|The relationship between the Islamic world and the west is often understood as a clash between two very different civilisations. Dr S Sayyid considers an alternative way of representing world politics, arguing that there can be no single authorised version of history.|
'The events of September 11 seemed to have jolted the clock of history out of snooze mode.'
There is often a scene in action films where the ticking of the clock on the bomb that will destroy 'civilisation as we know it' is suspended and the audience is relieved to discover that Armageddon has been deferred once more.
This relief, however, is short-lived as either the villain or, more often than not, the hero's sidekick inadvertently jolts the clock out of suspension, and the doomsday machine begins its countdown. The events of September 11 seemed to have jolted the clock of history out of snooze mode.
The American-led war on terrorism is often seen as a clash between western and Islamic civilisations: the geopolitical analogue to the geological movement of plate tectonics. This is despite the attempt by some western leaders and leaders of Muslim countries to argue that the 'war on terror' is not directed against Muslims or Islam - but only against extremists.
There are other voices who see a chain of equivalences so that Al-Qaeda = Taliban = Islamism = Islam. Among the ultra-conservative constituency that considers President Bush to be one of their own, you can hear calls for the 'nuking of Mecca', the occupation of Middle East oil fields, the transformation of the Muslim world on the pattern of post-1945 Germany and Japan.
Among the disenfranchised and disaffected of the Islamicate world, the 'war on terror' is also read as war against Islam and resistance to repression by Muslims is recoded as terrorism, while the repression that they face is ignored. Beyond this representation of cosmic conflict between the west and Islam there are two processes at play. The first concerns the geopolitics of the Middle East, and the second concerns what can be called the postcolonial condition.
Its fragmentation, following its defeat in World War One - into the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and parts of Saudi Arabia - has deprived the Islamicate world of a 'Great Power' that could potentially speak for Muslim interests and could exercise some form of leadership over the global Muslim community. The absence of a legitimate Islamic centre is one of the reasons why the Islamicate world is beset by divisions that cannot be usefully marshalled under the label of 'extremists' or 'moderates'.
'It is this cycle of declining legitimacy and increasing repression that plagues the political order in the Middle East.'
The United States has tried to exert control by using regional powers such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as its proxies. By relying on these proxies the US has often become involved in the internal politics of these countries. US support has often increased the coercive resources available to the ruling elites of these countries while at the same time it has also tended to undermine the legitimacy of these regimes.
Thus, these regimes have to place a greater reliance on coercion - which further undermines the legitimacy of the ruling elites... It is this cycle of declining legitimacy and increasing repression that plagues the political order in the Middle East. Within this context political groups seek to close the gap between rulers and ruled by making rulers more accountable, and find themselves facing a repressive machinery that is often supported by western powers.
For example, the Islamist party in Algeria, the FIS, decisively won the country's first free elections - only to have the army cancel the election, and begin a campaign of eradication against its activists.
Before the United States declared Saddam Hussein to be the most dangerous man alive (forgetting in passing that the use of weapons of mass destruction is not the prerogative of homicidal dictators alone - after all the first person to gas the Kurds was Winston Churchill and the only person to nuke two cities was Harry S Truman, both democratically elected), it supported him in his invasion of Iran, ignored his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and later his own people, and was not too bothered about his human rights record until he invaded Kuwait.
'Globalisation, by making the distinction between home and abroad less clear cut, has meant that it is more difficult to sustain democracy at home and tyranny abroad.'
The history of western powers demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to have democracy at home and exercise tyranny abroad. Both France and Britain maintained relatively free 'democratic' societies while exercising authoritarian control over their imperial possessions.
Globalisation, by making the distinction between home and abroad less clear cut, has meant that it is more difficult to sustain democracy at home and tyranny abroad. It is globalisation that has helped change the struggles about controlling the post-Ottoman Middle East into a broader conflict, often represented as the 'Islamic threat'.
This is partly because there are many aspects of ourselves that we would hide (even from ourselves), and as such, we rarely introduce ourselves as being boring or bad or untrustworthy... But also, being finite creatures, our stories about ourselves have to leave out many other possibilities. So, the story we tell about ourselves always has bits left out, attributes that we do not think really belong in our accounts of ourselves.
These left-out bits and reminders often lie forgotten and neglected, but, on occasion, they become part of a counter-narrative - in that they are put together to act as a mirror for our own identity. In this way, the story we tell about ourselves, is implicitly a story about how we are different from others. In other words, the story of yourself is also a story of somebody else.
'In the current world order, it is the story of the west identified as being modern, democratic and civilised that is the most dominant.'
The identity of the west is narrated, to some extent, by a set of implied contrasts with other stories: stories of the 'rest'. The identity of the west is based on often implicit assumptions about the way its story differs from the stories of the rest. The story of Islam, for example, is often in opposition to the stories of the west.
Thus the identification of the west as 'essentially' democratic, modern, and civilised requires the narration of Islam as 'essentially' authoritarian, traditional, and barbaric.
The trouble with these stories is that, like all stories, they are only partial accounts. There are other versions in which, for example, the west could be described as totalitarian, genocidal and racist; or Islam could be portrayed as being tolerant, progressive and egalitarian. The version that prevails is the one that is supported by most influential networks of power and knowledge. In the current world order, it is the story of the west identified as being modern, democratic and civilised that is the most dominant.
'The story of the west and the story of Islam have been mutually exclusive of each other from the time of their formation.'
The Islamicate world has, on the whole, found it difficult to speak Westernese. The story of the west and the story of Islam have been mutually exclusive of each other from the time of their formation.
Thus the word 'Europa' first appears to refer to regions outside the control of the Islamicate empire and (East) Roman emperors. This meant that when Muslim leaders like Mustafa Kemal wanted to westernise their societies, they could only do so by de-Islamising it.
It also meant that the western powers who came to rule Muslim societies tended also to favour de-Islamisation. For example Lord Cromer, the proconsul of Egypt, saw no contradiction in opposing women's enfranchisement in England while trying to ban the hijab in Egypt in the name of women's empowerment. Thus, Westernese meant for many Muslims the violence and inequities of colonialism.
The Islamicate world, for a set of historic reasons, is beginning to realise the limitations of Westernese, and tentative attempts are being made to begin speaking through Islam.
Muslims often find themselves in a situation in which the dominant descriptions of the world conducted in Westernese are no longer regarded as adequate, even if the project of speaking through Islam is, as yet, not fully developed.
Thus, the 'Islamic threat' is not measured in terms of economic or military rivalry, but is linked to the undermining of Westernese in many parts of the Islamicate world, where it is perceived as a narcissistic narrative rather than a true story of our planet.
The exercise of western force is legitimated by Westernese. The subversion of Westernese, however, de-legitimates the exercise of violence by the west and, thus, makes its exercise less efficient.
'As long as the hierarchy between the west and rest is enforced, the chances for acts of terrible violence remain.'
In action films, where history rarely plays a part, the context seldom extends beyond the moment when a crazed super-villain acquires the doomsday weapon.
In these films, solutions are simple: kill the 'Dr Evil' character (be it Saddam or Osama) and peace, justice - or more likely business-as-usual - will prevail. Even though the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center could resemble a scene from some big-budget action film, the events that made such violence possible are too subtle for a movie script - even without 'Dr Evil'.
As long as the hierarchy between the west and rest is enforced, acts of terrible violence remain a threat. The clock is ticking, we have to find other ways of telling the story of our planet, in which no one region and no one culture's story is considered to be the authorised version.
A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism by S Sayyid (Zed, 2002)
For an alternative reading of encounters between Islam and the west: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P Huntington (Touchstone Books, 1998)
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin (2001)
The Venture Of Islam by Marshall G Hodgson
Orientalism by Edward W Said (Random House, 1979)
Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record by JC Hurewitz (Yale University Press, 1979)
A History of the Arab People by Albert Hourani
Published on BBC History: 2002-09-01
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