Monday, May 21, 2012

'Islam Is Islam, And That's It'


The tumult indelibly dubbed “the Arab Spring” in the West, by the credulous and the calculating alike, is easier to understand once you grasp two basics. First, the most important fact in the Arab world — as well as in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other neighboring non-Arab territories — is Islam. It is not poverty, illiteracy, or the lack of modern democratic institutions. These, like anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and an insular propensity to buy into conspiracy theories featuring infidel villains, are effects of Islam’s regional hegemony and supremacist tendency, not causes of it. One need not be led to that which pervades the air one breathes.
The second fact is that Islam constitutes a distinct civilization. It is not merely an exotic splash on the gorgeous global mosaic with a few embarrassing cultural eccentricities; it is an entirely different way of looking at the world. We struggle with this truth, which defies our end-of-history smugness. Enthralled by diversity for its own sake, we have lost the capacity to comprehend a civilization whose idea of diversity is coercing diverse peoples into obedience to its evolution-resistant norms.
So we set about remaking Islam in our own progressive image: the noble, fundamentally tolerant Religion of Peace. We miniaturize the elements of the ummah (the notional global Muslim community) that refuse to go along with the program: They are assigned labels that scream “fringe!” — Islamist, fundamentalist, Salafist, Wahhabist, radical, jihadist, extremist, militant, or, of course, “conservative” Muslims adhering to “political Islam.”
We consequently pretend that Muslims who accurately invoke Islamic scripture in the course of forcibly imposing the dictates of classical sharia — the Islamic legal and political system — are engaged in “anti-Islamic activity,” as Britain’s former home secretary Jacqui Smith memorably put it. When the ongoing Islamization campaign is advanced by violence, as inevitably happens, we absurdly insist that this aggression cannot have been ideologically driven, that surely some American policy or Israeli act of self-defense is to blame, as if these could possibly provide rationales for the murderous jihad waged by Boko Haram Muslims against Nigerian Christians and by Egyptian Muslims against the Copts, the persecution of the Ahmadi sect by Indonesian and Pakistani Muslims, or the internecine killing in Iraq of Sunnis by Shiites and vice versa — a tradition nearly as old as Islam itself — which has been predictably renewed upon the recent departure of American troops.
The main lesson of the Arab Spring ought to be that this remaking of Islam has happened only in our own minds, for our own consumption. The Muslims of the Middle East take no note of our reimagining of Islam, being, in the main, either hostile toward or oblivious to Western overtures. Muslims do not measure themselves against Western perceptions, although the shrewdest among them take note of our eagerly accommodating attitude when determining what tactics will best advance the cause.
That cause is nothing less than Islamic dominance.
‘The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” wrote Samuel Huntington. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture.” Not convinced merely in the passive sense of assuming that they will triumph in the end, Muslim leaders are galvanized by what they take to be a divinely ordained mission of proselytism — and proselytism not limited to spiritual principles, but encompassing an all-purpose societal code prescribing rules for everything from warfare and finance to social interaction and personal hygiene. Historian Andrew Bostom notes that in the World War I era, even as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Ataturk symbolically extinguished the caliphate, C. Snouck Hurgronje, then the West’s leading scholar of Islam, marveled that Muslims remained broadly confident in what he called the “idea of universal conquest.” In Islam’s darkest hour, this conviction remained “a central point of union against the unfaithful.” It looms more powerful in today’s Islamic ascendancy.
Of course, conventional wisdom in the West holds that the Arab Spring spontaneously combusted when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself ablaze outside the offices of the Tunisian klepto-cops who had seized his wares. This suicide protest, the story goes, ignited a sweeping revolt against the corruption and caprices of Arab despots. One by one, the dominos began to fall: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya — with rumblings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well as teetering Syria and rickety Iran. We are to believe that the mass uprising is an unmistakable manifestation of the “desire for freedom” that, according to Pres. George W. Bush, “resides in every human heart.”
That proclamation came in the heady days of 2004, when the democracy project was still a Panglossian dream, not the Pandora’s box it proved to be as Islamic parties began to win elections. Like its successor, the Bush administration discouraged all inquiry into Islamic doctrine by anyone seeking to understand Muslim enmity, indulging the fiction that there is something we can do to change it. Inexorably, this has fed President Obama’s preferred fiction — that we must have done something to deserve it — as well as the current administration’s strident objection to uttering the word “Islam” for any purpose other than hagiography. In this self-imposed ignorance, most Americans still do not know that hurriya, Arabic for “freedom,” connotes “perfect slavery” or absolute submission to Allah, very nearly the opposite of the Western concept. Even if we grant for argument’s sake the dubious proposition that all people crave freedom, Islam and the West have never agreed about what freedom means.
The first count of contemporary Muslims’ indictment of Middle Eastern dictators is not that they have denied individual liberty, but that they have repressed Islam. This is not to say that other grievances are irrelevant. Muslims have indeed been outraged by the manner in which their Arafats, Mubaraks, Qaddafis, and Saddams looted the treasuries while the masses lived in squalor. But the agglomerations of wealth and other regime hypocrisies are framed for the masses more as sins against Allah’s law than as the inevitable corruptions of absolute power. The most influential figures and institutions in Islamic societies are those revered for their mastery of Islamic law and jurisprudence — such authorities as top Muslim Brotherhood jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni learning for over a millennium. In places where Islam is the central fact of life, even Muslims who privately dismiss sharia take pains to honor it publicly. Even regimes that rule by whim nod to sharia as the backbone of their legal systems, lace their rhetoric with scriptural allusions, and seek to rationalize their actions as Islamically appropriate.
If you understand this, you understand why Western beliefs about the Arab Spring — and the Western conceit that the death of one tyranny must herald the birth of liberty — have always been a delusion. There are real democrats, authentically moderate Muslims, and non-Muslims in places such as Egypt and Yemen who long for freedom in the Western sense; but the stubborn fact is that they make up a strikingly small fraction of the population: about 20 percent, a far cry from the Western narrative that posits a sea of Muslim moderates punctuated by the rare radical atoll.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the ummah’s most important organization, unabashedly proclaiming for nearly 90 years that “the Koran is our law and jihad is our way.” Hamas, a terrorist organization, is its Palestinian branch, and leading Brotherhood figures do little to disguise their abhorrence of Israel and Western culture. Thus, when spring fever gripped Tahrir Square, the Obama administration, European governments, and the Western media tirelessly repeated the mantra that the Brothers had been relegated to the sidelines. Time had purportedly passed the Islamists by, just as it was depositing Mubarak in the rear-view mirror. Surely the Tahrir throngs wanted self-determination, not sharia. Never you mind the fanatical chants of Allahu akbar! as the dictator fell. Never mind that Sheikh Qaradawi was promptly ushered into the square to deliver a fiery Friday sermon to a congregation of nearly a million Egyptians.
With a transitional military government in place and openly solicitous of the Brotherhood, there occurred the most telling, most tellingly underreported, and most willfully misreported story of the Arab Spring: a national referendum to determine the scheduling of elections that would select a new parliament and president, with a new constitution to follow. It sounds dry, but it was crucial. The most organized and disciplined factions in Egyptian life are the Brotherhood and self-proclaimed Muslim groups even more impatient for Islamization, collectively identified by the media as “Salafists” even though this term does not actually distinguish them from the Brothers, whose founder (Hassan al-Banna) was a leading Salafist thinker. By contrast, secular democratic reformers are in their infancy. Elections on a short schedule would obviously favor the former; the latter need time to take root and grow.

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