Common Features and Differences in Secular, Islamist, and Reformist Approaches
Secular thinkers were among the first to explore the Western literature on globalization. Their forums for discussion, especially the Center for Arab Unity Studies26 and the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, have organized numerous discussions and conferences over the past few years, and their results have been presented in a series of introductory monographs and anthologies. The strategically favorable starting position of having introduced this conceptual frame allowed secular thinkers, almost unhindered, to determine the parameters of the globalization and human rights debate in its initial phase.27 The contributions of secular intellectuals clearly demonstrate the relevance of existing views of modernity and authenticity to understanding the cultural effects of globalization and universal human rights in Arab- Muslim societies. On the one hand, liberal thinkers tend to stylize emerging global culture as the normative completion of secular modernity and to evaluate local traditions either as an expression of irrational constructions of authenticity or outdated values in need of reform. In contrast, Marxist authors, in their condemnation of both the capitalist culture of globalization and its apologists, use a local discourse with traces of authenticity to defend enlightened modernity and a differentiated turath concept, distinguishing between backward-looking and forwardlooking elements. Further differences can be identified within the secular approach with respect to its understanding of identity. Whereas cultural optimists supporting liberal attitudes see in globalization a chance for rationalization of local identities in Arab societies or for bringing them into the present, culturally pessimistic Marxists emphasize the instru- mentalization of reactionary ideas of identity in the context of global culture’s hegemonic discourse. Both variants, however, share a common underlying conviction that the deficits of local culture can be overcome
and humanism into the repertoire of contemporary Arab thought. In other words, in the secular camp, regardless of criticism of the political dominance of the West or the rejection of its capitalist ideology, there is a predominantly positive assessment of interactions with the cultural ‘‘Other’’ for its innovative effects on one’s own culture.
The flood of secular contributions to the globalization and human rights debates confronted Islamist thinkers with views and interpretations that called into question the credibility of their own attitudes toward the dichotomy of modernity and authenticity. This forced them to take the new public debate seriously.28 In the Islamist camp there is clearly a majority that rejects globalization and, at its extreme, this leads to the concept of global culture being replaced by categories such as ‘‘civilizational invasion’’ or ‘‘cultural penetration.’’ The first impression can be that this is just another rehash of the wave of religious criticism of ideas originating in the West and the threat to identity that can result from transferring them to Arab-Muslim societies. In that case, a systematic review of the Islamist contributions to the globalization debate would be relatively unproductive, since they would tend to be repeti- tive.29 A closer inspection of the literature, however, shows that there are also Islamist voices which, like some Arab Marxists in the previous section, go beyond rejection to an alternative view of globalization. In this context, analogies to secular views of Western and Arab origins serve to widen the frame of reference for some Islamists and, consequently, lead to a process of partial renewal in the religious camp. Do the contents of the Islamist contributions to the globalization debate merely reflect the repetition of older, backward-looking patterns of thought? That would be putting things too simply. Condemnation of Western secular thought’s importation to Arab societies does not stop some Islamist intellectuals from taking positive connotations from certain Western approaches, albeit prefaced with evident skepticism. In part, this is the result of the search for inspiration, a desire for intellectual contacts outside the familiar frame of reference and, in the end, for recognition by the cultural ‘‘Other.’’ As a result, a new form of interaction emerges, a sphere of acceptance in Islamist thought regarding Western ideas and concepts beyond the West’s obvious scientific and technological achievements. The reference to non-Islamic historical experience in connection with the search for authenticity can be bedded in the same context. The intention is to position authenticity discourse as the expression of a universal strategy in the struggle against secular modernity and one-sided globalization, and thus in the end to justify these against the superior West—following the slogan ‘‘that is not the only way.’’
Finally, the position of reformists in these regards can be outlined relatively briefly because in content they differ little from the moderate
Islamists already considered. They, too, emphasize the fundamental difference between the negative features of globalization and the positive essences of universalism. They operate with an almost identical repertoire of concepts and metaphors. Reform-oriented thinkers such as al- Jabiri or Muhammad Mahfuz30 also draw on categories like ‘‘cultural penetration,’’ ‘‘cultural conquest,’’ “civilizational interaction,’’ and ‘‘civ- ilizational project,’’ and they are used with similar meanings. Nevertheless—and this justifies in part the separate consideration of their discourse—the reform proponents differ from Islamists in their response to the question, ‘‘What is to be done?’’ As already noted, they go a big step further in their method and apply their critical approach above all to their understanding of cultural heritage. This begins by attenuating negative perceptions of the Other and emphasizing shared features between the ‘‘self’’ and the ‘‘foreign.’’ It continues with a call for the energetic modernization of local cultures in Arab societies by means of their liberation from backward-looking views on cultural heritage. Al-Jabiri and Mahfuz use the discursive bridges put down by some secular and moderate Islamist intellectuals. In addition, they try to place the values of democracy, human rights, and rationalism at the forefront of this debate. In consequence, weighting of topics and fields of discourse is reversed from that of other approaches: reformists begin with a critical view of one’s own heritage and the identity constructions based on it and only then is this followed by a consideration of the influence of the more powerful cultural Other. This revaluation represents an important shift, because it brings with it a further opening up of the debate. The starting point is the articulation of a contemporary understanding of turath that allows Arab thinkers to interact with the cultural Other.