Introductory Remarks to Contemporary Islam (s) and Muslims Lecture Series: Modernisation and Cultural Identity

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk – only the second Middle Eastern novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2006 – was asked the usual identity question about the ‘confrontation between Eastern and Western impulses’ in an interview with the prestigious Paris Review (2004). Pamuk’s reply was typically provocative, and colourful. He gave short shrift to Samuel Huntington’s anxiety about so-called ‘torn’ societies that sit between ‘clashing civilizations.’ Here is some of what Pamuk said:

“Turkey should not worry about having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness. I am criticising the way the ruling elite lacked the confidence to create a culture that would be an organic combination of East and West; they just put Western and Eastern things together. Everyone is sometimes a Westerner and sometimes an Easterner – a constant combination of the two.”

Now Pamuk is quick to acknowledge that this East-West coupling was one thing for the Turkish children of the Ottoman empire with its particular relationship with Europe, and another matter for, say, Indians and Arabs, whose perspectives were shaped under colonisation. We might also ask whether it is entirely up to the ‘ruling elite’ to ‘create’ a genuinely cosmopolitan culture. What about the role of the populace at large, with its complex everyday encounters with modernity?

Nevertheless, Pamuk draws attention to one of our central themes in this series: there are multiple modernities, in which Muslims have agency in the making of their particulars. These particulars, while often distinctive, overlap time and again with universals. We see this in the work of the first Middle Eastern writer to win the Nobel Prize, in 1988 – Naguib Mahfouz. His ‘Cairo trilogy’ is filled with social and political responses to the colonial Other that remind us just how inescapable ‘multiple identities’ are, no matter how upsetting this may be for some of us.

How fitting, then, that our speaker today, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, shares the national heritage of Mahfouz, as well as the patrimony of Orhan Pamuk’s Ottoman culture, among other identities.