This book is a continuation of my earlier work, Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games (2011), though it stands on its own. My purpose in Postmodern Imperialism was to give a picture of the world from the viewpoint of those on the receiving end of imperialism. It traces the manipulation of Islamists by imperialism, and poses the question: What are the implications of the revival of Islamic thought and activism for the western imperial project?
The subject of this work is the expansion of Islam since the seventh century, when revelations delivered to the Prophet Muhammad led to its consolidation as the renewal and culmination of Abrahamic monotheism. It looks at the parallels between the Muslim world today and past crises in Islamic civilization, which gave impetus to reforms and renewal from within, relying on the Quran and hadiths,1 and attempts to interpret recent history from the viewpoint of the Muslim world—how it sees the imposition on it of western systems and beliefs, and how it is dealing with this.
The period up to and including the occupation of the Muslim world by the western imperialists corresponds to Postmodern Imperialism’s Great Game I (GGI). For Asians, the most important event heralding the possibility of a new post-GGI ‘game’ was the Japanese victory in 1905 over Russia. Japan had successfully reformed via the Meiji Restoration in 1868, inspiring all Asia, including China and the Muslim world, which saw Japan’s determination to develop independently of the imperial powers as a way out of the colonial trap that they were rapidly falling into.
The subsequent movement for secular reform in the Muslim world took place in a world economic and political order that was both capitalist and socialist. This was the period I termed Great Game II (GGII), the period of neocolonialism, when newly ‘independent’ colonies attempted to imitate either their former western masters or at best, the now communist Russia. This period began by the early twentieth century, but really got underway only after WWII, when GGI pretensions were finally done away with.
Apart from the resurgence of Islam as an alternative world order, there were parallel anti-imperialist movements among non-Muslim Asians. Japan’s own entry into GGI as a rival to the western empires made it a center of resistance to the West for Chinese and Indians alike, the leading figures being Liang Qichao, who called for a reformed Confucianism in China, and Gandhi and Tagore, who called for a return to classical Indian culture as embodied in the Vedas, and advocated self-reliance and rural life as opposed to incorporation in the world trade system and urban industrialization.
However, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism could not resist the imperial onslaught. In Japan, Buddhism was shunted aside and a military-led development ruthlessly imitated the imperialists. In China, the invasion by imperialists, starting with the opium trade and culminating in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, led to the overthrow of the monarchy and eventually the victory of the communists, who alone were not compromised by association with the imperialists, and were able to unite the people around a strong secular state. Persia and Turkey tried to go the Japanese route as secular states imitating the West. The resistance by Indians culminated in a secular socialism and a tragic sectarian partition, which both divided the world’s largest Muslim community and pushed the people into secular states.
Neither Confucianism, Buddhism nor Hinduism survived as alternative worldviews opposed to empire. At the same time, in the Muslim world there were the tentative beginnings of a movement to mobilize the people around a strong and holistic spiritual tradition combining moral and ethical values. This led to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other more radical groups. (Saudi tribalism and Pakistan’s ‘Muslim nationalism’ have operated within the imperialist system). The Iranian revolution in 1979 marked the first substantive break with the secular world order, heralding a new Great Game III, culminating in the Arab Spring. On a visit to revolutionary Tehran in 1979, Michel Foucault called it “the first great insurrection” against the “global systems” of the West—in which he clearly included communism and its secular socialist variants. “Islam has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.”2
Islamic civilization is the most complete alternative world system, a “universalist response” that confronts imperialism, incorporating a transcendent spirituality (unlike Confucianism) and with a clear political and economic program (unlike Buddhism and Hinduism). The goal of those following the Islamic response is to outlast the imperialists, adapt modern technology, while avoiding the pitfalls of militarism and usury/ interest.
The current Great Game being played in the world by the powers-that-be will come to an end, bang- or whimper-style. The gathering financial crisis could lead to collapse on a world scale of the subjective acceptance of capitalist hierarchy and its socio-economic underpinnings.
Given the bankruptcy of the values and operation of the current world system, an appreciation of Islam as a viable alternative system with robust moral/ ethical limits, grounded in community and Nature, not money and commoditization, is long overdue. Islam, like communism—and unlike capitalism—is not a conspiracy. It openly proclaims itself as an alternative socio-economic system which strives to eliminate exploitation. Capitalism, on the contrary, hides the surplus produced by society in order that it can be expropriated without causing protest by those who do the producing.
Understanding Islam as a basis of social organization requires considering first methodology (how we see the world) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge and its limits). The most developed critical analysis of capitalism, Marx’s theory of abstract capitalism, based on Hegel’s Logic, employed a dialectical method to show a perfect correspondence of the logic-of-the-phenomenon with the phenomenon itself (capitalism), allowing the subject (us) to see the truth of the object, to ‘know’ it, though the logic of capitalism manifests itself in history imperfectly (as does Hegel’s Logic in its unfolding in Nature). Marx’s materialism inverted the overly idealistic Hegelian theory, focusing on political economy, based on his famous equation “forces of production determine relations of production”, positing a revolutionary future where the contradictions of the real world are resolved, based on reason.
The Hegel-Marx dialectical theory, which brings together the cultural values of art, science, and morality in a grand synthesis including politics and economics, stands in sharp contrast to the positivist methodology which has became dominant in the West, which rejects such ‘metaphysics’, instead putting quantitative science above art and morals, reducing scientific ‘truth’ to what can be physically measured, effectively consigning art and morals to the metaphysical trashcan. There can be no ‘truth’ there, and by implication, in politics and economics.
Fourteen centuries ago, Muhammad’s revelations presented a vision much like Hegel’s and Marx’s combined, at the same time avoiding the degeneration inherent in the modernist project. Like Hegel’s Christian revelation-reason dialectic, Islam similarly posits an immanent God, where through devout religious practice, man can find spiritual truth in his daily life, reflecting the will of God, by following the path laid out in the Quran.
Through revelations from the Archangel Gabriel, Muhammad critiqued both past religious beliefs and past economic and political customs, forging a way of life where the contradictions of the real world are resolved through faith and reason. This experience was recorded and transmitted through the generations, providing a rich empirical repository of civilizational social experience for future guidance. The ‘truth’ of this is embodied in all aspects of life, including art, science and morals. However, just as there is no detailed blueprint for communism, there is no detailed blueprint for the “straight path” of Islam. This is something that depends on the real world and how Muslims engage with it.
‘What is truth?’ and ‘How can we find the truth?’ are the crux of the ideological struggle between western civilization and re-emerging Islamic civilization. Matter confronts spirit, the individual—society, appearance—inner experience, reason—revelation. Those of us educated in the West have a certain mindset which inevitably colors the lenses through which we see the world, by which we identify ‘truth’. To understand the world from the viewpoint of re-emerging Islamic civilization requires taking off these glasses and looking at the world through different lenses, using a different ‘map’ to navigate our lives. The main purpose of this book is to help the reader to understand the alternative map which Islam offers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fatal weakening of the socialist movement for a better future pushed me to reflect on what was missing in Marx, and to investigate what I saw as the strongest force resisting imperialism—Islam. Neither life in the Soviet Union, nor life in Islamic societies was/is particular attractive to someone brought up in the cradle of western luxury. But it doesn’t require much investigation to realize that the small proportion of the world’s population who live lives of luxury today have been very lucky, that for the vast majority (the so-called 99%) of the world’s population, the security and communal values of both the failed socialist experiment and the ongoing Islamic one have their pluses. And further investigation reveals that, regardless of material considerations, there is a spiritual richness in Islam that in many ways is unrivaled in other social systems. And I mean ‘social systems’ as opposed to just ‘religions’, because Islam strives to be more than just a religion, as the word is understood today in the West.
I have been fortunate to live under both these alternative social systems. Both were/are frustrating, defective, messy, far from fulfilling their promise, full of hierarchy. But they could be worse. The post-collapse Soviet Union is far worse for most of its inhabitants than the defective Soviet way of life. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than being poor and born into Mubarak’s secular Egypt.
My concern in Postmodern Imperialism was to expose the logic of empire and give readers a sense of what the real world really looks like. My concern here is to give the reader a glimpse of the sweep of Islamic civilization and to see its re-emergence today as a positive development, possibly the most important one for realigning ourselves with Nature, and rediscovering humanity’s spiritual evolutionary path.
There have been many societies in the past where life was ‘superior’ to western civilization today, and there will be in the future. To appreciate alternatives to western civilization requires an open mind and a fresh look at the past—and the present. What Islam adds to the socialist alternative is a sense of the miracle of life, acknowledgment of our humble part in the universe, without abandoning the vital role of reason.
1 Stories relating sayings and traditions of the Prophet
2 “A Powder Keg Called Islam”, Corriere della sera, 13, February 1979. Quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 4
TABLE OF CONTENTS
How did the Arab Spring come about?
CHAPTER 1: Islam, Christianity and Judaism
Muhammad and Islam 7th–16th centuries
Early Islamic reform
sharia/ fiqh, ijtihad/ taqlid, hadd/ ta’zir, maqasid, five pillars + jihad, Sufism, politics, economics
Early relations between Europe and the Muslim world
The ascendancy of rationalism and capitalism in the West
Relations from the sixteenth century to ‘independence’
(Turkey, Egypt, Levant, Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, southeast Asia)
Appendix A: Philosophical debates in Islam
Appendix B: The ‘Protestant’ ethic, the rise of New Ageism and fundamentalism
CHAPTER 2: The genesis of re-emerging Islamic civilization
Reform from within the imperialist system from the 19th century on
Wali Allah/ Wahhab/ Afghani/ Abduh
Political nationalism and economic nationalism (socialism): Constructing a secular state independent of the West
Relations between Europe and the Muslim world from ‘independence’ to independence
Turkey, Egypt, Levant, Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, India/ Pakistan, southeast Asia
Appendix A: Islamic Reformation calls
Appendix B: Contemporary secularists/ nationalists
CHAPTER 3: The theory of Islamic renewal
Traditionalists as holistic modernists
Turkey, Egypt, Levant, north Africa, Iran, Pakistan, southeast Asia, the West, converts
Premodern revivalists: from Wahhabi to neo-Wahhabis
CHAPTER 4: The 20th–21st century experience of Islam in practice
Turkey, Egypt, Levant, Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan/ India/ Bangladesh, southeast Asia, the West
Appendix: Al-Azhar University in the 1980s–2010s
CHAPTER 5: Contemporary issues in Islam
Nationalism and the Sunni-Shia divide
Jihad vs Terrorism
Women in Islam and converts
Appendix: The United Nations Arab Human Development Reports
CHAPTER 6: Postsecularism: Muhammad and Marx
The revelation-reason dialectic today
Social evolution and Islam
The caliphate is the Islamic version of globalization
21st century ijtihad: Interpreting sharia in today’s world
From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization will be published 1 July 2013. To order a copy, please go to http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergII.html