Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Q.O.D. - 18/10/06

The breakfast round of news and views included this from Dave Justus who picks up this question from Deans World -
You Islamophobes have yet to answer me a simple question: how can you possibly support what America is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq if you believe that Islam and Muslims are inherently incapable of modernity and tolerance and democracy?

[Dave starts with...]
Leaving aside the ‘when did you stop beating you wife’ aspect of this question, at it’s core there is an interesting thing to discuss here.

Many of the comments at Deans World seem to start from the premise that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Dave's comment, the bulk of his post I have linked to above, is both cogent and reasonable. But it seems to leave an after-taste that I could not quite place.

One of the items new to ALD this morning led to this interview, which I have now read over my lunch. It makes an interesting comparison with Dave's post...
Die Zeit: Mr. Meddeb, how is it that in the Middle Ages, a peaceful dispute between Christians and Muslims was possible, whereas today, the very mention of these times causes an uproar?

Abdelwahab Meddeb: Because at that time, the Islamic world was home to a large, well-educated upper class which encouraged debate. Throughout the medieval period, there were renowned literary salons in major cities like Baghdad that were run by aristocratic patrons and merchants and whose sole raison d’être was to bring together Christians, Jews and various sects who did not agree at all on questions of faith. The Pope is wrong to speak of a single Islamic doctrine; there were many, and they were often the subject of open disputes. In Tunis, the capital of the Maghreb, the Sultan explicitly placed progressive theologians under the protection of the freedom of opinion and defended them against attacks by the people. Of course, the majority of simple Muslims were uneducated and hardly willing to be persuaded by the power of logic and arguments as the intellectuals hoped. Today, we have comparable Muslim masses, but there is little trace of an educated elite capable of leading the discussion.

That last paragraph is right where that after-taste starts from. As I read it, the one very fundamental difference between West and Islam can trace from one very small difference. Between a thousand and five hundred years ago, a very small number of intelligent Christians won small but significant victories over the Church. Similar cultural battles were fought in the world of Islam over the same period, ending probably with Spinoza, but the difference is that in Islam the intellectuals lost and religion won.

And this insight is worthy of thought as well...
Die Zeit: Where does the violence in Islam come from?

Meddeb: It really is not unique to Islam. But whereas it took Christianity a thousand years to discover fire and the sword, this violent persuasion was part of Islam’s inheritance from the very beginning. Muhammed was a warlike Prophet, and the Islamic conquests from China to Spain followed a quasi-Napoleonic principle. Yes, Muhammed was a kind of successful Napoleon. But this is less astonishing than the fact that there was violence in Christianity, as this was completely at odds with the spirit of the gospels. Acting against all Christian teachings, there were Popes who also called for holy war and promised religious warriors a place in the kingdom of heaven. Not to mention the forced conversions during the Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims in Spain had the choice between exile, burning at the stake, and baptism. But just as the Christians overcame their historical phase of violence, the Muslims face the same challenge. What Europe experienced in the age of the Enlightenment happened a century later in the Arab world, coming mainly from Egypt, which until the interwar period was the centre of modernity and reason in the Islamic world. That was the place most likely to produce a figure like Spinoza, someone to finally break the taboo of the holiness of scripture.

Die Zeit: Why did this process stall?

Meddeb: Since the Middle Ages, Islam has been left behind by the rise of Christianity and has resigned itself to this plight. But we should not forget that Christianity too had to pass through thebloodbath of interdenominational wars. The fundamentalists’ current struggle against modernity can be seen as a form of belated interdenominational war. One major problem is the failed Westernisation of many Muslims, who only have a scant knowledge of their own tradition and who are looking for a replacement. There is no more dramatic example than the attackers of September 11th, who may have been incapable of building aeroplanes but who were at least able to pilot them.

The reference to "failed Westernisation" I presume is reference to the London train bombers and other fundamentalists of similar background.

Die Zeit: What can the West do to ensure that this new religious war ends well?

Meddeb: What Europe must do – above all the Germans and the French – is to face Islam with solid convictions and to make clear to the Arab states what a danger the fundamentalists pose to the world. To give just one example: many countries have no idea of the unbelievable things going on in their schools. After September 11th, when Saudi Arabia’s leaders were reeling under the shock of Saudi nationals having attacked the country’s traditional protector, the USA, the Saudis were surprised to realise that their children’s schoolbooks contained things that were bound to produce hordes of little bin Ladens. The rulers of many Arab states have long since lost touch with their populations, which is most clearly visible in the puritanical Stone Age Islam of the Wahhabis.

And at that point, I come back to my continual theme that the WOT is NOT a war against Islam. That portrayal, almost betrayal, of the religion of Islam is the greatest "crime" that both the Wahhabis and the US have committed. The Wahhabi for their involvement in the schoolbook example and the many other "interpretations" that they promote. The US I have put down because of the fact that from 9/11 there has never been any real distinction made between the fanatic fundamentalist Muslim, and the ordinary Muslim shopkeeper, farmer or clerk in Baghdad, Jakarta, Mumbai or Auckland.

If we were able to return to 9/10/01, then at that time we would find the fanaticism of Islam limited to a very small number of people bounded in an even small region.

The response by the US, the equate of WOT with WOI, the "axis of evil", has alienated a very great silent majority of Islam. That majority while not marginalised or radicalised to the extent of the extremeists does now have a relationship with fundamentalist Islam that did not exist on 9/10/01.

Another article from the same source looks at the different faces of Islamic commentators and the modern Islamic intellectual.

This article perhaps goes some way to explaining why it is that (to give the right wingnuts example) only 38 Muslims accepted the Pope's apology.
Many of them are characterised by a carefully masked double standard. In their home countries they present themselves as guardians of traditional Arab values, but when writing in other languages for foreign audiences they express very different, more cosmopolitan views.

The Arab intellectual behaves like a despotic father. No internal family matter may be exposed to the outside world; regardless of what the reality may be, a façade of unbroken unity must be maintained. This is especially evident with respect to such matters as relations with Israel, the scandal over the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the attacks of 9/11, the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, or the recent war in Lebanon. In private talks with such people, one hears opinions that are radically different from what they publish in the newspapers the next day. It is as if the views propounded in the Arab media are not based on independent thinking, but formulated as opportunistic statements for public consumption.

I wonder, how many reporters from NYT, USA Today, WaPo, CanWest, FoxNews or any of the other principle media outlets can honestly say that their personal observations and opinions are accurately presented by their employers. I am not including the op-ed writers, the entertainment analysts, the ex-party hacks who write a slanted line for their editor. I am thinking here of the honest Joe reporter, who gets sent to Suva to cover the next army coup d'etat as it develops, who does his job well and objectively, and whose reports might not meet the political line his employer wants to take.

Gamal al-Ghitani, the Egyptian novelist who is also editor-in-chief of the weekly literary journal Akhbar al-Adab, is notably restrained when commenting about such crimes against humanity as have been (and continue to be) committed in Rwanda, Darfour and Iraq. But when the affair of the Danish cartoons was at its height in February of this year, he sounded like some preacher at a mosque and called for a boycott of Danish products. When the Danes finally proffered an apology, he interpreted it as being motivated by fear for sales of Danish cheese rather than as an acknowledgement of respect for Islam.

Or take the famous poet Adonis: In the West he is seen as a Syrian exile who sharply criticises Islamism and the state of the Arab world. But his statements and his silences in recent decades present a completely different picture. Upon the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the Arab masses went into profound mourning – and Adonis lamented his passing with a poem. This prominent exile has had nothing to say about the victims of the Syrian regime over the past four decades. But he published another old-fashioned panegyric to the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1978, ...

The Lebanese poet and journalist Abbas Beydoun is a cultural correspondent for the Lebanese daily as-Safir. ...those of his articles which appear in German differ markedly from his pieces in Arabic. In Der Tagespiegel of July 26, 2006 and in Die Zeit of July 27, for example, he criticised Hizbullah's solo attack and confrontation with Israel, going so far as to describe it as a military putsch. He also emphasised that the majority of Lebanese want peaceful development in their country. But in the edition of as-Safir dated July 28, we find him writing, in cliche-ridden rhetoric, about Hizbullah's great deeds, which, he stated, had generated respect even among the party's sceptics and critics...

Many Arab writers and publishers regard themselves as secular, enlightened and critical – in other words, as intellectuals who stand up for freedom of speech and, of course, for human rights. Two months after the 9/11 attacks, during an Arab book fair, a rumour suddenly made the rounds that an aircraft had crashed into a high-rise building in Italy. Many people immediately thought this was a repeat of the previous attacks on America. Numerous publishers and editors shouted Allahu akbar (God is great) and welcomed the presumed act, which turned out never to have happened at all.

It strikes me that, more than anything else, the contrast is that simple - the west where the control of religion over culture was broken and the secular society allowed to develop; the Islamic society where the control of religion over culture and life remains. This does not in any way argue that religion has no place in society - it truly does for a great majority of people and the world would be a sadder place without religion (Well I mean, what could Bach have written all his glorious music for had it not been dedicated to God?).

But to return to Dave's quest...

Dean, and his simplistic approach to this debate, are as much the problem as the Islamophobes he intends to castigate. There is no simplistic answer.

Islam itself has such strong roots into their society that it would destroy the society if the roots were removed - the essence I believe of where Iraq is today.

So, it is not a matter of Islam vs Democracy at all. Islam must be allowed to evolve so that the principles of democracy - the freedoms of debate, of criticism, of tolerance and of acceptance - can develop.

We, the west, must not lose sight of our own principles of freedom while that evolution occurs. We, the west, must not lose sight of the immense upheavals that were the consequences of our own societal evolution from religious to secular - the revolutions of England, of France, the Wars of the Roses, the wars between Rome and the newly secular states.... all of the history of the West and Christianity over the past 1000 years.

We must have patience to allow the flower to grow. We are not seeing that patience today.

It is not a case of "Islam and Muslims are inherently incapable of modernity and tolerance and democracy", but rather that these are concepts foreign to their culture and their religion at the present time.

The problem is not "inherent". It has been "learned", in exactly the same way as western society has "learned" freedoms.

How long would it take for Western civilisation - Christianity if you like - to "unlearn" those freedoms and rights from the past thousand years? One generation? Three? How about ten? I would accept between five generations and ten. Certainly no less than that.

Updated 16:30 NZDT


Dave Justus said...

Like many of your posts, this one rambles a bit Probligo.

I still find it hard to credit your assertion, all facts to the contrary, that the U.S. has declared war on Islam and doesn't make any distinctions between terrorist fanatics and the common people. The entire thrust of our policies is based upon that distinction.

Indeed, if our goal had been to wipe out the Islamic nations of the world, with no regards to civilians or anything else, we could have accomplished that in an afternoon.

It is precisely becase we make those distinctions that the job is difficult.

But to get on to your conclusions.

First, I think you vastly overestitimate the time it would take for Western Civilization to 'unlearn' the principles of freedom. The descent of Germany from the Weidmar Republic to Nazism should give us all a pause in that regard.

I certainly agree that Muslim nations must, and will, evolve in their own way. However, that evolution will be affected greatly by the west, both by our action and our inaction. We live in a globalized world. Just as it is patently obvious that what happens in the Muslim world effect the West, it is equally true that what happens in the West effects the Muslim world.

For example, with western technology and also western political ideas (not to mention oil wealth) Saddam created a dictorship that was impossible for the Iraqi people to overthow. Within that dictorship, no evolution was possible. A similar situation exists in Iran, and absent political pressure would exist in Saudi Arabia (where reform is happening, although at a very slow pace.)

I also question that we can afford to have patience. As technology evolves, capacity for destruction increases, and smaller and smaller groups will be able to harness that destructive capability. The Muslim world doesn't have the kind of time the West had to evolve, because the West will not, and cannot tolerate the destructive impulses that it went through with the modern technologies that it has developed and is developing.

Imagine a 30 years war with weapons of mass destruction. Humanity would not have survived such a thing.

Fortunately, I think that a lot of what the West has gone through can profit Islam. They can, if they will, learn from our mistakes and leap ahead.

Dave Justus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The probligo said...

...the U.S. has declared war on Islam and doesn't make any distinctions between terrorist fanatics and the common people. The entire thrust of our policies is based upon that distinction.

Can I submit that might be the intent of US policies, but that is a very long way from how those policies are perceived by a sizeable portion of Islam.

And please can you find a comparative for Islam other than Hitler's Germany. It sets my teeth on edge if only because it shows just how effective the propaganda has been...

Dave Justus said...

I didn't compare Islam to Hitler's Germany. I used Hitlers Germany as an example of how quickly Western Civilization can unlearn its principles of freedom. No comparison there at all. Germany was and is a western nation.

Those of us in the west who are so sure we could never lose are freedoms should take that bit of history as a cautionary tale.

I will happily agree with you that a lot of Islam believes that the U.S. is at war with them. Some of that is no doubt the result of poor decisions and poor communication strategies. However, I think that the majority of it is due to effective propaganda from those who desire this perception to exist.

I question though why, if you agree that it is only a Muslim perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, you keep repeating that the U.S. should not have declared war on Islam? If you don't believe we did that, why do repeat the lie that we did?