The Dominance of the West Is a Double-edged Sword

When Napoleon and his small army conquered Egypt and the new world contours were drawn around 1800, a debate began about the reasons for differences between the world's civilizations. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz takes a look at a recent publication on the issue

​​The colorful book cover shows a representation of Barbur reading, the man who founded the Islamic Mogul empire in medieval India. This lovely image was well chosen by Angelica Hartmann, professor of Oriental studies in the German town of Gießen and editor of the volume.

It used to be that in the Occident one learned a lot about the Orient. The golden period of the Islamic world had just come to an end, but it could still lay claim to a dominant role in the world. And Europe thus strengthened its own foundations by importing Islamic science and culture, which would free it from the Dark Ages.

Times of change

Then everything began to change. This first became visible in military defeats. When Napoleon Bonaparte and his small army conquered the Mamluks in Egypt and the new world contours were drawn around 1800, a debate began about the reasons for differences between the world's civilizations.

Hartmann's book is about how Muslim thinkers have dealt with their own history given the dominance of the West. Who is responsible for producing memory, and for whom, in what way, and to what ends? Thirteen German scholars and a Tunisian colleague explored these questions at the Justus Liebig University of Gießen.

Their contributions to this volume span from memories of the golden ages of Islam to the end of the sultanate with the rise of the Turkish reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922, and continue up to contemporary internet use in Tunisia. The editor introduces the volume with her own hypotheses.

A manipulated history?

Hartmann undertakes an excursion through Islamic debates on the course of history. She emphasizes two points:

First, in Islamic countries the concepts of memory and history have been influenced by repressive and one-sided cultural politics. Even if these nations have attained political independence, says Hartmann, they are still a long way off from freedom of speech and the press, i.e. real liberalism.

On the other hand, some Muslim scholars have recognized that the reason for the "backwardness" of their civilization lies in a lack of awareness about their own history and a lack of openness for new developments.

Moroccan scholar Tahar Ben Jelloun spoke of an "immense deficit in history." Yet at the same time, says Hartmann, one can speak of an "obsession with history", given, for example, the emphasis on the prophet Mohammad and his first four followers.

Few critical voices

Of course, admits Hartmann, critique of Muslim historical consciousness is only practiced by a few Muslim intellectuals and reformers. But she does not hold back her critique of the West either.

The Janus face of modernity implies that it is not only a matter of demanding human rights, individualism, democracy and liberalism in the Islamic world. Rather, there has also been racism, the subordination of entire peoples, and disregard for human dignity.

It is precisely this double-edged sword, to recapitulate Hartmann's main thesis that constitutes the core of the collective memory as well as the core of many individual traces of memory among the people in the Middle East.

Arab experience of powerlessness

The insights offered by the other authors are equally interesting. Gert Hendrich from Darmstadt claims that the history of modernity is for the Arabs a "history void of self-determination, a constant experience of powerlessness, and thus results in their inability to place their own history into a reasonable relation to the actual development of modernity."

The reader might react here by noting that yes, an unequal relationship developed between the West and the Islamic world, yet haven't Muslim rulers and some segments of Muslim society also exercised power and profited from it? Did not, for example, the Ottoman leaders experiment and play an active role in politics?

Recall Ataturk's rather self-confident statement in his speech on the dissolution of the sultanate, which is analyzed by Béatrice Hendrich from Gießen: "On this human earth there is a great Turkish nation of over a hundred million people. This nation has a historical depth that corresponds to its spread across the globe."

Control over the internet

Henner Kirchner, also from Gießen University, reveals the internet in Tunisia as a family business affair, with local providers constituting the eye of the needle. They use filter software to block access to websites such as those of CNN, Amnesty International and UN sub-organizations.

But nonetheless, says Kirchner, the rulers' exclusive power over notions such as the past, history, and the future is weakening. This book on history and memory in Islam edited by Angelika Hartmann emits many impulses that will aid in the search for identity.

Wolfgang G. Schwanitz

© 2005

Translation from the German by Christina White

Angelika Hartmann (ed.): Geschichte und Erinnerung im Islam (History and Memory in Islam), Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2004, 304 pages.

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