A nineteen-year-old man is to be beheaded for a bad joke interpreted as blasphemy. A father is accused of killing his son because he converted to another religion. They are not Muslims but Christians; the place is France in the mid-1700s.
There was a time when Europe often behaved in ways parallel to that of Muslim-majority countries today. Yet by the 1700s this was changing. In the former case, the king and even Catholic bishops failed to save the unfortunate Chevalier de la Barre but the outcry led to the end of such actions. In the latter, the immediate reaction was to sentence the father, Monsieur Calas, to death for murder, soon changed–by outraged public opinion–to freeing him as victim of an unjust frame-up merely because he was a Protestant.
So it’s true there are parallels between Western and Middle Eastern societies. But even leaving aside quite important doctrinal religious issues the difference is that things far in the past in Western ones still exist in Muslim-majority counterparts. Crusades ended eight centuries ago; Jihad continues.
There are other critical differences as well. One is that progressive opinion, intellectuals, governments, even much of the Christian churches themselves, fought for progress in the West. They didn’t say, “These are our sacred practices, our lifestyle and thus must remain forever unchanged.” They didn’t let fear of being labeled “Christianophobic” paralyze them.
Another is that four centuries of rethinking, struggle, and debate were needed to create contemporary Western democratic society. Such processes have, at best, barely begun in the contemporary Middle East.
It’s extraordinary that much analysis of the region–possibly the most important intellectual endeavor of our times–is conducted in an ad lib fashion based on the latest newspaper interview, underlain with wishful thinking. If we’re going to be serious about this task serious historical perspective is needed. Most should be based on the region’s own distinctive past and world view. But since people insist on making trans-regional analogies here’s the way to do it.
Consider the following statement: “The world is not ruled by an intelligent being.” Instead, religion has created a deity who is “monster of unreason, injustice, malice, and atrocity.” Who said this, someone last week in the West? No, it was the French writer Jean Meslier in 1723. That statement, too hot to publish at the time, was a few decades later in the mainstream of French discourse. Oh, by the way, Meslier was a lifelong Catholic priest.
The basis of democracy began in 1215 with the Magna Carta in England. The battle to have a legitimately accepted division between religion and state was waged and largely won in the Middle Ages. A basis was laid for secular-dominated society.
True, in the 1500s underground Catholic priests in England were tortured and executed while Protestants in France suffered even worse. Yet at the same time, English universities were teaching the Classical tradition which, in Italy, was the basis of representational art. The plays of Shakespeare and the works of others depended on this freedom, background, and example. A basis was laid for a pragmatic, empiricist, utilitarian culture that stood on the scientific method.
That was called the Renaissance, which means re-birth. For the West, the great civilization of Classical times was being rebuilt. But Greece and Rome were not part of the Arab-Islamic tradition. Representational art is viewed with suspicion. The time before the coming of Islam is rejected with horror.
To this day, secularism is almost a hanging offense in the Middle East and democracy, as it is understood in the West, is deemed inappropriate. Much of Europe’s cultural production of Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth century could not be produced and widely accepted in the Arabic-speaking world today.
Of course, these things do appear, but usually as imports from the West, which raises suspicions and gives ruling forces–clerical and state–a strong incentive to demonize the West to limit the appeal of subversive ideas.
The great historian of France, Alfred Cobban, wrote that the new secular ideology triumphed there between 1748 and 1770, after already flourishing in Britain and the Netherlands. Even in the Catholic Church “the persecuting spirit was dying down.” The English, Dutch, American, and French revolutions were not triumphs of traditionalism, as in Iran, but of greater democracy. Many Westerners continued (as they do today) to be religious, but of a more open and tolerant variety.
This struggle between the old and new societies characterized much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet the trend was steady. Perhaps fascism (arguably Communism) and World War Two were, respectively, the final reactionary movements and last struggle. Yet victory required 500 years of rethinking and education.
There’s no such history in the Middle East and several additional problems block change toward moderation and democracy here. Whatever one thinks of specific Islamic doctrine as generally interpreted the big problem is that it remains so powerful and hegemonic. Arab nationalism is anti-democratic, repressive, and statist. Islamists seek a somewhat revised version of the eighth century, albeit with rockets and mass communication.
It is also worse because Middle East regimes and revolutionaries know Western history. They are aware of the fact that while pious Western philosophers and scientists sincerely believed open inquiry and democracy didn’t threaten traditional religion and the status quo they were wrong. Openness led to revolution and to modern secular-dominated society, a West with all the ills decried by those in religious, ideological and political power in the Middle East. They know what happened to Soviet bloc dictatorships that experimented with more freedom, too. And they know that accepting Western ideas makes people want to change their own societies.
On top of their knowledge, they have weapons, technology, new means of organization and communication to block change through persuasion and threat. This point applies as much to Iran’s Islamist rulers as to Syria’s pretend-pious ones or Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi monarchs.
Finally, it is worse because there’s a powerful, growing movement–radical Islamism–posin an alternative to modernism. The question is not merely of tiny, marginalized al-Qaida but also the governments of Iran, Syria, and Sudan; the Saudi regime; powerful mainstream societal influences, Hamas and Hizballah; the Muslim Brotherhoods, and many others.
In comparison, while there are courageous individual liberals, there’s no real liberal party anywhere in the Middle East, no liberal-controlled media or liberal proselytizing university. In Egypt the liberal organization has been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood.
So while the great majority of people want a good life for themselves and their children, breathe air, drink water, and bleed when they are pricked–as they did in Ice Age caves, ancient Rome, Medieval France, imperial China, Inca Peru, or the central deserts of Australia that does not mean everyone thinks the same or that all societies and governments are basically equivalent.
Anyone who doesn’t understand history is doomed to be battered by it.
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).