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Overcoming the Cultural Divide PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Oct 23, 2004 at 10:33 AM

The September 11 attacks on America invoked, among other things, a debate over the quality of religious education in Muslim societies. The calls for educational reform of Islamic religious schools have been most recently echoed by well-positioned individuals in the West. Several scholars, journalists, and commentators have concluded that the fanaticism that motivated the highjackers who drove civilian airplanes into civilian targets is rooted in an educational system that teaches hate and intolerance. Traditional religious schools in Muslim societies, the argument goes, have become breeding grounds for religious fanatics who are willing to use force and violence to impose their narrow views of the world on the rest of humanity. The new advocates of curtailing religious and strengthening liberal education would like to see increased pressure on Muslim governments to restructure religious curricula to achieve the desired end. Under this pressure, the Pakistani government has already closed several religious schools.

The concerns of western critics over traditional Islamic education, while real, are greatly exaggerated. One reason is that religious fanaticism is still only the outlook and experience of fringe groups operating on the margins of society; another reason is that radical groups are to a great extent the creatures of the oppressive regimes that dominate Muslim societies. Evidently, that reliance on state power has strengthened the hands of extremists and undermined the efforts of reformists.

Still, the realization of the extent to which Islamic traditionalism is at odds with western modernity is quite significant, because it underscores the need for western analysts and policy-makers to reconsider their current approach to dealing with Islamic resurgence. The universal monologue in which western cultures and norms are elevated to universal standards must give way to a cross-cultural dialogue that aims at finding a middle ground for common humanity, while respecting the cultural individuality of non-western societies.



For several decades now, decision makers, in both western and Muslim societies, have viewed the recent reassertion of Islamic values with great suspicion. To those who have been informed by the experience of modernity, the return of religion to the public realm is seen as a regression of sorts, a return to the medieval way of life. If western society has progressed intellectually, politically, socially, and economically by pushing religion into the private sphere, other societies must follow through a similar process of secularization. This argument has for many decades been advanced by modernization theorists. A whole generation of western thinkers has vigorously advocated the strategy of modernization through westernization. From W.W. Rostow and Daniel Lerner, through David Apter and Gabriel Almond, to Leonard Binder and Samuel Huntington, the theme remains always the same: westernization is the only gate for developing countries to modernize. Binder came gradually to realize that Islam is central to the modernization process in the Middle East, as he demonstrated in his important work Islamic Liberalism, a work, incidentally, marked the end of his career as a scholar of note within modernization theory. Huntington, on the other hand, made the dramatic leap from being an advocate of modernization to a prophet of doom and of the clash of civilizations.


Yet the advocates of Muslim reform should be reminded that the call to reform in Muslim societies is not new, but dates back to the efforts of mid-nineteenth century Muslim reformers, most notably Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abdu. Muslim reformers realized early on the limitation of Islamic traditionalism and advocated profound social and cultural reforms. But because Muslim reformers have all along struggled to base their reformist vision in Islam, they were frequently undercut by “modern” ruling elites, who used the façade of western modernity to disguise their undemocratic and archaic political and social preferences. Ruling elites in Muslim societies very often preferred to promote Islamic traditionalism to fight the forces of reform. It is an irony of sorts that the desire for reform in Muslim society is voiced by the very forces that have resisted Islamic reform in Muslim societies. And it is a greater irony that the advocates of freedom and democracy find it convenient to use the power of autocratic states to achieve their modernist, and supposedly liberal, ends.


The reform strategy advocated by western modernists is both erroneous and narrow-sighted. A profound reform of Muslim societies cannot be undertaken by ignoring the Islamic foundation of Muslim cultures. Nor can such a reform proceed by pushing reform models down the throat of Muslims. Islam as the motif for moral and social behavior for Muslims is central to the reform efforts. Also central is a free debate and open dialogue in which ideas are discussed freely in the public square, and consensus is generated among social interlocutors.


A cultural reform aiming at liberating the individual from narrow interpretations of Islam is already underway, as noted earlier. A long line of Muslim Reformers, including Khairuddin al Tunusi, Abdulrahman al Kawakibi, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Iqbal, Said al Nurusi, Malik Bennabi, Ali Shari‘ati, and Ismail al Faruqi, to name a few, continues to appeal to the values and ethos embodied in the Islamic sources to restore the moral autonomy of the individual, and to develop an open and egalitarian political culture. The reform is therefore Islamic in nature and intent, and cannot be otherwise. All reform movements that have brought about profound cultural reform have been religious. The essentially secularist and individualistic modern West owes its genesis, as Weber reminded us in his Protestant Ethic, to the Religious Reformation that took place in the Occident at the dawn of the modern West. The Muslim East should be allowed to undertake its own reformation, which would inevitably result in the reorientation and rationalization of the religious values and beliefs of Muslims, and must hence take the form of an Islamic Reformation.


Islam is a religion which has historically given rise to a variety of cultural forms. Like all divine revelations, it emphasizes individual responsibility, and admonishes its followers to adhere to its moral code even if that would dismay the larger society to which they belong. While it values social cooperation, it by no means places the collectivity above the individual.  Historically, Islam has given rise to unmistakably individualistic forms of philosophical, literary, and artistic expression. Muslim individualism has historically shown more interest in maintaining, even celebrating, pluralistic society than that of the modern West. Pluralism in Muslim societies, up until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, reached far beyond the religious and political spheres, to include the social, the cultural, and even the legal. It has in the past inspired individual creativity that can be seen in the work of eminent figures such as al-Farabi, Averros, Avicenna, and Ibn Khadun, to cite just a few names well known for their contribution to western scholarship. The collectivist and totalitarian orientation one encounters today in the Muslim East is a relatively new phenomenon, resulting from the rational and moral decline of Muslims in the last two centuries, and influenced by the ascendancy in the post-colonial era of authoritarian regimes which demand total individual conformity in the name of developmentalist ideologies.



Scholars who deny the relevance of religion to the debate on social reform usually favor a unilinear view of history that equates moral with technical superiority. According to this view, human cultures form a continuum in which primitive cultures represent one extreme while modern culture represents the other. Primitive cultures are seen to be lacking not only in technology, but in morality as well. Primitive cultures are described as barbaric and savage, while modern culture is seen as refined and civilized.  History, from a unilinear viewpoint, is nothing but the movement from the primitive to the modern which forms the end of history. The logical conclusion of the unilinear conception of history is that modern culture is the measure of all cultures. The problem with this conception, though, is that it fails to account for important historical events. The unilinear conception of history fails, for instance, to explain why European cultures were more vibrant and developed - politically, philosophically, and artistically - during the Roman civilization than in medieval times. From the perspective of modernization, the historical experiences of Muslim cultures are irrelevant to the debate on modernization because there is nothing for modern culture to learn from other cultures. Modern culture should set the standards for both moral and technical action, and then pass them on to less developed cultures. Interestingly, this western modernist outlook is shared by the Muslim traditionalists, as the latter insist on the moral superiority and universal validity of their own interpretation of the world.


It is obvious that an absolute universalistic stance is incompatible with a meaningful cultural dialogue between the Muslim East and the liberal West, even when the proponents of such a stance truly desire this dialogue. A coercive discourse in which the proponents of one of the contending points of view feel justified by their strategic positioning to dictate to others their own morality cannot be called a cross-cultural dialogue, but rather a universalist monologue. A true and meaningful dialogue requires that the parties involved be truly interested in understanding the opposing views, and be involved in “a completely open and reciprocal form of discursive interaction.” The transition from a universalist monologue to a cross-cultural dialogue requires, therefore, more than the manipulation of linguistic usage.  The transition requires a change in attitude and approach, from one that relies on power relationships and self-righteousness to one that depends on rational interaction, or, to use Habermasian categories, a transition from a strategic speech act whose aim is to advance the interests of the powerful actor, to a communicative speech act, whose goal is to influence the actions of others by appealing to their rational sense. Put more precisely: in order for the transition from a universalist monologue, denoting a strategic interaction, to a true cross-cultural dialogue, signifying a communicative interaction, to take place, three preconditions must be met. (1) The universally shared moral values must be established objectively. (2) The moral autonomy of the various national and cultural communities that form the world community must be recognized and respected. And, (3) the self-righteous claim by any cultural group of the superiority of its moral system must be rejected.


Arguments for the universality of western culture invoke, more often than not, the subjective rather than the objective dimension of universalism. Subjective universalism is homological because it takes “the form of a hypothetical process of argumentation occurring in the individual mind.” The subjective universalization process follows the pattern set by Kant in the form of the Categorical Imperative: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From a Kantian point of view, a rule can be universal if it passes the test of the reciprocity principle, viz. if the person who adopts the rule as a maxim for his/her action is willing to be treated by others according to the same rule.



The principle of universalization as formulated by Kant is a subjective principle that can have a universal validity only insofar as others share the same moral subjectivity as the moral actor. Put differently, the Kantian principle of universalization, which takes the form of a subjective process of generalization, can work only in a homogenous culture in which people share common intersubjectivity. However, as soon as one moves into a world characterized by cultural pluralism, say a world which resembles the international society, a different principle of universalization would be needed. Rather than asserting the universality of my principles, I must submit my principles along with all others with the aim of discursively arriving at commonly acknowledged universal principles. By so doing, the emphasis shifts from cultural inter-subjectivity, whereby the universal can be claimed by a cultural group as long as it does not contradict their cultural norms, to cross-cultural inter-subjectivity, in which the universal must be acknowledged by people of different normative frames of reference.

The above reformulation of the Categorical Imperative is exceedingly important for today’s globalizing society, both because of cross-cultural diversity and also because modern society itself is increasingly becoming socially and morally more diverse. While the stipulation of explicit agreement for the fulfillment of communicative action is relevant to cultures that share common intersubjectivity, it is even more urgent for cross-cultural dialogue that aims to bring true peace and justice to today’s world.

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