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Opinion

January 29, 2015

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Violence and vilification

Untimely meditations
It is a strange irony of history that in the age of communication revolution dialogue has been replaced by monologue and the vilest in society have become representative of the majority. The attack on Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent actions and reactions from the west and Muslim countries reveal a deep-rooted malaise in modern civilisation.
It seems the whole edifice of modern civilisation has been crumbling under the dead weight of contradictions and questions that were neither resolved nor answered in the last century. That is why the bright dawn of the new millennium has been turned into night by the messiahs of liberalism and religion.
One of the ramifications of violent conflict between the west and Muslim societies is that image and discourse about both are formed by those who represent what is worst within them. Today anyone with the power of the gun can claim to be a custodian of Islam and considers it his divine right to silence dissenting voices. On the other side, it is common among political analysts in the west to attribute contemporary Islamism to the founding moment of Islam. In reality the Islamism of today has evolved out of the complex interaction of social, religious, cultural, economic and political factors converging in modern time and space.
Muslim societies have entered into the age of political and economic liberalisation in the post-cold war period when the secular class had either exhausted all sources or failed to deliver. This situation is diametrically opposite to the moment when Muslim societies got rid of the yoke of colonialism under the leaders who tried to build a new society on secular footings.
For example, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party attempted to provide a secular basis for their societies. Similarly Indonesia had the largest membership (three and half million) of the Communist Party outside the USSR during the cold war. Turkey embarked upon a more ambitious project of modernity by

renouncing the past and everything associated with it in the first half of the twentieth century. In his progressive zeal Kamal Atatürk brought changes not only in the public, private, legal and religious spheres, but also changed the semiological universe to form a new worldview, which is more in consonance with the modern age.
Unfortunately, the liberal intelligentsia in the west consciously expunge these facts from the pages of modern history to create fear within their masses by attributing the current Islamism to a moment that occurred almost one and a half millennia ago. This omission has helped the ruling class essentialise diverse Muslim societies under the rubric of a single Islamic civilisation.
The point of highlighting this conscious amnesia of liberals is not to condone the failure of the ruling class in Muslim societies. The failure of the secular class has created an ideological vacuum, which is filled by religious parties. Islamists claim to provide legitimate solutions and authentic meanings to a situation where society has lost its moorings by relying on a godless system and the individual is alienated. Hence, Islamism presents a remedy for the metaphysical pathos generated by the disenchanted world.
Unlike the west, religion has remained at the heart of politics in countries that have not followed the linear path of history in the west. Islamists of today try to Islamise modernity against liberals who attempt to modernise Islam. The struggle within Islam between the proponents of these points of view has been going on since the advent of modernity with colonialism.
Unlike traditional and liberal Islam, the Islamism of today is akin to modernity for it rejects tradition and poses major social and theological challenges to received theological solutions and postures. Modernity and Islamists/fundamentalists are strange bedfellows, for the Islamists are doing the work that was supposed to be done by modernity – creating ruptures in continuity. Now the critique of Islamism has provided space that was not available earlier in Muslim societies under the traditional arrangements of religion.
Shorn of traditional injunctions, procedures and old ways of engaging with the world, Islamism has gone awry. Violence is an integral part of modern societies and states. Some countries owe their independence from colonialism to violence. However, violence committed by Islamists is bordering on nihilism because it does not aim at gaining power at the local or national level, but rather sees their struggle at a cosmic level where they are engaged in purging jahiliya and its symbols within the world. That is why both traditionalist and secular Muslims have become their targets alongside the west.
The fading away of traditional and secular forces within Muslim societies has increasingly contributed to intellectual poverty. Absence of mind and abundance of passion pushes Muslim societies towards the precipice of nihilism. Those who murder innocent people, commit heinous crimes and suppress minorities in the name of Islam are undoing the Islam that has been formed during the last fourteen centuries. This has become possible only in the age of global ideological foment and confusion.
Similarly, the one-dimensional liberal worldview in the age of globalisation has squeezed the space for alternate narratives and voices. Following the mantra of the ‘The End of History’ and ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, and impressed by ubiquitous propaganda, the putative rational voices have joined the chorus of ‘us versus them’ and ‘good versus evil’. To achieve their goal of unified system in the world, they espouse violence. The most unfortunate part of this story is that the mediocre and the worst became symbols of both. Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that could not sell more than 45,000 thousand copies, but an attack by criminals enabled it to sale seven million copies.
When the sacred and sacrilegious become mutually supportive, then the market remains but its invisible hand steers the course of political economy of violence. Nothing is more absurd than the thinking that deems the murderers in kosher market of Paris as representatives of Muslims across the world. Actions of fundamentalists of both variety (liberal and Islamist) provide raison d'être to each other.
Like Islamic fundamentalists’ visceral hatred of the west, the Islamophobia of liberals is apathetic. The latter’s hatred of the Muslims within the west has deep affinity with anti-semitism. Sensing the dangers of hatred and the apathetic attitude of the powerful liberal section of western societies against the powerless, Karen Armstrong declares: “It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps.”
Traditionally, leftists provided an alternate narrative against religion and liberalism, but have been pushed to the margins by extremists and rampant liberalism across the globe. In such a sterile scenario and suffocating ambience, it is imperative to seek new ways of interacting. Instead of creating an atmosphere of mutual coexistence, convictions of the twentieth century will create more chaos and pessimism. In order to make the world a better place, both the liberals and the religious have to question their certainties and change ways of seeing the ‘other’.
Change can only come from within. Cartoons emanating from a culture of disbelief cannot bring about change in a culture where belief permeates every aspects of life. The idea of multiple modernities provides a space for Muslims to articulate their perspective and version of modernity.
Muslims have to accept the profane realities of the world of today, and the west has to allow modernity to take multiple forms in different contexts. Insistence on the secular and religious teleology of both the west and Muslims will turn our world into a boiling – not a melting – pot. It is much better to melt our identities of the last millennium to form a new being for the new millennium.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Email: [email protected]

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