TitleThe problem is not necessarily with Islam

Having Time for Mankind

9 Sep 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo
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‘We do not know what is happening to us, and that is precisely the thing that is happening to us, the fact of not knowing what is happening to us’. This remark, written by Jose Ortega Y Gasset in his book Man and Crisis could be considered as the intellectual foundation of this article. It is a neat indication of the nature of thought that can make us tremble. Its challenge is an excessive one: a mode of being where man is endlessly disoriented with respect to himself. He is outside of his own country, stepping into new circumstances which are like an unknown land, a terra incognita. Clearly, this “not knowing what is happening to us” is not simply a matter of having a certain modus vivendi, but it is related with the essence of human life.

More than a century ago, despite the critics of philosophers, men saw the prospect of relief in the rising sun of modernity. Today, despite its enormous benefits on a global level, it is clear that, divorced from moral principles, the merely instrumental power to dominate, control and to shape things is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a consciousness of moral ends. More than a century ago, religions could offer to the multitude the comfort of consolation in the hereafter for the injustices and inconveniences of human life, in our time, not only techno-science has extinguished the lights of heaven, but it is in the conditions of immediate ideologization of religious traditions that release is found.

Could we get to the conclusion that the general temper of the world is one of profound and widespread disorientation? Could we say that the present generation seems to have lost its scheme of values? Is it true that certainty has been replaced by cynicism and hope has given room to despair? Anyone who begins to consider the problems of our time through such questions as these will find it difficult not to conclude like Mahatma Gandhi did hundred years ago in his pamphlet Hind Swaraj that what is basically lacking in the modern civilization is any sense of morality, religiosity, duty and self-restraint as a quality of soul. When asked about his view of Western civilization, Gandhi famously replied: ‘It would be a good idea’. We might not agree with Gandhi, but his reply reminds us one thing: that civilization is a final acquisition and a secure possession but a fragile dynamic and an ever-renewable experience for humanity.

This is particularly true of our global civilization where practically the entire world is now connected by thousands of political, economic and communication networks. We are all aware of another and we have thousands of common aims and modes of behavior. It seems to me that the global civilization is not a historically and geographically defined civilization. Unlike the old civilizations which had no idea that others existed, in the global civilization we are forced to live closer and to share our economic, political and cultural problems. But here a caution is imperative. Even if we talk about the emerging global civilization which is single, it only exists in the plural. Here, one should also not forget that, the status of Western modernity and its civilizing ‘effects’ does not change the fact that the differences between individual cultures or spheres of civilization in the globalized world are playing an ever greater role.
This is to say that our civilization is a multi-layered fabric composed of tensional layers. This multi-dimensionality of features can be transferred from the Western context to other major cultures in the emerging global arena. Now that the unnatural bipolar system imposed upon the world has collapsed, it seems as if the solution is simple and obvious: that is the rapid universalisation of the ideas of democracy and human rights. Yet even if these ideas appear to Europeans and North Americans as the best and the only possible solution, they have left much of the world unsatisfied.

People in many parts of the world are of two minds

People in many parts of the world are of two minds. On the one hand, they follow the path of the Western Dream; on the other, they reject it as the work of the devil. Muslims have responded to Western-style modernity in a variety of ways. Extremists like the young perpetrators who hijacked American airliners and crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and those who were behind the bombings in Madrid and London and many other places since 2001 violently reject it. As a matter of fact, in the last 20 years, the ideological interpretation of Islam has claimed more lives among fellow Muslims than non-Muslims. In other words, the wrath of Islamic fanaticism is more directed against those who are considered as ‘corrupt’ or ‘westernized’. The question, therefore, is what are the roots of all this fanaticism and madness?, and whether democratic culture and pluralistic values can help us to change it? Caught in the midst of a massive identity crisis due to their encounter with globalized modernity, fanatic Muslims have fallen back on their religious identity. Some may call this a revolt against modernity and a resistance to Western values. Others may see it as a return to the Middle Ages.

The culture of death springs from the death of culture

The truth is, however, that the problem is not necessarily with Islam. The revival of ideological Islam puts before us the reality of the death of culture in our world. The culture of death, which takes form today among the young Muslim suicide bombers or even among the urban rioters in France, springs from the death of culture. We live in the world today in a social environment of hybridity and cultural mélange of constantly transforming identities which puts into question any kind of movement towards the more perfect, larger, newer and more developed. The contemporary world, as one may call it, steers perfectly clear of any context of progress, growth or evolution. In such a context the world is based on no metaphysical comfort, because exchanges are unbounded and unsecured. This means that in the politics of the contemporary the political is no more a vision of society since it appears as an anti-political politics. This is the politics of abandoned lives, the politics of those who are under the humdrum conditions of “everydayness”. In such a world there is no moral barrier against violence. The doors stand wide open for the irrational and the suicide bombers or the urban rioters become the heroes of a world where responsibility and true sacrifice become senseless. Patocka once wrote that a life not willing to sacrifice itself for what makes its meaning is not worth living. The rise of the culture of death that we are witnessing today in our societies is an infallible sign that many in the West and elsewhere have given up the project to think and to feel responsible toward the concept of “humanity” which transcends them or even to sacrifice, in the extreme, life itself to that which makes life meaningful. In short, I cannot overcome the impression that Western culture is threatened far more by itself than by Islamic fundamentalism. Not only the West seems unable to formulate shared understandings of what ought to be done, but whatever shared formulations of the good western societies once had have come apart at the seams. A moral relativism and an unbounded multiculturalism have replaced shared formulations of the good. In truth, religious fundamentalism is an attempt to fill the moral vacuum which is left over by the absence of the shared formulations of the good.

Cultural activities in the global world of are prismatic, exotopic and interdependent and they involve configurations of knowledge and discourse that are about proper modes of living and sharing together. What the civilizational dialogue teaches us is that every culture is involved in a process of transformation that is related to a certain measure of cross-cultural learning. In light of these factors, democratic universalism does not share the ideology of global sameness which ignores the reality of diverse historical- cultural diversities, but rather focuses on the distinctive debates that shape the appropriation of means of democratic universality. As a matter of fact, we all get to play with universality as long as we are cultural flaneurs of a world in which the growing consensus on the universality of democracy reflects clearly the rise of a new ethos of global citizenship. However, given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more cultures of death before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who, according to the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, “has no time for man”.

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    کوچ بنفشه‌ها

    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.