Friday, October 5, 2012
In the Face of the Machine: Westoxification, Cultural Collision, and the Making of Perso-Islamic Ideology
Shirin S. Deylami
University of Minnesota
We are a nation engaged in transformation and if we suffer from such a confusion of values in both life and thought, it is because we are shedding our old skin. You might say that we are studying the conditions of our permit to enter a new realm.
-Jalal Al-e Ahmad
In October of 2001 Francis Fukuyama published a short article in the Guardian entitled “The West has Won.” Just one month after the September 11th attacks, he argued that the essence of modernity, democratic liberalism, was fundamentally impalatable to Islamists and that liberal democracy continues to be the system that dominates world politics While some in the global South, he argued, could take certain aspects of modernity, free-markets, democracy, etc. and make them culturally specific it was clear that Islamists, or rather Islamic fundamentalists, positioned their cultural identities on a wholesale negation of modernity. For Fukuyama modernity was an essentially Western concept, one proffered and developed through its link to Christianity. “In turn, Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel.” Yet despite Fukuyama’s insistence on the anti-modernity of Islamists he focuses his attentions not on the specifically anti-modern qualities of their arguments but rather on Islamists unequivocal anti-Westernism. This is not odd given Fukuyama’s conflation of modernity with the history and character of the West. But one may want to signal the fundamental problem with Fukuyama’s argument that arises if we charge that Islamic anti-Westernism might in fact dispute the very nature of modernity as essentially and eternally Western. In other words, one might ask the question, how might Islamism see its political interventions not as a wholesale anti-modernism but as an intervention in particular discourses of westernism and westernization that claim their hold on multiple and contingent facets of modernity?
While there is no doubt that many Islamic movements have been fueled by concerns with the intrusion of the West what makes that concern necessarily anti-modern or anti-global in its thrust? From the anti-western sentiments of Hezbollah, Hamas and Al- Qaida to the rhetoric of Islamic politicians in Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon the concern over of Western intrusion has been imminent for Islamists of all stripes who fear the infiltration of western cultural mores in their national or regional cultures. Much of the rhetoric of Islamic nationalism in Iran, for example has been concerned with cultural/religious preservation in the wake of the infiltration of cultural goods from the West. It has been articulated as both a figurative and literal preservation of the Islamic body and Islamic body politic. This fear of “westoxification ” has been read, by many in the West, as a disdain for modern globalization rather than a particular targeting of one form of economic, political, and cultural hegemony, namely that of “Westernization”. This is because the dissemination of Western values has been metonymically conflated with both globalization and modernity by many liberal thinkers in the West.
While one could make a compelling argument that critiques of the West and western culture are often articulated in terms of preserving national and religious identity through a fending off of the globalizing power of the West, in this essay I argue that it is a misreading of Islamist, particularly Perso-Islamist , ideology to perceive that call as antithetical to globalization as a process that extends ideas and cultural goods to other parts of the globe. Rather if we look closely at the critique of “westoxification”, we can see the way in which Perso-Islamic ideology simultaneously instantiates notions of national authenticity/bodily integrity and calls for the development of new formulations of the global that refute the claim to Western civilizational superiority.
In this essay I trouble two conventional Western readings of Islamism. First, that Islamism’s ideological foundations are rooted in the preservation of an authentic, theological natural, traditional and long-held religio-cultural position, a call to the past that counters the “civilizational” impulses of a progressivist ever-modernizing and mechanizing West. This reading inherently invokes the West as evolutional while the Islamic East is stagnant. It assumes the West’s cultural ideals to be penetrating against the Islamic East’s closed-off and inalterable borders. The second reading posits a lack of distinction between globalization as a cultural, economic, and political mode of disbursement and the West as one of many possible generators of globalization. Put differently, the impulse to understand globalization as necessitated by the West ignores the way in which Islamic ideology is predicated on the development of its own identity through the desire to produce an alternative global understanding in the face of western domination. In an attempt to debunk these two untroubled foundational conclusions, this essay attempts to answer three essential questions: (1) How does resistance towards Western culture give rise to new strategies and modes of meaning in Perso-Islamic ideological and identity development? (2) How does this trouble claims about the “stagnant”, “natural’, “unrefined”, and “anti-modern” claims about Islamism and Islamic political thinking? (3) How does the critique of “westoxification” both impart a rethinking of Islamic national identity and simultaneously invoke a renovation of the very terms of modernity: globalization, capitalism, the machine order, and the nation?
In order to get at this very important questions the goal of this essay is to map out a more complex reading of Perso-Islamic ideology by looking to one of the early intellectual architects of the Iranian Revolution, Jalal Al-e Ahmad. It’s my contention that if we look to Al-e Ahmad’s conceptual development of westoxification and his reading of the machine order we can see the way in which, Iranian anti-western sentiments which have often been seen as nativistic or nationalistic, are not simply resistant to the flux of globalization but rather are attempts to reinvent the global in Perso-Islamic terms.
Westoxification and the Machine
I focus on the work of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, for three reasons. First, because his influential 1962 book Gharbzadegi had immense currency in much of the early revolutionary movement in Iran. Second, because in many ways his arguments, especially in the hands of the Ayatollah Khomeini, have been reduced to a kind of nativist anti-western polemic that doesn’t take seriously his broader structural critique of western power. And third because his anonymity in the West has, I argue, limited the Western interpretation of revolutionary and contemporary Perso-Islamism.
As I have suggested in my introduction many in the West have read Islamic anxiety about the distribution of western culture as an anxiety about both modernity and practices of globalization. This misreading is premised on two unquestioned assumptions. First that Islamists want to preserve an authentic, traditional and long-held religio-cultural position. This makes Islamism a call to the past. A backward move to counter the civilizational impulses of a progressivist ever-modernizing West. The second assumption is that Islamists see globalization as Westernization; pitting Islamism against globalization. But what happens if we set these assumptions aside? What if we treat a concept like that of westoxification as a critique of the West’s capture of the terms of the global? I argue that through a reading of Al-e Ahmad’s concept of westoxification, we can see how Perso-Islamic ideology puts forward a vision of national identity that is linked to the development of a new formulation of the global—a global that is not a rejection of global modernity but rather reflects a disengagement from the ideology that the West has a monopoly on “civilization”, “progress”, and “development”.
Most Western analyses of Islamic thought ignores the contributions of Al-e Ahmad because of his unusual position in the development of revolutionary Islamic ideology in Iran. In fact, very few intellectuals in the West have assessed the contribution of his work in the development of Perso-Islamic ideology. This void is odd given the fact that his popularization of the concept of “westoxification” was essential to Khomeini’s revolutionary message. Offering a complex reading of both the dynamics of the machine order that spawned westernization and the subsequent impulses of westoxification, Al-e Ahmad attuned his audience to a new mode of global empire that could be both engaged and battled given the correct conceptual tools. Yet, most readings of westoxification continue to understand the cultural critique of the West as one predicated solely on the negation and refutation of modernity and globalization, a nativist polemic, rather than as a critical engagement with the processes, technologies, and apparatuses that have fueled a particular kind of westernization. Westoxification, in this light, simply becomes something to defy or cure, a disease that the Perso-Islamic body needs to rid. Consequently, this reading also divides up the Perso-Islamic nation into good and bad Muslims, those able to refute the disease and those plagued by it.
While there is no doubt that Al-e Ahmad was influential in the ideological making of the revolutionary movement in Iran, including the essential critique of western cultural domination, I argue that his conceptual rendering of westoxification also offers a critical interjection in the Perso-Islamic response to modernity and globalization. For while Al-e Ahmad’s work takes on westernization, it also betrays a reluctance to vilify the apparatuses of the West as a wholesale antithesis to Perso-Islamic development. This is where many articulations of Islamic ideology seem to stray from Al-e Ahmad’s own reading of westoxification. While most have relied on a simplified reading of westoxification as the intrusion of western hegemonic cultural and economic apparatuses, focusing simply on the in infiltration of westoxifying illness, Al-e Ahmad also turns a critical eye towards the problem of the Perso-Islamic incomprehensibility of the modes of technology that further westernization. Put differently, while Al-e Ahmad conceptually develops westoxification as a critique of the western infiltration of economics, values, and culture promulgated by what he terms the “western machine”, he offers an analysis of the relationship between the West and Iran that confounds the divide between Islamism and modernity/globalization by focusing on the utilization of machine technology.
There is no doubt that Al-e Ahmad’s reading of the infiltration of western culture onto the Iranian scene is essential in understanding the development of contemporary Perso-Islamic ideology. For its part, Gharbzadegi was crucial in establishing a critical perspective towards the modernizing plans of both Reza Shah Pahlavi and later Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and their related relationship to the West and its corporations. It laid out the foundations of a critique of the monarchy not simply based on its perceived inefficacies or even its political problems but in the claim that the Pahlavi’s had ingratiated Iran to the Western corporations and a western mode of life, without understanding the complexities of machine life, to the detriment of Iranians themselves. What is fascinating about the critique of westoxification is that Al-e Ahmad is attuned to the complexity of both Orientalism and Occidentalism. While he finds major fault and contempt for the imperialist impulses of western machine life as both a mode of economic imperialism and as productive project of power, he also recognizes the complex actions, responses and desires of the East that make its economic, political and cultural borders susceptible to westoxification.
Thus his critique of westoxification was approached vis-à-vis a two-pronged rapprochement of the current times. Al-e Ahmad saw a number of simultaneous events happening. First, the Western corporation, with the aid of western nation-states, was infiltrating the economic and cultural markets of Iran. Under the impulses of the machine order, corporations had infiltrated Iran in order to extract resources, namely oil, and produce a system in which Iranians would look to the West for all forms of technology and goods. Offering a complex reading of neo-colonialism Al-e Ahmad lays out for his readers the system by which the West exploits Iran not only to extract resources but also to accustom Iranians to a particular mode of life both in terms of goods and of culture. He writes,
To follow the West-the Western states and the oil companies-is the supreme manifestation of occidentosis [westoxification] in our time. This is how Western industry plunders us, how it rules us, how it holds our destiny. Once you have given economic and political control of your country to foreign concerns, they know what to sell you, or at least what not to sell you. Because they naturally seek to sell you their manufactures in perpetuity, it is best that you remain forever in need of them, and God save the oil reserves. They take away the oil and give you whatever you want in return-from soup to nuts, even grain. This enforced trade even extends to cultural matters, to letters, to discourse. Go flip through our half-dozen so-called heavy literary publications. What news do you see of our part of the world? Of the east in the broadest terms? Of India, Japan, China? All you see is news of the Nobel Prize, of the new pope, of Francoise Sagan, the Cannes Film Festival, the latest Broadway play, the latest Hollywood film. This is not to mention the illustrated weeklies, which are quite notorious. If we aren't to call this occidentosis, what are we to call it?
It is in this first analysis of the relationship between East and West that we see what Al-e Ahmad believes is the extended power of the machine that is capitalism. In his view, this new form of global capital does not simply limit the dominated state on the receiving end of exploitation and extraction. Rather the economically underdeveloped is rendered vulnerable to the mechanization of capitalism, to a machine, that simultaneously extracts as it produces needs; needs that can never be fulfilled by the nation itself. But this machine order is not limited to production alone. At the heart of contemporary machine-life is the ability to replace Western culture with that of Perso-Islamic culture; to render culture as a buyable good with no historical or geographical meaning. National subjects simply become consumers of goods and information that are conceptually and culturally alien to their historical particularity.
Consequently, the second and closely related arm of westoxification, the thing that makes the machine viable, is the perpetuation of the western machine by Perso-Islamic subjects, themselves. It is the receptivity of the goods of West, both economically and culturally, by Iranians that makes Westoxification possible. Here Al-e Ahmad offers both a critique of the developing nation-state and its subjects by focusing on the Pahlavi government whose desire for modernization trumped and often curtailed the development of an Islamic cultural climate and of the Iranian citizenry who easily swayed from their own cultural positions to that of a kind of mimicry. Iranian national subjects, including Pahlavi, Al-e Ahmad argues were invoking an ahistorical attitude that negated the Persian Islamic history of Iran and inscribed Iranians as inauthentic copies of the West. Put simply, in Al-e Ahmad’s estimation, national subjects were modernizing by imitating the West, without any historico-cultural basis for such an imitation, and thus negating their own historico-cultural condition.
The cause of this receptivity, Al-e Ahmad’s argues, is two-fold. First, the Pahlavi government, in an attempt to stabilize itself against the stronghold of religion, drew closer to the West. “When it sees itself standing on such shaky ground, it has no recourse but to draw all the closer into the embrace of the West: to rely on its military aid, on American offers of guns and tanks, on European publications, their newspapers and their reporters, on their politicians-just to buy a day or two of time.” In its fear of losing power domestically, then, the Pahlavi regime required the reinforcements of the West in order to stabilize the growing disquietude of the nationalistic religious community. Second, the masses, especially those urbanized, had come to see the West and its products as the standard by which one must live, to the detriment of self-sufficiency and pride in one’s own intellectual and cultural abilities. They have taken westernization on its own terms. The Islamic Easterner lives, no longer under the flag of nation and country, but under a broader symbol of Western progress. Al-e Ahmad writes, “Under this flag we are like strangers to ourselves, in our food and dress, our homes, our manners, our publications, and, most dangerous, our culture. We try to educate ourselves in the European style and strive to solve every problem as the Europeans would.” Perhaps, at the beginning, the danger of westernization had “brushed up against us, it has now touched our souls-from the peasant who has fled to the city and never returns to his village because the itinerant barber there has no Brilliantine among his equipment or because there is no cinema there or because he can't buy a sandwich, to the minister who seems allergic to the dust of our country and spends the year knocking about the world.” Thus Iranians have grown to believe that the only proper way to live is to live like a Westerner.
It is in the face of the machine, that westoxification comes to the fore. Al-e Ahmad is at times cryptic about what the machine exactly entails. He offers an incredibly sophisticated an complex reading of power as it relates to the machine, for he understands machine life or mechanosis as one that is capable of both extracting resources as it produces desire for more consumption. So what exactly is this machine that both extracts and produces desire? His first response is to say that machines are simply the technologies that facilitate progress; from the printing press to any technology that produces goods. But this seems to be very different than “the Machine” that produces the momentum of globalization and breaks down the barriers of nation, culture, etc. This latter kind of machine, though Al-e Ahmad never quite develops its definition, seems to be a geo-political apparatus that facilitates the development of economic and cultural life outside national boundaries. It is both the logic of capitalism and the impetus of globalization. It is the Machine that produces machines. In other words, it is the catalyst for global capital. He writes,
What Marx said is true today, that we have two worlds in conflict. But these two worlds stretch far vaster than in his time, and the conflict has grown far more complex than the one of worker and employer. In our world, poor confront rich, and the vast earth is the arena. Our age is one of two worlds: one producing and exporting machines, the other importing and consuming them and wearing them out. The stage for this conflict is the global market. The weapons, apart from tanks, guns, bombers, and missile launchers, themselves products of the West, are UNESCO, the FAO, the UN, ECAFE, and the other so-called international organizations. In fact, they are Western con artists come in new disguises to colonize this other world: to South America, to Asia, to Africa. Here is the basis for the occidentosis of all non-Western nations.
For Al-e Ahmad the impulse of the machine is to encourage the consumption of machines and their goods, which in the context of westernization, includes the goods of western culture. .
Tensions within Machine Life:
What kind of life does the machine produce? As I have suggested the machine life replaces culture with consumerism. As the machine of capitalism takes over, Al-e Ahmad argues, the Perso-Islamic subject has but two roles, as the consumer of western goods “or at best contented assemblers at low wages of what comes from the West.” But he continues to hint at a third role that is the hybrid of the first two. The Perso-Islamic subject through her consumption and as an assembler becomes a westoxified subject. Her body and then necessarily the body politic become ingratiated to the service of the machine. The influx of machine goods and the necessity of assemblage of these goods requires at all levels conformity to the machines of the West. At stake for Al-e Ahmad in this conformity is that the powerful current of the machine order relegates compliance not simply at the economic level but at all levels of society and culture. In his estimation, one cannot simply float along the currents of the machine order without being trapped in its tide. As consumers and assemblers the Iranian involvement with the machine “has necessitated our conforming ourselves, our governments, our cultures, and our daily lives to the machine.” What’s at stake and crucial in Al-e Ahmad’s analysis is that the economic and cultural realms are not seen as two independent arenas but are necessarily and irrefutably interconstitutive. To make such a link it is essential for Al-e Ahmad to develop a theory of consumption and culture. He does this through his analysis of the relationship between consumptive impulses of the new machine life and cultural history.
In his analysis of the consumption of cultural goods Al-e Ahmad argues that the machine renders Islamic/Iranian culture unsustainable. It produces subjects who only desire to be more and more like their mechanotic counterparts. Relying on the relationship between mechanosis and westoxification, Ahmad implicitly argues that the driving catalysis of cultural destruction is the blindness of westoxified subjects in seeing the process of mechanosis. He writes,
Starvelings that we are, having been chronically undernourished for centuries, this in itself is an advance. Such a starveling who has had a lifetime diet of bread and buttermilk in the village can fill up on sandwiches in the city and go find first a hairdresser and a tailor, then a shoeshiner, then a whorehouse. Political parties and societies being prohibited (and what can one say of our so-called cultural clubs?), and mosque and mihrab forgotten or remembered only during Muharram and Ramazan, the movie house replaces them all, as do television and the magazines that every day inspire thousands of our proud citizens to copy the features and gestures of some film star!
Clearly, there are structural conditions, that of poverty and ill education, that render Islamic subjects more susceptible to the goods of the West and the machine order, but Al-e Ahmad warns Iranian subjects not to be duped into believing that the luxuries of mechanosis do not have a critical effect on the language, culture and religious morality of Iran.
Let us be clear, Al-e Ahmad is not simply arguing that the infiltration of cultural goods are destroying Islamic culture in Iran, rather he is pointing to a structural phenomenon, mechanosis, that inevitably leads cultures without control to live in a presentist state of consumerism and ahistoricity marking the impossibility of a culturally rich Islamic life. Here Al-e Ahmad points to three outcomes of mechanosis in Iran that mark the new consumerist culture. First, and most importantly, is the impossibility of a historically oriented life in the face of the machine. In his analysis of the impulses of the machine, Al-e Ahmad argues that the essential component of westoxification is the people’s inability to seek historical grounding in their own traditions. “If we define westoxification as the aggregate of events in the life, culture, civilization, and mode of thought of a people having no supporting tradition, no historical continuity, no gradient of transformation, but having only what the machine brings them, it is clear that we are such a people,” he writes. It is here that Al-e Ahmad is most critical of the Orientalist nature of machine life. Al-e Ahmad sees a double form of objectification happening to the Perso-Islamic subject. (S)he is at once seen as an object of inquiry and cultural authenticity—a “museum piece”—by the Western academy and corporations and simultaneously her cultural continuity is rendered impossible by the demands of machine production and the influx of goods.
At first glance these two operations seem to be pulling the westoxified subject into two very different directions, one that mires her in a so-called “authentic” history and culture and the other sweeps her up in the language, customs, and productions of Western machine life. However, Al-e Ahmad traces these two functions as part and parcel of the same mechanizing ideal. How does he do this? He insists that the western machine, in order to fulfill its own needs and desires, must first isolate the Perso-Islamic subject as unprogressive and stagnant in order to instigate and unleash the desires for a more western progressivist life. Put simply, westernization requires that the West first penetrate the culture and its subjects, know all it can know about the cultures “insufficiencies” and then offer its subjects reprieve from the difficulties of that life. This reprieve is often given through the influx of goods that make life easier and more bearable, whether they are the importation of food or the discovery of “birilliantine” for the hair that makes the hair less unruly and more polished just like their western counter-parts. Sooner or later the desires for the goods of the West result in an inability to look at oneself for innovation and newness and instead look only longingly towards the West. Believing that only the West and its machine can offer the comforts of life, the westoxified subject reduces all cultural heritage to the darkness before enlightenment, as life before modernization.
The second outcome of mechanosis is the production of life without borders and the subsequent nationalistic/nativist response. These too are part and parcel of the same process of mechanosis—a contradiction that cannot be avoided by westoxification. Al-e Ahmad argues that in the age of the Machine the “internationalization of everything and everyone” has become the modus operendi of mechanosis. The development of globalization posits a distinct problem for national and cultural identity. The borders need to be opened in order for the Machine to not only distribute goods but to produce goods. In order for the power of the Machine to continue, “it demands common markets, open borders, and closed customs houses. It carries the flag of the United Nations and drives wherever it can find the corporations' gasoline.” The response to such an erasure of borders and national identity is a form of nativism that does not respond critically enough to the power of mechanosis. For Al-e Ahmad this is the significant error in response to globalization. On one side we have those who retreat into the notion that the only way to survive globalization and the mechanization of the world order is to brandish claims of racial, religious or national superiority instantiating difference at every turn. On the other side is to openly accept a life without borders without having any knowledge of the terms of borderlessness and mechanosis. This leaves Iranians in a critical juncture where the response will inevitably be repression on both sides. Marking out the inevitable outcome of such nativism, Al-e Ahmad writes,
“In such an age, the more closed the national borders, the more amplified the traditions of race, the more earnest the callow boasts of the Shah, the worse the oppression, and the more influential the commandments and prohibitions of religion, the deeper grows the dungeon of nations and peoples. What border or domain can stand up to the influence of Pepsi Cola, or to the comings and goings of the oil brokers, or to Brigitte Bardot's films, to heroin smugglers, or to the dubious orientalists who are the official go-betweens for imperialism?”
Third, mechanosis instantiates a new culture of gender inequality that clashes the sexual freedoms of the West with the religious orientations of the Iranian nation. Al-e Ahmad argues that a necessary condition or consequence of westoxification is the “emancipation of women”. But this is no emancipation at all for Al-e Ahmad. Westoxification has imposed a libertine culture of sexuality without developing a juridical and political role for women. Here it is not clear whom Al-e Ahmad is more frustrated with; the West’s sexual frivolity or Islamists inability to develop a clear institutional model that establishes women at the center of the political order. Al-e Ahmad seems to be radically democratic in his desire for women to both have cultural and religious freedom but he is also extremely critical of the role of westoxification in bringing about this freedom. He writes,
So we really have given women only the right to parade themselves in public. We have drawn women, the preservers of traditions, family, and future generations, into vacuity, into the street. We have forced them into ostentations and frivolity, every day to freshen up and try on a new style and wander around. What of work, duty, social responsibility, and character? There are very few women concerned with such things any more. Unless the work of men and women and their services to society are equally valued and paid, unless, alongside men, women assume responsibility for administering a sector of society (other than the home, a private function shared between men and women), unless material and spiritual equality is established between the sexes, we will have succeeded only swelling an army of consumers of powder and lipstick-the products of the West's industries-another form of occidentosis.
Here it is not clear whom Al-e Ahmad is more frustrated with; the West’s sexual frivolity or Islamists inability to develop a clear institutional model that establishes women at the center of the political order. Clearly there is a tension in Al-e Ahmad’s text. For he seems to both demand a radical transformation in Perso-Islamic women’s cultural and religious freedom but also, simultaneously, attempts to hold on to traditionalist Islamic conceptions of women’s roles as preservers of the family and the nation.
Yet despite these tensions, I want to argue that it is here in his critique of the contradiction between westoxification and Islamic cultural identity that Al-e Ahmad really develops a more complex view of the necessary response to cultural globalization and the dismantling of traditional culture. Notice his response is not the conventional response of the nativist, to demand the reinstatement of traditional dress or to insist up women’s place as necessarily outside the public sphere. Nor is his response like one of those enchanted by westernization. In fact, he is disgusted with the claim that the perpetual and rampant cultural consumption of feminine goods produces women’s freedom. Rather Al-e Ahmad attempts a hybrid articulation of Islamism and modernity that advocates a new role for women within the Perso-Islamic national body. While no doubt there are clear tensions in his reading of Woman as the subject of traditional familial preservation and his advocacy for institutional changes in Iranian women’s political place, I want us to focus on the way that this articulation of women’s roles marks a responsiveness to changes in the geo-political order that neither reproduces western mores nor articulates a nativistic response.
Al-e Ahmad’s response to the Woman question hints at a larger and more complex reading of his response to mechanosis and westoxification that is largely ignored by examiners of his work. This is because his anti-westernism is read as anti-globalization. While most focus on his critique of westoxification and thus incorrectly interpret him as nativistic, a closer reading of Al-e Ahmad shows him to be engaged with the real problems of machine life and the influx of global distributions of goods and power. Specifically, Al-e Ahmad implores us to delineate the complex order of mechanosis with westernization. For if one can pry apart mechanosis from westoxification, then one can begin to produce alternative visions of the global order. The task, then, for this critic of westoxification, is to decipher a Perso-Islamic response in the face of the machine. Al-e Ahmad finds the two most prevalent responses to the development of machine life, assimilation and nativism offer no powerful reprieve from westoxification or the machine order.
On one hand, assimilation to westernization and the lack of an identifiable presence in the global order amounts to little but exploitation. Throughout Gharbzadegi Al-e Ahmad urges us to avoid this kind of mimicry for it gives a false sense of progress. He writes,
We have been unable to preserve our own historicocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught. Rather, we have been routed. We have been unable to take a considered stand in the face of this contemporary monster. So long as we do not comprehend the real essence, basis, and philosophy of Western civilization, only aping the West outwardly and formally (by consuming its machines), we shall be like the ass going about in a lion's skin. We know what became of him. Although the one who created the machine now cries out that it is stifling him, we not only fail to repudiate our assuming the garb of machine tenders, we pride ourselves on it. For two hundred years we have resembled the crow mimicking the partridge (always supposing that the West is a partridge and we are a crow).
At three different junctures in this short passage, Al-e Ahmad vies for to envision the impossibility of passing for something that we are not. An ass pretending to be a lion knows immediately that the lions can sense that he is an imposter and endangers himself. The crow attempting to sing the beautiful notes of a partridge recognizes that she only squawks not making nearly the kind of music that her counterparts can make. Those outside the West, too, only mimic the progress and capabilities of Western modernity leaving their own characteristics and histories behind. But this mimicry, Al-e Ahmad notes, always already rings false. This is not because there is something inherently or biologically different between the subjects of the West and Islamic East like the difference between an ass and a lion or a crow and a partridge. Rather it is because we mimic without understanding. We consume without knowing how to build. We lose ourselves in becoming another whose history and cultural life we do not know. Assimilation in this sense can only bring grief and struggle and can never bare the fruits of change.
In turn, the second and equally troubling response to the western machine order, for Al-e Ahmad, is a kind of nativistic resistance, i.e. resistance by miring oneself in an idealized cultural tradition and history. As I suggested earlier in this chapter, Al-e Ahmad is severely critical of such a stance because it relies on an interpretation of Islam as divisive rather than cohesive. The nativist track always already relies on a constitutive outside not only through an otherization of the West and its subjects but within the national boundaries itself. Nativism produces both geo-political borders and ethnic, racial and gendered borders that inevitably bring the people of nations and their allies further apart rather than closer together. Nativism operates not as a reminder of one’s cultural history but rather as a stark and closed interpretation of who belongs and who does not. Al-e Ahmad feared such a nativistic interpretation being resurrected by certain factions of Islamic political society. This kind of nativism, he feared, would not be able to delineate the technologies and apparatuses of the machine order from westernization. It would understand them as one and the same and consequently, it would prohibit Perso-Islamists from taking the machine into their own hands and shaping globalization rather than being bystanders or victims of it.
The Retreat from Westoxification/ The Production of the Machine
It is Al-e Ahmad’s contention that neither a wholesale acceptance of nor resistance to mechanosis as it has been known is in order. Rather Al-e Ahmed focuses on access to the tools of the Machine and the development of the machine order as crucial in developing a new Perso-Islamism that is both responsive to historico-culture and to global change. His argument focuses on the confirmation of three essential modes of understanding: (1) the acknowledgment of history (2) a turn to intellectual rigueur and (3) a turn to self-representation in the face of westernization. These three notions can, of course, never be understood separately. They are all necessary and none are sufficient on their own in battling westoxification and taking hold of mechanosis. The final section of this essay focuses on these three necessary conditions in order to relate how the early development of the critique of westoxification was constituted not simply on anti-westernism but on a revelation that Perso-Islamists must understand themselves as participants and not simply followers or negators of global change.
First, Al-e Ahmad calls for a historical interpretation of both national and global life. This would include not only the need to root Iranians in their own historical development which includes the role of religion, but also in understanding the historical emergence of the machine order. Let us look at the first argument. It was Al-e Ahmad’s contention that the strength of westoxification was its ability to replace the historical myths and stories of the Iranian past with the falsified and dramatized history of the Western past and present. He argued that the Hollywoodization of the hero marked a decline in Iranian political knowledge whereby the average consumer know more about the film stars of the West or the philosophy of the ancient Greeks than her own cultural history. As Hamid Dabashi argues,
[S]uch mythologies, Al-e Ahmad believed, were no idle entertainment. He was convinced that myths are “the most real of all realities.” Such realities constitute the most essential and immediate frames of reference within which members of a common culture assume their measures of social action. Such attention to the inner wordings of common mythologies was instrumental in the final disposition of Al-e Ahmad’s political agenda. He complained bitterly of the substitution of an artificial knowledge of Greek mythology for a genuine understanding of Iranian myths. “Still no average literate Iranian knows our national mythology,” he regretted. “Who is Zarir or Garshasp? Or what is the myth of creation in this part of the world? But every newspaper is full of Greek mythology. . . Why?"
It was necessary for any cohesive response to Westoxification to render itself through a grounding in one’s own cultural history. To tell the stories that give birth to Perso-Islamic culture and have continued to transform it in order to stabilize and give meaning to a cohesive national body . This, however, does not require a reversion back to an “authentic” idealized culture before the infiltration of the machine order. Al-e Ahmad’s is not a call back to something that never quite existed; rather it is a call for historical grounding and recognition for a culture that is ever changing. This is critically important because he wants us to be wary of the mode of storytelling that is in the pursuit of an unjustified nativism. He calls this “melancholia of self glorification” “asinine self-glorification, with plentiful references to Darius, Cyrus, and Rustam, the sort of thing that pours from every radio in the country and from there fills our publications.” It is not the role of history to only tell the stories that glorify us or produce likeness or difference between other western nations. The purpose of history is to ground us both in hopefulness and remembrance of times gone awry. Recognition of history is meant to ground us in our future.
This leads us to Al-e Ahmad’s second and critical idea about the role of western history in the making of this new post-westoxified culture. At first glance, one can read Ahmad’s critique of the influx of western mythology as a desire to abolish all western influence, yet we can see that really he wants us to educate ourselves in western thought in order to understand the mechanics of the machine order. It his contention that the history of machine life no longer belongs solely to the West. The machine order has crossed the boundaries of East and West taking on a life of its own. The process of mechanization, then, must be understood by all, but more specifically those who consume its products. For the Islamic subject to be able to control or at least take part in his own destiny he must do so through a complete understanding of how the development of the Westernized machine has come about. It is only through the historical knowledge of mechanization, which has developed in the West, that we can make a new form of mechanization that is culturally appropriate to Perso-Islamic life.
This leads us to the second essential response to the machine order: the consumption and production of knowledge. Al-e Ahmad focuses much of his latter work on the role of education and the intellectual in making a more responsive and less westoxified Iran. Yet he recognizes that intellectualism in Iran has also fallen prey to westoxification. This is because Iranians have come to believe that those who are educated in the West are more capable and proficient than those whose educations come from local schools. Thus those who have been trained in the West have inhabited the Iranian educational system producing more and more westoxified subjects . In order to ameliorate the tension between knowledge production and westoxification he strikes a balance between education about the development of the West and education for the West. While Iranians must understand the history of the West in order to take hold of machine-life within their own borders, they must also rethink the Machine in their own terms. This requires the mobilization of knowledge not simply by the elite intelligentsia but by the common (wo)man who falls prey to the consumptive nature of westernization but does not understand its processes.
Who then can mobilize knowledge within this complex set of parameters? Al-e Ahmad turns to the Islamic cleric as the essential figure for encouraging knowledge consumption and production. While he recognizes that the Perso-Islamic orthodoxy has tended to embrace nativism in order to battle the Shah’s encouragement of westoxification, Al-e Ahmad believes that it is the cleric’s commitment to religious values that can hold steady the dawning of a new age where the machine order is not something that consumes and destroys the Islamic East but is something produced by it. “In this age of transformation, we need people of character, expert, ardent, principled people—not westoxified people, not people who are sacks full of human knowledge, jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.” Instead, he argues, we need people whose commitment to God and his fellow man surpass the desires for luxuries and goods. The cleric is that kind of person and can show others in the community to move away from westoxification. Yet, Islamic clerics, Al-e Ahmad implores, also must recognize the current place in the historical process and not simply revert back to a time before the machine.
It is with this sense of religio-cultural self that Perso-Islamic subjects can move away from the mimicry of the West to a mode of self-representation with the machine order. We must take hold of the Machine and make it for our own good. “The Machine should naturally serve us as a trampoline, so that we may stand on it and jump all the farther by its rebound. One must have the machine; one must build it. But one must not remain in bondage to it; one must not fall into its snare. The machine is a means, not an end.” While the machine order, as it has come from the West, has taken hold of and exploited the Islamic East, it can be reinvented and rethought within the religio-cultural stance of Perso-Islamism. This requires and end to the mythology of western superiority and a solid stance in the face of the machine.
In contemporary American political discourse it is not uncommon to think of Islamism, or more commonly Islamic fundamentalism, as a culture or civilization in contestation and collision with Western democratic liberalism. In the daily rendering of political pundits, politicians and, even, political theorists, narratives are constantly deployed that trace the stark and often oppositional trajectories of these two ideological or “civilizational” forces. From the perspective of many in the West and even some within Islamic nations there is an argument repeated over and over again signifying the ever greater divide between the so-called West and the so-called Islamic East: the West believes in progress, innovation, and modernity while the Islamic East is rooted in authenticity, tradition, and avowedly anti-modern; the West believes in the end to borders and the furthering of cultural globalization, the Islamic East in maintaining closed borders and cultural authenticity. From this kind of perspective, Islamism is a stagnant and unrelenting force wishing to stop the progress of democracy and liberal capital. Islamism is often described through a language embedded in the notion of political and ideological inferiority—the base traditionalism—of the Islamic East (alongside a slew of unacknowledged tropes about the religious, racial and gendered “backwardness” of Islamic political society). Islamism is seen as something either to be destroyed or quelled and sanitized into a religious culture that must give in to the force of liberal democracy or a route to an ever-greater expansion of so-called Western values and goods.
In turn, much Islamist rhetoric focuses its dismissal of the West on the cultural collision between Islam and the West. Marking the West as its Other in global relations of power, much Islamist rhetoric has constituted its identity through a negation of all things western. Yet a close reading of this battle against westoxification reveals a complex reaction to the institutional mechanisms that spawn westernization. Decoupling globalization and modernity from westernization, Jalal Al-e Ahmad offers an interpretation of Perso-Islamism that is both critically responsive to new global trends and still relies on the cultural and historical context of Iranian life. His analysis of the machine order, thus marks a critical rereading of westernization and Islamism as both manifestations of and participants in globalization.
The west has won
Radical Islam can't beat democracy and capitalism. We're still at the end of history
Thursday October 11, 2001
A stream of commentators have been asserting that the tragedy of September 11 proves that I was utterly wrong to have said more than a decade ago that we had reached the end of history. It is, on the face of it, insulting to the memory of those who died to declare that this unprecedented attack did not rise to the level of a historical event. But the way in which I used the word history was different: it referred to the progress over the centuries toward modernity, characterised by institutions like democracy and capitalism.
My observation, made in 1989 on the eve of the collapse of communism, was that this evolutionary process did seem to be bringing ever larger parts of the world toward modernity. And if we looked beyond liberal democracy and markets, there was nothing else towards which we could expect to evolve; hence the end of history. While there were retrograde areas that resisted that process, it was hard to find a viable alternative civilisation that people actually wanted to live in after the discrediting of socialism, monarchy, fascism and other types of authoritarianism.
This view has been challenged by many people, and perhaps most articulately by Samuel Huntington. He argued that rather than progressing toward a single global system, the world remained mired in a "clash of civilisations" in which six or seven major cultural groups would co-exist without converging and constitute the new fracture lines of global conflict. Since the successful attack on the centre of global capitalism was evidently perpetrated by Islamic extremists unhappy with the very existence of western civilisation, observers have been handicapping the Huntington "clash" view over my own "end of history" hypothesis.
I believe that in the end I remain right: modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand as the dominant organising principles for much of the world. But it is worthwhile thinking about what the true scope of the present challenge is.
Modernity has a cultural basis. Liberal democracy and free markets do not work everywhere. They work best in societies with certain values whose origins may not be entirely rational. It is not an accident that modern liberal democracy emerged first in the Christian west, since the universalism of democratic rights can be seen as a secular form of Christian universalism.
The central question raised by Huntington is whether institutions of modernity will work only in the west, or whether there is something broader in their appeal that will allow them to make headway elsewhere. I believe there is. The proof lies in the progress that democracy and free markets have made in regions such as east Asia, Latin America, orthodox Europe, south Asia and even Africa. Proof lies also in the millions of developing world immigrants who vote with their feet every year to live in western societies. The flow of people moving in the opposite direction, and the number who want to blow up what they can of the west, is by contrast negligible.
But there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least the fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been dominant in recent years, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity. Of all contemporary cultural systems, the Islamic world has the fewest democracies (Turkey alone qualifies), and contains no countries that have made the transition to developed nation status in the manner of South Korea or Singapore.
There are plenty of non-western people who prefer the economic part of modernity and hope to have it without having to accept democracy as well. There are others who like both the economic and political versions of modernity, but just can't figure out how to make it happen. For them, transition to western-style modernity may be long and painful. But there are no insuperable cultural barriers to prevent them from getting there, and they constitute about four-fifths of the world's people.
Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community, and whether this rejection is somehow inherent in Islam. For if the rejectionists are more than a lunatic fringe, then Huntington is right that we are in for a protracted conflict made dangerous by virtue of their technological empowerment.
The answer that politicians east and west have been putting out since September 11 is that those sympathetic with the terrorists are a "tiny minority" of Muslims, and that the vast majority are appalled by what happened. It is important to say this to prevent all Muslims from becoming targets of hatred. The problem is that hatred of America and what it stands for are clearly much more widespread.
Certainly the group of people willing to go on suicide missions against the US is tiny. But sympathy may be manifest in nothing more than initial feelings of schadenfreude at the sight of the collapsing towers, a sense of satisfaction that the US was getting what it deserved, to be followed by pro forma expressions of disapproval. By this standard, sympathy for the terrorists is characteristic of much more than a "tiny minority"of Muslims, extending from the middle classes in countries like Egypt to immigrants in the west.
This broader dislike and hatred would seem to represent something much deeper than mere opposition to American policies like support for Israel or the Iraq embargo, encompassing a hatred of the underlying society. After all, many people around the world, including many Americans, disagree with US policies, but this does not send them into paroxysms of anger and violence. Nor is it necessarily a matter of ignorance about the quality of life in the west. The suicide hijacker Mohamed Atta was a well-educated man from a well-to-do Egyptian family who lived and studied in the US for years. Perhaps the hatred is born out of a resentment of western success and Muslim failure.
But rather than psychologise the Muslim world, it makes more sense to ask whether radical Islam constitutes a serious alternative to western liberal democracy. (Radical Islam has virtually no appeal in the contemporary world apart from those who are culturally Islamic to begin with.) For Muslims themselves, political Islam has proved much more appealing in the abstract than in reality. After 23 years of rule by fundamentalist clerics, most Iranians, especially the young, would like to live in a far more liberal society. Afghans who have experienced Taliban rule feel much the same. Anti-American hatred does not translate into a viable political program for Muslim societies to follow.
We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic west. This does not imply a world free from conflict, nor the disappearance of culture. But the struggle we face is not the clash of several distinct and equal cultures fighting amongst one another like the great powers of 19th-century Europe. The clash consists of a series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernisation. The strength of the backlash reflects the severity of this threat. But time is on the side of modernity, and I see no lack of US will to prevail.
• Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal, 2001. Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
• Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and author of The End of History and the Last Man
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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