Islam and Freedom

I've argued many times before (with examples) that Islam is actually the mechanism through which liberty can be brought to the Arab world, and the false-dichotomy of the "Clash of Civilizations" worldview articulated by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. The Clash hypothesis is what animates foreign policy in the Bush Administration, and its defenders are forced to resort to condescension towards Islam and Arab culture to make their case.

Michael Hersh now has a detailed essay on Bernard Lewis and his influence upon policy, especially his persona grata status with Vice President Cheney (who sits like Shelob at the nexus of all policy decisions in the Administration). The following lengthy excerpt is the key to understanding the alternative school of thought to which I also subscribe (which you could call "muscular Wilsonianism"):

At least until the Iraq war, most present-day Arabs didn't think in the stark clash-of-civilization terms Lewis prefers. Bin Laden likes to vilify Western Crusaders, but until relatively recently, he was still seen by much of the Arab establishment as a marginal figure. To most Arabs before 9/11, the Crusades were history as ancient as they are to us in the West. Modern Arab anger and frustration is, in fact, less than a hundred years old. As bin Laden knows very well, this anger is a function not of Islam's humiliation at the Treaty of Carlowitz of 1699�the sort of long-ago defeat that Lewis highlights in his bestselling What Went Wrong�but of much more recent developments. These include the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo.

Yet as Bulliet writes, over the longer reach of history, Islam and the West have been far more culturally integrated than most people realized; there is a far better case for "Islamo-Christian civilization" than there is for the clash of civilizations. "There are two narratives here," says Fawaz Gerges, an intellectual ally of Bulliet's at Sarah Lawrence University. "One is Bernard Lewis. But the other narrative is that in historical terms, there have been so many inter-alliances between world of Islam and the West. There has never been a Muslim umma, or community, except for 23 years during the time of Mohammed. Except in the theoretical minds of the jihadists, the Muslim world was always split. Many Muslim leaders even allied themselves with the Crusaders."

Today, progress in the Arab world will not come by secularizing it from above (Bulliet's chapter dealing with Chalabi is called �Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places�) but by rediscovering this more tolerant Islam, which actually predates radicalism and, contra Ataturk, is an ineluctable part of Arab self-identity that must be accommodated. For centuries, Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans' success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. "The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny." This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. "What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars," Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet. What the Arab world should have seen was "not an increase in modernization so much as an increase in tyranny. By the 1960s, that prophecy was fulfilled. You had dictatorships in most of the Islamic world." Egypt's Gamel Nasser, Syria's Hafez Assad, and others came in the guise of Arab nationalists, but they were nothing more than tyrants.

Yet there was no longer a legitimate force to oppose this trend. In the place of traditional Islamic learning�which had once allowed, even encouraged, science and advancement�there was nothing. The old religious authorities had been hounded out of public life, back into the mosque. The Caliphate was dead; when Ataturk destroyed it in Turkey, he also removed it from the rest of the Islamic world. Into that vacuum roared a fundamentalist reaction led by brilliant but aberrant amateurs like Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, the founding philosopher of Ayman Zawahiri's brand of Islamic radicalism who was hanged by al-Nasser, and later, Osama bin Laden, who grew up infected by the Saudis' extreme version of Wahhabism. Even the creator of Wahhabism, the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was outside the mainstream, notorious for vandalizing shrines and "denounced" by theologians across the Islamic world in his time for his "doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy," as the scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb writes in another new book that rebuts Lewis, Islam and its Discontents.[1]

Now, I've been making my way through Fareed Zakaria's book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and I've found that it's very much in tune with the perspective above. Zakaria makes the essential point that the rise of teh Catholic Church was really the catalyst for freedom in Europe, even though the Church itself was often not liberal at all. As Bill Allison has been saying for some time now, the Reformation was not a "progressive" vision of faith, if anything Luther sought a return to more strict orthodoxy. Zakaria calls this the Paradox of Catholicism and it's a topic on which I will blog more in the near future.

The bottom line here is that the goal is a liberal democracy - and that liberal freedoms often (in fact, nearly always) precede democracy. The absence of Islam from the public sphere has meant a lack of a counter-balancing check upon the power of the state in the Arab world - and into that void has rushed extremist ideology that ultimately enters symbiosis with the state itself. Nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia.

The urgency of this debate centers on Iran. The neocon position is that we must invade to liberate. But if you see Islam as an ally, then there is a way to play catalyst to internal liberalization. That will lead to a far more stable sprig of liberty than one imposed (as the Iraq example shows).

The Future of Freedom is a compelling book and together with Gary Hart's The Fourth Power essentially is the foundation of my foreign policy views. The present neoconservative view in charge of policy, however, is unable to recognize that Islam is the key, not the obstacle.

[1] The book Islam and its Discontents is not yet on Amazon, but you can read an excerpt from the book online.

1 comment:

thabet said...

Sadly, Abdelwahab Meddeb is repeating received wisdom when he charges "Wahhabism" with the all the ills of this world. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not really know what a "political state" was; his writings are largely free of "political" ideas, except that there needs to be a 'sultan' or 'amir' for the 'secular' affairs and an 'imam' for the 'religious' affairs. His concerns were with correct belief and orthopraxy, especially "monotheism". Early Wahhabi ideas of 'state' were probably rooted deeply in their bedouin worldview. This can be easily ascertained through a persual of hs writings (which many of his critics never actually do!). Modern day Salafism/s is what the target of Meddeb and others, which has different (anti-colonial) roots.

This is not to defend ibn Abd al-Wahhab or Wahhabis or Salafis or the Saudi state. But it is to point out that the need to assign "the faults of history" to bogeymen doesn't really help us, Muslim or otherwise, evaluate anything.

Lastly, I generally agree with the point about "Islam" needing to recapture the language of 'tolerance' (or at least be seen to be doing so). Sadly, how many traditionalists are now aligned with corrupt governments in the Muslim world? One too many.

Lastly, an investigation would reveal the importance of Ultramonitism and Tractarianism in the creation of the 'secular state'. Both were very 'religious' movements, concenred with freeing 'God's religion' from the cluthces of worldly power.