Alternative Modernities as an reactionary Muslim identity.

Globalization, Post Colonialism and the

Construction of Islam as an ‘extreme’ and an ‘other’.



It is argued that the construction and assertion of Muslim identities in the contemporary period expresses ‘alternative modernities’. By alternative, it is implied in terms of the path or trajectory that did not strictly adopt modern secular values, and likewise, the political systems that reflect these values. The following look at alternative modernities as a ‘reactionary’ movement. What will be examined, are the limitations of framing the extremism of Islamism, as pre-modern. That is, as a culture that will advance itself once it has adopted modern rationalism and secular values. It will be argued in the following that “Muslim modernities” cannot be separated from the forces of colonial history, the expansion of globalization in the post-war period, and the problem of misrecognition. Muslim identities as alternative modernities, have been ‘constructed’ by the cultural forces of the West that colonized them, but then, liberated and exploited them. As such, these identities are constructed both by a lack of self determination and self definition, but also through the dominant culture or the West, projecting its own history and narrative on key aspects of Muslim culture.

The Salafi movement in the post Second World War period largely defines the spread of Islamist teachings that prefer Sharia Law, and moreover, have been directly linked to extremism or Jihadist agendas. To understand the impact of Salafi movement as a modern and reactionary movement within the context of globalization, is to have some background of the founding of the Sharia law practising Arab states and the Gulf countries(Pall, 2014, p.9). The highest concentrations of the Salafi movement are located in Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and within all of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and it had a significant population in the modern period in both Turkey and Egypt. Without examining the global spread of the Salafi movement, in general the founding nations are characterized as speaking Gulf Arabic Standard Arabic English, and have a largely Sunni Islam of Maliki system of education and jurisprudence(Wiktorowicz, ed., 2004, p. 173-4). At the same time, there are significant minorities of Shia and Salafi Muslims in other regions with Sunni majority and the inverse as well. Currently, most of the Gulf states recognize Sharia Law even though the vast majority of the population are essentially recent immigrants or migrants who have been drawn to the regions because of job growth and employment opportunities(Lauzière, 205, p. 45). As a point of note, in terms of representing the majority of individuals within the countries that they control, the Salafi movement and Wahabism is actually practised and recognized by a very small percentage of the population even though it is a founding religion of the state(Wiktorowicz, ed., 2004, p. 7; Wiktorowicz, 2006, p. 216). Further, the cultural ties to the religion are also historically significant. To understand the intersection of the Salafi movement with globalization and geopolitics, is to understand how this spread as a consequence of the core events of the post war period.

Among the varieties of the above mentioned nation states connected to the Salafi movement, Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant. Saudi Arabia is important in the global economy, because of their relation to the US and oil. In the period following the Second World War, all of the major European powers were de-colonizing. In the immediate period following the war, European powers were financially bankrupt and also, politically challenged because of the need to rebuild(Roy, 2004, p. 21). In many regards the colonies had in some cases become cost inefficient, and in other cases, shifts in resources meant correlating shifts in geopolitical goals. In 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt the President of the US, signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would ensure oil for the US and security for Saudi Arabia at Bitter Lake in the Saudi peninsula (Bronson, 2008, p. 5). While the European powers were distancing themselves of the developing world, the US became focused on those natural resources that facilitated their own economic and geopolitical interests. At the time of the signing, the Arab states or the Gulf states were not perceived as a security threat and that they were largely viewed as an under-developed region(2008, p. 45). The course of history was changed significantly because of the value of oil. One of the more significant problems of the agreement made by Roosevelt with Saudi Arabia, was the OPEC crisis of the early 1970’s. In terms of power, Saudi Arabia is regarded as the most significant of the OPEC or the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC was created in 1960 in Baghdad, Iraq(El-Gamal, 2009, p. 92). Currently, there are fourteen member states and it is located in Vienna. At the time of the founding, the members included Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Venezuela. It is difficult to separate the political interests of the Saudi Arabia, from those of the other OPEC countries through this period of de-colonization, but also, globalization. Most significant in terms of their impact, was the overnight fixing of world oil prices. Because the US had supported Israel in 1967 during the war, and were perceived as continuing to provide them aid and support with regional struggles such as the internal issue with Palestine, the OPEC countries agreed to raise the price of oil and it impacted the world economy significantly(2009, p. 32). While the goal of Roosevelt’s deal with Saudi Arabia, was to create a situation where the price and supply of oil would become more stable, the reverse happened. The US during the OPEC crisis understood that they had actually lost the control of the world oil supplies in terms of stability and security. In turn, they understood that collectively, the OPEC countries could impact the US and world economy for several years because of their power over oil exports and the cost-per-barrel of crude oil.

One of the key domain areas fact about the rise of the Salafi movement or Wahabism as a reactionary but modern strain of Islamist identity, is the domain of economics and the integration and alignment of interests with the US and other Western foreign powers. At the same time that there is a recognition that there are significant differences in terms of how legal and judicial rights ought to be defined and recognized, and at the same time that the enemies of Saudi Arabia are not necessarily the enemies of the rest of the world, there is a fundamental connection between the emergence and rise of the Salafi movement and the economic interests that serve global capitalism, and in particular, the oil consuming nations such as the US and Western Europe. At the same time that the common interests define the complexity of the problem, a more pronounced set of cultural distinctions construct the divide that has ‘objectified’ all Muslims as Islamist at its worst, and at its best, these cultural distinctions continue to be little known outside of the nations themselves. One of the problems in terms of defining identity, is how identity has been constructed or defined through a form of objectification, and another, is that within the culture and system itself, there is a single authority within the moral and political framework: “a passive object of history and study has revived as a subject, which seeks with profound travail its own soul and does not recognize it in its past or present in the mirror of European orientalist investigation” (Wiktorowicz, 2004, p. 291). In terms of creating a problem with regard to identity and defining in modernized terms and basic concepts, it is the case that the extremism as one aspect or element is firmly grounded in a long history of the West viewing Islam as a succinct civilization. In terms of the impact of religion, and the intersection of natural resources and International politics, the Salafi movement or more extreme elements of Islamist social practices and thought, are significantly intertwined with the objectified lens of Occidental culture and nation states. More moderate responses can be understood from organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood who formed in Egypt and expanded, but who also carried this attitude toward the West: ” the condemnation of Western thought and lifestyle, of its social, economic and political systems is a vocal and recurring point”(Zollner, 2009, p. 51).

Hefner (1998) presents an argument that maintains that even though secular culture has become the status quo in most Western democratic societies, succinctly India and Islam are singled out as distinct civilizations. When it comes to civilizations, there is no ignoring the major forces that shape and socially construct culture, values and social norms. Hefner argues that there is an assumption that Islamic cultures that do not separate the religious laws or the Word of Allah from the laws that govern the nation, have not reached a stage of secularization or one which is perceived as advanced as the West has had major historical changes such as a Reformation whereby the Church and the rule of power became permanently separated. Although it is the case that international affairs and policy making have been influences by this “narrative” (Hefner, 1998, p.85) of secular progress toward a more homogeneous set of values and laws. In large part, there has been a progress of sorts that has been imposed that is not actually supported by reality. From the vantage point of anthropology that examines the impact and influence of religion on society, he presents arguments that show a marked increase in culture re-defining itself along more rigorous religious and not secular lines: “classical secularization theory oversimplified modernity and its non modern ‘other.'” (1998, p. 86). Hefner maintains that religion has and will continue to have a greater role as a reaction to the fact that Western values have never really gained currency or ground in the “public sphere” (1998, p. 86). The notion of the ‘other’ describes how non-occidental or Western cultures have conventionally been viewed through and by Western academics and also, how it has shaped public policy. In terms of the history outlined so far, there is no question that there is a difference between the concerns about identity and culture in pre OPEC and pre 1991 or the first Iraq War. There was an assumption by the US and then the institutions that began building infrastructure and development like the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, the United Nations and a variety of other significant aid and development organizations that support globalization, but also, the expansion of liberal democratic political values and systems(El-Gamal, 2009, p. 171-2).

Sharia Law makes Islamist a distinct culture, but also an importantly different ‘other’ in political terms with regard to how they are socially constructed. Sharia Law is practised in the Gulf States or nation states where there is no separation of religious law from secular or rights based justice that maintains that there is a natural equality among humans by virtue of being humans. In Sharia Law, and as it is practised in the traditions of the more extreme followers, the Qu’ran is viewed as the literal word of Allah that had been revealed to Muhammad(Egerton, 2011, p. 128).  In the historical period when the word was revealed to Muhammad, in many respects some of the law is easier to interpret. For example, in terms of family law and the subjugation of women or keeping them out of public decision and legal systems, the Qu’ran is very clear. In the practice of Sharia Law, the Umma are and always have been men and that it is very clear. These are the individuals who are educated  the study of the Qu’ran, and the select areas of specialization and they become significant figures in the community because they are needed to arbitrate and adjudicate on all matters of law or problems in the public sphere(Wiktorowicz, 2004, p. 161). In countries such as India where there is the practice of Personal Law — that is, a constitutional recognition that the laws that government family, education, inheritance and marriage should be left to the religious communities themselves. In India, the constitutional recognition of personal law has been incorporated because of the significantly large Hindu and Islamic populations. In terms of being incorporated into law, it is also the case that there are rights that are accorded to each of its citizens such that they supersede the rights of the community. For example, if there is cases of abuse or the rights of an individual such as the right to vote is being suppressed, it follows that the secular law will supersede the personal law(Larson, 2001, p. 17). However, one of the problems that is recognized in an essentially patriarchal system of adjudication and judgment, is that there is a significant gender balance in favour of men. If women are not raised and educated to be capable of reading the Qu’ran for themselves, they are essentially at the mercy of the system that they are raised in. It is the case that there are individuals who are raised within non-secular communities who do not know that they have individual rights or much about the nature of those rights, given that they are not provided an adequate education(Larson, 2001, p. 25). Further, in the case where Sharia Law is practised, it is patriarchal in this regard and the law is very clear. To make a point of distinction, the only criticism being made is that ‘systemically’ there is a conflict in this instance between the natural right of a woman to not be excluded from any given function, role or position in society on the basis of their gender(Wicktorowicz, 2004, p. 259). By definition, the practice of Sharia Law systemically excludes women and while there are challenges made in terms of interpreting the Qu’ran in these terms, it does remain that among the states where the Salafi movement have grown, it is the case that Sharia Law is also one of the constants as a political and cultural feature. It is what leads thinkers such as Hefner to maintain that there is a succinct feature that makes them a civilization, and at the same time, it is a civilization that has become more entrenched because of the geopolitical problems that have occurred through the post war period of modernization and globalization.  Hefner argues that when confronted with “modern pluralism”, the reaction to it has been perceived as so “radical that it frustrates efforts to project overarching ethical values into the public sphere” (1998, p. 85). Rather than there being a greater recognition of the rational nature of secular rights, for example, there has been a growing resurgence of more fundamentalist views that cling even tighter to the Qu’ran as the main source for adjudication or law.

Kurzen (2002) outlines how Osama Bin-Laden represents a very modernist strain of the fundamentalist thought that currently is associated with the practice of Wahabism, and the spread of the Salafi movement throughout the Arabic world and even among other secular nations. There is no question that there has been a growth even among individuals with no personal history to Islam that have been trained and who have joined extremist groups like ISIS, Hezbollah, and a variety of other Jihadist organizations. This trend in itself, speaks to the agenda of spreading the Salafi movement both throughout the Arabic and Islamic based nation states, but internationally. Again, using Saudi Arabia as a base and a historical example, the Salafi movement is extensively involved with education and the active promotion of Wahabist ideas among its populations and beyond. Cynically, one could maintain a viewpoint that reduces this practice as a form of propaganda that serves the political and economic interests of the OPEC nations or whomever the stakeholders are in terms of adopting various Islamist charitable organizations and foundations. However, the expansion of their religious ideas is built into the Qu’Arabic teachings. That is to say, just as the biblical or Christian gospels traditions maintains that the ‘word’ must be shared, so too with the exchange of ideas that are promoted through institutions that support the building of Mosques and schools throughout the Middle East and the world. The Bin-Laden family as Kurzen points out, has been actively involved with the economic interests of the Royal elite in Saudi Arabia, but also active in the promotion and dissemination of Wahabism or the Salafi movement(2002, p. 14). As was outlined above with regard to the discussion of Hefner (1998), the religious intent or motivation cannot be underestimated. Where it has been assumed that the rational or secular alternative to Sharia Law would win the information war, so to speak, it has in fact lost. But, it its victory in a sense speaks to a deeper cultural connection that cannot just be rejected with the adoption of an pre-existing rational alternative or secular alternative. As is argued by Hefner and others such as Samuel Huntington, one of the important differences with Western civilization is the historical period of the Reformation along with the usurping of monarchical rule and the incorporation of liberal democratic political systems, and values(Hefner, 1998, p. 92). These are significant periods of history that go into explaining what is regarded as ‘modern’. That is, where religion is viewed as the right of the individual to practice but not the state to legislate, and the view that individuals have an equal right to be protected by the arbitrary rule of the state and also, the right to vote. As is argued by John Rawls in his work , what the separation of church and state mean in modern liberal terms, is that the only “transcendent” idea that we maintain is “natural equality” (Rawls, 2005, p. 109). According to logic or law of ‘identity’, there is no such thing as ‘natural equality’. At the very least, argues Leibniz who formulated the ‘law of identity’, every object in the natural place if it is distinct, will have a corresponding distinct location in space. And, as long as there is one single predicate or attribute such as location that can be made of one natural object, that is different than the other, it follows that they are not exactly identical or perfectly equal(Duke, 2017, p. 86). Equality is an abstraction of sorts from how the natural and the social world actually are. There is no equity or very much equality in the world and that is a problem of distributive justice within the system. However, Rawls argues that the only transcendent that Western liberalism ought to maintain as an abstract idea, is that we are born and created equal and we all have an equal share under the system of law that adopts liberal democratic principles. For Rawls, what is modern is the rejection of any ‘absolute’ or ‘transcendent’ truths that are fixed for eternity(Rawls, 2005). The concept of Sharia Law is not a problem in terms of the issue of rights and outcomes, but a problem of logic. Accepting the axiomatic rule that the Qu’ran represents the word of God, entails that the rules that Mosques will enforce and rule on, are fixed. One could argue that they are fixed within a context that is pre-modern given that the revelation of this word that was given to Muhammad occurred when in the Occidental world, the Roman Empire was on decline and the Medieval or Dark Ages were emerging. On the one hand, it is a challenge to impose the progress of Occidental or European history on a very alternative culture such as Islam. Unquestionably, one of the problems of constructing the Islamist states as an ‘other’ is by viewing them as having not reached an enlightened era of progress that involved the separation of religion from politics, and the establishment of liberal democracies and constitutional rights that recognize natural equality. However, there is also a criticism of Sharia Law that maintains that there is a functional incoherence to it and a logical problem as well(Wiktorowicz, 2004, p. 259). Although the institution of marriage might not have basically changed in over one thousand years, consider how the Qu’ran is interpreted in national states with Sharia Law when the legal problem is a business contract, or an a copyright holder. There are major areas of modern law that require fluidity, and pragmatic change built into the system. Where marriage, inheritance and the education of children are customs that are universal, there are many social interactions and behaviours that were not anticipated when the Qu’ran was written.

The adoption of Sharia Law in the Gulf States and the systemic distribution of the Salafi movement, are an outcome that is largely reactionary. The history of North Africa and the developing world in general through the post colonial period when US influence or hegemony spread, has been argued so far to result in a suspicion and critical rejection of the West or Occidental values. The reaction to colonial exploitation, and then, the exploitation of the developing world by corporations rather than national states, resulted in a reaction that deepened a divide rather than unified it. However, the reaction is one that might be explained so that where and how that divide was created and it is impact on modern identity is better understood. At the same time that the Salafi movement became a force to promote the autonomy of Islamist political states and the rejection of Western values, there was an important vacuum created by the adoption of liberal democratic institutions(Wicktorowicz, 2004, p. 263). In the same period that Saudi Arabia was becoming reactionary and more isolated, other nations with significant Muslim populations went along different trajectories. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in this period, and while much more modernist and moderate than the Salafi movement or Wahabism, they were a movement that were premised on autonomy and self-determination. Egypt has had a long history of integrated relations and economies with the West, and the emergence and growth of the movement there is in some ways not that different than what motivated the more extreme groups that expanded from the Gulf States. One of the key problems that has so far been raised, is the problem where Islam does not identity with their own history because that history has been mostly collected and retold to them by the very nations that have subjugated and controlled their history. In the post-colonial period, the politics of identity have become key because of the lack of recognition that is made in the history narrated by the colonial superpowers or Western Europe, and then, the global superpower of the US in the post colonial period.

There is a divide that has been described between self determination and self identity on the one hand, and the need to deconstruct the Occidental construction of that identity as an ‘other’. For some who have looked at modernization and identity in the Islamic world, the failure of the Occident or the West that has created a pendulum effect or impact of reactionary politics, is a failure at mutual recognition. Mutual recognition is a political concept that was originally defined by a philosopher named G.W.F. Hegel in a work titled ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit'(Burns, ed., 2011, p. 3). In that work, he explains that the origins of inequality among societies extend from the human need to be recognized by another human. Further, the need is to be recognized in terms of how one recognizes and defines themselves. The failure of mutual recognition, is viewed as one of the reasons that secular modernity has not presented itself as a rational alternative to the pre-modern views of the Salafi movement. In Algeria in the period following the Second World War, one of the most influential figures in post-colonial thinking named Frantz Fanon returned to his homeland of Algeria. In the early 1950’s, Fanon returned to Algeria in a period when civil war and the struggle for independence from France was underway. He was returning from France where he was trained as a psychiatrist and an as a figure who studied philosophy with individuals like Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris(Fanon, 2008, p. 9). What Fanon noticed after Algeria achieved independence, was that there was no sense of collective victory or no celebration of liberation with the newly acquired political system. Where many Algerians struggled for Independence, according to Fanon, what occurred in this period was that the newly democratic citizens did not recognize themselves in their own new system: “The other has to perform the same operation. “Action from one side only would be useless, because what is to happen can only be brought about by means of both. . . .”; “they recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other.”(Fanon, 2008, p. 169). Fanon parallels this inability to be recognized as liberated, as pervasive in the psychological outcomes of individuals who experienced slavery and then, the liberation from it(2008, p. 11). There was no struggle that was recognized by the authorities, the notion of individual rights that were provided by liberal democracies as they started emerging in Egypt, Algeria or Turkey, were largely viewed as a system that was provided by the colonial powers that were disinvesting themselves as political power but investing themselves as corporate and financing power. As outlined above, during  the same historical period that countries like Britain were making India and Pakistan independent democratic states, and France was doing the same among its former colonies, the need and demand for financial aid and development became provided by the institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. However, what came with the financial aid and support, was the demand that these emerging nations recognize the liberal democratic institutions and values of the West, and likewise, adopt these. The consequence in terms of the adoption, has created a split or a divide along the lines of those who view that the adoption of liberal democratic institutions is merely a vehicle or a means for accepting that Western business interests are going to play a significant economic role in the policy and growth of these emerging post-colonial economies(Bronson, 2008, p. 11). Using the theory of mutual recognition taken from Hegel, what Frantz Fanon and Charles Taylor argue based on political and historical observations, is that the failure of the West is to create social and cultural partnerships and relations beyond just legal or formal terms. By failing to recognize the significance in the cultural lives of Islam the role that Sharia Law and Islamist values play in their lives, a reaction has been formed where the self determination and self definition of identity in the modern Muslim world has been reactionary. However, the reaction is on the extremes or it is manifest in the perception that this identity is extreme. As study after study have demonstrated, the influence of the Salafi movement appears to be far more significant than it actually is(Kurzen, 2002, p. 8). Although there is a growth in the Salafi movement and Wahabism in a variety of countries including places like Indonesia, Syria or Nigeria, as a cultural and political force, it is not a movement that most of Islam recognize themselves within.

The failure of mutual recognition is a significant factor contributing to the complex problem of defining modern identity. As an analogy to clarify this failure, consider two or three examples of extremism in Western or Occidental secular democracies. First, Charles Taylor writers about mutual recognition from a Canadian perspective where there is a constitutional recognition of distinct Catholic French custom and traditions, and also, English ones(Thompson, 2006, pp. 4-5). There is a Province that has a different legal system in that country, and at the same time, when the Constitution was drafted in 1867 the indigenous or aboriginal peoples were given very limited rights for self determination or self governance. They were barely recognized as humans in the same terms that French and English settlers were. Canada represents both the success and failure of creating a system of mutual recognition in this regard. Further, and in keeping with the success and failure of secular liberal democracies, the state of Utah in the US recognizes the religious right to practice polygamy among other Mormon religion specific behaviours(Larson, 2001, p. 344). It was a state that was founded with an agenda to protect the religious views and practices of Mormons, just as the myth of the North American colonies themselves is a history that is defined by the motive to practice religious freedom. In other words, to some extent, mutual recognition is created within societies in a way that the practice as a political strategy could be expanded. What the US or the Western world has failed at achieving in the post colonial period is recognizing their own history in the ‘other’. Where modern progress assumes that the separation of religion from politics is a given, there are instances where Catholicism is a state sanctioned legal institution in Canada, and Mormonism is likewise a legally recognized distinct institution in the US. The Constitution of India as mentioned, recognizes that Personal Law should be maintained such that cultures and their identities can be preserved in terms of rights and practices. At the very same time, there is no question that the rights of a culture and the rights of humans if they are defined in liberal and secular ways will come into conflict with another. Without arguing over specific problems such as the rights of women or cultural minorities under Sharia Law, it is the case that there is a need to balance the interests of identities. There is a need on the one hand for self determination and the recognition of ones right to that self determination, on the other hand, the right to self definition and sf determination should not exceed the natural right of someone to enjoy their own personal liberties and freedoms. That is, although Mormonism is recognized in the state of Utah, by no means are its citizens required or obligated to adopt their laws or have an imperative to take many wives. Rather, there is a choice that recognizes the liberty of an entire religion but also, the liberty of those who choose to have an alternative path for their own self identity and value systems. Further, the point of self definition in these terms, is that the West does make significant secular accommodations for religion. Further, their is a growth in influence of religious fundamentalism in politics much in the same way that it would have been thought to be have been eliminated as history moved forward. Starting in the 1980’s, fundamentalism has had a significant impact on mainstream politics in the US and this was by no means the vision of progress that liberal secular democratic thinkers believed would define the political trajectory of a modern constitutional state. Where the self recognition of religious tolerance and identity is actually a part of the West’s experience, it is also not extended to other cultures and nations at the very same time. Just as Canada recognized the French but not the Indigenous, so too with how recognition has played out in the post colonial period. Those who are viewed as an ‘other’ or as extreme, were viewed that way because the West failed to see the other in themselves. This failure is what poses the main challenge for defining identity in the modern Muslim world.

The key alternative modernities examined in this analysis, have emerged and grown over the past few decades as a reactionary movement. The Salafi movement or Wahabism, grew from the Gulf States to spread the value of Sharia Law and the problems with adopting Western secularism. The Qu’ran itself advocates the spreading of this religious world-view, and in many regards while it appears to be solely a move backward in history to the founding era of Islam, it is really an attempt at self definition and self determinantion. By constructing Islam as an ‘other’ and as a culture that has not been modernized, the West caused a reaction in the form of a culture that systemically rejected the idea that they needed to progress. They were not being recognized on their own cultural terms, and defined solely through the secular value system that mostly sought to exploit their natural resources. In these terms, it is an alternative modernity because it is re-interpreting and re-invoking conventional and traditional ideas. There is not a single continuum from the writing of the Qu’ran to the rise of Jihadism in the past few decades. Rather, the reaction that made Islam look internally and backward through time, was caused by the continued dominance of the developing world by a form of colonialism, and by the inability of those powers to recognize their culture on its own terms. The failure of mutual recognition can be said to be the main cause of alternative modernities in Islam.



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