By Nikolaas de Jong, July 10, 2013:
In a past article, I already discussed some issues of Islamic civilization which we are apt to neglect in our analysis of the current situation in the Middle East. Obviously, the potential force of democracy to conquer once primitive countries has been greatly overestimated; nobody will disagree anymore on that count. However, the explanations for this failure of democracy vary a lot, and quite independent of the political alignment of the commentators: it appears that all shades of opinion are quite confused by what is happening in countries recently “liberated” by the Arab Spring. The main reason for this confusion, as I stated before, is that most people in the west do not understand the wider civilizational questions involved: first, can we equate any popular uprising with an ideologically inspired revolution, but second, and most importantly, can revolutions in the Islamic world ever resemble those in the West and why are we so sure that the Islamic pattern of history must correspond to the earlier Western? The first point has been conceded by many observers, albeit implicitly and not in wider historical context, since today the dominant opinion is that these countries were not “ripe” for democracy and that popular rule does not necessarily imply democracy as we understand it in the west. The second point requires more insight, and is not even addressed by most commentators or journalists, although in fact to pose the question of essential differences in culture is not at all new; indeed, it only implies further investigation of the popular thesis Samuel Huntington developed about the “clash of civilizations”. But since western nations have lived in peace for over sixty years now, and we tend to believe that the whole world potentially is a prosperous and peaceful place like the western nation states, the concept of wholly different civilizations has become quite incomprehensible to most opinion makers. Nevertheless, we shall see it is essential to understand the ordeal the Muslim world is currently going through.
A few days ago Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote an article, “Can Islam be reformed?”. As a good neoconservative, Pipes believes that Islamic culture will ultimately be able to adapt to western standards and that a reformed, reinterpreted version of Islam will emerge from the contacts with western democratic influences. In his article, he expressly shows Islamic civilization in a very un-civilizational light: the issues in Islamic history are made to appear a variation on what happened in the history of other cultures, namely an endless sequence of wars and political upheavals, according to the classical pattern of rise and fall: the extremism that plagues the Islamic world is in fact a reaction to the decline of Islam since its golden age, and will wither away once a democratic, economically successful alternative has been offered; in this sense, the Islamist movement is not unlike communism and fascism, both ideologies cashing in on political and economic hardship. Moreover, Islam is not all that different from Judaism and Christianity: both religions have in the past embraced views we would now find unacceptable: Islam can adapt to modernity like other religions have. Pipes concedes that Islam today poses many problems and not all of its tenets are very humane, but he believes that Islam could be, as it were, absorbed by the west. In his most recent commentary on the military coup in Egypt, he reiterated his view that Islamism is just an extremist political fraction vying for influence among the electorate, and that the majority of the population are moderate Muslims desperately in search of answers to the crisis of modernity.
It is surprising that a man who is so knowledgeable on Islamic and Arab history, really thinks the Islamic world could be reformed. This is especially surprising, since in fact democracy and rule of law have hardly taken root in the rest of the non-western countries, and it remains to be seen whether the experiment will be viable in the long run, especially as western values are receding in the West itself at least since the first world war. Western self-confidence is at an historical low, so the first question is: why is there anything necessary about Muslims taking over western values and political institutions? I argued earlier that Islamic culture itself is not heading for a particularly happy future, but neither is the west, and if Islam does not take over Europe, it will still probably remain the same ossified theocratic system it has always been in the Muslim world itself. Besides, Pipes’ constant reference to the Islamic golden age, as if it were some shining example of human achievement and a tolerant, open-minded era, is disturbing to say the least: by now we should know that the power of Islam in this period was only brought about by brute military conquest, that its famous cultural achievements were largely the work of Christian and Jewish dhimmis, and that the Islamic world controlled so many material and cultural resources simply because it had invaded the lands of other cultures and withheld the benefits of trade from the Christian world. And of course, Pipes does not mention that this was not a “golden age” at all for many people, such as religious minorities, Hindus, and women. The reason it was called a “golden age” by Muslims is because it was a golden age for the Islamic conception of life, but not for humanity. So, on closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that Islam was always rigorous and it has not known any more humane periods or ups and downs like other civilizations, except in the military sense. The proper question that would invalidate Pipes’ designation of Islamism as a totalitarian doctrine on the pattern of fascism and communism, is: would the average Muslim throughout history have considered the deeds and beliefs of today’s Islamists and Islamic terrorists unjustified? Does the average Muslim today even see anything inherently inhumane or un-Islamic in the deeds of terrorists? I think Pipes knows the answer to these questions as well as most of us do.
Pipes warns us for adopting an excessively “essentialist” view of Islam, which means relying solely on Islamic scripture and doctrine in explaining Islamic history and the actions of Muslims; however, it seems Pipes should watch out not to adopt the absurdly empiricist view that is also held by many political correct pundits, and which implies that the deeds of Muslims only have general “human” motives, and religion is simply a justification of these universal motives. It is all very well that Pipes himself can provide his own moderate interpretation of Islam and sees history in the light of this interpretation, but in the end it is the Muslims who decide how to interpret their religion, not western academics. As Bill Warner put it, we can only understand the actions of Muslims and Islamic history by first understanding Islam and what it actually is, not the other way around. Otherwise we would just be fooling ourselves and evading the main question.
Read more at The Brussels Journal (H/T Andrew Bostom)
Nikolaas de Jong is a Flemish history student with a critical view on current affairs, history and culture. He is inspired by Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel. He is specifically interested in islam and Russian history. He is a member of the political party Liberty GB. This article appeared July 10, 2013 in the Brussels Journal. The Brussels Journal is published by the Society for the Advancement of Freedom in Europe (SAFE), a Swiss non-profit organisation. http://www.think-israel.org/dejong.islamreformable.html