TitleRethinking the Cordoba Paradigm

Rethinking the Cordoba Paradigm

29 Apr 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo
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The events in the Middle East have stirred up a sometimes acrimonious debate about Islam and the modern world. Some commentators in the West say the two are not compatible. Others, including many Muslims, ask why Islam lost the pre-eminence it once enjoyed as a civilization – and whether it can ever recapture some of its former glory. Muslims have responded to Western-style modernity in a variety of ways. Extremists like the Al Qaida group and the Taliban violently reject it. But for many intellectuals in the Middle East the challenge, the “mega-task” is to engage with modernity without sacrificing Muslim values. For them, the challenge for contemporary Muslim societies is to create their own modernity. This is a way to appreciate the contemporary world, use contemporary technologies, establish centers of science and learning, critique modernity and see how Muslim societies can be modern yet transform modernity from within.

Some Muslims argue that for Islam to embrace modernity, with its emphasis on reason, acquired knowledge, human rights and representative politics, would be to reclaim an Islamic heritage that has enriched humanity and contributed to its progress. But the Cordoba experience is not the path which is taken by the radical followers of Islam today. They view modernity with suspicion, seeing it not only as a Western concept which threatens Muslim values, but also as a sinister attempt by Western powers to dilute and weaken Islam. The closeness between the Muslim world and modernity is the nodal point around which the tensions are built. It is not the “clash” of distance, but on the contrary the closeness which is at the origin of anxiety. Islam, especially that of the Middle East, by its closeness to and ties with Europe– by means of geography, monotheism, voluntary modernization, colonization and immigration – reveals most dramatically the fear of sameness. Islamism is the conflictual expression of this involuntary yet close encounter with modernity. In other words, contemporary Islamism is based on a double movement and tension: antagonistic posture with modernity and ideologization of religion. Islamist discourse does not subscribe to the traditional interpretations of Islam. It operates as a sort of ideological amalgam between different schools of Islam, national cultures and popular customs. In radical Islamism it is activism and terrorism which provide or rather impose a new source of legitimacy for Islamic idiom. Who will decide what is licit and illicit in Islam? Who has the authority over the interpretation of religious texts? Who can give a “fatwa” and declare a “jihad”? These questions become all very problematic as Islamic traditions become an ideology in the hands of the radical Islamists.

The central question addressed to Islamists in particular and to the Muslim world in general is to know the ways in which they can come to terms with their own experience of modernity, because modernity is more and more an intrinsic value and a lived practice. Islamic terrorism is meant to express a radical anti-modernity, but by the same token its actors have confessed to their being close to modernity. The radical actors of the Muslim world, in destroying the troublesome symbols of modernity have destroyed their own cultural vitality and dynamism. Their culture of death has resulted in a death of culture. Islamism has pushed Muslims to mourn their own modernity. By insisting on the ambivalence between being both “Muslim and Modern” radical Islamism has intensified the unresolved tension between Islam and modernity. As a result of this, Muslims who argue for democracy and secularism seem to be yelled out of the arena on the charge that they are not “Muslim enough”. Voices within the Muslim community, which insist that Islam should have nothing to do with hatred, terrorism and backward–looking find themselves marginalized.

The urgent task for Islamic moderates is to lift the shadow of violence from the Islamic culture

Frankly, Islam is like Janus, it has two faces. There is the tolerant, peaceful face, and there is the intolerant, violent face. The two Janus faces of Islam are unavoidable (as in any other religion), especially at a time when huge transformations are occurring on an unprecedented global scale. There was a time when Muslim philosophers and theologians felt that if Muslims were eager to solve problems they should return to the Koran and Sunnah. This approach is no doubt something good, but it does have its problems. Returning to the Koran and Sunnah is not easy and does not guarantee that all radical Islamists would put an end to their violence and to their monolithic interpretation of religious texts. Not everyone is ready in the Islamic world today to accept that his/her opinion is right but might be wrong and in his/her discussion opponent’s opinion is wrong but might be right. This means that one needs to delay judgments on what one embraces as the truth rather than judging others as corrupts, deviants and so on. In order to accommodate the diversity of opinion among Muslims, the Islamists will have to learn to accept a system based on pluralism and democracy. The Islamic parties in Turkey and Malaysia already seem to have learned this lesson. Islamic values have great potential to contribute to the overall development of the Muslim world, but only if they can be cultivated in ways that do not undermine prospects for pluralism and diversity. At this point of time, the liberal and democratic Muslims are not seen to be confident enough to want to be heard, nor raise their voice, nor step out of the comfort of their ivory towers and into the Muslim public sphere. Today, the vulnerabilities of the Muslims around the world are such that radical and violent slogans are far more evocative than the moderate and nonviolent ones. Yet if Muslims should continue to turn to Islam as a source of personal and communal identity and moral guidance, they need to move beyond the constant blame-game and actually harness the positive energies of the Muslim community into a new optimistic partnership with members of other spiritual traditions. The language of hatred and violence in the Muslim community need to be replaced by a “heart and mind” engagement and cooperation among Muslims and with the other cultures.

The urgent task for Islamic moderates is to lift the shadow of violence from the Islamic culture and recall Muslims to their tradition of a calm and empathetic Islam that feels another’s sorrow and does not need an enemy for its sustenance. By doing so, they would be able not only to strengthen cross-cultural goodwill and inter-faith interactions, but also to shape the awareness of the Muslim community in the direction of the nonviolent tradition in Islam. As Gandhi used to say: “The time has now passed when the followers of one religion can stand and say, ours is the only true religion and all others are false”. Time is, therefore, ripe for Islam and Europe to look back at their common heritage and to start a new dialogue. Both Europe and Islam continue to be among the main pillars of human civilization. By recognizing this fact both Europe and Islam could engage in a dialogical exchange in order to bring common solutions to issues such as fundamentalism, terrorism, racism and integration and especially to be partners in belief, in action and in citizenship. If Muslims feel involved in the European destiny and Europe has nothing to fear from Islam, the result would be not only an acknowledgement of the “otherness” of Muslims, but also the acceptance of the legitimacy of the cultural diversity of Europe.

Tehran Review
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  1. News vom 17. Mai « Arshama3's Blog says:

    [...] Ramin Jahanbegloo: Islam und Europa, Erneuerung des Cordoba Paradigmas [...]

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