Moderate Islam or Secularization?
Scholarly journals generally discuss, not fundamentalist Islam, but what they call an Islamic Revival. This suggests that Islam has, to some extent, waned. Indeed, if we go back fifty years, the dominant cultural influences were secular: socialism and nationalism. Islam was disparaged as a force holding back Arab and other nominally-Islamic nations. In each country, the exact relationship of secularism and religion varied. Turkey’s secularization came close to Europe’s (at least officially). Iran was undergoing a similar secularization process under the Shah. In many Arab countries, Islam was accorded perfunctory respect but privately it was disparaged. In Iraq, according to one source, there were one million Communists in the 1950s – not exactly a religious friendly movement. In Afghanistan, 5th column communists actually gained power two years before requesting Soviet military intervention. The failure of the collectivist road to secularism was the motivation for the Islam Revival in the last 30 years.
What was the religious practice before the revival? Islam, like Orthodox Christianity, had stagnated for several centuries. Drained of any intellectual innovation, both became heavily ritualistic and rote with faint memories of past glory. An astute social commentator, 80 years ago, compared the practices of the monotheistic religions and saw vast differences between Western Christianity and the Eastern religions of Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity. Islam is declared “dead,” “nothing more than a ritual,” “offer[s] nothing to the mind,” “despiritualized,” full of “legal forms and external rule.” (Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, p 370, Liberty Classics) Other authors came to similar conclusions.
The center of Islam was the Caliphate in Turkey. Ataturk, transformed Turkey, by blood and iron, into a secular society. By abolishing the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, he brought an end to this 1300 years old institution. This would have been the equivalent of Mussolini closing the Vatican. The other major example of near-complete religious suppression is the Bolshevik elimination of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. In both cases spiritually-dormant religions were pushed aside and discarded. Compare that to the vibrancy of Catholicism in communist Poland!
The revival of Islam started with the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt and an obscure Arabian family who happened to be sitting on top of the world’s greatest reserve of oil. After the Brotherhood was driven from Egypt, the Saudi family welcomed them with open arms. Many found gainful employment in Saudi universities. The ideological architect of the Islamic Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, was killed by the Egyptian government but his brother, Mohammad Qutb taught in the university at Medina and his star pupil, Osama bin Laden, put his teachings into practice. The Saudi oil wealth enabled the establishment of a world-wide network of educational institutions. Soon, Muslims everywhere were learning about Islam as Mohammad practiced it – Salafi or original Islam.
Our ignorance of the practice of Islam leaves us unprepared and the dream of a moderate Islam causes undue hesitation as we seek to avoid offense. We are easily manipulated. At the start of the Afghan campaign, we were warned about dire consequences if we continued the war during Ramadan and seriously considered postponing combat. One such warning came from our “friend” Musharraf. However, as any student of Middle East history can attest, Arabs call the Yom Kippur War the Ramadan War because they initiated aggression against Israel during Ramadan. Incidentally, it was financed by the ultra religious Saudi government. In another recent example, we are told that our disrespect for the Koran has inflamed Muslim hatred. But Mark Steyn explodes that myth (hat tip: Social Sense). Our apologetics plays right into the hands of the Islamists who boast of Islam’s power to elicit respect from its enemies. The examples of blunders like this are endless.
Islam is the root cause of the Jihadist’s war against America (and against all non-Muslims). Not only do we fail to understand this motivation but we mistakenly praise the religion. In an attempt to encourage a “moderate” Islam we have embarked on a “self-esteem” inducing regimen where we continually praise the “true” Islam that’s been “hijacked” by the “evil ones.” Similar to the failed “make them feel good first” educational techniques ubiquitous in primary education, our policy is to make them feel good about Islam first in the hopes that they’ll invent and practice a “good” Islam later. As we soothingly say “good Muslims,” they act out in violent fits. Our co-dependent-like response – i.e. reassurance that they don’t really support those extremists (and here’s some more foreign aid) – only encourages more bad behavior. This is part of the “Oslo Syndrome.”
While we’ve imagined a vigorous and deep-rooted practice far in excess of the reality, the left errs in the opposite direction. Quick to deny the power of religion and to look for economic “root causes,” the left has been taken by surprise. Edward Said, Columbia University professor and Palestinian terrorist, wrote the book that changed Middle East Studies in 1978: Orientalism. The eminent scholar, Martin Kramer, explains how Said embarrassingly dismissed, in his usual sarcastic manner, Western writers that see Islam as a potent social force. I say embarrassingly because in 1979, Khomeini rose to power in Iran. However wrong Said and other leftists were, they could deny Islam’s power precisely because the revival was building steam under the surface. The secular-nationalist-socialist forces were taken for granted even if they were rotten at the core.
Can Islamic countries become open to a more rational liberal secularism? Yes, I believe so but more importantly, what would it take? Before we consider that we should examine the case for a moderate Islam for comparison as it is the current default in the minds of our policy makers. That will be left for a future article.