Islam and the West, by Akeel Bilgrami

by 4:49 pmUncategorized0 comments

This text is drawn from a longer speech given at the World Public Forum on ‘the dialogue between civilisations and the idea of a world order’.

We speak much today of Islam, indeed do so obsessively, and we speak of its relations to the West, and when we do, we do so in two quite different registers. First, by contrasting Islam with the liberal ideals of the West. And in this register there is much self-congratulation about these liberal ideals.  We often then switch to a different register that is frequently critical of the West’s attitudes towards Islam, seeing in them a hate-mongering phobia of Islam.  I will argue that both these registers are highly misleading of what is really at stake.

Prior to modernity, the relations between Islam and the West were for centuries understood more simply as the relations between Islam and Christendom.  And in those centuries, Islam and Christendom bore enmity towards each other in the most vilifying terms, both in word and in horrifically violent deed.  But throughout these centuries, they each nevertheless displayed a respect for one another, trading in diverse material products, and engaged in a prolonged and fruitful mutual intellectual and artistic collaboration and influence  —all of which when viewed from the thoroughly revised circumstances of modernity, can only seem enviably robust and healthy.  For those many hundred years, both cultures were feudal and pastoral, and, despite local difference in religious doctrine, which was in large part the avowed ground of the antagonism, there were shared intellectual premises that governed these differences.  In fact it is the shared element that was the real source of the hostility.  The more ancient religions of the East, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, were not only more removed in space, but were intellectually too remote to be palpably threatening to Christianity, in the way that Islam with its many shared assumptions, was.  In fact, I think it is probably right to say that the crusades were fought against a form of heresy represented by Islamic civilization in Arabian lands rather than against some wholly alien presence there.

Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and the British conquest of India, however, gradually gave rise to an era defined by a quite different tone of relations, a tone of relations that reflected the relations of power which for the first time contained the rudiments of what we would now dress up and domesticate with such terms as a ‘world order’.  Conflict was of course still said to be there, but it would be wrong to think that it was the key to future relations.  It was the new tenor of colonial mastery that mastery required attitudes of condescension and superiority, and were felt to be so by the subject people, breeding in them not so much a robust sense of conflict any more, but rather a sense alienation and resentment.  This new moral psychology that accompanied colonial relations was of course undergirded by an altering of the material relations that had held for centuries.

The growing mercantile and industrial forces of the most powerful Christian lands were, as we well know, steadily destroying the pastoral societies in their own terrain, but their effect on the lands and economies of the colonial subjects was altogether different. What feudal structures it destroyed to recreate new and vibrant economies in its own midst, it left well alone in these other lands, taking only that which was necessary for its mercantile and industrial requirements.  By transforming its own political economy while extracting surpluses but leaving structurally unchanged its conquered lands, European colonialism thereby laid the foundation for an abiding material differential, which would continue until today to be the underlying source of the ideological rhetoric of superior progress, not only material but also civilizational.  The health of conflict by more or less equal foes had, by these material agencies, deteriorated to the alienating effects of condescension and defensive resentment among increasingly unequal ones and this is precisely what persists today in revised forms, whether it is in whole national populations subject to embargoes and invasions or stateless fugitives fleeing the chaos and suffering that is either a direct or an indirect fallout of those embargoes and invasions. It is the increasing complexity that accompanies these material relations and the relations of power in our own time that has prompted social scientists to summon the term ‘world order’ to describe a patchwork form of governance to be found in international bodies, whether they be international credit agencies, trade organizations, treaty and defence organizations, or the Security Council of the United Nations.

So one lesson to draw about religion from all this would be that the so called clash or conflict between civilizations is not nearly as bad if it is a genuine clash as it was for centuries prior to modernity, rather than as it became in modernity a conquest passing off in neutral terms as a ‘clash’.  It is this sleight of hand, this neutral idiom of ‘clash’ and ‘conflict’ to describe a situation which should be rightly described as a conquest that is Huntington’s most insidious contribution to these issues.

The point of these potted historical remarks is to suggest that what the notion of world order describes is something that could not have application in those earlier centuries where Islam and Christendom fought the crusades, even as they influenced each other deeply in a wide range of spheres of mind and culture as equal foes and partners alike.  A world order only emerged when these relations were transformed in the way I described above in the modern period and the very much later coinage and deployment of the term ‘world order’ is really just a complex form of updating of these set of relations of an earlier period that were preserved in revised forms after formal political decolonization in the aftermath of the second world war.

If I were to shed my assigned focus on Islam and religion, I would simply describe these relations, as is often done now, as relations holding between the North and the South.  That is the one constant since the colonial era began until now in all the renewals and transformations of the idea of a world order.  To put it more elaborately, the fact of a world order existed in the modern period in the form of colonial relations of power and dependency in the North’s relations to the South but because of formal decolonization and more particularly because the cold war intervened to complicate things, the term ‘world order’ was coined to make it seem as if things were not a matter of such domination and dependency any more but rather a bipolar arrangement in which a complex form of deterrence existed between two different ideologies and visions of political economy and governance.

Several questions remain:  can one continue to speak of a world order that maintains imperial relations of the past in disguised current forms when the elites of the South are so much more powerful now than they were in the past and are in alliance with the elites of the North and West?  In other words is ‘imperialism’ a relevant category of analysis in a period of globalized financial capital? This is a matter of lively debate at present, even within the political economists of the Left, and the outcome of the debate will have no small impact on how to understand the idea of a world order.  Another question is how much does the increasing presence of China (it’s most current downturn apart) and its economic power in other countries of the South (most vivid in African countries) constitute the possibilities of a new reconfiguration of world order.  If its (and perhaps even India’s) presence in the other regions of the South develops more intensely, might we see a future of inter-imperial rivalries of the form that defined the period prior to 1914?  Should that happen, let’s not forget that Lenin described inter-imperial rivalry as the cradle of radicalization that led to the Bolshevik revolution, but here I am prematurely speculating far beyond anything that the facts on the ground presently allow.

Let me conclude, then, with a word about how what I have said about world order relates to the scope of dialogue between the West and the Islamist tendencies in West Asia.  Suppose what I have said is right: that the very idea of a world order is a falsely bland descriptive as well as prescriptive label for longstanding colonial relations of power and dependency between the North and the South (relations that are evident to this day in the unequal representation of the South and its interests in what I described as the ‘patchwork form of governance’ that comprises the world order in institutions such as international credit agencies, international trade organisations and the Security Council).   Suppose I am right too that the very idea of a clash of civilizations, though it described the pre-modern period well, in the modern period is a misleadingly domesticating label for a centuries long conquest of one civilization by another which continues in revised but abiding form.

First of all, notice that if all this is right, then declaring honourably as some critics of the North have done that such a dialogue is preempted by the pervasive Islamophobia in the North is completely beside the point.  Anyone with elementary powers of observation will notice that when it comes to a world order, the question is about power among states not about attitudes among populations and when it comes to states there is absolutely no Islamophobia.  The United States government suffers from no such phobia.  Indeed it supports to this day the most despised Islamic state in the world. The main point of world order is to have control of a region, its natural resources and its geopolitical advantage. It has nothing to do with attitudes towards religion and ethnicities which are all (not so) niceties that can be left to ordinary people so as to manipulate their fears for statist ends in the maintenance of world order as I’ve described it.

And if these relations of domination and control, conquest not clash, are acknowledged to be what is really at stake, I would think that that the very idea of a dialogue simply lapses.  Why?  Because one cannot have a dialogue with a master!  Dialogues can only occur between relatively equal foes and that scenario of equality among foes has not existed basically, as I said, since the crusades except for a brief and essentially illusory caesura of the cold war.  The point, by the very nature of the case, is this:  one can only resist a master not collogue with him.  One may of course have a dialogue within the framework of a resistance.  But resistance must be the prior and the frameworking notion.  Obviously, I don’t mean violent resistance, not only because violence is intrinsically immoral, but because it has brought nothing but further domination and an endless cycle of self-perpetuating further violence.  How to construct and develop a moral and an effective resistance for our time in a world order governed by globalized finance remains the most pressing question of our time.