If history works out in the end at least the high price paid in blood and suffering can be justified as having produced some good result. But what happens when it doesn’t?
Clearly, radical Islamism and the region’s current political troubles have parallels with European events as well as Christian and Jewish thinking in the past. Yet often the nearest equivalents date not from a few decades back but rather from the 1500s and 1600s. That calendar gap shows why the region’s task is so monumental and lengthy.
In the 1500s and 1600s, Europe and its main two religions struggled with the impact of modernization, rationalism, and scientific thinking; the challenge of new ideas; and revitalized interest in ancient pagan Greece and Rome. Despite much bloodshed and repression, they found a way to manage these contradictions.
Islam and the Arabic-speaking world, not to mention Iran, have still not done so on a large scale. Before there can be democracy, rapid development, social progress, equal rights for women, and other such changes, this job has to be done. And the work has barely begun.
How did the West move from a medieval world view, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and into the modern age? That’s a complex question but basically the answer includes:
- The confidence that increasing knowledge, even if seemingly contradicting religious dogma, was a way to understand the deity’s true plan for the world. The church sometimes acted against science or technology but not very often.
- Accepting pluralism of belief, with Protestantism playing a key role in establishing a range of alternative interpretations.
- Incorporating a pragmatic view in which success was the ultimate test and practice trumped ideology.
- Adopting reason as the ultimate tool for living in this world.
- A growing separation between religion and state; room for secularism in the public sphere.
What does this all have to do with the contemporary Middle East? Quite a lot. Not only do regional Muslim-majority states not accept these principles but Islamists, with real success, are trying to turn back the clock even further. Moreover, there’s an additional problem: Islamists and even mainstream Muslim clergy know how the story turned out in the West, bringing about a vast decline of religion.
Thus, Munajid, and many others, sound like Spanish Inquisition zealots determined to stamp out anything new, different, original, or individual. Another parallel with Western history is the use of the Jew as the demon of modernization, conspiring to subvert traditional society and change as a way of gaining power.
Those who think the problem stems from a need to make Western policy more palatable and showing enough empathy or appeasement have no idea of the historical processes in play. Consider an interview by Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Munajid on Al-Majd television, March 30, 2008. Focusing on the threat within Islam, Munajid warns (for MEMRI translation follow this link) that advocates of change are heretics engaged in “a very dangerous conspiracy” because they claim the right to interpret Islam rather than to depend on clerics, reopening the gates of ijtihad, closed among Muslims for almost one thousand years, and applying reason to religious doctrine. “This is the prerogative of religious scholars, not of ignorant people… fools or heretics.”
Of course, Islamists as well as liberal reformers threaten the mainstream (conservative) clerics’ monopoly over Islam. Many Islamists are not qualified clerics and they give interpretations that are bizarre based on centuries of practice, even if well-grounded in the original texts.
But moderates are more dangerous in the mainstream view since they may loosen religion’s hold altogether. Thus, mainstream clerics are more sympathetic to radical Islamists, a key factor in the reformers’ weakness and Islamists’ strength. To paraphrase an old Cold War slogan, they say: “Better green than dead.”
Islamists and mainstream clerics carry this idea even into Europe itself, either trying to keep the Enlightenment out of their own communities or even to roll back European history, with help sometimes from befuddled “native” elites who have lost confidence in their own civilization
In contrast, despite reactionary tendencies, new interpretations were permitted to keep up with the times among Jews and Christians. Over time, this was thought the best way for these faiths to survive and flourish. Many of their reformers were themselves highly qualified clerics. Early Protestants were burned at the stake; others won their rights only in combat. But Europe changed.
Reformers could call for support on nationalism, aristocratic rulers seeking their own interests (Henry the Eighth’s divorce, nobles seeking to loot monasteries’ wealth, Czechs and Dutch revolting against foreign rulers), and peasants’ class resentment. These factors play little or no such role in the Middle East today. On the contrary, instead of a way to win more freedom or power, reform is seen as a destabilizing tool for foreign powers and culture.
Moreover, Munajid and others know something past Europeans didn’t: how far secularism would go. As a result, Muslims are extraordinarily insecure. He warns that reformers “want to open up everything for debate” so that “anyone is entitled to believe in whatever he wants….If you want to become an apostate-go ahead. You like Buddhism? Leave Islam, and join Buddhism. No problem….”
Today, new interpretations; tomorrow, rampant alcoholism, short skirts, empty houses of worship, and punk rock. “It begins with freedom of thought, it continues with freedom of speech, and it ends up with freedom of belief.”
In England, even when William Shakespeare was young, British universities highlighted teaching about ancient pagan cultures, while the first modernist biography of Christianity’s founder was published by 1830, things whose equivalent are impossible in the Arab world in 2008.
Most clerics and their supporters simply don’t believe they can win a fair fight in the battle of ideas. Therefore, only repression will do. Conflict is far “safer” than peace.
This is the real, underlying critique of the West and Israel: that these places are bad role models against whom windows and doors must be barred, that must be made to seem so horrible as to close the faithful’s ears and eyes to the temptations they offer. An iron curtain must be lowered whose inmates enthusiastically embrace their isolation.
Even in “liberated” Iraq and Afghanistan one sees this process at work. The radicals want to roll back the West and destroy Israel which, they argue, wants to subordinate the Middle East politically and transform it culturally. Most of the relative moderates–regimes and mainstream clerics–want at a minimum to hold it at bay, to avoid a moderate democracy or formal peace with Israel.
Remember, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was driven to extremism by his horror at life in 1950s’ small-town Kansas. What effect must twenty-first century Western life with its far great excesses have? Today the advocates of “medievalism” in the Middle East have mass communications, modern organizational techniques, and soon even nuclear weapons.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).