Saturday, February 5, 2011

Violence and Modernity: The Conundrums

Review of "Violent Modernity: France in Algeria" by Abdelmajid Hannoum (Harvard University Press, 2010).

We hear in the media all of the time that Islam is "anti-modern" and "anti-Western." The new battles of American foreign policy are constantly spoken of in terms of modernity fighting the forces of intransigent traditions. The specter of Sharia law is invoked by the hosts of cable news broadcasts in order to spark fears of the loss of the "American way of life" due to Muslim immigrants. Samuel Huntington is most famous for posing this clash of civilizations in 1993, which would come to order policy for the coming decades. Many politicos, commentators and even scholars have seen Hungtington's vision vindicated by the events of 9/11, the Iraq War and Ahmadinejad's presidency in Iran.

But is this the case? Are we fated to a battle between the forces of benevolent modernity against the evil of Islam, that is unable to respond to reason? Is Islam the anti-modern religion that is claimed by commentators and even Islamists in the Middle East?

In fact, the Islamism of the ayatollahs, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood is as much a product of the modernity that it is purported to fight against. The Wahhabi sect which emerged in the eighteenth century saw a way to return Muslims to a true path through a strict adherence to the ways of the Qu'ran and the Hadith of Muhammad's actions. Today's movements of radical Islam rely on the forces of modernity: telecommunication networks; guns provided by the American government during numerous attacks (e.g. AK-47s given to mujihadeens in Afghanistan in the 1980's); and students from prestigious universities in Damascus, Tehran and Cairo, many from engineering and natural science programs.

Abdelmajid Hannoum's remarkable new book on Algeria makes this argument forcibly. The civil war the Algeria suffered in the 1990's (with casualties of up to 150,000 civilians) was a product not simply of the radicalization of Islam, but of modernity itself. The exportation of modernity is an act of aggression by the West, commonly known as colonization or imperialism. There is the belligerence of conquest; the ferocity of attacking indigenous traditions, texts and peoples; and the forceful re-imagining of space within colonized places.

Although Achille Mbembe is not mentioned in the text, his work seems to be a necessary bedrock for many of Hannoum's insights. Mbembe's "On the Postcolony" (2001) argued that Africa is seen as a land of failed states, an almost childish continent unable to grow. This depiction of the "dark continent" by Western journalists (and even imbibed by African nationalists themselves) does not relate to the actual standing of African nations but rather the guilt and fantasies of Western observers who hope to keep Africans in a subservient place. Because of all this (familiar to Fanon's arguments), Africa will never be able to escape its status as former colonies and continue to be treated like colonized, infantile creatures.

In the West, the celebration of peaceful secularization continues unabated, and the denigration of religious radicals has only increased. What is often left unmentioned is that the Western practices of modernity have helped to create the religious extremism we have come to denounce.

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