Notes on Extremism and Modernization

The Salon of Madame Geoffrin - an example of the activities that shaped French Enlightenment in the 19th Century.
The Salon of Madame Geoffrin – an example of the activities that shaped French Enlightenment in the 19th Century.

The answer to the extremism prevalent in Muslim communities around the world will not come from any allegedly “enlightened” or “moderate” set of religious scholars, but from the average Muslims’ changing attitude towards religiosity. Historical precedents have indeed shown that the religious establishment has often to play catchup with the people in this matter. In the meantime, however, establishment figures, motivated by a variety of ideological and parochial considerations, will often lead the fight against modernization using the pulpits and whatever social, economic and political institutions under their control.

For when it comes to religious affairs, modernization comes more as a result of people taking charge of their private lives, including deciding the nature of their relationship with the Unknown and the Metaphysical, than some reform plan advanced by the religious elite. It is when people begin taking their inspiration and guidance on a variety of sociomoral issues from lay figures who base their input on scientific findings and the dictates of reason rather than on scripture and divine inspiration, or inspiration from figures practically treated as divine, that we can truly speak of modernization.

Moreover, true modernization requires input from people from all classes and segments of society, that is, it begs for political and economic empowerment through adherence to democratic ideals and principles. This is why the modernization efforts that took place under the guidance of secular autocrats, especially those operating in the context of ideological totalitarian states, only affected certain material aspects of the societies involved. The dominant culture in these “secular” polities, however, remains pre-modern for the most part and, on many occasions, it has even become anti-modern.

Bearing this in mind, we can safely state that efforts at modernization made through appeals to reformation within the religious establishment and by calling on religious scholars to take the lead in the process are not simply misplaced: they are downright counterproductive. For such efforts actually empower and legitimize the very institutions and figures that modernity is meant to undercut.

Seeing that modernization in the West did not come as a result of the Protestant Reformation, and that it, in fact, emerged in the face of tremendous opposition from the Protestant and Catholic religious establishments, it is hard to understand why so many “experts” seem to expect that modernization in Muslim communities will come as a result of religious reformation?

Be that as it may, there are many reasons why we can describe the current upheavals in the so-called Muslim World as exhibiting elements of a religious reformation, and why we should expect things to change and rather drastically as a result of them. But change may not be as “positive” and “modern” as we might hope, especially on the short- to intermediate-term. Indeed, considering the lingering problems of underdevelopment, illiteracy and poverty prevalent in most Muslim-majority countries, the forces of atavism might end up having more sway in shaping the outcome than the advocates of modernity, paving our way for another tumultuous century filled with dashed dreams and lost opportunities. That is, unless the powerful and modern states of the world undertook a course correction in the way they choose to interact with Muslims polities and communities around the world, including those living in their midst.

Commitment to secular education and democratic transitions is the very thing that we need to advocate at this stage in order to witness a positive change in the Muslim World on the longer run. This is why turning our backs on the Freedom and Democracy Agenda and falling back on so-called “containment” policies makes no sense. So long as the conditions that foster pre-modern ideas are prevalent, modernity cannot be victorious, and setbacks will always be possible, even in the most modern niches of this world. After all, so long as the “modern” and “civilized” peoples of the world are still willing to watch on as mass atrocities unfold all around them, or interfere only to take advantage of them to advance their own parochial interests, one has ample justification for concluding that a strong doze of tribalism still lurks under the skin of these “civilized” and “modern” folk.

And so, the battle of ideas still needs to be waged, and its champions should be sought among the ranks of artists, intellectuals, and professional classes, not the religious establishments. This does not negate the existence of brave and enlightened religious figures, but the main role of these figures will be to create bridges between modernists and traditionalists, and ease the impact of modernity on the traditional classes, rather than lead and shape the process itself.