis and Nahnah"s movement (harakat elMujata" elIslaami), Iran"s Islamic reformists and conservatives; Morocco"s Adl & Ihsaan and Harakat Tawheed wa ElIslah... . The Islamic movement in a region like the Gulf displays the dominant climate of stability where it emerged as well as the cultural and intellectual conservatism chracteristic of gulf countries. This is to the extent that it is often very difficult to even attempt to diffrentiate these movements" political discourse from that of the traditional gulf regimes.

In the Arab Maghreb or North Africa, we find a more intellectually and politically dynamic expression of the Islamic phenomenon, which displays the acute complexities peculiar of the Maghreb region torn between a radical and indeed violent experience of secularisation that sought to shatter the fabric of Islamic society and anihilate Islamic symbolic and cultural identity.

This is most prominent in Algeria and Tunisia, where the Islamic current is intensely fuelled with the question of identity and intimately entangled with the crises as well as gains of modernity. This particularity gives rise to synthesis of local Islamic culture with Western influences, which are essentially French. The Islamic experience there, is an expression of the failures and crises of imported alien modernity, and at the same time a response to its challenges and questions from within Islamic hermeneutical references. This is largely why the Islamic elite in those parts of the Muslim world appears more dynamic than its counterparts in either the Gulf or the Orient.

If we go back to the question of whether "political Islam" is an expression of national identity and on a par with Serbian Orthodoxy. Local and regional imprints are indeed present within the Islamic movement, but the identity to which it subscribes is by no means a nationalistic one, founded on the myth of pure homogegeity and racial superiority.

It is indeed a great travesty and a a wild exaggeration to compare the diverse Islamic phenomenon that establishes its identity on religious and cultural foundations, with a narrow minded ideology sustaning on bigotry and illusion. The notion of the Islamic ummah, or Islamic unity which forms a founding principal and a main directive of the Islamic phenomenon is in fact the very antithesis of the Orthodox desire for homogeneity and uniformity. The value of the ummah is based on the principle of diversity in all its various expressions, ethnic, linguistic and cultural. This in turn is a reflection of the historical experience of Islam, founded on pluralism and diversity and against homogeneity and uniformity.

Diversity & common grounds

Initially, I wish to reiterate my above expressed reservations on the use of the term "political Islam", which I view as being little more than a Western projection. Since Islamism is a far reaching geo-politically extended phenomenon, it is only natural that there should be a large gamut of diversities, differences, even contradictions between its representative components.

Such variations sustain on the nature of colonial/post-colonial "regional state" and the socio-historical condition whence the Islamic phenomenon emerged. The Islamic movement stretching from Indonesia to Morocco is enormously diversified, even though it springs from the very same base of Islamic legitimacy. It is, indeed, this common reference which accounts for the wide surface of convergence that exists between this all too varied complex phenomenon.

Since Islam is a world view and a mode of life, Muslims who unite on the level of doctrine in general (all bowing to the same God, in the direction of Mecca as they pray and sing praises to the same Prophet (PBUH), fast in the same month, congregate in the universal celebration of monotheism in Hajj), differ on their mathahibs, ijtihads and political tendencies. Amidst this vast Islamic house, we find the moderate Sunni and Shi"i, the conservative and reformist Salafi, the traditionalist and modernist, the rational and esoteric, the agnostic sufi amd lietral orthodox...

These immense differences are not deemed by Islam as heretical or deviant, but as expressions of God"s mercy, "And amongst His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are signs for those who know".

Islam views difference as an authentic ontological condition, not a mere accidental event that may overcome or eliminated. In this ontological condition the flexibility and historicity of Islam finds its grounding. But one may object: if that is the case, what is to distinguish Islam from post-modern philosophies of difference and deconstruction?

The principal difference is that the meaning and nature of diversity in Islam is overwhelmed with the consciousness of the spiritual significance of such difference, which infuses the Muslim with the meaning of teleology whether in the text of existence or in that of the human condition. This conception of difference is, indeed, the antithesis of the post-modern discourse that refers to the value of difference to justify its proneness to nihilism and chaotic existence, in a Nietzschian movement towards X. The notion of the monotheistic God is the centre of gravity that betstows difference with richness and spiritual significance.

If we go back to the political aspect of the question, of that which unites the zealots of Taliban with the mild refined Malaysian Abim, Virtue of Turkey or Nahdha of Tunisia. The common denominator is that all these tendencies are in fact expressions of Islamic revivalism, which, standing in different socio-cultural contexts, aspire at strengthening the political presence of Islam. The Mullahs of Taliban are in fact the expression of the Afghani depth, of a closed society shaken by a vicious communist invasion which drove it to sink further down to its depths, as a mechanism of resistance. In this respect, Taliban is an instance of traditional Islamic reformism in the deserted margins of the Islamic map, as opposed to the revivalism taking place in the great urban centres of Islam in Damascus, Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul... It seems closest to the Wahhabi movement that evolved in the arid zones of Arabia.

The other movements, on the other hands, are a continuation with 19th/ early 20th Century modern Islamic reformism that emerged in the greatest Islamic centres of Cairo and Istanbul and a response to the challenges of modern West that imposed itself on Islamic consciousness through gunpowder and military artillery. The historical question of Islamic backwardness and the struggle to overcome the gap beween the world of Islam and the assaulting modern West, is central to such movements.

These diversified expressions of modern Islam all seek they roots in the deep far reaching tradition and heritage of Islam, while aspiring at invigorating these with elements of the modern age. In contrast with other parts of the world (perhaps with the exception of China) which saw their internal structures dissolved by the modern West, the impact of the Western challenge on the Islamic hemisphere produced a new cycle of internal revivalism within Islamic references.

As an example, let us view the answers to the question of democracy in modern Islamic discourse. The notion of democracy, in the Islamic discourse does not operate in a vacuum, but serves as a mechanism for reviving the authentic concept of Shura, such as to render the external at the service of, and in full subservience to the inetrnal. This to a large extent is a characteristic of modern Islamic trends represented by their thinkers, academics in addition to some of their activists: the ability to synthesize and incorporate within Islamic hermeneutics.

It remains for history to render its verdict on the extent of the successes of the efforts of Islamic modernisation and of its bid to break its bondage to the other. 

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Posted in Islamic Issues , MB and West , Political Islam Studies  
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