Many European and American historians often speak and write about certain periods of ‘religious revival’ in Muslim countries. They claim that Muslim-majority regions witnessed these revivals in the 1970s and 1980s, and that these led to Islamic radicalisation in the Muslim world and also among the Muslim diaspora in the West. This is not incorrect as such, but it is still too neat a narrative.
Here’s the thing: it is also possible that the ‘religious revivals’ were not as organic as they are made out to be. Postmodernist theories posit that the whole ‘modernisation’ project, especially in developing countries, fell into a crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, in the mid-1970s, unprecedented spikes in international oil prices left the economies of various countries on the brink of collapse.
This caused a reaction against modernity, which was accused of callously wasting natural resources on economic projects that, in turn, had created societies that were too materialistic, ‘spiritually bankrupt’, and self-destructive. This, too, was a postmodernist view. Yet, in Pakistan, for example, when a ‘modernist’ dictatorship headed by Gen Ayub Khan fell in early 1969, it was the ‘anti-modern’ religious parties that were routed at the polls that followed.
In Egypt, when a popular Arab nationalist and modernist, Gamal Nasser, lost a war against Israel in 1967, rallies were held when he announced that he was resigning. These rallies requested him to stay. In 1970, when he passed away, approximately five million Egyptians attended his funeral. These are at least two examples which somewhat soil the neat postmodernist narratives of the aforementioned ‘religion revivals’.
Ironically, the onslaught against modernity in many Muslim regions was led by secular bastions of modernity, such as the US and UK. More contemporary ‘authentic’ Muslim cultural identities are still part of the Orientalist project
In Iran, the revolutionary struggle against a modernist monarch in the late 1970s was largely initiated by the anti-monarchy modernists. According to the celebrated intellectual, the late Eqbal Ahmad, the 1979 Iranian revolution’s main architects were anti-monarchists who were looking to replace the monarchy with a democracy with reformed Shia characteristics.
They were not agitating for a theocracy. Ahmad wrote that the theocrats and the clerics only managed to come to power after violently eradicating their former non-Islamist allies. In fact, most of these allies were anti-Islamists.
There was thus nothing organic about the shift towards Islamism in the Muslim world. The most startling bit is that the shift was largely engineered by secular states in Europe (especially the UK), and by the US. There is now ample evidence of this.
In 2020, the British government agreed to declassify dozens of secret documents. According to these, the UK government had established a special unit in 1948 called the Information Research Department (IRD). For the next three decades, the IRD invested considerable resources in bolstering the status of certain ulema and clerics, and various political and media outfits in the Muslim world, to blunt the impact and appeal of Soviet communism in Muslim-majority regions. These resources were also used against secular Muslim leaders, some of whom were assumed to be pro-Moscow.
So, ironically, the onslaught against modernity in many Muslim regions was led by secular bastions of modernity, such as the US and UK. They spearheaded the spread of reactionary variants of Islam as a way to mitigate Soviet influence in Muslim countries.
In 1981, Ahmad wrote an essay in which he warned the US. He stressed that US involvement in the Afghan civil war (between the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and Islamist insurgents) would spell a global political and cultural disaster.
During that war, not only did the US invest billions of dollars and weapons to aid the anti-communist Islamists, but the jihadist literature that was employed to indoctrinate the Islamists too was authored and published in the US. Also, the oil-rich Saudi monarchy was mobilised by the US to fund the spread of radical Islamist ideas in Muslim countries.
In July 2017, the reformist Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman was quoted as saying that the Saudi-funded spread of ‘Wahhabism’ began as a result of Western countries asking Riyadh to help counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. According to the prince, “Western allies prodded Saudi Arabia to invest in mosques and madrassas overseas, in an effort to prevent Moscow from making inroads into Muslim countries.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the project of facilitating the Islamists suddenly came to an end. However, the project’s influence had by then thoroughly demonised the idea of modernity in Muslim countries. And it was not only Muslim societies that became rigid; the Muslim diaspora in Western regions too began to adopt and exhibit a similar attitude.
This leads to another convenient postmodernist narrative: the increasing tendency in Muslims to exhibit their ‘Islamic culture’ is a statement against Western political and social hegemonies. But I beg to differ. I see it as a case of ‘self-Orientalism’ or when a subject Orientalised by the West, becomes a part of the Orientalising process.
The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said explained ‘Orientalism’ as a process in which the West belittles non-Western cultures as being emotional, exotic and irrational. Said claimed that it was put in place to serve European colonialism. However, on numerous occasions, non-Western folk willingly portrayed themselves exactly the way the Orientalists defined them. The reasons were mostly economic.
For example, Hindu ‘gurus’, Buddhist priests, and Sufi ‘masters’ often adopted the superficial exoticism attached to them by the West. They began arriving in rich Western countries to help supposedly ‘spiritually bankrupt’ societies — for a fee, of course. However, from the 1990s onwards, such self-Orientalism has fallen out of favour for the need to be more ‘authentic’. Yet, this ‘authenticity’ is part of self-Orientalism as well.
For example, in the last two decades, many Muslims in their own country and abroad have increasingly been adopting attires which they claim are closest to the notions of ‘real Islam’. But the fact is, such notions too were first encouraged and facilitated by Britain’s IRD through certain Islamist outfits, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and through Saudi-funded clerics and media outlets. By the 1990s, most Westerners had already begun to view Muslims, not as some spiritually exotic people, but as folk with a staunch anti-modernity disposition.
It is this disposition which became an integral part of the ‘authentic’ identity formation process among the Muslims (especially in the West) — an ‘authentic’ disposition which was actually the outcome of Western manoeuvres to create reactionary Muslim polities that would keep at bay any Soviet influence in the Muslim world.
Therefore, many Muslims believing they’re being authentic, are still dressing up for Orientalists, or for a post-Cold War variant of neo-Orientalism.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2023