Returning home from a journey to Arabia in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the explorer and historian Carsten Niebuhr put in at Alexandria. Once ashore, he used an instrument for surveying the landscape. Some intrigued Egyptians asked to handle it. What they then saw through the lenses was incomprehensibly upside down. Niebuhr was thrown into prison for sorcery. Some decades later, the great Richard Burton, disguised as Haj Ibrahim, was on the pilgrimage to Mecca, a city forbidden to all except Muslims to this very day. In his baggage was a compass which he hardly dared use, living in fear that its discovery would lead to his murder. Stories of the kind encapsulate what was already by then the unequal relationship between the world of Islam and the West.
Islam in the years of its triumph had conquered and colonized from Morocco to Indonesia, from Central Asia down to sub-Saharan Africa. Caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans had ruled diverse empires whose monuments were often splendid, and whose achievements in various branches of learning were lasting. In practice Muslims might war with each other, but the faithful were held to comprise a community. Precluding any possibility of power-sharing, this amalgamation of mosque and state ensured absolutism and placed all minorit- ies, whether schismatics or infidels, in a precarious position. Christians and Jews had their place in classical Muslim society as dhimmi, subjects protected by law but under a special regime of prohibitions and taxes: in modern parlance second-class citizens. In the rightful ordering of the world, Muslims could take their own supremacy for granted. They saw themselves standing against the West and its Crusades; they imagined that unbelievers were conspiring in an unrelieved hostility to Islam. Whatever Christians or Jews might actually be doing in faraway lands was of no concern. Out of predilection, pride, prejudice, ignorance, Muslims were condemning themselves to remaining outside the main intellectual developments of the rest of the world. Unawares, they would be losing control of their own history.
Niebuhr’s Egyptians were still able to feel uncritical confidence in themselves and their civilization. A few years later, Napoleon landed at Alexandria, and soon afterwards Nelson and the British sailed in pursuit. The West had arrived on Muslim soil. One or two Egyptian contemporaries chronicled these unprecedented invasions. As Bernard Lewis describes it, they showed no concern about the internal history of France or the rest of Europe. “The French had come, they stayed a while, they did various things, and they left. No one cared to ask, let alone to ascertain, why they had come and why they had left. The coming of the infidel was seen as a kind of natural disaster.”
A sequence of events was under way in which the strength of the infidels, the Europeans, generically Westerners, came to match ever more starkly the corresponding weakness of the faithful, generically Muslims. The nineteenth century was a catastrophe for Muslims. By the end of the First World War, the last two Muslim empires were shadows of themselves. Persia was a hapless pawn between Russia and Britain. Turkey managed to fight for survival in its heartland, but its former European provinces were lost and its former Arab provinces were at the disposition of the British and French, even the Italians in Libya. Of Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia alone remained nominally independent.
What was to be done about this state of affairs? Born in 1838, a Shia from Persia, and an adventurer and intriguer who worked his way into several royal courts, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani believed that he had discovered the secret of European supremacy. Muslims, he did not hesitate to say, were backward. The self-pity came from the heart. But the Europeans were nothing in themselves. In his view, “Rather it is science that everywhere manifests its greatness and power.” Acquiring science, the Muslims could catch up. Afghani captured it in a phrase: “It is amazing that it is precisely the Christians who invented Krupp’s cannons and the machine gun before the Muslims.” The analysis was incomplete: the invention of such weaponry had nothing to do with the supposed Christianity of the inventors. Science grew out of a civilization, and was not some commodity to be readily imported. But the implied course of action was clear. Afghani hoped that Islamic society would “succeed some day in breaking its bonds and marching resolutely in the path of civilization, after the manner of Western society.”
Some Muslim leaders, like the Emir Abdel Kadir in Algeria, or some of the Central Asian and Indian rulers, had organized armed resistance, but initially the masses felt strikingly little resentment at the encroachment on their society of Westerners. They seemed to have accepted that these Westerners had come, were staying a while, and were doing various things. Many fought in British or French uniforms, and sometimes against other Muslims. But it was Westerners themselves who began to insist that there was something disgraceful in their own presence in the Muslim world. This was imperialism. This was colonialism. This was exploitation. Lenin and Trotsky said so, and so did the leftists J. A. Hobson and Bernard Shaw and the Fabians, and the rightist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and increasingly countless academics in countless universities, and increasingly countless commentators in print. If the opinion- makers of the day saw Muslims as hapless pawns in the hands of greedy and powerful foreigners, how was a Muslim to react? Many could not help internalizing what they heard, and feeling ashamed. An enormous literature reveals how painful it was for Muslims to learn that in the eyes of influential Westerners they were held in contempt, and were apparently impotent to do anything about it.
The reality was complex. No doubt some Westerners, for instance soldiers in garrisons, were insular and even racist, but many more were concerned to restore an equal relationship between Muslims and Westerners. Still others were at pains to understand the people and the culture they encountered. Much Western scholarship has explored and vivified Islam. Another large literature describes qualities which Westerners particularly admired among Muslims, their human warmth, humor, poetry, manners, sense of family, respect for the old, and not least their history and religion.
From the days of Homer’s Greeks and Trojans onwards, shame has been the forerunner of hate and violence. In what anthropologists call a shame society, the acquisition of honor and its converse, the avoidance of shame, are the keys to motivation. A man cannot be reasoned out of shame; it becomes a passion which burns and consumes until such time as it is avenged. Nationalist movements were built upon this passion. British policemen used to report with surprise that nationalist demonstrators wept tears of rage, or fell down in what appeared to be fainting fits. The age of colonialism contained a guaranteed expiration date, and the Second World War brought it forward. Europeans evidently could hardly rule themselves, let alone others, and their moral authority was lost. By the middle of the twentieth century, in one Muslim country after another, nationalist leaders and movements had coalesced with the promise of regaining independence.
In the superficial sense that they seized power and initiated regimes, the nationalist leaders of the 1950s and 1960s succeeded. In some countries, for example in Indonesia, Malaysia, and sub-Saharan Africa, they seemed to have restored the rightful sense of dignity to their people. In the Arab countries, however, independence has brought neither freedom nor dignity but one-man rule secured by a single party and the military and secret police apparatus. The archetypal Arab leader remains Gamal Abdul Nasser, the undisputed leader of Egypt from 1953 till his death in 1970. What he claimed to be building was Arab socialism. What in fact he built was a second-hand totalitarian state with neither human rights, nor respect for life and property. Other Arab countries, even those that were nominally monarchies, imitated the model or deferred to it, also relying on the military and secret police apparatus. All have acquired the range of modern externals from fly-overs to weaponry, but none have thereby satisfied Afghani’s ambition to march in the path of civilization “after the manner of Western society.” The seeds of disappointment and hate are planted in the tyranny of the Arab and Muslim order.
What is the cause of this massive politi- cal and social failure? It is in part that Arab nationalism and socialism are alien ideologies internalized from European Nazism and Communism, and therefore repeats of models as bankrupt as they were violent. It is also in part because democracy and free elections and the rule of law carried the taint of the colonial powers which had introduced these novelties in the first place. And in part it is due to the Islamic tradition of absolutism now perpetuated in contemporary garb.
The United States’ involvement in the Middle East began as colonialism was ending. Its realpolitik interest lay in securing oil supplies through the “twin pillars” of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States had no objection to Arab nationalism or socialism—and at the time no real understanding of the movements. Nasser and his equivalents in Syria and Iraq were initially seen with approval as “officers in a hurry,” the assumption being that they were getting on with the necessary job of modernizing somehow “after the manner of Western society.”
Coming into existence in 1948, the state of Israel has defied regular attempts by its Arab neighbors to destroy it. Arab nationalist rulers from Nasser onwards were willing to become Soviet proxies, if that was the price to be paid for the destruction of Israel. The Middle East therefore became a prime arena of the cold war. The United States shared Israel’s human and democratic values. Without American support, Israel would still have won its wars, but at a higher cost. Victorious round after round, Israel exposed the pretensions of Arab nationalism and socialism to be maximizing power in a new glorious age. The Arab world is in an uncomfortable bind, obliging Israel to fight for survival, and then having to accept defeat on the battlefield. Centuries of Muslim stereotyping affirm that the despised and numerically insignificant Jews could never achieve such a thing on their own. To explain away the unbearable humiliation of it, a view has taken hold of the Arab and Muslim imagination that there is a malign American-Israeli imperialist nexus, nothing less than a conspiracy which represents everything to be hated and feared about the West.
The failure of Arab nationalism and socialism opened the way to political Islam. In the past, charismatic leaders have often arisen with a mission to redeem or purify Islam. In Egypt in 1928 Hassan al-Banna, a schoolmaster, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the official account, some Egyptians said to him, “We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity.” Islam was the solution. The Western way of life, al-Banna asserted, might be founded on practical and technical knowledge but it “has remained incapable of offering to men’s minds a flicker of light, a ray of hope, a grain of faith.” More dire still, the West, or as he called it, “religious and cultural imperialism,” deliberately conspired to destroy Islam. Political idiom drawn from current European ideologies fused with stereotypes set in place in the long-ago battles against Crusaders.
Another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, has popularized and glossed the mindset. Born in Cairo in 1906, he studied literature and was familiar with the English language. From 1948 to 1950 he was on a government grant to study education in the United States. As a result of this experience, he concluded that America was the source of all evil. Christianity with its notion of sin and redemption made no sense. Capitalism was “predicated on monopoly and interest-taking, money-grubbing and exploitation.” American individualism lacked “any sense of solidarity other than that laid down by the law.” Relations between the sexes particularly shocked him, and he attacked “that animal freedom which is called permissiveness.” Muslims who allowed themselves any truck with Western ideas and practices he considered were in a state of jahiliyya, that is to say, the pagan ignorance prevailing before the Prophet Muhammad’s di- vine revelation. Rebellion was their religious duty. He put this militancy into practice in Egypt, and Nasser duly had him hanged in 1966.
The clash between Arab nationalism and socialism on the one hand and political Islam on the other was bound to result in tests of strength between them, and some of these—in Egypt, in Syria, in Algeria—have been murderous on a large scale. What was essentially an issue for Arabs and Muslims to resolve among themselves became international after 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, and political Islam at last could operate at the level of a nation-state among other nation-states. Only about one in ten Muslims are Shia, and historical experience at the hands of Sunnis has reinforced their minority status and a resulting sense of persecution. Combining absolute political and religious authority, Khomeini did everything in his power to gain acceptance for the belief that America was conspiring with other unbelievers to destroy Muslims and their heritage. Quite why America would entertain so wanton and pointless an aim never concerned him. In his emotive image, the Great Satan needed no other motive but wickedness. Muslims now had official sanction to hate the United States. Islamist rhetoric raised the level of violence. One Muslim country after another sponsored terrorist groups, and several went on to develop weapons of mass destruction. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani would have appreciated that Pakistan brandishes what it likes to call “the Islamic nuclear bomb.”
The United States today is a spectacle of success and power, and the Muslim reaction to it certainly contains admiration for its achievements, its medicine and its education, and of course its freedoms. Themselves living in tyrannies, Arabs and almost all Muslims are unable to enjoy such benefits unless they are fortunate enough to acquire the talisman of the green card and can emigrate. Into the complicated emotion of hate are woven strands of envy, impotence, shame, and self-pity. Failure is increasingly and inescapably oppressive to the Muslim order. To blame others for the ills one has brought down on oneself is only human. Self-pity is always easier than self-criticism. The retreat into fantasy and conspiracy consoles, and also mobilizes.
So Osama bin Laden is able to recruit tens of thousands of Islamist volunteers, and to order a series of murders including the attacks of September 11. For this he becomes a genuine hero in his native Saudi Arabia, and crowds dance in his honor in Arab and Pakistani cities, while at the very same time the rumor spreads that Jews perpetrated the attacks to discredit Muslims. So the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the leading Sunni authority, can describe suicide bombing as “a legitimate act according to religious law, and an Islamic commandment.” So a Lebanese intellectual proudly tells a Western reporter, “We could provide a million suicide bombers in 24 hours.” Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, a leading member of the Saudi ruling dynasty and father of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, is able to say to a newspaper, “It is enough to see a number of congressmen wearing Jewish yarmulkes to explain the allegations against us.” The leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah asserts that “The Jews want to be a world power” and organizes terrorist means to attack them, while Ali Khamenei, President of Iran, calls the United States “the biggest bully in the world,” and his newspaper adds that “Bush’s culture is Hitler’s culture.” The Palestinian Sheikh Ahmad Yassin of Hamas, the Islamist terror organization, promises to eliminate Israel from the Middle East, and extremists claim that one day the United States will live under Islamic law. For an unquantifiable number of Muslims, these fantasies and conspiracies—these set-backs and putative glories—have become an identity, and their voices are now so many trumpet calls.
Merging at the emotional level as they do, Arab nationalist-socialists and Islamists generate a climate that encourages the spread of violence to everyone within reach, of all religious faiths and cultures including their own. In their origins, both ideologies purported to regain power, but in practice they have served to condemn Muslims to live outside the creativity of today’s world and so consummate loss of control over their own history. By virtue of its current political and economic pre-eminence, the United States is a symbol simultaneously of the success of people deemed to be unworthy, and of the standing failure of those held to be deserving; and so becomes the prime target of violence. To those afflicted by the haunting sense of their own limitations, the United States offers temptation and frustration in a blend which can only arouse confusion and anger. Once more, here is an incomplete analysis of reality, another failure of intellect, and it impedes all concerned from meeting on terms of equality, as though time had stood still from the day when those Egyptians had looked into Niebuhr’s surveying instrument and found that the landscape was the wrong way up.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 3, on page 20
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