- darkmatter Journal - http://www.darkmatter101.org/site -

The Clash of Modernities by Khaldoun Samman

Amina Zarrugh | Journal: General Issue [10] | Issues | Reviews | Nov 2012

Book Review: Khaldoun Samman (2011) The Clash of Modernities: The Islamist Challenge to Arab, Jewish, and Turkish Nationalism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Among the first international appearances made by United States President Barack Obama following his inauguration on 20th January, 2009 was his summer address to Egyptians in Cairo in a symbolic gesture of intended cooperation with and respect for the broader Middle East and North Africa and, importantly, Muslims worldwide. The speech entitled “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” is replete with notions of time, progress, and references to the tenuous balance associated with reconciling the purportedly opposing poles of ‘tradition” and “modernity.” Obama states in his introductory remarks:

Thank you very much. Good afternoon. I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I’m grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I’m also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalaamu alaykum. (Applause.). [emphasis added][1]

The characterization of Cairo as a “timeless” locale implies not only a reverence of its extraordinary contributions to human learning and innovation but as a site populated by enduring, never-changing, immutable people, places, and things. It is the notion of time and its associated referents, such as backward/progressive, regressed/advanced, premature/mature, and delayed/vanguard, that concerns Khaldoun Samman in The Clash of Modernities: The Islamist Challenge to Arab, Jewish and Turkish Nationalism. Samman traces historically the ways by which the colonial encounter inaugurated and imposed a set of temporal measures of human civility upon Jewish, Turkish, Arab, and Muslim subjects, the reverberations of which remain embedded in the vocabularies of even the most oppositional and revolutionary discourses of contemporary Islamist politics with only slight variation and contestation. He argues that the category of gender, especially as articulated in ‘the woman question” with which intellectuals and nationalists grapple(d) in each of these contexts, constitutes a “sign of the times,” the way by which progress is read.

Samman rather playfully but pointedly introduces his analysis of these nationalisms by discussing the architecture of Disney World’s Epcot Center, divided into two periods that one traverses from World showcase to Futureworld, to demonstrate the ways by which what he terms the “colonizer’s temporal script” is not a text that eludes us in the present but, rather, saturates our everyday vocabularies and visual surroundings (as I have suggested is subtly the case in the public address of President Obama, who otherwise relates international commitments with exceptional nuance). The colonizer’s temporal template refers to “a way of seeing time and the Other that will have a tremendous impact on the way the colonized, in their attempt to emancipate themselves from the colonizer, understood social change and progress, leading them to think that the only way they could join modernity is through massive cultural, political, and technological overhaul of their societies” (p. 29). Samman argues, in a similar vein as the postcolonial intellectual contributions of Said (1978) and Fanon (1963, 1965), that hegemonic nineteenth-century discourses of Social Darwinism and its concomitant assertions of racial difference, as well as Orientalist literary productions, animated the encounter between colonized and colonizer and imposed a set of binaries that nationalists, during the course of independence and post-colonial politics, uncritically and sometimes violently reproduced.[2] Rather than ardently objecting to colonizer attempts to direct and situate the clock hands as they saw fit, nationalists undertook a series of social engineering projects affirming their stagnancy and attempted to scale a time machine, socially fast-forwarding to occupy a supposedly present time. The vectors of distinction diagnosed by the colonizer as backward and reformed by the nationalist included that of geography, language, architecture, history, and dress.

To each respective movement, Jewish, Turkish, Arab, and Islamist, Samman dedicates a chapter, discussing in detail the rhetoric to which they responded and the initiatives elites promised would allow them to “play catch up.” The characterizations of Jewish, Turkish, Arab, and Muslim subjects in the temporal scripts to which they were beholden were strikingly similar though each nationalism/anti-imperial movement both accepted and challenged the assumptions in a slightly different manner, the Islamist response being the most distinguished and revolutionary.

In the case of Jewish nationalism, Zionists responded to the anti-Semitic gaze that relegated the Jewish body to quarantined ghettos and branded them non-European (“Orientals”), by dividing the community itself. In a series of writings about the “Eastern Jew,” European, or Ashkenazi, Jews made overtures toward the backwardness of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, who occupied the Levant and North Africa, among other regions. Through this Othering of members of the broader diaspora and re-appropriation of the colonizer’s temporal script, Zionists posited as a corrective the establishment of a Jewish state in the model of those European states from which they came and in the space of the Oriental despotism against which they would now be sharply contrasted. The confrontation against anti-Semitic violence for the Jewish nationalist thereafter necessitated the continued violence against Eastern Jews and, later, the erasure and forced amnesia of Palestinian history, which Samman documents, and which is well-attended to in Weizman’s (2007) recent study of Israeli architecture and settlement design that paradoxically employs modern technology to enhance the biblical past to which it claims authenticity in order to expunge any semblance of Islamic history from the space.[3]

Though Jewish nationalists paradoxically went East to assume identities as Western, Turkish nationalists, epitomized under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, directed their time machines Westward, systematically seeking the erasure of any semblance of “Easterness” (read Islam) in public life, education, and the legal system. Among his infamous reforms was Atatürk’s Latinization of Turkish script, forced guidelines for dress that marginalized the women’s veil, and changes to the penal code modeled from Italian and Swiss legal frameworks. Arab nationalists, in contrast, took a slightly different course, what Samman terms a “schizophrenic” approach. Critical of what they regarded as full-scale assimilation to Western ways by Turks, the majority of Arab nationalists attempted to suggest, in a similar way as Indian nationalists[4], that they were welcome to Western models of education and economy but that the spiritual aspect of their societies could accommodate modernity. It was the lack of proper embodiment and assumption of the spiritual, however, that contributed to Arab backwardness, conceded nationalists and Islamic modernists, requiring that the appropriate aspects of religion be resurrected through a selective reading of history, thereby fortifying “a particular reading of Islam that they believed would negate the Eurocentric judgment of their religion” (p. 152).

Compared to the variable responses of their Jewish, Turkish and Arab nationalist counterparts, Islamists exemplified the most radical departure from the colonizer’s temporal script. Islamist politics, exemplified and inspired by the writings and actions of Sayyid Qutb and Ayatollah Khomeini, deemed contemptible what Ahmad Fardid termed “Westoxication” (Persian: “gharabzadegi”),[5] later popularized by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. The phrase, also roughly translated as “West-struck-ness” or with a medical valence of “Westisis,” describes the problematic emulation by Muslims of manners, from dress and work to taste and consumption, associated with Euro-Americans. Samman documents the ways by which Islamists sought to valorize anew what they deemed Islamic values and practices, suggesting current problems in the Muslim world are attributable to collective errors in the practice of the faith. Samman illustrates that Islamist judgments of contemporary Muslims as exemplifying a state of “jahiliyya” (Arabic term meaning “ignorance” and which, interestingly for Samman’s treatment, generally refers to the specific time period of pre-Islamic Arabia) nevertheless exemplifies “the hegemonic nature of the colonizer’s script positioning Islam and the West as different human species [which] has become the episteme through which Islamists think, write, and speak about the world” (p.160). In this way, certain veins of Islamism in their current form owes their possibility to an “ontological location within Eurocentrism” and, therefore, remains captive to the assumptions of this script, subordinating diverse ways of living Islam in the process.

Women’s bodies, as Samman maintains in his last chapter, have been and continue to be the boundary markers for nationalist politics, as many feminist scholars critically discuss in the context of nationalist (re-) creations of collective memory, ritual, and history.[6] Masculinity and its variable constructions (especially along class lines), I would argue, remain an important component of any gender system and did not remain unaddressed by the colonizer. Just as Egypt’s Qasim Amin justifies female access to education by exalting the Egyptian woman to protector of the nation given her responsibility as mother to its men, he also responds to colonial admonishment of the Egyptian male peasant (“fellah”). The fellah’s supposed immaturity and inability to perform the masculine responsibilities associated with military service were central to the rhetoric of a paternalistic civilizing mission. As Wilson (2011) suggests, in response to demeaning colonial discourses about Egyptian men, Amin esteems the strength and endurance of the peasant though he still remains paralyzed in the vocabulary of past, present, and future: “By performatively instituting a rupture in historical time, glossing over the colonial, and making a claim on progress, Amin was able to distance himself from a past, which he admits was in part shameful, and insist on a present reality that contradicted the need for continued British rule….Amin, like Kamil, was forced to take up a position in relation to time…this move marked the arrival of national time.”[7] The centrality of constructions of masculinity and its performativity to marking national time are further illustrated by Atatürk’s forced removal of the men’s turban under the auspices of his Hat Law of 1925, which encouraged the donning of the European top hat. Though Samman places just emphasis on the implications for women in the new national given, of course, that the consequences for them differ and, rhetorically, wars continue to be waged in their purported interest (Afghanistan)[8], the roles and responsibilities accorded to men, including the quality of their physical comportment, were also central to the colonizer’s temporal script. It is important to understand that the relationship between femininity and masculinity permits the script to function as it does; a specific type of woman relates to a specific type of man, the latter of whom was not ignored in colonial castigations of the colonized.

Samman’s analysis significantly engages in a top-down, macro-level approach that contends with the discourses associated with prominent nationalists, state leaders, and intellectual elites. An interesting corollary to this focus would be how citizen individuals, those subject to the legal decisions and social changes introduced by nationalist assumptions of the colonizer’s temporal script, reacted to and grappled with their very real consequences. Fruitfully, Samman intermittently though unsystematically hints at these rejoinders and experiences throughout and especially in his introduction in which he describes his own personal acquaintance with the pernicious assumptions, courtesy of the endurance of these scripts, by others about his Arab and Muslim identity when he immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Jordan. He writes that though these experiences encouraged him to recognize the devastation wrought by these discourses in their ability to circumscribe imaginations, he nevertheless recognized their limits: “Now when I see an Arab American youth struggling to deal with his or her scarred identity, I also am aware of the creative manner by which she produces a life of dignity. I no longer just see a duped mind but instead one that is constantly and creatively appropriating the dominant discourse, so as to bend it in such a way that it no longer has the same meaning that its powerful originators intended” (p. 5).

Samman’s examination represents an exceptional illustration of the significance of Said’s “Orientalism” to understanding indigenous articulations of identity and offers a series of findings that assist in further underlining the continued resonance of Fanon’s (1967) emphasis on the distinctive power of the gaze: “I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects” (p. 89).[9] The way in which Samman introduces his work is, ironically, for me, a most effective and promising manner by which to conclude the text and call for future critical engagements with the nationalist’s intimate but hardly consenting partners: those of us attempting to live a life of dignity and sincerity on the (ever-shifting yet persistent) margins, the rewards and pains of which are innumerable, despite a recognition and understanding that seldom presents itself in the everyday.


1.  Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, 2009 (Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 2009). http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6-04-09  [↑]

2.  Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (trans. Constance Farrington), (New York: Grove Press, 1963 (1961)); Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (trans. Haakon Chevalier), (New York: Grove Press, 1965 (1959)). [↑]

3.  Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, (New York: Verso, 2007). [↑]

4.  Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). [↑]

5.  Nayereh Tohidi, ‘Modernity, Islamization, and Women in Iran’ in Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies, ed. Valentine M. Moghadam, (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1994) 110-147. [↑]

6.  See, for example, on the relationship between gender and the colonial experience, Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, (New York: Routledge, 1995) and, for a general overview, Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, (London: Sage Publications, 1997). [↑]

7.  Jacob Chacko Wilson, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). [↑]

8.  Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?: Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3. (2002)/: 783-790. http://www.smi.uib.no/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf  [↑]

9.  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (trans. Richard Philcox), (New York: Grove Press, 1967 (1952)). [↑]

Article printed from darkmatter Journal: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site

URL to article: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2012/11/14/the-clash-of-modernities-by-khaldoun-samman/