External Forces Altering Muslim Worldview: Education, Mass Media Foster Changes

Article excerpt

*The following is the 1999 Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs, reprinted by permission from the August issue of WIRE, a publication of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Like the printing press in 16th 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 1 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. …