Interesting, from The Times

Discussion in 'Politics' started by LRD, Apr 29, 2004.

  1. LRD


    Islam and the West: Why it needn't be war
    By Peter Watson
    Is bloody conflict inevitable between Islamic fundamentalism and the West? No, says our correspondent — because Islam has a long tradition of modernisers willing to embrace Western thought, and we should be encouraging their successors

    WHETHER IT IS Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, or Abu Hamza in Britain, barely a day goes by without an Islamic religious leader making news. This week the Saudis announced a plan for British children to be taken to the Middle East so that their understanding of Islam could be improved.
    It is the religious element as much as the descent into violence associated with militant Islam that makes us in Britain and the West uneasy. While I have no wish to give offence (though that may be unavoidable), the constant presence of religious figures in a frankly political context seems a backward step, a return to an earlier set of arguments and arrangements that we thought (and hoped) had gone for ever. It is surely this, as much as anything, that gives credence to Samuel Huntington’s theory that we are in the middle of a clash of civilisations.

    If Islam and the West are fundamentally different, irreconcilable, the future is bleak for all of us. It is, therefore, high time that we in the West raised our game and challenged the ayatollahs and imams and mullahs to a proper intellectual debate about the nature of Islam. To listen to most people talk — the imams as much as anyone — what Islam stands for is a return to medieval times, to Baghdad’s golden age in the 9th and 10th centuries, when Muslims led the world in scholarship, science, medicine, international trade and so much else. It is as if the intervening centuries had never occurred, as if Islam had no intellectual life, no innovation, no evolution or development worth the name since the Middle Ages. Figures as diverse as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Kilroy-Silk have endorsed this view.

    It won’t do. It plays into the clerics’ hands, making it seem as though there is no alternative to their brand of orthodoxy. In fact, there is a very definite, much more positive, alternative and it is time we in the West informed ourselves of this. It may be the only way forward.

    In many Muslim countries today most people would like to get to grips with modernity, rather than return to stifling orthodoxy. We in the West should help them: in the first place by informing ourselves of what has been tried in the past, what succeeded and what didn’t, what is possible and what isn’t, as an intellectual counterweight to the imams and ayatollahs who argue that they alone know the way forward. We in the West must do all we can to bring about this alternative world, beginning in Iraq, where the constitution is far from settled.

    First we need to know what this alternative world is. As with so much else in the history of ideas, Islamic modernism began with a war. Until the mid-19th century the Islamic world had generally taken the view that, military matters apart, it had little to learn from the infidel. What changed things was the Crimean War — the first in which a Muslim country, Turkey, and two Christian countries, France and Britain, joined forces against a Christian opposition, Russia. As a result of the intimate co-operation that this entailed, and because religion for once was not the issue, Muslims discovered that there was a huge amount they could learn and benefit from Europe: not just about weapons and fighting, which had always attracted them, but in other walks of life too.

    The three most influential Islamic modernists were Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani of Iran (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh of Egypt (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), who was born in Lebanon but spent most of his adult life in Egypt. Al-Afghani’s main message was that European success was due to its science and its laws, and that these were derived from Ancient Greece and India (ie, the West had been successful partly by absorbing ideas from elsewhere). “There is no end or limit to science,” he said. “Science rules the world.” (This was in 1882.) “There was, is and will be no ruler in the world but science.”

    Muhammad Abduh also studied in Paris, where he produced a journal which agitated against imperialism but also called for religious reform. Back in Egypt he became a judge and campaigned for the education of girls and for secular laws beyond Sharia.

    Politics, Abduh insisted, should be determined by circumstances, not by doctrine. He argued for legal reform in Egypt, for clear simple laws, avoiding what he called the “ambiguity” of the Koran. He wanted a civil law to govern most of life, agreed by all in a logical manner. In his legal system there was no mention of the prophet, Islam, the mosque or religion.

    Muhammad Rashid Rida was the most radical and creative of the Islamic modernists. He attended a school in Lebanon which combined modern and religious education. He spoke several European languages and studied widely among the sciences. He was close to Abduh and became his biographer. He too had his own journal which disseminated ideas about reform. In 1912 he started his own elite school to put his ideas into practice.

    Rida argued that Sharia had little or nothing to say about agriculture, industry and trade — “it is left to the experience of the people”. And yet the State, he says, consists of just this — the sciences, arts and industries, financial, administrative and military systems, essentially matters outside Sharia. The one rule to remember is “necessity permits the impermissible”.

    These three men were, then, the most adventurous and creative brains attempting to marry Islam and the West. But what did the movement they spearheaded, modernism in the Islamic world, achieve? There are five elements:
  2. LRD



    In this context that means government restricted by law, what we would call the separation of powers, with elected parliaments rather than government by kings, sheikhs or tribal leaders. The constitutionalists ignored the concept of Paradise and argued that what mattered was equality here on earth. Constitutionalist proposals were produced or passed in Egypt in 1866, Tunisia in 1861, in the Ottoman Empire in 1876 and 1908, in Iran in 1906 and again in 1909. In Afghanistan a modernist movement was suppressed in 1909. The study of Machiavelli became popular in the Islamic world, as a way to understand tyrants and despots. People even started to talk of “the constitutional countries”.


    Many Islamic scholars were persuaded by Herbert Spencer’s ideas about social Darwinism, and thought that Muslim societies were old-fashioned and would go under. They therefore urged the adoption of the Western sciences which, in particular, were to be taught in the new schools. There was a new school movement which taught religious and secular subjects side-by-side but where the aim, quite clearly, was to replace traditional religious scholars with more modern ones. Al-Afghani took the view that Man does not differ from the animals and could be studied like the animals, arguing that the fittest would survive. Abduh visited Herbert Spencer, whose book on sociology he translated. Most important, the modernists argued that laws came from human nature, from the study of the regularities of nature, and that was how God revealed himself, not through the Koran. Just such a view was behind early science in the West.


    This was an attempt to revive Islamic arts and culture, mainly by referral to what had happened in the Enlightenment in Western Europe. Here are a few examples: the tradition of hagiography was changed and became much more like modern biography; there developed a tradition of travelogues in the Arab world, writings which openly marvelled at the prosperity of Europe and America — the gas lamps, the railways and the steamships. The first plays began to appear, in Lebanon in 1847, with an adaptation of a French play, the first Urdu play was produced in India in 1853 and the first Turkish play was performed in 1859. New publications appeared, with the development of the rotary press. Algeria even had a reformist newspaper, The Critic. The critic al-Tahtawi wrote a book about Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, and about Western laws; Namik Kemal, in Turkey, translated Bacon, Condillac, Rousseau and Montesquieu.


    In the 19th century, girls’ schooling began in several Islamic countries. There were new women’s organisations in Bengal and in Russia, and an end to polygamy in India. Women’s suffrage was introduced in Azerbaijan in 1918 (before France in 1947 and Switzerland even later). In Lebanon in 1896 and in Tunisia in 1920 there were campaigns for women to be given free access to the professions.


    As was happening in the West in the 19th century, with the deconstruction of the Bible (as we would say), so the text of the Koran came under criticism. Rida was a relentless critic, and argued that its text was only a guidance, not a command. Al-Saykh Tartawi Jawhari (1870-1940) made an exegesis of the Koran in 26 volumes, based on modern science.

    The Islamic modernist movement was even more advanced at the time than it may seem now. Remember, this period — the last half of the 19th century — was exactly the time when the Catholic Church in Europe set its face implacably against modernism, science and democracy in particular, using all the power at its disposal. This was the time of papal edicts against modernism and Americanism, when the Pope declared himself infallible in matters of doctrine and sought a return to the papal monarchism of the 12th century.

    The highpoint of modernism in Islam came at much the same time as the highpoint of modernism in the West, the last decades of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. And the break came, as with so much else, as a result of the First World War.

    That disaster destroyed the faith of many in the West, including not a few Westerners themselves. It weakened for a while belief in capitalism, in liberal democracy, in science. At the same time, the Russian Revolution promoted Marxism and socialism.

    Thus it evolved that Marxism, socialism, anti-colonialism and nationalism came together to provide the Islamic world with a political admixture unique to the early 20th century. Socialism would eventually become the official political reality of several Muslim nations — Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, South Yemen, Sudan and Libya. One important aspect of this was that Marxism and socialism were secular ideas, with no place for Islam.

    Beginning in the 1920s two strands of thought developed in tandem. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, the first element in what would develop into the very militant strand of Muslim thought, although militant Islam began to make serious inroads only after the Six Day War in 1967 — which Israel won decisively and was seen in the Islamic world as proof that secularism had failed.

    Meanwhile, modernist Islam continued as an independent way of thought. The most well known of the modernisers was of course Ataturk in Turkey, and that country has benefited hugely from his vision.

    These two rival traditions are alive today in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Abdullah advocates rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims and legitimising secularism, women’s rights and the rest, while his brother Nayef, the Interior Minister, favours Islamic radicalism and Wahhabist monotheism, whose followers believe that Christians, Jews and Shia form a grand conspiracy to destroy true Islam.

    But the man really making the running today in Islamic modernism is another Saudi, a former imam, who himself trained as a jihadi and was jailed for firebombing the most popular video store in Riyadh (symbol of Western decadence). Mansour al-Nogaidan is just 33 but he is the central figure in a growing group. Having been a militant religious, he underwent a change of heart during one of the six times he has been in prison, when he started reading Western philosophy, beginning with Thomas Carlyle. Doubts crept into his faith and then, as he says, “it took on a logic of its own”, leading to, among other destinations, Nietzsche and Jurgen Habermas.

    At first he was ashamed of the changes taking place inside his head, but after September 11 he could no longer keep his feelings to himself and began writing in the Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh (where he is now a columnist). He blames the severe orthodoxy of the Wahabbi sect for the backwardness of Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. His growing familiarity with Western literature, music, art and thinking in general has, he says, turned his own ideas upside down. He has discovered and embraced humanism, condemns fundamentalists — of the kind he once was — as breeders of terrorists, and has called for full democracy in Saudi Arabia. He favours personal interpretation of the Koran, much as Luther (whom he much admires) favoured personal interpretation of the Bible, without the intercession of clerics.

    For his pains he has been banned from writing and on one occasion received 75 lashes of the whip. He is still routinely threatened with death, over the phone or by e-mail. But so far he survives and that is what counts. Mansour is as important for the intellectual journey he has already made as for his very existence. For if he and the group around him can go from militant Islam to modernism in less than a decade (five years in his case), anyone can, and the situation we all face is not as bleak as it seems.

    Think of all the Muslims who live in the West, successfully combining their faith with democracy, science, the institutions of a secular world. People such as the deputy head of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, who is a devout Muslim born in Algeria yet manages a medical budget of $17 billion without any problems. There are millions of such people.

    Mansour is just one individual but he is not as isolated as he must feel on his now-regular forays into prison. He stands in a 150-year tradition of modernist thinkers that the imams and ayatollahs would like to go away. He is proof that the modernist tradition is not dead, just under-reported. We in the West need to inform ourselves about this tradition and do all in our power to encourage and nurture the modernists. The Muslim mind is not as closed as it sometimes looks.

    Peter Watson is the author of A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. His history of ideas will be published early next year.