Criticizing modernity and what it means for Islam

I’ve been reading “Progressive Muslims” by Omid Safi, and I came across a paragraph that captured what I’ve been studying recently.  A lot of what I learn revolves around critiques of modernity. I think this program has really opened my eyes to how the world we lived in has been colonized by Enlightenment ideals and concepts, to the extent that we automatically question anything that doesn’t fit that paradigm of thinking – even our own knowledges and cultures.

In crucial ways, being a progressive Muslim means being mindful and critical of the arrogance of modernity – an alleged teleology that posits a Hegelian, unidirectional, and inevitable march towards the end game of modern Western civilization.  Progressive Muslims no longer look toward the prevalent notion of Western modernity as something to be imitated and duplicated in toto. In fact, we direct our critique just as much to the West as to Muslim societies.

The West now claims to have a blueprint for what a successful nation should look like: freedom, democracy and free enterprise.  Not many people would argue against freedom and democracy, but many progressive Muslims would point out that the foreign policy of America is less than stellar in its support of democracy around the world. Time and time again, the US has supported and armed tyrannical rulers who have oppressed their own pro-democracy citizens (e.g. the US$1.5 billion given to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War).

As for free enterprise, where are the societies that have been wholly lifted out of poverty through free trade and free markets?  What about the growing divide between North and South, and the way globalization has been the rich super-rich and the super-poor even poorer?

I absolutely love the way Safi put this: free markets are detrimental to all of us (think of how there is growing inequality in the world and the credit crisis in the US); democracy (who defines democracy? why does the West support undemocratic countries when its in their own benefit and yet still lecture on and on about democracy?); and freedom (what is freedom? why are women in Europe not free to wear a face-veil?

Something I’ve learnt in the last few months is to question every single thing. Every single word needs to be critically looked at.  A good example: what is war? Why is Darfur a war and Iraq an “intervention”?  I love this quote:

‎African warlords wage wars whereas western democracies engage in ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the ‘spreading of democracy.’

Where we stand matters.  I will post on Foucalt later, because I think it would be very interesting to apply Foucalt to Islam and Islamic knowledge/authority!

What do you guys think of the idea that progressive Muslims need to be critical of the West, and not model themselves blindly according to Western ideals?

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14 thoughts on “Criticizing modernity and what it means for Islam

  1. I agree with you and Safi. I also think it’s important for those who are critical of progressive Muslims to realize that we aren’t trying to replace some supposed Islamic ideal with some kind of imagined, monolithic set of Western values. Part of being progressive is being a critical thinker, and that means critiquing all abuses of power, whether they originate in Islam or in the West or elsewhere.

  2. Many years ago my muslim friends said that islam was to blame for the muslim worlds decline. I think that the so called progressive muslims are blinded by the successes of the western world, they dont realise what mess the world is in. The USA helps banks to survive, but lets the small people who pay the taxes and the banks without help.
    In Europe we have almost every day demonstrations and protests by EU citizens because of the banks. Here in sweden the state helped banks in 92 with tax money, after a while we saw the same CEOs who drove the banks down, getting bonuses..

    The talk about democracy and so forth is just to trick the simpleminded..whenever i oppose anyone here in sweden i hear i dont belong in Sweden, the same people always complaint over islam and muslims because we are against freedom of speech. So i have to leave sweden because i dont agree to their views..yeah democracy my foot..

    I think you would like a series that is called Arrivals on youtube..it is a conspiracy series but some of the points they take up are useful

    • I think many progressive Muslims are critical of western ideals and do not want to emulate western values, as Safi points out in his book.
      But yes, there are a few who feel copying the west is the best way to move forward. Safi brings up modernists such as Muhammad Abduh, for whom the west was an ideal to strive towards. I certainly don’t feel that way, although I think there are things in the west we can use, just like the west has been borrowing from Islamic traditions for centuries now.

    • Wow, this is a surprise! 😀 Welcome to the blog…
      Thank you for the links, I will definitely check them out.
      And thanks for editing such an amazing book – it has really influenced the way I approach Islam.

  3. “What do you guys think of the idea that progressive Muslims need to be critical of the West, and not model themselves blindly according to Western ideals?”

    I think we need another qualifier there – the label should be ‘Western progressive Muslims.’ I have worked in several Muslim countries and have met many progressive Muslims who are from these countries and they ARE critical of the West (not unnecessarily but only when required). They are also critical of their own countries and their own people and religion when there is the need.

    But the problem is that we often compare West (a geographical place) or Western (a national identity or policy) with Islam (a religion). And perhaps that is the source of confusion for ‘Western progressive Muslims’ as well because, for example, I am a Western woman and I am Muslim but does that mean I *should* be critical of my Western identity? Maybe I don’t really have problems with my country’s ideals, for example, but because I am Muslim I am expected to have a problem and when I don’t I’m either a not-good-enough Muslim or am someone who is disillusioned by the West. This is a genuine issue because quite a few times Muslims have condemned me for not opposing France’s stance on the veil.

  4. I think even westerners need to start being self-critical, just as people in other countries are self-critical. For example, I feel it’s time for Americans to take responsibility for the Iraq war in terms of not really protesting against it the way people in other countries did. I think at the time of invasion a majority of Americans not only supported the war but somehow thought it was linked to 9/11…what? So in terms of power politics I think westerners need to start being more critical.

    “Maybe I don’t really have problems with my country’s ideals, for example, but because I am Muslim I am expected to have a problem and when I don’t I’m either a not-good-enough Muslim or am someone who is disillusioned by the West.”

    Yeah I can imagine that that gets annoying…I think for too many people such issues are black and white, when they shouldn’t be.

  5. “I feel it’s time for Americans to take responsibility for the Iraq war in terms of not really protesting against it the way people in other countries did.”

    Have you watched that YouTube video in which a person asks questions to Americans on the streets and they come up with the most stupid replies? Most don’t even know what is Islam! Some think Bin Laden is African. I think the US is such a huge country that the majority of the people there can’t think outside their own vast land. This is why they supported the invasions. I bet they sincerely thought it was related to 9/11 – whatever Bush says! 😀

    “I think even westerners need to start being self-critical, just as people in other countries are self-critical.”

    Amen!

    • As an American myself, let me clear some things up. We ALL supported the invasion because we were lied to. We were told by Bush that there were weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had and that we were being threatened with. The educated of us knew this had nothing to do with 9/11 but supported it due to the propaganda we were fed. Others of us tied it all together and supported the invasion simply because it was a Muslim country, therefore at fault.

      After finding out we were lied to, bamboozled and bullshitted, we protested heavily! We called for Bushes impeachment and prosecution for crimes against humanity.

      Alas, we are the minority in this “vast” land of ignorance and arrogance.

  6. “I think even westerners need to start being self-critical, just as people in other countries are self-critical. For example, I feel it’s time for Americans to take responsibility for the Iraq war in terms of not really protesting against it the way people in other countries did. I think at the time of invasion a majority of Americans not only supported the war but somehow thought it was linked to 9/11…what? So in terms of power politics I think westerners need to start being more critical.”

    I think a lot of the ways we ask Americans to speak for the west, is the same ways people ask Muslims to speak for Islam. I speak for only myself and my own views and opinions.

    Being more critical?!?!?! Hahaha!!! This is funny. The truth is that most “average” Americans are ignorant as hell when it comes to foreign policy and world issues. The average American does not think beyond their own town or city or state, let alone country. You are asking ignorance to not be ignorant. It is not going to happen.

    The minority DOES take responsibility, and that minority also lost the majority of seats in congress because the average American does not agree with our critique. They agree with tea party politics, patriotism and nationalism. How can you ask a group of people with these ideals to be a responsible global citizen.

    The answer: you can’t. They do not have those ideals and they do not share our values.

  7. Its because of the media in the USA. From childhood you are taught to love the USA and its policy, and when stations like Fox News are so big, its no wonder that their view on matters is spread to the vast majority in the USA.
    When i discuss with wahabis it reminds me of the ignorance amongst the americans. The wahabis always say you lie,even when i give them information from their own books..its becasue they have been programmed to avoid new information and only take information from their accepted leaders and channels, same goes for the americans.

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