Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Islam, My Perspective

TP and Paul- I am going to assume that you know most of this. Bear with me though since it may be necessary background to those who are chiming in. (For the record, I am NOT an expert in Islam. However, I have made a “study” of the practice of Islam for more than a decade. I can drag down my copy of the Quran if you wish, or you can accept my word for the following assertions.)

The world of the Prophet Mohamed (Prophet) was chaotic in the extreme. Small tribes, some nomadic, some fixed rural, and some sharing towns and villages. The Quran was designed to overcome this tribalism and unify the Arab peoples under a single, overarching philosophy. As a “law,” it is really quite general in its application. It allows, and appears to have been designed to allow, for local variation.

The good news, from the perspective of Islam, is that this general applicability permitted Moslem overlords to conquer non-Moslem areas and seamlessly drop Islam on top of local policy and law. In some ways, this is an approach that we should find familiar in that, where local policy or law did not conflict with the Quran, it was permitted to remain in force. The tremendous variation in dress, language, titles, and power structures that we see from the Congo to China and Morocco to the Philippines is a testimony to this Quranic accommodation. The preservation of ancient learning and adaptation in math and science during the 1000 CE to 1450 CE Caliphates owes its existence to the flexibility of Islam prior to the rise of Christendom. (We shouldn’t forget that, Islamic culture, learning, art, architecture, science, and philosophy is the backbone of our own intellectualism.) It is precisely the flexibility of the application of Quranic law in establishing local law and policy that made this possible. (Think Moorish Spain or the early Ottoman Empire.)

There is a downside to this though… By not dictating the MEANING of the Suras (Quranic verses) during the life of the Prophet, the next generation of spiritual and temporal leaders began to squabble about very fundamental issues such as the steps one had to take to become a Moslem, the duties of each portion of society: women, slaves, children, servants, brothers, fathers, and, most importantly, WHO’S interpretation held precedence.

So long as North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and the southern half of Asia were economically significant, Islam was used to preserve relative peace among Islamic peoples. Quranic sura were generally interpreted to support the power structure throughout the “Moslem world.” The two centers of interpretation became Mecca and Baghdad. (Before jumping on this assertion, I humbly acknowledge that this whole post is an oversimplification and, on this particular point, many communities ignored both as a place of proper interpretation of the Quran, preferring provincial interpretations.)

The separation of Sunni and Shiite Islam occurred within an hundred years of the Prophet’s death. By 1000 CE Shiite Islam had split into dozens of mystical traditions. By 1800, Sunni Islam had broken into several versions of Islam, some militant, some very conservative (in the sense of supporting the ruling powers). Everything began to go terribly wrong in about 1600.

Decadence and perversion had undermined the legitimacy of the Caliphates (loosely, “kingdoms”) and “Christendom” was pressing in on the Moslem world on all sides. Economic sources of power such as the spice-trade had faltered or, more correctly, been consumed by European and Asian merchants. (I read a paper a number of years ago that attributed the fall of the Caliphates to the failure to embrace sea-travel as the primary mover of goods. The author argued that overland had become so slow and subject to loss [carrying charges, banditry, taxation] that Asian merchants were only too happy to trade in the camel for the schooner.) As the economic sphere collapsed, infighting among the various power centers took off. This encouraged European meddling during the 18th and 19th centuries until, by 1900, the Moslem Umma (community) had ceased to exist.

In its place was a powerless and economically isolate group of subject powers with loose alliances to distant European powers. On Europe’s part, the Middle and Near East were barely of interest. The real battles were over Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. On the eve of WWI, the Middle East, the Near East, and North Africa were critical only as military acquisitions to slow the encroachment of other European powers on one’s colonial possessions.

Islam, during this period, was quietly going through a radical transformation. With the establishment of militant societies such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, groups of mainly poor, urban youth were beginning to strike at the governments of the Moslem world. Noting (justly) the huge disparities between the lives of the rich and poor and that those disparities were based upon the connection of powerful families to foreign, non-Moslem forces, these societies drew a connection between “foreign” and “persecuting.”

The reaction of the rulers in countries so challenged was to 1) state that they were secular and to limit the practice of Islam to a private sphere (Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt) or 2) to embrace a particular version of Islam and assume the authority of religious interpretation by the strict adherence to Sharia law. (For the record, we keep throwing around the term “Sharia law” in the blogsphere as though it is one, single legal code. It is not. The Quran is the central text on which the varied religious-centered Sharia laws revolve.) Examples of these countries are Afghanistan, Sudan, Jordan, the Emirs, and, most significantly, Saudi Arabia.

The dynamic between religion and politics is not so clean-cut as this and many of the “secular” states drew their strength from being “Islamic.” However, across the board, the key to power in Moslem states was still definitively “foreign.” It was their relationship with European powers, through WWII, that kept them in control. (By way of narrative, I have tried to imagine what being a powerless Moslem youth in Cairo in 1945 would have been like… No work, no national prestige, Europeans visiting my country for its quaintness and lording their wealth over me, while I have no future. I’ll bet the Muslim Brotherhood would have seemed damn attractive.)

Following WWII, the exploitation of oil resources exacerbated the problems and led to the overthrow of Iran’s secular government. Throughout the Moslem world, oil resources were assumed by the governments and used to purchase security and intelligence networks of great sophistication. These resources were turned on their own people because the governments correctly saw the threat that these unallied Muslims represented to their power. The West’s response was to bolster the governments with money and arms in order to contain the Islamist threat. This brought Western powers, already despised as the architects of the fall of the Moslem world, into direct opposition with dispossessed Moslems everywhere. Worse still, this was at least four generations on. Four generations of Moslem anger against their powerlessness and alienation.

The two factors that crystallized the problem for Moslems, in my opinion, were the “creation” of Israel and the US-Soviet conflict.

From the Moslem perspective, the Israeli problem is entirely of the West’s making. Historically, the Jewish state was abolished by the Romans and never truly recovered. Jews emigrated throughout the Moslem Caliphates prior to 1700 and there were few Jews in “Palestine” on the eve of WWII. Following the war and due as much to Soviet oppression as the holocaust, Jews began to move, without legal authority, into Palestine. (Palestine was a mess prior to this, with authority loosely shared between the British, French, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the chaos created a vacuum that Jews fleeing Europe were able to exploit.)

Some immigrants purchased land, some squatted, and some were “granted” land by the foregoing authorities. This was a sensational story in the Moslem world and it became a direct affront with the intervention of the United Nations and the sanction by the West.

The “creation” of Israel was perceived to be the resolution of the “Jewish” problem in Europe by deporting them to Palestine. It was seen as an outrageous example of Moslem powerlessness and European arrogance. Getting stomped in two Israeli wars exacerbated this feeling of powerlessness. Adding millions of stateless “Palestinian” refugees to the already overflowing numbers of poor and dispossessed in the Middle East was the final straw. Hatred of Israel and her Western protectors became part and parcel with the cry for “justice” against 500 years of Christian aggression.

Against this backdrop, the interplay with the Cold War and the insidious effect of socialism/communism forged a wedge between the mass of Moslem people and modernity. Their rulers were perceived as mere puppets of the Soviet Union and the US (in my opinion, this perception is an accurate one) that was played out most directly in Afghanistan. (The number of “holy warriors” that volunteered to die in the cold in Central Asia is a testimony as to how desperate for respect and opportunity Islam had become.)

Furthermore, the West added insult to injury by: supporting the Shah against a popular uprising, supporting Israel in the illegal seizing of land in Sinai and Golan (the UN says it was illegal, not me, so don’t jump too hard on this point), the arming of the secular Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria, the arming of militant groups in Lebanon and Khurdistan, the admission of Turkey into Europe on the condition that it essentially outlaw the public practice of Islam (this is a far more complex situation than I think Moslems perceive it to be, but this IS the perception), and the cooperation with brutal security and intelligence networks throughout the Moslem world that engaged in torture and murder. There is much that the West has contributed to the equation and not all of the charges leveled against us are unfair or overstated.

Philosophically, a significant shift in the interpretation of Islam had occurred. Whereas, under the Caliphates, the schools in Baghdad and Mecca had interpreted the Quran in ways that were flexible (to support the expansion of Islam) and conservative (to support the administrations of the Caliphates), new schools of thought began to gain precedence. It is important to note and has been completely overlooked in TPS posts that the Saudi approach to Quranic interpretation is directly opposed to the militant form of Islam that we have been discussing. This should not be a surprise since militant Islam has the potential to undermine the House of Saud.

In opposition to religious interpretation that supported a decayed and destroyed, intellectualized version of Islam, Wahabists, in particular, taught that all rules not specifically found in the Quran were corrupt. One of the important points here is that Wahabism comes from Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia. It came to Saudi Arabia and adopted the credibility of Meccan authority in the late nineteenth century.

Wahabism is peculiarly adapted to speaking to the poor and dispossessed. It is anti-intellectual in that no text can be considered other than the Quran. It is readily accessible in that the only language that can be used to discuss religion is an old form of Arabic, thereby excluding all of the Concordia from the Caliphates. It is “justice” oriented in that it requires self-sacrifice and equality among Moslems. And, it is definitively anti-Western.

This is where Paul’s and GC’s contentions about the nature of Islam as “violent” come in to play.
Whereas the New Testament does not contain injunctions against unbelievers, the Old Testament and the Quran do. In the West, Christians and Jews gloss over the orders to separate from or kill non-believers, lest they infect the community. (Note that we periodically encounter modern “Christian” heretics who embrace this idea.) We concentrate on the good aspects of faith and relegate the evil ones to the past. In one sense, it is, as TP contended, the decision to view our faith through a lens of modernity.

Christianity is particularly immunized against the correlation with evil practice because Christ was so explicit in his instructions to love one another and selective in the application of ancient Judaism. (We could debate this ad infinitum, but Christ was clearly doing something new.) Paulist teaching of the universality of Christianity also helped maintain Jesus’ teaching.

Nonetheless, we should not forget that Christianity has been used for great evil. Forget the Inquisition and Crusades as examples. They represent as much political and economic movements as anything else. I’m talking about the down and dirty persecution of the Reformation period. Catholic peasants, without anything to gain, burning Huguenots in France. Anglican city folk without any economic interest dragging teenagers from their houses for public beatings and burnings, merely because they were Quakers. Beheadings of priests. Burning of whole villages in Germany because they were Anabaptist. 1400-1700 in Europe ain’t pretty folks and it is just as inconceivable to the “modern” mind, or should be, as the present religion inspired violence.

Wahabists, by allowing for purely local interpretation of the Quran and by excluding more than a 1000 years of Concordia, created an extreme interpretation of the Sura. Take, for example, the Burka. The Quran requires that women maintain their modesty in dress and avoid displays of immodesty in their behavior. Saint Paul says much the same thing.

The Burka was unknown outside of Pakistan prior to 1800. However, the dress, not required by the Quran, has become the Wahabist interpretation of the modesty Sura. So too, the Quranic requirement that non-Moslems submit to Moslem rule that was interpreted so broadly in Moorish Spain was interpreted, by Wahabists, to require that one convert to Islam and observe their interpretation or social laws or be cast out. Resistance to such conversion makes on an enemy of Islam, under this interpretation, and an assault against Islam requires that Moslems defend their faith, even if such defense requires the death of the attacker.

In the last 50 years, Wahabists have grown by leaps and bounds. Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with this. The House of Saud, recognizing the danger that militant Islam represents for their continued rule, made a very practical bargain with the Wahabists… “Leave Saudi Arabia and we will build schools (Madrassas) and mosques for you in other countries.” This had the duel purpose of acting as a steam-valve and creating a foothold for Saudi intelligence and security forces in other countries. This move probably preserved the kingdom. However, the cost to the world was huge.

From 1970s on, Wahabist madrassas and mosques have been preaching that the ONLY Islam is militant, culturally united, opposed the existence of separate nation states, opposed to science, opposed to democracy, and opposed to the West.

Their influence can be felt in even the most conservative Moslem voices today. Take, for example, the standards of the Saudis, the Baathists in Syria, the Khomeini in Iran, the Taliban, the Black Moslems in America, and the Moslem revolutionaries in South-East Asia. This corrupt version of Islam has been exported throughout the world at the direct behest of Saudi Arabia. But, at its root, it is an extreme version of Pakistani Wahabism.

Paul and GC are right to be concerned and they are correct to attribute the widespread anti-intellectual, violent, militant, and anti-Western actions of Islamists to the very interpretation of Islam that is being taught throughout the world. TP is right in stating that Islam, at its root, is no more “violent” than any other religion and that the violence and anger of successive generations of Moslems is being expressed through a religions prism that does not speak to the original interpretation of Islam.

The real question is… What do we do about it?

GC points out that hand-wringing and trying to understand one who sets themselves in dogged opposition to your very way of life is dangerous. Paul points out that the unchallenged religious militancy is undermining the West. TP points out that we have to understand the root causes for which Islam is the answer if we are to address the problems. Do I have your arguments right guys?

I don’t know the answer. But, let me offer a few suggestions on how we can make things better…

1. There are moderate voices in Islam, that the West keeps at arms length for fear that there is an hidden agenda. Surely we can distinguish the moderates from the extremists and give voice to the moderates. This can’t be a government action because the very act of supporting the movement will drive a wedge between the moderate movement and a people suspicious of the West. Only the media, academics, and religious leaders can lend credibility to moderate Islam.

2. Time for “Radio free Islam.” We already have a mix of, primarily, military intelligence radio-stations in Central Asia and the Middle and Near East. We need a greatly expanded program such as that which undermined Communism in Eastern Europe. Putting militant Islam in the same context as Communism (worldwide conspiracy of power-hungry, elitist, bastards for whom personal liberty is a direct affront), there is, and must be, a deep abiding hunger for freedom. NOTHING can destroy totalitarianism and despotism of the mind more than concepts of freedom. This is the soft-underbelly of the beast.

3. Spend money on countries that have been our friends. I am thinking here of Turkey, the Philippines, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Egypt. The Marshall Plan created an economic powerhouse in Central Europe that showed Communism to be a dead-end. It was impossible to look across the Wall in 1985 and not see that Communism had failed. Our starving of moderate and well-run Islamic states because they have few resources of interest to us is misguided, short cited, disloyal, and foolish. Force the Islamists to offer an economic plan and their anti-intellectual shortcomings will become painfully obvious.

4. Treat Palestine and Israel with an even hand. I hate to agree with Europe on anything, but the US has been far too dismissive of Israeli actions in the past and the concerns of Palestinian refugees worldwide. Palestinians can’t travel (passport problems), get jobs (no economic system in place except a welfare apparatus), or advance their children. This is true whether they live in Gaza, the West Bank, or are refugees in third countries. Maybe we can’t bring “peace to the Middle East,” but we CAN treat the concerns of a displaced people with even-handed respect.

5. Create a separate directorate of Middle and Near Eastern affairs within the Department of State. I don’t mean a “desk.” We already have that. I mean a director and a separate group of intelligence operatives and analysts, diplomats and economists, religious and political scholars, and humanitarian aid policy makers that can coordinate an overarching and cohesive policy in the region.

Now that I look at this post, I recognize that it is inordinately long. For our TPS community members that are better informed than I am, sorry for rehashing stuff you already know. Hopefully, for others, this post puts the problem in some kind of perspective.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?