Islam and Modernism 

Witness in the Middle East a true cultural acute crisis with deep historic roots.


This crisis is not merely the fruit of the economic developments of the last few decades, though undoubtedly these have had a profound effect on its diffusion and aggravation. Every economic development necessarily moves through a particular political and cultural stream and every structural change usually provokes cultural and political encounters. If we are not to encapsulate the capitalist system merely in the economic sphere, the cultural crisis has to be seen as another facet of the centre-periphery contradiction of the world capitalist system.


The crisis under discussion is a body of cultural confrontations which, with the increasing influence of Western culture in most Islamic countries, has led to a true cultural rift. The traditional has been divided from the modern sector of society. The magnitude of this rift is such that dialogue on cultural and value systems have become all but impossible. Hatreds and antagonisms have made them into virtually alien cultural groups in perpetual confrontation. Furthermore this social schism is vertical: that is the traditional layers of both the classes above and the classes below confront their modern counterparts.

Neither modernisation per se nor the process of capitalist development necessarily produce such a schism. The cultural crisis of the Middle East is neither an ordinary crisis of the transition from pre-capitalist and pre-modern to capitalist and modern societies, nor exclusively the product of the capitalist development in the periphery, or the result of contradictions of capitalist developments in the last few decades. Other elements have operated:


A.  Eurocentric modernism

The difficulties of overcoming religious resistance to modernisation in Europe is often forgotten, as was the compromises made [1] and the blood shed. While these woes are not inevitable in all societies undergoing modernisation, they cannot be entirely side stepped either.

It is often conveniently ignored that non-European societies are sensitive to the Eurocentrism of modern culture. Yet that Eurocentrism is neither a necessity nor even its strength. Those insisting on emphasising the Greco-Roman or Aryan roots of European culture, are talking racist nonsense - the Semitic roots of European culture are as important as the other. During the transition to modernism in Europe, the return to Greco-Roman roots took effect not through rejection of its Christian-Jewish roots but alongside it. Indeed, the irony is that the universalisation of European culture owes more to Christianity than anything else.

European culture was spread by the sword, mass emigration, religious propaganda, and finally modernity (the last on the back of the others). Economic and technological superiority was used to impose control, and the attractions of European culture to make acceptable the logic of capitalism. The undoubted positive interactions of these two elements hides the fact that modern culture has within it an opposition to domination.

This internal contradiction explains why European capitalism had both a  decisive role in the globalisation of modern culture, yet also created the greatest obstacles in the deepening and flowering of that very culture among non-Europeans. It is no coincidence that not a single Japan rose out of the colonies.

In societies with more complex structures the European-Christian links was instrumental in creating a large global collective that was not particularly averse towards the Eurocentrism of  today's global culture. Christianity links the elements in this inherent diversity. One third of the world is under the umbrella of one or other Christian branch. Today, Christianity is more a European than a Semitic religion, and those professing this faith have links with Europe. To the same extent non-Christians find themselves out in the cold and, indeed, find it hard to accept the Eurocentrism of  modern culture, particularly as its internal contradiction has surfaced more than ever today.

Modern culture relied heavily on the principles of freedom and equality of persons without which capitalism could not overthrow feudalism in Europe. Yet freedom excluded the freedom of workers to associate and equality was merely equality in front of the law. With the shadow of the working class on the horizon, the irrationality in capitalist logic became more transparent. Today capitalism has become the supporter and even the main architect of obscurantism and irrationality. The foul odour of this "rationality" is especially strong in peripheral countries.

Here modern culture is imported in a packaging which the free market finds profitable. In many ways this is not a culture which can provide answers to the problems of backwardness in the societies of the periphery (who also lack the traditions of enlightenment, and those of the working class struggle, as counterweight). One of the problems facing such a society undergoing modernisation today is precisely the crisis in modernity or ss Andre Gortz put it, modernism needs modernisation.

One way of expressing the dilemma is to state the obvious: the model of modernism based on capitalism is inadequate for the liberation of a peripheral capitalist state since the latter faces not merely the question of liberation from the remains of pre-capitalist culture but with liberation from capitalism itself.

The example of liberation theology in Latin America and the differences with the protestant movement in Europe is instructive. While Calvinism legitimatized the accumulation of capital for the budding bourgeoisie, liberation theology praises the division of bread. Protestantism preached that each person can find the road to salvation through forging a direct link with the creator. Liberation theology too rejects the church hierarchy, but sees the salvation of the individual through the salvation of the group. God the Father recedes to the background while Christ comes to the fore as symbol for the brotherhood of humankind. The paternalistic vertical church hierarchy is rejected for the horizontal brotherhood. For liberation theology salvation is right here on earth.

If Latin Americans, with their close cultural ties to Europe, reject the latter's route to religious reform it is because they are dealing with entirely different problems. Problems that bring out the contradictions of a capitalist-orientated  modern culture.  In non-European societies these contradictions are even more acute, opening the way for various reactionary forces to preach a return to the past under the guise of "identity" and "cultural authenticity".


B. Ties and memories

The Middle East has been particularly sensitive to European cultural influence, thanks to geographical proximity and historic ties. The long history of confrontation with Europe has acquired special significance in the light of Western influence in the region in recent times. Some of the opponents of Islamism have turned a surprising blind eye to this history which, after all, is part of the cultural memory of the people of the Middle East; a memory the religious establishment guards and constantly regurgitates in the daily life of the people.

The Middle East was the link between Europe and the rest of the world [2]. Moreover, Islam and Christianity have a common ancestry on which Islam insists. Indeed it accuses Christians and Jews of deviating from this tradition. One third of the Koran is devoted to tales of the Israelites very similar to that of the Old Testament. Yet none of the other great religions, even Zarostrianism which was the official religion of the largest empire adjacent to Islam's birthplace (Iran), receives a word. Early on the prophet Mohammad allied himself with Jews and Christians against his pagan enemies. Jerusalem, holy to Christians and Jews,  was his first choice as the pole towards which Muslims stood to pray.

Yet even then a rivalry between the new religion and its two forebearers was developing, evidenced by the shift from Jerusalem to Mecca even while the latter was still occupied  by pagan gods. The main focus of the rivalry revolved round their respective closeness to the nation, and tradition, of Abraham [3]. Islam rejects the concept of the Trinity as polytheistic and quotes Christ as predicting the appearance of another prophet after him.

There were of course other more earthly rivalries which for a thousand years, from the Muslim attack on the Byzantine Empire in 632 AD to the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, turned the Mediterranean into a contes. The emotional after effects of these defeats are even more acute for the Muslims who spent the last three hundred years moving at the snail pace of a pre-modern society while the rival surged ahead. [4]

Since the middle of the Twentieth Century an increasing number of people in Islamic countries haveconcluded that the only way to escape the domination of the West is to adopt Western culture. At the other end, for the defenders of Islamic culture who carry the glories of the thousand years and the humiliation of the last three hundred, the distinction between modern Western and Christian culture is blurred. They focus less on the reasons for Western advance as on the reasons for the backwardness of the Islamic people. Not just fundamentalists but even Islamic reformists, at least since Jamaleddin Assadabadi, [5] seek the cause in the turning away form Islamic teachings and culture. The defence of traditional  from modern culture takes place today on the back of the historic confrontation between the two worlds of Islam and Christianity. Western domination over Muslims in recent times has turned this into a ferocious mobilizing force.

The humiliations began with the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon and ended with the colonisation of most Islamic lands, the humiliating defeat of Iran at the hands of Tsarist Russia in the Caucasus, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the state of Israel in the Arab heartland and the numerous futile attempts by Arab states to dislodge it, the long war of attrition over oil. The Algerian war of independence and the Afghan Mujahedin's war against the Red Army, the Gulf war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia  have all brought the Muslims into confrontation with non-Muslim (and usually European) powers. Today the confrontation has surfaced within European borders where Muslims form the largest, most deprived and discriminated minority. Muslims today are the greatest opposition to Western global culture.

This is a conflict of like with like, an enmity based on proximity, a rivalry based on relatedness. This in many ways is the continuation of the historic rivalry between two great Semitic religions. It is only on the strength of  this centuries-old rivalry that defenders of Islamic culture can present modern (and mainly Euro-Christian) culture as the culture of enemies and conquerors.


C. Religious apparatus

The religious apparatus is the main repository of traditional culture, and the clergy the most organised social group with a vital interest in defending this tradition. This gives religion its increasing influence among believers. Moreover, through modernisation's destruction of traditional economic and social relations, religious reform becomes increasingly necessary, which in turn increases the influence of the religious apparatus.

It is worth being reminded that in pre-capitalist times the religious apparatus' link with the mass of believers was mostly at the local village level where they functioned by adapting religion to local customs,  powers and interests, altering  religious teachings, and accepting "innovations" (beda'at) to fit local needs. With the collapse of precapitalist relations and mass migration into towns the relative influence of local religious establishments waned.

Urban masses gradually lose their previous religious ties, just as they did their tribal and other ties, and move away from traditional rural values. They do not abandon religion but urbanize it. This usually involves a reduction in the role of intermediaries between god and man. Complex ritualistic religious activities is replaced by more simplified rituals in which the role of the clergy too is simplified. There is a return to the more fundamental roots of that religion with a shedding of  "innovations". This is the stimulus for the religion to reconstitute itself in the light of the new capitalist conditions. This reorganisation has the same basis everywhere but obviously takes different routes. In Islamic countries its principal characteristics were:

n The religious apparatus showed a stubborn resistance to modern culture. The historic roots of the confrontation described above, modernisation imposed by imperialist powers or non-democratic governments, the absence or weakness of a democratic bourgeoisie capable of organising a popular bloc against the domination from  the "outside" or from "above", its inability to organise a movement of religious reform in keeping with its own socio-political horizons (or at least a liberal compromise with its religious apparatus) are some of the root causes.

n Unlike most religions, Islam was not born within an agricultural community, and in many respects is more adaptable to urban life than most. It does not rely on complicated religious rituals and holy days (usually linked to the solar calendar). Its only ritual is the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) which by definition is a duty for the chosen few and not the mass of believers. Moreover, it presents an abstract concept of god and thus side-steps the problems other religions with agricultural roots face when brought into urban settings.

The Koran gives an essentially historic narrative of Mohammad who is a mortal like everyone else. Islam, does not reject earthly desires as a means of drawing closer to god. Indeed it rejects the monastic life of Christianity. Even in sexual matters it is less restrictive than at least its Semitic rivals. Finally it does not depend on a rigid religious hierarchy with special institutionalised privileges. Islam is thus better equipped than others to confront the main reasons for the agnostic nihilism in urban life, namely a doubting intelligentsia and an urban working class uninterested in the old symbolisms of agricultural civilizations.

Of course the opposition of Islam to the mixing of sexes is its most important handicap in adapting to modern life. Yet in the short term this has paradoxically increased the influence of the clergy among huge segments of the masses, especially the more traditional sections recently emigrated from villages. This was best seen in Iran. Regardless of its actual origin, sexual segregation has deep roots in these societies, and  gender mixing is seen as a Western phenomenon.

n The rapid growth of the natural support base for the religious apparatus  - the urban destitute who suffer the contradictory effects of  modernisation without benefiting from its positive aspects. Today the majority of the population of these countries are crushed into rapidly growing cities where they can neither return to the past, nor can they see a clear horizon ahead. They not mere witnesses, but feel with their whole being the pains and humiliations of poverty.

They form the explosive human material of the movement against the prevailing system; which takes the form of a protest against their fate. They do not yet know what they want, but know full well what they do not want. In the absence of political freedoms, and where the right to indulge in any political activity is restricted to the privileged few, it is natural that they clutch at the nearest ideological tool - traditional culture allied to religion.

Unlike the folklorist, passive and defensive religion of peasants, the urban poor are forced to adopt a religion which is aggressive, protesting and directed at politics. This religion needs organised concepts and, unsurprisingly, needs organisers and  intellectuals. In this way the urban poor come under the direct influence of the religious apparatus and in turn provide the latter with an militant machinery increasing its power in the cultural and political arena to an astonishing extent.


Ironically a  mass of largely traditional people empower a religious apparatus which then uses modern methods and structures. No movement has used modern propaganda means so effectively or applied so thoroughly and flexibly such systems as trade unions, guilds, educational establishments or even the organisation of the leisure time of even the most apolitical. It has used institutions of modern civil society with such effectiveness as to leave many of its rival modern movements (right or left) far behind. Islamism cannot remain a mass political movement without using these elements.

Undoubtedly factors which force it into using modern structures will also create a movement for religious reform which will in turn undermine the religious apparatus.  For example attention to the text of the Koran and its interpretation, based on the premise that the Koran was sent for all the faithful and talks directly to them, is rapidly spreading among the Islamist movement in ways that was opposed by previous generation of clergy, and should logically not be favoured by them today, as it makes them superfluous. This scriptualism was Luther's most important weapon.

Yet until the Islamic reformists become a distinct mass movement their advocates can only strengthen the traditional clergy. In Iran the Mujahedin and followers of Ali Shariati [6] had precisely such a role and it was no coincidence that Khomeini appointed Bazargan from the Freedom Movement as his first prime minister.

Finally Ernest Gellner's points out that while religious reform in Europe ante-dated modernism, elsewhere it is the reverse. Most Islamic reform movements start as a reaction to modernisation and cannot easily shed the idea of a religious state and work for the separation of religion and state.

In Short: The process of modernisation in Islamic countries makes the religious apparatus more active and powerful for a time, and allows it to play a large role in the open cultural confrontation in these countries.



D.  Too slow modernisation

The globalisation of capital and culture breaks down many barriers, but erects other unbridgable ones. The core-periphery contradiction is sharpened in novel ways and the cultural-class divide inside every capitalist country is widened. The communications revolution removes all political and cultural and moral obstacles for capital and  makes the least controllable and most parasitical form of capital - finance capital - dominant over the others. Yet it also erects insurmountable walls for humans and labour everywhere.

Fortress Europe is the child of the single market, the removal of the welfare state and mass unemployment in Europe the other side of the coin to the massive investment in cheap child labour in the Far East; NAFTA erects a "Chinese wall" to deny the Mexican poor access to a society where a coalition of the rich, the "Christian conscience" and defenders of male and white supremacy plan a "revolution" which will make the barriers to racial and economic inequality even more impassable.

Our global village brings the vision of wealth and poverty to every hut and castle. In Middle Eastern countries the contradictions of this confrontation becomes more acute. The process of integration in the global market has been faster in this region than anywhere else and economic and cultural modernisation the most unequal and contradictory. The region has the most flexible consumer market in the peripheral world while (oil aside) is home to its most fragile productive structure. It hosts the most parasitic and wasteful ruling class and has exported the largest non-Christian immigrant workforce to the West.

The speed of modernisation here has been much slower than the speed in which it has been integrated into the world market. This means that the traditional economic, social, political, and cultural structures are being torn down without modern structures talking their place. Developments are being made to live side by side which belong to historically different eras and which repel each other's reason for existence.

This poverty stricken mass thrown out of traditional existence has been catapaulted into esistence through the globalised market of finance capital. It is a contradictory mass torn between tradition and modernity. Yet even more contradictory is the globalised finance capital which creates and defines the life of this mass. The irrationality of this contradictory mass is no greater than the "economic irrationality" of the rulers of the global capital market.

The "economic rationale" of capital insist that there is nothing more to the Middle East than oil and petro-dollars, ignoring the fact that there are people there who see nothing rational in the "rationality" of world capital. Today they can no longer swallow their anger. The simultaneous existence of these people with the globalised modernisation of the age of information and their opposition to this contradictory modernisation are two sides of the same coin. It is this that has rent their societies into two opposing camps locked  in a cultural war turned into a civil war of attrition.


Those who think that the developments in the Middle East was caused by too hasty modernisation see the truth upside down. It is true that at least some sectors and some countries were modernised faster than in Europe. However,  the logic of global capitalist accumulation imposed a much slower pace of overall modernisation than the globalisation of the economy of the Middle East. The problem of the Middle East is not too rapid a modernisation, but unequal modernisation at a rate below its current needs.

The region needs modern economic, political and cultural structures, and huge investments in modern economic, social and human infrastructures. This of course is not in keeping with the economic "rationale" of world capital, which looks for a cheaper alternative:  "the hidden hand of the market". We all saw what that did.


Mohammad Reza Shalguni

Free and abridged translation of Part 4 of "Confronting Islamism: a huge testing ground"





1. for example the compromise of the Lutheran church with the absolute monarchy in Germany, initiated a war which, as Engels said, pushed Germany back  two centuries from completely participating in the active politics in Europe - and undoubtedly fuelled German ultra-nationalism with its destructive effects. Even Calvinism, the most radical of the reform movements,  could not accept the concept of freedom of religion.

2. The closure of this route in the second half of the 15t Century through the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Ottoman Turks resulted in the"discovery" of America.

3.  The Koran ingeniously disputes the choice of Issac (father of  the Israelites) as the son of Abraham that God chose as sacrifice, and instead proposes that the Ismail (the father of the Arabs) was the chosen  sacrificial victim - placing a counter-claim to the Jewish claim to be God's chosen people.[MS1] 

4. At the end of the seventeenth Century the three empires of Ottoman (Turkey),  Safavid (Iran) and Mongol (India) were comparable with any European power. Less than fifty years later all three were fading.

5. See Ali Rahnema and Farhad Nomani: The secular miracle Zed Books, London 1990, and Aziz Al-Azmeh:  Islam and Modernities, Verso, London 1993

6. Shiite intellectual who influenced a generation of young Islamists. See Nikkie Keddie: Roots of Revolution,Yale 1981 and  Ali Rahnema: ibid



 [MS1] While the Torah choses Isiah - son of Jacob the father of Isreal - as the chosen sacrifice by God , the  Koran, rather neatly, choses Ismail, Abraham's other son and the forefathr ofthe Arabs as the chosen scrifice thus oposing the view that the jews are God's chosen people.


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