Continuities and Discontinuities in Islamic Perspectives on Cultural Diversity
Posted Jan 8, 2008

Continuities and Discontinuities in Islamic Perspectives on Cultural Diversity

by Sulayman S. Nyang

Since the beginning of this century, Muslims all around the planet have pondered on the nature of Islamic culture and the challenges of modern values to Muslim institutions and material life. Seven developments since the fifteenth century, when Europe broke the Muslim monopoly of global trade, have contributed to this state of affairs. These developments will be identified and discussed in the sections below. They are the causes and consequences of certain historical and political changes in the lives and cultures of Muslim peoples around the world. An analysis of this total of seven developments would help us understand the continuities and discontinuities in the Muslim world.

The purpose of this paper is threefold. The first objective is to identify the factors and forces responsible for continuity and discontinuity in Muslim opinions on, and attitudes toward, cultural diversity. Working on the assumption that the Muslim world managed to maintain its cultural integrity while assimilating peoples from different cultural and civilizational backgrounds in the Middle East and beyond, and considering the symbolic and substantive mechanisms that Islam and Muslim peoples created to keep their ummah united and assertive in world affairs, this paper argues that the expansion of Europe and the colonization of the Americas contributed to cultural continuities and discontinuities in Muslim societies and cultures. The second objective of this paper is to show how and why the European conquest and colonization of Muslim lands created the cultural and philosophical transformations that led to the enthronement of nationalist ideas among Muslims. The third objective is to draw several conclusions based upon my findings on the impact of the seven developments identified as crucial in the making of the crisis of cultural alienation in Muslim lands.

Seven Major Developments Changing the Muslim Cultural Landscape

The first development was what Western historians called the Age of Discovery. It was an age of discovery for the Westerners when it comes to the lands of the Native Americans. It was also an age of discovery for them because, since the travels of Marco Polo, not much was known about China and the lands in that part of the world. However, for Muslims, the lands bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans were not completely unknown to them. India and China, the two principal civilizations bordering these two major oceans of the world, were known to the Muslims and their traders, and a brisk trade in a wide range of goods and services was already established. Muslim traders, accompanied by their Jewish counterparts, were in operation in these parts of the world long before Columbus sailed for the Americas and Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama headed for India by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

The second development that has contributed to the present Muslim efforts at cultural adjustment to the challenges of modernity was the industrial revolution and the new strength it gave to European powers. The long duel between the two Abrahamic civilizations on the Mediterranean Sea was raised to a new level. Since the late eighteenth century when the British pioneered the industrial revolution, the Muslims have come to see a Europe strengthened by their new genie in metallic powers. This industrial revolution has since then changed the power equation between Europeans and other peoples of the world. With industrial might, Europe gradually transformed its values, its material bases of living, and its institutions. The word “factory,” which was known in Muslim lands and whose English equivalent derived from Italians influenced by Muslims in the medieval period, became a common feature of industrializing Europe and America. The bank, another institution whose most powerful instrument of exchange, the check, was another Muslim invention, was taken to higher levels of utility and performance by the Europeans and later the Americans. The word “bank,” whose roots go back to the Italian Banco (bench), was again borrowed from the Muslim experience. However, from our perspective, the institution of banking would later evolve far better than expected of Mudaraba and Musaraka (profit-sharing and loss-sharing idea of the Muslims who have historically been allergic to riba (usurious interest)).

The third development that has also affected the nature of the Muslim world and the modern Euro-American world was the European colonization of the Muslim lands in the nineteenth century. The industrial success of the European nations enabled them to extend their powers beyond their immediate geographic neighborhood. The growing rivalry between them and the growing planetary market emerging before their eyes propelled the strongest among them to seek territories elsewhere. What I am arguing here is that the Age of Discovery of Vasco da Gama created the conditions for the European colonization of the world. The colonization and peopling of the Americas preceded the colonization and settlement of lands east of the Americas. The present state of the Muslims around the world cannot be understood by an alien anthropologist from another galaxy if he or she does not know that, long before the industrial revolution, the European countries of Spain and Portugal led the other European nations in the exploration of western and eastern lands of the planet. European hegemony did not only lead to the colonization of Muslim lands, but it also changed the demography of many lands through the transplantation of peoples from one region to the other. Examples of such transplantation are the following: Chinese in Southeast Asian states of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines; Indians in the East African coastal states; French men and women in North Africa; Europeans in Southern Africa; Indians and Chinese in the Caribbean territories; and white peoples in Australia and New Zealand. This is only the report card on Western European colonization. The Russian conquest and colonization of central Asia is usually overlooked by anti-colonial and anti-imperial nationalists of the Third World. Recent developments in central Asia have brought this home to us after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The fourth development that has also affected the Muslim understanding of cultural diversity is the transplantation of nationalist ideas and their acceptance by Muslim intellectuals and their political leaders. This intellectual current has changed the Muslim self-concept. Not only have Muslims given greater prominence to territorial and geohistorical particularities, but they have also come to embrace a new political mythology that goes against their religious universalism. These psychological and psycho-political transformations are the intended or unintended consequences of their flirtation with borrowed European theories of nationalism.

The fifth development in this century that has also affected continuities and discontinuities in Muslim life and thought was the rise of communism and the establishment of the Soviet state in Russia and eastern Europe after the Second World War. Judging events from the perspective of the post-Cold War era might be distorting the real nature of things in the Muslim world early in this century. In retrospect, we can argue here that the emergence of Marxist thought as a major contender of human allegiance was seen by Muslim intellectuals as one other alien demon to fight and keep away from the mental and physical spaces of Muslim peoples. The legacies of communism in the Arab world and in central Asia certainly remind us that the problem of cultural continuities and discontinuities will remain a challenge to Muslim leaders and the led for sometime in the future.

The sixth development that has again contributed to the state of affairs in the Muslim world was the eruption of the Iranian revolution under Khomeini and its reverberating effects throughout the Muslim world and beyond. This revolution, which has produced many images and stereotypes of the Muslim peoples of the world, has contributed positively and negatively to the problem of continuities and discontinuities in Muslim lands—more on this phenomenon later.

The seventh and last development to be considered here is the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the present state of Euro-American hegemony in both the military and cultural life of modern human beings. This state of affairs has consequences not only for Muslims but for all peoples who see themselves as different from the Euro-American peoples whose values, institutions, and material way of life are believed to be really or imaginably different from their own. This state of affairs is again the product of a series of historical and global developments dating from the historical periods identified above. The globalization of the Western way of life has created new opportunities and new challenges to Muslims, especially their younger generation, to assimilate Western ideas, values, and material goods. With the end of the Cold War comes the reign of Western materialism and consumerism. This new global phenomenon has been characterized as the “McDonalization” of the world. An American cultural commentator has written a book, growing out of his seminal paper published some years ago in the Atlantic Monthly, describing the post-Cold War era as that of a contest between “Jihad and McWorld.”

The Age of Discovery & Cultural Challenges to Muslim Societies

Students of world cultures cannot deny the impact of the West on human societies over the last five hundred years. Evidence for the impact of the West is visible in the history and demography of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and the many islands settled by persons of European descent in the last five centuries. In writing about cultural continuities and discontinuities in Muslim lands, one must raise the question: What has been the legacy of the Muslim encounter with the West? Many books and essays have been written by Muslims and non-Muslims on this encounter. Here we are not reinventing the wheel; rather, we are trying to identify factors and forces responsible for the changing perspectives in Muslim self-definition and in Muslim opinions on, and attitudes towards, certain aspects of European and Euro-American cultural norms and patterns of behavior.

Three issues of importance to Westerners and Muslims resulted from the encounter following the Age of Discovery. The first issue deals with the definition of the human being and the divergent attitudes between the Muslim slave owners and the Spaniards in the Americas. When the Europeans encountered the native peoples of the Americas, their conceptual screens did not register the humanity of these peoples. Not only did they eliminate their cultures but [also] their very humanity was questioned and ended. This is the legacy of the Spanish conquistadores. The Catholic father, Las Casas, is usually credited for changing the tide of fortune for the “American Indians.” His intervention, according to the historical sources, helped save the lives of those native peoples who had not fallen to the swords of the conquering Spaniards. Why is this genocidal event used for this discussion of Muslim perspectives on cultural diversity? Well, the fact that the Spaniards questioned the humanity of the native peoples of the Americas suggests that, for the Spaniards, the natives had no soul, and, for this and other related reasons, they could be killed without any feeling of guilt. This act, which was unknown to their Muslim contemporaries, would have been deemed reprehensible.

Muslim rejection of such a policy and plan of action cannot be learned because not much was written about Muslim opinions on, and attitudes toward, the American slave trade, although literature on Muslim slaves in the Americas does exist. From the limited sample opinions of Muslim slave narratives and of practical diplomacy of Muslim rulers such as the Sultan of Morocco, who intervened in the liberation of one Abdurrahman ibn Sori, an African prince from the Fula kingdom of Futa Jallon who spent about forty years in slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, we can say that Muslims did not conflate race, color, and creed into one metaphysical criterion by which some are elected and others are damned. But if the Muslim contemporaries did not know much about the exploits of the Spaniards in the Americas, they saw the negative consequences of the fall of Grenada. Not only were Muslims booted out of the Iberian Peninsula in large numbers, but Jews and wavering Christians were also ejected forcefully and mercilessly by the victorious crusaders and the leaders of the Inquisition. Evidence for this claim is plentiful in the historical record. Our task here is not to engage in any finger pointing exercise; rather, in this section of the paper, we focus our attention on how the Age of Discovery affected Muslim views of cultural diversity.

As argued above, though the Muslims in the East did not know fully what was happening in the Americas, there is overwhelming material evidence pointing to Muslim reactions to the persecution of Muslims and Jews by the triumphant Spaniards under Ferdinand and Isabella. This differing view of diversity, that was best illustrated by the Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere in Christian lands of these times, was best represented by the different treatment the Turks gave to the Jews at this critical moment in their history. During this horrible period of persecution, the Church fathers and their agents took the lives of fellow human beings simply because they did not toe the theological lines of the day. It is true that slavery existed in Muslim lands during the same period, but there is no historical record to suggest that people should be discriminated both on racial and religious grounds. This conflation of race, color, and creed in the categorization of human beings is the result of the Age of Discovery.

The second issue that grew out of the Age of Discovery was the commodification of human beings and of human relations. In a worldview in which man is racially and theologically defined, chances are those who did not fit this metaphysical Procrustean bed became the objects of derision and exploitation. If the individual victim was not put to the sword, chances are his life was reduced to that of the hewer of wood and the drawer of water. This racialization, sectarianization, and commodification of life led to the creation of a caste system that paralleled the Aryan-imposed order in India, where the Sudrahs (untouchables) willingly or reluctantly accepted their position in light of Hindu metaphysics. The Spanish conquest of the New World wittingly or unwittingly set the stage for the emergence of such a system.

Muslim societies, who were increasingly affected by their contacts with the defenders of this new dispensation, gradually and sometimes unconsciously found their peoples abandoning the old paradigm of their geographers and their men of learning. Let us illustrate this point by referring to the Muslim sources. We know that during the height of Muslim power and glory, especially in the Ummayyad and Abbassid periods, the Muslim geographers such as al-Masudi divided the world so that the Arab Muslim was at the center of creation. This unislamic ethnocenthicism, wrapped in the riddle of secular anthropocentricism, was further complicated by the Ptolemaic astronomy of geocentricism. Such a conception of human diversity and the ranking of cultural men and women were more reflective of the Greek aversion to the barbarian and of the Hebrew contempt of the goyim. But while acknowledging these realities of the different civilizations and cultures, one must also add that all these different philosophies of man speak of human dignity and equality at the highest levels of abstraction in their metaphysics. Based on this historical fact, one can state here that the Age of Discovery did not only lead Spaniards and others in Europe to see themselves as different from the “natives” of the world, but it also inspired them to create the world in their own image and to smash the mirrors of the other cultures so that, from now on, they would not and could no longer see themselves in their own terms. This cultural conquest that took its greatest toll in the Americas would later manifest itself in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As a result, many peoples from various parts of the world would be scattered in areas that were not their original homelands. The term “diaspora,” which was originally reserved for the Hebrew people who had left Palestine following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in 70 A.D., was gradually extended to other ethnic and religious minorities who over time migrated from one point on the planet to another.

The Age of Discovery played an important part in this global transformation. The term America can be, and has been, a metaphor for many things—one thing that this term can conjure up is the massive relocation of human beings from the old cultures to a new culture of pluralism. In this context, what the Islamic historical records suggest is that military and political defeat of one’s foes should not justify the denial of humanity to the vanquished, even if the subjugated refused to embrace the religion of the conquerors. Even though Muslims were affected by the Age of Discovery, their societies did not pattern themselves after the racial and religious antagonism that increasingly characterized a triumphant Europe extending its might beyond the seas.

The third issue that developed out of the Age of Discovery was the gradual secularization of the world. The pursuit of gold and the mercantile culture that dominated the Europeans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries together created a world of competition and monopoly. As evident from the economic history of the period, the race for gold among these European powers gradually led to the widening of the gaps between the classes of Europe. This class separation and the culture of indifference that feeds on it would later lead to the political revolutions of the eighteenth century. How did these developments in Europe and the Americas affect the Muslims in their understanding of economic inequalities in human societies? Well, the evidence available to us suggests that, though serious economic disparities existed in certain parts of the Muslim world during this time, there is a body of literature which teaches Muslims not to use wealth as a marker separating one human being from the other. In this sense, one can argue that, though Muslim states and societies were gradually losing ground to the emerging Euro-American hegemony, their peoples were not rigidly divided by class culture as it was in Europe. To put this point in another way, one can say that the political economy of the Muslim world did not support an urban society where structural and functional differentiations were changing the relationship between man and man. Furthermore, the Muslim intellectuals and thinkers of this period did not come up with similar or parallel thoughts that portray economic success in this world as evidence of Divine grace on humankind. This Puritan notion of worldly success was not a part of the mental furniture of the Muslim world. As a result, material accumulation as a marker between the economically and theologically favored and economically and theologically unfavored [never] entered the Muslim consciousness.

The Industrial Revolution & Muslim Understanding of Diversity

Students of the industrial revolution have identified many changes that this human invention caused in the way we view our world, in the way we relate to our world, and in the way we manage and organize time in the workplace and elsewhere in our social universe. Philosophers of history and science may disagree as to the true nature of this revolution and its implications for both Western and non-Western societies. However, for our present purpose here, we are trying to understand how this major development in the human condition affected the Muslim view of diversity. Conceptually, the industrial revolution impacted European society first and later elsewhere in countless ways. First, it took the factory idea, which was already known to Muslims and to others along the Mediterranean, to new heights. Not only did this revolution redefine the relationship between man and man, but it also helped redefine the relationship between Man and his Machine. Homo Faber was no longer a single entity in the universe of creation; rather, he has become a part of a system of management and production whose processes we could relate to but increasingly had no control over from day to day. This new role of Homo Faber created a new class in human society. Whereas, in the agrarian world, all men could till the soil and grow food for their sustenance and, if necessary, barter or sell the balance of production for profit, the industrial revolution changed all that. From now on, those who control capital and own factories decide who is employable and how much one employee gets as opposed to others in this new hierarchy of workers in the factory. This factory culture, which was developing within an urban milieu first in England and later elsewhere in Europe and beyond, altered the nature of the old relationship between man and man. It also created a new relationship between Man and his tools. The potential sense of alienation of the worker from his new working environment then has been captured in the literature on the luddites and their destructive attitudes towards the inanimate objects directly and indirectly competing with them for managerial attention and accountability.

In retrospect, one can ask, how did this emerging industrial culture affect the Muslim peoples? And in what manner did it affect the Muslim understanding of diversity? Answers to this and other related questions can be provided by the historical record on the labor movements in the Muslim world. Four points deserve our attention here. The first relates to the nature of culture in Muslim societies and the manner in which Muslim leaders and the led reacted to the growing industrial challenges of the Western European peoples. If we define culture as a human enterprise that is best characterized by three important components—the material base, the value base, and the institutional base—then we can say that in Muslim societies the industrial revolution would affect three dimensions of cultural life. The immediate reaction of Muslim societies to the industrial revolution was in the field of military science. Taking note of the immediate impact of the industrial revolution on the power balance between nations and peoples, and determined to maintain themselves at all costs, the most powerful Muslim empires, Ottoman and others, tried to secure the magical powers of the Europeans. This quest for military power through the genie of industrial transformation impacted powerfully the Ottoman drive to modernize and Westernize simultaneously. The literature is rich on this point. What we do know is that the leaders of the Ottoman empire belatedly realized that Europe was breaking away from the human pack on the path to material development, and that Muslims and other non-European peoples could only catch up by getting the scientific and technological knowledge of Europe. To transform themselves to meet the demands of the new dispensation, the leaders of the Muslim world, especially the Ottoman, began to get the knowledge, buy the technology or purchase the services of European technicians. This attempt to get science and technology from Europe created a new cultural presence for Europeans. Not only were these Europeans received as traders and travelers, but increasingly they were brought in as technical experts. Their presence and the prestige accorded them by the Muslim rulers would gradually create a psychocultural phenomenon of xenophobia. This state of affairs was not universally evident in all Muslim lands. However, it is probably correct to say that many a Muslim soon began to see the Europeans in new light. This association of technical competence with the European person would lead some Muslim thinkers of the nineteenth century to identify science and technology as we now know it with Western Christianity.

European Colonization & Challenges to Muslim Ideas on Diversity

The European colonization of Muslim lands is the result of the industrialization of Western Europe and the decline of Muslim power. Historians have examined the manner in which European states gradually broke away from the pack of nations in the world since the fifteenth century. We have discussed, in a previous section, the Age of Discovery and the manner in which the establishment of new trading powers enhanced the stocks of Europe and opened new doors of opportunities to them. In this section, I intend to identify and discuss three issues that have affected Muslims in their understanding of themselves and in their relationship with Europe. The first point relates to the colonial experience and its impact on the psyche of the colonized Muslim. Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi both addressed the colonial question and the manner in which it impacted North Africans. Fanon was a black man from Martinique whose colonial links to France later led to his employment in a hospital in embattled Algeria under colonial rule. Memmi grew up in North Africa as a colonial Jew. Both authors looked at the colonial experience and how it affected the peoples of that part of the continent of Africa. What makes Fanon particularly significant is his impact on Muslim thought, although he himself was more secular than religious. His influence is indirect, and it comes by way of the writings of Ali Shariati, one intellectual source of inspiration in the Iranian revolution.

To return to Franz Fanon and his analysis of the colonial syndrome, let me say that he identifies several characteristics of the colonial state. He argues quite forcefully that the colonial powers created a Manichean world between the colonized and the colonizer. To him, the colonial master dominates not only the physical space of the colonized but his mental world as well. How does the imperial master carry out this policy of political and cultural domination? Well, he does so by splitting the colonized society into two camps, that is, the urban population and the rural communities. Through its education system, the colonial power begins a socializing agency that gradually weans its subjects away from their cultural heritage. This gallicization of the Muslim child creates a world of ambiguity. A Senegalese novelist, Cheich Hamidou Kane, captures this perilous state of cultural ambivalence in his widely celebrated book, Ambiguous Adventure. As psychoanalyzed by Fanon and as fictionalized by Kane, the colonial education system produces black Frenchmen in sub-Saharan Africa, Arab Frenchmen in North Africa and the Middle East, and Southeast Asian Frenchmen in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This replication of the French mind in the colonial territories led to the cultural alienation of some elites, and what Myron Wiener called the “elite-mass gap” developed. Such pathologies also created personalities such as Ferhat Abbas, the Algerian nationalist leader, and Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the Malawian leader who rose to the presidency of his country. What colonialism did to these two men is rob them of their native tongues. Both of them developed such command of the colonial language that they “forgot” the languages of their ancestors. Abbass’ case is the Muslim Arab example that applied more fittingly to our study of cultural diversity in Muslim lands.

In looking into the colonial impact on the Muslim world, one must also bear in mind how the colonial powers exploited the anthropological data about the colonized peoples. In many Muslim lands where religious minorities existed, there were attempts to pit such groups against the majority Muslim population. Even in areas where the indirect rule policy of Lord Lugard was operational, such as in northern Nigeria, there is still some limited evidence of divide-and-rule. Nigerian nationalists have always argued that northern Nigerian Muslims were skillfully used by British colonial officers against their Christian southern brethren. Real or imagined, the fact that postcolonial Nigeria has continued to face serious political crisis testifies to the inherited colonial legacy of the north/south divide. The same thing can be said about the problem of southern Sudan. Though post colonial leaders of Sudan cannot run away from their responsibility in the current state of affairs in that part of Africa, the fact remains that British colonial interest shaped and directed the political outcome we now call Sudan. The deliberate policy of effective separation of the peoples of the north and south in this vast country planted the seeds of discord, and the post-colonial agitation of the southern peoples is the belated manifestation of a long overdue outburst of political dissatisfaction.

The Impact of Transplanted European Nationalist Ideas

The Muslims have established a record in world history in that their religion introduced five major transformations in human life and culture. The first revolutionary measure taken by the Muslims was to demolish the idols of the ancestors and to uphold radical monotheism. Although Judaism can claim the pride of place in being the first of the Abrahamic religions to challenge the hegemony of tribal deities among the ancients and to advocate unflaggingly the primacy of one God, Yahweh, its claims to a special covenantal dispensation with the Creator separates it from both Islam and Christianity. Whereas the Hebrew people, that is, the children of Israel, usually see themselves as the chosen people, the Muslims and Christians made more universal claims that accommodate others not genetically linked to Abraham and his progeny. The second revolutionary transformation of Islam was the teaching that all humanity derived from one source of creation, Adam. This combination of the demolition of the idols of the tribes and the advocacy of a common parentage in Adam and Eve for all humankind gave Islam a distinct character among world religions. Such a philosophical position may seem commonplace today among modern human beings who have been fed for some centuries now on the steady diet of scientific empiricism which makes fun of the gods of yesteryears and advances its own myth of origins for humanity.

Besides the radical monotheism of Islam and its advocacy of some monogenesis, there are three other revolutionary transformations in human thought caused by Islam. These changes are as follows: (a) the teaching that faith in a single Creator (Allah) is the highest and most legitimate basis of allegiance for believing Muslims; (b) that the basis of human distinction should not be the physical and external characteristics of the person but his pity (taqwa); and (c) that power should not be monopolized by any royal family but by caliphs given oaths of allegiance by their Muslim peers. These teachings of Islam remained the guiding principles for many centuries until the Muslim societies became increasingly dominated by the emergent European powers in the nineteenth century.

Writing in the early 1960s, Bernard Lewis, a controversial academic whose works enjoyed wide reading among Westerners, acknowledged the Islamic legacy to human thought, with respect to its uncompromising stance against human fragmentation along tribal and ethnic lines, when he wrote the following passage:

Every student of Islamic history knows the stirring story of how Islam fought against idolatry, in the days of the Prophet and his Companions, and triumphed, so that the worship of the one God replaced the many cults of pagan Arabia. Another such struggle is being fought in our own time—not against Al-Lat and al-Uzza, and the rest of old heathen pantheon, but against a new set of idols called states, races and nations; this time it is the idols that seem to be victorious.
—Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West, 1964.

Lewis, in pursuing this line of reasoning, later adds that the modern idea of nationalism did not take root in Muslim lands, but that descent, language, and habitation were all of secondary importance. He concludes his argument by saying that “it is only during the last century that, under European influence, the idea of the political union has begun to make headway. For Muslims, the basic division, the touchstone by which men are separated from one another, by which one distinguished between brothers and sister—is that of faith, of membership of a religious community.”

But despite how Bernard Lewis feels about the viability of the longstanding Islamic idea of ummatic solidarity in the modern period, the fact remains that believing men and women in the Muslim world still embrace the idea and would like to see its reification in the establishment of a global political order in which Muslim solidarity is undisputed and Muslim cooperation again reaches the highest levels of human possibilities. Yet, while acknowledging this fact, one cannot deny the penetration of the nationalist ideas in the Muslim world. Over the last century and a half, the ideas of European nationalism have crept into the imagination and consciousness of almost all Muslim peoples. Two things have accounted for this turn of events. The first is the colonization of Muslim lands, a phenomenon that is treated in the next section of this paper. The second is the persistence of residual tribal and ethnic loyalties in Muslim societies and the mining of these sentiments by pie-in-sky politicians and the idealistic prophets of the new states in the Muslim world. As we will see later in this paper, the expansion of European colonial rule led to the political manipulation and exploitation of ethnic and religious minorities and majorities in areas where Muslim power was dominant for centuries. This is clear in Africa, Asia, and in what was formerly the Soviet Empire.

In analyzing the impact of European nationalist thought in Muslim lands, three other points deserve our attention. The first relates to the fact that, since the modernization drive of the Ottoman [Empire], the nationalist idea has remained a fascinating proposition to many a Muslim intellectual bent on imitating and hobnobbing with the Westerners. The successes of the Young Turks and the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk after the First World War have made it clear that nationalism is here to stay for the time being. The Turkish example has been copied and followed faithfully by the Arab states that came into being after the collapse of the colonial empires in the Middle East and North Africa. The Iranians who did not suffer the humiliation of colonization saw the nationalist path to self-definition a European alternative to the Islamic paradigm. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Pakistanis, the Bangladeshis, the Indonesians, the Malaysians, and the Africans have all decided unilaterally to follow the path of nation-building a la Europe. Again, with the collapse of the Soviet colonial empire in central Asia, the newly liberated Muslim lands have taken their seats as independent political entities in the United Nations and in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Their intellectuals have written sophisticated pieces to justify their new political realities and to impress upon Doubting Thomases that their political destiny is not guaranteed.

The second point that deserves our attention here is the fact that the penetration of nationalist ideas from Europe has led to the polarization of Muslim lands between the majority group and its minorities. The Turkish insistence that the Kurds of that land accept the Turkish national language and the cultural victimization that accompany such a nationalist policy is the mirror image of the enforced Bulgarization of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Similarly, the victimization of the Kurds by the regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the denial of Kurdish aspirations for a separate nation in the region have again created a state of unrest in both Turkey and Iraq. The situation is not radically different in Iran, where the Kurdish minority has served as a political football in the power game between the Iranian government and the leaders of Baghdad.

This prevalence of nationalist loyalties in the Muslim world has created a serious rift between the loyalists to the old Muslim ideology of Pan Islamism, as Jamal al-Afghani and his followers became known, and the secular nationalists who pedal their political wares under the names of Arab nationalism, Baathism, Panchasila, Panafiricanism, and many other isms. What unites all these varieties of nationalism in Muslim lands is their recognition and acceptance of the European-imposed colonial boundaries. The coagulation of the colonial boundaries has given new meanings and new realities to old borders, and the emergence of social and economic classes with vested interest in the new order has made it possible for the political elites to champion the new nationalism. The Cold War that erupted soon after the defeat of the Nazis also helped in the cultivation of the seeds of Third World nationalism. By recognizing the legitimacy of these states and by wooing and winning them into their ideological orbits, the Cold War rivals in both the East and the West gave credence to the leaders and the led of these Muslim countries.

The adoption of the nationalist ideology of the Europeans by the Muslim states has created opportunities for ethnic leaders to pit one group against the others. These opportunistic acts have been reported in almost all Muslim lands where cultural pluralism and ethnic differentiation are either deeply rooted or have been rekindled by the divide-and-rule tactics of the old colonial and imperial masters. Indeed, the ethnic divisiveness is not peculiar to old colonial territories. The Afghan situation does not only tell us that Islam was effective in ridding that land of communist rule, but it also underscores the potential destruction old tribal and ethnic jealousies and rivalries could bring into a Muslim country. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the havoc wrought by this brand of Islamism has made it categorically clear that Islam could be used as “a wallpaper to cover the cracks in the wall of Pushto nationalism.” The same problem could derail the developmental efforts of Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia and of those of the predominantly Muslim states of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Impact of the Rise of Communism

Islam has gotten the distinction of being the most consistently opposed to both polytheism and atheism. Except the central Asian Muslim territories and the Muslims of Bosnia and Albania, no other Muslim lands lived under communist rule until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This bold gamble of the Soviet leadership was destined to trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this section of the paper, we intend to explore the encounter between the communist message and the Muslim peoples. We also wish to study the manner in which this body of ideas affected Muslim thought on cultural diversity.

There are three ways in which communism affected the Muslim lands. The first and most significant was the political poisoning of the Middle Eastern climate. This is to say, the dissemination of communist ideas in the Middle East, especially after the Second World War, injected the Cold War into an Arab world that was just coming out of the colonial experience. By competing with the Western powers who had a vested interest in capitalism and by recruiting young Muslims from this region of the world and beyond, the communists planted suspicion among the peoples of the region. Whereas in the past non-Muslims could exist side by side with Muslims, the prospects of a communist takeover of the state and society in the post-colonial era made the communist members of society political lepers who deserved long jail sentences or physical elimination. This state of affairs was fostered by the Western allies of the Muslim anticommunist forces. The political history of the Middle East could be explained in many ways. One interpretation that begs for attention is the argument that the Cold War polarized the Arabs between the radical nationalists who embraced some form of Arab socialism and those who flirted with capitalist powers. The late Professor Malcolm Kerr, the assassinated president of American University of Beirut, called the Arab Cold War the offspring of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. From the perspective of Muslim cultural history, one could argue that the two cold wars, one regional and the other global, were detrimental to the self-definition of the Arab states and the pursuit of their individual and collective interest.

The second issue to explore here is the impact of the Cold War on the internal affairs of Muslim lands. In the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, the communist parties were dominated by members of the ethnic minorities. In the Arab world, Jews, Greeks, and Armenians have generally been identified with such parties, although many ethnic Arabs also embraced some form of Marxism. What this ethnification of Marxism meant for these Muslim lands was the creation of a wall of suspicion between the members of these ethnically based communist parties and the majority communities. By creating such an unhealthy climate of suspicion, the rights and privileges previously accorded to such peoples by Islam and traditions were gradually or immediately taken away from them, not in the name of Islam but in the name of state security. The spirit of the Cold War made this kind of policy and practice acceptable and legitimate. It also gave greater power and respectability to the secular state and its operators.

Besides these two issues, there is the third issue, which addresses the case of Muslim leaders who flirted with Marxism in its early days after the end of the First World War. We are told by historians of the period that some Muslim leaders who wanted to liberate their societies from the yoke of foreign rule briefly flirted with the idea of working with the communists. Two examples can be cited here. The first was Enver Pasha, who had in 1918 launched the “Army of Islam,” ostensibly to help liberate the Muslims from the Russian Empire. After the communists came to power, this Turkish Muslim settled in Moscow that had by then emerged as the new center of anti-imperialism. In 1921, he presided over a Congress of the Union of Islamic Revolutionary Societies in Berlin and Rome. This attempt at revolutionary Islam failed. Enver Pasha, who was sent to Central Asia to help the newly installed communist regime, changed sides and became a part of the Muslim nationalist campaign against Russian rule. He was killed in 1922 fighting the Red Army. Another example is the case of Sultan Galiev, the Tartar schoolmaster who worked with Stalin at the Commissariat of Nationalities in 1918 and conceived the idea of revolutionary international colonial peoples independent of the Comintern. He was arrested in 1923 for “nationalist deviations” and disappeared in a later purge (Lewis, op.cit.).

The Impact of the Iranian Revolution

The eruption of the Iranian Revolution, and the manner in which it changed the course of world history, has received the attention of many authors. Not much, however, has been written on the impact of the Revolution on Muslim thought on cultural diversity. In the following pages, we examine the impact of the revolution and the manner in which Muslims and non-Muslims have come to view the changes resulting from this redirection of Western support. The other development was the new phenomenon of “re-ethnification of the Arab-Iranian relations.” By re-ethnification I mean the propagandistic misuse of the Battle of Qadisiyah by President Saddam Hussein and his Baathist collaborators in the Arab world. Sensing the potentials of the Iran Revolution as a source of inspiration and subversion in the Muslim world, and determined to join forces with any and every powerful group to contain this threat, the Iraqi and Gulf states found in Sunnism a new weapon to bash the Iranian revolutionaries. This strategy of the Arab supporters of the Iraqis again drove a wedge between Shiites and Sunnis. Soon the bridges constructed by the earlier euphoria about the Iranian Revolution began to crumble into the sea of charges and countercharges.

The third point focuses on the revolution and the treatment of local minorities. Under the Shah, the religious minorities fared well. This was particularly true for the Bahais. Many Iranians would now concede that the Shah was very generous to the Bahais. This act of generosity was sometimes seen negatively by Muslim Iranians who saw the invisible hand of the Bahais in virtually every major event in their country. This resentment of the Bahais, which goes back to the rise of this new religion in Iran in the last century, affected the Muslim view of cultural diversity. The Bahais were treated by the Shah’s regime as just one community out of many seeking religious space in Iran. Under the Shah’s modernization program, the Bahais and the Muslim majority were supposed to live under one political roof. Iranian law was supposed to accord equal treatment to all and sundry.

The Iranian Revolution changed the whole political and religious equation for the Bahais. Seen as heretical by the Islamic revolutionaries and branded as collaborators with the external enemy, the Bahais were dismissed as unfit to receive the kind of treatment given to ahl al-kitab (People of the Book). Since their leader was a renegade Muslim who claimed to be the Messiah and the Mahdi simultaneously, the new religious leadership in Iran changed their lot by rearranging the rights and privileges of citizens living under the Islamic Republic. Contrary to the claims by Bahais in the United States of America, the Bahais in Iran are not totally disenfranchised. However, one should hasten to add that their lives are not as secured as in the days of the Shah.

Again, when we look at the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Muslim thought on cultural diversity, one quickly realizes that the success of the revolution has created new opportunities for religious entrepreneurs to pit one sect against the other. This polarization process has reached dangerous proportions in the subcontinent, especially in Pakistan, where newspapers report daily killings. Sunnis and Shiites now hunt each other as fair game. This act of terror has now threatened not only the future of the Pakistani state but the unity of the Pakistani people. The glue that kept the Pakistanis united for the last fifty years is being eroded by the resurgence of sectarian and ethnic allegiances. A review of Pakistani history shows that the leaders of the Muslim League were drawn from various sects of Islam. The first leader of Pakistan was a Muslim but from the Ismaili subgroup. A Qadiani served as Foreign Minister in the early days of Pakistan without much opposition from the majority Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Pakistan. Since the Iranian Revolution and the rise of protagonists and antagonists of the revolution, Muslim societies such as Pakistan and Lebanon have seen new forces and new faces in the circle of leadership in their countries. These groups, one can assert, have come up with their own interpretations of the Muslim experience and are now opposed to one another in the name of Islam. This extremist interpretation of Islam and its heritage in the Middle East has become most violent and most deadly in the hands of the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Conclusions

In concluding this study, we must summarize the major points developed in the body of this paper. [Many] conclusions can be made from the arguments and points raised throughout this text. The first conclusion is that the original Muslim formulation on the nature of human identity has undergone transformations not only because of the lapses in Muslim judgements and behavior but also in the Muslim attempts at emulating other cultural forms and patterns developing around the globe. The second conclusion is that the age known to European historians as the Age of Discovery created the psychological and political climate that violated the rights of the native peoples of the world. The third conclusion is that the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century presented, and has continued to present, humanity with new and unforeseeable challenges that have either crippled the defenders of religion or have rearranged their ways of life to such a degree that the idols of the market have now replaced the old idols of the gods. The fourth conclusion is that the colonization of the world by peoples of European descent has changed radically the human view of physical space and the philosophy of ownership. The Lockean notion of ownership by simply mixing one’s labor with the soil has replaced if not displaced the old communal views of property ownership. The fifth conclusion is that the expansion of Europe into the Americas and beyond has led to the conflation of color, creed, and culture into one metaphysical category. The genocidal liquidation of the native peoples of the Americas and Australia has affected the Muslims and others who were not part of the Judeo-Christian World. The sixth conclusion is that the rise of European nationalism has affected Muslim lands and peoples to such an extent that they too are bitten by the bug of territorial nationalism, and that the fratricidal wars that have erupted across their borders over the last decades are living proofs of the dangerousness of demotic or territorial nationalism. The seventh conclusion of this study is that the ideological contest between the communist movement and the capitalist world created conditions and circumstances that militated against any independent Muslim exercise of critical self-definition. What is being suggested here is that the Cold War distorted Muslim sentiments and polarized Muslims as they offered their friendship with one or the other of the two Superpowers. The eighth conclusion is that the rise of the Iranian Revolution opened the floodgates of Muslim solidarity for a brief period after the 1979 historic event. Related to this conclusion is the point that the Iran-Iraq War solidified the wall of sectarian separation that tumbled following the overthrow of the Shah. The ninth conclusion is that the Muslim world has new challenges and opportunities to deal with in the realm of cultural anthropology and political anthropology of its societies. Its ability to do better in the next century will depend greatly on the vision of its leaders and on the reformulation of its philosophy of group relations within the historical framework of Islam.

© 1999 by Sulayman Nyang


Colorado College’s 125th Anniversary Symposium Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts and Convergences Delivered at Colorado College on February 4, 1999 at 7:30 PM
in a discussion forum entitled “The Islamic World.”