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Foreign Policy Research Institute wire a catalyst for Ideas

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Foreign Policy Research Institute WIRE

A Catalyst for Ideas

by Dale F. Eickelman

Volume 7, Number 9

August 1999
This essay was adapted from a lecture delivered on June 9,

1999. FPRI thanks John M. Templeton, Jr., for sponsoring

the lecture and Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP

for hosting it.

Dale F. Eickelman is the Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor

of Anthropology and Human Relations at Dartmouth College.

The 1999 Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs

by Dale F. Eickelman

Like the printing press in sixteenth-century Europe, the

combination of mass education and mass communications is

transforming the Muslim majority world, a broad geographical

crescent stretching from North Africa through Central Asia,

the Indian subcontinent, and the Indonesian archipelago. In

unprecedentedly large numbers, the faithful -- whether in

the vast cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, the suburbs of

Paris, or in the remote oases of Oman's mountainous interior

-- are examining and debating the fundamentals of Muslim

belief and practice in ways that their less self-conscious

predecessors in the faith would never have imagined.

Buzzwords such as "fundamentalism," and catchy phrases such

as Samuel Huntington's "West versus Rest" or Daniel

Lerner's "Mecca or mechanization," are of little use in

understanding this transformation. They obscure or even

distort the immense spiritual and intellectual ferment that

is taking place today among the world's nearly one billion

Muslims, reducing it in most cases to a fanatical rejection

of everything modern, liberal, or progressive. To be sure,

such fanaticism -- not exclusive to Muslim majority

societies -- plays a part in what is happening, but it is

far from the whole story.

A far more important element is the unprecedented access

that ordinary people now have to sources of information and

knowledge about religion and other aspects of their society.

Quite simply, in country after country, government

officials, traditional religious scholars, and officially

sanctioned preachers are finding it very hard to monopolize

the tools of literate culture. The days have gone when

governments and religious authorities can control what their

people know, and what they think.
What distinguishes the present era from prior ones is the

large numbers of believers engaged in the "reconstruction"

of religion, community, and society. In an earlier era,

political or religious leaders would prescribe, and others

were supposed to follow. Today, the major impetus for change

in religious and political values comes from below. In

France, this has meant an identity shift from being Muslim

in France to being French Muslim. In Turkey, it means that

an increasing number of Turks, especially those of the

younger generation, see themselves as European and Muslim at

the same time. And some Iranians argue that the major

transformations of the Iranian revolution occurred not in

1978-79 but with the coming of age of a new generation of

Iranians who were not even born at the time of the

revolution. These transformations include a greater sense of

autonomy for both women and men and the emergence of a

public sphere in which politics and religion are subtly

intertwined, and not always in ways anticipated by Iran's

formal religious leaders.
If "modernity" is defined as the emergence of new kinds of

public space, including new possible spaces not imagined by

preceding generations, then developments in France, Turkey,

Iran, Indonesia, and elsewhere suggest that we are living

through an era of profound social transformation for the

Muslim majority world.

Distinctive to the modern era is that discourse and debate

about Muslim tradition involves people on a mass scale. It

also necessarily involves an awareness of other Muslim and

non-Muslim traditions. Mass education and mass communication

in the modern world facilitate an awareness of the new and

unconventional. In changing the style and scale of possible

discourse, they reconfigure the nature of religious thought

and action, create new forms of public space, and encourage

debate over meaning.
Mass education and mass communications are important in all

contemporary world religions. However, the full effects of

mass education, especially higher education, only began to

be felt in much of the Muslim world since mid-century and in

many countries considerably later. In country after country

-- including Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia --

educational opportunities have dramatically expanded at all

levels. Even where adult illiteracy rates in the general

populace remains high, as in rural Egypt and Morocco, there

is now a critical mass of educated people able to read,

think for themselves, and react to religious and political

authorities rather than just listen to them. Women's access

to education still lags behind that of men, although the gap

is rapidly closing in many countries.

Both mass education and mass communications, particularly

the proliferation of media and the means by which people

communicate, have had a profound effect on how people think

about religion and politics throughout the Muslim world.

Multiple means of communication make the unilateral control

of information and opinion much more difficult than it was

in prior eras and foster, albeit inadvertently, a civil

society of dissent. We are still in the early stages of

understanding how different media -- including print,

television, radio, cassettes, and music -- influence groups

and individuals, encouraging unity in some contexts and

fragmentation in others, but a few salient features may be

At the "high" end of this transformation is the rise to

significance of books such as al-Kitab wa-l-Qur'an [The Book

and the Qur'an] (1992), written by the Syrian civil engineer

Muhammad Shahrur. This book has sold tens of thousands of

copies throughout the Arab world in spite of the fact that

its circulation has been banned or discouraged in many

places. Its success could not have been imagined before

there were large numbers of people able to read it and

understand its advocacy of the need to reinterpret ideas of

religious authority and tradition and apply Islamic precepts

to contemporary society. On issues ranging from the role of

women in society to rekindling a "creative interaction" with

non-Muslim philosophies, Shahrur argues that Muslims should

reinterpret sacred texts and apply them to contemporary

social and moral issues.
Shahrur is not alone in attacking both conventional

religious wisdom and the intolerant certainties of religious

radicals and in arguing instead for a constant and open re-

interpretation of how sacred texts apply to social and

political life. Another Syrian thinker, the secularist Sadiq

Jalal al-'Azm, debated Shaykh Yusifal-Qaradawi, a

conservative religious intellectual, on Qatar's al-Jazira

Satellite TV in May 1997. For the first time in the memory

of many viewers, the religious conservative came across as

the weaker, more defensive voice. Al-Jazira is a new

phenomenon in Arab language broadcasting because its talk

shows, such as "The Opposite Direction," feature live

discussions on such sensitive issues as women's role in

society, Palestinian refugees, sanctions on Iraq, and

democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

Such discussions are unlikely to be rebroadcast on state-

controlled television in most Arab nations, where

programming on religious and political themes is generally

cautious. Nevertheless, satellite technology and videotape

render traditional censorship ineffective. Tapes of the al-

Jazira broadcasts circulate from hand to hand in Morocco,

Oman, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere. Al-Jazira shows that

people across the Arab world, just like their counterparts

elsewhere in the Muslim majority world, want open discussion

of the issues that affect their lives, and that new

communications technologies make it impossible for

governments and established religious authorities to stop

Other voices also advocate reform. Fethullah Glen, Turkey's

answer to media-savvy American evangelist Billy Graham,

appeals to a mass audience. In televised chat shows,

interviews, and occasional sermons, Glen speaks about Islam

and science, democracy, modernity, religious and ideological

tolerance, the importance of education, and current events.

Religious movements such as Turkey's Risale-i Nur appeal

increasingly to religious moderates, and in stressing the

link between Islam, reason, science, and modernity, and the

lack of inherent clash between "East" and "West," promote

education at all levels, and appeal to a growing numbers of

educated Turks. Iranian, Indonesian, and Malaysian moderates

make similar arguments advocating religious and political

toleration and pluralism.
As a result of direct and broad access to the printed,

broadcast, and taped word, more and more Muslims take it

upon themselves to interpret the textual sources --

classical or modern -- of Islam. Much has been made of the

opening up of the economies of many Muslim countries,

allowing "market forces" to reshape economies, no matter how

painful the consequences in the short run. In a similar way,

intellectual market forces support some forms of religious

innovation and activity over others. In Bangladesh, women's

romance novels, once a popular secular specialty, now have

their Islamic counterparts, making it difficult to

distinguish between "Muslim" romance novels and "secular"

The result is a collapse of earlier, hierarchical notions of

religious authority based on claims to the mastery of fixed

bodies of religious texts. Even when there are state-

appointed religious authorities -- as in Oman, Saudi Arabia,

Iran, and Egypt -- there no longer is any guarantee that

their word will be heeded, or even that they themselves will

follow the lead of the regime. No one group or type of

leader in contemporary Muslim societies possesses a monopoly

on the management of the sacred.
Without fanfare, the notion that Islam should be the subject

of dialogue and civil debate is gaining ground. This new

sense of public space is shaped by increasingly open

contests over the use of the symbolic language of Islam.

Increasingly, discussions in newspapers, on the Internet, on

smuggled cassettes, and on television cross-cut and overlap,

contributing to a common public space.
New and accessible modes of communication have made these

contests increasingly global, so that even local issues take

on transnational dimensions. The combination of new media

and new contributors to religious and political debates

fosters an awareness on the part of all actors of the

diverse ways in which Islam and Islamic values can be

created. It feeds into new senses of a public space that is

discursive, performative, and participative, and not

confined to formal institutions recognized by state


Two cautions are in order. The first is that an expanding

public sphere need not necessarily indicate more favorable

prospects for democracy, any more than civil society

necessarily entails democracy. Authoritarian regimes are

compatible with an expanding public sphere, although an

expanded public sphere offers wider avenues for awareness of

competing and alternate forms of religious and political

authority. Nor does civil society necessarily entail

democracy, although it is a precondition for democracy.

Publicly shared ideas of community, identity, and leadership

take new shapes in such engagements, even as many

communities and authorities claim an unchanged continuity

with the past. Mass education, so important in the

development of nationalism in an earlier era, and a

proliferation of media and means of communication have

multiplied the possibilities for creating communities and

networks among them, dissolving prior barriers of space and

distance and opening new grounds for interaction and mutual


Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite

610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684

For membership information, contact Alan Luxenberg: (215)

732-3774, ext. 105

Articles of Related Interest

As Professor Eickelman points out, the Muslim majority world

stretches from North Africa through Central Asia, the Indian

subcontinent, and the Indonesian archipelago. Here are some

of our articles that touch on all of those areas:

Multiculturalism in the Classical Islamic World, Bruce B. Lawrence, Footnotes, 9/99
The Coming Transformation of the Muslim World, Dale Eickelman, FPRI Wire, 8/99
Israel Picks a General...and a General Picks a Government, Harvey Sicherman, Peacefacts, 7/99
The Market for Central Asian Legitimacy, Stephen Winterstein, Orbis, Summer 1999
Afghanistanding, Adam Garfinkle, Orbis, Summer 1999
Don't Arm the KLA, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 4/6/99
Bombs for Peace?: Misreading Kosovo, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 3/26/99
The PKK Strategy in Europe to Place Turkey on Trial, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 2/26/99
The Capture of Abdullah Ocalan and the Future of Counter-Terrorism, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 2/18/99
After King Hussein, Adam Garfinkle, FPRI E-Note, 2/8/99
Hussein Bin Talal: Soldier-King, Harvey Sicherman, Peacefacts, 2/99
The Asian Miracle, the Asian Contagion, & the U.S.A., FPRI Wire, Theodore Friend, 12/98
The U.S. and Iraq: What's Next, Adam Garfinkle, FPRI E-Note, 11/20/98
A Kurd's Way, Adam Garfinkle, The New Republic, 12/28/98
Who is Abdullah Ocalan?, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 11/16/98
The "Camp Wye Accords," Harvey Sicherman, Peacefacts, 11/98
Dangerous Incoherence in Kosovo, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 10/21/98
Ending the India-Pakistan Feud Starts With Kashmir, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Herald Tribune, 9/23/98
Who Wants a Greater Albania?, Michael Radu, FPRI E-Note, 7/10/98
How to Respond to Asia's Nuclear Arms Buildup, John H. Maurer, FPRI E-Note, 6/23/98
Scared Senseless? The South Asian Nuclear Tests, Avery Goldstein, FPRI E-Note, 6/5/98
Indonesia in Flames, Theodore Friend, Orbis, Summer 1998
The Containment of America, Harvey Sicherman, Orbis, Summer 1998
Liening on Saddam, Adam Garfinkle, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 1998
The Showdown that Was... and Wasn't, Harvey Sicherman and Adam Garfinkle, Peacefacts, 5/98
Teaching About Israel at 50, Adam Garfinkle, Footnotes, 5/98
Bosnia: A Summing Up, Robert Strausz-Hup‚, FPRI E-Note, 2/11/98
The Holy War Tradition in Islam, Emmanuel Sivan, Orbis, Spring 1998
Iraq: What to Do and What Not to Do, Adam Garfinkle, 2/6/98
The Iranian Gorbachev: Khatami's "New Thinking," Harvey Sicherman, FPRI E-Note, 1/13/98
India at 50: The State of the Nation, Summary of a Talk by Mani Shankar Aiyar, FPRI Wire, 1/98
Indonesia on Fire -- and Washington All Wet?, Theodore Friend, FPRI Wire, 11/97
The Future of Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Hani A. Z. Yamani, Harvey Sicherman, FPRI Wire, 11/97

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