Mind Over Mullah: Fatima Mernissi's book on the Muslim "Fear of the Modern World"
- 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 Islams
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 Mernissis 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
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 worlds aversion to democracy, Mernissi constantly
re-examines many of the Muslim worlds 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 womens
dress. Mernissi goes further, making connections between a mans 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 Khomeinis 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
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
worlds 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 Quran 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.
Mernissis 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 Mernissis 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 Wests 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
doesnt 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 governments
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 governments 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
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
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 doesnt 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 Mernissis 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 Americas 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