[N]otwithstanding all the sects and interpretations of Islam that evolved in the agrarian age, all the relatively peaceful local practises mediated by saints, shrines, and the pragmatic needs of Islamic societies, the interaction of Islam and modernity, especially since the collapse of the cold war imperial order, is one, as many have noted, that is increasingly mediated by a radical Islamism.
Precisely because John has stated his general agreement with me – that it is “foolish and dangerous” to seek “a war against all Muslims” – I find his formulation all the more interesting.
Even in his carefully written and concession-laden sentence, semantic drift defeats coherent interpretation: For John, Islam involves “all the sects and interpretations… local practices… pragmatic needs of Islamic societies,” but it is also something that can somehow be funneled into a singular mediating process.
In my reading, John’s observation is valid only as a description of symbolic transfers at relatively high levels of abstraction, at specific privileged points of social or political contact. In this mode, Islam will always be rendered as a radically reduced Islamism – whether it’s in the mass media, in a theoretical or historical discussion conducted person to person, or even in a seemingly neutral classroom exercise (see next post).
To give a concrete example from one critical sphere, the 9/11 terrorists seized the mass “mediating” high ground – the mass media, globally – for a particular Islamism, their rendition of the meaning and message of Islam (very different from John’s, I would suspect) even if materially they achieved very little through the attacks themselves. Through other actions, largely by design, with the cooperation of self-conscious abettors as well as would-be opponents, radical Islamists have succeeded in commanding a specific and, we presume, important kind of attention for themselves, their aspirations, and their discourse. Any consumer of mass media – in effect everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike – has received powerful, multiply reinforced inducement to associate “Muslim” with “terrorist” – that is, with the specific form of radical Islamism symbolized by the terrorist act. That is, after all, at bottom the main purpose of terrorist acts.
But it’s not “Islam” interacting with “modernity.” It’s self-identifying Islamists interacting with modern media culture (and some number of direct victims). The real, manifold economic, social, and cultural interaction of Muslim individuals, groups, cultures, and nation-states – “all the sects…” – with the modern world takes place independently of whatever latest antics or depredations by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whatever “Islamic Rage Boy,” or whatever Islamophobic demagogue in the news. The concrete interaction between the whole of Islam and the whole of modernity is not and cannot be mediated solely or even mainly through communications media – and even less through selected, privileged points of political contact.
We have no objective standard for declaring unitary and abstract mediation – televised terrorism or high-level political negotiations – as more authentic or more important than countless, polymorphous “mediations.” We have only the criticizeable and resistible assertions on the part of variously qualified specialists of their own primary importance. It is not given to us to know whether, materially and over the longer term, the murder of 3,000 civilians on 9/11 and the declarations of 3,000 TV imams are more significant than the countless intimate and lived symbolic and material exchanges between the world of Islam (whatever that is) and the world of non-Islam (whatever that is) – just as we do not and cannot know whether the most important interactions from the side of the West are the transportation of expensive but relatively small expeditionary armies to Afghanistan and Iraq, or the dissemination of Western popular culture, or uncountable direct personal and economic transactions, or even harder to define transactions conducted over centuries, in cultural evolutionary if not biological evolutionary time.
None of this means that changing relations, perceptions, and possibilities will not show up as more or less discrete expressions in the funhouse mirror of the television screen or computer monitor. Nor does it mean that there’s nothing to be done today, in political time. I’m also not trying to argue that mirroring, transmission, and reception of imagery and information are irrelevant – that they do not themselves constitute mirrorable, transmissable, and receivable events sometimes of great material import – though, even then, there is no way to measure the comparative significance of an international news event like the “Gaza Flotilla” versus the filtration of secular humanistic values and discourse via Arab Idol, a border-crossing Turkish Soap Opera, or the democratic capitalist lyric poetry of the television commercial. Similarly, we don’t really know that the format and implicit stance of a news channel like Al-Jazeera will be less influential over the long term than its incidental content.
More important, these media events merely stack up next to all of the other events and conditions that finally amalgamate as “modernity,” which is itself an all-embracing and heterogeneous phenomenon that, rather than standing at the other end of Islam, always already includes all “modern” manifestations of Islam, even and especially the most “fundamentalist” ones. All interactions knowable to modernity are internal to modernity. In most of these, the radical Islamists must struggle at least as hard to keep up as everyone else. In many critical respects the response they represent puts them at an extreme material disadvantage. In other, perhaps even more basic respects, these material disadvantages are the original conditions calling forth the Islamist response.
Returning to John’s original argument, radical Islamism is defined for and by, is effectively a function of, certain roles and performances on the world stage – including the particular “mediation role” that John identifies, but in my view mis-locates. I intend for my next post to turn to John’s anecdote of the Muslim classroom as another object lesson in the formation of Islamism as an inevitable social identity within modernity, and will (probably briefly) address the role of fundamentalism-literalism in Islamist and Islamophobic discourses. Strategic implications and practical applications may have to await the promised reply to Christian Zionist.