Friday, January 8, 2010

Islamic Paradise Lost?

The other day my sister sent me one of those email chain letters. It addressed the growing threat of Islam in the world. My kneejerk response to chain letters is to delete them posthaste. However, I suppose I was curious as to whether my sister had succumbed to some wacky theory, though she's never been inclined to do so in the past. Moreover, having visited a few Muslim countries and taught a college course on the contemporary Middle East, I was mildly interested. Not knowing its provenance and not wanting to be the unwitting dupe of some Islam-hating organization, I didn’t send the message on as the author forcefully instructs readers to do.

The short cautionary essay purports to have been written by a German psychiatrist. The gist of it is that violent Islamic fundamentalism is akin to Nazi ideology and other hateful movements that have led to the murder of millions in Rwanda, Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Imperial Japan and so forth. But here's the clincher: It makes little difference whether the majority of moderate Muslims frown on terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam.

The writer puts his finger on an important insight. Well-intentioned efforts to diminish if not dismiss the threat of jihad in the world today by reminding us that the “majority of Muslims” are decent folk who don’t support terrorism is cold comfort. Why? Their passivity is tantamount to complicity. If they don’t speak out, what good does it do to be opposed to such violent tactics? Significant movements in history—and for present purposes, we’ll single out horrific events like ethnic cleansing, genocide, and bloody coups—were the result of the fanatical few, not the complacent many. To the chagrin of those on the hard right, President Bush didn’t waste much time after 911 declaring Islam to be a peaceful religion. This public statement was necessary statecraft and probably saved some lives. (If memory serves, only one individual, a Sikh (!) in Arizona, lost his life in a direct act of "retribution" for the September hijackings. Remember that we're a nation of 300 million people.) But if the writer of this chain letter is correct, such sentiments, however true, do not offer solace. A handful of fanatics, like Lenin's trained revolutionaries in the early 20th century, can bring down the whole house of cards.

Why are there so few Muslim voices crying out in the wilderness? Fear is part of it, and maybe a big part of it. Daring souls who speak out suffer ostracism, harrassment, or worse, depending on the region or country. But in addition to fear, Al-Qaeda’s actions and goals, I suspect, resonate with many putative moderates. Mainstream Muslims don't advocate the use of IEDs, the beheadings of Western contractors, or the destruction of Israel; but many, arguably, do feel that a bit of Islamic comeuppance might be in order, what with the long history of Western hegemony and European colonialism.

The late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, in his oft-cited 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, suggested that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was merely a respite from a larger conflict (or set of conflicts) in which religious and cultural fault lines would come to the fore. The latter, after all, was a struggle between two European ideologies—Marxism and capitalism—that lasted seventy years or so, holding at bay, temporarily, a wider, more deeply-rooted conflict in the making, one that has its origins over a millennium ago. With 911, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the supposed clash of  civilizations began in earnest.

Huntington wasn’t exactly predicting a New Crusade between the West and the Islamic World, but that’s what Usama bin Laden, Al-Zahiri and others of their ilk precisely wanted. Al-Qaeda was hoping to spark the flames of a major conflagration. So far, fortunately, his hope has not come to fruition. (By the way, do you ever notice “civil liberties” arguments against better national security measures—like profiling or a military tribunal—presume an omniscient Bin Laden, as if every response we could take to protect ourselves is exactly what Al-Qaeda wants: no matter what we do we’re playing into their hands.)  Why did they think (and no doubt still think) they could pull this off?

Today many Muslims in the Middle East hearken back to a so-called “golden age” in their history. From the days of Muhammad until the Crusades the Islamic world enjoyed a cultural sophistication and military predominance that did not yet distinguish Europe. The arts flourished, prominent scientists and philosophers abounded, and architecture and court life were the envy of foreign emissaries. Under the Umayyad Empire, which Syrian rulers established at the expense of pan-Islamic unity, Arabs had conquered territory from Persia to Spain. By the late 8th century the Umayyads gave way to the Abbasids, a dynasty that carried on the Islamic banner in a vast, multicultural empire that would bring the faith to Turks, Persians, and other ethnic groups. The early Abbasid Empire, centered at the new city of Baghdad, marked the zenith of Islamic civilization for many Muslims today. The 9th-century court of Harun al-Rashid, the “Islamic Charlemagne” and great patron of the arts, was exemplary of this golden period. Later, European thinkers no less than Thomas Aquinas were discovering and reading the corpus of ancient Greek philosophical texts through the filter of Arab commentators.

In a series of catastrophic incursions on the part of Christian knights, Mongol warriors, and Turkic invaders the Islamic civilization fragmented and declined. By the late Middle Ages, Europe was beginning its gradual ascent towards global hegemony. The so-called Gunpowder Empires in Anatolia, Persia, and Northern India provided a last gasp of political might and military muscle in the Islamic world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, Western European states, thanks in no small part to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, possessed a technological edge and concomitant military superiority increasingly unmatched by non-western empires.

The “myth of the golden age” is not particular to Muslims. After all, Christians since the Reformation have sought to return to an alleged pristine early church that had flourished before the corrupt cultural accretions and political machinations of an episcopal hierarchy had set in. Americans don’t yet know what it’s like to live in a culture whose glory passed centuries ago. The French are still smarting over the fact that their once-great empire has collapsed and they now find themselves in an Anglo-American world. Some contemporary Middle Easterners, most notably violent groups like al Qaeda, look longingly to a lost paradise as much as they despise Western meddling in the region. Were those bygone centuries so paradisiacal?