Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment | Christopher de Bellaigue | World news | The Guardian

A party of school-age swimmers takes to the waters of a municipal pool in north London. Among her peers, one Muslim girl stands out – nine or 10 years of age, brown face and eyes under a yellow cap, sliding gingerly into the water in a cotton salwar kameez that prevents the male attendants, the boys in her class, and other random males in the pool, like me, from seeing her prepubescent body.

So far as I know, there is nothing in Islam that bars girls below the age of menstruation from showing their legs and tummy in public, but in more conservative households there is a strong distaste for the idea of even partial undress in mixed company at any age. In less understanding circumstances, this distaste could have led to the girl’s withdrawal from her school’s weekly swimming outing – denying her a part of our holistic modern curriculum. But in this case consultations have evidently taken place between parents, school and pool management (has the salwar kameez been washed?), leading to this civilised modus vivendi.

Back home, in Pakistan, or Bangladesh, the question would not have arisen because such outings to the pool would almost certainly be single-sex affairs. Silly me: this is home, where she was born, where she is part of, and her life here will be one long variant on this trip to the swimming baths, a negotiation between her expectations and the expectations that others have of her. Ideas will be batted about, solutions proffered; change and adaptation happen on both sides. It isn’t only among Muslims that values are in an unsettled state – who would have thought that gay marriage would enter polite acceptability as smokers are being shown the door?

The girl in the yellow cap popped into my mind after the attacks in France this January – which, like the copycat killings last week in Copenhagen, prompted another round of discussions about Islam’s “place” in the modern world. It was generally agreed that the Muslims must pull themselves together. According to Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, writing in Le Monde on 13 January, the answer is the kind of Islam that is in tune with the Enlightenment and sharply delineated from jihadism. “What a boost that would be for an enlightened Islam,” he wrote, “what an example (while awaiting a genuine reform of Islam), and what a beacon!” In the following day’s edition of the same paper, three schoolteachers renewed their own vows to secular values. “We have learned to do without God,” they wrote. “We have no master but knowledge … we take it for granted that [Eugène Delacroix’s painting] Liberty Leading the People and [Voltaire’s] Candide are part of the heritage of humanity.” The challenge, they wrote, is to inculcate this heritage in their pupils, those left “by the wayside of republican values”.

Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.

Yet it cannot escape the attention of any westerner who has travelled to a Muslim country that for the people there, the challenge of modernity is the overwhelming fact of their lives; the double imperative of being modern and universal on the one hand, and adhering to the emplaced identities of religion and nation, on the other, complicates and enriches everything they do. To anyone outside the west, it is self-evident that there is more than one way to be modern – a truth easily observed in any developing country. Modernity is at the best of times a tension, a dislocation and an agitation, producing – in a phrase from Nietzsche that expresses a kaleidoscopic weirdness of perspective – “a fateful simultaneity of spring and autumn.”

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To anyone outside the west, it is self-evident that there is more than one way to be modern

Nietzsche was referring to the west, where the questions that led to modernity had been volunteered in the first place, during the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the race for empires, and where the cultural necessity of providing an answer was never seriously doubted. But his words are also relevant to the lands of Islam. The history of the Middle East over the past two centuries is also a history of modernisation – of reforms, reactions, innovations, false starts, discoveries and betrayals – and there is something gloriously cack-handed and unreal about westerners demanding an “Enlightenment” from people whose lives are coterminous with a strenuous, ceaseless engagement with all that is new. The experience of modernity cannot be reduced to various rites of passage through which the west has passed. Modernity is the shared predicament of all who discover or are discovered by new values and technologies – and a description of the pleasure and pain that follows.

I have retained the image of the young swimmer negotiating the waters in her salwar kameez, steering between competing expectations, while I have been researching a book about the earlier time when “modern ideas” first arrived in the Middle East from the newly dominant west. Few people have thought to qualify the word “modernity” using a culturally loaded adjective other than “Muslim”; one doesn’t hear much about “Indian” modernity, or “Chinese” modernity, even though the new ways of looking at the world have not entered these cultures without difficulty. Nor do I think that many modern Muslims regard their lives as substantially different or more complicated than those of non-Muslims across the globe. Certainly, those in the 19th and early 20th centuries who were the first bearers of new ideas were animated by a desire to be part of a movement that represented not only certain cultures or geographies, but all mankind.

Looking at the tableau before me, running from those early modernisers to the blameless mermaid of north London, I have the impression of a long, difficult, but very often joyful negotiation – the same negotiation in which many more have prospered without being noticed, and in which a number, among them the killers of Paris and Copenhagen, have catastrophically failed.

The reform of the Muslim world began in earnest at the turn of the 19th century, when Europe penetrated the Middle East with all the brusqueness you would expect from a rapidly developing civilisation whose constituent parts were in a race for colonies, wealth and glory. The cultural heartlands of Islam, by contrast, were lame, lachrymose, and chronically resistant to novelty. Cairo’s school of Al-Azhar – the acknowledged citadel of Islamic learning – suspected science, despised philosophy and hadn’t produced an original thought in years. The paradigmatic idea was that society under the prophet Muhammad had attained a perfection from which later generations were condemned to live at an exponentially increasing remove.

The meeting of the two cultures (which, for obvious symbolic reasons, is often dated to the Napoleonic invasions of Egypt) led to a realisation on the part of Muslim rulers that only by adopting western practices and technologies could they avoid political and economic oblivion. The extraordinarily rapid process of change that this triggered has been summed up by the historian Juan Cole:

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Napoleon Bonaparte at the Great Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Photograph: Musee des Beaux Arts Mulhouse/Dagli Orti

“In the space of decades intellectuals forsook Ptolemaic for Copernican astronomy … businessmen formed joint-stock companies (not originally allowed in Islamic law), generals had their armies retrained in new drills and established munitions factories, regional patriotism intensified and prepared the way for nationalism, the population began growing exponentially under the impact of cash cropping and the new medicine, steamboats suddenly plied the red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and agrarian capitalism and the advent of factories led to new kinds of class conflict.”

And so on. In the middle of the century the Ottoman Sultan declared equality between his Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the slave trade was outlawed and the harem fell gradually into desuetude. The sheikhs and mullahs saw their old prerogatives in the law and public morality arrogated by an expanding government bureaucracy. Clerical opposition to dissection was overcome and theatres of anatomy opened. Culture, too, was transformed, with a surge in non-religious education, and the reform of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages – the better to present modern poetry, novels and newspaper articles before the potent new audience of “public opinion”. Compared to the western experience, modernisation was drastically “telescoped”, as Cole puts it, with the moveable-type printing press, dating back to the 15th century, and the telegraph, which was invented in 1844, arriving almost simultaneously.

Political consciousness also rose. In the last decades of the 19th century, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, the most populous and culturally influential centres of the Middle East, all experienced movements in favour of representative government – in Turkey and Iran, parliamentary rule came into effect a few years after the turn of the new century, and in Egypt after the first world war.

The story of Muslim modernisation has sometimes been depicted as the efforts of a few potentates to enforce alien precepts on resistant populations. Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s khedive, or viceroy, for most of the first half of the 19th century, and his near contemporary (and nominal sovereign), Sultan Mahmud II, are the names to remember here, and there were indeed many instances of popular opposition to what were depicted as godless innovations. In 1814, for example, the Muslim notables of Piraeus were persuaded by a local divine not to set up quarantine stations to protect themselves from an outbreak of the plague. The pandemic was “from God”, he said; “to try and limit its progress is to oppose Providence”. (The population was duly obliterated.) The Persian crown prince Abbas Mirza, modernising his fiefdom of Tabriz, in north-west Iran, drilled the soldiers of his new army behind high walls, for fear that they would be spotted by their disapproving families.

The myth that modernisation had no natural constituency – to be contrasted invidiously with the spontaneity of emergent modernity in the west – has been exacerbated by some of its rankly insincere recent apologists. The Mubaraks and Ben Alis of this world paraded modernity like a codpiece; to look at these self-described apostles of secularism and development, one might be forgiven for thinking that modernisation in the Middle East has always been infertile, and always will be.

But if we want to understand the relationship between ideas and change in the Middle East, we must turn to an earlier moment, and to the figures who found themselves mediating between the two. We are limited here by the historical record – which preserves the accounts of a few distinguished figures – but there is no reason to believe the hope and trepidation that they expressed were not also felt by a great many of their lesser-known contemporaries. Societies changed, as the dialectic of new and old continued, and people lost themselves in the intensity of the transformation of which they were a part.

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One of the earliest Middle Easterners to appreciate the unavoidable, tentacular qualities of modernity was the Iranian Mirza Muhammad Saleh Shirazi. He was one of five students who were sent to England by Crown Prince Abbas Mirza in 1815 to study useful things and bring them home. The travelogue that Mirza Saleh wrote is among the first books written in Persian about a Christian country. Reading it one gets the sense of a worldview that is changing; even Mirza Saleh’s writing alters as he acclimatises to Regency London, moving from stiltedness to fluency, directness and utility. Here, in real time, is the literary modernisation of the Middle East.

In the spring of 1817, Mirza Saleh made a trip to the west Country, which forms the most exquisite section of his book. A sense of diligent journalism permeates his writing as his coach quits London on the westward turnpike. In comparison to the potholed and rutted dust roads of Iran, passable only on horseback or on foot, his detailed description of this efficient mode of transport must have struck his readers as a great novelty. At first he sits inside the coach, with a Spaniard and several farmers for company (all equally unintelligible); after nightfall he takes his place on top, where he remains until Salisbury Cathedral comes ethereally into view at dawn.

And on to Exeter, where he is met by his host, Robert Abraham, and the two set off for the latter’s home in the stannery town of Ashburton. Amid the tin mines, Mirza Saleh exchanges European clothes for Iranian robes, which causes the daughters of his host much amusement. Indeed, much of Mirza Saleh’s stay is spent in the company of these and other Devonshire girls, “moon-faced” and “sweet-natured”. (He seems to have censored himself, for in the descriptions he provides of bucolic musical interludes overlooking the River Dart, mention of cider is suspiciously absent – only tea.) Mirza Saleh is partial to young Sarah Abraham, who displays “the utmost excellence, perspicacity, sagacity and delicacy” as they converse on the road to Plymouth. For the people back home, used to a strict segregation of the sexes, the outlandishness of such a friendship would not need spelling out.

A series of street portraits taken in the holy city of Qom, Iran by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin.

In Plymouth, Mirza Saleh lavishes his ever-improving descriptive powers on “the most secure port in England”, with its armouries and massive hospital. The anchorage is so extensive a thousand warships could park there, protected by ramparts bristling with cannon – and he explains dry docks and breakwaters for the landlocked Tabrizis, whose only experience of the sea is as poetic metaphor. Amid celebrations to mark George III’s birthday he ventures out clutching the hand of Miss Sara…