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Karen Armstrong – September 11th 2001, Islam and the West

Karen Armstrong argues that there is no inherent incompatibility between the Western and Islamic world, but sees economic and political factors as the main reasons for increasing tensions in recent decades.

Armstrong’s arguments can be used to criticise Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civlizations’ thesis, which sees increasing conflict between different cultures/ religions as an inevitable outcome of globalisation brining ‘incompatible’ civilizations into closer contact with each other.

Islam and the failure of modernisation

Armstrong points out that in the late 19th and early 20th century, most Muslim intellectuals looked up to the process of modernisation occurring in the West at that time, and wanted Islamic countries to become more like Britain and France.

Some Islamic scholars even claimed that Britain and France were more Islamic than Islamic countries: Islam advocates the sharing of resources, and there was a trend towards this in so countries in early 20th Europe.

Armstrong characterises modernisation as consisting of:

  1. Technological evolution moving countries beyond being agricultural, and making people less dependent on nature.
  2. Increasing productivity and innovation.
  3. Higher levels of education for the general populace. 
  4. Greater inclusion of people from diverse religious backgrounds
  5. The development of the ‘modern spirit’ which involves more people engaging in politics, science and intellectual pursuits more generally.

Western imperialism and human rights

Western countries occupied most Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. There were attempts to introduce democracy in many countries, the historical record of Western occupation of Muslim countries has not exactly been conducive to ‘positive modernisation’ –

in many countries, the West backed autocratic leaders when it suited them (in return for access to oil supplies for example) and these leaders tended to deprive people of their human rights, suppressing freedom of speech for example.

In Iran for example, the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was installed in power in 1953 in a coup supported by the American and British. He was a particularly ruthless leader who ordered a massacre in Tudeh Square in 1978 in which nearly 900 people were killed. He was overthrown the year after in the famous Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Then in 1979 In Iraq, the British and Americans supported the installation of Saddam Hussein as a dictator, because he was hostile to Iran.

A further effect of Western occupation was to increase divisions and inequalities: money derived from British oil companies for example tended to go to the minority of autocrats, and very little trickled down to the ordinary people. In fact there is something of a history of exploitation of poor workers by wealthy corporations operating in Islamic countries.

In Iran for example, the British and then the Americans backed the Pahlavi shahs as dictatorial leaders. These turned out to be particular

The Causes of Fundamentalism

Armstrong argues that the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism is a reaction against the nationalist and secularist ideologies imposed on them by the West, which basically failed the average citizen in Muslim countries.

Fundamentalists believe they are fighting for their survival against a Western Imperialism that wants to wipe out Islam from existence.

Future Prospects:

Armstrong believes that there is no reason why Islam cannot co-exist with the West, because most Muslims are not Fundamentalists and there is plenty of room for interpreting Islam as ‘being all about peace’.

Like Lowkey does in this video:

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Armstrong isis thus more optimistic about the prospect of peaceful co-existence between religions when compared with Huntington.

Sources:

Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

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The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington sees ‘civilizations’ as the most significant grouping in global society, rather than ‘nation states’, or ‘global religions’, although there are often close relationships between religions and Huntington’s concept of ‘civilizations’.

Globalization has resulted in the world becoming a smaller place, which means that there are increasing interactions between ‘civilizations’, which intensifies ‘civilization consciousness’.

According to Huntington, increasing contact between civilizations often has the effect of emphasising differences rather than similarities, which can cause an increasing amount of conflict in the world.

What are ‘Civilizations’?

For Huntington, civilizations are ‘cultural entities’ differentiated from each other by history, language, cultural traditions and, most importantly, religion.

clash civilizations.png

Huntington distinguishes between the following different civilizations, as represented in the map above.

  • Western
  • Confucian
  • Japanese
  • Islamic
  • Hindu
  • Slavic-Orthodox
  • Latin American
  • African (possibly)

As Huntington sees is, sources of identity which are not based on religion have declined. Political identities matter less since the collapse of communism, and increasing international travel has weakened national identity, ‘civilizational identity’, based mainly on religion has stepped in to fill the gap.

Clashes between civilizations

To back up his argument, Huntington points to the fact that there are many conflicts on the borders between civilizations:

  • The former Yugoslavia between Orthodox Christian and Muslim civilizations.
  • In the Middle East between Judaism, Islam and Western Christianity.
  • In India the clash between Muslims and Hindus.

Huntington believes that there will increasingly be clashes between civilizations, because these identities are based mainly on ethnicity and religion, and thus foster an ‘us and them’ type of identity.

Increasingly, political leaders will draw on ‘civilization identity’ in order to try and mobilize support, as with The Islamic State claiming Muslims should unite against ‘Western civilizations’.

Religion as a more significant cause of conflict…

Huntington is one of the few academics of religion who argue against the secularisation thesis. He believes that civilizations, based mostly on religious identity, will become an increasingly important source of conflict in the future.

At the moment, Western civilization is dominant, however, as the ‘Islamic’ and ‘Hindu’ civilisations develop more potent nuclear capabilities (Pakistan, India) and as the world shrinks further, this dominance is likely to decrease, which opens the possibility for more serious conflicts.

Huntington further argues that there is no chance of a world culture developing because civilization identity is so strong.

Evaluation

  • I’m not convinced there is any real empirical basis for Huntington’s ‘fault-lines’.
  • Even if there is some empirical basis for his civilizations, I’m convinced that religion is going to remain that important as a source of identity within each of them: the global trend, as in the West, is still towards secularisation.

Sources

Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition eight.

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The causes of Fundamentalism

Steve Bruce argues that the main causes of Fundamentalism are modernisation and secularisation, but we also need to consider the nature of the religions themselves and a range of ‘external factors’ to fully explain the growth of fundamentalist movements.

Modernisation has undermined religion in at least three ways:

  • Social life has become separated from religious life (linked to the process of differentiation)
  • Rationalisation means that people are more likely to seek scientific explanations for behaviour rather than religious explanations
  • Bruce argues that in certain societies ‘religious traditionalist’ feel as if their way of life is under threat, and so they take steps to defend their traditions against the erosive influence of modernisation.

However, Bruce also argues that the existence of a group of traditionalists who feel threatened is not sufficient to explain the rise of Fundamentalism, a number of other factors are also important:

Other factors which explain the rise of religious fundamentalism:

Bruce argues that the following factors make it more likely that Fundamentalism will emerge:

  1. Where there is ‘ideological cohesion’ – around a single God and/ or sacred text for example. Fundamentalism seems to be stronger in Christianity and Islam, not so strong in Hinduism and Buddhism.
  2. When there is a common enemy to unite against – Bruce notes that Islamic Fundamentalism is often united against the USA.
  3. Lack of centralised control (ironically) – It might be that Catholicism has not developed fundamentalist strains because the Pope and the Vatican tightly control dissenters. However in Protestant Christianity and Islam, there is more freedom for individuals on the fringes to claim to have found a ‘more authentic’ and fundamentalist interpretation of those religions.
  4. The existence of marginalised individuals facing oppression – Fundamentalism needs recruits, and if a Fundamentalist group emerges with claims that it can provide a better life for people if they just adhere to the faith, it is more likely to grow
  5. Bruce further argues that the nature of Fundamentalism is shaped by how the political institutions deal with Fundamentalist movements: where they are blocked access to political representation, movements are more likely to turn to violence.

Further Analysis

Bruce argues that both the external factors above and religious beliefs themselves are important in explaining the rise of Fundamentalism.

He also points out that the specific histories of Christianity and Islam have affected the way the see politics. Christianity spent much of its early life as an obscure sect, on the political fringes, so is more concerned with ‘day to day’ (non-political) life, whereas Islam quickly came to dominate states in its early history – thus Islam is more concerned with politics than Christianity.

Bruce also argues that the nature of religion affects the way Fundamentalism is expressed – Christianity tends to emphasise the importance of belief, while Islam emphasises the importance of actions, thus Islam is more likely to develop violent forms of fundamentalism compared to Christianity.

Finally, Bruce argues that Fundamentalism has no chance of succeeding in the West, but it might in the less developed regions of the world.

Sources

Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

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Nawal El Saadawi: The Hidden Face of Eve

In The Hidden Face of Eve (1980), Nawal El Saadawi considers the role of religion in perpetuating female oppression in the Arab World. She offers an Egyptian Feminist perspective on the role of religion and thus broadens our understanding away from the typically white female voices of feminism.

El Saadawi.pngEl Saadawi is a women’s rights activist, who has herself experienced oppression within Egypt. She has campaigned vigorously for women’s rights in the Arab world and has been imprisoned for her activism.

She was forced to undergo female circumcision as a young girl, without any warning or explanation and points out that male violence against women within the family is common in many Arab cultures. Young females are frequently the victims of violence at the hands of their fathers, uncles or brothers. In addition, women are also victims of forced prostitution and slavery which provide further evidence of patriarchal dominance of Arab men over Arab women.

However, despite the prevalence of female oppression across the Islamic world, El Saadawi does not believe that female oppression is caused by Islam.

She points out that male female oppression exists in many non-Islamic cultures and is in fact just as common in Christian cultures. A classic example of this is in the 14th century when the Catholic Church declared that women who treated those who were ill, without special training, could be executed as witches.

(Possibly our fixation with the oppression of women in Islamic cultures is a result of a broader anti-Islamic prejudice?)

For El Saadawi, the oppression of women is caused by ‘the patriarchal system which came into being when society had reached a certain stage of development’. It just so happened that Islam developed in those areas of the world which already had extremely patriarchal social structures. Over the centuries, Islamic doctrine was thus shaped by men and reflected their interests, with women’s voices being effectively unheard in this process.

Ultimately, El Saadawi believes that where religion evolves within patriarchal cultures, men distort religion to act in their own interests and to help justify their own privilege and the oppression of women.

The Origins of Oppressive Religion

El Saadawi argues that religion became patriarchal through the misinterpretation of religious beliefs by men.

She uses the Greek myth of Isis and Osiris as an example of this in which the evil Touphoun overpowers the male Osiris. His body is cut into small pieces and dispersed in the sea, and fish eats his sexual organ.

To El Saadawi, this story clearly implies female superiority, but men have interpreted it quite differently. They have emphasised the superiority of Osiris because he was created from the head of the god Zeus, who was greater than Osiris, according to Homer and other writers, because he was more knowledgeable.

However, the above is a narrow interpretation which conveniently leaves out the next link in the ‘creation chain’: all male gods were created by or given the ability to move by the greatest deity of them all, the goddess Isis.

Similar distortions have entered the story of Adam and Eve. Males usually portray Eve as a temptress who created sin in the world. However, if we read the original story as described in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to see clearly that Eve was gifted with knowledge, intelligence and superior mental capacities, whereas Adam was only one of her instruments, utilized by her to increase her knowledge and give shape to her creativity.

Monotheistic Religions and Female Oppression

El Saadawi argues that forms of religion that were oppressive to women developed as monotheistic religions (believing in a single god). Such religions were interpreted in the context of patriarchal societies, primarily by men. For example, male representatives of early Judaism interpreted Abraham as a patriarchal figure which served to justify the patriarchal family in which wives and children came to be under the uncontested power of the father.

Islam similarly developed patriarchal doctrines because it was established in the context of a patriarchal social structure: Authority in Islamic society belonged ultimately to the political ruler (the Khalifa) or the religious leader (the Imam), and then down through a small male minority who had power due to their ownership of herds of horses, camels and sheep, and finally down to the level of the lifeworld via the male head of household.

As a result, the enforcement of many laws in Islamic culture remains highly unequal. For example:

  • Although the Qur’an states that both men and women can be stoned to death for adultery, this fate rarely befalls men.
  • Men are permitted many wives, but women are not permitted many husbands
  • Husbands can divorce their wives instantaneously.

Fighting back against religions which oppress women

El Saadawi concludes that female oppression is not essentially due to religion, but due to the patriarchal system that has long been dominant. She is not hostile to religion, but only to the domination of religion by patriarchal ideology.

‘The great religions of the world uphold similar principles in so far as the submission of women to men is concerned. They also agree in the attribution of masculine characteristics to their God. Islam and Christianity have both constituted important stages inn the evolution of humanity. Nevertheless, where the cause of women was concerned, they added a new load to their already heavy chains. (El Saadawi,1980.)

She believes that the only way for women to free themselves from oppression is to themselves fight for their own liberation.

Thankfully, there is a long tradition of religious radicals doing precisely this, probably the best-known example being Jesus Christ himself who El Saadawi describes as a revolutionary leader who opposed oppression. She also points out that early Christianity tended to have codes which enforced the equal treatment of men and women.

Finally, El Saadawi believes that revolutions are generally beneficial to women and so can thus be regarded as a Marxist Feminist as much as a Radical Feminist.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn 8th edition 2013

Find out More

El Saadawi (2015) The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (new edition)