Home>Modernity, Post Modernity & Crises in the Muslim World: Prospects for Renewal and Renaissance.

Modernity, Post Modernity & Crises in the Muslim World: Prospects for Renewal and Renaissance.

October 11, 2008

Talks & Interviews

Salman Sayyid


: Dr. Salman Sayyid,

Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds, UK was invited as a Distinguished Guest Speaker at the CPPG Faculty Seminar Series on June 11, 2008. He gave a talk on:

Modernity, Post Modernity & Crises in the Muslim World: Prospects for Renewal and Renaissance.

Discussants: Dr. Wajid Ranjha, Chairman, Department of Political Science, FC College, Professor Saroosh Irfani, Communications and Cultural Studies at the National College of Arts

Dr. Sayyid provided a wide ranging overview of the modernity, post modernity theoretical debate, analyzed the crises in the Muslim World in that context and then ventured to explore the prospects of renewal and renaissance in Muslim societies. He started by defining modernity as a concept that considers history to be progressive, considers rationality and science as arbiters of knowledge while relegating all non-scientific discourses to marginal explanatory power status. In affect modernity promotes universalism – considering the history of human civilization as exploration and expansion of the history of Europe and essentialism – accepting meta-narratives, a one big story to encompass the entire world. Post Modernity rather than a temporal consequence of Modernity is instead analyzed as somewhat parasitic – it considers concepts and categories as reflections of particular processes thus rejects equating European values with universal values or creating a hierarchy which puts the White Man on top of the ladder, an African pygmy at the bottom and all other people somewhere in the middle. It also rejects the permanent and fixed base analysis of essentialism.Sayyid highlighted two events that defy the claims of modernity. First the Holocaust, which resulted in the killing of about 10 million people. He was emphatic in pointing out its shocking feature; it’s dispassionate, controlled and systematic nature as well as the use of industrial means. He argued that this use of industrial technology to change human beings into raw material (soap) rejected the notion of benignity of technology and scientific knowledge. A bigger shock was that it happened in Germany, the heart of Europe thus laying bare the claims of benign development of civilization. This was significant because a similar brutality outside of Europe could easily have been disregarded as part of the “uncivilized” – the un-modern. Second the Anti-imperialist struggles, which challenged the claims that Imperialism brought justice or a better life for most people. Earlier, resisters were dismissed as confronting pupils of imperialists but the Algerian and Vietnamese struggles saw millions die rather than accept the gifts of modernity. Thus the central claim of modernity that West represented the universal, was the best that the world had to offer, others should appropriate its lessons and become western and modern as quickly as possible was challenged. Sayyid calls it “Decentering of the West” as it de links western values, culture practices and formations from universal values and practices. Instead it accepts the West as just another cultural formation and argues that universal values can be generated from any cultural formation without going through westernization.

While calling for “Decentering of the West” Sayyid launched a frontal attack on Kemalism, terming it a form of modernity discourse that was still dominant across the Muslim world. He argued that the reforms introduced by Kemal Attaturk including the ‘Uncivilized Head Gear Act’ – banning the fez and hijab and the ‘Language Reforms’ changing the script from Arabic to Latin were meant to modernize Turkey – as Kemalism equates modernity and civility to Westernization. In reality, however, Sayyid claimed, Kemalism has split Muslim societies into two parallel streams, one Oriental and the other Western. It further prescribes ‘Westernization’ for the ‘Oriental’ because Western is presented as rational and progressive while Oriental as irrational and reactionary. It thus creates markers based on perception rather than reality such as equating hijab with backwardness and repression without regard to whether hijab enhances the agency of women in particular societies. Critiquing Kemalism, Sayyid went on to suggest that Kemalism is centered on the idea of a nation, Westernization and a need for societies to de-orientalize themselves, which in Muslim societies is equated with de-Islamization or restriction of the role of Islam in public affairs. Secularism, Sayyid argued was specific to European history as 100 years of religious wars led them to limit religious discourse in public sphere to achieve civic peace. But it could not be termed universal as most secular regimes in the Muslim world had also been the most brutal. Without discussing, elaborating or judging the various practical projections of Islamism (Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban and Al-Qaeda), he presented it as a cultural, intellectual and political movement responding to Kemalism. He went on to observe that till the abolition of the Caliphate, the Muslim political thought restricted itself to finding the best candidate for a ruler—focusing on the qualities of a caliph while the system of governance was taken for granted. It was only after the abolition of the caliphate that the question of political authority became meaningful for the Muslim political discourse with the quest for an Islamic order. Question arose if Muslims required a particular political arrangement to be Muslims or whether an Islamic government or state was unnecessary?

Sayyid considered the Pakistan Movement as the first challenge to Kemalism articulating Muslims to constitute a political community requiring a state. It was the Khilafat Movement that initially mobilized the Muslim masses but the template followed to institutionalize the Pakistan Movement was instead Kemalist. He asserted that although incorporating Islam as an ideology in a modern constitution was pioneered here, still the dilemma continues as governing practices of Pakistani state remain Kemalist while its mobilization practices have been Islamist. The public debate still takes the idiom of Islam but actual interventions are unable to imagine what an Islamic government would be like? He thought a more concrete challenge to the Kemalist narrative came from the Iranian Revolution. Most importantly with Khomeini’s Vilayat-e Faqih which Sayyid claimed has bridged the intellectual difference between Shia and Sunni political thought by also requiring the Shia to live under an Islamic government till the advent of the 12th imam. He articulated that although Khomeini wanted to allow all Muslims to be able to become rulers of Iran, it was the Kemalist institutional baggage that restricted him to limit Iran’s leadership only to Iranians.

“It is Islamism’s antagonism to Kemalism
that has defined the various
conflicts in the Muslim world. For Islamists’,
Islam has to be at the center
of any sociopolitical order.”

Summing up the various strands of his presentation he conclusively stated that it is Islamism’s antagonism to Kemalism that has defined the various conflicts in the Muslim world. For Islamists’, Islam has to be at the center of any sociopolitical order. But rather than debating what kind of Islam at an empirical level (praying five times, fasting & others), Sayyid argued that centering Islam should instead concentrate on Muslims defining their own historical sequence which begins at the moment of revelation and continues till today. The affect of colonialism has been to cut this sequence leaving the colonized with no history, no memory and thus no personality. It has made Muslims vulnerable as they have no biography which can be tied to a larger historical sequence other than the Western ‘Plato to NATO’ sequence.

Thus the real challenge for Muslims as well as other nations of the world is to try to recover and rearticulate a historical sequence which has its own intrinsic value. This demands “Decentering the West”– displacement of the idea that there is one universal history patented on the West and therefore an understanding that there are multiple historical sequences. The framing of the current world’s foundation is only 200-300 years old and is based on binary opposition and violent hierarchy of the West and the Non-West. Sayyid sees Islam as breaking through this framing to have its own category, its own integrity rather than being an opposition to the West.

“The real challenge for Muslims as well as other nations of the world is to try
to recover and rearticulate a historical sequence which has its own intrinsic
value. This demands “Decentering the West”– displacement of the idea
that there is one universal history patented on the West and therefore
 an understanding that there are multiple historical sequences.”

Commenting on Sayyid’s presentation, Dr. Wajid Ranjha chose to focus on the theoretical dimension. He defined modernity as a process of rationalization, of looking at the world as a process oriented and rational way rather than attributing miraculous or mysterious causes to it. He was vigorous in spotlighting the Nietzschean term ‘The death of God’ as the defining moment for modernity as man becomes God, leading to a secularizing and a constructivist project which in addition individualizes structures at the expense of group identity. For Ranjha, postmodernism is not an anti-thesis of modernity. While it critiques modernity and its grand narratives, it still carries a pre-supposition of the cultural horizon of the West and does not provide an option to exit modernity. It is still a secularizing project which in ways refines the modernity venture. For him the crucial moment for post modernity is Heidegger saying that there is nothing to celebrate about the death of God as it only leaves behind value relativism, skepticism and the uncertainty that goes into constructing new paradigms to orient one self in place of grand narratives.

Dr. Ranjha explored the history of Orientalism and highlighted the theory of Aryans invading India to create the great Indo-Aryan civilization. Thus while negating the genesis of an indigenous Indian civilization, Orientalists created an essentialist Indo-European identity which excluded Muslims as outsiders belonging to the Middle East. They were neither Indian nor European and thus not part of the Indian Vedic civilization. He further argued that Pakistan had inherited this contested identity and this contestation continues to persist.

Professor Saroosh Irfani had a more sympathetic view of modernity from the point of view of human interiority as encompassed in the psychoanalytical school. He considered the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and the three year solitary world voyage of Joshua Slocum as the founding moments of modernity for the contemporary individual. Irfani expressed that these events brought in the open both the dimensions of human interiority that were on the margins as well as explored its relationship with the external (human and nature). By making individual the focus, Irfani observed, a new relationship was created among individuals and between the individual and the external. He defined modernity as an individual’s reflective relationship to the present. Within Islamic discourse he considered Iqbal’s concept of finality of the prophet as revolutionary as it left the individual to his own resources rather than being enthralled to an outside spiritual authority. Thus giving authority to the individual as in the Nietzschean moment, but still including God.

Acknowledging Sayyid’s argument, Irfani observed that the main challenge was to recover Muslim memory following the historical rupture of colonialism which had led to transplanted forms of modernity through the Kemalist and Pahlevi experiment. Professor Irfani drew attention that both Iqbal and Ali Shariati worked on the very idea of recovering Muslim memory. He pointed out that what differentiated Shariati from Iqbal and Iran from Pakistan was that in Iran of the 1970s, modernity and its interpretive approach became generalized. Individuals themselves became interpreters of original texts of history, religion, Marxism and other forms of knowledge. What differentiated the Iranian Revolution even from the Chinese and Russian counterparts was the scale of mobilization of the urban masses and the intellectual involvement of the younger generation. He thus argued that modernity, a reflective relationship to the present that presents itself as a task, was critical in creating a groundswell of intellectual energy. That showed the way to recovering the Muslim memory and articulating own historical sequence.

For Irfani, Post Modernity was an extension of the psycho analytical experience which brought suppressed inner processes into the mainstream and highlighted the marginalized dimensions of human experience. He argued that even with a general overemphasis on secularism, Depth Psychology had referenced eastern mysticism in its exploration of the collective unconscious and thus accepted the possibility of immortality of the individual self – what Iqbal called ‘Khudi’. He thus disagreed with defining boundaries in the current intellectual discourse of hyper secularism on the one side and deep mysticism on the other, instead cherishing it for its diversity.

Although agreeing with Sayyid regarding the implications of Vialayat-e-Faqih and of Khomeini’s role as a visionary, Irfani added that Khomeini still carried the sectarian baggage which led to the prolonging of the Iran – Iraq war as it changed from a defensive war into a war for liberation of Karbala and Jerusalem. Unfortunately a critical debate has yet to begin on the Iran – Iraq war as it is considered sacrosanct in Iran. Irfani argued that modern consciousness requires a deep engagement with both the brutality of the Holocaust and the Iran – Iraq war thus arguing for a secular historical project.

Initial presentation and comments by the discussants were followed by a Question and Answer session. In response to a question of why Holocaust was central to modern consciousness even for the Non-Europeans, Sayyid said that before the Holocaust, all inhumane practices later applied in Europe were common place in the colonies but the division of space helped cover the double face. Though the brutality of imperialism was unsurpassed, Holocaust which was imperialism brought home highlighted the structural hypocrisy of Western modernity. Irfani added that Holocaust denial was limited to small politicized segments of Muslim societies that benefited from an atmosphere of confrontation with the West.

Answering another question “What, where and if there is a universal Muslim memory?” Sayyid said that every country that has come into being has created its own national history. It’s the subject that determines the history rather than the other way round, so building a consensus on a subject is a pre-requisite to defining a historical sequence. If Muslim is the subject, then the history begins at the founding moment of what can be categorized a Muslim, more importantly it would be the beginning of Islam as a social political order. An identity inclusive of Indus Valley and Gandharan civilizations would instead require a different subject than that of a Muslim. Thus, though accepting the prerogative of the people to choose their own subject, Sayyid could not relate to the thesis of Indian Islamic civilization with its diversity of historical sequences.

Regarding the question “How can you have an alternative without articulating an epistemic (system of knowledge) alternative?” Sayyid answered that an epistemic revolution itself required a foundation which was only possible through a political project that realigns values. But an epistemic revolution first requires “Decentering the West”. Thus the language of ‘Clash of Civilizations was ludicrous as currently only Western civilization existed and all others were just a subset of it’.