Modernization of the Islamic World

The historical forces that produced Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and a look at U.S. involvement in the Muslim world.

BY: Ibrahim Abu-Rabi'

 

Continued from page 2

Out of that sense of deep suffering resulting from a long period of violence in contemporary Afghani history, the Taliban took a drastic step, which is not Islamic in my view, to order all women to stay at home, without having any chance to advance their learning or to pursue any type of work. According to the Taliban, "The Islamic State decided to pay the salaries of these women at their homes, so that they could stay home and take care of their families and children. The purpose of this policy is to help revive the Afghan family and household, as the foundation of the Afghan society, a foundation that was intentionally destroyed by the communist regime." Taliban is the only group in modern Afghanistan that has become successful in mobilizing violence to control violence in society and create a new social and political order that is based both on fear of God and the possibility of a fresh of outbreak of violence in Afghani society. They have been able to create `a primitive egalitarian society' that is suspicious not just of communism, capitalism and the West, but of the city and the urban Afghani intelligentsia that was, in their views, responsible for the borrowing of foreign ideas with which it destroyed the traditional bases of Afghani society.

A third post-colonial movement is the Egyptian Jihad that grew up in Egyptian prisoners in the 1960s.

Where does all of this lead us when we speak about the United States and the Muslim world in the 20th century? This is a very interesting question.

The American interest in the Muslim world goes back to the early part of the 19th century, especially through the efforts of the Protestant missionary movement from New England. Those missionaries saw it as a divine call to the Middle East and to missionize. However, they realized that the Orientals, especially Muslims and Jews, were a hard nut to crack, and from thence on the missionary movement concentrated its efforts on converting the indigenous Christians, such as the Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Melchites, and Chaldenians. Another effort was building universities and colleges, such as the American University in Beirut and Cairo that led to the education of many a nationalist figure. The State Department depended on the Arabists who spent many years in the Middle East.

I have said that the American Protestant missionary movement in the Muslim world in the 19th century was the product of American globalization in that century. What is American globalization in the 19th century?

The American model of globalization has been in the making since the end of the 18th century, when most countries in the Muslim world were struggling against European encroachments. One of the major foundations of American globalization is American English and its gradual constitution in a way that became different from British English. Webster termed this the two streams of English. English became the language of a new people, expressing their engagement with the new world, expressing a high capitalist culture in the making and inculcating in its structure high literary and scientific values. No one was talking about the stagnation of English in the 19th century. Most linguists and grammarians were speaking of a lively and dynamic English.

English matured to become the language of science and civilization. It has become the lingua franca of the world. However, in the 20th century, that came at a price. During the height of the Vietnam Era, most professors of English protested against the war. That is to say that the masters of English refused for their language to be deployed in a military engagement against the Vietnamese people. The situation has changed dramatically since the 1970s.

This leads us to speak about Arabic. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and although one may argue that at one time it was the lingua franca of the world, Arabic has lost this status a long time ago. The Arab and Muslim world has not been able to reconstitute Arabic as a major global and hegemonic language in the same way as English has been constituted in the modern era.

Besides the issue of language, the second major question is the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The formation of a liberal, aggressive Protestant and capitalist culture in the west had a global agenda. Simply, this culture dismissed any tension between the spirit of capitalism and that of religion, and it did not find any problem with the question of secularism. Secularism was embraced by religion. In the Muslim world, the situation is different.

Other factors must be mentioned: Globalization out of economic strength. WWII and the Marshall Plan. The reconstruction of Europe. And the beginning of the Cold war era. One major facet of globalization is the privatization of education.

Also, the creation of a nation-state against the backdrop of imperialism. The nation-state sought political, economic, and intellectual emancipation from the Center. Two movements vied for emancipation: nationalism and Islamism.

Next, the creation of a class society in all Muslim countries where the wealthy constitute less than five percent of the population. One result of American globalization currently is the fact that lots of educated people from the 3rd world desire to migrate to the USA. This is called the brain-drain.

My overall point is that the United States has been involved deeply with the Muslim world for at least one century. This involvement took a strong direction after 1945.

Muslim intellectuals, in general, have raised the following issues in criticism of American foreign policy in their countries: 1. the US supports the most authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world; 2. the US supports Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims; 3. the US and Britain have bombed Iraq continuously since 1991 and enforced the UN embargo that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq.

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