Skip to comments.Heil Osama, the great reformer (OSAMA, LENIN and ADOLF)
Posted on 09/28/2002 10:32:15 PM PDT by MadIvan
What is going on in the Muslim world? Why does it produce suicide hijackers on the one hand and, on the other, lethargic and haphazardly capitalist societies that have delivered neither economic development nor democracy? A partial answer because it is limited to the Arab region can be found in a United Nations development report written by a group of Arab intellectuals which concludes that the Arab sector, with its oil wealth, is richer than it is developed. Its economies are stagnant, illiteracy is widespread, political freedom is rare and its inhabitants, especially women, are denied basic opportunities.
All the same, it would be a mistake to conceive of the Islamism of Osama Bin Laden and his followers as nothing more than an expression of those failures. The phenomenon of radical Islam is more complicated and its long-term effect on Islamic society may turn out to be more complicated still.
The September 11 attacks were carried out by a group of Muslims whose hatred of America was so all-consuming that they were willing to blow themselves up setting them apart from earlier generations of terrorists. Where did this zeal, so foreign to modern democratic temperament, come from?
Foolish as it would be to downplay the role of religious factors, it will not do simply to call Bin Laden an Islamic fundamentalist. The Islamism of which he is a symbol and a spokesman is not a movement aimed at restoring some archaic or pristine form of Islamic practice. As a number of observers argue, including the Iranian scholars Ladan and Roya Boroumand in the Journal of Democracy, it is best understood not as a traditional movement, but a very modern one.
Groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Boroumands write, owe a debt to 20th-century European doctrines of the extreme right and left. One stream of influence can be traced to Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. From Italys fascists he took the idea of unquestioning loyalty to a charismatic leader, modelling the slogan of his paramilitary organisation action, obedience, silence on Mussolinis injunction to believe, obey, fight. Taking a cue from the Nazis, he placed great emphasis on the Brotherhoods youth wing and the marriage of the physical and the spiritual, Islam with activism.
A second European source of Islamism can be traced to Maulana Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat- e-Islami movement in Pakistan in the early 1940s. A journalist well versed in Marxism, he advocated struggle by an Islamic revolutionary vanguard against the West and traditional Islam. As the Boroumands say, he was perhaps the first to attach the adjective Islamic to such distinctively western terms as revolution, state and ideology.
These strands of right and left eventually came together in Sayyid Qutb, who became the Brotherhoods chief ideologist after the second world war. He called for a monolithic state led by an Islamic party, advocating the use of every violent means necessary. In his classless society, the selfish individual of liberal societies would be abolished and the exploitation of man by man would end. This, as the Boroumands say, was Leninism in an Islamist dress, and is the creed embraced by most present-day Islamists. The Boroumands also conclude that the key attributes of Islamism the aestheticisation of death, the glorification of armed force, the worship of martyrdom and faith in the propaganda of the deed have little precedent in Islam but are defining features of modern totalitarianism.
So much for ideology. On the sociological side there is another close parallel between Islamism and the rise of European fascism. Nazisms roots lay in the rapid industrialisation of central Europe. In a single generation, millions of peasants moved from tightly knit villages to impersonal cities, losing a range of familiar cultural norms and signposts.
This was perhaps the most powerful impetus behind modern nationalism. Deprived of local sources of identity, displaced villagers found new social bonds in language, ethnicity and ultimately in the propaganda of Europes extreme right. Though right-wing parties pretended to revive ancient traditions, their doctrines were a mishmash of old symbols and new ideas brought together by up-to-date communications technology.
Islamism has followed a similar path. Over the past few decades, most Muslim societies have undergone a social transformation not unlike that of Europe in the late 19th century. Villagers and tribesmen have moved to urban slums, leaving behind the variegated, often preliterate Islam of the countryside. A puritanical Islamism has filled the void, uniting traditional religious rhetoric with the ideology of revolutionary action.
Some suggest that poverty is the engine of Islamisms growth but this is not so. Rather, like European fascism, Islamism is bred by rapid social dislocation; its propagandists are often new to the middle or upper classes. Islamism introduces these educated but often lonely people to a larger group of believers to become members of a vibrant, if dangerous and destructive, international community.
Seeing Islamism for what it really is leads us to an important question: could it, like fascism and communism before it, serve inadvertently as a modernising force, paving the way for Muslim societies that can respond constructively to the challenge of the West?
The question is not as absurd as it may sound. Comparisons are especially tricky, but the Bolsheviks succeeded in creating an industrialised, urbanised Russia and Hitler got rid of much of the class stratification that characterised pre-war Germany. Through a tortuous and immensely costly path, both these isms cleared away some of the underbrush obstructing the growth of liberal democracy.
There are much safer routes toward modernisation, like those taken by countries such as Korea, Britain or the United States, and less expensive paths to modernity were surely available to Russia and Germany. But one has to deal with what one has and in Islamic cultures there is arguably much more underbrush to be cleared. If Islamism is directed as much against traditional forms of Islam as against the West, could it also be a source of such creative destruction?
There are myriad ways in which Islamic practice and its rigid legal framework have obstructed change. Interest rates are fixed by religious authorities, schooling focuses on rote-learning of religious texts and discourages critical thinking, women are kept out of political and economic life, and so on. Many of these constraints existed in the Judaeo-Christian West and were eliminated only after a long struggle.
They still exist in the Islamic present and can only be removed by political power. Islamism has already shown the capability of doing this, and of accommodating western norms: though Khomeini brought back the chuddar for women, he also reluctantly sanctioned their right to vote.
We should not kid ourselves. The modernisation of Islam is hardly imminent and will not occur without enormous struggle. There are many obstacles, not least the lack of a tradition of secular politics. Nor is it clear that the Muslim world is capable of the necessary realistic self-appraisal.
Many non-western societies have tried the path of violent resistance to the military, economic and cultural power of the West. Only when faced with defeat and domination did China and Japan undertake a serious study of what went wrong. Joining the West when they could not beat it, they adopted various western institutions while retaining a core of their own culture. Social learning has been much slower in Muslim societies.
If the wait for Muslim modernisation is likely to be lengthy, how should the West respond in the short term to the prospect of suicide bombings and weapons of mass destruction? The determined application of military power is certainly part of the answer. European fascism did not fall because of its inherent wickedness, it lost legitimacy when it was crushed on the battlefield. Just as Osama Bin Laden and his cause gained status and support from September 11, so the rout of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and ongoing American operations against terror are key to dampening Islamist fervour.
But the more important struggle must take place within the Islamic world. For too long, Muslim modernisers have sat in the wings while traditionalists and Islamists battle the centre stage. The great need now is for Muslims to take advantage of the turmoil created by September 11 to promote a more genuinely liberal form of their religion.
There is reason to think that such an opening exists. Though many Muslims favour Islamism in the abstract, the movement has a disastrous record where it is in power. Ordinary Afghans were overjoyed to be liberated from the Taliban and eagerly returned to such simple pleasures as watching cheesy Indian films on long-buried VCRs.
It is the Iranians who, having lived under Islamist rule for the past generation, are most likely to lead the Islamic world out of its impasse. One basic demographic fact works in favour of eventual liberalisation: 70% of Irans population is now under the age of 30 and from all reports these young people tend to abhor the Islamic theocracy. Having brought the first Islamist regime to power, Iran would set a powerful example for the Middle East and beyond if it moved towards liberalisation.
In the end it is as important not to overestimate the strength of Islamism as it is fatal to underestimate it. It has little to offer Arabs, much less the rest of the Muslim world. Its glorification of violence has already produced a sharp counter-reaction and provided it is defeated its successes may yet help pave the way for long-overdue reform. If so, this would certainly not be the first time that the cunning of history has produced so astounding a result.
...a group of Arab intellectuals...
And by all indications, that struggle is not taking place, has not started, and would be punished as collaborationist if it began. They need a good conquering.
MadIvan -- Interesting article. Will keep it and read it again. Excellent points! Too much to digest this early in the morning. I think I will print it out and read it several times today. Thanks for posting it!
Like clinton's "third way", Islamism is a middle way between national social and international socialism... in other words, regional socialism with a world view.