Viewpoint: Islam & Modernity


“Modernise or die” screamed an email we received a few months back at our offices. Though brutally put, the charge is not uncommon. Just as victims of rape are sometimes accused of “asking for it”, Muslims – the targets of amongst other things hate crime and legislative paranoia in the West, and despotism and dictatorship in the East – are deemed to warrant their plight because of their religious identity. Islam and its practice have become synonymous with self-imposed backwardness which needs modernity – aka Western philosophical and political progress to make its adherents acceptable members of society.

What could be wrong with that?

The overwhelming majority of refugees worldwide according to the UN are Muslim. Equal numbers are impoverished or imprisoned by cruel regimes. The case for modernity seems irresistible. Yet, there are problems aplenty.

Scepticism of the modern By asking whether Muslims should accept modernity, we simply assume that the average bearded or veiled adherents on the streets of our global village don’t want to be governed in ways that reflect their wishes. The Islamic mind is seen as static, stuck in the (European) Middle Ages that required the Enlightenment. This stereotype belies the returning of people worldwide to Islam, often having rejected the secular world, from Bosnia to Bangsamoro. For them Islam often means spiritual and political freedom. Their scepticism of the modern is not unique. The manufactured consent of Western democracies is not a great model for the West let alone elsewhere. Islamic scholars of earlier centuries provided the motor for the Renaissance from the arts to natural science and philosophy. The Islamic command to seek knowledge from cradle to grave, gainsays the notion that Muslims by definition refute learning.

Equal responsibility Post-modernists like Rorty and Foucault offer a critique of the neo-imperialism of modern discourses. Exponents of universal human rights like Michael Ignatieff acknowledge that everyone is entitled to choose the good life for themselves.

The question is not whether Muslims need to modernise, or how much they can learn from the West so much as whether we all need to find new, less confrontational ways towards progress.

Recognising that we are all equal partners in finding a way out of the global crisis is the challenge not so much for Muslims but those who wish to impose their version of the way forward on the rest of us.

 By: Arzu Merali.  Merali is one of the founders of IHRC.  First published on the BBC News website here.