Full Marx for Mullahs: A Reflection on Social Control in Islam - Part I

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Part I

Editor's Note: In the year since the terrorist attacks in America, virtually every issue of Contemporary Review has carried articles about some aspect of that tragic event. This issue is no exception. We begin below the first of a two part article about Islam. This issue also contains an analysis of American attitudes towards France in the last year as well as an article on globalisation which shows much about its role in world opinion.

AS I understand the fashionable theory of postmodernism, it is not so much post-Marxist as Marxist-in-a-more-subtle-way, but there seemed some reason to wonder whether the twenty-first century BBC had erased the nineteenth century master completely from its horizons when a certain 'Carl Marks' popped up in the web transcript of a recent broadcast about St Paul. At the least, the BBC presenter, Edward Stourton was willing to dismiss the influence of Marx as a 'very short-term thing' by comparison with Paul's legacy of monotheism to the gentiles.

Teasing aside, however, the durability of Marxism does seem questionable for the moment. Appropriately, its decline as an intellectual force can be illustrated by the declining currency of its critique of the religious forces that preceded it. But it is partly a case of Marxism making itself redundant by its very success as a political force, that is, as one factor driving modernization and the decline of religious faith in Western societies. So the religion of Paul, too, seems less than durable in its heart-land. Unlike the old capitalism, it has not proved capable of survival through defensive adaptation in face of ideological and organisational attack from the 'progressive forces'. Even a subtle, post-modernist critique has come to seem superfluous.

In fact, there may yet be room for a little social analysis in a Marxist spirit, of religions other than Christianity: those whose heart-lands have not experienced class formation and subsequent transformation, whether revolutionary or evolutionary, in their political economy and social structure. What may at times prove obstructive is the pervasive reflex of tolerance and cultural relativism in the West, branded in some quarters as a form of 'political correctness'. No doubt, the avoidance of a more rigorous analysis has some roots, also, in the Western transition to post-modernity which has made the social analysis by a 'failed ideology' like Marxism seem to longer relevant (though it might be Marxism's insight into the political functions of earlier ideologies that has turned us into relativists!). Obliquely, Francis Fukuyama's dictum of 'the end of ideology', more or less universally, may be having an inhibitory effect on our analytical inclination. Even if an adage like 'the opium of the people' or the c oncept of 'social control' in its more sinister sense have lost their applicability in Western conditions, the world remains a much larger place than whatever may be encompassed by 'the West'. As the 'non-West' impinges increasingly on Western security, and does so not least in the guise of a religious ideology, a little bit of 'classical sociology' may be in order.

Ecumenical Ideology

Such an effort of revivalism seems especially worthwhile when cultural relativism in the West shows symptoms of a discourse with its own distinctly ideological tendency -- a relativism whose tolerance blinds its adherents to the very differences that conjured up the relativist response in the first place. More than anything else, I am thinking here of the intellectual offensive by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince of Wales and Tony Blair, to project Islam as 'sharing the basic values of all other religions'. If this is about engineering reality, the goal seems innocuous enough. Yet the earthly trinity aforesaid are naive if they expect to have any real impact on Islamic doctrine, however many times they claim to have read the Koran. …