Gaping cracks in liberalism

“Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary” Clinton. And “Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister.” All the same, “liberalism is living dangerously,” and you would be wise to “hedge [your] bet” against its demise. After all, “all orders pass away.”

I was floored by these year-end thoughts of Ross Douthat, a right-wing columnist for the New York Times. Douthat has been a card-carrying apologist for liberalism. Classical liberalism, that is. The ideology that says  the right to life, liberty, property and social equality has been bestowed on us by nature. Not the “liberal” label that Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich would use to demonize Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman.

A traditionalist Catholic, Douthat resents Pope Francis’s “ostentatious humility.” He believes that the pope’s humble lifestyle and progressive words and deeds are a ruse to camouflage a “plot.” That plot is meant to recognize the remarriage of divorced Catholics, give them the sacrament of the Eucharist, and sidestep other long-established Church rules. The columnist opposes any dramatic deviation from the Catholic tradition.

For all his worries about liberalism, Douthat remains its inveterate defender. He points out, proudly, that liberalism’s past ideological rivals such as fascism and communism have failed.  So would, he predicts, the “vision of a new Islamic empire,” proclaimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS).  So would Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Stalinist nostalgia.”

What, then, is bothering him?  Why wouldn’t he bet on the survival of the liberal, capitalist system? Well, the Harvard alumnus says he sees some “cracks in the liberal order.”  What are they? The Black Lives Matter movement continues to show its “potency.”  Trump is drawing big crowds, despite his “boastful authoritarianism” and bizarre antics. Streams of Democratic voters, on the other hand, are romping and whooshing to “crypto-Marxist” Sanders’ rallies, as though mesmerized by his socialist rhetoric. More worrisome, polls are showing Americans’ “declining faith in democracy.”

The spectacle is as bleak in Europe, according to Douthat. The European Union project is wobbling from a surge of ethnic nationalism, separatism, and economic crises, especially in Greece, Hungary and Poland.   If that was not all, Angela Merkel’s decision to accept “a million Middle Eastern refugees” jangles his mind with the specter of an Islamized Europe, as envisioned in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission.

Douthat’s concerns are legitimate, except that he is rather late to recognize them.

A host of other Western intellectuals and polemicists already have. They are dismayed by the havoc the liberal capitalist order is wreaking everywhere. The top 5% of Americans are soaking up of most of the national income and wealth. The incomes of most people in the lower rungs of American society are dropping or stagnating. Families and communities are breaking down. Carbon emissions threatening the existence of the human species. And so on.

By and large, liberals seem to have become tone deaf about it. They continue to cherish in the old-line liberal mantra that you can solve the world’s problems and improve human conditions everywhere by holding on to and spreading liberal values and institutions (democracy, secularism, nationalism), and capitalist tools and processes (technology, trade, production and consumption). If free trade is costing American jobs and depressing American wages, charge ahead with it, anyway. Never mind democracy is facilitating, instead of stopping, capitalist greed and social injustices in the West. Spread it around, nonetheless. Except for a circle of sociologists and philosophers (among them Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Daniele Herview-Leger, and very lately Jurgen Habermas), most Western scholars and intellectuals are caught up in this charade.   They react to the blowbacks of what has been called the “crisis of liberalism” with clichés and canned answers from received knowledge.

Question: Why are Greek and Hungarian economies in a mess?

Answer: Well, their leaders are irresponsible and have not learned the rules of capitalism and the market economy.

Q: Why are xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia surging in Europe?

A: Europeans are scared stiff by “the invasion” Muslim workers and refugees. These Islamic reactionaries would not assimilate into their host societies and threaten to tear up the liberal order in Europe. Naturally, people are losing patience with them.

Years ago I read in a medical journal that people afflicted with terminal cancer go through several stages before reconciling with their fate. The first is the stage of denial: The prognosis can’t be right. Let us have a second opinion. It follows spasms of anger: Why me? Why couldn’t my doctors find it out before it spread?

There is no denying the fact that the Enlightenment, the harbinger of liberalism, has changed our world, mostly for the better, beyond the imagination of our ancestors. As Isiah Berlin aptly said, “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel.”  The problem is that they went a bit overboard with their mission. The mission to create a brave new world with the flawed premise of universality of rationalism. They revolted, rightly, against the abuses and corruption of the Roman Church. But they lost sight of the ennobling teachings of the Christian faith that Jesus and Paul brought to the world: humanity, compassion, community, and aversion to greed and materialism. They threw the baby out with the bath water.

The Enlightenment’s Achilles’ hill has been a basic misconception about human nature. The belief, which is credited to Rene Descartes but can be traced to Plato, is that we are all alike in our basic mindsets and style of reasoning. That our deeds and proclivities can be ascertained with the kind of scientific methods that Isaac Newton used to determine the laws of motion. This old argument has been challenged by curious minds since the dawn of ontological thinking – from Greek sophists to David Hume  to  Giambattista Vico to Richard Rorty to my friend George McClean, professor emeritus of philosophy at Catholic University in Washington. They all maintain that we are cultural products, that our thought processes and value judgment are conditioned by our cultural environment, not by any universally applicable standards. “[T]here is no such thing as a human nature, independent of culture,” as Cliffort Geertz puts it presciently.

Liberal rationalists reject this view and hold on to their a priori notion that liberal recipes for progress and fulfillment would apply everywhere.  Among the latest disasters caused by this belief and attitude was the Iraq war. The invasion of Iraq was planned by neoconservative Ph.Ds. to plant Western-style liberal democracy in Iraq’s traditional Muslim society. From there, they said, such democracy would spread to other Muslim countries.  The devastation of Iraq, loss of nearly a million Iraqi lives and the birth of ISIS have been among the outcome of this experimentation.

Liberalism is all about methods. It does not relate to the sources of realities. Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, and discovered the law of gravity. One of the most momentous, epoch-making scientific discoveries ever. Humanity will forever remain indebted to him for it. The questions that Vico would have asked the renowned physicist, and remain unanswered to this day: Why was the gravity there? Or the apple?

Our friend Douthat is worried about the “cracks” he sees in the liberal social and political model, and appears to be getting reconciled with the prospect of its demise because “all orders pass away.”

Would he ever wonder why?

Maybe we should follow up on the question another day.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

 

 

 

‘Radical Islam,’ Islam, liberalism

The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, appears to be out of sync with his commander-in-chief on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The general says ISIS is a product of “radical Islam or militant Islam,” which endangers Western societies based on liberalism.

President Obama and his administration have been protesting the linking of Islam in any form to ISIS, or any other group of Muslim terrorists.  “We are not at war with Islam,”  Obama says. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,”

Milley argues that ISIS has emerged from an Islamic “movement out there going on for 100 years.”  That movement is committed to building “an alternative way” of life to the one cherished by liberal Western societies.  “And that’s the challenge of radicals within the Muslim Allamah, from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, from the Caucuses to the Blue Nile.” The general apparently meant “ulema,” Muslim clerics and scholars; instead of “allama,” which means a scholar in Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy.

I agree, partly, with both the president and the general. They reminded me of a debate on Islam that took place years go between two of the West’s best-known scholars on Islam: Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, and Mohammed Arkoun of Sorbonne University in Paris (who died in 2010). The colloquium was hosted by the Library of Congress in Washington in its Jefferson Building meeting hall.

Lewis, an Orientalist Jew, basically argued that Muslim societies were lagging behind most of the rest of the world in human development and economic progress because of their fetish with Islam’s anti-modern values and principles. Arkoun, a French Muslim of Algerian descent, countered that economic progress was only part of what Islam was about. Islam’s core mission was to pursue social justice, he said.  Lewis retorted that Muslims had not “made much progress” in building just societies. Arkoun agreed, but reminded his interlocutor that Islamic principles were “adaptive” to Muslims’ evolving social environments. “The world,” he added, “isn’t done with Islam, I suppose.”

Lewis was right in saying that Muslims have been ignoring their faith’s prescription for pursuing social justice. Justice in Islam means not only adjudication of grievances and disputes, but also achieving or maintaining social equilibrium through fair treatment of people. Muslims have indeed been doing injustices to one another and destabilizing ordered societies since the early days of the faith. Not long after the death of Prophet Muhammad, his followers plunged into bloody succession struggles and internecine warfare. Sectarian, ethnic and tribal strife among Muslims continued, off and on, throughout Islamic history.

Yet Muslims’ struggle for justice, or against what they perceive be injustices, bursts forth in times of conflict with non-Muslim faith groups, hegemons and civilizations. Islam inherited the concept of justice from faith-based cultural patterns that evolved during the Axial Age in societies in between the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan and the Oxus River in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Axial Age spanned the 8th through the 3rd century B.C. Justice became the bedrock principle of those traditions, especially early Judaism and later early Christianity and Islam.

During the Axial Age, Middle Eastern peoples did not have a central authority or a judicial apparatus to administer justice among individuals and communities. Rules of justice administered by an omnipotent God, equipped with the tools of heaven and hell, became the most effective principle of organizing societies and maintaining peace and order. Western liberalism, Western Christianity and the Indic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism are focused on the individual – individual freedom, individual enlightenment, individual emancipation from birth cycles, etc. But monotheistic religions were founded on the principle of social justice.

While secular liberalism has replaced religion in the public spheres of the Judeo-Christian West, most Muslim societies remain anchored to principle of justice, however widely it may be flouted. The call of justice (more than that of freedom) shapes the moral standards, influences the choice of personal and social goals in most Muslims societies, and inspires Muslims into achieving those goals. Arkoun was obviously referring to this Islamic paradigm in his encounter with Lewis.

What makes the concept of justice potent in Muslims’ encounters with their non-Muslim adversaries is another seminal Islamic concept: the umma. As Milley has pointed out, the spirit of umma resonates among Muslims “from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, from the Caucasus to the … Nile.”  Umma solidarity took hold among Muslims during the early phase of their faith, when they were involved in continual conflicts with non-Muslim communities, states and empires. It revived during the Crusades, anti-colonial struggles, and many local conflicts against non-Muslims. Today the spirit of umma is fueling Muslim resistance to non-Muslim invasions, occupation and hegemony, which many Muslims consider acts of injustice.  Whether Muslim perception of these “injustices” is correct is debatable.  But the sense of injustice that has fostered solidarity among swaths of the Muslim umma against American and Western hegemons is not.

In Western and many other non-Muslim societies such solidarity is evoked by people’s allegiance to their nations. The concept of nationalism is alien to Islam. It was imported into Muslim realms (many non-Muslim ones) during the last phase of European colonialism. Political elites in these countries have since been trying to work through the institutions of nations and nation-states. But many everyday Muslims’ attachment to their religious institutions and communities remains alive, and when the crunch comes, it tends override their loyalty to their “nation-states.”  Today there are few Iraqis in Iraq: there are only Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Shiite Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, and other ethnic and sectarian communities. Similarly, Syria has few Syrians, Lebanon, few Lebanese, and so on.

Of course you would not condone, let alone support, the killing and persecution that ISIS and other Muslim terrorist organizations have carried out against innocent people. I bet you are not prepared, either, to condone or justify the slaughter of nearly 1 million Iraqis, or the horrors of Abu Gharib, which followed the unjust and uncalled for American war in Iraq. You can, too, have legitimate debates over the causes that have pitted ISIS, the Taliban and other militant Muslim groups against their foreign and domestic adversaries. Yet their bitter enmity against these adversaries is a reality. So are the sources that this enmity is feeding on.

The American president and army chief of staff have sidestepped this reality, while trying to explain the danger posed by ISIS and other Muslim terrorist groups.  They are preoccupied with military tools and strategies that Obama believes would “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

A recent editorial in the British newspaper The Independent appears to have reminded them of the folly behind this strategy. Citing the outcome of the 14-year-long multinational war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the editorial says that “the most reliable estimates indicate that the Taliban controls or heavily influences at least half of the country. As talk grows of putting ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria, we should remember where this got us in Afghanistan – nowhere.”

Islamic history and values would yield some productive ideas about dealing with ISIS or ‘radical Islam.’

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

 

 

 

Cow, crescent and star

 Published in  Middle East Policy, Washington, D.C.; December 5, 2014

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is investigating the impact of Hindu nationalism on liberal values and democratic institutions in his native India. Earlier, he conducted fieldwork on religious movements and nationalist experiments in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent as a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

LAST MONTH President Obama accepted India’s invitation to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations. He will be the first American president to do so.

I was in Kolkata (Calcutta), India’s “cultural capital” when this was announced. Most of my interlocutors there were euphoric about the news, especially the supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi, the BJP leader and prime minister, had invited the American president to the January 26, 2015, events. On that date 67 years ago, newly independent India adopted its democratic constitution.

Most Hindu nationalists in India viewed Obama’s gesture as America’s acceptance of Hindu nationalism.  I saw it as the president’s doing business with a democratically elected government that happens to be Hindu nationalist. Two years ago, the Obama administration embraced the Islamist government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who had come to power through a free and fair election. The Morsi government has since been overthrown in a military coup, and Morsi languishes in jail.

Nevertheless, secularists and liberals in the West who throw a fit on hearing the word “religious fundamentalist” or “militant” might consider following Obama’s lead on the issue. Not that we should approve of religious militants’ violence or other destructive conduct, if they engage in it. However, we need to understand the sources of their militancy and encourage their evolution into more peaceable social or political categories, and participation in the democratic process is one of the best roads to that goal. So far, though, bombing Muslim militants has been America’s and NATO’s preferred method of dealing with them, it has served only to multiply them and bolster their capabilities.

Today religious values and ethos permeate most postcolonial societies, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or others. Unfortunately, the religious upsurge also has ratcheted up interfaith hostility in many countries. The BJP is a glaring example. The party and allied Hindu nationalist organizations plan to change India’s traditionally multi-cultural society into one based on Hindu religious and cultural values. They have come a long way toward that goal, but their march has been accompanied by widespread discrimination and violence against Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, numbering around 160 million people.

Modi has long been in the vanguard of the movement to Hinduize Indian society. He was banned from visiting the United States for nearly a decade for his alleged connivance in the horrific anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Nearly 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, beaten and burned to death by Hindu mobs. The all-important question haunting many Indian minds, including mine, is whether these faith-based communal conflicts will abate. And if they do, how?

I disagree with those who fear that the new wave of religious resurgence, especially among Muslims, might lead to the kind of sectarian or interfaith bloodbaths that ravaged Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some historical records show that 35 percent of the population perished in those waves of intra-Christian militancy. But these are different times. Thanks to the spread of the Enlightenment values of freedom, tolerance and humanism, people around the world are increasingly getting used to divergent ideologies, religions and cultures. Everyday people in most countries are more tolerant of the religious or ethnic Other than they were 50 years ago.

The growing acceptance of the Other has been facilitated by globalization and the 24/7 electronic and digital interaction across countries and continents. Of course, most diehard liberals (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls them “liberal fundamentalists”) and religious militants have yet to feel the winds of pluralism and contestation with discrepant ideologies, faiths and communities. I also do not rule out further aggravation of Muslim hostility by the military aggression and political and diplomatic tutelage America and its allies are using around the Muslim world. But I see this approach running its course before too long, as its futility and backlash begin to dawn on its practitioners.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing search among intellectuals, the media and others for the sources of the what is commonly known as religious militancy and violence. A host of sociologists and social scientists has concluded that the religious pull being felt by people in postcolonial societies stems, in large measure, from their quest for dignity and authenticity. This is also fostered by their pervasive exposure to Western ideas of freedom and selfhood. Modernity’s corrosive effects on societies are another source of religious upsurge. “Modern societies,” says Daniele Hervieu-Leger, a leading French sociologist, “may corrode their traditional religious base; at one and the same time, however, these societies open up new spaces and sectors that only religion can fill.”

Postcolonial societies aren’t generally receptive to the liberal tools of mediation, elections and so on, to settle what they see as existential issues: foreign domination, preservation of religious and cultural values, and basic communal interests. Many Western societies have no qualms about waging war over lesser questions.

Liberalism, is a uniquely Western ideology; it cannot be planted holistically in most non-Western societies.  The liberal concepts of church-state separation, individualism and freedom without responsibility emerged largely as reactions to anomalies in European traditions. Those include the long and bloody religious conflicts, the church-state power struggle and the sanctity of individual property rights in the Germanic tribal cultures. Societies that were unaffected by these historical trends and experiences have mostly been inhospitable to most of the liberal values that are germane to Eurocentric civilization.

Hence most of Europe’s former colonies are modernizing, while cherishing the basic aspects of their religious and other traditions.  Peoples outside the West can, of course, profitably cultivate many of the useful institutions that have evolved from Western ideas, experience and endeavors. Indeed they have been enriching their lives and societies by embracing many of those ideas and institutions — democracy, the rule of law, scientific inquiry and so forth. But they’re doing so to the extent these pursuits can be adapted to their core religious and cultural norms.

The view that liberalism is a specifically Western ideology and that aspects of it will not work in many non-Western societies, is shared, to different degrees, by a growing number of sociologists, philosophers and historians. Among them are Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Karen Armstrong, Amy Goodman, Steve Bruce, Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor. They also include many non-Western intellectuals who are committed to liberal and leftist causes and worldview.

Susnata Das is professor of history at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. The leftist Hindu intellectual complained that Hindu-Muslim tensions had increased in India since the BJP had come to power in New Delhi seven months earlier. Asked about his take on the Gujarat “riots,” the professor took exception to my use of the word. We were talking in our native Bengali language. Getting excited about his viewpoint, he switched to English: “It was NOT a riot. It was pogrom.” With portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and India’s socialist icons watching us from his office walls, Das described some of the horrifying details of the Gujarat carnage. He blasted Modi and his BJP for their anti-Muslim “bigotry, pure bigotry, and hate,” which he said had unleashed recurrent Hindu violence against Muslims.

Then, scratching the back of his head, indicating a sense of resignation, my interviewee lamented that India’s once-powerful leftist and secularist movements had been “losing ground” to Hindu nationalism. That was because, he added, many Indians are “turning back to their religious and cultural traditions.” The same can be said of people in many other non-Western countries. They are forswearing many features of liberalism with which they began their journeys as citizens of independent states and substituting them for their own religious institutions and idiom.

The “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan was founded by a thoroughly secular and Anglicized Muslim statesman. He did not practice the Islamic faith, and he drank gin in the afternoon and whiskey in the evening, though drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden by Islam. In August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (parliament) that his new nation would guarantee complete freedom to practice any religion, but that religion would have no role in the affairs of the Pakistani state.

The father of the nation assured Pakistanis,

You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.

Yet the Islamization of Pakistani society and laws began less than a decade after Jinnah’s death in 1948. It reached a peak under the government of another staunchly secular Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That left-leaning populist came to power as president when grassroots Islamization campaigns had spread to large swaths of Pakistan and threatened his government. In September 1972, he said to me in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, “You can’t be a democrat and secular [in Pakistan] at the same time.” I had asked him about the pressure from the Islamist political parties Jamiatul Ulama-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami to enshrine the Sharia, Islamic canon law, in a constitution that was being drafted in parliament.  “The National Assembly has been elected by the people,” he reminded me. “Most of our people are devout Muslims.”

I was prompted to ask for the interview with the non-practicing Muslim politician after he had made a clarion call to Pakistanis “to make this beautiful country an Islamic state, the bravest Islamic state and the most solid Islamic state.” The U.S.-educated “socialist” Zulfikar Bhutto’s new constitution declared Pakistan an “Islamic state.” It proclaimed that “all existing laws shall be brought in to conformity with the injunctions of Islam,” and that no new laws would be enacted that would be “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” Later, as prime minister, Zulfikar Bhutto endorsed other measures, excluding the Ahmadiya sect from the traditional Islamic mainstream; changing the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the Islamic Sabbath; and taking other measures, all of which turned Jinnah’s secular Pakistan into an Islamic state.

Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia and most other postcolonial Muslim states also founded their political structures on liberal — sometimes socialist — models. Today most of them have reworked those models to accommodate Islamic tenets and code of conduct. Some Muslim states continue to maintain formally secular political systems, mostly for Western consumption. But Islam pulsates in the life of their Muslim citizens. This category of Muslim states includes Indonesia, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mali, Senegal, Djibouti and Gambia.

Hindu or Muslim societies aren’t the only ones facing a religious upsurge in their once-secular public space. The world’s only Jewish state was founded as a fiercely secular polity.  In its declaration of independence in 1948, Israel announced that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture to all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These principles formed the bedrock of Israel’s Basic Law.

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the ultra-orthodox and orthodox branches of Judaism began to Judaize Israeli politics and culture, gradually reducing Palestinians and other non-Jews to second-class citizens. The racial and religious apartheid that became pronounced under Prime Minister Menachem Begin has culminated in the policies of the  Benjamin Netanyahu government.

Despite the state-sponsored discrimination and suppression of Israeli Palestinians, however, the state’s Basic Law still recognizes the equality of all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. In a widely cited ruling, former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak articulated the state’s doctrine of equality. “It is true,” he wrote, “members of the Jewish nation were granted a special key to enter, but once a person has lawfully entered the home, he enjoys equal rights with all other household members.”

That could soon change. The “Jewish nation-state” bill, which the Netanyahu government has approved and will be pushing through the Knesset (parliament), would confer national and group rights only to Israel’s Jewish citizens. It would override the “individual rights” to be conceded to Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens. If passed, it would institutionalize anti-Palestinian apartheid, undermine democracy and turn Israel into a Jewish Pakistan. Netanyahu has fired two of his Cabinet members who opposed the bill (and disagreed with him on some other issues), paving the way for new elections.  Public-opinion polls show that religious and right-wing Jewish parties are more popular in Israel than ever; the bill could sail through the new parliament.

These “religious” tides aren’t specific to religions. Secular ideological and nationalist ferment has also fueled intergroup militancy. And it has often been as malevolent and bloody as movements carried out under religious banner. Karen Armstrong points out that the liberal French revolutionaries enacted some of history’s most savage massacres among the opponents and victims of the Revolution:

Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors, ‘The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women.… The roads are littered with corpses.

Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshiped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.

Europe’s bloodiest religious and ideological cataclysms occurred during its transitions from one ideational paradigm to another: from Roman to Germanic to Christian, from Christian to liberal, from liberal to socialist and communist, and from nationalist to imperialist and colonialist.

The religious and ideological movements in today’s postcolonial societies indicate similar processes of transition. They mark the transition from colonial-era liberal political paradigms to postcolonial indigenous ones. For many Muslim societies, it also represents the struggle to transform Western hegemonic political and security structures foisted on them into native Islam-oriented ones. Foreign tutelage in these Muslim states is sustaining repressive despotism, while native Islamic movements reflect the priorities and aspirations of the public.

The challenge before most of the former European colonies is two-pronged. One is to douse the extremist and violent impulses of the activists struggling for social renewal. They would abate in the course of time, as have previous episodes of Muslim extremism and violence. The other, which is more complex and long-term, is to build bridges between clashing religious, sectarian and ethnic communities: Hindus and Muslims in India; Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan; and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

These communal tensions and conflicts have been touched off partly by the unraveling of the political institutions introduced during colonial rule. European powers and Westernized native elites carved out these states overnight, splitting sectarian and ethnic communities among different states without consideration of their inhabitants’ cultural affiliations or economic interests. Yet the citizens of these artificial entities were expected to identify primarily with state institutions and laws. Those citizens have mostly proved unable to foot that bill. They feel strong communal bonds with their religious and ethnic communities that often span more than one of these states.

There are not many true Lebanese in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens are primarily Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis and Druze. There are almost no real Iraqis in Iraq, only Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and members of other religious, ethnic and tribal communities.

When people identify strongly with their nations or states, they view citizens of other states as the rival Other and compete and sometimes fight with them. When religion or ethnicity claims their deeper allegiance, they are prone to rivalry and hostility toward other ethnic or religious communities.

As the older nations and states matured, they learned, often the hard way, the perils of interstate hostility. Europe, once the most violent continent, has all but jettisoned conflicts between states.  Similarly, as religious and ethnic communities in postcolonial states would begin to mature, they would also learn the grief and misfortune caused by communal hostility. They would then be more disposed to living peaceably with one another.

 

Bringing Indian Muslims out from cold

THE INSTALLATION of India’s Narendra Modi government has triggered concerns among many Indian Muslims.

Prime Minister Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) has included in his Cabinet some of the well-known Muslim baiters such as Indresh Kumar and Sadhvi Rithambara. He has given top administrative posts to bureaucrats accused of involvement in anti-Muslim riots. He also has kept mum on the right-wing Hindu demand for a nationwide ban on calls for dawn prayers from mosques over microphones.

A Muslim friend from my native Assam state says these developments “contradict your writings” during and after two recent trips through India, in which I anticipated a diminution of Hindu-Muslim tensions. Did I get it wrong?

Politicians are mostly products of their times. John F. Kennedy emerged at the onset of the “Roaring Sixties,” a liberal social explosion that shook America and Europe. Religion was pretty much contained in the private sphere of American life. Kennedy was a Catholic. The Democratic senator’s candidacy for president unsettled many Americans who feared that, if he were elected president, his public policy would reflect papal dictates.

On Sept. 20, 1960, in Texas, Kennedy assured Americans: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair. Whatever issue would come before me as president … I would make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” Kennedy echoed that theme many times on the campaign trail.

Six decades later liberalism wasn’t “roaring” anymore in America and, in fact, had become a dirty word in American politics. Another Democratic presidential candidate was being attacked by a surging Christian right and other conservatives for allegedly not being a good enough Christian. Propaganda about his perceived religious deficiency threatened to undermine his candidacy. Obama launched a full-throated defense of his Christian credentials.

Early in his life, he said, “I let Jesus Christ into my life.” Christian values would be “a moral center of my administration.” He would introduce “faith-based” social programs because “religion strengthens America.” Obama reiterated the theme on the stump.

Narendra Modi, too, is a man of his time. Gone are the days when Indian political and social elites widely believed in the robust secularism of their Fabian socialist Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Most were still under the ultra-secularist cultural influence of the just-departed British colonialists, which had little relevance to native cultural values. Today India is going through an unprecedented Hindu religious revival. Hindu social and political organizations, once marginalized, have gained the passionate support of a wide swath of the Hindu mainstream. Modi has been part of this religious wave. He and his BJP rode its crest to come to power in New Delhi.

Throughout history, religious and ideological upheavals have, unfortunately, spawned extremism and hostility toward those who don’t belong to the movements. We saw that in the wake of the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions; the Protestant Reformation; and Puritan surge in New England; and several Islamic revivals. India’s Hindu nationalist movement is no exception. Its rise has heightened anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hostility among its ideologues and activists and, more tragically, large numbers of everyday Hindus.

Yet I still don’t share some Indian Muslims’ concerns that the Modi government would go on an anti-Muslim witchhunt. I doubt that the regime would try to abolish Muslims’ separate family laws. I don’t think it would build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram on the site of the historic Babri Mosque, which was demolished by Hindu extremists. Nor do I see it scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state. These have been on the BJP agenda and make Muslims shiver.

Muslims are close to 15 percent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion, advancing educationally and economically and more assertive of their rights than ever in the history of independent India. I believe Modi and his inner circle know that new attacks on their cherished institutions and culture would trigger a political and societal earthquake, which would threaten the exciting economic development programs for which they won the elections. Many in the top tier of the BJP, some of whom I interviewed, are highly educated, and want to see India as a modern, advancing society. They know that new interfaith convulsions would make it appear to the world as a backward nation, steeped in religious hatred and prejudices.

I noticed the dawning of this realization among some BJP leaders after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Hindu nationalists in that state had started bone-chilling anti-Muslim rioting in which more than 1,000 souls perished, most of them Muslims. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, is widely believed to have instigated the slaughter, even though the Indian Supreme Court cleared him of any legal responsibility for it. The new thinking in the BJP is reflected in the fact that none of the states the party has ruled since 2002 have seen an anti-Muslim riot.

It’s impractical, however, to expect the BJP government to heal the entrenched Hindu nationalist chauvinism overnight. The appointment of some of the chauvinists to high government positions seems to show that predicament.

A more formidable challenge to improving Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the widespread social ostracization of Muslims. Muslims have a hard time landing a government job, getting admission to schools or moving into a Hindu neighborhood. I know Muslim businessmen and journalists in New Delhi who failed to rent an apartment or buy a house in upscale mostly Hindu residential areas and are living in Muslim ghettos.

One of them, a medicine distributor, said, “One [Hindu] landlord settled on the rent and date I could move in, but when I was signing the contract, he saw my [Muslim] name and said, ‘Come tomorrow. Let me talk it over with my family.’ That tomorrow he told me that the family had decided to bring in a relative, instead.”

Modi or the BJP can’t eradicate such widespread social prejudices in an election cycle or a decade. They have, however, a golden opportunity to begin the process through legislation, education and pro-minority social and economic programs. A progressive party government would face strong right-wing Hindu resistance to such projects.

* Mustafa Malik, host of this blog, is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He’s on research trip through his native Indian subcontinent.

 

The Hindus outrage Hindus

Arundhati Roy is one of my heroes. Yet I’ve a problem with her stand on The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The icon of the progressive movement in India has blasted Penguin India for pulling out the book. It was written by Wendy Denier, a respected American Indologist. It’s a serious piece of work, which debunks some of Hindus’ cherished beliefs about their religious tradition. Not surprisingly, it  has outraged a whole lot of  Hindus in India. Many of them are Hindu nationalists and traditionalists.  Roy has demanded to know why the publisher had “caved in [to] the fascists.”

It saddens me indeed to see that the junking of this scholarly work would deny millions of Hindus the opportunity to take a refreshing new look at their society and tradition.  I’m persuaded, however, by the reason Penguin India has given for its decision to call off the publication and destroy the copies in its stock.  It explained that being an Indian company, it had to abide by Indian laws, which make it a criminal offense to deliberately outrage or insult “religious feelings” by spoken or written words.

Roy and many other critics of the publishing company’s action have offered the typical Western liberal argument. They maintain, in effect, that withholding the  publication of a work of art or literature under public pressure flouts what they consider publishers’ duty to defend the freedom of speech, as it’s understood in the West, everywhere in the world. Yes, Viking defied enormous pressure from the Muslim world to publish Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which maligns the Prophet of Islam. But Viking did so in the West, where the laws and social consensus support its action.

Freedom of expression, as many other Western values, stems from Enlightenment liberalism.  Many liberal values have been emulated productively by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, ex-Communist and other non-Western societies.  Free and rational inquiry, pluralism and scientific investigation have enabled those societies to make remarkable intellectual, scientific and technological progress; speed their economic development; and greatly enhance the quality their citizens’ material life.

All the same, many of these societies, especially those with rich and enduring traditions, are adapting liberal ideas and institutions to their own social priorities, which lend most meaning to their lives. India has embraced democracy of the Westminster variety. It retains, however, many religious institutions in the public sphere, which Western democracies wouldn’t. It has banned cow slaughter, forbidden by Hindu scripture. The Indian state patronizes many religious shrines and projects, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. Indian voters have twice elected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments and could do so again this May. The BJP espouses using laws and state institutions to Hinduize Indian society and culture.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his followers used state power to ban Islam from politics and Europeanize Turkish culture. The Turks, heirs to the Ottoman Islamic civilization, have subsequently cast off most of their Westernization projects and elected an Islam-oriented government thrice in a row.

Enlightenment liberalism, as all other ideologies, has emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances of particular societies.  It came about mainly as a reaction to the omnipresent church’s rigorous rules suppressing the desires, expressions and creativity of everyday Christians.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the ideologues and activists of the Enlightenment avenged the harsh religious repression by banishing religion from the public space.

Few non-Western societies faced religious persecution of that scale. Not certainly the Hindus, Muslims or non-Western Christians (Coptic, Maronite, Assyrian, etc.). They all  cherish their traditions, founded mostly on religious values, while emulating many liberal political and social ideas and institutions.

This should help explain why Americans and Europeans cared less about Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as an imperfect, vulnerable man.  Muslims around the world were, on the other hand, repelled by The Satanic Verses, as are many Indian Hindus by The Hindus.

The right to free speech can’t be absolute or universal. The free-speech doctrine notwithstanding, American society wouldn’t permit you to use the “n” word for African Americans or question the prevalent narrative about the Holocaust. Crying “Fire!” in a movie theater is a crime under American law. Because values and moral standards vary from civilization to civilization and often from society to society, so should the definition of rights and freedoms.

Luckily, progressive, far-sighted minds throughout history have spoken out and struggled against societal norms and taboos that they saw afflicting man and impeding human well-being. By so doing they’ve promoted needed social reforms and evolution.

Arundhati Roy is among Indian activists who would want Indians to be open to criticism and reevaluation of their religious institutions so Indian society can  evolve and progress further. Yet I wouldn’t support her attack on Penguin India for refusing to violate a duly enacted Indian law under which publication of the book could be a crime.  Penguin India needs to operate within India’s legal framework until India’s moral and legal system evolves, if it does, to alter that framework.

  • Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in the Indian subcontinent.

 

Liberal counterrevolution

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Reazul Karim was poring over the list of the newly elected members of the Bangladesh parliament, published in the Bengali-language newspaper Jugantar. A majority of them – 153 in the 300-member legislature – was elected unopposed. Most of the opposition parties had boycotted the elections.

Bangladesh is going through an anti-democratic secularist wave that’s sweeping many other Muslim countries, where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments or movements.

“This is our kind of democracy,” said Karim, my fellow alumnus of the local Murarichand College.  We were having tea and sticky-rice pudding at my home in this Bangladeshi town of Sylhet. “Very few of these touts would have been elected if the BNP had put up candidates.”

The BNP, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is a pro-Islamic political party allied with the now-banned Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami.  The BNP is the largest of the 18 opposition parties that had sat out the Jan. 5 vote.  They were protesting the secularist government’s refusal to hold the elections under a neutral caretaker government, which had been in practice in Bangladesh.  The ruling Awami League party, as also some of the others, has a record of rigging elections when in power.

Since 2010 the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, has become increasingly unpopular. And it got the parliament to rescind the caretaker law, apparently fearing losing this year’s elections, if held under the supervision of a caretaker government.

A week after Hasina put together her new, undemocratic Bangladeshi Cabinet, the military-appointed secular Egyptian government announced that its undemocratic constitution had been endorsed in a referendum by 98 percent of the votes. Just six months before, in Egypt’s first-ever free and fair elections, the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had routed the liberals and other secularists. The FJP is rooted in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and Mohammed Mursi, a leader of both organizations, became the country’s first democratically elected president.

The defeated liberals turned to the traditionally power-hungry Egyptian army to overthrow the Mursi government through a coup d’état, which it did enthusiastically. The military junta was, however, bitterly criticized by the international community for its murder of democracy and more than 1,000 Egyptians who protested it. So it got its subservient civilian Cabinet to produce a new constitution, allowing the military a central role in the country’s governance.

The Egyptian regime’s announcement that its constitution had won 98 percent of the votes reminded me of a similar Bangladeshi vote. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and father of Hasina, the current prime minister, was reputed to have received 98.5 percent of the votes cast in the last election of his life.

Yet when Mujib was assassinated in a 1975 military coup, not a single soul in Bangladesh mourned the father of the nation (not publicly, at least) and the country celebrated its freedom from the tyranny under his one-party rule.

The anti-democratic secularist movements such as have flared up in Bangladesh and Egypt have also been stalking Turkey, Tunisia, Mali and other Muslim countries where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments, or promised to do so. I’m not surprised by it. Just about all revolutions – the French, the American, the Lutheran, and so forth – have been followed by a violent reactionary phase.  Post-Revolutionary France had its Girondin-Jacobin Reign of Terror. Post-Reformation Switzerland its often-violent Calvin-Zwingli pogroms.  In post-Emancipation America, the Jim Crow-era persecution of African Americans and white progressives was as reactionary and brutal. But they all fizzled, often contributing to the revolutions the healthier aspects their agendas.

The Islamic revivalist and reformist movements that have been smoldering in much of the Muslim world since the late 1970s are  a revolution in progress.  We’re in the eye of that tsunami, and hence often fail to see its epic proportions.  Today’s anti-democratic irruptions of liberals and other anti-Islamic elements in the Muslim world are a transient episode. It eventually will give way to the widening and deepening Islam-based movements for social renewal. Most other counterrevolutionary movements have throughout history.

Anup Kumar Datta, a philosopher in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, said to me last week that Bangladeshi society has, in Hegelian parlance, entered upon its antithetical phase.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had said that a social paradigm, or “thesis,” spurs forces resisting it. He called it “anti-thesis.”  Eventually, said the German philosopher, the clash between the two trends leads to the evolution of a healthier social “synthesis.”

To me, today’s liberal reactions to Islam-oriented democratic governments and movements are a precursor to the evolution and renewal of many Muslim societies. The process of that evolution will synthesize Islam’s key principles of justice, charity and fraternity with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance and pluralism.

  • Mustafa Malik is a columnist and writer in Washington. He hosts the blog Just Freedoms (http://beyond-freedom.com).

 

Don’t write Brotherhood off too soon

(Published in The Daily Star, Lebanon, July 16, 2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsy said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The French filmmaker’s remark was resoundingly vindicated by Egypt’s liberal elites. They led massive crowds against President Muhammad Mursi and succeeded in getting the all-too-willing army to overthrow his year-old democratically elected government. The army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, has announced a shotgun process to overhaul the constitution, created by a democratically elected legislature, and produce a pliant “elected” government.

The Egyptian activists and masses who had agitated for the overthrow of the Mursi government should have realized by now that the army has taken them for a ride. Its has used the anti-Mursi rallies as a cover for dumping the democratic process and reimposing its stranglehold on the government and the economy. So far the liberal elites are either cooperating with the army or looking the other way.

This is because most of today’s Egyptian liberals and others were born during the six decades the country languished under uninterrupted military dictatorships. They had never known democracy until the 2012 elections that ushered in the government of Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, fast-evolving Islamist organization, the oldest in the Middle East. Throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has been subjected to brutal repression by successive dictatorial regimes. Through it all, its membership and support grew steadily among all sectors of Egyptian society.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s best-known secularist intellectuals, lamented to me in Cairo in 1995 that “foolish mishandling” of the Brotherhood by dictators had made it popular. Otherwise, the movement would have “fizzled” long before.

During several reporting and research stints, I found, however, that while brutal persecution by dictators and the hostility of secularist groups had endeared the Brotherhood among Egypt’s many devout Muslims, the organizations’s strategy of moderation and its members’ adaptation to modernity have been the main sources of its stamina and public appeal.

Muslim Brothers are among the best-educated in Egypt. Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of South Carolina. Essam el-Erian, the head of his political party, Freedom and Justice, is a physician.
To most Egyptian secularists, however, the Brotherhood has been anathema.

Ever since Egypt slipped under the military dictatorship of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, most of the country’s upper class secularists collaborated with successive military dictators and benefited from their patronage. If you tried to talk with them about their government, most of them would change the subject. During the Mubarak era, the only educated people who would talk freely about Egyptian politics were members and supporters of the Brotherhood and the youth – not the older and wiser ones – among progressives and liberals.

Many of the secularists were hurt professionally and financially when the Mubarak dictatorship was thrown out of power by the 2011 revolution. Many of them have now jumped on the military bandwagon.

It’s a familiar drama, played out in many Muslim (and non-Muslim) post-colonial societies. Among them Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many of those countries the democratic process encountered military intervention, in some more than once, but eventually growing political consciousness succeeded in taming power-hungry generals.

My native town is Sylhet in what used to be Pakistan’s eastern province and is now Bangladesh. In the summer of 1946 the leader of the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, paid a brief visit there. The town was paralyzed by an unprecedented human avalanche.

Many of the visitors, I was told later, had walked 20 or 30 miles, to have a glimpse of the leader of their struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Some shed tears of joy when Jinnah stepped up to the podium to give his speech in Urdu, which most of the Sylheti-speaking audience didn’t understand.

In a few years East Pakistanis became disillusioned with Pakistan’s central government, based in what was West Pakistan. The old West Pakistan is what is left of Pakistan since East Pakistan’s secession. East Pakistanis’ main grievance against the Pakistani government was its failure to alleviate their grinding poverty. Their frustration deepened when Pakistani army generals, supported by a Western-oriented bureaucracy, established a decade-long dictatorship, interrupting the nascent democratic process. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan to become independent Bangladesh.

Two years later the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Sylhet, and was also greeted by huge crowds. But while Bangladeshis had taken 22 years to rise up against Pakistani rule, they staged the first a anti-Mujib rally in Dhaka, the capital, 23 days after Mujib became the country’s president. Public frustration with the Mujib regime reached its peak two years later, when Mujib was assassinated in a military coup.

Not a soul in all Bangladesh came out to the street, or held a meeting or issued a statement to condole the murder of the father of the nation. Bangladeshis’ disillusionment with the Mujib government was spawned mostly by a devastating famine, shortages of necessities and widespread government corruption, which followed the birth of Bangladesh. Today democracy, though more chaotic than in many other countries in the region, has taken root in Bangladesh. Few Bangladeshis expect the return of an extended military dictatorship.

In Egypt, as we know by now, crippling power shortages, the near-collapse of the security apparatus and other administrative and economic problems were artificially created by Mubarak-era employees and anti-democratic activists. Their purpose was to discredit Mursi’s democratic government. I believe that few Egyptians would enjoy very long the sights of corrupt anti-democratic politicians, judges and pundits back in power or on the air waves. Fewer still would like to see the army, which they struggled hard to dislodge from political power, pulling the levers of government once again.

A democratic process in Egypt wouldn’t have legitimacy without the participation of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organization with deep roots in society. Most Egyptians are devout Muslims. Despite their frustration with Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Islam-oriented political agenda will continue to resonate among large numbers of them.

I don’t know how long it will take, but democracy will eventually prevail in Egypt, as it has in many other post-colonial countries. While the upper crust of the liberal establishment may continue to collaborate with an army-led government, post-revolutionary Egyptians in general are much too politicized and rights conscious to accept any system other than full-fledged democracy. And if the democratic process has to work in Egypt, the Brotherhood would need to be its integral part.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

Time to get over anti-Islamist paranoia

ANDREW J. BACEVICH says “the big story of Muslim self-determination is likely to continue unimpeded” and lead to the rollback of American hegemony over Muslim societies.  In his Washington Post piece, the historian recalled that when the British Empire was collapsing, it could turn over its “imperial responsibility” to the United States.  But Americans today, he adds, see “no readily available sucker to  to whom we can hand off the mess we’ve managed to create” in the Middle East.

I’ve long admired Professor Bacevich’s insights and agree that there doesn’t seem to be any takers of  America’s  “imperial responsibility” in Muslim societies. But I do see a whole lot of “suckers” jumping in to clean up “the mess” created in much of the Muslim world by American and European hegemons during past decades and centuries. They’re the same revolutionary youths who are liberating themselves from American hegemony as much as domestic autocratic tyranny.   And they’re struggling to reform colonial-era institutions that they see stifling their societies‘ natural growth and evolution from their indigenous, Islamic roots.

For years I have been discussing Muslim affairs with young and not-so-young Muslim activists, ideologues and plain folks in the East and the West.  A large majority of them don’t share the views of the so-called “Islamic extremists” such as the Salafis and Al Qaeda.  Many maintain, however, that Muslim guerrilla groups, known in the west as “terrorists” and “extremists,” have waged the “necessary” struggle to liberate Muslims from tyranny and subjugation. The history of the Protestant Reformation and other ideological movements shows that the extremism associated by the early phases of those movements tapered off when the conditions that bred them changed. In contemporary Muslim societies, those conditions are political suppression and foreign aggression and domination.

A majority of Muslims in post-colonial societies also don’t identify with Westernized Muslim elites. Quizzed closely, they typically say that they would just want to live as Muslims, adhering to basic Islamic laws and values; and want their societies modernized fast.  Moderates such as supporters of the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East believe in peaceful and democratic methods of Islamizing their societies.  Extremists such as the followers of the Taliban and Harkat al-Mujahideen in South Asia and the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in the Middle East have few qualms using force to achieve their goals.  But both Islamist categories want to change or modify the alien institutions and cultural patterns in Muslim countries.

They remind me of the Brazilian statesman, philosopher and social theorist  Roberto Mangabeira Unger.   He  argues that ideational and social change that brings fulfillment in life isn’t possible without freeing men and women “from their institutional chains,”  or the “context” that creates the pernicious social, economic and political institutions.  Unger taught Barack Obama at the Harvard Law School, but waged a media campaign last summer against the president’s reelection.

The professor says Obama and most Democrats are busy “humanizing” the Republican agenda, instead of trying to change the context, or the sources, of the economic and political malaise paralyzing America. Unger argues that “all that the Democratic Party has offered, at least since  the presidency of [Lyndon] Johnson  is a sugarcoating, a dilution, a humanization of the Republican program.” He calls the paradigmic shift  he’s proposing “the second way.”

Few of the Muslim intellectuals and activists I have come to know appeared to have heard of Unger, but they echo his thesis nonetheless. They’re calling for conceptual and institutional change in their societies and polities. They denounce, or just ignore, Western-style secularism, the Western concept of privatizing religion, the colonial-era legal framework, and so forth. And they say they would want new institutions (about which most only have vague ideas) to build modern, progressive Muslim societies. Those societies would be based on the key Islamic values of social justice, charity and brotherhood.

The popularity of Islamist guerrilla groups in the Syrian civil war is the latest manifestation of the appeal of Islamic values among everyday Muslims.  Earlier,  Iranians, Turks, Iraqis, Egyptians, Tunisians and other Muslim peoples have demonstrated their preference for social and political orders based on Islamic principles.

The Islamic reassertion has spurred a lot of American paranoia about Muslims in America and Muslim countries.  The Obama administration wouldn’t even give arms to Syrian rebels fighting the murderous Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, which it wants overthrown, because Islamist guerrillas there have turned out to be the most effective and popular fighting force and could dominate the post-Assad Israeli society. “I am very concerned,” the president said in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Friday, “about Syria becoming an enclave of extremism.”

For many Americans, Muslims struggling to usher in what Unger would call a “second way” are “terrorists” by definition and need to be resisted or hunted down.  The Shari’a, or Islamic law, has become a dirty word in American media and public discourse, even though most of the Muslim world lives under it, even under secular, pro-American governments.

In the United States, many innocent, law-abiding Muslims have been under surveillance since 9/11 in case they’ve any form of contacts with Muslims suspected of terrorist proclivity.  American law denies Muslims designated “enemy combatants” by the administration the right to be tried in civil courts under American law.  Mosque building creates public hysteria in many neighborhoods.

The atmosphere  is reminiscent of the McCarthy-era hysteria about communism, which swept up American conservatives and liberals alike.  The icon of American liberalism Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota  joined the right-wing Republican Senator John Marshall Butler of Maryland to get the notorious Communist Control Act of 1954 passed by the Senate.  Other liberal Democratic senators who supported the Butler-Humphrey bill included John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Paul Douglas of Illinois, and Wayne Morse of Oregon.

What makes America work, however, is Americans’ sense of pragmatism. The paranoia about the Other usually evaporates when they fail to  prevail against it.  After a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race, the United States realized by the late 1960s that it can’t defeat  international communism, after all. And lo and behold, the rabidly anti-Communist President Richard Nixon did a U-turn and began normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China.

Today, America —  even with its military might, costly nation-building projects and candy distribution among Muslim children — has all but lost the ground war against Islamist guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It can now see that its drone war in several Muslim countries can’t  stem the spread of Islamist militancy. Al Qaeda, which had hunkered down in Afghanistan, and other militant Islamist groups have spread to large swaths of the Middle East and North and West Africa. Last week,  former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pointed out that beginning with the Iraq war, “the bitter enmities between Al-Qaeda and other Salafist and Sunni Arab nationalist groups have given way to cooperation or even mergers.”

Sooner or later, I expect the United States — and the West — to do a U-turn in their confrontation with Islamism.  Meanwhile, Islamist and other Muslim groups are changing  “the context” of the evolution and modernization of their societies, and Islamic-Western relations.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration should, on a second thought, decide to begin the process. If not, I believe one of his successors to the American presidency will.

◆ Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog Islam and the West.

 

 

 

The outrage: Revisit free speech

 (Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2012)

It was a reprehensible crime. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic staff members were nurturing excellent U.S.-Libyan relations until they were murdered by a Muslim mob in Benghazi. Many Libyans will fondly remember Stevens’ hard work to implement the U.S. policy to facilitate their liberation from Moammar Khadafy’s repressive dictatorship.

Unfortunately, these four innocent Americans have been the latest casualties of the West’s conscious or subconscious policy to foist its liberal ideology on unwilling Muslim societies. The amateurish movie “Innocence of Muslims,” produced in California by an Egyptian Copt and American evangelical Christians, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester and womanizer. It has triggered Muslim outrage in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Iran, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and probably elsewhere. But it conforms to the Western principles of freedom of speech and separation of church and state. So did the Muhammad cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, the anti-Quran movie produced by Holland’s Greet Wilder, Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” published in the United Kingdom, and other anti-Islamic works put out in the West.

All these incidents sparked indignation throughout the Muslim world. Yet Western statesmen and media generally defended the artists’ and authors’ right to produce these materials, citing the free-speech principle, even though some questioned the wisdom behind the projects.

Westerners are mostly comfortable with unbridled freedom of expression and the privatization of religion because these doctrines have evolved from the West’s unique historical experience. They stemmed from a reaction to the Catholic Church’s suppression of freedoms, the Inquisition and fierce power struggles with secular governments. Historical memories of those traumatic episodes have engendered antipathy for religion and religious values among many Westerners.

Muslim history has had no such conflicts between the laity and religious hierarchy.  In fact, the Sunni branch of Islam, to which nearly 90 percent of Muslims belong, has no religious hierarchy at all. And most Muslims — religious, agnostic or even non-believers — cherish their religious heritage. So do Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and many other non-Western religious communities. Western governments and most Western citizens don’t seem to recognize this diversity of value systems, so they insist on universal applicability of their liberal ideology and its doctrine of freedom of expression.

They have waived the free-speech principle, however, in cases of Holocaust denials, racial slurs, advocacy of terrorism and other expressions that could endanger Western social order or national security. But they have persistently refused to prevent the vilification of Islam.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has staunchly justified this stance in the case of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” citing America’s “long tradition of free expression.” She added that “we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”

This Western insensitivity to the Islamic faith and civilization has been a major source of the smoldering anti-Americanism in many Muslim countries. The key to defusing this ominous trend lies in overcoming the delusions about universality of the West’s liberal ideology.

Islam embraces some key Western political structures and values, such as nationalism and democracy, but it rejects others, such as the ban on religious ethical standards in political discourse, the denigration of Islam in the name of speech freedom.

Islamic values and the cultural patterns built around them engender Muslims’ missions and aspirations and lend meaning to their lives. As a step toward reconciliation with anti-American Muslim masses around the world, the West should adopt measures to stop the misuse of the free-speech doctrine to attack Islam.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West’: http://islam-and-west.com.

 

 

 

Americans fed up with right and left

The documentary “2016: Obama’s America” is drawing big crowds in the South, reports my hometown newspaper the Washington Examiner . And  “liberal and conservative voters” watching it are cursing President Obama.

“I have to get some more friends” to see the documentary, says 18-year-old Tammy Birdwell who watched it in Greenville, N.C. “We have to get Obama out.”

The production is based on Dinesh D’Souza’s controversial book The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  D’Souza is a right-wing, indian-born activist and writer who used to be an adviser to the Reagan White House. His book’s underlying theme is that Obama is inspired by the liberal “anti-colonial ideology of his African father.”  That ideology, adds D’Souza, has shaped the policies of the Obama administration. A right-wing documentary luring liberals? It reminds me of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11”, which was praised by many conservatives.  Many Americans are apparently disillusioned by both conservatism and liberalism.

D’Souza’s portrait of Obama is based mostly on the president’s writings and rhetoric.  The author selectively stitched together bits and pieces of them to draw up a profile of the first black American president that repels many  Americans.

As evidence of Obama’s liberalism and anti-colonialism, the author cites his call as a U.S. senator to withdraw American troops from Iraq, opposition to Gen. David Petraeus’ “surge” strategy in Iraq, association with “Marxist professors and structural feminists” at Occidental College, unidentified plan to “spread the wealth” in America, and so forth.

This image starkly contradicts Obama’s policies or actions as president.  President Obama is known the world over for  his embrace and expansion of the Bush administration’s drone war in several Muslim countries, killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children. He continues President Bush’s policies of profiling and surveillance of American Muslims, of denying Guantanamo Bay prisoners the due process of civil law, and of refusing to identify with African American issues and priorities. Early in his administration, Obama alienated many of his liberal and leftist supporters by caving in to Republicans to focus on deficit cuts over jobs and growth.

I knew the president was about to sidestep the causes of the poor and the left when he hired such died-in-the-wool conservative economists as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag to frame and run his economic policies.  But I did not anticipate his adoption of the Bush administration’s militarist agenda.  Washington Post writer Ezra Klein’s characterization of Obama as a “moderate Republican” may apply to many of his domestic policies. In the Middle East and South Asia, his first presidential term looks more like Bush’s third. So the question, again, is why is the right-wing documentary “2016”  riveting liberals? Why do Moore’s liberal documentaries attract many conservatives?

My take on it all is that while vested interests and ideologues remain loyal to ideologies, most everyday Americans are fed up with them. They know in their bones that their political ideologies and economic and financial institutions aren’t answering their real-life problems.  They have been voting Democrats and Republicans to Congress and the Presidency, but their economy remains in a shambles. Too many of them are unemployed or have jobs that don’t relieve them of hardships and despair. America lurches from one bloody and costly war to another, yet Americans have never felt so insecure: airports, government offices, corporations and many other swaths of public space have turned into veritable fortresses, under disturbing and annoying security cordons.

Americans’ allegiance to their political and economic institutions is eroding fast. Yet they continue to shuttle between them because they see no alternative paradigm, or avenues of meaningful living. Well, not yet. New ideological or existential paradigms often come unannounced. We should keep an ear out for them.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.