Friday, December 10, 2004

A Muslim Renaissance?

Can the Power of the West Fundamentally Alter the Muslim World?

by Robert Tracinski

I have written before about how the power of the West's example—our wealth, technology, progress, and happiness, compared with the misery and stagnation the prevails in much of the world—can have a powerful impact on the rest of the world, causing them to question the traditional foundations of their society and to adopt something closer to the ideas of the West.

The news reports of the past few days have been filled with stories that suggest this is precisely what is happening. It is a movement still at a very early stage, but the fact that such a nascent movement even exists is the best hope for America's future security—and the only hope for the future of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The first report comes from the Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates reports in the Middle Eastern media into English. MEMRI has frequently reported on items in the Kuwaiti newspapers, which seem to be a minor hotbed of "progressive" Arab ideas. Much of what is said there is very intellectually confused, but these writers are at least starting to look in the right direction.

The latest MEMRI report is titled: ""Editor of Kuwaiti Daily: 'Arab Regimes Must Understand the US Administration Supports the Freedom and Rights of the Arabs'."

"The world and relations between different countries have changed beyond recognition. In some cases even the countries have changed and a new order is controlling the world. What's more the United Nations is no longer able to control the relations between different countries. All this is happening in the outside world while nothing has changed for the Arab World. We are still living in the past steeped in our age old traditions. Our traditions are the source of our concepts, however old. This has always led us to conflicts with the outside world invariably ending in defeat for us. Such defeats in turn draw us back from the path of development. If there is anything which we have to do urgently it is to correct and remedy this situation....

"We claimed President Bush will never be able to defeat Iraq and said the resistance will kick the US forces out of that country. We described terrorism, which is killing innocent people in Iraq, as 'jihad ' and expected it to win in the end because it is supported by God. To support our calculations, we recalled how the US troops were sent packing from Lebanon in the Eighties because of the resistance in that country. We fondly remembered how the Americans had to retreat from Somalia because of the resistance put up by Somalia warlords. By this way of thinking we forgot the United States has changed and the world has changed with it. The present circumstances in the world are not the same as they were during the days of the Cold War, when the USSR was a superpower in its own right.

"All of our thoughts have been answered by the second term of President Bush. The mission in Iraq will continue as in Afghanistan. The American administration has stressed it won't pull out of Iraq, unlike in Somalia and Lebanon, until it achieves its objectives and completes its mission in that country. Changing the world, strengthening relations with other countries and bringing democracy and freedom to as many countries as possible is the strategic objective of the current American administration because from the perspective of its internal security, especially the 9/11 attacks in Washington and New York, this is more important for the United States."
This fits a theme from previous, similar reports: the growing Arab fear that they are on the wrong side of history, that the rest of the world is progressing, while the Arabs, mired in their backward traditions, are left farther and farther behind.

It also underscores the way in which successful US military action will hasten and deepen this soul-searching. If the infidel Americans are not weak and decadent, but are instead the force that is reshaping the Middle East, then the Arabs definitely have to re-think their fundamental outlook on life.

Even more powerful is the recognition by some Arabs—and it is significant that much of this seems to be happening in Kuwait—that America is reshaping the Middle East for the better.

In this regard, my attention was recently drawn to a rare story—or at least, the kind of story that is rarely reported by the mainstream media—of Iraqi gratitude to the US. This is from a website that specializes in debunking myths circulated over the Internet. But this is a story they confirmed. Here it is:

"Iraqi Memorial Statue,"

"According to an article in ARNEWS, the Army News service, this eRumor is true. ARNEWS says the sculptor's name is Kalat. He was forced to fashion statues of Saddam Hussein including some that were later destroyed by US military explosives. The bronze pieces of the statues were sent to Kalat and he made the memorial using a picture of a US soldier, 1st Sgt. Glen Simpson, kneeling as a model. According to ARNEWS, Kalat worked with another artist on the Saddam Hussein statutes, but designed and fashioned the US model on his own. It's on display in Iraq and is destined to eventually be on display at Fort Hood, where it will become part of a larger memorial project at the 4th Inf. Div. museum."

[Correction: I got scammed. It turns out that the story of the Iraqi sculptor above is an urban legend after all. The sculpture exists, but the sculptor was in fact hostile to the US and worked only for the money paid to him by American soldiers. I'll add a link to the real story in the near future.—RWT]

This is not just an Arab phenomenon. The Iranian student rebellion, despite the best efforts of the Iranian theocracy to jail, torture, and intimidate its leaders, is still alive. Recently, failed pseudo-reformist Iranian president Khatami addressed a hostile student audience at Tehran University. (Cox & Forkum have a good cartoon on this.) MEMRI also carries a transcript of the confrontation, which shows the Iranian leader very much on the defensive.

"Iranian President Khatami Clashes with Reformist Students at Tehran University,", 12/9/04

"Voice: I ask the friends to be more tolerant and patient.

"Khatami: Sir, this is against the rules of democracy. What are you doing? How many people are booing? Don't make me have you removed. Behave yourselves.

"Crowd: (shouting)

"Khatami: Listen… Be patient. If people not yet in government cannot be tolerant, God forbid, what will happen once they reach the government? I believe that different views are being presented here by different people. I hope that… I hope…

"Crowd: No more lies! No more lies! No more lies! No more lies! No more lies!

"Khatami: All right… Okay, okay… You must be reasonable…"
Finally, to cap it all off, today's New York Times has a long article about a growing reform movement that seeks to alter the way in which the Muslim religion is interpreted.

Philosophically, the problem is with the Muslim religion itself—and with the essence of religion as such, with its appeals to blind, fanatical faith—not just with an "interpretation" of Islam. But remember how change came to the West, as we clawed our way out of the Dark Ages. First, it become possible to have more secular "interpretations" of Christianity—interpretations that allowed the study of such secular sources as the philosophy of Aristotle—and only later did it become possible to sideline religion more completely and to create a secular culture. (For an essentially correct summary of this pattern, see these comments from a Kuwaiti "progressive.")

Here are the beginnings of that process in the Middle East, as reported by the New York Times.

"Muslim Scholars Increasingly Debate Unholy War," New York Times, 12/10/04

"Those in the liberal trend believe that Islam, now entering its 15th century, needs to undergo a wholesale re-examination of its basic principles. Toward that end, the Cairo conference this fall recommended reviewing the roots of Islamic heritage, especially the Prophet's sayings, ending the monopoly that certain religious institutions hold over interpreting such texts and confronting all extremist religious currents. Those taking part were harshly accused of dabbling in a realm that belongs solely to the clergy, with the grand sheik of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypt's most senior religious scholar, labeling them a 'group of outcasts.'

"But Mr. Shahrour says he and an increasing number of intellectuals cannot be deterred by clerical opposition. He describes as ridiculously archaic some Hadith, or sayings, attributed to Muhammad--all assembled in nine bulky volumes some 100 years after his death and now the last word on how the faithful should live. 'It is like this now because for centuries Muslims have been told that Islam was spread by the sword, that all Arab countries and even Spain were captured by the sword and we are proud of that,' he said. 'In the minds of ordinary people, people on the street, the religion of Islam is the religion of the sword. This is the culture, and we have to change it.' "

The most radical idea here is not revamping the Muslim attitude toward physical force. It is the idea of granting secular intellectuals authority to speak on religious issues—which is to say, on moral and philosophical issues. It is the attempt to break the theocratic monopoly over the human spirit.

I do not want to be over-optimistic about this trend. We are still in the very early, embryonic days of any wide secularist movement in the Arab and Muslim worlds. These "progressives" are not well-equipped intellectually, and they are fighting against a culture that has been deeply entrenched for 1500 years. But this is a trend that is beginning—and the more the West can do to assert itself, not only militarily but also intellectually—the more progress the Muslim reformers will make toward inducting their societies into the modern world.

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