Friday, October 22, 2010

The Travails of Modern Islam

From a transcript of an invitation-only seminar at Future Directions International, Perth, Western Australia, August 20, 2010, by Daniel Pipes [brief excerpt only - follow this link to the full transcript, including the Q&A, and to download the audio]:

...the Islamic religion prevails in majority-Muslim countries stretching from Senegal to Indonesia, and is not simply a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Muslim people can now be found in substantial numbers in Europe, North America, Latin America, and indeed, Oceania.

...In the broad sweep of history, the Islamic religion got off to a very fast and successful start. Muhammad himself fled Mecca in 622 A.D. By the time of his death, however, he was ruler of Arabia and within 100 years his followers had gone from Spain to India. This was more than just a military conquest. The Muslim faith was successful in culture, the arts, and the economy and created the great empires of its age. Had you looked around the world say precisely a millennium ago, August 20th, 1010, you would've concluded that Islam was the most successful civilisation, more so than those of China, Europe or India.

Starting from about 1200, especially after the Mogul invasions, the civilisation of Islam declined and stagnated for a long time. The striking fact was that Muslims long were generally unaware of this downturn although it finally became vividly obvious around 1800, especially when Napoleon landed in Egypt and wiped out the Ottoman and Mamluk armies. Napoleon brought with him a cadre of scientists who started studying the flora, fauna, and archaeology, savants who would eventually crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. His was not only a military expedition but a scientific one as well. The contrast between the Egyptians and the French was stark and shocked Muslims into realising that, during their long period of stagnation, Europe had surged ahead.

Trauma followed. Muslims had assumed that they were blessed by God in both spiritual and mundane ways. Now they worried that God had forsaken them, which led to a profound reassessment of what it means to be a Muslim. Muslims saw themselves challenged by Europe and more broadly by the West, and this is a challenge that Muslims still face today.

How is it that the people who should be on top – militarily, economically, politically, culturally, scientifically, technologically – how is it that they now sit at the bottom in terms of literacy, longevity, Nobel Prizes per capita, Olympic medals per capita? Indeed, whatever index you choose, Muslim states are at the bottom. Muslim people are not doing well; some of the worst countries in the world include Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq, all of which are majority Muslim. This is a great strain, a great challenge: What went wrong and how do they fix it?

...Over the course of the past 200 years, there have been three major explanations. The first one was what one might call the liberal Western explanation, namely emulating the French and the British. These nationalities descended upon Muslim lands in particular; they built empires; they offered themselves as models. They were extremely successful and Muslims tended to emulate them. The symbolic figure of this trend was Kemal Atatürk, the ruler of Turkey between 1923 and 1938, who removed Islam from public life, replaced Arabic words with French words, brought in Belgian and Swiss legal codes, and in all made Turkey look increasingly Western.

But this didn't work. By the 1920s and 30s, despite Atatürk, there was a sense that this liberal effort had failed. So Muslim adopted another approach. The approach that appeared at that time to be most impressive was the illiberal Western approach. The 1920s were the hey-day of totalitarian societies, with Mussolini and Lenin in particular showing the way. These offered models that proved very influential; Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt symbolizes this approach to politics. For the next 50 to 60 years, the Fascist and Communist models prevailed in large swaths of intellectual and political life. They didn't do too well either, they didn't solve the problems of weakness and poverty.

So, with the disappointment in these two movements came a third solution, namely the Islamist one. The goal of this movement was not to emulate one form or another of Western ideology or power; it was to return to Islamic experience and to draw on the wisdom and achievements of Muslims in the past and to rehabilitate the Muslim world by learning from Islamic experience. The goal is to do something that is old, that draws on Islamic successes of past centuries. Ayatollah Khomeini symbolizes this approach.

Of course, you can't go back. You can emulate 7th-century Islam but you can't repeat it. Islamist movements of recent decades have created a new ideology, not revived something old. I am convinced this will be a failure too. The so far number-one experiment, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has failed by any standard, if only because a great majority of its subjects are rejecting it.

Bin Laden and Wahhabi-style Islamism clearly have no future. How can they run countries? Just imagine Bin Laden as ruler; it would be like the Taliban and it wouldn't work. Even a less extreme version, such as that in Iran, is not workable in the long term.

Instead, what we're seeing is that the Islamists are evolving into something that is more sustainable. Turkey offers the outstanding model here. The Turkish Islamists run and win elections; they don't depend on violence. They exercise good economic stewardship and good governance more broadly. While Turkey has many problems, its Islamists have shown that an alternative exists. An era has begun in which Islamists in part use violence on the Bin Laden and in part they work the political system.

Many Islamist groups are making a name for themselves by engaging in social services. One of the tensions now in Pakistan is that the Islamists, as happened with the earthquakes some months ago, are coming in first with the most aid for the victims of flooding. They win good will and respect for their work.

Getting back to the central issue, how Muslims answer the question "What went wrong?" Are they approaching a functional answer? I think not but that we are in a very dark period of little creativity, much instability, and much violence. I don't see any improvements soon but I do anticipate the potential for improvement. Anything that can get worse can, logically, also get better, and I expect a working out of the Islamist impulse, to be followed by something more constructive. At some point, Muslims will begin to discard it and to look elsewhere. I don't know what they're going to look for. Will it be return to the 19th century and Western liberalism? Will it be following the Chinese model?

In the meantime, things could get worse. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are within grasp and could be used. This threat could lead to far greater instability. There is also considerable anger within the Muslim world as the great majority of Islamist victims have been Muslim, for example in Algeria and Darfur....

Read more: follow this link to the full transcript, including the Q&A, and to download the audio.
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