The notion that there is some sort of “trouble with Islam” bears more than a passing resemblance to previous arguments about the Middle East.
Back in the good old days, Western scholars argued that the “trouble” was the absence of strong leaders in the Arab world who could build strong states, like Bismarck did when he built the German state in the late 19th century. But this argument completely ignored the material circumstances of attempting to build modern states that could serve as vehicles of capital accumulation in a world already dominated by European colonialism.
In the 1820s, as the Ottoman Empire declined, Muhammad Ali attempted to transform Egypt into a “great power” with incursions into Palestine and Cyprus. Metternich, that great European statesman, complained that Ali was “trying to be like us” and called on European powers to crush him. Within a decade Ali’s plans were scuppered by colonial intervention and Egypt was transformed into a debtor state. It is curious to have long discussions about the absence of an Arab Bismarck without mentioning that for 200 years Western states smashed anyone who looked remotely like an Arab Bismarck.
Today, without a great deal of explanation, we are suddenly confronted with similar arguments about the Arab world that misrepresent philosophical history rather than political history. We are supposed to believe that all the troubles of the Middle East are due to philosophical problems to do with Islam, namely the absence of an Islamic Enlightenment. Neil’s article fails to criticise such attempts to write Western imperialism out of world history.
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were not just intellectual events. They were linked to massive social struggles stretching from the 13th century to the 19th. And there is ample evidence of similar struggles in the Islamic world.What might have happened in Europe if, at the end of this process, much of it was occupied by foreign powers and the rest subordinated to the needs of a rapacious imperialism? Perhaps we’d be hearing stories about our circular history when contrasted to the smooth linear history produced by Islamic civilisation.
Apparently materialist discussions that attempt to root contemporary political, cultural and economic inequalities in medieval history are in fact idealist attempts to justify the hierarchical nature of the contemporary world produced by modern capitalism.
We need to focus on the rise of capitalism in order to understand the political turmoil in the Middle East and how the possibilities of both economic and intellectual development were crushed by colonialism in most of the world.
As one philosopher has recently remarked, calls for a return to 18th century Enlightenment in the 21st century recall not philosopher Immanuel Kant, but the ostrich.
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