Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Islamic fundamentalism in the information age

In the second volume of his monumental three-volume study on the information age titled The Power of Identity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), Manuel Castells addresses (as the book’s title indicates) the different ways in which a sense of collective identity is configured at a time when the so-called “network society” has emerged, concomitantly with the global communication-technological revolution that culminated, arguably, in the invention of the internet.

Among the “identities” which cannot be understood in isolation from this global technological revolution – together with the globalised, neoliberal society/societies that is/are coterminous with it (what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “Empire”) – one must count varieties of fundamentalism, including those which have surfaced in the Muslim world, and which have been the focus of attention of late (because of the various attacks on civilians attributed to such fundamentalist organisations in Europe).

Complementing Samuel Huntington’s view on the matter and that of Hardt and Negri, Castells approaches the question concerning the rise of fundamentalism from a different perspective. He contrasts the way in which identity was constructed during the modern period – which he, like many others, sees as coming to a close – with new processes underpinning a sense of identity in today’s “network society”.

First one should note that Castells (2010, p.7) regards “identity” as being “constructed”, instead of being “naturally” inherited or spontaneously generated. He distinguishes among three different forms of such identity-generation (p. 8-10), namely “legitimising identity” (which is dependent on the dominant institutions of society and gives rise to civil society), “resistance identity” (which manifests itself in resistance to processes of alienation and exclusion) and “project identity” (that appears when social agents draw on cultural materials to build a new socially redefining identity – for instance feminism – with a view to transforming the social structure as a whole).

Castells believes that the second type – resistance identity – may be the most important kind of identity-construction in contemporary society, recognisable by the generation of “collective resistance” to what is experienced as “unbearable oppression” regarding identities that have been more or less clearly circumscribed by history, culture or geography (p.9). In today’s network society, he further claims, if and when project identity appears, it has developed from resistance identity in the guise of “communal resistance” to the structural dynamics of the “network society” (p. 12). Therefore, he writes (p. 11-12):

“I argue … that the rise of the network society calls into question the processes of the construction of identity during that period [modernity], thus inducing new forms of social change. This is because the network society is based on the systemic disjunction between the local and the global for most individuals and social groups. And, I will add, by the separation in different time–space frames between power and experience … therefore, reflexive life-planning becomes impossible, except for the elite inhabiting the timeless space of flows of global networks and their ancillary locales. And the building of intimacy on the basis of trust requires a redefinition of identity fully autonomous vis á vis the networking logic of dominant institutions and organisations.

“Under such new conditions, civil societies shrink and disarticulate because there is no longer continuity between the logic of powermaking in the global network and the logic of association and representation in specific societies and cultures. The search for meaning takes place then in the reconstruction of defensive identities around communal principles. Most of social action becomes organised in the opposition between unidentified flows and secluded identities. As for the emergence of project identities, it still happens, or may happen, depending on societies. But, I propose the hypothesis that the constitution of subjects, at the heart of the process of social change, takes a different route to the one we knew during modernity, and late modernity: namely, subjects, if and when constructed, are not built any longer on the basis of civil societies, which are in the process of disintegration, but as prolongation of communal resistance … this is the actual meaning of the new primacy of identity politics in the network society. The analysis of processes, conditions, and outcomes of the transformation of communal resistance into transformative subjects is the precise realm for a theory of social change in the information age.”

In this book Castells analyses a number of “key processes” currently contributing to the building of collective identities: religious fundamentalism (Christian and Muslim), nationalism, ethnic and territorial identity (p. 12). It follows from what he wrote earlier that these are all instances of collective identities being shaped by different kinds of communal resistance to the dominant social structure, that is, the information (or network) society. After posing the question concerning the reasons for (religious) fundamentalism – which has existed throughout history – being conspicuously vigorous and influential in relation to the formation of (resistance) identity at the start of the new millennium (2010, p. 13), he makes the following observation about Islamic fundamentalism (p. 13-14):

“The 1970s, the birthdate of the information technology revolution in Silicon Valley, and the starting-point of global capitalist restructuring, had a different meaning for the Muslim world: it marked the beginning of the fourteenth century of the Hegira, a period of Islamic revival, purification, and strengthening, as at the onset of each new century. Indeed, in the next two decades an authentic cultural/religious revolution spread throughout Muslim lands, sometimes victorious, as in Iran, sometimes subdued, as in Egypt, sometimes triggering civil war, as in Algeria, sometimes formally acknowledged in the institutions of the state, as in the Sudan or Bangladesh, most times establishing an uneasy coexistence with a formally Islamic nation-state, fully integrated in global capitalism, as in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or Morocco. Overall, the cultural identity and political fate of almost a billion people were being fought for in the mosques and in the wards of Muslim cities, crowded by accelerated urbanisation, and disintegrated by failed modernisation. Islamic fundamentalism, as a reconstructed identity, and as a political project, is at the centre of a most decisive process, largely conditioning the world’s future.

“But, what is Islamic fundamentalism? Islam, in Arabic, means state of submission, and a Muslim is one who has submitted to Allah. Thus … it would appear that all Islam is fundamentalist: societies, and their state institutions, must be organised around uncontested religious principles.”

It should already be clear from the above that Islamic fundamentalism is no simple matter; on the contrary, it is extremely complex, as further evident from Castells’ cautionary remark, that while all Muslim societies take the religious principles of Islam as enshrined in the Quran as being primary, their interpretation by different societies and institutions is divergent, testifying to a certain open-mindedness of Islamic society. Not so when it comes to its fundamentalist incarnation, which insists on the fusion of interpretation and application by authorities such as jurists. Even here there are differences, however, such as between “conservative fundamentalism” and “radical fundamentalism” (p. 14).

Something that explains the apparent ease with which fundamentalist Muslims can distance themselves from their own countries or nation-states to take up the cause of Islam under a new aegis (Al Qaeda, for example), is the distinction between “watan” (homeland or country) and “umma” (community of believers). The more fundamental allegiance owed by a Muslim is to the latter, the “umma”, in which all are equal, instead of the “watan”, which is seen as a source of division (p. 15).

Most important, though, for understanding the connection between radical Islamic fundamentalism and “acts of terror” claimed by fundamentalist Muslim organisations worldwide, is this: “To regenerate humanity, Islamisation must proceed first in the Muslim societies that have secularised and departed from the strict obedience of God’s law, then in the entire world … the ultimate goal of all human actions must be the establishment of God’s law over the whole of humankind, thus ending the current opposition between Dar al-Islam (the Muslim world), and Dar al-Harb (the non-Muslim world)” (p. 15-16). What seems clear, therefore, is that Islamic fundamentalism’s growth has to be seen as the expression of an aggressive, identity-shaping resistance against the present global, secular, “network society”.

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