Comparative Study of Ideological Production in the Islamic World

Project Details

Investigators: Mansoor Moaddel, PI.

Narrative Description:

Cultural change is a complex process, involving changes in (a) people’s values, rituals, bases of identity, and life-style; (b) principles of social organization; (c) arts and literature; and (d) religious beliefs, institutions, and movements. One way to manage this complexity is to consider cultural change as resolutions of significant issues, when the existing societal model is abandoned in favor of another one. For example, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) intended to resolve the problem of politics; Constitutional law replaced monarchical absolutism. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 resolved the same problem. This time the absolutist rule of the clerics was substituted for monarchical power. The first step in explaining change is thus to identify the issues that dominate the public discourse. The next is to explain the factors that shape the process and content of resolutions—toward a religious or secular government, religious supra-nationalism or territorial nationalism, individualism or collectivism, democracy or authoritarianism, gender equality or gender hierarchization, and peaceful or violent methods in politics.

Issues resolutions are important for understanding ideological production. While the processes and outcomes of ideological change in the Islamic world have been diverse, the issues that were the concerns of both intellectual leaders and the public at large have remained remarkably invariant in the modern period. Among them are: (a) the status of rational reasoning in Quranic exegesis, (b) the form of government, (c) the relationship between religion and politics, (d) the nature of the Western world, (e) bases of identity, (f) the status of women, and (g) the proper form of political activity. Such diverse ideologies as Islamic modernism, liberal nationalism, anti-clerical secularism, Arabism and Arab nationalism, economic nationalism, and fundamentalism are thus different resolutions of the same sets of issues. In Islamic fundamentalism, for example, constitutionalism is abandoned in favor of the unity of religion and politics in Islamic government, Western culture is portrayed as decadent, the institution of male domination is endorsed and rigorously defended, and a revolutionary method of change is often prescribed. In Islamic modernism, by contrast, Islamic political theory and the idea of constitutionalism are reconciled, Western culture is acknowledged favorably, the construction of the modern state is endorsed, a feminist exegesis of the Quran is advanced in order to defend women’s rights, and a revolutionary method of change is proscribed while a reformist approach is recommended.

When issues are resolved, they often lead to sociopolitical and cultural movements, a new form of organizational hierarchy, a different life-style (including style of dress), a fresh way to frame and address societal problems, and the rise of a new set of sociopolitical attitudes—all bringing into relief a new historical pattern.

A clue to understanding how issues will be resolved is to consider the dynamic context within which they are discussed and debated among diverse intellectual leaders, activists, and policy makers. In resolving issues, these individuals invoke the norms available in their culture, borrow ideas from other cultures, or produce new ideas. This context is structured by the distribution of political power and economic resources as well as past historical practices and memories. For example, a society that has a stronger tradition of patrimonialism may more readily accept patrimonial ideas repackaged in a new political arrangement than a society with a weaker experience in this tradition. Alternatively, people’s orientations toward significant religious events in their adult lives may be a function of whether they were socialized in a secular or religious environment during their impressionable years.

However, the pertinent characteristics of this context—being pluralistic or monolithic, the nature of state ideology and the extent of the state’s intervention in cultural affairs, and whether the state is national or foreign—constitute the proximate conditions that shape how these issues will be resolved. For example, under an authoritarian state, cultural issues tend toward religious or secular resolution, depending on whether the state has primarily a secularist or a religious orientation, respectively. In this example, state ideology forms a regime of signification —ideas, rituals and symbols, a mode of signification, and institutions—in relation to which oppositional ideas are invoked or produced to resolve the problem of political order. In other words, state ideology constituted a target for ideological producers.

Events form a key element in Moaddel’s episodic-discourse model of ideological production. By partitioning history into distinct episodes, events introduce discontinuities into the process of cultural change. An episode is a bounded historical process that has a beginning and an end, displaying certain distinctiveness by virtue of its discontinuity from the preceding and following episodes. By causing ruptures in social structure, which change the balance of social forces or dramatically affect human emotion, events may bring a new regime of signification to prominence. This regime then forms the ideological target in opposition to which new discourses are produced and disseminated in the social environment. Since target is the key factor in this model, an event is crucial in affecting the process of ideological production insofar as it generates new targets and/or causes a shift in the position of culture producers in the sociopolitical space, opening up a new angle from which the target is viewed, interpreted, and criticized, leading to new ideological resolution.

Generally, this model explains the expression of the intellectual leaders of the diverse cultural movements that emerged in the contemporary Middle East. The following summarizes some of the key findings from this project.

Key Findings

(A) Religious Movements

  1. Islamic modernism emerged in Egypt, India, and Iran under the conditions of intellectual pluralism and limited state intervention in culture.
  2. Islamic fundamentalism emerged in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and Syria in the twentieth century in response to a monolithic cultural context imposed from above by the existing authoritarian secular ideological and interventionist states.
  3. Jordanian Exceptionalism (peaceful state-religion relationship) is related to the non-ideological and relatively non-interventionist features of the Jordanian regime.
  4. On the intellectual level, the historical process that started with Islamic modernism in the second half of the nineteenth century and ended in Islamic fundamentalism in the second half of the twentieth correlated with the nature of the discursive space—the presence of room or opening in the structure of thought, where conflicting ideas are recognized, discussed, and sometime reconciled—in Islamic sociopolitical thought. a. The pluralistic cultural environment in the nineteenth century expanded this discursive space, contributing to the rise of Islamic modernism, b. The contraction of this space as a result of the onslaught of the secularist intellectuals and policy makers against Islam in the first part of the twentieth century and the rise of the secular ideological states provided a context favorable to the rise of religious fundamentalism. .

(B) Nationalism, Liberalism, and Secularism

  1. The anti-clerical secularism and liberalism of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 emerged in response to the absolutism of the monarch (hence, liberalism) and ulama obstructionism (hence, anti-clerical secularism).
  2. The rise of anti-British economic nationalism in Iran in the 1940s and 1950s occurred in reaction to British control of the country’s oil industry.
  3. The rise of liberal Arabism among Syrian intellectual leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a response to the pan-Islamic despotism of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1908) and the subsequent Turkish nationalism of the Committee of Union and Progress (formed in 1907).
  4. Pan-Arab nationalism arose in response to the perception that Arab people were commonly mistreated by colonial powers, as evidenced by the imposition of the French mandate on Syria (1920-45) and the British mandate on Iraq (1920-32), and the colonial partitioning of the Arab lands into arbitrary states.
  5. The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 contributed to the rise of territorial nationalism among Egyptians in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Coverage: Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, India, Syria.

Sponsor: American Center of Oriental Research, United States Institute of Peace, The National Science Foundation.

Related Publications
Moaddel M. 2005. "Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse." Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Moaddel M. 2002. "Jordanian Exceptionalism: An Analysis of State-Religion Relationship in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Syria." New York: Palgrave.
Moaddel M, and Talattof K. 2000. "Contemporary Debates in Islam: An Anthology of Modernist and Fundamentalist Thought." New York: St. Martin's Press.