The New York Times, September 16, 2005
Of the many questions surrounding Egypt’s presidential elections last week – Were opposition candidates unfairly removed from the ballot? Did the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak cheat at the polls? – a more general query has gone largely unmentioned: Did this election, or the other recent democratic experiments in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, really further American aims in the Muslim world?
The answer is troubling. The post- 9/11 prevailing wisdom has held that military force and exporting democracy are the West’s twin weapons against terrorism. Islamic fundamentalism is the product of a “medieval” mindset, we are told, and if we can deliver elections to the Arab world, our enemies will cower before the spirit of the Enlightenment.
Yet the establishment of the first popularly elected governments in Iraqi and Afghan history has been followed by more suicide bombings and unabated violence. And nobody expects real change, in terms of political freedoms or human rights, any time soon in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. What are we missing?
While there is no doubt that elections are a worthy goal, we will not be able to change the Muslim world or dislodge the militancy until we gain a better understanding of the roots of the problem. While these conflicts are often painted as millennium-old, they are essentially modern phenomena, bred of postcolonial politics, social upheavals and territorial struggles.
And as we look at the causes of anti-Western jihadism, we tend to overlook one major contributing factor: the absence not just of democracy but also of grass-roots representative institutions like a free press and independent political, cultural and social-welfare institutions.
Today’s jihadists – I call them “neo-fundamentalists,” because they are a world apart from earlier fundamentalists – are not throwbacks to the crusades, nor are they, as President Bush unfortunately put it, just “a group of folks.” They are a singular and recent byproduct of decades of oppressive rule.
Yes, the Muslim world had an unfortunate introduction to post-Enlightenment ideals, which came in the context of invasion, colonialism and exploitation. But the Arab philosophical and political movement that came out of that experience was not inherently anti-Western. In fact, in traditional Islamic thought the concept of violent resistance against an unjust ruler was virtually unheard of; for classical jurists, tyranny was preferable to the anarchy that accompanies revolt.
The first wave of modern Islamic fundamentalists, which crested primarily in Egypt in the late 19th century and included such figures as the Iranian-born reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and his Egyptian disciple, Muhammad Abduh, opposed colonialism but saw no incompatibility between Islamic and Western philosophy, law or scientific method. These men called for political reform and the revival of free inquiry.
The big change did not occur until the middle of the 20th century. In states like Egypt, Iraq and Syria, colonial governments were replaced by military, Arab-nationalist, royalist or Soviet-sponsored socialist regimes. All deteriorated quickly into dictatorships, embracing the institutions of colonial subjugation.
A host of political parties and civic institutions were founded to challenge the autocrats; many combined Enlightenment concepts like public participation with Islamic ideals of popular consent and justice. Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) was not a militant revolutionary group; instead it promoted social-welfare programs, democracy and land reform on the Western model. When the mass movements became influential, however, they were answered not by reform but by persecution, ranging from the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950′s to the massacre of more than 10,000 dissidents by the dictator Hafez al-Assad in Hama, Syria, in 1982.
The story of Sayyid Qutb, the father of neo-fundamentalism, exemplifies what happened next. Qutb was an Egyptian teacher trained in the Western system. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was not his trip to America in 1948 that radicalized him. While he was shocked by some aspects of American culture, like women dancing in public, he returned to write about the importance of emulating the educational, economic and scientific achievements of the West.
BUT in the 1950′s, he was jailed and tortured for speaking out against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s autocracy, while scores of dissidents were executed. Only then did he decide that violence could be used against an unjust government. He spoke as a Muslim, but his rhetoric was grounded in Western-nationalist and leftist revolutionary principles. His call had great resonance, and thus was neo-fundamentalism born.
As persecution continued across the Arab world, the neo-fundamentalist rhetoric became more Manichean and xenophobic. With mainstream opponents silenced, ultraradicals became the loudest voices of dissent. In Egypt, for example, those who emerged from prison in the 1970′s formed militant organizations, including Al Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now chief lieutenant for Osama bin Laden. These men were not thinkers or theologians; rather, many were disillusioned Westernized professionals, former leftists and nationalists.
This new wave of fundamentalism, unlike all the others before it in the Islamic tradition, is inherently anti-intellectual and reactive; it is more reminiscent of the anarchical movements of 19th-century Russia. This “Islamism” is nihilistic, expressing a lack of faith in all political systems, in history, and in all past social developments. The jihadists justify their actions by claiming that they are returning to “pure” Islamic sources to establish a “government of God.” Of course, the paradox here is that the Koran does not lay down a mode of governance. What perhaps we in the United States do not understand is that in rejecting the status quo, these groups demonize not just the West, but mainstream Islamic culture and philosophy as well; they pose perhaps the greatest existential threat to 1,400 years of Islamic tradition.
So how does this history help us reverse the trend? It requires that we look at the jihadists not as an ancient foe, but as yet another contemporary terrorist group. Recent history – in northern India, Sri Lanka, Kurdish Turkey – has taught us that grassroots democracy and allowing the aggrieved group a public voice can be effective weapons against terrorism. A good strategy would be to support groups across the Muslim world, both secular and religious, that provide social services where the government falls short; they range from women’s rights organizations like the Union for Feminine Action in Morocco to trade groups like the Lebanese Businessmen Association.
We must foster these organizations – along with a free press and educational and cultural institutions. At the same time, our corporations should guide local entrepreneurs to promote a free market, the backbone of democracy. If anything is going to come of the neoconservative hope of making Iraq into a beacon of our values, it will be along these lines.
It is vital, however, that we not be put off from helping organizations tied to Islam – faith-based parties calling for peaceful democratic reforms are emerging across the Muslim world as the main political opposition. They are the necessary counterweights to central governments, and without them, autocratic rule, and the neo-fundamentalism that it breeds, will remain the norm.