the coming thing

Steven Den Beste has analyzed an essay I forwarded him (originally brought to my attention by Bill Allison). Titled, "Wrestling with Islam", it is a deeply analytical and evocative look at how radical Islamism was shaped and brought to form, and the nature of the vacuums which it rushed to fill. There are many observations and ideas in this piece, but the heart of the essay is this compelling historical narrative, which I am reproducing in full despite its length:

As I have already hinted, in the Lahore of my childhood, where Protestant I attended a Catholic school, along with many Muslim Pakistanis -- it was very easy to be a Christian. Bear in mind that, until recently, almost all of Pakistan's Muslim prime ministers, and party and military and business leaders, came up from schools such as the one I attended, not only in Pakistan, but in India, too. In fact, the case was somewhat similar through most of the Islamic world, wherever European Imperialism left its mark, which was almost everywhere. And as the Europeans left, chiefly British, French, and Dutch, they left emerging ruling classes, who, largely because of this education, did their thinking more in English, or French, or even Dutch, than in Urdu, or Arabic, or Malay.

To be modern meant, in practice, to have been educated by Christians, chiefly by Roman Catholics, and many of those indeed missionary monks and nuns. And upper-class parents sent their children to these schools, not because they were Christian, but because they were the only schools where a decent, modern education was available -- one which would equip them to understand, and thus "to survive", that big new modern world.

Through schools like my own St. Anthony's the New Class was reproduced and sustained. This meant that at the top of society, we had an instinctive commitment to religious tolerance -- for if you get rid of the Christians, where will your kids go to school? How will they learn to network? And correspondingly, at the bottom of the society, among the common people, this tolerance tends to be confirmed whenever it is not disturbed, from the ages-old human willingness to somehow get along with your neighbours, if only to avoid the loss of everything you have in communal violence.

So from the bottom, to the top, there were strong reinforcements for what I think is the finest political slogan: "Live and let live."

At the top, leaders quite well acquainted with the broad cosmopolitan world of modernity -- people who were just as much Westernizers as the colonial administrators whom they replaced. The future movers and shakers, more likely than not, also went on to university in the West, to clinch the effect. And while they remained Muslim, at least nominally, they were also secularized, and imbued with our Western distinction between Church and State -- in their case, Mosque and State. They tended, unconsciously or even consciously, to look upon their own religious inheritance as backward, inferior, incapable of competing. It was only as Westernized, modern, secular, educated people that they could feel equal with their "mentors" in the West.

This did not make them closet Christians, however, far from it. To become Christian would be to lose their claim to govern in a predominantly Muslim society. Those who were Christian to start with, stayed that way, and could mix freely in the ruling class. Those who were Muslim to start with also stayed that way, outwardly, though they began to lose their bearings inwardly.

Most often, they became socialists of one kind or another, for in the world of only a few decades ago, that very Western ideology of "socialism" could still be presented as the coming thing, as a "scientific" thing, the cutting edge of progress. Most came to believe that the best way to modernize their societies was through central planning, and that their own class was in effect the socialist vanguard, the people who had the education and ability to deliver their peoples into the modern world. They looked forward to a world that would be, if anything, post-Muslim and post-Christian -- to the triumph of a kind of universal civil order, that would be socialist in its economy, both East and West.

And naturally, they also bought into another Western idea, another idea which had no place in any traditional Muslim order. They became nationalists as well as socialists, for how can you advance socialism except within a coherent national order? Hence the ideological currents running through the Muslim world in the generation before Iran's Ayatollahs -- Nasserism, pan-Arabism, the Baathist parties of Syria and Iraq, the Bhutto faction in Pakistan, Sukarno in Indonesia, Algerian radicalism in the Maghreb. It was all so clear to all of them, that this was the way forward.

It was instead a catastrophe. Human nature is just what it is, and the laws of supply and demand operate to punish grand ideological schemes, just as the law of gravity operates against other forms of human flight. None of those five-year plans ever worked. And the only thing that did work was the elites clinging to power, trying to Westernize or modernize their societies with increasing frustration.

Moreover, consider the disconnect, between such rulers and their own people. In some ways Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Bashir Assad of Syria, are the last survivors of that family of dinosaurs -- of that world that existed before the deluge of "Islamism" -- the word we now use for fanatically politicized Islam. (Please note carefully how I use it to distinguish from "Islam" at large.) Though even these radically secular rulers have made their own accommodations with the Islamist tide, and indeed their own connexions with Al Qaeda.

Elsewhere, we encounter the old elites, but find them like beached whales, still nominally presiding over the societies which they have helped destroy, economically, socially, religiously, and in every other practical way, so that there was nothing left for them but to find a new excuse for holding on to power, and someone else to blame for what happened.

In Pakistan, for instance, the elites are certainly still there, only beginning to be diluted by the arrivistes from the Islamist madrasas. From the other side, they are bled by emigration, for the engineers and the technocrats, and the other functionaries of the New Class, are leaving as fast as they can to the West. It is an economic imperative, there are diminishing opportunities at home; for where there is no oil to pump and refine, there tends to be precious little else in the way of an economy. They wash their hands of all those five-year plans, and get quite peacefully on planes for Europe and America, where they can hope at least to stay solvent. And all they are really leaving behind is the poor of their societies, to fend for themselves.

The New Class that remains, which by now is becoming rather an old class, finds itself enmired in a more and more urgent search for some new silver bullet, some fine new theoretical scheme to replace the tried-and-failed socialism, if for no other reason than to justify their own purchase on elitehood. The alternative is to slide down from eminence, into those mushrooming brick, stick, tin & mud suburbs that they must fear in a way that we, who have not seen them up so close, can never fully understand or empathize with. It is no small thing to lose your place in the social order; and especially in an order with such deep shafts.

It is in the last generation or two, that many of these people have begun, either subtly or overtly, to buy into "Islamism". For Islamism has been, since that heady moment when the clerics of Shia Iran led the overthrow of the late Shah, the "coming thing" in the Muslim world, the new, essentially political ideology, the new patent medicine, that offers a cure for whatever ails you.

But the conclusions that the author (David Warren) makes are by no means limited in scope to this narrative. In fact, there is something for everyone to disagree with, including (most emphatically myself, for example I do not agree as Warren does) the Clash of Civilizations thesis which ends the essay on a slightly pessimistic note.

I will address Steven's comentary and arguments about the essay in the next post in my Silence of the Media series. The full article has also been posted to the UNMEDIA mailing list (public archives are browsable/searchable by non-subscribers, take a look)

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