4. Losing My Religion: Islam, Secularism and Revolution

What proves the freedom of humanity and the generosity of its nature is the longing for homeland, yearning for the return of compatriots, and weeping over the passage of time.

Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, The Extraction of Gold, or an Overview of Paris (1834)

The Shared Fate of the Modern

In Ian McEwan’s novel Amsterdam (1998) the protagonist, a composer, travels out of his arty west London bubble to confront the other side of modern urban civilization:

square miles of meagre modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions, and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one had been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed? Occasionally, as the train gathered speed and they swung further away from London, countryside appeared and with it the beginnings of beauty, or the memory of it, until seconds later it dissolved into a river straightened to a concreted sluice or a sudden agricultural wilderness without hedges or trees, and roads, new roads probing endlessly, shamelessly, as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere. As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning.

This vision of the ‘human project’, or modern development, as a cosmic abortion sounds a bit choleric. But McEwan’s protagonist hasn’t strayed too far from the Romantics who warned against the aggressive pursuit of material wealth and power at the expense of the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of human life. The Romantics in turn were inspired by Rousseau’s contention that human beings have become the victims of a system they have themselves created. Or, as Mr Pancks in Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) puts it, ‘Keep me always at it, and I’ll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country.’

The Romantics seeded a whole tradition of Anglo-American criticism in the nineteenth century to which the conservative Dickens belongs as much as Thoreau, who famously asserted in his section on ‘Economy’ in Walden (1854) that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. This largely moral critique of modernity was broadened by writers in countries playing ‘catch-up’ with the Atlantic West. The Russians, in particular, stressed social facts: the ill-directed energy and posturing of political elites, and the loss of a sense of community and personal identity.

Doubt and ambivalence appear early in The Bronze Horseman (1836), Pushkin’s narrative poem about the statue of Peter the Great and the self-consciously Western city he built on the banks of the Neva. The city was said to have cost a hundred thousand lives in the building. The Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, a friend of Pushkin, had denounced the statue in a poem as ‘a tribute to a tyrant’s cruel whim’. Pushkin deeply resented a stateless Pole’s criticism of anything Russian; but he had mixed feelings of his own about Peter. So his own poem about the statue begins with a celebratory tone:

Here shall a city be laid down

In defiance to a haughty neighbour

Here nature has predestined us

To break a window through to Europe …

The window has to be broken; violence, Pushkin seems to concede, is necessary to the urgent task of resembling the West. But it will also provoke a backlash from its victims. Commenting on the appearance in bronze of Peter in a Roman toga, his outstretched arm wielding an emperor’s protective baton, Joseph de Maistre had scathingly remarked that one ‘does not know if that hand of bronze is raised to protect or to threaten’. Pushkin, who knew of this quip, makes the poor, slightly crazed clerk Eugene in the poem – the first of many pathetic officials alienated, scorned and terrorized by the modern in Russian fiction – respond to the statue’s overweening power with the defiant words: ‘You’ll reckon with me yet!’

Indian Summer (1857), a novel by Adalbert Stifter set in a swiftly industrializing and urbanizing Germany, registers the new hierarchies, injustices and discontents to come with the encroachments of the modern:

Now any little country town and its surrounding area, with what it has, what it is and what it knows, is able to seal itself off. Soon that will no longer be the case; it will be wrenched into the general intercourse. Then, to be adequate for its contacts on every side, the lowliest will have to possess much greater knowledge and capacity than it does today. The countries which … acquire this knowledge first will leap ahead in wealth and power and splendour, and even be capable of casting doubt on the others.

So they did. Stifter could have been speaking of any country that had suffered, long after decolonization, the intellectual as well as geopolitical and economic hegemony of Western Europe and the United States, and had failed to find its own way of being modern. Already in the nineteenth century, Britain and the United States seemed to be outlining the future of humanity with their scramble for wealth, power and splendour, their network of banking, railroads, industry and commerce spreading across uncharted tracts and seas, in a perfect Rousseau nightmare, with the help of venturesome immigrants, ruthless politicians and unscrupulous magnates. This extraordinary success of an economic universalism allowed a figure like Jeremy Bentham to take, as Marx sneeringly wrote, ‘the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man’.

After 1945, as we saw, American elites, singularly undamaged and actually empowered by the most destructive war in history, idealized their exceptional experience – of individual self-seekers achieving more or less continuous expansion under relatively thin traditional constraints – into a model of universal development. With this new ‘Western Model’, or human project, looming over many ‘under-developed’ countries, development, quick and urgent, became the common sense of the age, despite the apparent costs. As an influential United Nations document put it in 1951:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated.

As the UN predicted, the ‘developing world’ was soon full of men uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to drift in the big city – those eventually likely to focus their rage against the modernizing West and its agents in Muslim countries. One of those thwarted migrants muttering ‘You’ll reckon with me yet’ in the last years of the twentieth century was a lower middle-class young man from Cairo writing a master’s thesis on urban planning. Describing the despoliation of a neighbourhood in the old Syrian city of Aleppo by highways and modernist high rises, he called for them all to be demolished and the area to be rebuilt along traditional lines, with courtyard homes and market stalls. He saw this as part of a restoration of Islamic culture. His thesis, submitted to a university in Hamburg, passed with high marks. A few months later this same young man by the name of Mohammed Atta was told that he been chosen to lead a mission to destroy America’s most famous skyscrapers.

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‘Imperialism has not allowed us to achieve historical normality,’ Octavio Paz lamented in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Paz was surveying the confused inheritance of Mexico from colonial rule, and the failure of its many political and socio-economic programmes, derived from Enlightenment principles of secularism and reason. Paz himself was convinced that Mexico had to forge a modern politics and economy for itself.

But, writing in the late 1940s, he found himself commending the ‘traditionalism’ of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It was Zapata, he wrote, who had freed ‘Mexican reality from the constricting schemes of liberalism, and the abuses of the conservatives and neo-conservatives’. Such ‘traditionalists’, ranging from Gandhi to Rabindranath Tagore to Liang Qichao, had also emerged in many other non-Western societies in the first half of the twentieth century. They were not anti-Western so much as wary of a blind and wholesale emulation of the institutions and ideologies of Western Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Many others continued to argue in the latter half of the century that the Western model of development – capitalist or communist – was unsuitable for their countries. Some of these traditionalists, such as the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, specialized in demagogic fantasies of redemption. Many others offered practicable ideas. An Indian scholar called Radhakamal Mukerjee developed an economic blueprint based on actually existing conditions in Asian agrarian societies, supporting environmentally viable small-scale industries over American-style factories; he inspired urban planners in the United States as well as Brazil.

But by the 1950s thinkers stressing locally resourced solutions would retreat as Asia and Africa embarked on large-scale national emulation with the help of Western ideas. The advisors of such Westernizing dictators as the Shah of Iran and Indonesia’s Suharto read W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth (1960) and Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) much more carefully than they did anything by the Iranian and Indonesian intellectuals Ali Shariati and Soedjatmoko. Among many left-leaning nation-builders, Lenin, Mao and even the Fabian socialists seemed to provide clearer blueprints for self-strengthening than indigenous thinkers. Zapata was forgotten in Mexico itself; Gandhism was reduced to an empty ritual in India.

By the 1970s, however, it had become clear that Western prescriptions were not working. On the contrary, as the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar put it, ‘instead of the kingdom of abundance promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s, the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression.’ Soedjatmoko claimed that ‘the relationship of many Third World intellectuals to the West has undergone significant change’. This was due to ‘the inapplicability of the communist model, the irrelevance of various scholarly development models, and the growing awareness that the Western history of modernization is just one of several possible courses’.

A politician and thinker called Rammanohar Lohia had inspired some of India’s greatest post-independence writers and artists with his search for a politically sustainable model of development – one that is sensitive to specific social and economic experiences and ecologies. ‘A cosmopolite,’ Lohia charged, ‘is a premature universalist, an imitator of superficial attainments of dominant civilizations, an inhabitant of upper-caste milieus without real contact with the people.’

In Westoxification (1962), a study of the devastating loss of identity and meaning caused by appropriative mimicry and a central text of Islamist ideology, the Iranian novelist and essayist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad offered a similarly critical view of the local Westernizer. Iranian intellectuals, such as Ahmad Kasravi, had started to formulate a critique of technological civilization as early as the 1920s, just as Iran began to modernize under its military ruler. Born in 1928 in poor southern Tehran, Al-e-Ahmad came of age as Iran was transformed from a small, predominantly agricultural economy into a modern centralized state with a manufacturing sector and a central role in international oil markets. As the despotic Shah of Iran, backed by the United States, accelerated his ambitious modernization programme, Al-e-Ahmad wrote about rural migrants in Tehran’s overcrowded and insanitary slums who daily:

sink further into decline, rootlessness, and ugliness … the bazaars’ roofs in ruins; neighbourhoods widely scattered; no water, electricity, or telephone service; no social services; no social centres and libraries; mosques in ruins.

By the time Al-e-Ahmad offered his critique of modernization, even many of the latter’s supposed beneficiaries in the postcolonial world were beginning to question its rising costs. These were the mimic men, as Naipaul called them, who had pretended in their African and Asian schools and colleges ‘to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life’ in the Western metropolis. In Heirs to the Past (1962), by the Moroccan novelist Driss Chraïbi, a French-educated North African outlines the tragic arc of many relatively privileged men in postcolonial societies:

I’ve slammed all the doors of my past because I’m heading towards Europe and Western civilization, and where is that civilization then, show it to me, show me one drop of it, I’m ready to believe I’ll believe anything. Show yourselves, you civilizers in whom your books have caused me to believe. You colonized my country, and you say, I believe you, that you went there to bring enlightenment, a better standard of living, missionaries the lot of you, or almost. Here I am – I’ve come to see you in your own homes. Come forth. Come out of your houses and yourselves so that I can see you. And welcome me, oh welcome me!

Al-e-Ahmad, who published his book the same year, also became obsessed with the psychic damage that modernity would inflict on people unable to adjust to it. He wrote almost exclusively about Iran. Yet his readings in contemporary literature and philosophy alerted him to the general degradation of human beings and despoiling of nature by a civilization devoted to utility and profit. He was deeply influenced by Sadegh Hedayat, whose The Blind Owl (1937) is regarded as the greatest modern novel in Persian. Hedayat, educated in Paris, exiled in India, and influenced by Rilke and Kafka, wrote of the sensitive and perennial outsider, alienated everywhere by the ‘rabble-men’ who bear ‘an expression of greed on their faces, in pursuit of money and sexual satisfaction’.

Al-e-Ahmad’s depiction of slums, like McEwan’s dystopian vision of the English countryside, had a broader significance for the ‘human project’. As he wrote on the last page of Westoxification:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin.

Making Enemies: Islam versus the West

Al-e-Ahmad’s invocation of existentialist and absurdist themes in the context of Tehran’s slums underlined a shared predicament. Following Hedayat, he spoke of a universal human condition in a world closely knit together by commerce and technology – what Arendt called the state of ‘negative solidarity’. Yet since he wrote, the emotional and intellectual realities signified by the words ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ have come to be seen as fundamentally different and opposed.

In particular, the attacks of 9/11, breaking into the general celebratory mood of globalization, sharpened an old divide. How could, it was felt, people be so opposed to modernity, and all the many goods it had to offer to people around the world: equality, liberty, prosperity, toleration, pluralism and representative government. Having proclaimed the end of history, Francis Fukuyama wondered whether there is ‘something about Islam’ that made ‘Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity’.

Such perplexity, widely shared, was answered by a simple idea: that these opponents of modernity were religious fanatics – jihadists – seeking martyrdom; they were unenlightened zealots. This answer did not explain the nature of their fanaticism. It simply assumed that modernity was inherently liberal, if not anti-religious, individualistic and emancipatory, and fundamentally opposed to medieval and oppressive religion.

And so the Bush administration declared a universal ‘war on terror’, breaking with the precedent of Western governments that had responded to the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, the IRA in Britain, ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigade in Italy with ‘police actions’. The latter were grim, violent, often extralegal, but based on the assumption that infiltration and arrests could successfully dismantle organizations with specific memberships and locations. The war on terror, on the other hand, aimed to abolish war as an institution with specific laws and rules, including regard for the rights of prisoners; it criminalized the enemy, and put him beyond the pale of humanity, exposed to extrajudicial execution, torture and the eternal limbo of Guantanamo.

Unlike the familiar and comprehensible violence of European left-wing and ultra-nationalist groups, terrorist acts by Muslims were placed in some non-human never-never land, far outside of the history of the secular modern world. Their ‘jihad’ seemed integral to Islamic civilization; and an obsession burgeoned with the ‘Islamic’ roots of terrorism, metamorphosing quickly into a campaign to ‘reform’ Islam itself and bring it in line with an apparently consistent, coherent Enlightened West.

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It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed – catastrophically failed – while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment – inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance – has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged in the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 – Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity – lies in ruins.

Nevertheless, the suppositions about both modernity and its opponents persist; and have actually hardened. ‘They hate our freedoms’ – the claim first heard after Atta drove a plane into the World Trade Center – now echoes after every terrorist atrocity. Collective affirmations of Western freedoms and privileges – ‘We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion,’ Salman Rushdie wrote after 9/11 – have turned into an emotional and intellectual reflex. As the carnage of the Middle East reaches American and European cities, citizens are ushered by politicians and the media into collective grieving and commemorations of the moral and cultural superiority of their nation and civilization.

Thus, the maniacal cries by adolescent jihadists of ‘Allahu Akbar’ are met by a louder drumbeat of ‘Western values’ and confidence-building invocations of the West’s apparent quintessence, such as the Enlightenment. The widespread reprinting of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed is meant to affirm the West’s defence of freedom of speech against its vicious Muslim enemies. Rushdie, who claims that there has been a ‘deadly mutation in the heart of Islam’, wrote after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo that religion, ‘a medieval form of unreason’, deserves our ‘fearless disrespect’.

It seems that people who cherish their freedoms and those who scorn them are doomed to clash, and that we must choose sides in this conflict between retrograde Islam and the secular, rational and progressive West. As Charlie Hebdo itself wrote after the attack on Brussels in March 2016, the role of terrorists ‘is simply to provide the end of a philosophical line already begun. A line which tells us “Hold your tongues, living or dead. Give up discussing, debating, contradicting or contesting.”’

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The unenlightened Oriental ‘other’ has been frequently invoked since the eighteenth century to define the enlightened Westerner, and dramatize the latter’s superiority. The widespread assumption – that the Enlightenment set universal standards of human behaviour and ethics based on a rational and democratic model of society, and that all those who fail to follow them are politically and intellectually benighted – can be traced back to Montesquieu.

One of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, Montesquieu in Persian Letters (1721) imagined travellers from the fanatical and despotic world of the Muslim Orient in order to criticize the forces of reaction in European society and herald its emerging spirit of freedom. But Montesquieu deployed, like many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers rummaging through travel accounts of China and India, the Orient in order to critique the Occident. The assumption that the West embodies enlightened modernity and the East unreformed religion belongs to our much more complacent age.

It has been most compellingly articulated by the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory. As the scholar Bernard Lewis, who first aired it in his article ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, wrote:

We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.

Glossing Lewis’s claim, Samuel Huntington added that ‘this centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent.’ For ‘Islam’s borders are bloody,’ Huntington wrote, ‘and so are its innards.’ According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements – the ideals of scientific rationality and democratic pluralism. They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal.

The Bearded versus the Clean-Shaven

Undoubtedly, Western intellectuals have invested much faith in leaders who claim to be introducing their superstitious societies to scientific rationality, if not democratic pluralism. The East, as we have seen, was a career for men of letters long before European colonialists invaded and occupied it. ‘There are still vast climates in Africa,’ Voltaire wrote, ‘where men have need of a Tsar Peter.’ History revealed that, regardless of what the Enlightenment philosophes hoped, Peter, Catherine and Frederick were primarily interested in expanding their empires and boosting the power of the despotic state by rationalizing military and bureaucratic institutions.

Tocqueville summed up the ‘modernization’ efforts of Frederick of Prussia in the eighteenth century:

Beneath this completely modern head we will see a totally gothic body appear; Frederick had only eliminated from it whatever could hinder the action of his own power; and the whole forms a monstrous being which seems to be in transition between one shape and another.

Nevertheless, starting in the 1950s, the yearning among many Western intellectuals to play Voltaire to the new, postcolonial modernizing leaders in the East made the latter seem like versions of Peter the Great and Catherine. These bookish proponents of modernization counselling their anti-communist clients – immortalized in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) – were far more influential than the liberal internationalists of our own time who helped package imperialist ventures as moral crusades for freedom and democracy. For their clients wore Western-style suits, if not military uniforms, spoke Western languages, relied on Western theories, and routinely called upon Western writers and intellectuals for advice about how to break open the window to the West.

Huntington, aware of his devoted readers among Asian technocrats, hailed the Shah of Iran as the epitome of a ‘modernizing monarch’. He claimed that Pakistan’s military dictator Ayub Khan came close, ‘more than any other political leader in a modernizing country after World War Two’, to ‘filling the role of a Solon or Lycurgus, or “Great Legislator” of the Platonic or Rousseauian model’ (Ayub Khan was shortly thereafter forced out of power). Bernard Lewis returned from his first trip to Turkey in 1950 lionizing Atatürk and upholding the latter’s enlightened despotism as a great success and model for other Muslim countries.

Lewis’s vision of a Turkey Westernized and modernized by the enlightened autocrat’s ukase was at the core of George W. Bush’s ‘vision’ of bringing democracy at gunpoint to Iraq. Reassuring counsel came from Fouad Ajami, a senior advisor to Condoleeza Rice, who said that the United States was particularly ‘good at releasing communities from the burden of the past, and from the limits and confines of a narrow identity’.

Understandably, many Western leaders and intellectuals are both appalled and baffled when, as often happens, an unfamiliar generation of long-bearded activists and thinkers speaking of Islam rise out of the ruins of failed experiments in nation-building, representative government, industrialization, urbanization and regime change. ‘Political Islam is rage, anarchy,’ V. S. Naipaul charged after visiting the Islamic Revolution in Iran, contrasting Islam’s obsession with ideological purity to the generous ‘universal civilization’ of the West based on the pursuit of individual happiness. Rushdie claims that Iran, a corrupt police state in the late 1960s, was ‘wonderful’, a ‘very cosmopolitan, very cultured society’, and ‘the arrival of Islamic radicalism in that country, of all countries, was particularly tragic because it was so sophisticated a culture’.

Fear of bushy-bearded activists continues to motivate many in the West to shun them, even when they are democratically elected. Tough-minded secular strongmen are much preferred – such as Egypt’s clean-shaven military despot – who can keep the angry hordes at bay and try to bring their countries closer to the West. Many commentators continue to ignore or downplay a century of invasions, unequal treaties, assassinations, coups, corruption, and ruthless manipulation and interference while recycling such oppositions as backward Islam versus the progressive West, Rational Enlightenment versus medieval unreason, open society versus its enemies.

A deeper and broader explanation, however, lies in understanding how intellectuals, starting in the Enlightenment, constituted a network of power and why they invested their faith in enlightened despotism and social engineering from above. It is even more fruitful to attend to the devastating critic of their ideology and practice, Rousseau, whose ever-renewable vision of human beings alienated from themselves and enchained to each other has inspired revolts and uprisings from the French Revolution onwards. For plebeians and provincials, unaccommodated man spurned by modernity, also created the Islamic Revolution in Iran – what Michel Foucault called the ‘first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane’.

Civilizing the Natives

There was actually little talk about Islam from the first generation of leaders in Muslim countries. They had distinguished themselves as anti-imperialist activists: Atatürk, for instance, derived his charisma and authority as a nation-builder from his comprehensive defeat of Allied forces in Turkey. He went on to abolish the Ottoman office of the Caliphate soon after assuming power, pitilessly killing the political hopes of pan-Islamists around the world. He forbade expressions of popular Islam and arrested Sufi dervishes (executing some of them); he replaced Shariah law with Swiss civil law and Italian criminal law. This partisan of Comtean Positivism expressed publicly what many Muslim leaders, confronted with conservative opposition, may have thought privately: that ‘Islam, the absurd theology of an immoral bedouin, is a rotting cadaver that poisons our lives. It is nothing other than a degrading and dead cause.’

Adolf Hitler admired the Turkish leader above all for emasculating the backward elements in his society. ‘How fast,’ he wrote, ‘Kemal Atatürk dealt with the priests is one of the most amazing chapters of history!’ The Nazi leader, who venerated Atatürk as a trailblazing modernizer and nation-builder, a ‘shining star’, no less, claimed in 1938 that the Turkish despot ‘was the first to show that it is possible to mobilize and regenerate the resources that a country has lost’. ‘Atatürk was a teacher,’ Hitler said. ‘Mussolini was his first and I his second student.’

Bernard Lewis was most likely unaware of the Turkish leader’s fan base among Nazis and Fascists when he hailed Atatürk for taking, with his attempted obliteration of Islam, ‘the first decisive steps in the acceptance of Western civilization’. Nevertheless, Lewis as well as Atatürk was working with an ideal of civilization originally posited by salon intellectuals in the eighteenth century, and reworked by various modernizers of the twentieth century.

As Atatürk put it, ‘there are different countries, but only one civilization. The precondition of progress of the nation is to participate in this civilization.’ The leaders of modernizing Japan echoed him exactly. Late-modernizing nations and peoples internalized deeply a legacy of the Enlightenment, which transformed the ‘civilizing’ ideals of Parisian salons into a project, one that can be entrusted to a state, even one as despotic and imperialistic as that of Empress Catherine.

Civilization became, by the late nineteenth century, synonymous with progress and dynamism through individual and collective action – the triumph of the will. Fear of emasculation, cultural backwardness and decadence were counteracted by power-seeking ideological movements. Zionism and Hindu nationalism as well as Social Darwinism, New Imperialism, pan-Germanism, pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism manifested the same will to power and contempt for weakness. Pseudo-sciences, such as phrenology and eugenics, were respectable in Britain and America as well as in late-coming nations.

In its entry for ‘Civilization’ in 1910, the Encyclopedia Britannica entrusted the future of humanity to ‘biological improvement of the race’ and to man applying ‘whatever laws of heredity he knows or may acquire in the interests of his own species, as he has long applied them in the case of domesticated animals’. In Sweden, Denmark and Finland, tens of thousands, almost all women, were sterilized after 1935. The old and the unfit, it was widely felt, had to be weeded out in projects of rapid-fire self-empowerment. It’s not surprising that Hitler saw Atatürk as a trailblazer.

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Turkey pre-empted even the Soviet Union with its self-appointed elite outlining what could be and should be done in order to forge a collective instrument for action and change out of the passive masses. As though acting out Voltaire’s intolerance of uncivilized Turks, Atatürk banned the fez, denouncing it as an ‘emblem of ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, and hatred of progress and civilization’; he replaced the Muslim calendar, Arabic alphabets and measures with the European calendar, Roman alphabet and continental European weights and measures.

Much of the postcolonial world then became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideals of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population.

The notion that this kind of modernization makes for enhanced national power and rapid progress and helps everyone achieve greater happiness was widely shared, regardless of ethnic or religious background or ideological affinity. India’s agnostic prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the atheistic Mao Zedong also saw themselves as modernizers in a hurry. Revolution, Mao warned menacingly, is ‘not a dinner party’; Nehru, a Fabian socialist, was anxious to change India’s ‘outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity’. Nehru’s admirer in neighbouring Pakistan, the Berkeley-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and other left-leaning Muslim leaders were more than willing to invoke Islamic ideals of brotherhood and justice, but these were meant as broad, framing categories for more central progressive and modern concerns.

Often ostentatiously secular rather than devout, and Westernized in manner and appearance, they saw progress as an urgent imperative for their traditional societies; they hoped, above all, to make their societies strong and competitive enough in the dog-eat-dog world of international relations. Accordingly, all traditional institutions were brought to the tribunal of rationality and utility, and found wanting. Postcolonial leaders worked with the assumption that a robust bureaucratic state and a suitably enlightened ruling elite could quickly forge citizens out of a scattered mass of peasants and merchants, and endow them with a sense of national identity. The fin de siècle spirit of building a New Man and New Society through a rational manipulation of collective will prevailed across Asia and Africa, reflected even in the cultural sphere – in literature, songs and films that celebrated teachers, doctors and dam-builders.

Modern Head with Gothic Body

Postcolonial nation-building was an extraordinary project: hundreds of millions of people persuaded to renounce – and often scorn – a world of the past that had endured for thousands of years, and to undertake a gamble of creating modern citizens who would be secular, enlightened, cultured and heroic. Travelling through the new nation states of Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Raymond Aron had already discerned the great obstacles in their way. In his view, there were not many political choices before people who had lost their old traditional sources of authority while embarking on the adventure of building new nation states and industrial economies in a secular and materialist ethos. The rationalized societies, constituted by ‘individuals and their desires’, had to either build a social and political consensus themselves or have it imposed on them by a strongman. Failure would plunge them into violent anarchy.

As it turned out, the autocratic modernizers failed to usher a majority of their wards into the modern world, and their abortive revolutions from above paved the way for more radical ones from below, followed, as we have seen in recent years, by anarchy. There were many reasons for this, primary among them the legacy of imperialism – the division of the Middle East into mandates and spheres of influence, the equally arbitrary creation of unviable nation states, unequal treaties with oil-rich states – and the pressures of neo-imperialism. Even when free of such crippling burdens, the modernizers could never simply repeat Europe’s antecedent development, which, as we noted earlier, had been calamitously uneven, fuelled by a rush of demagogic politics, ethnic cleansing and total wars. Moreover, as Western Europe itself was transformed and empowered by its economic miracle in the post-war era, and the United States emerged as the most powerful country in history, the postcolonial world had to telescope into two or three decades the political and economic developments that had taken more than a century to unfold in both Europe and America.

The new nation states failed to be a tabula rasa, despite the systematic destruction, as in Turkey, of the past. The rationalized state manifested itself in ordinary lives less by social welfare institutions than by brutal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, such as Savak in Iran, a sinister ‘deep state’ in Turkey, and the Mukhābarāt of many Arab countries: many citizens found themselves forced into a ‘maze of a nightmare’, as Octavio Paz wrote, ‘in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason’.

Turkey may seem relatively fortunate in being able to build a modern state with a Gothic body out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Disorder remained the fate of many nations that had been insufficiently or too fervidly imagined, such as Pakistan; their weak state structures and fragmented civil society condemned them to oscillate perennially between civilian and military despots while warding off challenges from disaffected minorities and religious fanatics. And even their relative successes in approximating the Western model – introducing a semblance of civil order through the police, diminishing the power and privileges of old elites, clerical, feudal and aristocratic, or extending Western-style education – had ambiguous results.

The mullahs and landlords lost some of their autonomy, social function and hereditary status. Desires for a libertarian and egalitarian order grew within the nascent civil society, especially among young men educated in Western-style institutions. But new inequalities, created by the bureaucracies of the modern state and the division of labour and specialization required by industrial and commercial economies, accumulated on top of old ones.

The cultural makeover forced upon socially conservative masses aggravated a widely felt sense of exclusion and injury. The radical disruptions left a large majority of the unprivileged to stew in resentment against the top-down modernizers and Westernizers. A typical agitator spawned during these decades was Abu Musab al-Suri, the chief strategist and ideologue for al-Qaeda. Born in 1958, a year after Osama bin Laden, to a devout middle-class family in Aleppo, al-Suri dropped out of university in 1980 to join a radical group that opposed Syria’s secular nationalist Baath Party and advocated an Islamic state based on Shariah law. Working his way through various Islamist organizations in Asia and Africa, al-Suri ended up designing a leaderless and global jihad for uprooted men like himself.

A Militant Intelligentsia

Al-Suri, labelled by Newsweek the ‘Francis Fukuyama of al-Qaeda’, was more accurately the Mikhail Bakunin of the Muslim world in his preference for anarchist tactics. In his magnum opus, The Global Islamic Resistance Call (2004), al-Suri scorned hierarchical forms of political organization, exhorting a jihadi strategy based on ‘unconnected cells’ and ‘individual operations’ – a call answered by today’s auto-intoxicated killers. In mass-producing such malcontents and radicals through modernization, Muslim countries followed, as discussed earlier, a pattern established by Russia – the first country where autocrats decreed a tryst with modernity. Already in 1705, a Prussian envoy reporting on the drastic Westernizing venture of Peter the Great, anticipated the backlash against Muslim leaders of the twentieth century when he wrote that this ‘very vexed nation’ was ‘inclined to revolution because of their abolished customs, shorn beards, forbidden clothing, confiscated monastery property’.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau warned that Peter the Great, in trying to turn his Russian subjects into Englishmen and Frenchmen, exposed them to intellectual confusion and spiritual emptiness. In 1836 the Russian writer Pyotr Chaadaev confirmed Rousseau’s bleak diagnosis, pointing out in his Philosophical Letter that ‘we are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their own.’

Writing after a century and a half of modernization, Alexander Herzen was yet blunter. Everything that could be imported from the European bureaucracy ‘into our half-communal, half-absolutist country’ was imported, he lamented, ‘but the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported’. Consequently, ‘the Chinese shoes of German make, which Russia has been forced to wear for a hundred and fifty years, have inflicted many painful corns’.

Secularized young men eagerly entering the modern world with their shorn beards found it in practice frustratingly obdurate and alienating: ‘the kingdom of bribes’, as the critic (and close friend of Herzen) Vissarion Belinsky denounced it in 1841, ‘religious indifference, licentiousness, absence of any spiritual interests, triumph of shameless impudent stupidity, mediocrity, ineptitude, where everything human, intelligent, noble, talented is condemned to suffer oppression, torment, censorship’.

Idealistic young men from the provinces suffered this ‘base reality’ most intensely, because as Belinsky, the gauche son of a provincial doctor and the grandson of a priest, wrote:

Our education deprived us of religion; the circumstances of our lives gave us no solid education and deprived us of any chance of mastering knowledge [contemporary Western thought]; we are at odds with reality and are justified in hating and despising it, just as it is justified in hating and despising us.

Belinsky was a member of the Russian generation of radicals who with their painful conscience, vision of a purified and reformed Russia, and messianic longings for certainty and salvation turned revolution into a religion. He moved from idolizing the Tsar and his benevolent authority – justified by highbrow Hegelian invocations of reality as the unfolding of the world spirit – to Jacobin radicalism and terroristic revolutionism: each station of the cross was reached with appropriate religious fervour. ‘Negation,’ he ultimately declared, ‘is my god.’

Belinsky died just before revolution broke out across Europe in 1848; its failure would turn even the liberal-minded Herzen into a Russian chauvinist of sorts. But Belinsky with his vacillating identity, and search for authenticity in some form of transcendental idealism, exemplified more vividly than his aristocratic friend the spiritual as well as social situation of his new class of educated Russians – the disaffected people situated between the government and the masses who would be the first in the world to be called the ‘intelligentsia’.

The first generation of Islamists everywhere – educated sons of peasants, clerics, small shopkeepers and workers – also emerged in the great gap between a minuscule governing elite and a peasant majority. The products of Western-style education, the Islamists no longer needed clerics to interpret religious scripture. They took it upon themselves to articulate the broad disaffection bred in a modernizing society whose structures were not changing fast or beneficially enough, and where despotic arbitrariness was met by sly obsequiousness rather than resistance and revolt.

The most commonplace and potent accusation these spokesmen of the disgruntled levelled against their rulers was hypocrisy: this much-advertised promise of happiness through material comforts was deceitful since only a small minority can achieve it, at great expense to the majority. They invoked with special fervour, just as European and Russian revolutionaries had before them, the principles enshrined in their religious traditions as well as in modernity: justice and equality. They insisted, much to the horror of their conservative modernizing elites, that, as Belinsky wrote, ‘All men are to be brethren.’

The Mimic Men

This radical outcome was not unexpected. As early as 1847, Tocqueville had warned his modernizing compatriots in Algeria against eradicating the country’s traditional philanthropic and educational systems. The French writer appreciated the necessity of intermediate institutions between the rulers and the ruled. He saw religion as a necessary counterweight to a disruptive modern ideology of materialism; and he thought that a policy of civilizing the natives by uprooting them was certain to produce fanatical leaders in the future.

Nor was the sharp social divide between an abject mass of people and a quasi-Westernized elite unique to Muslim countries. The figure whom Hölderlin called the ‘stranger’ struggled with alien ways of life and thinking in all societies condemned to catching up with the West. Chaadaev spoke for many generations to come in Russia and elsewhere when he wrote, ‘We belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither.’ His eloquent self-pity, which shook up Pushkin as well as Gogol and Tolstoy, inaugurated the Russian elite’s exploration of the peculiar psychology of the ‘superfluous’ man in a semi-Westernized society: a young man educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy while coerced into hectic national emulation.

In an essay on Pushkin, Dostoyevsky underlined a tragic dilemma: of a society that assimilates European ways through every pore only to realize it could never be truly European. The victim of feckless Westernization was someone whose ‘conscience murmurs to him that he is a hollow man’, and who tends to languish in a ‘state of insatiable, bilious malice’, suffering from ‘a contradiction between two heterogeneous elements: an egoism extending to the limits of self-adoration and a malicious self-contempt.’ This mimic man was as much a stranger to himself as to society at large. In his soul was amour propre ramped up to a degree that Rousseau had not anticipated in his own diagnosis of the bourgeois soul.

Such a tortured figure often ended up searching for a native identity to uphold against the maddeningly seductive but befuddling West; and enumerating Western vices seemed to confirm the existence of local virtues. Russian writers from Herzen to Tolstoy repetitively denounced the Western bourgeois obsession with private property while holding up the Russian muzhik as an admirably altruistic figure; they mourned, anticipating the Futurist obsession with ‘beauty’, the disappearance of idealism and poetry from human lives in the West.

A similar lament appears in the work of Japan’s foremost novelist, Natsume Soseki, who spent two miserable years in fin de siècle London. Novelists as varied as Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima sought to return to an earlier ‘wholeness’. Tanizaki tried to re-create an indigenous aesthetic by pointing to the importance of ‘shadows’ – a whole world of distinctions banished from Japanese life by the modern invention of the light bulb. Mishima invoked, more gaudily, Japan’s lost culture of the samurai by dressing up as one. Both were fuelled by rage and regret that, as Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows (1933), ‘we have met a superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years’.

Gandhi tried to become an English gentleman before going on to write Hind Swaraj (1909), a book pointing to the dangers of educated men from colonized lands mindlessly imitating the ways of their colonial masters. Briefly awestruck by the corporate and commercial culture of Anglo-America, China’s foremost modern intellectuals, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, recoiled into Confucian notions of community and harmony. The early impact on Africa’s tradition-minded societies of a West organized for profit and power is memorably summed up by the title of Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). A more apocalyptic vision of their effect in the Middle East is found in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (1984), which describes the spiritual devastation of Arab tribal societies by American oil companies.

A Crow Trying to Walk Like a Partridge

Travelling to Britain from his ‘village world’, the narrator of Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival records ‘a panic’ and ‘then a dwindling of the sense of the self’. ‘Less than twenty-four hours out of my own place,’ he remembers, ‘the humiliations had begun to bank up.’ And this ‘rawness of nerves’ lingers, turning his subsequent life in England ‘savorless, and much of it mean’. Exposure to the West usually marked ‘the first beginning of the epoch’, as Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘when our leading people brutally separated into two parties, then entered into a furious civil war’.

This civil war often occurred within the same human soul. In Driss Chraïbi’s first novel, The Simple Past (1954), a student in a French missionary school confronts the violence he has done to his identity:

You were the issue of the Orient, and through your painful past, your imaginings, your education, you are going to triumph over the Orient. You have never believed in Allah. You know how to dissect the legends, you think in French, you are a reader of Voltaire and an admirer of Kant.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, the mimic men of postcolonial countries, the intellectuals of Muslim countries lived out ideological mismatches and conflicts in their inner lives. Emerging into a Europeanized world, they were conscious of their weakness but also galvanized by their apparent power to shape the future using the techniques and ideas pioneered by Europe. Like Russia’s nineteenth-century intelligentsia, and the intellectuals of Japan, India and China, they all initially expatriated, intellectually if not physically, to the West.

Many of them also became members, like Naipaul and Rushdie, of what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls a ‘comprador intelligentsia’: ‘a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery’. Some others began to think, after close observation of European and American politics and history, that Voltaire and Kant, after all, might not hold the key to redemption, which may lie closer to home, in indigenous religious and cultural traditions.

But, while re-staking their ground, and claiming a nativist identity, intellectuals in Muslim countries absorbed many of the ideas and premises of modern Western thought, such as progress, egalitarianism, justice, the nation state and republican virtue. A fascinating example is Jalal Al-e-Ahmad himself, the son of an exacting cleric, whose piety had acquired a harsh edge as Iran’s secular ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, imposed European ways on his subjects by fiat, banning Muharram ceremonies, replacing the clerical habit and turban with hat and tie. It was Al-e-Ahmad’s fate to negotiate the divide between the traditional religious authority represented by his father and the culturally deracinating secularism of the paternalist Shah.

Supported by Western powers, and inspired by Atatürk, Iran’s ruler not only crushed the country’s many tribes in order to establish a centralized administration. He ordered, and then brutally enforced, the unveiling of women (with the net result that many women never left their homes). The autocratic tradition of double-quick modernization was upheld by his son and successor, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who wanted to make villages ‘disappear’ in his attempt to manufacture metropolitan individuals in his country.

He came to be hated by many Iranian intellectuals as a pawn of the West after 1953, when the American CIA and British MI6 conspired to bring down an elected government and invest the Shah with total authority, and to confer on the Western powers many of Iran’s oil and business profits. Visiting Iran in 1966, a British Member of Parliament called Jock Bruce-Gardyne was typical of the Shah’s breathless, sycophantic guests: Tehran was a ‘Mercedes museum’, the British car company Leyland had ‘established a strong and flourishing bridge head’, and British double-decker buses looked ‘surprisingly at home under the blue skies of Tehran’. (The following year, Western support for the Shah, peaking in a brutal police assault on a demonstration against his visit to Berlin, provoked a radical German student movement into being.)

*   *   *

Al-e-Ahmad, who spent several years in prison after the 1953 coup, started to question the uncritical embrace of and dependence on the West, which in his view had resulted in a people who were neither authentically Iranian nor Western. Rather, they had, he wrote, resembled a crow who tried to imitate the way that a partridge walked and forgot how to walk like a crow without learning to walk like a partridge. As the years passed, Al-e-Ahmad wanted, above all, Iranian life and culture to be authentic, not ersatz.

Al-e-Ahmad explored the ideas of Marx; he translated Camus, and brought an intense focus to his reading of Heidegger (to whom he had been introduced at the University of Tehran by an influential specialist in German philosophy called Ahmad Fardid, who actually coined the term ‘Westoxification’). These very modern critics of modernity’s spiritual damage turned out to be stops on Al-e-Ahmad’s journey to a conception of Islam itself as a revolutionary ideology. A series of ethnographic studies of rural Iran convinced him that the ‘machine civilization’ of the West posed a direct threat to Iran’s culture as well as economy. ‘To respond to the machine’s call to urbanization, we uproot the people from the villages and send them to the city, where there’s neither work nor housing and shelter for them, while the machine steps into the village itself.’ He remarked caustically of the Saudi king Ibn Sa’ud, who ‘amidst the ferocious beheadings and hand-cuttings of his own era of ignorance, has surrendered to the machine’s transformations’.

Al-e-Ahmad spoke from his own experience of Tehran’s slums as he described the fate of rural migrants. (Empathy with rural migrants coerced into an ambitious project of national modernization also motivated Sayyid Qutb, who himself came to Cairo as a teenager from a village.) Visiting an oil installation, Al-e-Ahmad concluded, ‘the entire local and cultural identity and existence will be swept away. And why? So that a factory can operate in “The West”, or that workers in Iceland or Newfoundland are not jobless.’

He derived his greatest inspiration from a trip to Israel in 1962. There had been many Muslim admirers of Jewish political and cultural renaissance since Rashid Rida in 1898 hailed Zionism as an inspiring example for the umma (the Muslim community). They concurred with David Ben-Gurion, who in 1957 declared that the establishment of the state of Israel ‘is one of the manifestations of the messianic vision which has come to pass in our time’. For Al-e-Ahmad, Israel with its evidently Spartan community knit together by religion, language and prominent national identity seemed to offer a way forward for Iran:

In the eyes of this Easterner, Israel, despite all its defects and despite all contradictions it harbours, is the basis of a power: The first step in the promise of a future which is not that late … Israel is a model, [better] than any other model, of how to deal with the West.

Israel today, one of its leading chroniclers David Grossman writes, is far from being ‘a unique national creation’, and has turned into ‘a clumsy and awkward imitation of Western countries’. But this fate – common to many other unique national creations – could not have been anticipated in the early 1960s by an awestruck Iranian observer of the Israeli ‘miracle’. Besides, like all political thinkers, Al-e-Ahmad was searching for a way for his society to define, unite and defend itself.

Rousseau had advised Poles besieged by an expansionist Russia in the 1770s that if they ‘see to it that no Pole can ever become a Russian, I guarantee that Russia will not subjugate Poland’. In this earliest known advocacy of ‘national character’, Rousseau had urged Polish leaders to ‘establish the Republic so firmly in the hearts of the Poles’ that even if foreign powers swallow up their country they will not be able to ‘digest’ it. As France confronted multiple invasions in 1794, Robespierre insisted that nationalist passions could discipline and unite the French against their enemies. Al-e-Ahmad, too, wanted to immunize Iran psychologically and emotionally against foreign antibodies.

Married to a writer and feminist, he frequently derided religion as mumbo-jumbo. But, contemptuous of the Shah’s modernization programme, unimpressed by Communism, which inspired slavish devotion among its local adherents to the Soviet Union, and appalled by the arrogance of Harvard-educated liberal elites, Al-e-Ahmad saw religion as the only likely base for mass activism in Iran. In Westoxification he began to argue that politicized Islam offered the best way for Iranians to formulate a proud indigenous alternative to capitalism and Communism.

*   *   *

His emphasis on pride and dignity was not incidental. Ordinary Iranians felt deeply humiliated by their monarch. Consolidating his power, the Shah had come to radiate supreme arrogance with his corrupt sycophants and Western advisors (and his dissolute private life, rumours of which circulated widely). The most garish symbol of his aloofness from his subjects was a grand party in 1971 in Persepolis celebrating 2,500 years of ‘monarchy in Iran’. A French decorator built a tent city for visiting monarchs and heads of state; Elizabeth Arden created a new perfume and named it ‘Farah’ after the Shah’s wife; Maxim’s of Paris delivered food that was entirely French except for the caviar.

A cleric living in exile in Iraq called Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini denounced the pageantry, asserting, in defiance of many centuries of Islamic history, that Islam was fundamentally opposed to monarchy. A year earlier Khomeini had set out his vision of velāyat-e faqīh, or guardianship by jurist – a government that guided by Islamic jurists eradicates foreign influences and prevents the pleasure-seeking ruling classes from exploiting the weak. But at the time the more influential critic of the Persepolis jamboree was an Iranian intellectual called Ali Shariati.

Shariati, a Sorbonne-educated son of a diminished cleric who spent much time in Paris translating existentialist philosophers, took up Al-e-Ahmad’s task of rewriting Islamic history in the language of modern utopia. Shariati aimed to convince young Iranians of the political viability of Shiite Islam, and to assimilate secular political objectives into ‘Islamic’ ideas. Shariati was opposed to ‘clerical despotism’ (extremist followers of his in 1979 would launch a campaign of assassination against Khomeini’s fellow clerics). Called the Rousseau of the Iranian revolution, he invoked a quasi-Rousseauian trinity of AzadiBarabariErfa’n – ‘Liberty, Equality and Spirituality’. In this formula, liberty and democracy could be achieved without capitalism, equality without totalitarianism, and spirituality and religion without clerical authority.

A Holy Insurrection of the Masses, or More National Emulation?

In the 1970s, as the Shah intensified his Westernizing reforms with the help of a repressive security apparatus, and retreated further into his bubble of pro-monarchist elites and Western admirers, Shariati became his iconic opposition in Iran. Shariati’s biggest supporters were among Iran’s nascent intelligentsia comprised of university students, intellectuals, urban classes of workers and migrants. But, echoing Rousseau’s distrust of intellectuals, Shariati was careful to confine the intelligentsia, the critical conscience of the society, to the task of initiating a ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Reformation’. There was no need for a technocratic and intellectual vanguard. It was the people who would bring about revolution.

So they did in 1978, a year after Shariati died, under a leader he might have condemned as a very model of clerical despotism and arbitrary vanguardism. Born in a small town in 1902, Khomeini was educated as a cleric and philosopher. He came to prominence in 1963 at the head of a vigorous opposition to the Shah of Iran’s programme of modernization called the ‘White Revolution’, which included the privatization of state-owned enterprises, enfranchisement of women and mass literacy. He spent most of the next decade and a half in exile while Iranian youth absorbed the message of Al-e-Ahmad and Shariati. (Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was present at one of their rare joint meetings in Mashhad back in 1969.)

Khomeini censured laymen interpreting Islamic scripture. He thought that Sayyid Qutb was an impostor who ‘could interpret only a certain aspect of the Quran, and that much only imperfectly’. He would have raged against such a figure as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American Salafi ideologue, who, despite lacking all formal Islamic training, would build a large base of followers in Europe and America with his internet disquisitions on the Quran and Hadith. But he was careful not to criticize his intellectual predecessors in Iran. In fact, he borrowed from Shariati and Al-e-Ahmad in forging his amalgam of revolutionary discourse and Islam:

Colonialism has partitioned our homeland and has turned the Moslems into separate peoples … The only means that we possess to unite the Moslem nation, to liberate its lands from the grip of the colonialists and to topple the agent governments of colonialism is to seek to establish our Islamic government. The efforts of this government will be crowned with success when we become able to destroy the heads of treason, the idols, the human images and the false gods who disseminate injustice and corruption on earth.

Khomeini railed against the whole notion of appropriative mimicry: ‘As soon as someone goes somewhere or invents something, we should not hurry to abandon our religion and its laws, which regulate the life of man and provide for his well-being in this world and the hereafter.’ In 1978 Khomeini returned from exile in France to assume the leadership of a massive popular revolt against the Shah.

The clergy’s influence had grown and grown in preceding years; the Iranian masses, uprooted from their rural homes and crowded into south Tehran’s slums, gravitated to authoritative figures in their radically new conditions of uncertainty. The Shah’s brutal state had exterminated or silenced many secular and left-wing opponents of the regime. In this vacuum, Khomeini cemented the clergy’s hold. Khomeinism also initially attracted secular intellectuals, the rushanfekran, even though its primary social base was constituted by clerics, their bazaari allies and the urban poor.

As in the original revolution of the modern era (the French), popular sovereignty in Iran turned out to be as ruthlessly absolute as royal sovereignty. ‘We must smother,’ Robespierre had said, ‘the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with them.’ Soon after assuming power, Khomeini inaugurated his own post-revolutionary reign of terror, sentencing thousands of enemies of the Islamic Republic to death. These were held guilty of mofsed fel-arz (spreading corruption on earth) or for being taghuti (idol-worshippers) and monafeqin (hypocrites). Khomeini himself coined much of the new language of retribution against members of the venal ancien régime.

*   *   *

One of his typical victims was Amir Abbas Hoveida, the prime minister of Iran until 1977. Born into an aristocratic family, and educated predominantly in French, Hoveida was a francophile connoisseur of poetry and art, whom the Shah himself arrested just before his downfall in a failed attempt to distance his regime from Westernized Iranians. Khomeini, however, was determined to strike a deeper blow.

Sending Hoveida to the gallows, he stopped the Shah’s nuclear programme, and also mothballed his first-rate collection of modern art. He assured fellow revolutionaries worried about rising inflation that ‘Iran’s Islamic Revolution was not about the price of melons.’ This vigorous contempt for the religion of the modern age – economic growth and material improvement – was part of Khomeini’s Rousseauian nostalgia for a lost community of virtue. As he put it:

For the solution of social problems and the relief of human misery require foundation in faith and morals; merely acquiring material power and wealth, conquering nature and space, have no effect in this regard. They must be supplemented by and balanced with, the faith, the conviction, and the morality of Islam, in order to truly serve humanity, instead of endangering it.

If the emphasis on morality and scorn for material success is reminiscent of Rousseau, the argument for religion reminds one of Robespierre in his last phase as well as such Catholic reactionaries as Joseph de Maistre and Vicomte de Bonald. Khomeini’s emphatic rejection of human pretension and appeals to transcendental authority led Foucault to see a form of ‘spiritual politics’ emerging in Iran. In his view this politics was emphatically not shaped by an abstract, calculating and incarcerating reason, but a ‘groundswell with no vanguard and no party’.

Foucault’s enthusiastic reception of Khomeini was over-determined by his own distaste for the political and economic systems – industrial capitalism and the bureaucratic nation state – created by the Atlantic West. (Foucault in this sense followed Montesquieu in using Iran to pursue an internal critique of the West.) Earlier that year of the revolution in Iran, he had told a Zen Buddhist priest that Western thought was in crisis. Foucault was hostile to Communism, which had attracted many of his fellow intellectuals in France. But he was equally contemptuous of the capitalist West: in his words, ‘the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine’.

Driven by an intense loathing of both Western and Soviet universalisms – similar to one that led Heidegger into the delusion that Nazism was capable of creating a genuine ‘regional’ culture – Foucault failed to notice that Khomeini was actually a radically modern leader. For one, the cleric’s notion that the Iranian nation did not stem from any general or popular will but derived from God’s mind, which as a charismatic leader he arrogated himself the right to interpret, was wholly novel: an extraordinary deviation, in fact, from a politically quietist Shiite tradition in which all government appeared illegitimate in the absence of the Twelfth Imam.

Khomeini belonged in the long line of revolutionary nationalists that began with Giuseppe Mazzini, who had also called for a holy insurrection by the oppressed masses. As with Mazzini, who laid the foundation for what his clear-eyed critic Gaetano Salvemini called a ‘popular theocracy’, Khomeini’s ideas were embedded in modern notions of representation and egalitarianism. His notion of state power as a tool to produce a utopian Islamic society was borrowed from the Pakistani ideologue Abu Al-Ala Maududi, whose works he translated into Farsi in 1963. (Maududi’s vision of imposing Islamic order from above in turn was stimulated by Lenin’s theory of an elite as vanguard of the revolution.) American-educated left-leaning technocrats such as Mostafa Chamran, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Ebrahim Yazdi had scripted, and even rewritten, Khomeini’s public statements during his exile in France.

Nevertheless, Foucault was right to think that that, unlike their Russian and Japanese counterparts, the Iranian intelligentsia had articulated a genuinely popular alternative to the project of top-down modernization – one that would also force Sunni thinkers to reassess the role of Islam in modern politics, and much later embark on their own journeys into radicalism. In a society dominated by unresponsive, venal and culturally alien elites, these thinkers were able to persuade, initially at least, the masses with their imagined moral community of like-minded people, held together by a shared belief in the Islamic ideals of equality and justice.

They seemed to offer a truer form of egalitarianism, one with sanction in Islamic law, and enforced by a trained clergy. Their quick and thunderously applauded overthrow of the despised Shah seemed to prove Tocqueville’s assertion that people in the democratic age ‘have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion’ for equality, and that ‘they will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy’.

Khomeinism did not score a complete triumph in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The state’s legitimacy today is drawn from the popular vote rather than the faqīh. The ‘supreme leader’ is appointed, and can be dismissed, by a council of ‘experts’ that is itself elected on a regular basis. Khomeini himself repeatedly revealed Khomeinism to be an improvised programme of action rather than a coherent doctrine. Having opposed voting rights for women in the 1960s, he exhorted, after 1979, a greater role for women in strengthening the revolutionary nation state. He forbade the government from retaliating in kind to Saddam Hussein’s attacks with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war (1981–8); he stigmatized nuclear bombs as un-Islamic. Just before his death, however, he wrote to the then president, and now supreme leader, Khamenei, that any aspect of Islam could be abrogated to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Shaped by political considerations, and then driven by geopolitical urgencies, Khomeinism was always a hybrid: the beneficiary of an ideological account of Islamic tradition, which borrowed from modern idioms and used secular concepts, particularly those of Shariati, and also incorporated a Third Worldist revolutionary discourse. Islamists negating top-down modernizers ended up mirroring, even parodying, their supposed enemy, cancelling their own simple oppositions between Us and Them. The Islamic Revolution in Iran resulted in another repressive state. With its many affronts to dignity and freedom, the Revolution was in this respect like the many self-defeating projects of human liberation since Rousseau started to outline them in the eighteenth century.

But, in the postcolonial age of escalating egalitarianism, the Islamists stood for republicanism, radicalism and nationalism – the real thing, or almost. They offered dignity – often a substitute for freedom in the postcolonial context – and made modernizing elites appear callous tools of Western imperialism. The ideologues and activists of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini as well as Ali Shariati and Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and all those who followed them, grasped more clearly than modernizing-by-rote monarchs and despots the deeper and transformative potential of the idea brought into being by the Enlightenment: that human beings can radically alter their social conditions. In this important sense, they were a product of the modern world, in the line of the alienated strangers Rousseau addressed, rather than of some irrevocably religious or medieval society.

There Is a Leak in Your Identity

A religious or medieval society was one in which the social, political and economic order seemed unchangeable, and the poor and the oppressed attributed their suffering either to fortuitous happenings – ill luck, bad health, unjust rulers – or to the will of God. The idea that suffering could be relieved, and happiness engineered, by men radically changing the social order belongs to the eighteenth century.

The ambitious philosophers of the Enlightenment brought forth the idea of a perfectible society – a Heaven on Earth rather than in the afterlife. It was taken up vigorously by the French revolutionaries – Saint-Just, one of the most fanatical of them, memorably remarked, ‘the idea of happiness is new in Europe’ – before turning into the new political religions of the nineteenth century. Travelling deep into the postcolonial world in the twentieth century, it turned into a faith in top-down modernization; and transformed traditional ways of life and modes of belief – Buddhism as well as Islam – into modern activist ideologies.

Meanwhile, the religious impulse had not simply disappeared in Europe, as is often supposed, before evidently secular, even anti-religious, ideologies and under the pressures of political and economic modernization. The French Revolution, Tocqueville wrote, was like Islam in that it ‘flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles and martyrs’. The decades preceding it constituted, as Herzen pointed out, ‘one of the most religious periods of history’, consecrated by ‘Pope Voltaire’, a ‘fanatic of his religion of humanity’.

Europeans simply had erected new absolutes – progress, humanity, the republic – to replace those of traditional religion and the monarchy. With the advent of modernity, the metaphysical and theological core of Christianity began to manifest itself differently; it was often found at the heart of modern projects of redemption and transcendence that needed their own metaphysics and theology to guide thinking and action. Revolution or radical social transformation effected by individuals was increasingly seen as a kind of Second Coming; violence initiated the new beginning; and, in the final approximation of Christian themes, history was expected to provide the final judgement on the moral community brought into being by men.

The eschatological impulse, a reflection (or distortion) of the Orthodox Church, was recognizably at work among Russian revolutionaries, notably Belinsky and Bakunin. The most fanatical engineers of the human soul, such as Chernyshevsky, Dobroliubov and Stalin, were either children of priests or seminarians (like, remarkably, Al-e-Ahmad, Shariati, Qutb and many Islamist ideologues). But nearly every major thinker in Europe – whether liberal, nationalist, Marxist, atheistic or agnostic – also transposed Christian providentialism into would-be rationalistic categories.

Marx reproduced medieval and Reformation millenarian expectations in his utopia of a classless, stateless society. Herzen cautioned that liberalism with its invisible hand alchemizing selfishness into general welfare ‘is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this’; and its ‘theology is political theory’, whose ‘mystical conciliations’ are to be achieved on Earth. Christian eschatology even suffuses the political ideals of today’s insistently Islamic radicals and Hindu nationalists – an inescapable irony of history that would enrage these vendors of gaudy particularism if they became aware of it. And the West’s campaigns for ‘Infinite Justice’ or ‘Enduring Freedom’ mimic global jihad in their will to conflict and open-endedness.

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations – the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the varied ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) – reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis – religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist – on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths.

Radical Islamists or Hindu nationalists insist on their cultural distinctiveness and moral superiority precisely because they have lost their religious traditions, and started to resemble their supposed enemies in their pursuit of the latter’s ideologies of individual and collective success. They are driven by what Freud once called the ‘narcissism of small difference’: the effect of differences that loom large in the imagination precisely because they are very small. Khomeini managed to conceal his appropriative mimicry with some ingeniously invented tradition, and his cleric’s authentically frugal lifestyle. But there is much that is clearly parodic today about ISIS’s self-appointed Caliph sporting a Rolex and India’s Hindu revivalist prime minister draped in a $15,000 Savile Row suit with personalized pin stripes.

The key to mimic man’s behaviour lies not in any clash of opposed civilizations, but, on the contrary, in irresistible mimetic desire: the logic of fascination, emulation and righteous self-assertion that binds the rivals inseparably. It lies in ressentiment, the tormented mirror games in which the West as well as its ostensible enemies and indeed all inhabitants of the modern world are trapped.

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