Modernization of the Islamic World

The historical forces that produced Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and a look at U.S. involvement in the Muslim world.

By Ibrahim Abu-Rabi'

Professor Abu-Rabi wrote these thoughts on the issue of modernity in reply to a post on the "Understanding Islam" dialogue group that he is moderating.

The Muslim religious phenomenon is a complex one that traverses more than 14 centuries of human history, and the Muslim world itself is a multi-ethnic, multi-glot and multi-cultural world which has been formed against a number of social, historical, and religious backgrounds. The Muslim world is far from monolithic. It is very diverse; it is very complex. Because of the complex Islamic civilization, we must be careful in the choice of terms when describing or analyzing the Muslim world. We must use the proper terms of Jihad.

From the very beginning, Muslim civilization responded to a great number of forces. In the formative phase of Islam, in the first five centuries or so, the Muslim world was busy assimilating and acting creatively upon the philosophical, scientific, medical, literary, and religious achievements of the Greeks, the Persian, Indians, Christians and Jews. The basic foundations or principles of the Islamic world view get written down in this formative phase of Islam. Because of this complex process of assimilation, a huge tension arose in the first Islamic centuries between what we roughly call nowadays, Modernity and Tradition, between innovation and traditionalism, or between the old and the new.

The early modern period in the Muslim world, around the 15th and 16th centuries, responded to a different set of challenges, and in order to meet that challenge the Muslim world created three major Empires, so that Islam was no longer a simple religious phenomenon: The Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul; the Safavid empire, based in Persia; and the Mughal Empire, based in India.

All of these empires were complex manifestations of the Islamic entity. The world of Islam is no longer the pristine simple world of the Prophet and his disciples. All of these empires were multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-glot empires which understood globalization in their own terms. However, these empires still took Islam to be their starting point.

In the modern period, especially in the 19th century, all of these Empires begin to decline, to weaken, to wane. And one simple manifestation of this decline was the Western colonization of many parts of the Muslim world. The Western world penetrated every aspect of Muslim society in the 19th century to the extent that it is impossible to speak of modern Islamic history without speaking about the West at the same time and all the major movements in the Western world from the Reformation to the Industrial revolution to the Enlightenment and the theories of progress current in European societies in the 19th century.

The Muslim World gets colonized in a major way; the Dutch go to Indonesia, the British to India and later to Malaysia and the Middle East, and the French go to North Africa and West Africa. The colonial presence is a major fact in modern Muslim societies, a fact that has had a major impact on the Muslim faith, practice, and way of life.

The Muslim response to European colonialism took many forms. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, it was Tanzimat, a total modernization of society. This answers your query in part, at least. However, it was too late to modernize and save the Empire.

Another response took the form of nationalism. Nationalism is a limited imagining of the nation, much more limited, let us say, than Christendom or the Muslim ummah. The nationalist movement in the Muslim world led the nation in a struggle against colonialism and led to the creation of several nation-states in the Muslim world. In Indonesia, Sukarno; in Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah; in Turkey, Kemal Ataturk; in Egypt, Jamal Abdul Nasser. Most of these figures were highly charismatic figures, figures who fought for their political independence, but people who were, at the same time, very impressed with the Western notions of democracy, civil society, modernity, etc. Although they fought the political domination of the West, they opted to model their societies according to the Western philosophy of life.

The third major response was Islamic revivalism. One has to consider three types of Islamic revival: Pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. Wahabiyyah in Saudi Arabia is a pre-colonial Islamic movement which reacted to internal Muslim decadence and sought to revive Islamic practices in the light of a strict adherence to Islamic law and theology. To do so, the charismatic figure Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahab allied himself with the Saudi family, which led to the creation of the modern Saudi state as we know it nowadays.

Wahabiyyah is the wedding of Islamic activism and political activism. However, one could see a number of cracks in this alliance between formal religion and state in Saudi Arabia, especially after the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Because of the unlimited oil resources Saudi Arabia has, the modern Saudi nation-state under the leadership of the family was able to launch a very ambitious modernization program in the 1970s which created a brand new class of Saudi modernizers who opted to Westernize their society.

However, the Saudi family created modernization without any indigenous form of modernism, without an Islamic version of modernism. Its version was copied from the Western version. In addition the religious classes in society began to be wary of the short and long-term impact on religious values. Bin Laden was the product of this huge tension between Saudi modernization and Islamic values, between Saudi modernization that was imposed by the power of the tribe and Islamic values. Although he was a force in this modernization, he realized early on that it would lead to the destabilization of Islamic Saudi society, and hence his revolt against this historical alliance between the forces of capitalist modernization and the Saudi monarchy that refused to give away its financial and political positions. Bin Laden is an important phenomenon in contemporary Muslim societies; he exemplifies a charismatic generation that is the product of a tense encounter between tradition and modernity.

The Taliban is a post-colonial movement, as well. However, the Taliban movement arose in a highly traditional society that did not have a chance to modernize. The Taliban was born in a big vacuum, against the background of the disintegration of Afghani society after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the American, Saudi, and Pakistani intervention in support of the Mujahiddin against the Soviets. Afghanistan was the last battleground in the Cold War era, in which the USA defeated its historical enemy, the Soviet Union. After that defeat was achieved, Afghanistan was left alone to tend to its profuse wounds. The beautiful people of Afghanistan had suffered a great deal in the 20th century, and after the defeat of the Soviet Union, the superpowers forgot about Afghanistan, which disappeared from our globalized mass media.

Ten years ago, only a few people heard of the Taliban. But as a movement, it arose, not just out of the ranks of traditional Islamic madrasas, but in response to the violence of the state represented by the Afghani state that was the ally of the Soviet Union. The Taliban stress in their historical narrative of their origin that there main aims were: to stop violence and chaos in the country, to stop any form of foreign intervention, and to restore the dignity to the common people, to the masses, refugees, and women. Ordinary people began to raise their voices. Those who were victims of atrocities committed by the warlords turned their attention to those who first issued the Fatwa (religious order) of Jihad, i.e., the religious scholars, and those who led them in the prosecution of this order, i.e., the Taliban. The people asked: " Why do our religious scholars and students, who preach justice and peace, not do something to save us from injustice and war?" The Taliban, who were students of religion and who thought that learning the religious text was more sacred than martyrdom, took upon themselves to restore order to the shattered Afghani society.

Out of that sense of deep suffering resulting from a long period of violence in contemporary Afghani history, the Taliban took a drastic step, which is not Islamic in my view, to order all women to stay at home, without having any chance to advance their learning or to pursue any type of work. According to the Taliban, “The Islamic State decided to pay the salaries of these women at their homes, so that they could stay home and take care of their families and children. The purpose of this policy is to help revive the Afghan family and household, as the foundation of the Afghan society, a foundation that was intentionally destroyed by the communist regime.” Taliban is the only group in modern Afghanistan that has become successful in mobilizing violence to control violence in society and create a new social and political order that is based both on fear of God and the possibility of a fresh of outbreak of violence in Afghani society. They have been able to create ‘a primitive egalitarian society’ that is suspicious not just of communism, capitalism and the West, but of the city and the urban Afghani intelligentsia that was, in their views, responsible for the borrowing of foreign ideas with which it destroyed the traditional bases of Afghani society.

A third post-colonial movement is the Egyptian Jihad that grew up in Egyptian prisoners in the 1960s.

Where does all of this lead us when we speak about the United States and the Muslim world in the 20th century? This is a very interesting question.

The American interest in the Muslim world goes back to the early part of the 19th century, especially through the efforts of the Protestant missionary movement from New England. Those missionaries saw it as a divine call to the Middle East and to missionize. However, they realized that the Orientals, especially Muslims and Jews, were a hard nut to crack, and from thence on the missionary movement concentrated its efforts on converting the indigenous Christians, such as the Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Melchites, and Chaldenians. Another effort was building universities and colleges, such as the American University in Beirut and Cairo that led to the education of many a nationalist figure. The State Department depended on the Arabists who spent many years in the Middle East.

I have said that the American Protestant missionary movement in the Muslim world in the 19th century was the product of American globalization in that century. What is American globalization in the 19th century?

The American model of globalization has been in the making since the end of the 18th century, when most countries in the Muslim world were struggling against European encroachments. One of the major foundations of American globalization is American English and its gradual constitution in a way that became different from British English. Webster termed this the two streams of English. English became the language of a new people, expressing their engagement with the new world, expressing a high capitalist culture in the making and inculcating in its structure high literary and scientific values. No one was talking about the stagnation of English in the 19th century. Most linguists and grammarians were speaking of a lively and dynamic English.

English matured to become the language of science and civilization. It has become the lingua franca of the world. However, in the 20th century, that came at a price. During the height of the Vietnam Era, most professors of English protested against the war. That is to say that the masters of English refused for their language to be deployed in a military engagement against the Vietnamese people. The situation has changed dramatically since the 1970s.

This leads us to speak about Arabic. Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and although one may argue that at one time it was the lingua franca of the world, Arabic has lost this status a long time ago. The Arab and Muslim world has not been able to reconstitute Arabic as a major global and hegemonic language in the same way as English has been constituted in the modern era.

Besides the issue of language, the second major question is the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The formation of a liberal, aggressive Protestant and capitalist culture in the west had a global agenda. Simply, this culture dismissed any tension between the spirit of capitalism and that of religion, and it did not find any problem with the question of secularism. Secularism was embraced by religion. In the Muslim world, the situation is different.

Other factors must be mentioned: Globalization out of economic strength. WWII and the Marshall Plan. The reconstruction of Europe. And the beginning of the Cold war era. One major facet of globalization is the privatization of education.

Also, the creation of a nation-state against the backdrop of imperialism. The nation-state sought political, economic, and intellectual emancipation from the Center. Two movements vied for emancipation: nationalism and Islamism.

Next, the creation of a class society in all Muslim countries where the wealthy constitute less than five percent of the population. One result of American globalization currently is the fact that lots of educated people from the 3rd world desire to migrate to the USA. This is called the brain-drain.

My overall point is that the United States has been involved deeply with the Muslim world for at least one century. This involvement took a strong direction after 1945.

Muslim intellectuals, in general, have raised the following issues in criticism of American foreign policy in their countries: 1. the US supports the most authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world; 2. the US supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims; 3. the US and Britain have bombed Iraq continuously since 1991 and enforced the UN embargo that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq.



About Us
About Islam
Politics / Economics
Environment / Health
Contemporary Issues
Take Action
Contact us