Orthodox Islam receives at worst a hysterical response and at best an ambivalent one. It would be futile to argue that there are not important points of difference between Orthodox Islam’s views and those who hold liberal secular values. However Dr Salman Ahmed argues that moderate Islam is largely a myth and that if the West wants to entertain a serious dialogue it should realise Orthodox Islam is the only game in town. Imposing a western doctrine of what Islam should be in the Muslim world is doomed to failure.
If many media commentators and politicians are to be believed then we are engaged in a struggle to the death with Islamic fascists and nihilists who hate Western societies for their freedoms and who will not be satisfied until they have destroyed Western civilisation. Others claim that Islamic radicals want to drag Muslim societies back to medieval times by returning them to the imagined purity of a seventh century Islamic society. We are told that there is nothing to discuss with these extremists. President Putin when asked by a reporter after the Beslan school massacre if he would now start political dialogue with the Chechen guerrillas replied, “Would you invite Osama bin Laden to the White House or to Brussels and hold talks with him and let him dictate what he wants?” In the war on terror, it seems there will be no dialogue with Muslim insurgents and guerrillas and what remains is to hunt them down and kill them.
Traditional Muslim thinkers, scholars and leaders also find that the Western press and politicians are eager to label them as being homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynists and supporters of terrorists and suicide bombers. Whether or not this is a deliberate policy is a debatable point, but the net result is to intimidate and frighten traditional Muslims from speaking publicly.
When Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi came to Britain in July 2004, the print and broadcast media kept on running the story as to why the Sheikh, who they claimed was a “supporter of suicide bombers” and a person who was against homosexuality, had been allowed into the UK. These attacks on the personality of the Sheikh were not only limited to the media. The Labour MP Louise Ellman said it would be “an outrage” to let him visit and create “enormous security problems”. Tory leader Michael Howard demanded to know why the cleric had not been refused entry to the UK. Recently, some members of the London Assembly have questioned why London Mayor Ken Livingstone met the Sheikh formally and what his links were with him.
What happened to Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi was not an isolated case but rather a reflection of the treatment that religious or traditional Muslims can expect from much of the Western media and many of its politicians. Some Western intellectuals argue that there is no place for Muslim orthodoxy and traditions in today’s world, because it intellectually underpins the behaviour of Muslims fighting in Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya; it keeps Muslims from accepting their place in modernity. They point out that the West should be concerned with the reformation of Islam itself so that Muslims will eventually leave their outdated traditions and values and become modern. It was reported that the US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that “We need an Islamic reformation”, and later in the same statement he mentioned that he thought “there is real hope for one”. Daniel Pipes of the Philadelphia based Middle East Forum is another prominent figure who calls for the reformation of Islam and is closely aligned to the current US administration – President Bush appointed him to the board of directors of the US Institute of Peace in June 2003. In July 2004 Daniel Pipes stated that the “ultimate goal” of the war on terrorism had to be Islam’s modernisation, or as he put it, “religion-building”.
There have been changes amongst some Muslims in their interpretation of Islam over the last fourteen centuries; for example when Muslims came into contact with people with differing traditions and philosophies such as the Greeks, Persians or Indians, some Muslims tried to integrate the best of the local philosophies and traditions into their understanding of Islam. But throughout the centuries, the majority of Muslims have maintained an attachment to a common set of reference points – the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – and were in close agreement on most doctrinal and legal issues. The five most influential schools of Islamic thought (madahib) – Hanafi, Shafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Jafari – named after their founding scholars, were established on this approach and defined much of the body of Islamic interpretations and opinion over many centuries, and still do so today. Although some have termed this attachment ’traditionalism’, ultimately it has been this approach that has won the argument in the sphere of Muslim public opinion.
What those who call for the reformation of Islam for the whole Muslim world are attempting is without precedent. Arguably one of the most influential contemporary advocates of the radical idea to reform Islam is the Middle East expert Bernard Lewis. His fifty years of study and scholarship led him to the conclusion that the West-which used to be known as Christendom-is now in the last stages of a centuries-old struggle for dominance and prestige with Islamic civilisation. It was Bernard Lewis who coined the phrase the “Clash of Civilisations” in a September 1990 Atlantic Monthly article on “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in which he painted Islam as engaged in a fourteen century long war against Christianity. This was three years before Samuel Huntington published his famous article on the “Clash of Civilizations” in Foreign Affairs. Ian Buruma summarised Lewis’ argument in an article in the New Yorker as the following:
“…The clash between Christendom and Islam has been going on since the Muslims conquered Syria, North Africa, and Spain. Muslims, at the height of their glory, in tenth-century Cairo, thirteenth-century Tehran, or sixteenth-century Istanbul, thought of themselves as far superior to the Christians and Jews among them, who were tolerated as second-class citizens. Since then, however, as Lewis puts it, ‘the Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat’. Turks reached Vienna in 1683 but got no farther. When the rampant West expanded its empires, European ideas penetrated, dominated, and dislocated the Muslim world. It was deeply humiliating for Muslims to be humbled by inferior Christians and Jews (“Crusaders” and “Zionists” in modern parlance). Traditional ways, which had produced so much glory in the past, were eroded and often destroyed by ill-considered experiments with Marxism, fascism, and national socialism. Out of political and cultural failure came this Muslim rage, directed against the West, the historical source of humiliation, and out of this rage came the violent attempts to establish a new caliphate through religious revolution.”
In relation to the attacks of September 11th 2001 on the US, Lewis has said: “I have no doubt that September 11th was the opening salvo of the final battle…” Arguably, the thinking of Lewis has been influential on the current US administration and his ideas have to a large extent shaped how the administration views the Muslim world. He is known to be close to Vice President Dick Cheney and has been invited by President Bush’s advisor Karl Rove to speak at the White House. His best-selling book entitled “What Went Wrong?” examines the decline of Muslim civilisation and is regarded in some circles as a kind of handbook in the war against Islamic terrorism.
The model of Muslim society that appeals to Lewis and his followers is that of Turkey. In this country Mustafa Kemal seized control of the Ottoman Caliphate in the 1920s and imposed his vision of a secular western society upon the people, irrespective of the people’s wishes. Religious schools were closed, the wearing of the Hijab was forbidden in government offices and universities, many religious scholars were imprisoned or killed and the Arabic language was replaced with Turkish. Mustafa Kemal was not a believer in “government of the people, by the people, for the people…” but was more influenced by fascism of the 1920s and followed a style of ruling characterised in his own words as “government for the people – despite the people”. He felt that he knew best and could force everyone to follow his opinion.
Lewis’ argument falls down on a number of points. It is still not clear whether it is possible to make a success out of forcible secularisation of a Muslim society. Undoubtedly, in Turkey there are groups of people who are European in their behaviour, attitudes and values and do not see themselves as Muslim other than in their names; but they represent a small minority of that society. In the same cities where there are very secular Muslims, there are also many more traditional and conservative Islamic communities, and in much of rural Turkey, the values and attitudes of people have not changed much in the last two hundred years. Today, the political party that enjoys the clear support of the majority of the Turkish population is the Islamic Justice and Development Party. Its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once banned from public service after reciting a poem that said “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers”. It is the institution of the Turkish army that prevents the government from re-adopting Islam politically or publicly which many in Erdogan’s party call for – the army stands ready to do a coup if it sees any threat to the political model that Mustafa Kemal established.
It follows that Turkey is not really a moderate Muslim society in the way that Lewis, Bush and Wolfowitz understand the term “moderate”. Rather it represents the failure to replace by force a culture that was home grown and present for several centuries with a foreign one. As a military supported ruler Mustafa Kemal had no legal limits in what he could do to rid Turkey of its Islamic heritage; many Islamic scholars were killed or imprisoned, religious schools were closed down and people were forced to behave in accordance with western values and so on. Yet even after eighty years of Kemalism, Islamic traditionalism is increasing in strength and gaining influence in the society. The force that prevents Islam from coming to power is the secular army that feels duty bound to defend Kemalism.
Despite fifty years of scholarship Lewis failed to predict how Muslims would respond to an American occupation of Muslim land. In 2001 he said that public opinion in Iraq and Iran was so pro-American that both peoples would rejoice if the US army liberated them. A year later, he repeated the message that “if we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the ‘Axis of Evil’ the scenes of rejoicing in their cities would even exceed those that followed the liberation of Kabul.” Perhaps there was a sense of relief felt by many Iraqis when the Saddam Hussein government was removed but a sense of occupation has driven many ordinary Iraqis to take up arms against the US army.
Today, many if not most of the Muslim countries are dysfunctional. Politically the governments in many Muslim states are dictatorships based on monarchs, military rulers or life long Presidents. Most Muslims recognise and accept this fact. The 2002 Arab development programme report which was written by a group of Arab scholars from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) described the region as not developing as fast or as fully as other comparable regions. The most striking weakness identified in the report and one which the authors suggest lies behind all other problems is a lack of democracy, which leads to poor governance. The report points out that political participation in the Arab region is still limited compared to other regions and that the region is rated lower than any other for freedom of expression and accountability. The attitude of Arab governments towards civil societies ranged from opposition to manipulation to “freedom under surveillance”.
This state of affairs cannot be put at the door of Islamic orthodoxy, since Islamic institutions and traditions have been marginalised for most of the last century in the Muslim world. Rather the last century has been one in which most Muslim countries have first been colonised and then inherited political, economic and social institutions that the colonialists left them. Even the concept of many independent countries in the Muslim world was new. During the early part of the twentieth century the French and the British governments agreed between themselves as to who would get which part of the dominions of the Ottoman state. The task of negotiations was delegated to Georges Picot of France and Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and the resulting Sykes-Picot agreement led to the division of the Ottoman state such that France’s mandate corresponded to the future states of Syria and Lebanon and Britain’s mandate corresponded to Iraq and Transjordan. France ended up with direct control of Mediterranean coastal regions whilst Britain ended up controlling the provinces of Basra and Baghdad and maintained an exclusive relationship with the Arab Gulf Sheikhdoms.
Where independence brought multi-party democracies, they were soon to disappear. Most Muslim countries were characterised by one coup after another as different political or military factions often supported by outside powers assumed power. There was the 1947 coup led by Colonel Husni Al-Za’im in Syria, the 1952 coup led by General Neguib in Egypt, the 1953 CIA sponsored coup that ended the rule of Prime Minister Mossadeq, the 1958 coup led by General Ayub Khan in Pakistan, the 1960 coup led by General Cemal Gürsel in Turkey, and so on.
In comparison the Western countries have largely not suffered from this type of political instability during the last hundred years. What differentiates Western political institutions from those in the Muslim world is that they developed organically over a number of centuries, adapted themselves to different realities over time and represent an effective social consensus on how these societies go about solving their problems. For example, the operation of and the relationship between the British Houses of Parliament, the Judiciary, the Monarchy, the Army and the civil service has been defined over a number of years, as the British state found itself in different situations and with different problems. Even today, it is still adapting to new realities; for example the role of the House of Lords is being redefined in light of the fact that aristocracy is no longer as powerful as big business interests and it is difficult to justify why hereditary peers should participate in the legislative process. There is a social consensus over the role of these institutions and as a result it is not possible that a small clique of people – Generals or otherwise – could undertake a coup in Britain and start making the laws themselves; the rest of society would just not accept it. However in the Muslim world, the institutions that exist are not home grown or organically developed, they do not reflect the historical experience of people and do not connect with their traditions or values. What this means is that there is very little social consensus on these systems i.e. they have very limited legitimacy and there is little or no reaction from people when a general undertakes a coup. In addition, Muslim countries tend to have very influential westernised elites, who have usually studied abroad and are often wealthy; they are usually ignorant of their own history and traditions and their wealth allows them to live very detached lives from the rest of society. Because of their situation and attitudes they are unable to comprehend why the rest of society behaves in the way it does and they come to look down upon the masses.
Prior to the colonisation of the Muslim world, many Muslim politicians and thinkers had seen modernisation and industrialisation take place in Western nations and had come to the conclusion that the Muslim world was backward and needed to be reformed. This was a natural situation as there was much interaction and trade between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The debate had started and there were a variety of opinions as to how Muslims should ‘modernise’ themselves. Iranian intellectuals Mulkum Khan (1833-1908) and Agha Khan Kermani (1853-96) urged Iranians to acquire a Western education and replace the Shariah (the religious legal code) with a modern secular legal code. Some of the Ottoman sultans pursued western models of industrialisation and modernisation of their own accord. For example, Sultan Mahmud II inaugurated the Tanzimat (Regulation) in 1826 which abolished the Janissaries [the highly dedicated elite corps of troops organised in the fourteenth century], modernised the army and introduced some new technology. In 1839 Sultan Abdul Hamid issued the Gulhane decree which made his rule dependent upon a contractual relationship with his subjects and looked forward to major reform of the caliphate’s institutions. Some Muslim scholars took an approach of re-interpreting Islam so that it was more conformant to western models; they wanted to maintain some Islamic values and principles whilst justifying the adoption of some western concepts which they thought would bring Muslim progress. There were many such modernising scholars, but two of the most famous ones were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). At this time the need for change was evident to many thinkers, but the nature of this change and the path to achieving it was poorly defined.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the desire for reformation was very strong in the Muslim world. It was self evident to most of the political elites, intellectuals, Muslim scholars and educated people that something needed to be done; the status quo was unacceptable. They had concluded that in many respects Muslims were far behind the West and needed to catch up. Looking back to this time it is very likely that if Muslims had been left to their own devices, a social consensus would have been developed in the Muslim world as to what form this change should have taken. The social consensus may have taken several decades to occur but it would have been home grown, would have happened organically and would have adapted the Muslim world to new realities.
However occupation by foreign powers and colonialisation led to an interruption of this natural process. When the foreign powers finally departed what they left behind was a medley of countries; many of which may have looked good on a map when the French and British planners created them, but in reality they were completely artificial and did not represent peoples that had been bound together by a common and shared history and set of values. In addition, the institutions that Muslims inherited were based on French or British models. By the time the colonial powers left there was no public role for Islam to play in society, Islamic law and education had been devalued and Islamic scholars had been marginalised. With the old well established moral compass no longer available and with social and political institutions that were French or British in origin and lacking in social consensus, it is not surprising that the Muslim world is blighted by instability, coups, tyranny and totalitarianism.
In his new book, entitled “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization”, the Columbia Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Richard Bulliet, argues that comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not 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. Instead of modernisation, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared: tyranny. What the Arab world should have seen was “not an increase in modernisation 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.
Some Muslims put the blame for the tyranny and the totalitarianism practiced in the Muslim world and the lack of a role for Islam in Muslim societies on western interference. There is little doubt that historically western nations have a share in the responsibility for bringing the Muslim world to where it is; they occupied it, created artificial entities and left the conditions for tyranny to arise. However, arguably the Muslim rulers who practice tyranny upon the Muslim masses and the Muslim elites who support them also have a share of the blame. However some Muslims place all the blame on the West for the current situation of the Muslims and seek to kill western civilians so that westerners also taste the pain of what Muslims have been forced to suffer. Their aim, we are told, is to push for a civilisational war between the western and Muslim worlds; one in which all Muslims will be forced to join in from the sidelines: the irony is that the Lewis-Bush doctrine in Iraq has done far more to realise such an aim than any preachers from within the fold of Islam could have achieved.
The majority of Islamic traditional scholars reject the deliberate killing of civilians, and thus most scholars rejected the attacks that took place on America on September 11th 2001. However in the tyrannies of the Muslim world, it is extremely difficult to start a debate upon the correct response to western imperialism using Islamic texts and principles. Islamic scholars in the Muslim world are unable to debate this or other social issues openly because the current regimes in the Muslim world don’t tolerate such debate and discussion. For this reason the public scholars, appointed by the governments to preach a message of the governments choosing, lack credibility in their pronouncements. These governments view any genuine Islamic debate as a threat and they fear that once started it will be directed towards them: exposing their own lack of legitimacy and their ongoing tyranny. Whilst some Muslim scholars are kept quiet by paying them off – given government funded positions where they are only able to state the official government position – many others remain locked up in prisons because in the past they have dared to criticise the actions and policies of Muslim governments. Other Islamic scholars practice self censorship of the subjects they will discuss because they are afraid of the consequences of being seen to be critical of the government.
Even though orthodox Islam has not played a public role in most Muslim societies for the last century and Islamic scholars and teachings have been marginalised, in many Muslim societies a revival in Islamic practice and teachings is taking place. For more and more Muslims, Islam is becoming a major factor in shaping their attitudes, behaviour and perspective. Many ideas such as Arab nationalism, secularism and socialism have been discredited in the Muslim world by regimes that claimed to be socialist, secular, or pan-Arabist but brought totalitarianism and tyranny and little material progress. Today however, the only public choices that are being presented to Muslims are chosen by governments that are discredited and there is a distinct lack of independent voices – Islamic or otherwise – for people to listen to. Those that exist operate under persecution. Given this lack of open political debate and the sensation of western armies occupying Muslim lands, with the blessing of many Muslim governments, it is unsurprising that many Muslims feel deeply alienated from their own governments and feel closer to those who enact any form of violence against western targets.
There is a way of tackling chronic instability in the Muslim world caused mainly by oppressive pro-western dictators. However this requires western politicians and intellectuals to accept that Islam should be allowed to play its natural role in Muslim societies: outside attempts to dictate a secular Islam will fail and occupation of Muslim lands by foreign armies is counterproductive and will just generate more recruits for countering, by any means, the western onslaught. They should do this even if they disagree with some of orthodox Islam’s positions. There are too many Muslims in the world for their beliefs and religion to be sidelined against their wishes. Globalisation means that we will be affected by what happens in other parts of the world. Muslims need to be allowed to complete the transformation of their societies without western interference – a process that started in the nineteenth century – so that they too can find their place in the world of the twenty-first century with governments that fairly represent their own beliefs and values. If liberal and secular thinkers find they have strong disagreements with Muslims then they should try to engage in thought provoking debate with Muslims on the rights and wrongs of their beliefs and system. The approach of the neo-conservatives and intellectuals like Bernard Lewis who want to dictate the reformation of Islam, import American defined democracy upon the Muslim world and occupy large parts of it, will bring about a conflict that will last for many generations. To avoid this, Western politicians and thinkers must find a constructive way of dealing with Muslims and Islam based around the notion that Muslims must define their own political destiny.