Why are the postmodern times in which we are living important and what isso different about them. In general, every generation that lives assumes itis unique and is different from the generation that came before it. So ifwe are going to claim that we are living in a time which is different fromother times we have to justify that to some extent.

Why are the postmodern times in which we are living important and what isso different about them. In general, every generation that lives assumes itis unique and is different from the generation that came before it. So ifwe are going to claim that we are living in a time which is different fromother times we have to justify that to some extent.

I would mention two things. A couple of news stories which happenedrecently and one personal anecdote. You may have seen the news storiesabout the folks who cloned dolly have now cloned a particular type of pig.This is not just ordinary cloning. This is a very specific type of cloningin that the pigs have been cloned in such a way that their organs can beused for human needs and this kind of cloning is specific in the sense thatit needs not be perpetuated. Once they have cloned a number of people inthis way the genetic make-up has been worked out and the process can takeon if you like a natural progression.

Earlier, you may have heard a company called lastminute.com was floated.This company has about 20 people in it. It doesn’t sell a great deal, itsells holidays and some other things. It has never made a profit. It wasfloated and was estimated to be worth £40million. It was only established acouple of years ago by two young people. These are quite unparalled eventsbecause if you consider lastminute.com which is considered to be moreeconomically worthy than a company like W.H. Smith which employs hundredsof people and produces real goods. That real company became less than thisvirtual company which had only been in existence for two years.

Now my anecdote. A few years ago I found myself in Kuala Lumpur with verylittle to do. And I was reading a book about how a particular explorerfound himself in Borneo and there he was. He discovered that it wastotally cut off from the rest of the world and it was a very isolated place.

So I thought why don’t I go to Borneo and find out. And I was actually in aposition to get a television crew because I working as an adviser to acompany and I persuaded them that a film about the remotest part of Borneowould be a good idea. So we sent a despatch to two researchers, two youngMalaysians and they came back and they identified the particular village.We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Co-Chin. It was a three hour flight. And fromCo-Chin we drove by pick up truck for about seven hours and we arrived atthe particular part of the river where we used a long boat for about fiveor six hours. We arrived at this particular very remote long house. It wasperched on top of a hill in the valley and we climbed up and there were agroup of people who were expecting us.

We kind of made ourselves at home there, and they looked ” primitive.” Sowe started filming them and talking to them.After two days the head mancalled me and asked me “how long are you going to be here? I said ten daysto two weeks. He said if you are planning to stay that long you must giveus some allowance. We cannot pretend to be what you want us to be. I asked:”what do you mean?” He said well this place is not as dark and asdependent on candles as you imagine. I asked, again, what do you mean? Thisis the remotest place. He said we have a generator. Do you mind if weactually switch the light on. So it was switched on and the place becamevery bright. He said this is place is very boring. Do you mind if we bringin a television. The moment we agreed to this, four or five televisionscame out and they started watching television. The reception was not verygood.

So they said there is no point in us watching television. I think we wouldprefer to watch videos. So we all sat together in the most remote part ofthe world that we could find and we watched an American Hollywood filmcalled “The Terminator.” And they all loved it.

The object of the story is that there is no such thing as a remote part ofthe world. Every part of the world now is essentially exposed to certainkinds of things. What it is exposed to is what I call “Americana.” One hasto distinguish between Americana and Westernisation. The distinctionbetween Americana and Westernisation is the distinction between a bacteriaand a virus. If you have a bacteria you know you can do something about it,you can take antibiotics, you can fight it unless it happens to be asuperbug which emerged recently. But a virus is quite another matter. Itis not easy to contain, you can’t really take an antibiotic for it. In mostcases to fight a virus you must take a certain kind of medicine that hasto be researched. It changes and mutates much more quickly than bacteria soyou don’t just need one kind of medicine, you need to keep developing thatmedicine as the virus changes.

So we are in a situation where the virus “Americana” is in the air webreathe. There is no where to hide. You cannot go anywhere where you willnot find this virus. If it is a virus it infects very very quickly. In mostcases it infects because we want it to infect and not because we exposeourselves to it. But on the other hand there is no place we can hide. Sowhy is it that this world exists? Has it come about by accident? Is theresomething behind it?

I think that the world that exists is not just a world that has beencreated by certain world views but also by certain designs and certain waysof thinking and certain theorising and certain developments in science,economics, history, thought and intellectual development which thisparticular world view has produced.

We know for example that during the 1960s and 70s we, as Muslims , wereunder threat, if you like, from modernisation. Modernity was a problem. Itwas a specific kind of problem with which we had to interact. Now to acertain extent this modernity has been transcended and we have a new kindof if you like plague which is normally known as “post modernism.” It ismy contention that the world which exists today, the world we inhabit, theworld of genetic engineering where pigs can be genetically manipulated toproduce organs for human being, the world of virtual economics where thingsthat don’t produce anything can be valued at a vast amount, the world wheresatellite television and telephones exist everywhere is essentially a postmodern world and produced by post-modern notions. I would just like toidentify some of these ideas.

One of the reasons we have post modernism today is due to what is calledthe de-mystification of science which is mainly to certain historians andphilosophers of science like Thomas Kune, on whom I have a small bookcalled Thomas Kune and the Science War, and people like Farbach and so on.We assumed that science was this objective, neutral phenomenon. It wassomething that contained facts everyone could believe in. But Kune, Farbachand most of the philosophers showed that in fact that science is notsomething that can be taken as a clinically removed, objective phenomenon. In fact scientists work within paradigm which are belief systems andscience moves from paradigm,which basically means that science andreligion are not all that different. This demystification of scientificobjectivity has played a very important part in post modern thought insciences like quantum mechanics, abstract mathematics and so on wheredeterminism has been knocked out. Starting from the 19 20s when Hazenburgintroduced his uncertainty principle right down to modern times with chaostheory, complexity theory and so on, indeterminacy has become the norm.That means things cannot be determined, almost everything is uncertain.

When you combine these ideas with something like Farbach’s idea of historywhere history exists essentially to be interpreted not as lumps of factsand data that we have conventionally believed history to be. But historyexists substantially as something that is constantly interpreted. Itconstantly changes because we put new interpretations on it. Then youcombine all that and you produce a certain kind of thought whichoccasionally manifests itself as a kind of fiction, magical realisticfiction is the most major example and the one which impinges on us most isthe Satanic verses where you have history presented as a particular kind ofinterpretation and where the facts of history are consistently doubted andconsistently challenged.

Apart from that , there is just one other aspect of contemporary thoughtwhich has produced most modern ideas and that is the “notion of the other”,that is that somebody apart from us, the notion of other in disciplineslike anthropology and also history but also in politics and internationalrelations. How do we represent the other. Those who are not us and thosewho are outside us. Conventionally the others are the non-West, Muslims theHindus, the developing countries and so on and so forth.

If you combine all this brew, these new intellectual developments you endup with certain things that provide an accent to post modern thought, tothe way the world is being shaped. One of the main accents is that is wehave so much determinancy where even science has been demystified to acertain extent in that even its objectivity cannot be questioned. Thingslike Popper’s objective knowledge for example are virtually laughed attoday because of what contemporary history and philosophy of science hasactually shown us. So if we have a world like that the idea of truthdoesn’t really stand up. And postmodern scholars have been particularlygood at demolishing meta narratives, that is anything with the idea oftruth in it , things like reason or objectivity, science, all that has beenundermined in a sense.

This of course impinges directly on us because as Muslims we believe in acertain kind of absolute truth. Then, if there is no truth the secondcollary is what is there that gives meaning. If you remove all thosethings that give meaning like tradition, religion, history, identity thenof course there is no meaning. And that is the second component ofpost-modern thought, that almost everything is meaningless. Those of you who have not read Echos Bedlam I recommend it. It is hugebook. There is a tremendous amount of Islam in that knowledge. And whatEcho does is he takes all sorts of notions of truth whether it is history,science, various dimensions of Islam, there is a chapter on Shia thoughtand certain kinds of mysticism. But these chapters are not chapters likein an intellectual book. They are narratives, they are part of the story.And he tries to show how all of things are meaningless. And at the end ofthe book he argues that the world is like an onion and if you keep peelingthis onion continuously in the end there is nothing. So that is thesecond main essence of post modern thought. There is no truth and there isno meaning.

What is left is all of us who come from different traditions, differentperspectives. So postmodern thought has a great reverence and respect, ifit does respect anything, for plurality. Divergence is expressed, diversityis expressed, the plurality is expressed. So for example the idea that inLondon you can go out to almost any restaurant of almost any nation thatyou can imagine, whether it is Chinese, Indian, Botswana land, any kind offood you want you can have. This is the kind of thing that postmodernistscelebrate because it shows that there is plurality out there. What does allthat actually mean?

One consequence I have started off with, that is that we live in aso-called globalised world where globalisation is the norm. The classicalcliche is that the world is shrinking continuously. The second consequenceis that we have lost all distinction between what is real and what isimaginary and what is virtual . We can see in a number of things, forexample in the Kosovo War the war was very much a virtual war from theallied side not a single soldier actually died. All the death anddestruction that came was at arm’s length and it was, if you like, theopposition, however you see that opposition from the Western perspective.So the war was very much a virtual war.

The Gulf war also to a certain extent. There was a famous Frenchphilosopher called Jean Boullevard who wrote quite acontroversial articleentitled “The Gulf War did not happen.” He argued that the Gulf war wasessentially like a video game. And our experience of the war was theexperience of a video game. He did not mean that the war did not actuallytake place because clearly it did, but the people who participated in thewar to some extent on the allied side and all those people around the globewho actually observed it, their experience of the war was like a video game.

All the pilots who flew and came back with this footage which you couldpick them up and shoot them video game. And if you placed two of themtogether you will find that there is hardly any difference. In fact thereis a video game called “Gulf War” which you can buy and which I actuallybought. It starts off by saying “let kick some arse”, and then itproceeds from there. The Iraqis are the little “shoot them up” characters.You can take American roles in this game so all the players take imaginaryAmerican roles and shoot in this video game essentially people who are inthe opposition.

So there is a great deal of confusion about what is real and what isimaginary or what is an illusion. The other thing is that in thisdistinction of what is real and what is imaginary there is a profoundimpact on the human body itself. The body itself is being transformed to avery large extent to where it is becoming more and more virtual.

For example even now, but certainly within the next ten years, it will betotally unnecessary for anybody to have sex for reproductive purposes. MostWesterners – if they had sex for reproductive purposes now or in the past -that activity will not be necessary. Within the next 20 years it may noteven be desirable,but let us not go that far. You can now have children inumpteen different ways in which the two partners may not even cometogether. We know that even gay people are becoming couples and gays areone of the most powerful lobbies in Europe. It is perfectly possiblewithin the next decade that most people living in the West would havechildren by other means apart from conventional means. If we startedhaving artificial body parts where all of our segments could be replacedthen what is real me if I got five or six different transplants in my bodythen what is real me and what is illusionary me? Within the next twentyyears, and this has already started happening, we will have a bigexplosion of technology which operates at the level of the atom. Some ofthis atom-level technology go around human bodies and repair a cancerouscell or manufacture bits of organs as and when desired. So all that is onthe horizon.

The thing about these technologies, is no matter what the public says thesedevelopment s actually happen to a very large extent. I am not adeterminist. There is a force out there that actually drives science andtechnology to a certain extent. Even if say that we don’t want humancloning and Blair will stand up and say that and so will Clinton. But theydo not make the decisions. Those who make the decisions have alreadydecided and by the time we hear about it they will have already become sofar advanced that nothing can stop them from reaching the goals or verylittle can stop them from reaching the goals. So even the human body isbecoming illusionary to a very large extent.

The other consequence of all of this is that almost everything is beingreplaced by information. Conventional sources of power are now beingdissipated. So to a very large extent we don’t find power located in thesources that we conventionally imagine. So you would imagine that someonewho is the head of a government would have power. To some extent he haspower but the power really belongs to the corporations of that country.They have more power than government where power has traditionally beenlocated. Just look at some very basic statistics. You see that two orthree corporations have more wealth than half of the Muslims world puttogether. And certain individuals, people like Bill Gates and the guy whoowns Oracle. A recent UNDP report pointed out that they have more wealththan one third of the Muslim world.There is a profound change going on in terms power. And power is beinglocated in different places. And one of the places where power is beinglocated is culture. Culture has more power than conventionally it has everhad. And in some cases culture has more than financial muscle. So there isa new location of power. To give you an example, we have a conventionalnotion of what is orientalism. And if you read the standard Muslim textsabout orientalism, what we may regard as our classic works on orientalism,they all regard orientalism as a particular kind of approach to Islamfrom the West, how some particular scholar has approached the Koran, howthe orientalists have represented the prophet etc.

This conventional version of orientalism was valid in the 60s and 70s. Itis no longer valid in contemporary times because orientalism is not limitedto scholarship. It can be found in films and television in advertisementsso it has really exploded. But orientalism is essentially a way ofexercising power through culture. So it is not just the Muslims who arebeing orientalised. The English are also being orientalised. If you go andsee certain films you may see that the English character behaves inconventionally the same way as the Arab paralist behaves. This is basicallyHollywood showing that we have a certain power over you.

If you look at things like “Frasier” which is a very common situationcomedy. There you have a character called Daphnie who is an English maidina household of psychologists who are very urbane and very witty andclever. She speaks with a very funny accent which no Englishman will everrecognise. Now if this is not orientalism what is? It is a classicaldepiction of orientalism. But here it is not the orient which is beingdepicted, it is an English character, and through her character the wholeof Britain. So orientalism ceases to be something which is very specific.It explodes outside areas of scholarship and becomes a way of expressingpower. And anyone who wants to express power over any other culture can anddoes use that. All that is going on, what does it mean in terms of Islamists.

I think one of the first things to say is that people who tend to reactrather than to act, have a new enemy, to put it mildly. If the wholefunction of post-modernism is to deconstruct truth and show thateverything is meaningless it is going to pick on Islam through things like”Satanic Verses” and there are lots of other examples. It has alreadystarted to do this. To very large extent Islamists and post-modersim areat loggerheads and it is like two fuming bulls in a ring. But I have tosay that my position is not generally recognised by Muslim scholars. Thereare some Muslim scholars who do not regard postmodernism as a problem. Theyactually embrace postmodernism. I I should explain why.

One of the things I said earlier on is that post modernism attempts toprovide an opportunity for the other to come in. It gives a voice to thevoiceless because it believes in plurality. You have no notion of truth.Pluralism or multiculturalism then substitutes for truth. So many people,many scholars regard that as a good thing, as an opening where they canrepresent Islam in the way they want to. My view is that this is totally anillusion. Post modernism is very good at creating illusions and oneillusion it has created is that it allows the other a voice. But it allowsthe other a voice only on its own terms where it remains as the guidingprinciple and the main power. I think that we have to defend certainnotions of truth, therefore we are a logger heads with post modernism.That unlike modernity where we had certain targets, postmodernism does notgive us a target to attack.

In the case of “Satanic Verses” we had a book and an author. But the moresome Muslims hit that author the stronger that author became. Almost likeArabian Knights where the more you kill certain characters the strongerthey become. Had Muslims not taken certain actions on Satanic Verses,Rushdie would not be as rich, as powerful as he is now. There is hardly anyWestern university that does not “de facto requirement” teach SatanicVerses. It is required in all courses of literature, social sciences. Itis a book that you have to read. Even if the curriculum authorities do notinsist that it is a book on the curriculum they feel duty bound to includeit. We started this because we did not understand that power has changedand that it has taken on a new form.

The defence of Islam can no longer be a conventional defence. You cannotstand up and say I believe this is the truth in a postmodern world. Peoplesay fine, carry on. Nobody gives a dam. So to a very large extent actionnowadays counts much more and has become much more important than it everwas. The only way you can defend your truth is by expressing it in action,not by declaring it. Piety may not necessarily be a good thing to defendIslam to my way of thinking because certain notions of piety automaticallyput in a situation which is too far removed from postmodern times.

To fight postmodernism you have to fight it by understanding it. Also Ithink it is necessary for us to have a different notion of history.Although I have a great deal to criticise here. I also believe thatpostmodernism has a great deal to teach us as well. The way history hasfunctioned in Muslim thought has been nostalgic in the sense that we havebeen backward looking and looked at historic examples and tried to emulatethem first in colonial times and now in modern times and now we are tryingto emulate those examples again in postmodern times. We need to look athistory in a totally different way. We need to look at history in twoways. One time of history we have to transcend because it has actuallybecome a burden. There is a history which is part of our identity, itmakes us what we are. It makes us Muslims. That is the history we need totake with us and look at more as a living memory rather than in historicterms. So memory becomes more important, I think in defence of Islam thanhistory as discrete facts.

This naturally leads us to the idea that we need a continuous and newinterpretations of Islam. The conventional ways of studying the Koranwhere you have a verse and you have interpretations, the atomisticapproach, that has passed its sell by date. I do not think it is going toproduce any profound thoughts to really discover a profound meaning forourselves if we actually believe in Islam we need to go back to the textand look at it in a different way. I do not know in what way. Any group ofpeople can only have an interpretative relationship with a text and sincethe Koran is the text for us we have to go and look at it in a different way.

I have been saying this for the last twenty years by the way and I havenot discovered a new way. Postmodernism produces a certain amount of rage.And it has produced more rage in Islam then any other culture, religion,civilisation call it what you like. It violates all sensibilities morethan any other culture and religion. The rage is expressed in two ways. Itis expressed in a very fundamentalist way. We retreat and we say you donot believe our claim so we are going to show you the real truth, we arethe real mullahs and the real “Tailban”. It is a kind of defensive kind ofreaction. This world is not of our making and we will try and do what wethink we should outside this world. I don’t think this is possible by theway. I don’t think it is a survival option.

The other undesirable option is that we totally embrace it. We go from oneside to the other side and we totally embarce postmodernism. But of coursethat embrace does not actually bring us very close to the West. It doesnot turn you into Westerners or Americans. What we take is the lowestcommon denominator of postmodern practice and dieas and we embrace itwithout knowing what we are actually doing. And I think these are the twotrends that are dominant in the Muslim world.


* Ziauddin Sardar , writer, broadcaster, futurist and cultural critic, was born in Pakistan but educated and brought up in Britain. He is Editor of Futures, the monthly journal of forecasting, planning and futures studies; co-editor of Third Text, the prestigious quarterly journal of arts and visual culture; and Visiting Professor of Postcolonial Studies, Department of Arts Policy and Management, The City University, London.

His most recent books include Postmodernism and the Other (1998), Orientalism (1999), The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur (2000), The A to Z of Postmodern Life (2002), the co-authored international bestseller Why Do People Hate America? (2002) and co-edited Aliens R Us (2002) and Third Text Reader on Art, Culture and Theory (2002). He has also written a number of highly successful illustrated guides in the ‘Introducing’ series: Islam (1994, 2001)), Cultural Studies (1997), Chaos (1998), Media Studies (2000) and as co-author Postmodernism (1995) and Mathematics (1999).