By Bassam M. Madany
As of September 11, 2001, our lives have changed in many ways. Not since the early years of the 19th century has the territory of the United States been attacked by foreigners. On that fateful day, Islamist* terrorists “raided” New York City and Washington. They succeeded in disrupting life in America, as well as all over the world. The human and economic toll is staggering.
Prior to the October 7 response of the USA and the UK to the terrorist attack, the media had concentrated on the planning and the methods used by the terrorists in their war against America. The federal authorities worked hard to convince the public to resume normal activities. Much as we would like to return to some type of normalcy, several questions still haunt us. How did the terrorists manage to conceal their demonic plot for so long, and then bring it to pass? An equally crucial question must be asked. Is this war simply between the Islamists and the West? Or, are there more parties to the conflict?
Actually, a fierce battle has been taking place for some time among Muslims themselves. The moderates, (those who are willing to co-exist and interact with the world outside Islam,) have been at war with the Islamists. The latter are utopian Muslims whose vision is to re-create a world Islamic order, an order that existed between 632 AD and 1918 AD, under the Caliphates of the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans.
Back in 1995, I read a review of a doctoral thesis submitted to the Sorbonne in Paris. The review appeared in Al-Ahram, a daily Arabic- language newspaper published in Cairo, Egypt. The review’s title was: “Religious Radicalism and the Dilemma of Democracy in the Muslim World.” At that time, I wrote these comments:
“Over the years, I have developed a great interest in the writing of moderate Arab/Muslim intellectuals. Among them was the Egyptian scholar, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahfoudh. He authored several books dealing with the renewal and modernization” of the Arab/Muslim mind. He warned against the influence of the radicals whose agenda was to resurrect the Caliphate and rid the Muslim world of the ‘evil’ influences of the West. Their vision is dangerously utopian. Any attempt to realize it, would have disastrous consequences. It is both the duty and responsibility of moderate Muslims to offer an alternative program that would allow the Muslim nations to co- exist peacefully with the global technological civilization that will dominate the next century.”
That was what I wrote several years ago. But in the aftermath of “9-11-01,” I must admit that moderate Muslims have not done their job. I decided to revisit my translation of “Religious Radicalism and the Dilemma of Democracy in the Muslim World,” and see if I can find some helpful lessons as we enter another turbulent period in world history.
Here are some relevant excerpts from the review article:
“In the first part of the doctoral thesis, the author described the intellectual confrontation that is going on between the Islamists and their opponents. He explained the historical roots of radical Islamic thought in Ibn Hanbal**, and others. He shed light on the indirect role played by Al-Ghazzali***. In spite of his relative moderation, he brought about the downfall of the rational and dialectical Islamic school of the Mu’tazilites****. Eventually, that led to the rise of a rigid Fundamentalism. The impression arose among Muslims that this fundamentalist outlook or thought, was the sole representative of authentic Islam.
“The second part of the thesis dealt with the economic, democratic, political, educational, and psychological factors that have contributed to the rise of religious radicalism. The author discussed the points of difference that distinguish the Islamists on the one hand, from what he calls, the others, who happen to be the majority of Muslims.
“At the conclusion of the study, the author offered a detailed program for a historical solution that would allow the Islamic world to transcend its present confrontational situation. On the other hand, should this radical drift towards extremism continue, that would lead to some terrible consequences in the Muslim world in the next century.”
This much was from the reviewer’s analysis. Here are some direct quotations from the doctoral thesis:
“There is an ideological vacuum that must be filled. The protagonists of a truly Islamic agenda lack a specific political and economic program. But their mere mention of an Islamic program is sufficient to attract and hold the attention of the masses.
“There is one possible solution. We must convince people in general, and the Islamists in particular, that basically the problem is not between Muslims and unbelievers, but between “Muslims” who are the vast majority of the population, and radical Islamists. Should we fail to reformulate the problem as just stated, the Islamists would continue to enjoy a unique opportunity to attract more adherents to their side. They are fully convinced that they are engaged in a confrontation with unbelievers even though it is other Muslims, and not infidels, who are challenging them.”
The events of September 2001 prove that moderate Muslims have failed. Here are some reasons for their failure.
Late in the 19th century and throughout the first half of the 20th century, Arab nationalism was in the ascendancy due to the impact of Western culture, which was brought to the Middle East by France and Britain. The collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in the aftermath of the First World War brought European colonialism to the Middle East. Nationalism became the means for the Muslim majorities and the Eastern Christian minorities to achieve their independence from Britain and France.
Soon after independence, the Middle East was jolted by the birth of Israel on 15 May 1948. Military dictatorships took over power from the ‘parliamentarian’ regimes that had been bequeathed by the former colonial powers. These visionary and inexperienced ‘colonels’ looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration as they attempted to modernize their societies and to defeat Israel. This dream was shattered in the 1967 June war. Socialism proved bankrupt. Islamic Fundamentalism was reborn as a result of the Defeat.
After the death of Colonel Nasser, Anwar Sadat succeeded him. He adopted a policy of “opening” to the West, while discarding every sort of socialist program that was adopted by his predecessor. He had the courage to sign a peace treaty with Israel. He did not live long after that. Radical Islamists within the Egyptian Army assassinated him ten years later, and declared war on every leader in the Muslim world that would dare to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Fearful of meeting a similar end like Anwar Sadat, Arab and Muslim rulers began to appease the militants. When some intellectuals dared to challenge the Islamists, their fate was sealed. They died at the hand of an assassin’s bullet. The moderates were silenced. Moderate governments could not or did not rein in the Islamists.
What kind of a world awaits us in this first decade of the 21st century?
Based on my study of Arabic and Western sources, I conclude that the forecast is for very “turbulent” times. Unless we succeed in convincing the present leaders of the Muslim world to adopt measures that would benefit the masses and at the same time curb the activities of the radicals, the future for our world is extremely dark.
And how do we convince the leaders of the Muslim World to work hard so that the drift toward global terrorism is brought to an end?
Let me offer my “Modest Proposal.”
The leaders of the Western nations should call a conference (outside the auspices of the UNO) to deal with the current state of global disorder. The following states should be invited:
The United Sates, Western Europe, Russia, India and China, plus the forty Muslim States
The agenda for the conference should be: The Peaceful Coexistence of Islam with the Rest of the World.
The agenda should deal with the urgent needs of the Islamic world. They are: lack of water resources, weak agricultural output, desertification, population explosion (doubling every twenty years), and the inadequacy of reliance on one major source of income such as oil.
The leaders of the Muslim states should realize that the end of colonialism has brought a new era of globalism. No empire can be resurrected from the past. Muslim states, as well as the nations of the Rest, must recognize that we all live in an age of interdependence. We need one another. We have global problems that require global solutions.
We recognize that it is very hard for Muslims, whose religion has always had a political component, to relinquish the dream of founding another great Islamic empire. In the past, they conquered vast areas of Europe, Africa and Asia. It is not easy to ask Muslims to jettison any notion of resurrecting their past glory. But they must. The task before world leaders today is to speak honestly and openly with one another. During the Cold War, the world managed to avoid nuclear catastrophe. In the Post Cold War era, unless the Rest can convince the leaders of the Muslim World to do their utmost to outlaw and disarm the Islamists, the future for all concerned would be too grim to contemplate. The goal of the Marxists of the 20th century was to create an earthly paradise. They failed. The goal of the Islamists is to bring about a perfect world order. This is extremely dangerous. They resort to awful measures of destruction as their worldview contains a supernatural element that promises an after-death paradise of bliss and unending pleasure. This utopian dream allows them to perpetrate unimaginable acts of violence. This is why they are so utterly dangerous!
*Islamist is the new name for the radical Muslims, a name current both in Arabic and in European languages.
** Ibn Hanbal: (780-855) Founder of the fourth Sunni School for the interpretation of the Shari’ah Law of Islam. His school is the most conservative one. The Wahhabi school regards Imam ibn Hanbal as their spiritual leader. Wahhabism arose in the central parts of Arabia under the leadership of Abdel-Wahhab (1703-1792) and eventually became the official Islamic “school” observed in Saudi Arabia.
*** Al-Ghazzali: A Muslim theologian (d. 1111) who is responsible for the “closing of the door of Ijtihad,” i.e., for ending theological discussions in Islam.
**** Mu’tazilites: Members of a Muslim intellectual movement in Baghdad during the 800s. They advocated a tolerant approach to religious matters.