Modernities of the Islamic world
It is tragic that vibrant alternative discourses on modernity, founded and being elaborated within the Islamic world, are never acknowledged in the discussion of the West's turbulent relationship with countries like Iraq. RANJIT HOSKOTE comments.
EVER since President George W. Bush, Jr. declared a renewal of the U.S. jihad against Iraq's Ba'ath government last year, we have lived in an eerie media climate, in which the most unsubstantiated allegations made by the Bush regime and its vassals have dominated global airtime. By contrast, viewpoints critical of the U.S. position have barely been heard. Mainstream television shows us almost nothing of the global movement against the impending attack on Iraq, which has brought together activists, literati, church representatives, students, scientists, former soldiers and large numbers of ordinary, decent citizens: many of the most vocal protestors are Americans, including families of some of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, who do not wish an unjust war to be conducted in their name. Cynically blanking this out, mainstream television endlessly serves up the theatrics of those cut-rate Horsepersons of the Apocalypse: Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice and Blair.
In such a media climate, we have had to put up with the calm discussion of "regime change" in Iraq, proposed as the best possible solution by politicians and commentators alike, as though it were a simple mechanical fix for a malfunctioning car. Some have even suggested that a quick war would be preferable to the 12-year sanctions regime that has destroyed an entire generation of Iraqi children and reduced the planet's second-largest oil-producing nation to destitution. Such blithe talk not only discounts Iraqi popular feeling, but also ignores the fact that the impending war is a desperate effort to accomplish what a decade of legislated suffering has failed to do: to remove a government that has opposed the U.S. drive towards complete ascendancy in that region, and survived against the most overwhelming odds.
The indifference of the U.S. leadership and the global media towards popular opinion within Iraq, is consistent with a long tradition of condescension towards the Islamic world. The belief that the Western powers can dictate political arrangements within the House of Islam is an expression of the mentality of the 1914-1948 period. Having steadily occupied North Africa and parts of Arabia through the 19th Century, Britain and France defeated the Ottoman Caliphate in World War I and divided it, by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1920, into a patchwork of mandates and protectorates: borders were arbitrarily redrawn across West Asia, new states created, communities mobilised into new conceptions of dependency, chieftains moved about like pawns on a chessboard. This process reached its climax in 1948, with the creation of Israel: a transference of atonement by which Asians were forced to pay, in land and independence, for the sins of Europe.
It was in revolt against this Western assumption of supremacy that numerous movements of regional self-assertion emerged in Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world through the 20th Century. While the religious and conservative among these movements are constantly invoked in the genre of Western political nightmare, the liberal-secular among them are passed over in silence. Phrased as critiques of Euro-American modernity, these liberal-secular movements within the House of Islam evolved their own versions of the contemporary and the progressive (sometimes, as in Turkey, this secularisation was radical enough to overthrow religious orthodoxy while securing nationalist autonomy as well as uneasy acceptance within the European magisterium). The intellectuals and political figures who led these movements thus charted enterprises of modernity that were more in consonance with their societies than the patent medicines administered by the last colonialists and their successors, the developmentalists of the World Bank.
The mood at New York's Times Square.
It is tragic that these vibrant alternative discourses on modernity, founded and being elaborated within the Islamic world, are never acknowledged in the discussion of the West's turbulent relationship with countries like Iraq. West Asian and North African opinion is reduced, especially in the global media, to the cliché of the "Arab street", which is invoked as a site of irrational unrest and agitation, backed up with convenient footage of Palestinian crowds protesting an Israeli outrage. While a panoply of Western academics, demagogues, military analysts and media commentators have held forth on the Islamic world on CNN and BBC since the September 11, 2001 events, only occasionally have articulate Arab or Muslim intellectuals been invited to participate in discussions by these channels; critics of U.S. neo-imperialism such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky are kept out, and the BBC only very occasionally opens its platform to the spirited Tony Benn.
The denial of contemporaneity to the Islamic world can sometimes proceed from the best intentions, as when invited experts cite and discuss the Holy Koran and the Sayings of the Prophet as the ultimate and armatural texts for present-day political choices. This approach creates the impression that Islamic civilisation has made no further contribution to the history of thought since the Seventh Century; it also negates the role of secular philosophies in the evolution of the Muslim or Arab political consciousness. For instance, this writer cannot recall a single reference, in mainstream-channel discussions during the last 17 months, to Ali Shariati, the political visionary and critic of consumption capitalism whose teachings provided the stimulus for the first, 1978 phase of the Iranian Revolution. Or to the historian of science and gnosis, Seyyed Hossein Nasr; or the Egyptian secular revolutionary, Gamal Abdel Nasser, or the Algerian socialists Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumediene. The Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi is usually mentioned only in the context of the Lockerbie case or dismissed as a maverick; his contribution to post-colonial praxis goes unremarked. These and many other thinkers and political figures from the world of Islam have been consigned to oblivion by the global media; the modernities they symbolise, their conceptions of freedom, justice and the scope of human possibility, are rendered invisible.
The Western channels have, at least, the excuse of subscribing to a long history of supremacism. Their Indian counterparts, however, have no such defence: it is shameful that DD, Aaj Tak, Star News and Zee News have all mindlessly followed the route set by CNN and BBC for the coverage of the Iraq crisis, without making the slightest effort to represent an autonomous perspective. Are they, perhaps, afraid of appearing unfashionably Third-Worldist or, worse, as outmoded partisans of the Non-Aligned Movement? These ideological positions may have been relegated to the museum of superseded ideas, but they still hold out the promise of an independent position. But an independent position is precisely what our political and electronic-media elites have renounced, with their fallacious identification of Indian with Western interests.
This identification is merely an update on the kinship that many upper-caste Hindus claimed with their British masters during the colonial period, on the grounds of a shared "Aryan" ancestry posited by racial mythology. The updated kinship claim, version 2003, demonstrates the willingness of our elites to turn their back on the anti-imperialist charter of the Indian Republic, in order to acquiesce in the expansionism of the U.S. establishment as it entrenches itself firmly within the Islamic world through military occupation and puppet regimes, to control oil reserves as well as contain potential opposition. The best justification that can be advanced for the Indian policy is that there is some pragmatism to being on the winning side; unfortunately, this is the myopic and unrewarding pragmatism of the sidekick. After all, the cooks in Napoleon's army were often on the winning side; unlike the Emperor's marshals, however, they were not usually ennobled for their pains.
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