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Mind Over Mullah: Fatima Mernissi's book on the Muslim "Fear of the Modern World"

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Mind Over Mullah Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World By Fatima Mernissi Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Perseus Publishing, 1992, 224 pp. Book Review
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 8, 2004
      Mind Over Mullah

      Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World
      By Fatima Mernissi
      Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Perseus Publishing, 1992, 224 pp.

      Book Review By Shanon Shah

      There has been a sudden surge in debates across the world on whether or not
      Islam is compatible with democracy. Like it or not, there is no consensus
      yet on this issue. Indeed, the very concept of democracy is still hotly
      contested, with systems as varied as Turkey, the United States of America,
      Israel and South Africa each calling themselves democracies.

      In Malaysia, we have an opposition fundamentalist Islamist party whose line
      of defense for its model of an Islamic state is that it would only pursue
      such a state through the democratic process. And what does this party mean
      exactly by the “democratic process?” Well, so far this party has only
      explained to Malaysians that its vision of an Islamic state would only be
      realized through the ballot box. If this sounds like a very superficial
      definition of “democracy,” it is only because this is primarily how
      “democracy” has been defined in the modern state of Malaysia. We are
      democratic because citizens get to vote during elections. To be fair,
      Malaysia has a fairly developed electoral system. Candidates from opposition
      parties do get elected to the federal Parliament, and to state assemblies.
      However, this has led to more than one observation that we are a well-oiled
      electocracy, but not really much of a democracy.

      So where does an electocracy stop and a democracy begin? Is there a place
      where Islam stops and democracy begins? Or is it that Islam, by the virtue
      of it being complete and perfect, embodies democracy in all its inalienable
      principles? There must definitely be more to this debate, because all around
      the world, many people – Muslims and non-Muslims – have been losing their
      heads over this debate. Some literally, even.

      All over the world, people seem to be afraid to ask questions about Islam’s
      relationship to democracy. It may appear strange, but both fundamentalist
      and modern reformist Muslims assert with equal conviction that Islam
      embodies democracy. However, it is also true that there are still many more
      people out there who are not convinced, or downright fearful, of such
      assertions. Islam and democracy? Islam, a religion revealed in the Arabian
      peninsula of the 6th Century A.D.? Democracy, a product of the modern “West”
      ? Compatible with each other?

      It should be no surprise that among the many people asking these questions
      are Muslims living in the Muslim world.

      And so, when taking a second glance at the cover of Fatima Mernissi’s “Islam
      and Democracy”, one is struck by how accurate its subtitle really is: “Fear
      of the Modern World.”

      Mernissi starts by introducing the spatial dimension of fear, specifically
      the fears of the Muslim world towards the Other, towards concepts and
      societies that are deemed “unIslamic.” Because the book was written in 1992,
      shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, Mernissi also plays around a
      bit with then newly-abandoned Cold War euphemisms. For one thing, she plays
      around at trying to translate the term “Iron Curtain” into Arabic. An
      accurate translation, she says, would be “al-hijab al-hadidi.” She says that
      this is an absolutely valid translation, since “the translation of the word
      ‘curtain’ in the sense of something that divides space to impede traffic, is
      precisely ‘hijab.’”

      This is merely a tiny glimpse of the many ideas that Mernissi explores in
      this book, and the ways in which she approaches each idea. In order to
      understand the Muslim world’s aversion to “democracy,” Mernissi constantly
      re-examines many of the Muslim world’s accepted interpretations of its own
      concepts. And most of the time, she makes sense. Take her “Iron Curtain”
      approach. Many Muslims now view the “hijab” as pertaining solely to women’s
      dress. Mernissi goes further, making connections between a man’s obsession
      with moralizing on how a woman should dress, and an overall political
      superstructure that can only defend itself by sequestering half of its
      population from the public space. And she proposes that this logic has been
      severely undermined after the Gulf War. Because how could these borders,
      these methods of segregating society, possibly work when the borders
      themselves were suddenly trespassed and broken by Western armies, Western
      arms and Western technology?

      And through this sort of analysis, Mernissi also examines how our use of
      language signifies both how we see ourselves, and how we see others. After
      all, it is primarily through language that most ideological battles are
      fought. And the Muslim world is no stranger to this fact. To realize this,
      one only needs to see the impact of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fiery sermons,
      circulated in Iran via audiocassettes while he was still in exile in France.
      It was a strange combination – his call for a return to an idealized “Islam”
      of the past, spread through thoroughly modern means.

      The significance of this is not lost on Mernissi. With feeling and poetry,
      she calls the two sections of her book “A Mutilated Modernity” and “Sacred
      Concepts and Profane Anxieties.” Through richly woven arguments, she
      explores some of the most immediate fears of the Muslim world within these
      two sections.

      Take one of her many elegant arguments about why the Muslim world seems to
      have so much phobia of the West. She again uses linguistic and spatial
      arguments to make her case. The Arabic word for West, she tells us, is
      “Gharb.” “Foreign” is “Gharib.” Thus, she says, “’Foreignness’ in Arabic has
      a very strong spatial connotation, for gharb is the place where the sun sets
      and where darkness awaits …it is there that gharaba (strangeness) has taken
      up its abode.”

      Mernissi skillfully aligns all of her arguments behind her main contention,
      which is that:

      “Identifying democracy as a Western malady, decking it out in the chador of
      foreignness, is a strategic operation worth millions of petrodollars. This
      little book will have attained its objective if it succeeds in suggesting
      some of the techniques used in this operation, including manipulation of
      fears by pasting ancient anxieties onto modern ones.”

      Besides its fear of the foreign West, Mernissi also explores the Muslim
      world’s fears of Islamic religious authority (the imam), of democracy, of
      the United Nations Charter (all in the first part of the book), and of
      freedom of thought, of individualism, of our past and of our present (all in
      the second part of the book). At the end of the first part, she devotes a
      chapter to exploring the power and centrality of the Qur’an to debates about
      Islam and democracy. At the end of the second part, she explores the role
      that women will have to play in this whole situation.

      Mernissi’s ideas are always challenging but well covered and sensible. To
      explain the terrifying ascent of terrorist imams, she makes the distinction
      between the “media imam” (a modern creation) and the “traditional imam” (a
      reality during the time of the Prophet). The “media imam” is a creation of
      modern technology. He, in turn, uses modern technology to magnify his
      presence and bulldoze his rhetoric over the many complex debates the
      community could potentially participate in. However, the “traditional imam”
      was vulnerable and utterly challengeable when he failed to secure the rights
      of each individual in society. Hence, according to Mernissi, the rise of
      political Islam. Because when a politician now promises that “if he becomes
      leader he will act like an imam, the modern politician mobilizes fifteen
      centuries of hopes.”

      And here it is interesting because Mernissi has made it clear from the
      beginning that she is addressing the experience of the Arab-speaking Muslim
      world. She makes allowances for the fact that the contexts in
      non-Arab-speaking Muslim countries might be quite different from the
      contexts she describes.

      From my own observations, however, the Malaysian experience really does not
      look quite that different from the experiences of the various Arab-speaking
      societies Mernissi talks about. We, too, have politicians blurring the lines
      between politics and religion to gain brownie points with Muslim voters.
      Granted, politicians who want to masquerade as imams here have a tougher
      time pursuing this image, because they also then have to contend with a
      sizable non-Muslim electorate. But to make a long story short, this has
      never stopped politicians here from trying to out-Islamize each other.

      This could very well be due to the very pervasiveness of the Arabization of
      Islam in Malaysia. But it remains to be seen whether this is the sole
      determining factor. Another very important factor that should never be
      overlooked is how much the authorities have obstructed the circulation of
      opinions and accounts of Islam that contradict what is officially
      sanctioned. Malaysia is definitely not an Islamic fundamentalist state, but
      Malaysians can definitely empathize when Mernissi says that “not only are
      the fundamentalist states, which base their political legitimacy on the
      past, not committed to understanding Islamic history; they also censor the
      books that try to clarify it.” She may be talking specifically about
      Arab-speaking Muslim states, but she is really onto something here. Granted,
      it is something that many citizens of Muslim countries have already figured
      out in one way or another. But to have someone with Mernissi’s skills at
      analysis unpack this phenomenon is truly refreshing.

      Because this book was written so shortly after the first Gulf War, Mernissi
      also spends some time dissecting the military industrial complex. Her
      analysis suggests that it is both the industrialized countries of the West
      and the Arab-Muslim countries that have a military industrial complex.
      However, the West spends most of its money subsidizing research and studies
      that go into advancing its military sector. And so, the West not only gets
      to stock more weapons in its arms inventory, it also develops the skills and
      knowledge to do this. And most of these skills and expertise have spillover
      effects. The West’s superiority in other areas of science and technology,
      from designing swanky household appliances to developing speedy computer
      network connections, is probably a result of its focus on research and
      development. The Arab countries, however, set aside huge amounts of money
      from massive petroleum revenues just to passively consume these products,
      without doing much to educate and train citizens. Thus, Arab countries do
      not develop their intellectual capital, and remain technologically inferior
      (both in military and non-military terms) to the West, because the West will
      always have the advantage of superior skills and knowledge over the Arab

      But in no way does Mernissi ever recommend methods for Muslims to assert
      their military might. She says, “The military option is contrary to the
      interests of Arab citizens in general, and to those of women in particular.
      No leftist movement in the Arab world can offer a serious alternative if it
      doesn’t make the demilitarization of the region a priority.”

      This analysis of the militarized Arab world is probably one of the few
      instances in which the experiences of the Arab-Muslim world differ from the
      experiences of Malaysia. Malaysia is not a military state. The government
      does spend quite a bit of money in proportion to our Gross Domestic Product
      on building up our military inventory, but not on the scale of some
      countries in the Middle East. Also, successive Malaysian governments have
      placed a high priority on education of citizens from the beginning. From the
      1970s onwards, the Malaysian government, along with several
      government-associated private companies, has been sending Malaysian students
      to pursue their higher education overseas in a variety of technical and
      scientific fields. However, public discourse in Malaysia is still quite
      stifled, not because of the role that our military plays, but the role that
      our police force plays.

      A Malaysian commentator once quipped that we certainly do not have to worry
      about being a military state, because we are a police state. While this
      observation is quite extreme, there is no denying that the police in
      Malaysia have a bigger role in affecting public society than the military.
      And because it is the police force that is dominant, the suppression of
      thought has quite a different dynamic here. Citizens here believe that they
      are qualified to speak up. We do not feel that we are really that inferior
      compared to the West. Even if we concede that we are inferior in some areas,
      many Malaysians believe we will “catch up” soon, in our own way. But
      Malaysians are still unable to fully participate in public discourse (an
      integral part of a functioning democracy), because of the many parliamentary
      laws that restrict public expression. These laws, of course, are upheld by
      our police force.

      But many Muslim countries still view Malaysia as a model Islamic country.
      The level of technological development achieved by Malaysia is the envy of
      quite a few Muslim countries. They marvel at the Malaysian government’s
      effective strategies in encouraging the pursuit of knowledge among
      Malaysians. But it must be noted that the Malaysian government, though
      thoroughly supportive of the pursuit of knowledge, is not really supportive
      of the pursuit of imagination. The arts and letters do not occupy the front
      seat of any government initiatives to develop society. However, the pursuit
      of knowledge in scientific and technical fields is largely encouraged, from
      current favorites like information and communications technology, to fields
      that may not appear to be big revenue earners, like astronomy. And it is
      interesting that Mernissi sees this, too:

      “Islam cannot be threatened by the discoveries of astronomy, such as the
      observation of new galaxies, because its vision is of a cosmos in movement.
      Threats to its authority do not come from outside, but from within human
      beings. It is imagination, and the irreducible sovereignty of the individual
      which engender disequilibrium and tension. A Galileo challenging the
      authority of Islam must be not a scientist but an essayist or novelist, a
      Salman Rushdie, and exploration of the psyche will surely be the arena of
      all future sedition.”

      Mernissi, however, does not dismiss Muslims who fear democracy and freedom.
      She actually goes to great pains to make it clear that the situation the
      fundamentalists are in is also complicated, and stems from a need to be

      “The clamor of the fundamentalist youth of today is, among other things, an
      appeal to that Islam of rahma, where the wealthy of the cities are sensitive
      to the anguish of the poor. Their outcry is the plaint of the unloved child
      of the family cut off from modern knowledge and its sciences that promise
      work and dignity. Reducing the outcry of the young to a declaration of war
      against the wealthy of the planet – that is, against the West – is to make a
      serious error in understanding their anguish.”

      But this is also where the experiences of Malaysia seem to differ from the
      experiences of the Arab-Muslim world. In Malaysia, the government’s poverty
      eradication schemes – although heavily criticized – have been much more
      aggressively pursued, and have had arguably more success compared to other
      developing countries. We have, indeed, a sizable middle-class now in
      Malaysia. And a sizable section of this middle-class is Malay-Muslim. But
      fundamentalism is nevertheless a growing problem in Malaysia, especially
      among youth.

      When the former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked, most of
      the people who rallied behind him were Islamists. Anwar himself had a
      prominent Islamist past before he was sacked. In the 1970s, the Minister of
      Education at that time suggested that Malaysians being sent to study abroad
      be taught how to use condoms to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually
      transmitted diseases. One of the most vehement objections from the Islamists
      came from Anwar himself. But Anwar soon became the hero of the Malay Muslim
      middle class. So the role of poverty in promoting fundamentalism is still a
      blur in Malaysia. One only needs to speak to a cross-section of Malaysian
      Muslims to realize that it is not the rural poor who have fundamentalist
      ambitions – it is the professional, and sometimes even Western-educated,
      Malay Muslims who are most prominently seeking an Islamic state. Many of
      them are members of the political opposition. Incidentally, the Malaysian
      Islamist opposition seems to be intent on adopting the language of
      “progressive” Islam and democracy, without ever really telling anyone what
      it really thinks. One gets the feeling that this party, though opposed to
      the current administration, is not really opposed to the overall leadership
      structure in Malaysia. In other words, it is a battle of who wants to
      control the status quo. One feels, with good reason, that the Malaysian
      Islamists could be even more repressive if they came to power than the
      current government. One suspects that this is also the case in many
      Arab-Muslim countries.

      Mernissi argues, however, that for every “opposition fundamentalist”
      movement, there is an equally repressive state-sponsored fundamentalism. But
      again, she urges a full and frank understanding of the history of Islam.
      Islamic societies have always seen tension between authoritarian rulers and
      disenchanted citizens. Each camp would use “Islam” to undermine the other.
      Mernissi argues for an awareness and critique of our past as Muslims to help
      us move forward. And here is how Mernissi views one possible solution to
      this situation: “Islam doesn’t reject anything; it manages all things. Its
      ideal schema is equilibrium.” Thus, whatever we discover, whatever we want
      to say, whatever we think as Muslims, we will always be within our rights
      because sensitive application of the principles of our faith will ensure the
      equilibrium of society.

      In ending the book, Mernissi does not resort to cheap platitudes about
      “coming together” and returning to the “true” Islam. Her understanding of
      how society works has too much nuance for her to resort to such cop-outs.
      She does, however, point out that when those of us who are committed to
      democratic ideals work together, we must realize “that the community, indeed
      the whole world, can be a mirror of individualities, and that its strength
      will then only be greater.”

      But more than ten years on, is Mernissi’s book still as valid today? She did
      not, for one thing, foresee the sheer force of will of the Usama bin Ladens
      of the world – people who are radically entrenched in the demonisation of
      the Other, and employ dangerous methods in pursuing their ambitions. She did
      not foresee the acceleration of the United States of America’s descent into
      imperialism, and its willingness to resort to equally deplorable measures in
      pursuing its global ambitions.

      However, this is where we must realize why Mernissi confines most of her
      analysis to the Arab world – she cannot claim to represent the rest of the
      Muslim world. It is up to Muslims all over the world now to read more, to
      understand more, and to either expand on or refute these concepts she has
      presented. And given the fact that barely ten years after this book was
      published, the current President of the United States of America has already
      invaded not one but two Muslim countries within two years, it would seem
      pretty obvious that it is time for Muslims to start thinking very seriously
      again, and to not be afraid when we see that the very things we abhor about
      the Other, the foreign West, are reflected in the mirror right back at us.
      Because perhaps that is a very valuable way of seeing that the very things
      we celebrate about our lives are also reflected in the same mirror back to
      that not-so-Other, not-so-foreign West. Ultimately, it is not the mullahs or
      the West that we should be afraid of, but our own minds. Not because of what
      will happen to us if we free our minds, but because of what will happen if
      we don’t.
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