Islamic fundamentalism, post-modernism and science

Posted on November 23, 2011 by

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by Awais Masood

Published Daily Times – November 23, 2011

The recent killing of Yemeni-American Imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone attack has brought to front the significance of Islamist propaganda in cyberspace and its effects on terror recruitment. Hundreds of sermons by Awlaki were available on the internet. He operated a Facebook page, ran a blog and was described as ‘Osama bin Laden of the internet’. His online influence has been linked with more than a dozen terror investigations including the Fort Hood shooting by Major Nidal Hasan and the Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad.

The relationship between religious fundamentalism and technology has remained complicated. Religious fundamentalist movements have been widely described as reaction to modernity though the movements are themselves modern in nature. Hence there exists an inherent conflict where these movements reject the underlying notions of rationality, secular and scientific constituting modernity. On the other hand, these movements continue to appropriate modern symbols and technology to further their cause. Historically, fundamentalist movements vehemently opposed natural sciences and technology but that does not hold true anymore. As stated in a paper titled ‘Postmodern Conservatism and Religious Fundamentalism’ by Geoff Boucher, the fundamentalist movements of today harbour a selective, instead of a wholesome, hostility towards natural sciences and try to engage in an understanding of the world that remains compatible with the commercialised science of today encompassing applied sciences and technology. Hence, these movements hold a significant appeal among technical professionals such as engineers, doctor and lawyers. Carrying forward this correlation between technical education and fundamentalism, a 2009 study published in The European Journal of Sociology showed that engineers constitute 20 percent of all Islamist militant organisations, a value remarkably greater than the expected 3.5 percent figure.

One of the striking features within Islamist propaganda is the appropriation of post-modern criticism of modernity. As many observers would be familiar, this appropriation is not just limited to a critique of science. Islamists make a very effective use of post-colonial discourse in order to attack the ‘west’ and reject liberal democracy. During this process, they portray themselves as anti-imperialists and present political Islam as an alternative to ‘western democracy’. A similar attitude has been adopted towards science, which, manifesting itself through technology in a globalised world, threatens their traditional ethos and beliefs.

I recently came across an Urdu article available on an online Islamist journal. It was originally published in a monthly journal named Sahil from Karachi and strives to ‘expose’ the reality of scientific method, which remains, as per the editor, ‘irreligious’, ‘worldly’, ‘greedy’ and ‘jealous’ in nature. The article starts with an introduction of the inductive method of reasoning and takes on the classical ‘Problem of Induction’ that has perplexed philosophers such as David Hume since enlightenment. Karl Popper’s attempt to go around the problem through his ‘Criterion of Falsifiability’ is discussed to imply that science remains a crude hit and trial method of accumulating knowledge. Moving forward to the post-modern critique of science, the article cites Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structures of Scientific Revolutions’ to introduce the concept of ‘paradigm shift’ and the role played by personal bias while formulating conclusions based upon scientific data. This post-modern critique serves as an easy vehicle for the author to claim that science remains an ideological, subjective and relative form of knowledge that may not claim any objectivity and superiority over other forms of knowledge. This selective use of critique is then used to jump some wild conclusions; since scientists cannot know anything for sure, they make up hypothesis to obtain research grants and that science is itself a religion. The author refers to the post-modern critics as ‘western philosophers’, hence making sure that science and its criticism both remain foreign and ‘western’ ideas that an Islamist discourse can easily reject.

Such attempts by Islamist writers always remain selective and agenda-driven. These writers gladly appropriate post-modern ideas to deconstruct scientific method but never apply the same critique to their own foundationalist set of beliefs. These fundamentalists find the demolition of a grand narrative that claimed progress through science convenient but never ponder upon the irony that their own project of ruling the world under a strict religious code remains another of the grand narratives. Moreover, the plurality espoused by post-modernism, due to its relativism and acceptance of multiple truths, remains strange to these Islamists claiming the ownership of absolute truth. The most evident irony lying in the fact that they are using the fruits of modern science to put forward their message is obviously lost upon them.

The writer is a Lahore-based engineer and an activist volunteering with Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. He can be contacted at awais.masood@gmail.com

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