Sociological Notes: The fall of the West and the rise of Islam

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AS THE second Christian millennium draws to a close, the West continues to be haunted by the stubborn presence of Islam. Its contemporary resurgence is not a myth, nor is it simple fundamentalism. The challenge posed by Islamic movements goes beyond debates about terrorism and nuclear proliferation, for what Islamists herald is the end of "the Age of Europe" and the limits of Westernisation. The presence of Islam ultimately questions the identity of what the West has been and will be.

Until recently, many people believed not only that in time we would discover answers to all the problems confronting humanity, but also that societies located on the western edge of the Asian land-mass were closest to finding those answers; there was a royal road to the good life and it was pioneered by the West.

Modernisation became Westernisation; when modernity had been given a concrete form it could be achieved only by drawing on examples from European cultural practices. All other societies and cultures had to do was follow the Western lead and they, too, could have the things that a life in the West entailed.

The notion that "the West is best" was also held by many people considered to be outside the pale of Western civilisation. Among Muslims this idea was most visibly put into practice by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the rump of the Ottoman Empire. In 1924 Kemal launched reforms that included abolishing the Caliphate, replacing Arabic script, and banning the hijab and the fez. Kemal had many imitators; the Muslim world that emerged in the wake of the European empires was ruled by men who believed that the universal and the Western were one.

This faith in Western supremacy began to be undermined by developments such as decolonisation and the Holocaust. The effects of these developments are often confusingly abbreviated as the post-modern condition - that is, a condition in which the West has been knocked off its central perch. This unravelling of the universal and the Western provides the context for the re-emergence of Islamism.

It is no coincidence that the crisis of Western identity is represented by the presence of Islam. Not only is Islam one of the key forces in contrast to which Western identity was first forged; it still seems to represent the past of Western history. Its rejection of secularism, and its attempt to articulate a culture centred on the notions of the Divine with its supposed intolerance and fanaticism, serve to suggest how Islam operates as a mirror of quality to it.

Islamism does not depend on the language of political protest that has been with us for the last 200 years. It does not promise a faster route to Westernisation; in its most radical form it simply stakes out its own path towards the good life, with its own notions of good and evil. Unravelling the link between the universal and the Western has created a space in which it is possible for different cultures to find different political vocabularies. In this sense it is more helpful to consider Islamism as opening a new horizon of ethical, cultural, political and social action, than as a name for a group of radical political movements. This is not to suggest that the Islamist will not disappoint, or inflict cruelties; no doubt they will suffer defeats as well as victories; no doubt they will retreat in places and advance in others. But as long as there are Muslims the promise and fear of Islamism will remain. In the end, for us Muslims, Islam is another name for the hope of something better.

Bobby Sayyid is author of `A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the emergence of Islamism' (Zed Books, pounds 12.95).