January 01, 2004

Forever Now

All right, a more definitive take on this essay, Is There an Islamic Problem? by M. Shahid Alam. From the outset, let me reiterate that I'm not persuaded that there's an Islamic problem if what we're talking about is one of the three great revealed religions that came from the Middle East. On the contrary, I have often written that in my view, the main problem in the Middle East is temporal -- specifically, the various tyrannies that range from the Saudi Monarchy, which owns the state, to the corrupt theocrats in Iran to the gangsters and thugs in the Palestinian authority to the hereditary dictatorships in Syria and, most likely, in Egypt. In this regard, I am probably closer to the ideas of Pervez Hoodbhoy, whose essay Alam responds to. That said, I'm not particulary close -- while Hoodbhoy writes,

For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in self-pity: Muslims are not helpless victims of conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful, malicious West. The fact is that the decline of Islamic greatness took place long before the age of mercantile imperialism. The causes were essentially internal. Therefore Muslims must introspect, and ask what went wrong.

Muslims must recognize that their societies are far larger, more diverse and complex than the small homogenous tribal society in Arabia 1400 hundred years ago. It is therefore time to renounce the idea that Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state run according to Islamic "sharia" law. Muslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom, human dignity, and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people. This means confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that in an Islamic state sovereignity does not belong to the people but, instead, to the vice-regents of Allah (Khilafat-al-Arz) or Islamic jurists (Vilayat-e-Faqih).

Muslims must not look towards the likes of bin Laden; such people have no real answer and can offer no real positive alternative. To glorify their terrorism is a hideous mistake - the unremitting slaughter of Shias, Christians, and Ahmadis in their places of worship in Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim countries, is proof that all terrorism is not about the revolt of the dispossessed.

I don't agree with a great deal of his analysis -- he writes, for example, that the Afghan campaign was an attempt to "exact blood revenge" for September 11 -- I think if blood revenge were the goal, there would have been far more blood spilt. But be that as it may, let's return to Alam, whose view of these United States can be summed up in this rather remarkable statement:

In blatant disregard of its founding principles, the Grand Exorcist has for decades – two hundred years, in the Western hemisphere – worked feverishly to deny basic human rights to more than three-fourths of humanity.

"Grand Exorcist" is what Hoodbhoy calls the U.S.; the statement is on its face ridiculous. To give but a few examples, the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War were all fought to increase the access of humanity to human rights. This is not to say that the U.S. has never stumbled, or chosen the wrong course, or intervened when doing nothing would have been preferable. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to think of a country that has done more for human rights than the United States, often at great cost to itself. Similarly, when Alam writes,

During an ascendancy that now spans at least two hundred years, the West has contributed little to forging a single humanity that includes all the children of Adam and Eve. For the most part, Western thinkers have pursued their humanist ideals within the paradigms of race and tribe. With few exceptions, the Enlightenment thinkers refused to share their humanity with Africans, Amerindians or Asians. Racism was germane to the thinking of the leading Western humanists, not excluding the great Montesquieu, Hume, Kant and Jefferson. Even as they glorified ‘man,’ they saw little that was wrong in colonialism, slavery, or the massacres of ‘uncivilized tribes,’ ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages.’ Europe’s dream of reason did not lead to sweetness and light for Amerindians, Africans, Asians or the ‘outsiders’ in Europe itself.

...its difficult to take his critique especially seriously. I find it hard to square his notion of an inherently racist and tribal Western notion of rights with, to cite one example, Jefferson's description of the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Some members of the Virginia legislature wanted religious freedom restricted to Christians; the final draft approved by the majority made no such stipulation, which, Jefferson described as,

...a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

Alam questions the notion that the decline of Islam began with al-Ghazali, the author of the Incoherence of Philosophy, a work that attacked the likes of Averroes. I don't agree with the al-Ghazali argument necessarily; Alam attributes it to the "Zionist Orientalist" Bernard Lewis. I've read several works by Lewis (although not the 1970 essay Alam footnotes), and while I think I've come across the al-Ghazali argument in his works, it's been in the context of Muslim thinkers from the 18th and 19th Century trying to understand "What Went Wrong," to borrow the title of one of his books. It would be ridiculous to blame the decline -- if there indeed was a decline -- of a great civilization on a single, largely unread philosopher. As I wrote a long time ago, I think Lewis -- and the Muslims he quoted in that book -- was asking the wrong question. It's not so much what went wrong in Islam, as it is a question of what went right in the West. Alam offers the following:

Western Europe’s ascendancy began with its lead in two critical areas, gunnery and shipping, starting in the fifteenth century. The West Europeans did not invent gunpowder and cannons; both are Chinese inventions, diffused to Europe and the Middle East by the invading Mongols in the thirteenth century.

If I'm not mistaken, firearms using gunpowder were employed in Europe in the 14th Century; there is also a rather tedious debate on whether the Mongols used guns; there's no definitive evidence either way, although I seem to recall reading more works arguing against than in favor. But this is a minor point; what's more interesting to me is the shifts employed by Alam. If, as he suggests, the fortuitous discovery of the New World and the maritime trade routes to the East gave Europeans an enormous windfall, then surely the Spanish and the Portugese, who first exploited these routes, would have remained the preeminent European societies. In his analysis, little attention is paid to the role that competing political systems played -- it is significant that the English, the Dutch and the French displaced the Spanish and Portugese. I think Alam might be obliquely referring to this when he writes,

A historical narrative – one that is rooted in cumulative processes, contingencies, conjunctures, contradictions, accidents and unintended consequences – tells a different story. The colonization of the Americas, the growing control over the trade of the Indian Ocean, the mercantilist rivalries and incessant wars among European states – produced by the anarchy of their decentralized political system – accelerated the dynamic of historical change in Europe, allowing it to outpace the more centralized, mostly land-based empires of the Middle East, India and China. In the long run, the Netherlands, Britain, France and the United States slowly built upon their successes in commerce, shipping, the arts of warfare, state-formation and manufactures to develop into centers of capitalist production, which drew their economic strength from an alliance between capital and the state. (emphasis added)

What he's missing in this reading is the fundamental discovery -- rediscovery may be a better word -- of a political system that offered full participation to the people. The farmer and the laborer, via free speech, the town meeting, the ballot, were fully integrated -- if they cared to be -- into the political life of the nation. Rather than having a country run top down, with the sheep sent to whatever slaughter the dictator or emporer or sultan favors, the nation was run bottom up -- the people were sovereign.

The power of this model cannot be underestimated. In the American Civil War, for example, Southerners fought for nationalism, to protect their homes and their way of life -- intensely emotional issues that explain to a large extent their high morale in an unjust cause. By contrast, Northerners fought for a pair of abstractions -- liberty and the Union. They proved more powerful than hearth and home. (One might quibble that the North enjoyed a higher level of industrialization, access to capital, etc. etc. -- but that's part and parcel of NOT relying on a slave economy; there's a necessity for developing efficiencies that does not exist for slaveowners.)

In the 20th Century, the U.S. faced a virulent form of nationalism in Germany, both in the First and far more dangerous in the Second World War, and then the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union and its enslaved satellites -- tyrannies that thought nothing of slaughtering millions to ensure their despotic rule. So it's a bit odd that Alam writes,

The impotence of Arabs in the post-colonial period goes back to three additional factors: Zionism, the old Christian vendetta against Islam, and oil. The Zionist movement was founded on a confluence of Jewish and Western interests in the Middle East. The Zionists proposed to rid Europe of Jews if Europe would help them to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. In succession, Zionist ambitions combined with European Islamophobia to produce the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the vivisection of the former Ottoman territories in the Fertile Crescent, the creation of a Maronite-dominated mini-state in Lebanon, the British mandate over Palestine, and the creation of a Jewish colonial-settler state in Arab Palestine. Arab aspirations in the Fertile Crescent had been dealt a body blow from which it would be hard to recover. Had the Arabs of this region been free to realize their nationalist aspirations, most likely they would have created a single Arab state that might well have included – because of its religious significance – the Arabian Peninsula as well, or at least the Hejaz and the oil-rich Gulf coast.

Let's leave aside the nonsensical notion that "Zionists proposed to rid Europe of Jews" -- that was largely the promise of the anti-Semites, which Hitler did his best to bring to fruition. It's interesting that Alam entirely ignores the central story of the Twentieth Century -- the battle against the industrial totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia -- in his discussion of how that century played out. This explains by and large why the U.S. propped up the Shah and other dictatorships in the region -- our bastards were better than the Soviet's bastards. But that policy by and large has been abandoned in the wake of Sept. 11 -- about a dozen years after the end of the Cold War.

So the question is whether the Islamists represent the aspirations of the Muslim people, or whether they're merely another group of self-appointed Utopians who will further immiserate the people of the region. A narrower question deals with Alam himself -- he seems to show a certain amount of sympathy for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, as if this somehow would further the cause of, well, of what I'm not quite certain. He also shows some enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution, regarding the Mullahs not as a frustration of, but rather the expression of, the desires of the Iranian people.

And this, ultimately, is the great question of Islamism. Its practicioners seem to offer no mechanism for popular sovereignty, no political structures, no means for holding corrupt or incompetent rulers accountable. In 1992, Americans voted the architect of the Gulf War out of office because they felt it was time for a change. Does Islamism offer any comparable mechanism? Or is it merely another tyranny from self-appointed avatars of a utopian fantasy that will end in mass graves and misery?

Posted by Ideofact at January 1, 2004 11:47 PM

I loved this article. I hope the author would let me have it translated and published in some Baghdad Newspapers. Let me know...

Posted by: Omar Masry at January 2, 2004 11:32 AM

Thanks for your incisive analysis. Love your work.


Posted by: Mahsheed at January 4, 2004 03:58 PM