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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Rescuing History of Universalism and Modernity from Eurocentric Decline Paradigm

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]
Debates on Muslimness, global values, universalism  triggered by the revolutions of 2011 demonstrated the depth and pervasiveness of Orientalist paradigms of Muslim decline and the rise of Western modernity in all disciplines of social sciences. One reason why this Eurocentric Orientalism survived all markers of its expiration date (decolonization, nationalism and cold war) is the sinister way it is entrenched in nationalist, third wordlist and reformist ideologies of the Middle east and its key role in visions of history. In this paper, I would like to summarize how, in an NEH sponsored project, a group of historians of pre-modern Muslim societies tried to  reshape dominant thinking about the impact of Muslim societies in the formation of modern world, with focus on political, cultural, artistic, economic and social achievements between 1300 and 1900, an era still commonly described by the words “decline” and “stagnation” in popular culture. By illuminating recent scholarship on the dynamic legacy of this period, our program aims to document and disseminate various alternatives to the narrative of the golden age and decline that scholars have long discredited, but which continues to color public knowledge and discourse on non-Western civilizations and world history. Although our project seemed to be concerned about the history from the 1300 to the 1900, our main concerns were directly related to teaching the histories of the Middle East beyond Orientalist lenses and in harmony with varieties of cosmopolitan universalism shown in Tahrir Square.

Perhaps the most damaging and long-lasting form of “othering” of the Middle Eastern area was that the contemporary Muslim societies which Europeans encountered on their commercial voyages and later ruled as colonies were decadent and stagnant. However vibrant and productive the ancient and medieval past of those lands might have been, Europeans were certain that they were no longer so, and many indigenous scholars came to share this view. Terms such as “backward” were commonly applied to rulers and commoners alike throughout the colonial period, as shorthand for the gap between the self-perception of the colonizer and his or her perception of what the colonized society was supposed to become. This trope of decline became one of the most significant themes of dehumanizing the Muslims, because a society with six centuries of stagnation and decline is a society without a contemporary history. This ahistoricity of Muslim societies placed them in historical limbo, outside the emerging modern world, and portrayed them as resistant to the point of exhibiting reactionary behavior with regard to novel ideas.

These widespread misperceptions of Muslims persist somewhat unconsciously (in addition to being promoted very consciously by active political groups), exerting influence on attitudes alongside the admitted lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims among members of the public. Together, they illustrate the obstacles to “humanizing” Muslims and understanding their societies in the minds of Americans. Nor are these perceptions innocuous or confined to an optional area of life where ideas about cultures are mere niceties. To the contrary, such attitudes affect public opinion on justifications for war, and policies toward those with whom the nation is at war. They affect attitudes toward immigrants and citizens of different backgrounds, as well as neighbors who follow different habits of dress, customs of social interaction and worship.

New Scholarly research on the post-1300 history of Muslim societies during the last four decades points toward an alternative narrative paradigm, and stimulates a necessary revision to social science literature on global modernity and tradition, universalism and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, the new scholarship necessitates a more complex understanding of the encounter between the imagined geography of the West and Muslim societies during the past seven centuries. It will also help better understand the complex genealogies of Middle Eastern radicalism, universalism and modernity today.

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