In his 2001 paper “Conditions for Ideological Production: The Origins of Islamic Modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran,” Mansoor Moaddel argues that Islamic modernism arose in the context of competing marketplaces of ideas and of a disruptive moment in history. He later expanded this into a 2005 book, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse.
In 19th century Egypt and India, social change led to environments in which many ideas competed and led to strong new worldviews. He contrasts these moments with 19th century Iran, in which social change was relatively small but there were still multiple discourses. Thus, he argues, Iran saw weak but still extant modernist views arise. Moaddel presents evidence to show that one needs new thinkers associated with the state in order to create enough space for the new ideologies to be produced.
Moaddel also seeks to show that while the social milieu needs to be right, the content of the ideas produced is formed in dialogue with other ideas, and not simply as a reaction to external forces.
I found his argument persuasive, though I might put it a somewhat different way. The economic, political and social environment asks the questions, and people use their cultural, religious and intellectual heritage as well as new ideas they encounter to offer answers. In the cases of Egypt, India and Iran in the 19th century, for example, a central question was “how do we respond to the material dominance of the West?” This would be one of Moaddel’s “episodes,” a moment when resources and social space produce a need for new ideologies. The answers are presented by thinkers such as those discussed by Moaddel. An example of a response to the question of Western material advances would be al-Afghani’s anti-imperialist and simultaneously modernist claims. He draws from his understanding of his own history, from Muslim religious thought, and from Enlightenment reasoning to weave together his answers. Moaddel captures this when he says, “the key factors in the actual production of discourse are the nature, the number, and the level of diversity of the targets the ideological producers face, which determine the theme and the content of their utterances.”
The statement that most raised my eyebrows was in Moaddel’s conclusion, when he said, “We contend that if we obtain an adequate picture of the role of the state in culture, the nature of the discursive field, and the kind of ideological targets that are present in this field, we may be able to overcome indeterminacy and predict the process of ideological production.” This seems incredibly ambitious – it feels to me like there are just too many variables. I partly withdraw my critique, however, upon coming upon a quote from sociology professor Beau Weston: “It is always true that ‘reality is more complex than your social theory’. And that critique is never helpful”. So to finish I will attempt at two related predictions based on a current situation.
Muslims across the world today are encountering one of Moaddel’s episodes. In my terminology, sociopolitical forces are asking them a question: “How should Muslim majority states govern themselves?” In Egypt today this question has major implications, satisfying one of the conditions for the production of new ideologies. With the military back in firm control, however, and acting forcefully to limit the dialogue, new ideologies will arise but will not obtain a sufficient foothold to become powerful. Within Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, however, there is both a historical episode and a pluralist discourse. Thus we are likely to see Muslims in the West producing new, highly influential ideologies.