Thursday, July 24, 2008

Towards A New Islamic Discourse - slamic Discourses... Diverse Visions

By Dr. Abdel-Wahab M. Elmessiri

One may classify the different Islamic discourse prevalent at the present as following:

1. A populist salvationist "messianic" discourse: This is the discourse of the overwhelming majority of the Muslim masses that have realized through historical experience that the processes of modernization, secularization and globalization have done them no good and brought no real reform. They want to see the Islamic nation(s) (ummah) restore its religious and cultural heritage, and oppose Western neo-colonial hegemony .While these masses cry for change, and hope for salvation, they are incapable of contributing any new ideas or organizing any social nor political movements. Usually it finds a suitable platform in philanthropy, either at the individual level (charity and relief ), or at the community level (building mosques, hospitals and schools or providing hot meals to the poor).

Such a discourse frequently expresses itself in the form of spontaneous and, at times, violent acts of protest ,but it is at essence pacifist. The populist discourse is mainly the discourse of the poor and the marginalized, but it is also sometimes the discourse of some elites in the society who re-discover their religious and cultural heritage, and who recognize that its loss would mean a loss of their identity that they attempt to re-build.

2. The political discourse: This is the discourse of groups of middle class professionals, academicians, students and business people, who are aware of the need for an Islamic action that can help this ummah progress. These people, having realized that political action is the means for achieving their objective, have set up or joined political organizations that do not resort to violence--and out of which youth and educational organizations started developing. Some of the supporters of this political discourse harbor, at certain moments, the ideology that taking over the central government would be the long sought for panacea, and some of them did actually develop para-military organizations and tried to infiltrate the armed forces and to seize power by force. However, there has been, somehow, a general inclination towards working through the existing legitimate political channels with in the follower of this discourse. Most of the bearers of this political discourse, at the present time, tend to restrict their activity to the political and/or the educational sphere.

3. The intellectual discourse: This is the discourse that deals primarily with the more theoretical and intellectual issues, and is dominant within the academics and intellectuals and has little influence on the masses yet remains influential in times of crisis when people turn to these intellectuals for guidance and when they voice the concerns of the masses in the intellectual arena.

This simple classification does not mean that the three discourses exist in total isolation, the one from the other. In fact, the populist and political discourses very often merge into one another, and the same can be said about the political and intellectual discourses, notwithstanding the common ground and frame of reference shared by the three discourse. Yet we deem it useful, from an analytical point of view, to assume their relative independence from one another.

In addition to this synchronic system of classification, a chronological diachronic one might prove more relevant--from the standpoint of this paper. We might also distinguish between:

1. The traditionalist Islamic discourse: It emerged as a direct and immediate reaction to the colonial invasion of the Muslim world, and prevailed till the mid-sixties.

2. The new Islamic discourse: After an initial period of indefiniteness and marginalization, this discourse began to assume a more definite form in the mid-sixties, and started to move gradually toward the center.

Both discourses endeavored to provide an Islamic answer to the challenges posed by colonization, modernization and the post-independence era. Nevertheless, there are radical points of divergence between the two that stem from two interrelated factors:

1. Their respective attitudes vis-à-vis Western modernity.

2. The level of comprehensiveness that each discourse and outlook has developed.

Here we will primarily focus on the traditional and modern intellectual Islamic discourses, and to a much lesser degree-–against the current of research on contemporary Islam--on the political one. I will try to identify some of the salient characteristics of the new discourse. Any intellectual or political movement must pause from time to time to look critically at itself and to assess its performance in order to be able to abstract some of its own nascent traits and crystallize them into a relatively coherent system, then map its own future course.

It is worth noting that the first generation of Muslim reformists came in contact with the modem Western cultural formation in a historical era that is considerably different, in many aspects, from the present one. It could be argued that the comprehensive secular paradigm, the fundamental paradigm underlying the modem Western cultural formation, has always occupied a central position in the conscience of modem Western man and has always moulded his view of the universe. It could also be said that the imperialist aspects of Western modernity manifested themselves only too clearly from the very beginning. All of these facts notwithstanding, modem Western civilization viewed itself as a humanistic, man-centered civilization, and maintained, for some time, at the level of vision--if not always at the level of practice--a sense of balance and faith in absolute moral and human values. At the structural level. Western societies maintained, for a long period of time, a high level of social coherence and solidarity. Family values, far from being an empty social slogan remembered by conservatives during election days, were still a surviving social reality.

But things did change.

It might be useful, in this context, to conceptualize secularism not as a fixed paradigm, but rather as a dynamic paradigmatic sequence ,and an unfolding process, which takes different models in time and space. One can say that by the end of the nineteenth century many of the manifestations that mark this sequence had not yet been materialized. Man's private life and many aspects of his public life were still beyond the reach of the power of the process of secularization. In other words, the Western man was secularized only in some aspects of his public life, but in his private life as well as in many aspects of his social public life, he was committed to moral and human values, rooted in Christian morality and codes of ethics. When the first generation of Islamic reformists, the bearers of the old Islamic discourse, encountered this modem cultural formation, they did not at that time interact with a comprehensive secular civilization but rather with a partially secular one. Whereas partial secularism recognizes the validity and importance of values on the moral level, and of the idea of totality on the epistemological level (that which deals with the theory of knowledge), comprehensive secularism denies them as well as the very idea of transcendence. Many of the negative aspects of Western modernity, which became later a 'recurrent pattern', were isolated events and marginal incidents that could be easily overlooked. Furthermore, the Western critique of modernity and of the Enlightenment had not yet been crystallized at that time, in spite of the fact that the voices of dissent were getting stronger. Western romantic literature, for instance, is in essence a protest against the anti-humanist aspects of Western modernity. The writings of some conservative Western thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, include references to many of the topics that were developed later by Western discourses that are critical of modernity. The shortcomings of progression Western civilization, whether at the level of theory or at the level of practice, were, nevertheless, not yet obvious to those who observed or studied this (increasingly in the urbanized capitalist model).

Yet for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, the situation is quite different. Most of them had their intellectual formative years in the fifties and had their first encounter with modern Western civilization in the sixties and seventies. That was the time when Western modernity had already entered the stage of crisis, and when many Western thinkers had begun to realize the level of this impasse that the Western modernity had reached. The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realized, from the very beginning, the dark aspects of Western modernity. It had embroiled the entire world in two Western wars (called "World Wars" because the whole world was dragged into the arena of conflict). The promise of modernity to stop violence historically triggered by religious sentiments was not fulfilled , and modern regimes could commit genocide more professionally than ever thought of. Reason could commit its own crimes too--not only religion. In the so-called the time of "peace", the world was caught in a frenzied arms race. The centralized nation-state, growing more authoritarian and stronger, expanded and reached the most private aspects of human life, and, through its sophisticated security and educational apparatus, tried to "guide" its citizens! The media, another by-product of Western modernity, extensively invaded the private lives of citizens, accelerating the process of standardization and escalating the consumerist fever. In the meantime, the entertainment sector has became so powerful as to control the dreams of the masses, selling them erotic Utopias and downright pornography. The family as a social institution could not sustain the pressures and therefore divorce rates rocketed, reaching levels rarely witnessed before. The crisis of meaning, the epistemological crisis, anomie, alienation and reification became more pronounced. While the liberal capitalist project ceased to be the smashing success story , the socialist experiment collapsed and lost any vestige of credibility. Anti-humanist intellectual trends such as Fascism, Nazism, Zionism and Structuralism emerged and reached a climax in a late-modernist condition.

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