Thanks to an unparalleled ability to empathise, de Bellaigue is able to see events through the eyes of the protagonists who bring the Enlightenment to their previously traditional societies, rather than those of the Europeans or other inhabitants of ″the West″ who speak dismissively or disapprovingly of ″westernisation″.

And after the Enlightenment?

The Islamic Enlightenment enters a crisis. The author describes this, too, though in less detail than he does the achievements of the Enlightenment period that preceded it. The crisis arrives with the First World War – which shatters the Ottoman Empire – and what happened in its wake, including the division of the Arab world among the colonial states (now often referred to by the shorthand ″Sykes-Picot″).

There was also the birth of Turkey as a nation state and the emergence of a nationalistic Iran following British and later American interventions. A contradiction emerges between the values of freedom that the West proclaims and its actions, which amount to the subjugation of neighbouring civilisations.

The coercion that now comes with enlightenment – enlightenment on command and for the benefit of the commanders – enables the conservative enemies of enlightenment, who have always been there, to gain the upper hand and discredit the idea of the Enlightenment as liberation.

Military dictatorships seize power

The ″liberal age″ is coming to an end. Technology – weapons, first and foremost, but also factories – continues to be necessary. There is no surviving without it. But Western neighbours have imposed themselves to such an extent that now the resistance against them prevails. Military dictators seize power as the colonialists retreat during the aftermath of the Second World War. Even the fact that they think it necessary to maintain rubber-stamp parliaments shows that the traditional world has changed.

But the increasing pressure of foreign influence gives a boost to the call for a native culture. The enlighteners′ attempt to organise their own societies more usefully using rational criteria is overpowered by the nationalistic model. Its aim is to increase the power of the native society, now thought of using the imported concept of the ′nation′, as far as possible. For that, a military leadership is seen as necessary.

Superseded by ideological Islam

As the hopes placed in these military leaders begin to fade, owing to the fact that they are losing rather than winning wars, people begin to call for a return to their own ″Islamic″ roots. The call is first made by the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and then by that group′s radical wing under the influence of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed under Nasser′s government in 1966. De Bellaigue describes this in enough detail for us to work out the underlying motives and reasons for it.

He only hints at the further consequences: a newly-constructed version of Islam is gaining ground – one that has nothing to do with believers′ previous understanding of their religion, but a lot to do with the will to repel foreign influences. This happens most abruptly where these foreign influences have been imposed from outside by force, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But even in countries that haven′t faced a military invasion, from Iran to Morocco, the new self-image of these Muslims is gaining ground, as they try to mobilise Islam to support them against the infiltration of their countries by foreign ideas and powers. At the same time there are more self-assured majorities everywhere: people who hope – without utterly breaking off from their own tradition – to find their way back onto the path to an enlightened future that they set out on over two hundred years ago.

Arnold Hottinger

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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