Most Jews, Christians and Muslims would agree completely with the above statement in classical Arabic – the Shahada. It reads, “there is no deity but the one true God”, which is the first part of the Islamic profession of faith, which in full is:
لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله
“lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh (wa) Muḥammadun rasūlu ‘Allāh”. Clearly Jews and Christians, but not adherents of Baha’i or Sikhs, might take issue with the second clause. In English then, “No deity but the one true God (and) Muhammad is God’s prophet”.
I don’t regard myself as a Muslim by any means, of course. I’m not going into my own religious beliefs as such here so much as to note the fact that many years ago now I wrote a dissertation on Islamic societies and the Great Transformation. This is me in another guise than how most people know me today, when I was studying sociology and there was an expectation in my first degree that if one were to give up a particular subject, even if it was subsidiary, one was expected to write a dissertation on a topic in that degree. I only did one year of sociology and it was not a good dissertation. I’m not emotionally attached to whether it was or not because sociology doesn’t matter to me as much as most other subjects. I don’t really understand how sociology isn’t politics, for example, so it’s not clear to me what sociologists think they’re doing, something which came up later when I studied politics. This dissertation of mine lacks intellectual rigor, was written in haste with quite cursory research based mainly on secondary sources and did not involve any contact face to face with any real Muslims. It just wasn’t that good.
‘The Great Transformation’ is in fact the title of a 1944 book by the Hungarian-American political economist Karl Polyani, in which he argues that the invention of the modern nation-state went hand in hand with the development of a society dominated by the market. Whereas the market existed previously, it didn’t dominate the human psyche, and the main change was that people shifted from ideas such as reciprocity and redistribution to behaviour as rational individuals within the marketplace. The specifics of this idea are pretty irksome and also seem very inaccurate to me, but one thing Polyani did which does seem true is point out that there was a major change in the nature of Western societies around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Where we would differ is in the description of that change. Nonetheless this change, regardless of its details, can usefully be referred to as the “Great Transformation”.
Two particularly uncontentious features of the Great Transformation come to mind. Before it, the division wasn’t so much between childhood and adulthood as the period in life before getting married and the period from marriage onward, which applied to women and to men though in different ways. Also, and this made a greater impression on me personally at the time, before it, societal roles were something one was born into whereas after it, one was expected to discover and change one’s role as life progressed. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written well before the start of the change, ambition is seen as sinful and against the divinely-ordained order of things. Even today, the role of royalty is more ascribed than achieved, and this in a sense makes them as much prisoners of their situation as anyone else, though it’s a gilded cage. Afterwards there were eventually ideas of careers being chosen and much focus on individual talent and skill. Families were less likely to hve sons following in their fathers’ footsteps although the role of daughters often remained much more prescribed in a way which had previously applied to sons. We are roughly talking about the Industrial Revolution.
Polyani’s view is pretty close to the idea that liberal democracy and liberal economics are inextricably involved with each other, and is quite similar to the “Whig Interpretation Of History” in some respects, in that the past is seen as an inevitable progression towards freedom and enlightenment, in fact, seeing it as from a contemporary perspective to which everything was apparently developing. This doesn’t really work of course. Sarada often talks jokingly about looking back at Victorian times and seeing them as grim and unenlightened compared to the middle to late twentieth century, then extrapolating that beyond Victoria and imagining a world which was unimaginably awful to today’s minds. She recognises very clearly that this cannot be the whole story, and considering the bawdy and ribald nature of many writings before this time, at least the prudishness of the Victorians hadn’t gone on forever, and to a considerable degree the Victorians were good at inventing their own past, as with the frequent spurious explanations for children’s rhymes and the like. Nonetheless, it clearly was pretty grim in many ways as the Bloody Code suggests, where one could be hanged for associating with gypsies or stealing anything which cost more than a shilling, such as a handkerchief. However, once again there was a time before the Bloody Code. It’s important not to idealise the past just as much as it is to catastrophise it, and in recognising that the past is a foreign country, we probably have to reject the idea that everything was always trundling along tramlines towards the glorious present of Liberal Democracy.
Liberal democracy was of course not the only bright shiny future on offer. I have to come clean here and confess that I Was A Teenage Stalinist, and whereas I am no longer like that, I admit that the idea of striding bright-eyed into a sunny socialist future involving big shiny biceps and a 50% increase in the production of tractors which can then plough the fields of our glorious collective farm under the watchful eye of Comrade Stalin do fill me with a sense of nostalgia, and I do believe that something good can be salvaged from all that. This brings me to the second theory applied to the Great Transformation, namely Marxism. I have to say this about Marxism. Just as evolutionary theory, special and general relativity and quantum mechanics are working contemporary theories about biology and physics, and just basically true although lacking in detail in their original form, so is Marxism basically a correct description of economic, social and political relationships. In other words I am a “Marxist” in the same sense as someone who believes in evolution is an “Evolutionist”, and just as the word “evolutionist” is a neologism made up by fundamentalists to pretend their creationism is a viable alternative, so the word “Marxist” is a word used by people who are in denial about the real way society works, or perhaps wish to conceal that fact or have been deceived into believing it doesn’t. Having said that, there are details of Marxism as conceived by Marx and Engels that are just plain wrong. For instance many of us are both bourgeois and proletarian and the two of them seriously failed to account properly for Green issues or for spirituality. Note also that just being Marxist doesn’t stop you from being right wing. It’s entirely feasible to use Marxist analysis to arrive at a strategy to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, at least in the short term, and I sometimes feel that the most Marxist party of all in today’s Britain is in fact the Conservative Party. In other words, Marxism is as true as the theory of gravity, but gravity isn’t just about things falling but also things orbiting or leaving the planet altogether.
Taking both the idea of liberal democracy and that of Marxism together, there is in theory a major drawback to applying them to Islamic societies which is the same as the difficulty in seeing pre-modern Western societies as capitalist, namely the fact that they prohibit usury. Both Islam and Christianity forbid the charging of interest on a loan, which means that capitalism as we understand it cannot operate as smoothly as it does in the West. However, and this is where the practical aspect of my lack of time and real-life experience cuts in, there is apparently a series of contracts used in the Islamic world, each of which does not amount to interest but which together do, and a similar situation operated in Christendom before modern banks were established. There are also the concepts of purchasing assets whose value will reliably increase, such as jewellery, and of paying tent on money from banks. I find all of this quite disappointing as potentially the prohibition on usury is quite positive, but the spirit of shari`a doesn’t seem to be honoured here. Having said that, I noticed that some Muslims couldn’t understand why I was vegetarian because my religion didn’t tell me specifically that I should be. This is real experience of Muslims, but of course a generalisation from a few individual Muslims which may be unfair, but the idea behind that seemed to be that it wasn’t about reasoning through why a particular practice is in place so much as just doing what the Qur’an or hadith tell you without question. There are many Christians who also take this approach.
The other two big models of the Great Transformation are rationalisation and anomie theories. Rationalisation is the idea, also present in Polyani’s thought, that the difference was that rationality began to be applied to society and that society has become increasingly rational as time has gone by. In a sense this means we are becoming more “scientific” as part of progress, socially as well as technologically. This would mean things like evidence-based policy, and also positivism in social science, which is usually deprecated – the idea that human societies can be understood scientifically.
It’s interesting to try to apply this to Islamic societies. One of the apparent contradictions from the outside with Islamic societies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that they are apparently based on faith-based rather than rational principles at the same time as seeking to use modern science and technology. This means that scientifically-based intellectuals and other professionals might be imagined to encounter some degree of cognitive dissonance. An imaginary example, and I don’t know how this really works out, is oncology – the study and treatment of cancer. One way of understanding cancer is as evolution. Mutations occur within a body cell which enable it to ignore the “kill” signal, survive better without oxygen and separate itself from its former fixed position and reproduce elsewhere in the body, for a limited period before it kills the host. However, most Islamic countries are full of people who don’t believe in evolution. Only eight percent of Egyptians believe in evolution, for example, and Sa`udi Arabia and Sudan have banned the teaching of evolution in schools. It’s not clear to me what happens in biology departments in such countries and nor is it clear to me what happens when students from such countries study at universities in the West before returning to them. Medical researchers would seem to have a problem.
One remarkable fact reported of active members of Da’esh and other hate groups is that they have a strong tendency to be engineering graduates. Letting my personal prejudices interfere for a moment here, if I cast my mind back to about the time I was writing the aforesaid dissertation, I knew quite a few engineering students, mainly Christian or non-religious, white and ethnically English, and they did in fact strike me as unusually nasty, hateful people. In fact, many of them were fundamentalist Christians and they stood out as being unusually illiberal, intolerant Christians, more likely to be stridently homophobic and, if male, sexist. I realise that not all engineers are like that and in fact, being a Halfbaker there’s no way I’m going to diss engineers as a breed, but I can see the tendency, not there but in my past.
Nearly twice as many members of hate groups self-describing as Islamic have degrees in engineering than in Islamic studies. Almost half the graduates in such groups have engineering degrees. Nine times as many engineers are in these groups than would be expected by chance. In fact, if you wanted to do what Trump presented himself as doing by preventing the entry of such people to the US, you’d do a better job banning all engineers from entering the country than people from officially Islamic countries. However, two things about that: it would have major economic consequences, and it would be more rational. Not that it would be acceptable, mind you, but this perhaps illustrates that the rationalisation thesis doesn’t really apply to the United States, at least under Trump.
It’s also the case that members of non-Islamic right wing hate groups in the West are more likely to be engineers. It might be thought that this is because engineers are better at making suicide vests and terror weapons, but this doesn’t seem to be the reason. Nor is it just a question of engineers happening to be acquainted with one another because when hate groups spring up as cells or on a small scale, they also seem to be engineers. An important criterion for membership is actually mutual trust.
Engineering students are particularly likely to be politically conservative, which of course groups the likes of white supremacists and “Islamic terrorists” together – they’re just two varieties of right wing groups with a lot in common. They are also more likely to be religious, that is, members of conservative organised religious groups. This corresponds to my own experience of engineering students. They were often intolerant fundamentalist Christians and members of the Federation of Conservative Students, apart from one who was thrown out because he was too right wing. They seem to be people who dislike shades of grey and imprecision, and since that’s how they perceive the contemporary world, they want to get rid of it.
Ironically, this seems to mean that rationalisation is a fairly good explanation of hate-motivated violent activity in self-described Muslims. The reason Islamic societies are that way might be explained by the idea that they are dominated by bivalent logic and all-or-nothing thinking. What would interest me, though, is whether this means the members of such groups are plodders or high achievers, although the former might be expressed as frustration. It might be that in order to become a really good engineer, you have to be able to think more flexibly.
It also reflects another thing which irritates me about left wing ways of thinking about society. Left wing politics often seems to be about finding problems rather than solutions. Applying this to engineering, it’s like that subject being about studying why bridges fall down and planes crash without finding ways to design better bridges and planes. Much left wing thought refers to “late capitalism”, which seems to be considered a euphemism for “eternal capitalism” or “mature capitalism”. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of suggesting how capitalism can be brought to an end in academic circles.
The other theory, which seems to fit Islamic societies quite well, is anomie, which is the idea that the distinctive feature of modernity is the loss of meaning and certainty in values. Some Islamic scholars believe that the choice is between Islam and existentialism, and that existentialism actually has it right in a fairly profound way. Islam in this analysis is seen to be the answer.
This, I’m afraid, is where I run out of time and steam. I’m going to publish this now. Let me know what you make of it.