Muslim Reception/Rejection of Modernity (Part 1)

My thesis is that there is a deeply felt, but nevertheless unexpressed anxiety among Muslims, especially among the religious elite, that Modernity (in the technical sense that I will describe below) will ultimately undermine Islam as a viable framework for a coherent community in the modern world. Hence, we witness the temptation among Muslims to find solace and security in dogmatic and defensive Islam and the resurgence of intolerant Islam in Malaysia.


It is a fact of life that people hold conflicting political and religious views and follow different ways of life. It is imperative that the government frames social policies that encourage people of various cultures to identify commonality (not homogeneity) to build a harmonious society. Such an endeavor in turn requires building a social ethos that allows for tolerance of diversity, dialogue and openness to change in order to equip a citizenry with the intellectual capacity to confront the overwhelming pace of change of the modern world.

But what non-Muslims witness coming from the Muslim community is rejection of the vital pre-requisites for the development of a flourishing modern society. We hear prominent Muslims condemning liberalism although liberalism at its best encourages citizens use reason to weigh moral choices rather than follow traditional authority blindly. Secular politics is rejected as essentially antipathetic to religion when it is specifically designed to provide a neutral platform for different religions to work out compromises that are essential for a plural society. Other Muslim leaders reject the call for interfaith dialog. Religious tolerance is vigorously condemned through mass demonstrations that find their way even into the National Mosque. Finally, there are the regular calls for banning of various cultural activities on grounds that such activities (music festivals or films) are against Islam.

It is heartening when many newly educated professionals (including Muslims) courageously publish their concerns about the defensive mood the Muslim community and criticize the restrictive policies of the government in the media (especially on the internet). Their writings display thoughtfulness even as they call upon the Muslim community to go beyond a siege mentality (circling the wagons) and engage the challenges of the modern world. Some Muslims intellectuals (although there are not many) challenged their own community to contribute to the development of the very virtues that make common life together a possibility in the modern world such as democracy of equal citizenship, free market economy and religious mutual respect and reciprocity.

However, I think most of current analyses on Islam miss the fundamental reason why the Muslim community has been so defensive, if not, reactionary towards new developments of the modern world.

My thesis is that there is a deeply felt, but nevertheless unexpressed anxiety among Muslims, especially among the religious elite, that Modernity (in the technical sense that I will describe below) will ultimately undermine Islam as a viable framework for a coherent community in the modern world. Hence, we witness the temptation among Muslims to find solace and security in dogmatic and defensive Islam and the resurgence of intolerant Islam in Malaysia.

I hope readers will gain some insight into this phenomenon in the following two-part analysis.

Part 1
Modernity, that is, the social condition characterized by a mode of critical inquiry originating from the European Enlightenment, the political ideology of democracy and the consequence of differentiation of social institutions arising from the Industrial Revolution, has taken on global proportions. Modernization, the process leading to Modernity with the introduction of advanced technology and efficient economic corporations, has brought unprecedented economic growth to Asian societies. On the other hand, such economic growth has been accompanied by a profound disruption of traditional cultures as old ways of life and cherished values are rendered irrelevant by the relentless march of Modernity.

Two events reported in the Malaysian newspapers illustrate unexpected and amusing contradictions when Modernity clashes with old ways of life. A few years ago certain equipment in the country’s main nuclear isotope research centre developed some inexplicable problems. The management decided to call upon an authoritative Islamic teacher who also practiced shamanism to deal with the problems. In the second case, the entrepreneurs managing the new race circuit for Formula 1 racing cars assured the public that they would call upon bomohs [shamans] to prevail upon the weather to ensure that the inaugural race be flagged off in fine weather. The juxtaposition of nuclear scientists and Formula 1 racing cars with shamans must surely be most unexpected. Obviously, the elite has adopted a piecemeal and unreflective response to Modernity.

There are some who gladly discard their traditions which they deem to be outmoded superstitions and gladly exchange them for the goods of Modernity. In effect, Modernity sets the terms of social and cultural changes. Nevertheless, the reception of Modernity by the elite of Islamic society has often been guarded, if not hostile. The image of a bearded Mullah brandishing his AK47 rifle quickly comes to mind. Unfortunately, this image only distracts us from the real leaders behind movements of Islamic resistance to Modernity. If we count as leaders those who are skilled in strategizing the means by which a society should block and undermine the influence of Modernity, then they are not just to be found among gun totting militants nor bearded Mullahs. We should instead take note of Islamic leaders who are trained as professionals such as lawyers and doctors and college academics. In fact many of the leaders of vibrant Islamic movements were trained in Western institutions of higher learning.

What are the perceptions that cause the Islamic elite to display hostility towards Modernity? Wilfred Cantwell Smith in 1957 described the crisis of Islam, “Its [Islam] greatest problem is the degree to which those who in the fullest sense know the religion have largely lost contact with the modern world, and those genuinely oriented to modernity have largely lost contact with their religion.” [ IMH 165]. The crisis today has assumed new textures since Islamic resistance today is both technologically modern but culturally anti-modern. Bassan Tibi helpfully unpacks the Islamic experience of Modernity into two forms: institutional and cultural Modernity. By cultural Modernity Tibi means the “principle of subjectivity” according to which a person is defined as an individual of free will, capable of determining his/her own destiny and changing the social and natural environment. Institutional Modernity takes science and technology as its instrumental achievements [CF24]. It will become evident that Muslims aspire to appropriate institutional Modernity while vigorously resisting cultural Modernity. This ambivalence explains what seems to be contradictory behavior of Islamists towards Modernity.
Under normal circumstances Islamic reassertion takes three forms:
— Revitalization of one’s culture in reaction to the penetration of a dominant culture.
— Adoption of the penetrating culture with all its alluring promises and great expectations.
— Defensive return to one’s culture with a view towards finding alternatives to negative consequences of Modernity.

In particular, Muslims reject the grand story of Modernity which projects a linear history that suppresses the significance of local communities. For example, Francis Fukuyama argues that Modernity, epitomized by democracy and the free market economy, is the final destination of all societies. History comes to an end in the Hegelian sense when all social contradictions and competing ideologies find their final resolution in the free market and democracy. He likens the inevitable social destiny of nations to the final station that all trains must arrive at, regardless of what track they followed and what shapes and sizes of coaches they pulled along.

But Fukuyama’s optimism regarding the inevitability of social progress on Western terms only confirms the suspicion of the ulamas that Modernity is a projection of hegemony of Western powers. The marginalization of Muslim societies in the ‘New World Order’ or a Uni-polar World after the Cold War heightens the anxieties of the ulamas. At least Islamists, that is Muslim intellectuals and activists, could hope to find a useful ally in the Soviet Bloc in the old days of the Cold War. But the disintegration of the Soviet Empire enhances the painful reality that the world has only one power bloc from the North Atlantic which cynically manipulates the world economy and the United Nations for its own geopolitical interests.

Many Islamic leaders who were initially attracted to Western culture have increasingly developed genuine disenchantment, if not antipathy, towards the West. They are alarmed at what amounts to cultural subversion arising from the global diffusion of Western ideas and values aided by Western entertainment industry. One sees increasing protests against media presentations that stereotype Arabs/Muslims [Walt Disney’s Aladdin has a song about Arabs who cut off your ear if they don’t like your face and the film Ashanti identifies slave traders as Arabs]. Ironically, such Muslim activists miss out the questionable morality of TV shows like Beverly Hills 90120 and Baywatch. Still, they are painfully aware that Hollywood sets fashion trends among youths and Western news agencies set the agenda and the terms of political discourse in the media.

Political Reassertion
To their credit, Islamists have rejected the way of revolution in their quest for a modern Islamic order. The influence of Sayed Qutb is dominant in this approach. Qutb strongly rejected a violent overthrow of the status quo precisely because one cannot impose a belief system on the masses. For Qutb, Islamists should instead expand their power base through education and mobilization. Qutb envisages a creative minority, an organized vanguard that will expose the corruptions of the Jahili society (a society ignorant of the law of God) and penetrate and eventually annex social institutions of Modernity.

Following a strategy of gradualism, Islamists have deployed a variety of strategic responses to the threat of Modernity to their own societies. At the macro level, Islamists first seek to gain control of legal institutions to project reforms that can counter trends of social differentiation and thus ensure unity of society based on Tawhid. Second, Islamic intellectuals mount a challenge to the grand story of Modernity with a cyclical view of the rise and decline of civilization. Finally, they seek to consolidate their gain and sustain their social engineering through a process of educational reforms.

Islamists are confronted by a sense of crisis because Islam claims to be a superior revelation to a complete way of life. Islam is thus the blue print of a perfect society for perfectible humanity. As such, the veracity of Islam is appropriately measured by the social conditions of Islamic societies. But it is precisely the case that Islamic nations today are economically backward and ridden with politically conflicts. In true confirmation of the theory of cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger) Islamists respond to the severity of political shortcomings by calling for a total solution which will reorient society to the law of God. This calls for a repoliticization of Islam. Hence the slogan of Din wa dawla (Total way of life and the Islamic State). However, Islamists cannot ignore the reality of contemporary nation states. But the state is relegated to a theoretical construct. That is to say, if the state is merely a social construct, it can be deconstructed and reconstructed on Islamic terms.

To be sure, Islamists outwardly maintain support for democracy in their rhetoric. But for them, democracy is only a means to an end which is the struggle to gain political supremacy for the Ummah [which is surely a theoretical construct, albeit a glorified one]. The Ummah will eventually constitute a repristine and idealized form of Islamic polity. For the time being, Islamists participate wholeheartedly in the processes of Western style democracy inherited from their colonial experience if only as a strategic maneuver to gain power and eventually discard the proffered goods of Western democracy. The unfortunate result is a polarization of the Muslim community from other racial/religious communities of the country. Given the supremacy assigned to the Ummah, other communities can only be subordinated and assimilated. Instead of a democracy that seeks unity in diverse equals, we have an ideology that unapologeticly insists on Islamic hegemony [Ketuanan Melayu/Islam]. This phenomenon actually confirms the insights of Eric Fromm and Roger Griffin who argue that Fascism had its origins in the anxieties of a people who found it easier to entrust power into the hands of an authoritarian government to manage the project of the future, that is, Modernity.

Islamists are also compelled to address the problem of differentiation of social institutions and spheres of life that characterize modern societies. This situation is obviously intolerable when life is supposed to be a unified whole under Islam, a tawhidic society. The process of differentiation is to be reversed by direct legal restructuring of society around the shariah law. As S. H. Nasr insisted, it is society that should be organized around the unchanging law of the shariah rather than the shariah be changed to suit the changing circumstances of society.

Some preliminary observations on the new Islamic polity are in order here. First, Islamic politics ultimately assume a form of social morality or religious Puritanism. Like all world religions, Islam has a lists of ethical qualities demanded of rulers. However, there is no Islamic model suggesting an orderly succession of rulers and transference of political power since the Islamic community was split right at the beginning of its history. Not surprisingly, Islamic politics is frequently marked by violent power struggles for succession.

Second, there is no room for Civil society in Islamic polity. We are offered a monistic state, albeit one which accords privacy to family life. Otherwise all public space must be regulated. The outcome is a society where hypocrisy and alienation prevail since citizens meekly comply with public regulations while continuing their private vices. Judging from the Islamic TV programs one may justifiably conclude that ultimately there can be no Islamic leisure. The family becomes the final avenue for choice, indeed often a choice of consumerism in the modern world. It is therefore natural that citizens turn the family into an institution of consumption of the goods of Modernity, including new forms of  entertainment. It is apparent that Modernity generates new dilemmas for the Islamic authorities. The state may control the TV programs. But in the privacy of their homes, families can choose to view video programs which are increasingly available through the global reaches of the Internet.

Finally, there is no critical analysis of dynamics of political behavior and modeling of interaction between social institutions to ensure equilibrium of power and justice. The question as to how an Islamic legal system is able to treat non-Muslims with equality remains unanswered. This is especially disturbing given centuries of unequal treatment accorded to dhimmis [non-Muslim minorities] living in Islamic societies. Indeed, the continual denial of past ill treatment against dhimmis and the absence of self-critique on this issue gives us grounds to believe that it will be ‘business as usual’. One question continually haunts non-Muslims living in Islamic states. Is the slippery slide from accommodation to implement personal laws specifically limited to Muslims to the final establishment of an all encompassing shariah state inevitable? One only needs to look at examples found in of Pakistan, Sudan and Northern Nigeria to experience a sense of foreboding.