It is not surprising that many at the business end of this penetration have been sceptical of the westerners’ claim to be acting in their best interests, and that in time some of these Arabs, Turks and Iranians expanded their distaste for the curled colonial lip into a more general critique of modern life. When the radical Muslim Brother (and founder of modern Islamism) Sayyid Qutb went to study in the United States in the late 1940s, his reaction to the west was sharply dissimilar to that of Mirza Saleh 140 years earlier; what was revealed to Qutb was less a model worthy of emulation than the seedy internal workings of a system that he – an Egyptian chafing against a sybaritic monarch propped up by Britain – knew all too well.
Few westerners have considered how bruising it is to be constantly reacting to another’s invention, statement or action: always being told to “catch up” or improve. This is the situation that so many Muslims have found themselves in over the past two centuries. But this is the backstory that has made Islam’s engagement with modern values more suspenseful, more despairing, more suffused with the “simultaneity of spring and autumn”, than anywhere else in the world.
In the light of adverse politics and history, the surprise is not that modernity has been a tortuous experience for some Muslims, but that it has been adopted so widely and with such success. (Many millions of Muslims live in harmony with the modern values of personal sovereignty and human rights: another self-evident truth in need of reiteration.) With immigration from the Middle East and north Africa to Europe, the Mediterranean culture that ended with the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1492 has been revived. Our world is even more interpenetrated than the communal gallimaufry of the Ottoman empire. Talk of European values that exclude Islamic values will be barren for as long as millions of Europeans regard Islam as an important element in their lives. Talk of teaching them Voltaire is a joke as long as they cannot teach us back. The much-touted choice facing the “Muslim community”, between modernity and obscurantism, between “here” and “home”, is false. Here is home. Life is modern. All we can do is negotiate.