Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi spoke at the Institute on 13 May, 2008 on biotechnology’s remaking of the world, and possibly our species, asking how Islamic humanism might respond to the ensuing challenge in what has come to be called ‘postmodernity’. This talk at the Institute was the last in the series on Contemporary Islam(s) and Muslims.
Titled ‘After Modernity’, the session began with a discussion of the centrality of the autonomous individual as a basic assertion of the project of modernity. Dr. El-Affendi argued that the foundation of human worth and ethical responsibility that lay in personal autonomy was threatened by the growth of technology at large and biotechnology in particular. Genetic tools, such as cloning along with sophisticated surveillance methods, have the potential to turn humans into mere objects, leading to a transformation of the fundamental moral sensibilities. Through references to movies such as Matrix and novels such as Brave New World, the speaker sought to convey the idea that we are bordering a post-human universe. In this setting, ‘simulacra’ have no corresponding ultimate reality.
Dr. El-Affendi then moved to the intellectual resources available in human history, and especially in Muslim tradition, to engage with the ethical dilemmas raised by technology’s tides. He argued that Enlightenment Humanism with its exclusive focus on human freedom amid ‘the death of God’ has failed to provide the necessary moral and legal bulwarks. Islamic Humanism could situate human freedom in an alternative framework, one in which a commitment to the idea of divine or metaphysical presence may generate both social dynamism and responsibility – which allows for civic consensus as well as moral anchors. Dr. El-Affendi noted that there were civilisational histories that Muslims could draw upon in this regard, if they had the courage to renew and adapt these resources for the realities of a postmodern world.
In his introductory remarks, Dr Amyn Sajoo, the series’ organiser, drew attention to Muslim voices that called for ‘civic reason’ coupled with a moral vision, and the potential of John Rawls’ idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ to serve the common good. A vigorous question-and-answer session focused particularly on the social and ethical problems raised by recent genetic and information technologies, notably in their challenge to personhood as understood in Muslim traditions.