Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Arab Civilization, Democracy and the West

Via RCP, which adapts the article from a lecture given by the Western world's pre-eminent Islamic scholar, Dr. Bernard Lewis. On personal note, this is likely to be by far my longest post to date, much of it the good professor's words, but he is far more illustrative than I. The lecture covers trends on Arab civilization, history and government, and the implications of recent events. Among the initial pearls of wisdom, the two "Western" views of Arab civilization:

"If you look at the current literature, you will find two views common in the United States and Europe. One of them holds that Islamic peoples are incapable of decent, civilized government. Whatever the West does, Muslims will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. Therefore the aim of our foreign policy should be to insure that they are our tyrants rather than someone else's--friendly rather than hostile tyrants. This point of view is very much favored in departments of state and foreign offices and is generally known, rather surprisingly, as the "pro-Arab" view. It is, of course, in no sense pro-Arab. (emphasis mine-Kal) It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future. The second common view is that Arab ways are different from our ways. They must be allowed to develop in accordance with their cultural principles, but it is possible for them--as for anyone else, anywhere in the world, with discreet help from outside and most specifically from the United States--to develop democratic institutions of a kind. This view is known as the "imperialist" view and has been vigorously denounced and condemned as such."

He goes on to point out that the traditional Islamic civilization is nothing like the one we face today. The rulers of the Ottoman Turks and other earlier Islamic societies were not by any means dictatorial autocrats, as their rule was limited to a certain extent and consultative with other elements of society. This began to change first with modernization as a response to interaction with the industrializing West. Rule became more centralized, state-oriented, and resulted in the unintentional decay of the traditional mitigating social elements.

"These rulers decided that what they had to do was to modernize or Westernize. Their intentions were good, but the consequences were often disastrous. What they did was to increase the power of the state and the ruler enormously by placing at his disposal the whole modern apparatus of control, repression and indoctrination. At the same time, which was even worse, they limited or destroyed those forces in the traditional society that had previously limited the autocracy of the ruler. In the traditional society there were established orders-the bazaar merchants, the scribes, the guilds, the country gentry, the military establishment, the religious establishment, and so on. These were powerful groups in society, whose heads were not appointed by the ruler but arose from within the groups. And no sultan, however powerful, could do much without maintaining some relationship with these different orders in society. This is not democracy as we currently use that word, but it is certainly limited, responsible government. And the system worked. Modernization ended that. A new ruling class emerged, ruling from the center and using the apparatus of the state for its purposes."

Things dissolved yet further over the last century. After WWI, the French took control of Lebanon and Syria after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. After the French surrender in 1940, the Levant stayed under the control of the French Vichy regime, opening the area to Nazi influence. After the war concluded, the Soviets stepped in to support the new Arab regimes as part of the Cold War against the West. This was the beginning of the modern Baathist movement, which still controls Syria and was in control of Iraq until the American invasion.

"The governor and his high officials in the administration in Syria-Lebanon took their orders from Vichy, which in turn took orders from Berlin. The Nazis moved in, made a tremendous propaganda effort, and were even able to move from Syria eastwards into Iraq and for a while set up a pro-Nazi, fascist regime. It was in this period that political parties were formed that were the nucleus of what later became the Baath Party. The Western Allies eventually drove the Nazis out of the Middle East and suppressed these organizations. But the war ended in 1945, and the Allies left. A few years later the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and various other countries, and introduced Soviet-style political practice. The adaptation from the Nazi model to the communist model was very simple and easy, requiring only a few minor adjustments, and it proceeded pretty well. That is the origin of the Baath Party and of the kind of governments that we have been confronting in the Middle East in recent years. "

Here's the kicker. As Islamic civilization began to realize it had undergone a unpleasant transformation out of touch with its traditonal cultural values, it searched for a reawakening of those values. One of the first of these revivals blamed the West for introducing "un-Islamic" elements into society, and proposed that only a return to a pure, original form of Islam would allow a return to the days of glory where Islamic civilization was feared and respected the world over. This movement is called Wahabbinism, which has little to do with original Islamic thought.

"That there has been a break with the past is a fact of which Arabs and Muslims themselves are keenly and painfully aware, and they have tried to do something about it. It is in this context that we observe a series of movements that could be described as an Islamic revival or reawakening. The first of these--founded by a theologian called Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in a remote area of Najd in desert Arabia--is known as Wahhabi. Its argument is that the root of Arab-Islamic troubles lies in following the ways of the infidel. The Islamic world, it holds, has abandoned the true faith that God gave it through His prophet and His holy book, and the remedy is a return to pure, original Islam. This pure, original Islam is, of course--as is usual in such situations--a new invention with little connection to Islam as it existed in its earlier stages."
History takes another unfortunate turn in whihc groups subscribe to these ideals. One of the first adherents to this movement was the once-obscure group of Bedouin chiefs that gained control of the Islamic Holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the 1920's -- the House of Saud, which around the same time, found itself on a huge pool of an unmatched mineral energy resource -- oil. With control over both the holy cities and the unmatched wealth brought to them by their oil, the Saudis have exported their version of Islam, with all its unpleasant intolerance for other beliefs and cultural insularity, to a neighborhood that just might be near yours.

"As a result, what would otherwise have been a lunatic fringe in a marginal country became a major force in the world of Islam. And it has continued as a major force to the present day, operating through the Saudi government and through a whole series of non-governmental organizations. What is worse, its influence spreads far beyond the region. When Muslims living in Chicago or Los Angeles or Birmingham or Hamburg want to give their children some grounding in their faith and culture--a very natural, very normal thing--they turn to the traditional resources for such purposes: evening classes, weekend schools, holiday camps and the like. The problem is that these are now overwhelmingly funded and therefore controlled by the Wahhabis, and the version of Islam that they teach is the Wahhabi version, which has thus become a major force in Muslim immigrant communities."

The second major Islamic revival Dr. Lewis refers to is the Iranian Revolution. It has had a prodigious impact on the Islamic world, despite the country being Shiite, changing not only the political order in that country, but the social, ideological and economic order as well. There are very apt comparisons between the Iranian Russian, and French revolutions, such as the internal conflict between the moderates and extremists, but the Iranian one now appears to be reaching its Stalinist phase.

The third revival has been the rise of Al-Qaeda and the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the West, we think of that defeat in terms of the Cold War, and view it as our own victory. In the Islamic world, they view that victory as their own, purchased with their blood and sacrifice. And in many ways, they are probably as correct as we are in claiming it. Al-Qaeda's view of that victory is just one of many in the ebb and flow of the battle between the the Christian West and the world of Islam. The professor quotes Osama bin Lade: "In this final phase of the ongoing struggle, the world of the infidels was divided between two superpowers--the United States and the Soviet Union. Now we have defeated and destroyed the more difficult and the more dangerous of the two. Dealing with the pampered and effeminate Americans will be easy." Of course, they were referring to the numerous "defeats" suffered by the Americans and the West in general over the course of the last 30 years. After Beirut, Somalia, the Cole bombing, etc., we never struck back. This was seen as weakness and timidity, prestaging the final triumph of Islam over its enemy. The response delivered after 9/11 was both unintended and unforeseen, but they view that response as being out of the norm, and only delaying their inevitable victory.

"What happened on 9/11 was seen by its perpetrators and sponsors as the culmination of the previous phase and the inauguration of the next phase--taking the war into the enemy camp to achieve final victory. The response to 9/11 came as a nasty surprise. They were expecting more of the same--bleating and apologies--instead of which they got a vigorous reaction, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq......But if one follows the discourse, one can see that the debate in this country since then has caused many of the perpetrators and sponsors to return to their previous diagnosis. Because remember, they have no experience, and therefore no understanding, of the free debate of an open society. What we see as free debate, they see as weakness, fear and division. Thus they prepare for the final victory, the final triumph and the final Jihad."

Dr. Lewis concludes with some thoughts on freedom and democracy. He points out that all democratic societies develop in their own ways, with their own distinct institutions, and at their own pace. There are some postive signs in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East that give some hope for a better future in the region. It is by no means a foregone conclusion, there is sure to be pain and suffering for some time, but these issues are still not decided yet by any means, positively or negatively. Ironically enough, the nations whose rulers most oppose the United States most likely have the citizens with the most positive view of America and the West.

"And there are encouraging signs at the present moment--what happened in Iraq, for example, with millions of Iraqis willing to stand in line to vote, knowing that they were risking their lives, is a quite extraordinary achievement. It shows great courage, great resolution. Don't be misled by what you read in the media about Iraq. The situation is certainly not good, but there are redeeming features in it. The battle isn't over. It's still very difficult. There are still many major problems to overcome. There is a bitter anti-Western feeling which derives partly and increasingly from our support for what they see as tyrannies ruling over them. It's interesting that pro-American feeling is strongest in countries with anti-American governments. I've been told repeatedly by Iranians that there is no country in the world where pro-American feeling is stronger, deeper and more widespread than Iran."

He concludes his comments with both a warning and what is in some ways a call to action. We have to face the facts, and they are that we can either stay the course, help our allies or potential allies in the area, and conceptually, materially, and forthrightly build a future together against the darkness with no wavering or vacillation, or watch the downfall of both Western civilization, with all its wonders, and Islamic society as well. It is likely to be a long fight, and whomever has the most determination may determine the victor. It isn't clear it will be us.

"The outlook at the moment is, I would say, very mixed. I think that the cause of developing free institutions--along their lines, not ours--is possible. One can see signs of its beginning in some countries. At the same time, the forces working against it are very powerful and well entrenched. And one of the greatest dangers is that on their side, they are firm and convinced and resolute. Whereas on our side, we are weak and undecided and irresolute. And in such a combat, it is not difficult to see which side will prevail. I think that the effort is difficult and the outcome uncertain, but I think the effort must be made. Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us."

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