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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Current Affairs ... Religion ...

Are we there yet? This is currently the attitude of the U.S. and western Europe regarding the Islamic world and the hoped-for Islamic Reformation-Enlightenment. In a nutshell, much of the Islamic world is very poor and destitute and lives according to social and political norms that were once familiar to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, after the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th Centuries. We’re talking about theocratic rulership, strictly defined social roles with extreme male domination, few if any personal rights and economic opportunities for the masses, and frequent use of violence and cruelty to resolve tribal disputes and punish deviations (whether criminal acts, disagreement with leadership, or simply the expression of individuality, “being different”).

There are signs of hope. Young Arab and other Islamic populations armed with smart phones and Facebook and Twitter have started organizing and challenging the entrenched leadership. Thus far they have had some success with the easiest targets, i.e. the aging dictators who based their power on secular nationalism and socialist theories, more than on religion. So we have seen bold “Arab democracy” actions and street demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, with varying degrees of success. They haven’t done as well against the ancient royalties (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen) or against the theocrats (e.g. the failed Green Revolution in Iraq). But they are active in those places too, despite extreme repression. Again, signs of hope, but still very tentative.

Also, Osama Bin Laden has finally been disposed of. Many analysts warn “this is not the end of Al Qaeda and its ideology”. But given what Bin Laden’s role was — i.e., a preacher and prophet of a violent, anti-western Islamic revolution, an inspirer of action — well, it probably doesn’t bode well for them. The “hearts and minds” of the Arab street are possibly up for grab now. There is a vacuum of sorts, and we must wait and watch as to who fills it; i.e., the old school or the modernists.

Personally, I have trouble with the methods which the USA and its SEAL team dealt with Bin Laden. On May 2, we treated him according to rules of war, i.e. identification and summary execution. This was despite indications that the SEAL team could have wounded him and taken him alive (as they did with one of Osama’s wives, who rushed the Navy team and was shot in the leg). In effect we declared that we are at war with an important and significant (if murderous) faction within the Islamic world, a faction that the majority does not embrace but certainly still accepts as brothers and sister. I would have preferred the criminal justice approach, i.e. take the perpetrator alive if at all possible, then give him due process respecting his rights as a human being before enforcing retribution. I believe that that would have made a huge statement in favor of the Reformation / Enlightenment values that we want the Islamic world to embrace. Instead, we showed them that we basically play by the same ancient blood sport that we criticize them for.

So, is there reason for new optimism regarding America’s “Islam problem”? Well, from what I’ve been reading, it’s not time to break the champagne out yet (a metaphor that the Islamic
world would blanch at, perhaps with justification). I just read an article on the National Review web site that says it all with the title: “The Dark Night of Islam”. OK, I’ll admit that the National Review is quite conservative and reactionary, but it is also usually intelligent and informed. And this article by Michael Beran definitely fits that mold, making the point that despite some hopeful rumblings in the Moslem nations, they are still few signs of their embracing a tradition of intellectual inquiry and openness. There still isn’t a critical mass of scholars and intellectual leaders in places like Egypt and Iraq and Saudi Arabia discussing how Islam can reconcile itself with western values such as science, human rights, democracy and freedom of belief and personal expression.

But OK, that’s from the conservative side. Is there any optimism amidst the liberals? Well, not if Tom Friedman at the NY Times is your bellweather. He just published a rather pessimistic column about our relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in light of Bin Laden’s death; about all the double-agent games these nations play to appear cooperative with us and sympathetic to our values, while working hard to maintain the ancient ways and beliefs. His article title is also a bit gloomy, i.e. “Bad Bargains”.

And then there’s Turkey; once the prime example of how an Islamic nation and society can Europeanize itself and live in peace and harmony within the “enlightened” world. Now the Turks are moving back towards the ancient ways. Another article? Sure, how about this one, entitled “Turkey in Transition: Less Europe, More Islam“.

But I don’t want to close on a totally gloomy note. In recent issues of Scientific American, I’ve noticed multi-page advertisements run by the nation of Indonesia, extolling their universities and laboratories and high-tech commercial ventures. Indonesia is the eastern tip of the “great Moslem world”, but it also lives amidst the “Asian tigers” like China and Vietnam, who are embracing western economics and are living better and better for it. In these ads, Indonesia appears to be attempting to convince the techies of the world that it wants to be a player; that it desires to be involved with the kind of research and commercial enterprises that are working so well for its neighbors.

So, the Islamic leaders of Indonesia seem ready to take up the project that Turkey is now abandoning, of reconciling modern progress with the Islamic heritage. The ironic twist
is that the Indonesians will be largely influenced by the Chinese model of prosperity, which is still barbaric and un-enlightened in many ways. But don’t lose all hope; remember, Indonesia is shelling out big money to a magazine whose title contains the word “AMERICAN”. Science and America — if you want the former, you’ve still got to get serious about the latter.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:07 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Your first paragraph here hits the nail on the head. But it is not really only the Islamic world that can be so described; Christians (at least in past centuries–and the way it looks lately, maybe these days) too had (are beginning to take on) the same attitude: If a person didnt believe what we believed, that person was going to hell; and thus there was an obligation to *make* everyone believe the same thing. Name any group throughout history, and it’s the same story.

    And I agree with you about the power vacuum created in so many countries. So far, some of them seem like they will turn out OK (well, I guess from the standpoint the U.S. would like); but I wonder if we have seen the end result at this point.

    As to Osama bin Ladin: I can’t say I agree with you. While I do not think that the “death penalty” should be a usual form of punishment, I do think that in certain cases some people prove by their actions that they are better off not being in this world and deserve the death penalty. Let me be specific. For instance, Saddam Hussein I think was one who got a very bad deal and was treated as he did not deserve to be treated when he was hanged. Basically, he had done nothing directly against the U.S. Our invasion of his country was simply wrong. His death (if I recall by his own people, acting for the U.S.?) was simply an act of angry vengeance.

    Yet I think others such as Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, and some others certainly deserve(d) the death penalty (altho technically neither of them actually got a “death penalty.” ObL himself proved himself to be a clear and present danger to the U.S. and the people there. I say he deserved to be “taken out”, armed or not.

    Lastly, I wish another word could be found (here I’m not laying any blame at your door because it’s an accepted word) than that of “enlighted,” “enlightenment,” etc. Somehow that word seems so condescending. Somehow we are “enlightened” and the rest of the world is “benighted.” I can’t quite see it. (But I know you are referring to an accepted term used in scholarship.)

    And in the end I think that all the chaos (I use this world deliberately as it seems most appropriate here to me) in the world today has much more to do with a struggle for power than anything else. Even ObL himself had that as a motivation. His original motivation that led him down the path he took was the result of a dispute with his father about who should handle the money in his family. He wanted his father to put the control in his (ObL’s) hands; his father said no. And ObL started down his path of trying to get control of the finances of his family. I realize I simplify this whole situation here; but when everything gets boiled down to the nitty gritty, that’s what happened.

    And isn’t that same struggle for power what happens when Christians or Muslims or any other group decides that their own concept is the *right* one and all others are heretical, wrong, or misguided; people *must* be saved. Basically, it’s all a struggle for control of power over others. And need I even mention that just exactly that need to control others is at the root of so much of what is wrong with how women are treated in societies today. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 14, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

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