Islam and the West: Conflict, Democracy, Identity
Akeel Bilgrami, Columbia University 24 July 2013

There is a very familiar cautionary response that one finds oneself constantly making when one engages in discussions about Islam these days. This is the response of saying, “Do not generalize about Islam. There are many Islams!” In fact this has become something of a mantra and, given the strenuous simplifications one finds in the Western media and on the lips and memos of politicians as well as in continuing forms of ‘orientalist’ academic writing, expressions of such caution are thoroughly warranted. But on the other hand, it should not become a conversation-stopper. And it should not be inconsistently deployed. There is no doubt that there are many Islams. That should be a banality. But if that is so, then equally, in that case, there are many Americas, and there are many Wests, too. And that does not stop many of us from making remarks abstracting from this manyness and diversity of the West and of America to nevertheless make roughly true generalizations about the West –such as, that there is a corporate driven foreign policy prevalent in the West, especially in the US, which has had very destructive effects in countries with Muslim populations, that the US government has consistently supported Islamic militants when it suited their geo-political and economic interests, that it has supported Israeli occupation and brutalization of the Palestinian land and peoples, and so on. These are all things that I, and many others, insist on saying, even as we acknowledge that there are many Wests, many Americas, with diverse interests and commitments, etc. But then, if one is consistent, one should also refused to be inhibited from making efforts to understand Islam which abstract away from its diversity, and look for generalizations that are roughly plausible and that advance discussion and understanding. In a sense there could be no social explanation if we were not so prepared to abstract enough from the diversities of a social phenomenon to set up the explananda.

I say all this not to be dismissive of those who caution us against the crass and messianic media pundits on Islam. The media’s discussion of Islam is indeed brazenly ignorant and brash. I say it only to allow enough discussion to get off the ground, such that any cautions about ignoring the diversity of Islam should take the form of improving our analyses piecemeal when it is ignoring some diversity on this or that matter, rather than to wield the caution as a general mantra that preempts earnest discussion of Islam in the fear that one is always falling into some caricature familiar from what we read in the press and various popular as well as academic writings.

Most of the criticisms of recent writing on Islam has tended to be that it has no business talking in large, undifferentiated categories of Islam and the West and the clash of civilizations between cultures described in these portentously omnibus terms. Though this is no doubt true, it distracts from the primary flaw of such a description of the conflict. The deepest fault line of such talk is not that it is superficially and undiscriminating, but that it talks of conflict in thoroughly and deliberately misleading neutral terms. There is a massive deception and self-deception in this neutrality of description of the relations between the West and Islam as clashes or conflicts.

If these descriptions were accurate, there would be much less to be alarmed about because, perverse as it may sound there is health in conflict and clashes. I mean that perverse sounding remark only comparatively, so let me explain what I mean in historical terms.

For centuries the relations between European Christendom and Islam, quite properly describable as vilifying in word, and violent in deed, 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 prior to the consolidation of western colonial rule, 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. As some historians have pointed out, it would appear 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 invasion of Egypt and the British conquest of India, however, gradually gave rise to an era defined by a quite different tone of relations. Conflict was of course still there on both sides, but it was not the key to future relations. It was the new tenor of colonial mastery that mastery required attitudes of condescension, and were felt to be so by the subject people, breeding not so much a robust sense of conflict any more, but one of alienation, dehumanization, 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 now also deteriorated to the alienating effects of condescension and defensive resentment among increasingly unequal ones. As is well known and denied only by the mandarin classes in Western countries, this material and moral and psychological situation has not changed in essentials since decolonization, and is pervasively present today.

So one lesson would be just this. The clash or conflict between civilizations is not nearly as bad if it is a genuine clash, rather than a conquest passing off in neutral terms as a ‘clash’. It is this neutral idiom of ‘clash’ and ‘conflict’ to describe a situation which is best described as a conquest that is Huntington’s most insidious contribution to these issues, and which were being pursued not only by Bush and his sinister coterie of advisers, but also implicitly by the more glamorous ideologues of liberal empire, like Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman and many others.

Let me now suggest further that the health in conflict as compared to the malaise in conquest (passing off as conflict) is best understood by looking first and by looking dialectically at a quite other sort of conflict. These are the most genuinely healthy sort of conflicts which exist, those within civilizations, rather than between them.

George Bush, in one of the few truthful statements he made since September 11 said –just before he waged war against Afghanistan — that most Muslims are not fundamentalists. (I don’t like the term ‘fundamentalist, so I will use the term ‘absolutist’ instead, and by it I will mean what I assume Bush meant, a cluster of commitments ranging from wanting to enforce Islamist regimes with strict sharia laws, accompanied by a chronic and occasionally acute commitment to a war against modernity and its corporate and military symbols in the West and their presence in Muslim lands, viewed however not merely as military and economic forms of conquest so much as the presence of infidels.)

Bush was obviously right, and no one really disagrees that as a matter of ubiquitous empirical fact –whether in Mumbai or Cairo, Karachi or Tehran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, New Jersey or Bradford– most Muslims are not absolutists at all, in fact they share very little with the absolutist. This is evident in the fact that for the most part where there have been fair and open elections the ‘fundamentalist’ parties have failed to gain power, whether in Iran or in Pakistan. In fact in Pakistan, they have never gained more than six and half percent of the vote in national elections. Most ordinary Muslims are simply too busy with their occupations and preoccupations to be seduced by any absolutist fantasies about an Islamic revival worth fighting for. The point can be safely generalized. Hard line Islamists are not likely to get anywhere in elections in any country where Islam has not been willfully suppressed, as in Algeria. Even the popularity of Hamas in the Palestinian territories does not lie in the fact of its Islamism, but in the fact that in a situation of absolutely desperate subjugation of a colonized people, it more than anyone else has managed to keep services and basic lines of civil society active and functional.

If all this is right, an obvious question arises as to why the general image of countries with predominantly Muslim populations give an impression of undergoing rampant Islamic revivalism. What, accounts for this disparity between image and facts on the ground? Though it is perhaps true that this is to a considerable extent a result of misleading reportage and analysis by the Western media, it would be too simple to attribute it all to such distortion. The problem goes much deeper than this and, it goes to the internal moral psychologies of Muslims in these countries. The first thing to be registered is the fact that the far larger population of ordinary Muslims who, as I said, everyone acknowledges are not absolutists, are often unwilling to come out and be openly critical of the absolutists in their midst, with whom they share so little by way of ideology and ideal. This fact certainly adds to the gap between image and reality, which we are trying to understand. And it is a fact which itself needs diagnosis.

And the long history of colonial rule which I just mentioned and its ongoing presence in new and revised forms today, has much to do with the diagnosis. As a result of the detailed subjugations visited by that history, as well as continuing feelings of helplessness in the face of American domination and Israeli occupation and expansion, even ordinary, non-absolutist Muslims feel that to criticize their own people in any way is letting the side down, somehow capitulating to this longstanding history of being colonized and condescended.

What this suggests is that there is a yet another conflict which is pertinent, a clash of attitudes and values, not the one we have just registered between ordinary Muslims and fundamentalists, but a further clash internal to the psychology of ordinary, non-absolutist Muslims themselves. Most ordinary Muslims are torn between their dislike for fundamentalist visions of their religion and societies on the one hand, and, on the other, their deep defensive feelings of resentment against forces which they perceive to be alien and hostile in one colonial form or another for a very long time, and which have often supported the fundamentalists when it suited their political agendas.

This second layer of internal conflict within Islam, as we all know, is a vital factor in understanding the scope for any kind of change in these regions of the world. There is no space here to elaborate in any detail, what it would take to overcome such a defensive cast of mind. But it is a form of convenient and self-serving obtuseness to think, as many do in the US, that addressing the issues that give rise to this defensive psychology is irrelevant or unnecessary. At any rate it should be obvious except to those who are incapable of the most elementary form of instrumental reasoning about means to ends, that the cruelty of wars, of bombings, of occupations, of expansionist settlements, of embargoes and sanctions, of support of corrupt elites, do nothing to give ordinary Muslims the necessary confidence to take that critical attitude towards the absolutists –nor does the transparently exploitative pursuit of Western corporate interests in these regions. They only encourage and increase the defensiveness.

The point of generality, then, is this. Conflict between ordinary Muslims and the absolutists would be a sign of great health in societies with large Muslim populations (whether in Iran or Pakistan or India or indeed, France and England), but it could only have a good outcome, if the other conflict (the one in the hearts of ordinary non-absolutist Muslims) is overcome in one direction rather than another. And the point about the role of such conflict in public deliberation and internal change is essentially a dialectical point within the ideals of democracy. None of this would be relevant, if it were not for the fact that we can assume, as I said even George Bush can assume, with empirical authority, that most Muslims are not absolutists. With this assumption in place, since it is one point and rationale of democracies to calibrate representation with numbers, it is an elementary consequence of such a conflict between these more numerous Muslims and the absolutists, that it is bound to have the effect of showing the absolutists within Muslim societies to be exactly what they are, a shrill but unrepresentative minority.

So yes it is fine to wish that democracy should exist in various parts of the world where it does not. It alone is what will reveal to the people in these regions themselves, the real health and the point in these conflicts. But the trouble is that there are two kinds of conflict. One is between the absolutist and the ordinary Muslim and no amount of democracy will reveal what I am insisting is the basic health of this conflict unless another conflict within the psychology of ordinary Muslims is resolved in a way that our slightly bumptious ideologues of liberal empire like Htichens have done everything possible to make it very difficult for them to do.

Numerical strength will not surface in politics until psychological strength makes it possible. cannot get its full play unless the defensive mentality of minority status is overcome.

Before I close this point about conflict and democracy vis a vis Muslim populations, I must say just a word about an institutional sort of difficulty that exists in countries like India or for that matter Britain and France, where Muslims are a minority. I have pointed to the obvious formal and arithmetical merit of democracy when we acknowledge the empirical fact that most Muslims are not absolutists. Democratic and representative institutions should then be able to reveal that these absolutists are an unrepresentative group within the minority Muslim populations. But it is a curiously difficult and undertheorized problem about democracies that we have no institutional sites and means for developing representative institutions within communities, as we have at the level of the region, the province, the city, and so on. Communities are too dispersed, and they are no obvious formal mechanisms by which democratic representation can be installed. This need for and failure to achieve intra-community democratization is a remarkably understudied and undertheorized phenomenon in political theory and political sociology.

Let me close by making one or two points of broadly philosophical significance. One is constantly encountering a scepticism about the line I am taking in this paper from certain quarters, which it would be evasive not to address. Here is, I suspect, a very widespread version of the scepticism, one which I know is asserted aggressively, once again, by writers like Christopher Hitchens, who say that there likely cannot be such a thing as a ‘moderate’ Muslim, given the nature of Islam. Now, I have never much liked the term ‘moderate’ Muslim, used as a term of condescending applause, but because of its widespread use, let me go along with this it for the sake of convenience. On this view, populations that identify themselves with Islam could not possibly resolve the two dialectcally linked conflicts I have described along the lines that I think are possible because to do so would be to give up on that identification with Islam, to give up on Muslim identity.

For ordinary Muslims to be more openly critical of the absolutists than they have, this view says, would require them to relinquish some aspects of their religion. They would have to relinquish certain ideas about relations to non-Muslims, ideas about gender relations in institutions such as marriage, divorce, alimony etc., and commitments to censorship and punishment of blasphemy… But to do so, it will be said, would be to give up on one’s Muslim identity, to cease to see oneself as a Muslim.

This line of thought is based on a numbingly false picture of cultural identity, whether religious or otherwise, and it is a picture, alas, that fundamentalists would like to encourage. A person’s identity is simply not given by a checklist, such that if every item on the list is not checked off one loses one’s identity. Identity is simply not a codified phenomenon in that way. It is fluid and malleable and survives enormous amounts of revision and erosion, as we all know even from Muslim societies in many parts of the world today. The idea that if one gives up a Shariah law about blasphemy or alimony, or even if one gives up a customary religious practice such as purdah, one is ceasing to be a Muslim altogether is an egregious misrepresentation of what it takes to be a Muslim. I know any number of Muslims, not deracines like me but religious people, whom it would be a travesty to count as anything but Muslims, and who have altogether shed these offending convictions and practices. To say that they don’t count as having Muslim identity is to assume a conception that only an absolutist would affirm. Hitchens, therefore, should worry a bit that their views here are too perfectly of a piece with the absolutist’s.

I have spent a long time in this essay diagnosing sympathetically the psychology of ordinary Muslims in different parts of the world. Many others have done so, even occasionally in the mainstream media, though not often in the US. But I want to finish with a point of very abstract philosophy. When these sympathetic diagnoses and explanations are given of Muslims by writers in the West, including by deracinated Muslims like me, they are spoken in a third person voice. By that I mean, that they take the form of saying “They must be understood as having a psychology produced by past and present forms of colonialism etc.” But now notice a very odd thing. These very same remarks sound very odd in the first person voice. That is they sound very odd when they are said by Muslims themselves. That is to say, it sounds very odd if Muslims themselves say, “We are the products of colonialism and that is why we are unable to be more self-critical of absolutist elements in our society, etc.” Thus the very same thing when spoken by another, from the outside, is true. And it is not as if it fails to be true when spoken by Muslims themselves in the first person voice. They are still true things to say, but they nevertheless something off about saying it. Why? Because it is a surrender of agency to say it in the first person mode of oneself. Understanding oneself is done by stepping outside of oneself and looking at ourselves from the outside, as a third person would. But to take that perspective on ourselves, though often necessary, cannot exhaust our perspective on ourselves. If it did it would destroy our freedom, which consists in the first person point of view, the point of view of agency, the point of view of the subject rather than the point of view by which we view ourselves as objects, the objects of history and its causes. This is a point so fundamental that its significance amounts to nothing less than this. It would be the final triumph of imperialism if it has affected us so comprehensively that we understand ourselves so well as a product of the history it has visited upon us, that it has –in having this effect– destroyed our capacity for free, self-critical agency.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

The final/definitive version of Akeel Bilgrami’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 477-484, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue



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