Ismail Serageldin


Liberating the Muslim Mind: Towards a Muslim Renaissance


 I. The World Today

Global Contradictions

Consider the paradox of our times. We live in a world of plenty, of dazzling scientific advances and technological breakthroughs. Adventures in cyberspace are at hand. The Cold War is over, and with that we were offered the hope of global stability. Yet, our times are marred by conflict, violence, debilitating economic uncertainties and tragic poverty. Now so many of the rich want to turn their backs on the poor. Selfish concerns seem to displace enlightened self interest, for we are all our brother’s keeper and we are all downwind or downstream of each other. This is more than ever a time for a united front of the caring.

The World is in the grip of profound contradictory tendencies. The forces of globalization and homogenization are definitely at work, while the assertion of specificity—ethnic, religious or cultural—is also powerfully present in almost all societies.

Globalization is driven by the growing interdependence of the world's national economies, and the integration of the financial and telecommunications markets. The political boundaries that divide the sovereign nation states have become permeable to the ethereal commerce of ideas as well as funds.

A second forceful presence for the increased global consciousness is the environmental movement, which seeks to remind all humans that they are stewards of this earth.

A third force, significantly strengthened by the end of the Cold War, is the universal drive for the respect of Human Rights. A related and powerful aspect of which is the rise of feminism and gender consciousness, for an essential ingredient of any true conception of human rights is that these must apply to all human beings.

A fourth force is the emergence of what I would call the international civil society. Such groups as Amnesty International and WWF highlight the nature of global citizenship, and reinforce bonds of caring and responsibility across political boundaries.

And yet, the local forces in practically every society assert themselves, seeking greater voice and greater power. This is on the whole a very healthy development. But the downside of this phenomenon is the emergence of hateful petty nationalism that transform the rightful call for identity and participation into a call for hating your neighbor and ultimately even "ethnic cleansing".

Equally global, are the increasing inequities between societies and within societies. Insecurity fueled by structural unemployment and rising birthrates is the lot of the poor in every society. The loss of a heritage and a sense of place as pollution, poverty and urban chaos destroy the environment, robs a new generation of the opportunities to create a better world beyond mere shelter. The citizens of the world, generally, and the Muslim world specifically, face the large, the new, the unknown, and feel profoundly insecure.

There is none of the optimism that once placed unbounded confidence in technology, and there is very real cynicism about the ability of governments to create utopia. In a word, there is a growing sense of unpredictability about the future. Under these circumstances, people tend to regress: if the future cannot be clearly defined as the goal, one lives for the present. If the present is troublesome and disconcerting, one falls back onto the past. The past here means one's ethnic or religious or cultural or national roots. It is a drawing closer of the circle within which one can feel secure. A regression back to the concept of tribe and clan.

The Muslim societies of today are the crucible of all these competing forces. They want to define themselves in terms of the present and the future, retaining their links to their heritage but without remaining captives of the past. In so doing they are confronting the dominant, hegemonic constructs of hyper–mediated western societies, that are blithely setting the global agenda from world trade to consumer taste. The images of those western societies seem as pervasive as their discourse.

Many in the Muslim world -- as in many developing countries -- fear the spread of this "westernization", and seek refuge in a mythified image of the past. This is incapable of articulating a language that can respond to the needs of the Muslim societies of today. Paradoxically, as Henry Gates of Harvard has observed, this is happening while the “western” societies themselves are increasingly insecure in their own value systems and fear the “browning of the west”.

Precisely because the Muslim world confronts these same forces in an acute form, it has the opportunity to rise to those challenges and make a contribution not just to the next Muslim generation but to the world at large. Indeed, if we fail to make that contribution, the world will be the poorer for our failure.

I will not cite statistics or talk of economic development. I want to talk about the need to liberate the Muslim mind, for it is in our minds that the new Muslim renaissance will be created. It is the responsibility of the intellectuals, all of us, throughout the Muslim world, to liberate our minds from the fear of intolerant fanaticism or state despotism, from the shackles of political correctness or the insecurities of being disconnected from a rapidly evolving world. We must liberate the Muslim mind so that we can soar, take in from the new and make it our own.

That, my friends, is the true revolution, creating a new order of things. It is very difficult. For centuries we have known that … “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies, all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new” (Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI).

But it is our destiny to have been here at this time, and we must try. For it is better to try and fail than to have failed to try. And the first thing we must try to break is that sterile, tired and tiresome debate about “Modernity and Tradition.”

II. The Muslim World: Between Past and Future

Modernity and Tradition

This hackneyed "Modernity vs. Tradition" debate has overwhelmed our lives. In practically every forum dealing with contemporary Muslim societies, someone can always be counted on to frame the issues under discussion in the form of a dichotomous relationship between "Tradition" (usually presented as harmonious and wonderful) and "Modernity" (usually presented as alienating, dehumanizing, and awful). Someone can also be counted on to immediately reverse the dichotomy, arguing that Muslim societies cannot live in the past and that modernity (here presented as science, technology, and progress) is the future.

I believe that this debate is not only technically and critically flawed (if not outright wrong), but that it is also highly unproductive and even counterproductive. The debate is unproductive because it usually leads to endless repetition and the marshaling of ever more examples and highly selective anecdotal evidence to buttress the a priori positions. The debate is also counter-productive because it tends to raise passions and make critical rational discourse even more difficult than it already is.

That this debate is technically flawed derives from the simplistic reductionism implicit in the dichotomous position. As if the rich tapestry representing the historical experience of the many societies that make up the Muslim world could be reduced to a single "tradition" (or traditional position in the debate), or that modernity -- a complex, evolving concept that is highly relative and intertwined with contemporaneity -- could be conveniently circumscribed into a single definable reality applicable from Mauritania to Indonesia and from Somalia to Central Asia.

It is also critically flawed because it does not use the tools of criticism to expand our understanding of the issues involved. Without such an expanded understanding we are unlikely to progress beyond the repetitious, sterile litanies of this tired and tiresome debate.

So let us, at least for once, set it aside.

Let us instead, talk of method and approach.

Let us recognize that the claims of cultural specificity that would deprive women of their basic human rights, or mutilate them in the name of convention, should not be given sanction, especially by those who, like myself, are proud of their Arab and Muslim identity and do not want to see the essence of that tradition debased by such claims.

Let us recognize that no society has progressed without making a major effort at empowering its women, through education and the end of discrimination.

This is not “tradition” that is being defended, it is a distorted form of political pseudo-theological “inquisition” that is being proposed, that would limit the freedoms of the non-Muslim minorities and would circumscribe the Muslim majority within the confines of dogmas articulated by a tiny minority.

We need to respect tradition and integrate it into the present and use it as a foundation for launching a better future. We need to fashion a critical approach that interprets tradition in contemporary terms, just as the great jurists such as al-Shafei did in their day.

Indeed we need to create a new discourse, and that new discourse, critical, open and tolerant of the contrarian view, will be the basis for the creation of a mode of cultural expression. A new language that permeates the arts, letters and the public realm, that incorporates the new but anchors it in the old.

A new language, where in the words of T.S. Eliot ...

Every phrase and sentence is right

When every word is at home

Taking its place to support the others

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious

An easy commerce of the old and the new

The common word exact without vulgarity

The formal word precise but not pedantic

The complete consort dancing together

Every phrase and every sentence

is an end and a beginning....

Who will do this? Who will create this new language? It is the intellectual.

The intellectual ... an ... “individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. ... someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them)...”

The Evolving Role of the Muslim Intellectual

There is a need for the intellectuals to maintain a critical posture towards society generally and power specifically. That is how they command the legitimacy to create a climate of thought that permeates a culture. That is how they can maintain the moral consistency that gives them credibility. The moral consistency that recognizes the indivisibility of basic human rights, the need to defend the freedoms of others we disagree with. It is here that the sense of values comes to the fore. While celebrating the specificity of the Arab, Turkish, Persian or Indonesian culture or highlighting the unique qualities of the Muslim heritage, I can see them as our contribution to the larger universal heritage of humanity, an essential contribution that enriches the whole of humanity and shapes its universal values.

It is a contribution without which the world would be much poorer.

To do this, the contemporary Muslim intellectuals, in all societies, must create the space of freedom necessary for the articulation of the mirrors and windows that shape the boundaries of our minds where the “us” ends and the “them” begins. That is how culture is defined.

Culture involves a whole climate of opinion within society. In today’s world the thoughts of Newton, Darwin, Freud, Adam Smith and Marx--if not also Einstein, Russell, Keynes, and Sartre--permeate the collective consciousness of the west, and by extension the rest of the world. The boundaries of accepted, conventional wisdom, is defined by the main thrust of these thoughts without people necessarily thinking in terms of attributing particular thoughts to particular thinkers.

In the Muslim world we saw a similar transformation of thought in the first half of this century. From Muhammad Abduh to Taha Husain to Iqbal to Fazlur Rahman to Fyzee to so many others who have shaped our collective consciousness and defined the boundaries of our discourse. Critical intellectuals all.

The climate they created was, on the whole, open, forward looking and tolerant of debate, seeing the search for “truth” as an ongoing process not a given finality. But it was a culture that, in many countries, did not fully permeate the totality of society and its world view. Counter-currents, including those who tried to prosecute Taha Husain were there. This fragility was to prove disastrous for the Muslim world. These same currents are the ones persecuting Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid today.

The second half of the century saw a different evolution. In many countries the intellectuals accepted, nay promoted, the tutelage of the State as the agent of social change. They participated in suppressing the views of those that they disagreed with. In so doing, the intellectuals have legitimated the loss of liberty, free inquiry and the right to criticize. The Faustian bargain between the intellectuals and the State has created a loss of credibility and linked the intellectuals to the fortunes of the State--a State that became increasingly intolerant of dissent. A Ste that in many countries failed to deliver on the promise of an improved standard of living for many of the citizens, and failed to offer youth a vision of a future where they would have a place in the sun.

Geopolitical factors also entered into the equation. The States in the Middle East have been subjected to a large number of setbacks, and the militant opposition increasingly took the form of a militant, fanatical Islam. All out war between the State and the militant Islamic opposition became a fact of life in many of these countries.

Yet the excesses of intolerance from some militants’ assassinations of writers, editors and musicians attributed to Muslim groups; and State abuses of human rights, have raised awareness among the intellectuals, the nascent civil society and the public at large of the imperative to liberate both mind and tongue. The intellectuals are once again reclaiming their critical posture, their independence and their moral consistency.

So today, we come together, to confront our shortcomings and celebrate our strengths more aware than ever of our responsibility to be the artisans of the climate necessary for the new Renaissance of our societies.

III. Inventing the Future

The Muslim Reality Today

The Muslim world, or what could be more appropriately called the world of the Muslim societies of today, is a world that generally remains economically disadvantaged and is made up predominantly of poorer developing countries, heavily weighted by the populations of South and South-East Asia. It is mostly rural, although urbanization is accelerating at a rate unparalleled since the Industrial Revolution. It is also a world of extremes. In size, its nations range from Bahrain, at 1,000 km² to the S.5 million km² of Sudan; in population from the 524,000 of Qatar to close to 190 million in Indonesia, in per capita income from the miserable average of the equivalent of around $200 annually in Bangladesh, Chad and Somalia (which are among the poorest countries in the world) to over $20,000 annual income in Kuwait, Brunei, and the United Arab Emirates (which are the richest countries in the developing world), using the same criteria.

This world is, then, sometimes rich but mostly poor, and for many millions of its citizens, perhaps as many as one-third of the population, many of whom are children, are caught up in a condition of life so limited by malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, brief life-expectancy and high infant mortality, as to be beneath any rational definition of human decency. This Muslim world is young, with about half the population under twenty-five years of age. It is growing rapidly and could reach as high a number as 1,200 million by the end of the century. Many of these people will live in very poor households crammed into cities already filled to overflowing - the Jakartas, Karachis, Teherans, Cairos and Lagoses of the Muslim world.

The Muslim world which I have described is, therefore, a world which is still quite poor. The glossy image projected by the new architecture of a few countries should not be allowed to obscure this fact. It is not surprising that these societies seem to be drifting without purpose, as they navigate their way through a period of unprecedented transition. This sense of a lack of purpose, being at the mercy of external forces, and being caught between a vanishing past and an uncertain future, has generated undercurrents of tension, and indeed, open conflict. This has placed a burden of stress on the social fabric that is in direct proportion to the stress that may be identified in individual communities and the lives within them.

Although such forces have reached different levels of intensity and impact in various nations and regions of the Muslim world, few, if any, have escaped the consequences. Change, rather than stability, is thus the key factor in Muslim societies today, and even greater change can be anticipated in the future.

Change cannot be dealt with by those locked into the past or those unwilling to deal with the new. It must be dealt with by those who can be bold enough to face the reality of their world, the outside global context within which it exists and who are armed with their tradition and a deep understanding of themselves, and who remain open to the Other. This will require that we liberate the Muslim mind from the confines of political correctness and narrow literalism.

Liberating the Muslim Mind

If I focus so much on ideas and the role of the intellectuals it is because I believe that that which is, existed before as an idea. That which will be, must also be first imagined.

We are, by our thoughts, even at this very moment, inventing the future in the crucible of our minds.

But the intellectuals are not alone in this task of inventing the future. There are others, which I more broadly call the intelligentsia, who by their actions or inaction, can be stifling or supporting the creative role of the intellectuals.

The intelligentsia, which I here define as the academics, the scholars, the media, the decision-makers and the role models. All those who by word and deed create mirrors in which we see ourselves, and the windows through which we see the world.

Do these mirrors show us victims, objects of hate, the instruments of god on earth, or the chosen people, or those with manifest destiny? These mirrored images of the self cannot but affect our behavior.

But they also create the windows through which we see the world. It can be a hostile world out to destroy us, or it can be a world full of promise and opportunities. These windows define our attitude towards the “other”.

It is this combination of mirrors and windows that creates the boundaries in our minds, the boundaries where the “us” ends and the “them” begins.

This view of the self and the other is at the heart of the intolerance and terrorism with which so many intellectuals live as a daily reality in so many countries today. WE need to create new mirrors and new windows more compatible with the contemporary realities of a rapidly changing world.

Liberating the Muslim mind from the narrow confines of past dogma, by returning to the spirit of Islam and its injunctions to read, to learn, to analyze and to reflect; liberating the Muslim mind to remember that the message of God was intended for all people; to remind ourselves that there is to be no coercion in religion, and no discrimination between people, that women and men are partners in creating the societies of the world, that we are stewards of this earth, and that we must live in harmony with our neighbors and our environment… that liberated Muslim mind will not only be the artisan of a new renaissance, it will soar to invent a better future for all Muslims and contribute to a better future for all of humanity.

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