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   Conferences / The Tenth General Conference :Islam and The 21st Century
Reflections on Religion, Modernization and Violence in the Islamic Middle East

Reflections on Religion, Modernization and Violence in
the Islamic Middle East
Paul Kingston
Department of Political Science
University of Toronto Canada
Starting with the assumption that violence has wide and
fundamental origins, Rene Girard in his work Violence and the Sacred
argues that "civilizations" emerge and are distinguished from one
another by their ability to regulate the use of violence, various systems
have been created for that purpose from the "surrogate victim"
mechanisms of clans and tribes to the symbolic sacrificial mechanisms of
various religions, With the rise of the modern state, societies now try and
regulate and contain violence through the use of law. None of these
systems actually eliminates violence, rather, most make use of violence to
maintain social stability and, as such, civility and barbary in all societies,
both traditional and modern, lie "side by side"
This paper will investigate one aspect of the relationship between
religion and violence in the context of the Islamic Middle East; In
general, religious systems are seen as playing a dual and contradictory
role with regards to violence. As Wallace and Smith note in their
introduction to Curing Violence, religion can be "simultaneously
criticized as the medium for collective violence" as well as "valorized as
the antidote for healing such violence". However, this dual function of
religion is often forgotten when applied to an analysis of the origins of
violence in the contemporary Middle East. Ignoring its integral role in
maintaining stability and enriching social life in the region over the
centuries, Islam is more than not looked upon as being the problem
rather than the cure, Weber, for example, described Islam in its founding
manifestations as a "warrior religion" and this impression has been
perpetuated by various contemporary scholars who have tended to
interpret acts of violence done in the name of Islam at their face value, If
Girard's thesis about the connections between religion, violence, and the
creation of "surrogate victims" is correct, there may be some truth in
these assertions but, without investigating the other more positive role
which Girard claims that religions play - that of violence regulation, a
more comprehensive picture of the relationship between Islam and
violence in the modern Middle East remains incomplete.
To more fully investigate the relationship between Islam and
violence in the modern Middle East, I will divide the discussion into
three. First, I will offer some theoretical reflections on the relationship
between religion and modernization in the industrialized world. I will,
then, apply these theories to the experiences of the Islamic Middle East,
showing that social instability which can lead to violence is better
explained, not by exclusive references to ideological imperatives within
Islam, but by an understanding of the weakening coherence of the Islamic
order in the modern world. Finally, I will conclude by showing the inter-
connectedness of various realms in the Middle East, arguing in particular
that explanations of "religious" violence can never be divorced from an
understanding of the historical formation and present dynamics of the
various states in the region.
Religion and Modernization - Theoretical Reflections
There remains profound disagreement on the relationship between
modernization and religion. The classical school, perhaps epitomized by
Weber's thought, looks upon religious consciousness as being doomed in
the face of modernizing rationality. He described the modernization
process as precipitating a gradual disenchantment of the world, leading
to the rather pessimistic end where human kind becomes "trapped in an
iron cage of rationality". Separated first from the public sphere by the
process of secularization religion also in the end gives way in peoples'
private lives to the more dominant economic rationality of capitalism.
In its broad outlines and particularly in its starting point, Weber's
description of the process of secularization has been accepted by a
number of more contemporary sociologists of religion. Peter Berger, for
example, writes of the destructive capabilities in the modern world of an
increasingly generalized rationality, epitomized by the erosion of the
monopoly which religious organization traditionally enjoyed over
legitimate world views and "by the progressive segmentation of religious
and non-religious outlooks" all of which have led to a widening gulf
between the public world of politics and the private world of family,
community, and self. Daniel Bell, likewise, argues that modernization,
represented by the norms and structures of "the techno-economic realm"
and by the "would be hegemony of purely utilitarian norms and values",
has not only modified the location, importance and power of religion but
has marginalized it. And neo-Marxist scholars such as Habermas write of
the emergence of severe disjunctures between modernizing rationality
and what he calls "the life-world" of which religion and religious
consciousness are a part. Writes Habermas, "areas of life which had
formally been governed by norms and values generated in everyday social
interaction and communication are progressively subjected to principles
While all see capitalism's rationalizing imperative as the main source of
the problem, not all agree as to how extensive its effects on the religious
realm will ultimately be. Most accept that modernization has led to a
decline in the social standing of the main religious institutions. Even
Talcott Parsons, who denied that modernization resulted in an overall
decline in the power of the religious realm per se, accepted that it had
resulted in the increasing differentiation and, indeed, fragmentation of its
institutional structure. Parsons, however, argued that this was
compensated for by religion's contribution to the emergence of more
generalized core values which continued to serve the function of pre
serving social solidarity creating what could be called a "new civil
religion" that served to counterbalance the potentially destabilizing
effects of differentiation, pluralism, and privatization caused by
While not as optimistic as Parsons, Berger also prefers to analyze
modernization as changing rather than destroying the strength of the
religious realm. While differentiating himself from Parsons by arguing
that the modern and the religious are, indeed, in opposition to one
another, Berger nonetheless continues to have faith in the underlying
power of the religiously inspired human spirit to shape the process of
rationalization and to overcome some of its most severe problems -
namely the impersonal nature of bureaucracies and the market, the
erosion of personal identity, and the atomization of personal experience.
Habermas also finds some encouragement in the rise of what are called
"new social movements" because they seemed concerned to prevent the
erosion of Areas of the life-world caused by reified rationality and to
invest them with meanings which would supersede the values of efficiency
and productivity. Hence, despite the fragmentation and marginalization
of religious institutions in the modern world, many sociologists of religion
remain optimistic that, first core religious values and that, second, new
broad based institutions may indeed spring up as a result. In short, most
see religion as having the potential to continue to play its "Durkheimian"
role in promoting social solidarity.
Islam and Modernization in the Middle East
Islam has been described as anorthoepy rather than an orthodox
religion, symbolized by the emphasis on the five pillars of the faith, most
of which revolve around acts of worship rather than belief. Other than
the shahada, the declaration that there is only one God, there is no firm
creedal statement in Islam and neither are there well defined and
uniform authority structures that work to impose orthodoxy. This has
resulted in a remarkable degree of flexibility in Islam which has been one
of the facilitating factors in its expansion and criteria originating in the
rationalized social system" around the world and has led some scholars to
write not of "Islam" but of "Muslims".
On the surface, this makes it difficult to write about Islam in the
context of a discussion about the fragmentation of institutions, Certainly,
despite the existence of madrassas and mosques, Islam lacks the kind of
well-defined hierarchal structures with clear disciplinary capacities that
are found in Christian denominations such as the catholic Church,
Nonetheless, despite the absence of formal, corporate institutions, clear
hierarchical structures, and an established orthodoxy, it can still be
argued that Islam, in its orthodox manifestation, possesses what Bulliet
has called a "centre". That centre is upheld by a community-wide
consensus or ijma' arrived at through an accepted and "sophisticated
methodology for understanding scriptures" called ilm. This methodology
is practiced by the established scholars of Islam, the ulama, and
promoted within centres of Islamic learning such as the madrassa and
legal schools, While there have been numerous challenges in the history of
Islam to the authority of this established ijma, Bulliet defines such
challenges as "edges" which have either been defeated by the centre or
have served to reinforce, strengthen, and give life to it. As Bulliet
Every expansive religious movement has developed edges with
localized beliefs and practices to some extent. And the "central"
authorities within every religious movement have striven, in one way or
another, to rein in, minimize, normalize, purify, reform, or eliminate the
most unacceptable manifestations of such developments.
Prior to the onset of modernization, this centralized orthodox Islam
could be said to have pervaded and legitimized most aspects of social and
political life in much of the Islamic Middle East, The processes of
modernization, however, have resulted in a gradual weakening of the role
and legitimacy of this established Islamic "centre". In the Ottoman lands,
this transformation was symbolized by the nineteenth century tangimat
reforms which were designed to transform the loosely-knit empire into a
modern state capable of holding its own against the West. Despite the
initial "centralizing" effects which state building reforms had on Middle
Eastern Islam, these same reforms would eventually do serious damage to
the roots of its authority. Public schools sponsored by the state and
utilizing a curriculum based upon technical and scientific rather than
religious knowledge were created alongside the madrassa; secular courts
using legal codes from the west were introduced which, as their mandates
expanded, led to the shrinkage of the jurisdiction of the once dominant
religious courts eventually confining their authority to issues of personal
status; the participation of the ulama in the affairs of state was gradually
replaced by that of western trained technocrats at the highest levels; and,
where religious institutions and personnel maintained their connections
with the state, it was in a subordinated and relativised fashion relegated
to such bureaucratic categories as the Department of Religious Affairs,
the Department of Religious Endowments, or the office of the Grand
Mufti. The emergence of populist- authoritarian regimes in the 1950s and
l960s in the region resulted in an acceleration of this policy of
subordinating and excluding Islam, a process which some would call
secularization. Rather than being brought about by underlying social and
political forces, however, secularization was a much more deliberate
policy on the pare of the military and civilian elites to either co-opt the
religious establishment and exploit them for their own purposes or
exclude them forcefully from the political arena altogether.
All of this has had a devastating effect on the strength and
coherence of the "Islamic centre". Due to the loss of their wealth and
most promising student to the new state-run secular system, the system of
madrassas were described as becoming "impotent citadels of reaction"
and have lost much of their past vitality. This was not aided by the
nationalization of all waqf property which left many mosques and
madrassas dependent on the state for finance and preachers. As we have
seen, sufism which Hodgson described as being "the spiritual cement of
the [Islamic] social order also suffered a contraction which, as Gaffney
noted, "clearly coincided with the emergence of the social, economic, and
political leviathan of the modern nation-state".
The effects of this "assault" by the state on the religious realm has
been even more deleterious for the authority of the ulama. Even in the
early stages of the modernizing reforms the ulama never an
undifferentiated entity, began to experience increased fragmentation of
their ranks and this, as Commins points out, contributed to the rise of the
salafi reform movement that directly challenged the interpretative
methods of the ulama. Banna's founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt in 1928, even though Goldberg denies his being "a Protestant"
must also be seen in the context of debates about the inability of the
established Islamic leaders and institutions to deal with the threats to
Islam's moral integrity posed by foreign occupation. With the rise of the
interventionist secular state in the region in the mid-twentieth century.
The ulama, once thought reformable, were now looked upon as being
irredeemably corrupt and often referred to as "the stockbrokers of
Islam" and "the palace ulama".
The decline in the legitimacy of the traditional religious
establishment has been paralleled by the emergence of a variety of new
religiously - oriented institutions and leaders. In that sense, just as
modernization in the West was led to the differentiation of religious
institutions rather than to a decline, so too has it in the Islamic Middle
East, The best known and most extensive of these new institutions is the
Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 and now with national
branches in most Sunni countries of the region. Considered at the
vanguard of religious activism in Egypt in the 1930s, l940s, and l950s, the
Muslim Brotherhood has itself come to be considered as a mainstream
religious institution off which numerous more radical groups have
splintered to form their own increasingly independent networks and
organizations groups such as the jama'at al-islamiyya in Egypt, new
religious associations funded by Saudi Arabia, or new private mosques
headed by independent, charismatic sheikhs. Roy describes these groups
as meeting in "remote places outside of traditional society" often located
in some of the "new suburbs" of the major urban centers, all of which are
places that neither the state nor the established Islamic centre has yet
infiltrated. Hence the modern Middle East has witnessed the emergence
of a wide variety and number of new Islamic institutions many of which
remain at best loosely attached to the "Islamic centre". In Egypt, where
this process of institutional differentiation is perhaps at its most
advanced, Piscatori has described the resultant dynamics using the
phrase "competitive fundamentalism" in which Islamic institutions new
and old and including the state, vie for Islamic legitimacy.
However, by itself, the emergence in the Middle East of a more
institutionally differentiated Islam cannot explain the instability and
outbreak of violence done in the name of Islam. One could argue for
example that core Islamic values which serve to contain, ritualize or even
transcend violence, may outlast the institutional foundations upon which
they appeared to rest. For this to occur, however, it seems important that
these core values adjust and respond to the new more differentiated social
environment in which they find themselves, a process which Parsons
called "the rationalization of traditional values. Certainly, there has been
a growing and lively debate about Islamic core values in the Middle East.
Goldberg for example writes of "a radical attack on received Islam"
characterized not only by a challenge to the authority of established
Islamic institutions but also to tradition modes of reasoning and hence,
established meaning and interpretations. Prior to social and political
modernization, the transmission of religious knowledge renamed
"remarkably constant" characterized by an emphasis on the
memorization of fixed texts and apprenticeships with members of the
ulama in an established institution of Islamic learning. The "backbone"
of the system, as Robinson notes, was the idea that religious knowledge
was "stored in certain persons" and was transmitted orally. In the
modern world, however, there has been "a major transformation" in the
way knowledge is understood and transmitted. It is no longer possible to
regulate and confine religious knowledge to those who have studied
traditionally recognized texts; nor does its acquisition depend any more
on an apprenticeship in a traditional institution of learning. Indeed,
Brown writes of a "deep distrust of the classical tradition of scholarship".
Rather, because of the emergence of print which Robinson describes as
having "attacked the very heart of Islamic systems" by making religious
texts and writings more accessible along with the expansion of
educational opportunities and increases in literacy rates, the transmission
and interpretation of religious knowledge has be come more deregulated
and democratized.
Hence, it is clear that the deregulating and fragmenting effects of
modernization on the Islamic realm in the Middle East have been similar
in many respects to its effects on religious Systems in the industrialized
world. There has emerged an increased plurality of religious institutions
and this has been paralleled by increased competition over the right to
determine the nature and method of religious interpretations and values.
What appears to be the main difference between western theory and
Islamic practice is the ferocity of com petition - symbolized by the
emergence of not only edges in Islam but of violent edges. How far this
can be attributed to the fragmentation of authority in the religious realm
per se is difficult to determine. Habermas has argued for example that
stability would be impossible if the "life world" was so fragmented as to
be unable to accomplish its tasks of social and cultural reproduction.
Certainly, it seems correct to say that Islam, which could be considered as
being apart of Habermas' concept of the "life world" has much less
ability to stabilize the social systems of most Middle East countries than it
used to. To that extent, violent activity in the name of Islam can be linked
to the weakened or at least loosened institutional and normative Islamic
centre itself.
However, no matter how strong, vibrant, and coherent, the religious
realm is, it will never be the sole source of social stability. Islam has tried
to transcend other forms of social solidarity, note the father in Bahaa'
Taher's Aunt Sophia and the Monastery who was "always preaching in
the mosque against the vendetta system and trying to reconcile the
families amongst whom quarrels ran rampantly". By and large however,
it has not been able to do so without the coercive power of the state
behind it and at best has tended to play a mediating role between tribe
and state. In the modern Middle East however, it has been the state which
has tried to set the terms of social interaction penetrating society in order
to destroy, co-opt, or transcend all other sources of social power. Given
the extent of the shaft in the relationship between Islam, tribe, and state
in the modern Middle East, it is to an analysis of the coherence of the
latter that we must now turn.
"Islamic" Violence and the Modern Middle Eastern State
In a recent series of reflections on the prevalence of violence in
modern society, John keane questions the notion that the creation of the
modern state rep resents the final stage of the "civilizing process" in
which the problem of "discharging, defusing, and sublimating violence"
would be resolved. Rather, state violence can and has often destroyed
civility leaving in its wake social relations riddled with incivility, violence,
insecurity, aggravated conflict, old scores to be settled tomorrow or the
day after". In the Middle East, there seems to be some truth in Keane's
linkage between the rise of the coercive state power and social violence
including much that has been done in the name of Islam, restricted by
extensive systems of surveillance and control and backed up by advanced
instruments of coercion, the modern state in the Middle East has been
able to penetrate and destroy the centuries old autonomy of civil society
including its Islamic components to an extent never before realized.
Combined with its propagation of secularists doctrines and, in the age of
economic liberalization, with an increased vulnerability to the corrupting
socio-culture and economic influences of the West, the perception of
many radical Islamists is that Islam itself is in grave danger of being
pushed to the very many margins of society. It is this sense of impending
doom, precipitated by the rise of "the jahaliyya state" that has opened
the door to more violent and revolutionary interpretations of Islamic
It must be stressed that, despite the dramatic growth of state power
in the Middle East, most Islamist opposition activity has been non-violent
and characterized by efforts to reform society be it through education,
through the establishment of a network of social welfare institutions, and
even through a more activist participation in the political process - all of
which can be said to fall under the rubric of "civil society". Moreover,
the perception of an encroaching and all-powerful Pharaoh is belied by
the more ambiguous realities of state power both globally and in the
Middle East, In fact, it can be argued that, like in the religious realm,
there has been a fragmentation of state power in the region in the last
twenty years. In Egypt, for example, in the wake of moves towards
economic liberalization and partial political liberalization. Springborg
has argued that there has been "adeterioration in the coherence and
coordination of systems of control", Bianchi describes this breakdown of
more coherent systems of political control rising the term "unruly
corporatism" which, although it has its advantages for the Egyptian
regime by broadening its political options, it also leaves the regime more
vulnerable to challenges from outside. Applying some of the conclusions
from the recent work of Sidney Tarrow on social movements, it is the
emergence of just such "political opportunities" precipitated by the
fragmentation of central political power and authority at the centre
which provides openings and rationales for violent political action. As
Mitchell has written in his magisterial study of the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt, it was the disintegrating legitimacy of the political order in the
1940s and 1950s which resulted in the emergence of disdain for law and
order and allowed the Brothers, along with a variety of other more
secularly- minded opposition movements to accept a rationale for
violence. It is this same sense of a breakdown in the legitimacy and
viability of the contemporary political order in many modern Middle
East states which provides perhaps the most underlying explanation for
the adoption of more violent tactics by the numerous small militant
Islamist groups that have emerged in the region in the last thirty years.
Hence, one can speak of a breakdown of institutions and norms in
the Islamic Middle East at a variety of levels. The traditional centers of
religious power and authority have begun to see their legitimacy
challenged by a variety of new and varied Islamic networks; this has
contributed to a parallel process whereby Islamic norms and doctrines
have been interpreted in increasingly heterogonous ways; and, finally, all
of these has been underpinned by the broaden decline of the institutional
strength of many of the political systems in the region over the last twenty
years. As Eickelaman and Piscatori note, all this has made "the rules of
the game" more uncertain, unpredictable, and complex. What does this
say about the future of violence done in the name of Islam in the Middle
East? Let me sketch out two possibilities.
The first is that the trend towards the fragmentation of institutions
at a variety of levels will continue. Tarrow, who described the increase in
violence and intolerance in the 1990s as constituting "a truly alarming
trend", has argued that the increased momentum of globalization,
symbolized by the weakening of the nation-state, the rise of Integra list
identities, and the diffusion of resources and repertoires for collective
action around the world, may be lead mg to the emergence of a
permanent and violent "movement society" where competition for
authority continually outpaces its consolidation. This in turn could lead to
the re-emergence of social systems which Islam and the state had
previously tried to transcend such as those based upon tribe and clan. In
the trial of Sadat's Muslim assassins, for example, Gaffuey makes the
interesting observation that questions of "honour" featured strongly in
the case put forward by the defense. Moreover, in areas of Upper Egypt,
where the Egyptian state has always been weaker, much of the ongoing
violence has been described as having a distinctly clan rationale. Hence,
institutional fragmentation at both the religious and political levels in the
Islamic Middle East might be said to have resulted not only in a greater
competition for authority within each level but also in the increased
influence of alternative and, perhaps more explicitly violent, systems of
violent regulation.
However, while there has been a loosening up of political and
religious structures in the region, it is by no means clear that they have
been undone. States, for example, continue to provide the main reference
points for society and the Islamic "centre", while it is in the process of
being restructured, may also be experiencing a process of revitalization.
Indeed, Bulliet argues that "we are living through one of the greatest
periods of intellectual and religious creativity in Islamic - and human -
history". Even Sufism, despite prolonged attacks in the last two centuries
by the ulama, revivalists, fundamentalists and the state alike, continues to
be "a main cultural referent" for most Muslims. Hence, the
"decentering" changes brought about by the processes of modernization
will not necessarily lead to a decline in the viability of existing social and
political systems even in conditions of underdevelopment. While the
outcome is uncertain, these same systems may equally rejuvenate
themselves through a process of adaptation and transformation. If this is
the case, then dire predictions of increased conflict and violence brought
about by greater social differentiation and competition ignore the equally
strong possibility of accommodation and compromise. Indeed, as
Eickelman and Piscatori stress in their penetrating examination of
Muslim politics, tacit bargaining both between Islamic groups and
between them and the state is "a more common occurrence than is
normally acknowledged" and generates "defacto rules of the game"
which can serve to maintain at least a short-term stability; in other
words, that core values may reassert themselves even in the face of
institutional differentiation. Hence, a "decentred Islam" is not necessarily
a more violent Islam while it may have increased the possibility of
violence, it is equally possible that new competitive edges in Islam will be
absorbed by both the adaptive abilities of the religious and political
systems. As Tarrow concludes in his book on social movements, while
"the power and violence of movements will is at first ferocious,
uncontrolled, and widely diffuse... [they] will ultimately disperse "like a
flood tide which loosens up much of the soil but leaves alluvial deposits in
its wake".

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