The dangers of wishful thinking in the Middle East

Projecting Western ideas onto the Arab Spring seriously underestimates the danger of Islamism.
Robert R. Reilly | 11 January 2012
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Last July Matthew Kaminski opined in the Wall Street Journal that the transition to democracy in the Middle East would be as easy as it was for the democracies that emerged after the fall of the Soviet empire. Alas, this was predictably not so, and has now been proven, as vote after vote has shown the strength of the Islamists, most particularly in Egypt, where they have won some 70 percent of the ballot. With his article on January 3, "Arab Democracy Is the Best Bet for a Muslim Reformation", Kaminski continues in this vein of false optimism, based upon his propensity to project Western conceptions and norms onto the Islamic world, where they are largely irrelevant.

Wishful thinking can be dangerous when it distorts reality. Here is a short list of misconceptions in his latest piece.

"The appeal of political Islam... grows when religiosity is repressed." Islamism is a reaction to modernity, not to repression. It would grow regardless. With the shackles off in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, watch it grow even more. To think that it will diminish because it is not repressed is a dangerous fantasy. Thanks to the Arab Spring, it now has the opportunity to seize control, and most likely will do so. Democratic elections have simply revealed the strength of the view that "Islam is the answer."

"Calls for Sharia to become state law emerged only in the twentieth century, as a result of Islam's encounter with the West." Really? Sharia existed for many centuries before this encounter. The first call for state sharia enforcement came from Ibn Taymiyya in the late thirteenth century when he declared the Mongol rulers (converts to Islam) apostates because they continued to live by their tribal law, rather than by Sharia. Taymiyya laid the basis for requiring a ruler to enforce sharia if he wished to maintain his legitimacy, which is why Taymiyya is so popular among the Islamists today. The only recent sharia states have been Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan, and Sudan – those with the least amount of exposure to the West. In any case, the sharia enforcement issue emerges from the struggle within Islam, not from the encounter with West.

"The Quran is politically agnostic and says nothing about the preferable form of government." Not quite. In Surah 3:110, the Qur'an speaks of the regime in Medina as "the best community [or nation] ever raised for mankind." Since the Qur’an is understood by almost all Muslims as coexisting eternally with God, this statement means that the Medinan concept of the "best community" obtains forever. This is why the Salafists desire to emulate it exactly, and why every major effort of reform in Islam goes back, instead of forward. It may also help explain why democracy has never arisen indigenously in the Arab Middle East.

"Salafists... practice Osama bin Laden's creed of Islam." No, bin Laden's creed of Islam is not Salafist, but came directly from the Muslim Brotherhood and is infected with its ideology, which was partially obtained from Western totalitarianism. His teacher in Saudi Arabia was Mohammed Qutb, the brother of the chief ideologist of the Muslim brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb. Salafism, on the other hand, is an ancient and integral part of Islam.

Kaminski calls for a Reformation in Islam, without seeming to realize that Islamism is that Reformation. Be careful of what you wish for. One reason that the Islamic world became calcified is that the "gates of ijtihad" were closed in the Middle Ages. This meant that the authority for making original interpretations of the Koran or the hadith had been withdrawn because the sharia had, by that time, covered every possible situation in human life with a specific ruling. The Islamists today have reclaimed the authority of individual interpretation in order to wipe out the Islamic jurisprudence that stands in their way, most particularly in their use of indiscriminate violence and terrorism.

In the place of "rigid Kemalist secularism" in Turkey, Kaminski claims that there "has emerged a more dynamic society, more tolerant of differences." The 97 members of the news media in prison, including journalists, publishers and distributors (according to the Turkish Journalists’ Union), and the generals jailed by the AKP might disagree, as might the persecuted businessman, who were funding media that expressed differences with the ruling party until they were charged with tax violations. The idea that a mild dose of Islamism leads to diversity is almost hilarious.

Kaminski several times quotes Iranian philosopher Dr Abdulkarim Soroush, who undoubtedly is one of the most eloquent advocates of free societies within Islam -- which may help explain his exile in the United States. However, Kaminski seems to be unaware of the most important issue that Soroush has raised regarding the relationship between theology and democracy. Soroush has said,

“You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore. A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights. So you even have to change your idea of God.”

Without a different theology within Islam, can one have democracy? This is the real problem. Unfortunately, Sunni Islam gives no sign of abandoning its theology of God as pure will and power, which has been the foundation of so much despotism in Islamic history. Muslim theologians and philosophers who propose a God of rationality often find themselves, like Dr Soroush, in exile. This is what is subverting the opportunity for a transition to democracy in the Arab Spring.

Kaminski's most egregious error comes with his closing quote of former Polish dissident and writer, Adam Michnik, "If Judaism can co-exist with democracy, any religion can." By this Kaminski means to suggest that this should be no problem for Islam. Judaism, however, gave us Genesis, in which man is described as having been created in the image and likeness of God. This revelation is the basis of our civilization, as well as the foundation of democracy. The Qur'an, on the other hand, makes explicitly clear that man is not made in God's image and to suggest otherwise is blasphemy. Therefore, it may not be as easy as Mr. Kaminski thinks.

Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

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