Archive for category Islam and the West

The Great Thinker Muhammad Iqbal

iqbal

A day after a brutal attack on not only a French satirical newspaper but on the very notion of freedom of speech, it’s inevitable that haters will turn around and attack all of Islam.   Islamophobes have more in common with Islamic extremists than with true lovers of freedom.   There have been attacks on Mosques in France, and Muslims again find the neanderthals attacking their religion because a few extremists committed an atrocious attack.

Rather than argue about that, I think it’s important to recognize great Islam has a history that includes tolerance, openness and sophisticated philosophical thought.  One of the greats is Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938.

Known primarily as a gifted poet, and knighted by King George V, Iqbar’s religious thinking is something that should be taken seriously in the Muslim world.   Iqbar was shaped in part by his time.   He lived in India under British rule (in the Punjab province, now part of Pakistan), and saw the exploitation and ruthlessness of colonial control.  Yet he studied law in Great Britain and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.

His religious thinking centers around how to reconcile the religious traditions of Islam in a modern world increasingly dictated by western norms and power.

He held on to deep religious convictions.  He believed in God, and felt that Muslims should have a community where religion is public – not a separation of church and state as in the West.   That makes sense, given how community oriented Islam is.  It is a religious of practice, not just faith.  Yet he admired western tolerance, science, and open thought.  He was heartened that the West adopted what he saw as Islamic values of freedom and equality.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech.  Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech. Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.

 

At one point Muslims had seen Christian Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized.  When the crusades took Jerusalem, Muslims were told “convert or die.”  Christian Europe lacked the technology, science and sophisticated learning of the Islamic world.  Yet by the 1700s that was all changing, and soon the West dominated.

Iqbal was the first to argue for a separate Muslim state in India.   He assumed the Muslim state would be an ally of India, even helping protect it from invasion.   As a deeply religious man, he believed that the spiritual core of Islam could lead the faithful to liberation and what one might call self-actualization.  He believed in a global Ummah, or community of believers.

Yet there was no desire to see other religions as enemies.  He accepted that there were other religions, even while believing in a conservative version of his own.

Iqbal is one of many Muslim thinkers who responded to the challenge of the West – how to maintain traditions in a new world, one now defined by globalization.   Almost all the great Muslim thinkers refused to go the route of seeing the West as the enemy, the challenge to them was to not let their faith get stifled by modernization and secularism.

The terrorists and extremists are not at all indicative of Islamic traditions or thinking.   They are reactionaries, hating the West and fearing change.  Sometimes we in the West feed their fear by bigotry, attacks on their religion, or refusal to understand or assimilate.   But what we need to do is help the vast majority of peaceful Muslims work through the challenge of adapting to modernism without sacrificing their spiritual faith.

Time is against the extremists.  Almost all Muslims are against the extremists, and the nature of Islam and its teachings over the years contradict the extremists.

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Islamophobia Receding?

Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State Clinton and, according to Michelle Bachmann and a few other extremists, a potential threat

If the charge had been made in early 2002 it may have gained traction.   Michelle Bachmann and others claimed that Huma Abedin should be investigated for possible links to Muslim Brotherhood.   The warning: perhaps she and other Muslim “extremists” have infiltrated the highest ranks of the State Department and US government, putting the country in danger.

Bachmann had no evidence, and ultimately only could point to the fact that back in Saudi Arabia her late father had connections with people who had connections with people who were in an organization with connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.   So clearly, she’s a threat.  She also probably knows Kevin Bacon.

But in the emotion-laden post-9-11 days, just the hint of the fact a Muslim was high up in the State Department and could potentially be linked to extremists would have had the country atwitter.    There probably would have been a series of calls for investigations and warnings of Muslim infiltration of the apparatus of the US government.   Unfortunately for Bachmann her call came ten years too late — it was like warning of Communists in the State Department in 1963.

Bachmann followed the game plan of former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy – make wild claims backed by no evidence and hoping fear would take hold

Instead Republicans from John McCain to Jim Sensenbrenner called Bachmann out for her outlandish claim, defending Abedin and noting that it was un-American to make such accusations based solely on her religion or vague ties of acquaintances of her family decades in the past.   The Muslim Brotherhood itself professed puzzlement at the charge, noting that it’s having trouble infilitrating even the Egyptian government!

After mocking Bachmann’s flimsy evidence of Abedin’s “link” to the Muslim Brotherhood, Stewart shows how easily Bachmann could be similarly accused due to her campaign contributions from HSBC, which is accused of providing banking services for Islamic extremist groups including al qaeda. Ooops.

Hopefully this is a sign that the Islamophobia that seemed to grab the country in the 00’s has given way to recognition that Muslim Americans are not all would-be terrorists out to destroy the western way of life.   Indeed, the Arab spring has shown Americans that Muslims in the Mideast want freedom and democracy as well.

Still, the fear remains.   Behind Bachmann’s outrageous charge is a nefarious organization called the Center for Security Policy, headed by hard core neo-con Frank Gaffney, which has as its primary goal the promotion of a neo-conservative foreign policy.    Such a policy seeks to spread American ideals through force if necessary, and sees any indigenous Islamic movement in the Mideast as dangerous.    However, even Gaffney has to know that Abedin is no inside threat.   What really bothers him and those who still cling to the neo-con dream of an American dominated Mideast is the fact that the US increasingly recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not the enemy.   Indeed, they are important actors in moving the Islamic world towards modernism.   Gaffney and those of his ilk would prefer we see any Islamic organization not overtly embracing western values as a threat.

During the era of knee jerk Islamophobia after 9-11 it was assumed that political Islam was all a variant of Osama Bin Laden’s ideology and al qaeda.    Evidence for that claim could always be found using quotes of members of different organizations, even if the quotes were decades old and not aimed at the US.   This led to support for a US effort to dominate the region to both bring in an American style democracy and have friendly regimes in control of Persian Gulf oil.   That was considered the best way to undercut future terrorism.    The Iraq war has shown that such a strategy was folly – it didn’t work and was based on false premises.

As they strive for political acceptance and power, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood realize that a ‘war with the West’ and extremism are against their self-interest. There is no need for enmity with the West.

Now, however, a more nuanced view dominates.   Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a wide range of views, and some quotes and ideas do sound radical.   That’s to be expected given the oppression and violence used against them by dictatorial regimes in the past.   But these organizations are evolving in a reality where politics is becoming more open.   They are no longer just a small group competing against powerful corrupt regimes, but have become a large organization needing public support to try to remake the politics of the region.

As such there is no reason to expect them to be hostile to the US and the West, so long as we are not hostile to them.  Indeed, it is in our interest to cultivate a solid relationship with such groups to help them make the transition from being on the outside fringe to governing.   This isn’t a new process either.   Ever since Robert Michel put forth his view on the “iron law of oligarchy” in 1911, it’s been well known that radical groups moderate when they become part of the system.   The Greens in Germany, for instance, went from being radical pacifists and anti-NATO/anti-growth to being part of a German government that fought in Kosovo and embraced pro-market policies to increase growth and competitiveness in Germany.

The neo-cons and other fear mongers will point to parties like the Nazis in Germany and say “see, they didn’t moderate.”   But there is no reason to expect the Muslim Brotherhood or other such organizations to behave that way – quite the opposite, in fact.

Which one is crazier?

Change in the Arab world will be gradual, a culture dominated by Ottoman style repression and dictatorship for 700 years doesn’t blossom into a stable functioning democracy overnight.   Some states like Saudi Arabia have yet to start the inevitable transition.   But with the almost universal rejection of the McCarthy like Islamophobic “warning” of Michelle Bachmann, there is cause to believe that the US can be a positive influence in assisting change, working with a variety of groups in the Mideast to develop a path to democracy rather than fearing our lack of control over the process.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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A Better Kind of Regime Change?

When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya.  Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support.   His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up.   President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change.   It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?

President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy.   He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order.   The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century.  Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists.   This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.

Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled.  What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?

The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends.    The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events.     Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed.   By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy.   Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests.   President Obama has continued that policy.

However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play.   These dictatorships are not going to last.   Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms.   But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.

President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left.   Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels.    That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.

Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort.   Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong.   Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.

The strategy is subtle.  Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk,  patient, longer-term strategy.    If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master.   But will it work?    Is this really a better form of regime change?

President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources.   President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates.   It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism.   While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests.   The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow.   The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.

So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition.   Dictators cannot run the country on their own.   Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors.   In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator.   This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations.  However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.

The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual.   The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue.   As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.

For this to work a number of things must happen.   First, a stable government must emerge in Libya.  It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists.   The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime.  Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up.   There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes.    Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life.   Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.

If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran.  If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability.  Has President Obama found a better style of regime change?   Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.

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Godfather’s yes, the Presidency, no

Lately I’ve felt satisfied that the bout of Islamophobia the US suffered a few years ago is over.   With the “Arab spring,” death of Osama Bin Laden, and a lessening of fear, people realize that Muslims are not the enemy, nor is the religion particularly violent and strange.   I integrate bits about Islam and its history in many of my classes, believing all educated students should know more than the caricatured image the media often gives.   Lately I’ve been impressed by how often they come out of high school with that knowledge — kudos to US schools!

But now Republican Presidential contender Herman Cain says that communities should be able to ban mosques when they want to.    His rationale is plain weird.  He says that Muslims combine church and state and use mosques to “infuse their morals into a community.”   A mosque cannot itself combine church and state, last I checked no mosques in the country were involved in government.  They are a place of worship.   Muslim theology traditionally sees church and state together (as did traditional Roman Catholic theology — they fought wars about it!), but mosques in the US are simply serving a community.

I’m not sure what to make of the “infuse morals” comment.   I daresay that Christian churches try to infuse their morals into a community.   Moreover, I suspect there is far more agreement than disagreement between Christians and Muslims about moral issues.  Does  Cain object to people trying to infuse their morals into a community?   If a community of Christians lived in a predominately non-Christian town, would the non-Christians be justified in banning churches from being built?

Cain earlier expressed hesitancy about having Muslims serve in a potential Cain White House (the more he talks, the more purely academic that scenario becomes), hinting that they were more prone to terrorism.    If these broadsides had been hurled a few years ago, back when Tom Tancredo was saying we should bomb Mecca in the case of another terrorist attack, he may have been able to get away with it.    Now he just looks like a bigot.

To be sure, Tancredo’s crazy was a level that Cain has yet to come close to.   To bomb the center of a religion serving billions because a miniscule fraction of people claiming to believe that religion pull off a terror attack would be evil of the sort that would be admired by a Hitler or Stalin.   Cain’s apparent bigotry seems more rooted in ignorance than evil.  It was even too much for Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who isn’t exactly liberal!

So I’ll give Cain the benefit of the doubt.   He may not be a bigot, he may simply have a very strong belief that Muslims have the wrong faith, and that it is his duty as a Christian to protect our culture from their influence.   I still don’t like it and will argue against it, but that’s within the realm of politically acceptable action.   One can be an advocate for a religion.   He’s no different than Muslims in the Arab world who try to stop Christians from spreading their ideas (and they don’t like missionaries over there); he can make his case in the realm of political discourse.

I believe his opinion makes him inappropriate for the office of the Presidency.   A President must, above all else, be true to the constitution and be President to all Americans.    President Bush recognized this, and proclaimed Islam a “religion of peace” and refused to define Islam as the enemy.   After all, with 10 million Muslim Americans, almost all of them anti-terrorist contributors to their communities, he was their President too.

There is something I like about Herman Cain.  He helped Pillsbury keep Godfather’s Pizza alive.   In the 80s the pizza chain was losing money for Pillsbury and they gave Cain the task of reviving the brand.  He did, and Godfather’s returned to profitability.

For that, I thank Cain.   One of the first Godfather’s opened in Sioux Falls back in 1977.    That was less than four years after the very first Godfather’s opened in neighboring Nebraska, if I recall it was about the 5th or 6th restaurant.   Pillsbury didn’t yet own the company and the owner at the time, William Theisen, came to Sioux Falls to celebrate the new store.  I was doing “a week with the mayor” as part of a mini-course in high school, and Mayor Rick Knobe asked me to say some words.  I praised the new restaurant and even mimicked Marlon Brando’s Godfather character at the end, “come to Godfather’s, please try our pizza, we hope you like the pizza…no, on second thought, you WILL come to Godfather’s, you WILL try the pizza, and you WILL like it!” Miss South Dakota was there too, which is always a treat for a 17 year old boy.

Godfather’s quickly became one of my favorite pizzerias, second only to Village Inn Pizza, where I worked.   We don’t have them in Maine, so whenever I get back home, I make a point to have some Godfather’s.   It’s good pizza still (though I think it was better back in the late seventies).  I have fond memories of meals and dates there, as it was just three blocks from Augustana College, where I got my BA.

So, Herman Cain, you’re obviously a good businessman.   And if you want to be politically active to promote your own religion and warn us of “false” faiths, go ahead, the Constitution gives you that right.   But if you want to be President, you need to understand that our Constitution recognizes the right of people of all faiths to worship and be treated with respect.   Moreover, you need to learn about the reality of Islam, not the pamphlets and biased polemics put out by the Christian right.    The only people who benefit when the extremists here show anti-Muslim sentiment are the extremists there who want there to be some kind of ‘clash of civilizations.’  Let’s not help the extremists.

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You Say You Want a Revolution?

As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa.   In Egypt half the population is under 24.   In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25,  22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26.  For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.

And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children.  The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.

For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa.   After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy).  He is currently grooming his son to take his place.  Egypt is more like North Korea than the US.  The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq.    Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.

If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights.   Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council.    The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq.   Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.

The reason is obvious.   The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship.   To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine.    To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.

This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches.   In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire.   When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t.  It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.

The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family.   It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom.   It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.

However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt.  The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power.    After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.

These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.   Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever.  They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom.   It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm.   In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.

What will this mean?   Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern.  He’s trying to fight against change.   Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought.  For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.

Most young Arabs don’t think that way.  A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world.   The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.

There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line.   If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust.   Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.

We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world.    One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.

President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq.   The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish.   He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes.  But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be.   Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.

Because change is coming.   There will be revolutions of some sort.   The current order cannot last.   Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt.   Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy.   If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.

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Islamophobia becoming a caricature

The irrationality of Islamophobia is easy to demonstrate.   There are very, very few Muslim terrorists, and those who are reflect a political problem in Mideast countries under corrupt governments where the youth lack hope, or in rare cases a backlash against western culture.   The adherents of Bin Laden are the exception rather than the rule, and they do not adhere to true Muslim doctrine in the eyes of over 99% of the Islamic world.  And from the perspective of Muslims, the real mass killing has been done in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, with Muslims the victims of state terror.   The idea that Muslims are more violent or dangerous is simply wrong.

Yet some people find it easy to make collective broadsides against over a billion innocents.    Anger over a Muslim day at an amusement park after Ramadan, opposition to a community Center in New York City and weird claims that Arabs are crossing the border disguised as Mexicans to have babies that will become terrorists in 18 years were typical.  Calls for ‘internment camps’ and threats to bomb Mecca have faded, however, as most Americans realize that the over the top rhetoric was both irrational and un-American.

Yet there are a few are still at it.   The especially kooky Frank Gaffney seems to think if you have anything to do with a Muslim, you’re infected.  He claims that conservative groups that work with Muslims are trying to spread shariah law and indoctrinate American conservatives  into supporting Islam.    Chief among these alleged insidious traitors are Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and former Bush staffer Suhail Khan.   I’m kidding, right?  Read it here. He claims that the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU) has the goal of indoctrinating conservatives into giving support to Islam and Sharia law.

Gaffney appears to have a Joseph Goebbels approach to propaganda — tell big and outrageous lies with a sense of urgent certainty, and people will believe  (he’s done this before, as the article cited above notes, and almost always with Muslims as the villains).   But the idea that American conservatives can somehow be duped into promoting Islam and Shariah law is too far fetched to even be taken seriously.    I also am personally upset with Gaffney for threatening the prestige of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I got my MA.  He has a Ph.D. from that school!

But Gaffney’s not the only one.   Conservative bloggers are incensed at DC Comics for having Batman choose a French Muslim to head his Paris office.  (Batman runs branch offices?)  Why could he not have a “real” Frenchman?   A good Catholic, or even an atheist?   First, French law makes clear that French identity is related to culture, not genetics.  And the French have a lot of Muslims whose families have been French for generations; they are “true” Frenchmen and women.  These bloggers must be the same people who were miffed that Mecca didn’t get destroyed in the movie 2012!

What kind of bile runs through the veins of a person to make them so hateful towards Islam that they get up in arms over a comic book having a Muslim hero?   Muslims fight and serve in the US armed forces, many have died to save their comrades.  Are they not heroes?   Of course, rationality is not a strong suit with this crowd.   Recently an easily recognizable hoax led to massive effort by opponents of the New York City community center to boycott Justin Bieber. First, boycotting an artist (OK, you can quibble with that description of Bieber) over his or her political views is a bit silly — it’s a sign you’re taking this too seriously.   But not to take the time to really be sure of it before launching a major boycott drive?   Bizarre.

The danger, apparently, is that if we portray Muslims in a kind (I would say, in an accurate) manner, then we’re allowing others to see them as human.  If Muslims are seen as human, then suddenly it’s not fair to single them out and vilify 1.5 billion people because of the acts of a few dozen.    Like Gaffney, who apparently can’t stand that President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and had Muslim aids, Islamophobes are to the West what Bin Laden is to Islam: an irrational extreme which wants a ‘clash of civilization’ so the “evil” side can be defeated by the “good” side.

I say put the Islamic extremists and the Islamophobes in a room together and let them fight it out.   The rest of us can work on things like restructuring the economy and advancing human rights.

Still, there is something both frightening and heartening in all this.  It’s frightening that people can let their rationality slip away, and allow fear of the other to take over.   And it is fear — hate, prejudice, bigotry and anger all have fear as their root cause.  It’s heartening, however, to see that most Americans are rejecting that kind of approach, and that increasingly it’s just the over the top bizarre ones that make the news.   Since the misplaced opposition to the Community Center in New York city burst forth, the media has gotten better on explaining the reality of Islam, and countering those wild claims that Muslims wanted to “kill all Christians” and things like that (sort of like how the Nazis said Jews wanted to eat Christian babies).

As it became clear that the man who wanted to build what the Islamophobes originally claimed was a “mosque on the site of Ground zero” to “honor Osama Bin Laden and claim victory” was really a moderate Sufi who has been constantly working for dialogue and cooperation between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, people started to see the hatemongers for what they really are.   There is already a mosque at the site of that community center, which is a few blocks from ground zero, not on it.    The public started to shrug at that debate, and move away from a fear that somehow Muslims were a danger.

And with caricatures like Gaffney warning that Muslims are trying to take over the conservative movement, and with bloggers waxing indignant about DC Comics daring to have a French Muslim hero, it’ll continue to become obvious that only the crazies see Islam and Muslims writ large as a threat.   There are dangerous extremist groups, and Islam is going through a difficult process of defining itself in the modern context thanks to globalization.   There are real problems.   One can also criticize the militarism and failures of American foreign policy.   There is a lot to fix and deal with on all sides.  But maybe the craziness is subsiding.

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Misunderstanding Europe

Americans generally do not understand Europe or European politics very well, believing in stereotypes and caricatures, often warped for political purposes.   For instance, during the health care debate horrible stories of long waits and “rationed care” were given as why we don’t want to “be like Europe,” but those stories painted a false idea of what health care in Europe is like.  The reality is that almost everyone gets quality health care, usually with a doctor they know, and without long waits or denial of services.   That’s one reason why Europeans in no way want to give up their health care systems.   After all, you can find as many if not more stories of poor health care or insurance company nightmares cherry picking the US news.

And that’s the problem with lack of knowledge.  If you don’t know a subject well, be it climate change, health care, foreign policy, the nature of Islam, or whatever, it’s very easy to grab on to short often emotive polemics and take them as reality.   If they are well written and the author seems certain, then the reader often accepts it as true, especially if it feeds into existing stereotypes or ideological biases. A coherent world view can be made up of these bits, strung together uncritically, especially by people who like simple straight forward explanations for a complex world.

If you read pundits on the right, Europe is a wimpy pseudo-socialist set of states, unable to field a quality military, and being overtaken by Muslim immigrants.  Some even claim sharia law is gaining traction, as Europeans give into Muslims in hopes that they’ll be satisfied (fitting the ‘appeasement’ meme many ascribe to Europe).  Moreover, the social welfare programs of Europe are dismissed as obsolete, doomed to collapse because of demographic change as Europe ages.   This view of Europe is utterly misguided, yet persists almost as a “matter of course” amongst may conservatives.

On social welfare programs, there is a broad consensus throughout Europe (varying by degrees between countries) that modern industrialized states should guarantee the basics needed for relatively equal opportunity to succeed: education, health care, protection from unemployment, nutrition, and pensions for old age.   The latter, of course, is a reward for contributing to society for decades, and presumably raising children who now become productive.   If you look at any health statistic, EU states usually out perform the US, even though the US pays 16% of its GDP for health care, while Europeans pay 8-10% (and the US GDP is higher per capita).    European health care systems do have to be reformed to remain viable, but an American style system would be too expensive — and unlike theirs, ours doesn’t even cover everyone!

The militaries in Europe are very well trained and well equipped.   True, the forces are smaller in number than those of the US, but this reflects a European view that warfare has changed.  The era of major armies battling in large numbers is a thing of the past, at least in the first world.  They emphasize mobility and intelligence.   If a credible threat emerged, the Europeans could expand their forces, but at this point it seems like a waste of money — after all, even spending half the world’s military budget the US stumbled in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Europe has no desire to get involved in conflicts like those.

What about demographic change?  EU fertility rates are low, about 1.5 (as opposed to 2.04 for the US).  These vary, Germany is at 1.34, Great Britain at 1.7, Italy at 1.28, but France is up at 2.0.   The French have done this in part by giving very generous protections for new mothers.   Recognizing the dangers of population decline (fewer workers supporting more pensioners), states give benefits to mothers women her could only dream of.   Guarantees that the job will be there, longer maternity leaves, increased pay, and child care services are provided.   And though the post-war “boomers” are now turning 65, it will take awhile for the cost to get to be so high that the system would become unsustainable.  Pensions now cost the French 12% of GDP, and by 2030 that will rise to 16% if reforms are not made.

That’s expensive, but not debilitating.  And throughout Europe reforms are being made.   They know that the systems created in the sixties were based on having a large productive working population alongside a small group of retirees likely to live less than a decade after retirement.   Europeans understand that they need to adapt it to new demographic realities.   Yet it won’t require draconian cuts, modest timely reforms can make a significant impact.    Countries are already making these reforms, and have been for some time.   While one reads about protests in France, the reality is that the French government has the support of the people to make changes, and overall political systems in Europe are less prone to gridlock than the US system.   Moreover, outside of a few problem countries, their debt and deficit problems are under control, and unlike in the US, private debt is not a problem.  Indeed, European countries still have net savings, meaning that overall they do not have the massive total debt that the US has.  For us, private debt is as severe or more severe than government debt.

Another factor that could help Europe is immigration.   Despite the hype, Islam really isn’t something Europeans should fear.   Right now Muslims number about 20 million in Europe, or about 4% of the population.   The largest number, 5 million, are in France, about 8% of the population, the Netherlands is next with 5%.   The numbers could double in the next twenty years, and some say that 20% of Europeans could be Muslim by 2050.    This is a significant minority, but not large enough to “take over.”

Some claim that “Sharia law” is spreading in Europe.   It’s not.  France, in fact, is flexing its secular state by banning religious symbols from schools and public buildings, and President Sarkozy even talked about banning the burka completely.   Anti-clerical traditions from the French revolution persist, and affect attitudes towards Islam.  Only in Great Britain in very specific cases within the Muslim community has Sharia law been allowed, and that’s primarily due to a loophole in British law which may be closed.  Fear of Sharia is a red herring, designed to appeal to the emotions of those who want to see Islam as some kind of dangerous enemy.

The Europeans do have to overcome their ethnic based notions of identity in order to allow integration of minorities into their societies.  That has been difficult to do, as “blood” so long has defined European self-identity.  Yet immigration can provide labor needed to support the growing number of elderly and Muslims in Europe tend to modernize.  For all the stories of some radical knocking off a Dutch film maker or groups in London selling violently extremists tracts, most Muslims adopt western ideals and adjust their religious practices to fit their new surroundings.   Since Islam as a religion is struggling to adopt to the modern era, European Muslims may lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the Islamic world.   Better integration into European societies could help bridge cultural gaps.

These are not minor problems.   French riots in 2007 show the dangers of ghettoizing and marginalizing immigrants.   Muslims that come to Europe, usually from Africa, are not especially religious or radical.   But there are forces wanting to radicalize the youth and foster a war between Islam and the West.  It’s important that the Europeans don’t make the extremists’ job easier by pushing immigrants into separate communities where they do not have a chance to integrate.  The fact these issues are being debated and discussed openly and realistically give me no reason to think the Europeans won’t be up to these challenges.    In any event, the next time someone drones on about how horrible things are in Europe, don’t believe it.

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In a Alternate Universe…

Imagine an alternate universe where history did not quite unfold the same way as it did for us.   In this alternate reality, the Abassid Caliphate continued, there was no Ottoman Empire and its rule of military dictatorship, and Islam maintained and expanded on its tolerant, open approach to people and knowledge, modernizing before Europe.  In time, internal conflict weakened the Caliphate, and Persia (present day Iran) emerged as the major world power, with the former Abassid empire maintaining wealth, but losing status.  Persian influence spread throughout Southeast Asia, and was the basis of numerous military alliances.  After a Cold War with China, Persia became  the unipolar power, dominant, with a view of spreading Islamic peace and morality (defined now in a modern sense) to the world.

The Europeans had devolved into a kind of dark ages.   Despite the renaissance, internal strife prevented further modernization.  After the Hapsburgs put down the protestant political revolt in 1650, they struck a deal with the Roman Catholic church to maintain centralized rule based on a conservative, traditional form of Catholicism.   The defeated protestant movement went underground, and became radicalized.  Over time Europe’s internal splits and lack of modernization left it vulnerable to Abassid influence, though the Church remained strong enough to prevent domination.  European politics, in response to the external threats, veered to military dictatorship, with Christianity used as the rationale for rule.  Over time, however, the United States emerged as a new power, meshing radical protestantism with modern technology, and promoting “western, Christian” values.  Persia watched the rise of this western power with unease, fearing it could become a threat to the advanced, civilized, Islamic world.

Angered at the hoarding of oil by the industrialized Islamic states, European and American activists accused them of trying to keep the West down.  Moderates in the West, emerging finally from centuries of stagnation, hoped to mesh the values of the Islamic secular enlightenment with Christianity to create a peaceful form of modernization that would not be a threat to the Islamic world.  But as Islamic values penetrated more deeply into the West, there was a backlash, and radical Christian groups arose, making demands for cheaper oil and less Muslim influence.  Complicating all this was a small Sufi colony in southern Greece.  Established by a Sufi mystical sect fleeing persecution a hundred years earlier, it developed into a true modern economy in an otherwise backwards Europe.  It received military help and cheap oil from the Abassid regime and Persia, but it also emerged as symbolic of the growing hatred of Europeans and Americans for the Islamic world.  Greece was, after all, the land of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.

“Reclaim Greece,” was the mantra, and soon radical Christian and western groups engaged in terrorist acts aimed at driving the Sufis out of Greek territory.  Persia supported the Sufis, arguing that they had been there for a long time, and had a right to govern that section of Greece.   Before they came Athens and the region southward had become impoverished and backwards; the Sufi exiles brought progress and civilization.   Because of radical Christian opposition to the very existence of Sufi Greece, some in the Islamic world rejected the idea that Christianity was a religion of peace, saying that the fondness of radical groups for passages in the Old Testament which commanded the Israelites to kill women and children as they devastated a city — verses used by radicals to argue for the violent and uncompromising expansion of Christianity — made the pacifistic verses of the New Testament irrelevant.    The prophet had taught a cosmopolitan vision and toleration of other religions, they argued, meaning Jews and Christians in the Islamic world — ones who had modernized — were doing very well, while Christianity was intolerant of both other faiths.  Christianity was a religion of conquest, they argued, look at the history of Europe.

The problems reached a climax when a group called “Christian Democracy Now,” headed by a radical named William Jefferson Bush, launched a major terror attack which took down sky scrapers in Tehran using commercial jets.  The Islamic world was shocked at the brutality, especially as they saw dancing in the street from members of the Christian minority population in Greece, who were being kept on reservations.  They realized the rise of the West was a danger.  Then the Americans, while holding on to Christian values and ruled by a radical Protestant regime, started development of a nuclear weapon.  The American people were proud that they were standing up finally to Persia; Persia’s nuclear dominance had made it invincible and able to get its way on everything.  Moreover, Persian leaders were saying the way to stop terrorism and maintain long term peace was to bring Islam to the West, or, at the very least, mesh Islamic governance with Christian values.  This was seen by Americans as raw imperialism and a threat to their identity.

As America got closer to having a bomb, and as radical groups operating from Macedonia and Albania (supported by the American government) threatened Sufi Greece, Persia had two choices; a) launch a pre-emptive strike against America and its nascent threat in order to reshape the western world to fit Islamic values, or b) accept that America would get nuclear weapons, and that the West had to chart its own course of development.

After much debate they realized that “a” would fail — no military attack could force Christians to give up their faith, and western ideas and western culture would be embraced even more tightly by Americans and Europeans in response to raw Islamic aggression, further radicalizing the Christian terror groups, and bringing more danger to Sufi Greece.  So they chose “b,” and instead decreased the level of threat, stopped talking about expanding Islamic values into the West, and worked to support American and European moderates who argued that the philosophies of forgotten thinkers such as Montesquieu and Jefferson provided a blueprint for a modernization of Christianity that was neither radical nor violent.  They gave statehood to the Christian minority in Sufi Greece (including control of parts of historic Athens), which at first led to a period of real danger from extremists who wanted the Sufis out completely.   Over time that danger diminished as relations improved.  America did get the bomb, but contrary to the worst Persian fears, did not try to attack Sufi strongholds in Greece, or threaten the Abassid lands or Persia.

Indeed, Persia had the capacity to annihilate America many times over with its vast arsenal; the Persians realized the idea that Americans would commit suicide just to kill Muslims was far overblown.   They accepted that Christians also value life.    The Persians realized that the fears of a “World War” or the “end of Islam” from this rising western threat were misplaced.  After a couple of tense decades, a modern America started to appear, gradually shedding its radical anti-Islamic/anti-Perisan approach recapturing lost traditions from the Christian and western “enlightenment” past.  Soon a modern Western way of thinking emerged, something that many in the Islamic world had thought impossible.

When America and Persia signed a treaty of friendship 25 years after America got the bomb, they noted how close they had gotten to a conflict which would have been disastrous for both worlds.   And, ultimately the Sufis and Christians in Greece developed good relations and close economic ties, something which at one point seemed impossible.  They realized that the Koran and Bible shared a basic wisdom: making war will only lead to more war and anger.  By acting according to the best of their values, they could together build a peaceful future.

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Shi’ia and Sunni

This post is part 7 in the series “Islam and the West,” the first post to be part of the series since July 17, 2008.   Click the link under “pages” to read what the purpose of this series is. There are links to the first six parts of the series at the end of this post.  Additions to this series appear occasionally on this blog, hopefully every week or two moving forward.

In his book “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End” Peter Galbraith, the son of famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith makes the claim that President Bush  and people high in the Bush administration did not know of the difference between Shi’ia and Sunni forms of Islam.  If true, the title of Galbraith’s book is spot on — anyone even thinking of a major foreign policy initiative in Iraq (especially starting a war) should have analyzed carefully the religious and cultural dynamics of the Sunni-Shi’ite split.   It is also important for people in the West to at least have a passing acquaintance with differences within Islam.

Muhammad died in 632 leaving no clear successor.    Most expected one of his first converts, Ali, to be made Caliph (leader of the Muslim world).  But Abu Bakr was chosen instead (Ali was not even invited to the decision making session), and Abu Bakr made strict rules to prevent familial succession.  This led to bitter feuds between Ali’s wife Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter), and an early political division between the “Party of Ali” (Shi’a) and the majority Sunni (from Sunna, meaning the customary practices of Islam following the ways of the Prophet Muhammad).    Even one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, opposed Fatima and Ali.   Ali did become the 4th Caliph late in his life, but was assassinated, as the divisions remained.

After the assassination Muawiyah became Caliph, stationing the capital of the Muslim world in Damascus.  His armies had fought Ali’s troops, and Muawiyah arguably did not take the religion of Islam as seriously as he did power — Shi’ites still doubt his conversion.  He governed more as a true Arab King, expanding power, and conquering most of the rest of the region.  To the followers of Ali, who had been very devout and committed to the faith, not just power, Muawiyah’s rule was contrary to the spirit of Muhammad.

Ali’s son Hasan had been chosen to be Caliph by the supporters of Ali, who were based in Kufa (located in modern Iraq), where had Ali moved the center of the Caliphate.  He was unable to assume the position because of Muawiyah’s power. Hasan and Muawiyah reached a deal whereby Hasan recognized Muawiyah’s rule, but was promised that the Muslim community will reach a consensus on the next Caliph.  Yet when Muawiyah died, he was replaced by his son, Yazid.   Needless to say, this angered the followers of Ali, who believed the Caliphate was no longer true to the letter and spirit of the Koran.  Hasan had died, however and now Hussein, Ali’s second son, was leading the Shi’a.

Hussein decided to go to Kufa from Medina to support an uprising against Yazid.   En route, in the city of Karbala (in modern Iraq), Yazid’s forces caught up with Hussein and his followers, and laid seige.  They trapped them, cut off water and supplies, and as his people were dying, Hussein made a final, futile attack alone into the heart of the Syrian army. He was killed, of course, but his martyrdom would change Islam.

In 684, four years after Hussein’s death, his followers gathered in Karbala to mourn his martyrdom, and started rituals which would define Shi’ite Islam.  The most famous of these is the ritual of Arbaeen, which still draws tens of millions of pilgrams to Karbala annually (though it was banned during Saddam’s rule).  Men would cut themselves with small chains, designed less to create pain than draw blood to show their devotion to Hussein. Hussein was a hero and a martyr, but originally the theological differences were minor.   In fact, Yazid, who paraded Hussein’s head through the streets in Kufa to warn Ali’s followers of what could happen, quickly developed a bad reputation among the Sunni — this was the head of the Grandson of the Prophet, after all!

The majority Sunni saw the Caliph as a political but not a religious authority, while the Shi’ia believed it should combine both — sort of like a Muslim Pope.   Over time, however, significant theological differences would develop. First Hussein became a mystical figure through which one can gain salvation.    Shi’ites also came to believe that after Muhammad men called Imams (not to be confused with how the term often gets used to just describe teachers) emerged as infallible leaders, blessed with implicit as well as explicit knowledge of the Koran.   The Shi’ite profession of faith expanded on the Sunni profession, adding a bit about Hussein:  “There is no god but God, Muhammad is God’s Messenger, and Ali is God’s Executor.”  (Execute as in executing Allah’s will).

These changes also meant the development of Shi’ite sects. The Imams were Ali, Hasan, Hussein, Ali (son of Hussein),  and Muhammad al-Baqir. They followed familial lines, with the father chosing which son would be the next Imam.  When one chose a son who died before he could take power, some decided that since the Imam is infallible, that son was the final Imam, currently in occultation (a kind of divine hiding).  This group is called the 7-ers.  The most common group (and the current dominant group in Iran) is the 12-ers who followed the family line until it ran out (no sons) with the 12th Imam.  They believe the 12th and final Imam is in occultation, to return at the end of the times when the world converts to Islam.  Interestingly Isa (Jesus) will also return to help the conversion.  What an amusing scene that would be — Jesus returns and as the faithful praise him he says “psst – by the way, I’m Muslim.”

The differences between the two have political implications.  Because the Shi’ia believed the leader to combine both religious and political power, they are more open to a theocratic state.  After the 1979 revolution many hinted that Khomeini (who was the first leader) might be the 12th Imam, and some have suggested that about the current President Ahmadinejad. However, unlike the Sunnis, who (as will be described in future blog entries later in this series) rejected ijtihad, or the ability to use reason to interpret the Koran into different times, the Shi’ites allow their clerics to engage in ijtihad.  That potentially opens the door for a rationalist movement in Shi’ite Islam (and, of course, they could pressure the Sunnis to bring back ijtihad, which was rejected for political reasons).

Why is it important for us to know this history?   After all, how many Americans, even Christians, really understand the reformation that split the Christian world?  I think it is important to understand both, if we’re going to handle the difficulties of forging a partnership between cultures in an era of globalization.   It makes a difference, for instance, that the Taliban is made up of Sunni extremists, while Iran is Shi’ite.  We need to realize that the extremists of each distrust the other, often considering the others to be not true Muslims.  On the other hand, throughout history most Muslims have accepted the split without major conflict (later the Sufis would emerge as another group).

Most importantly — and a goal in this blog series — is that Islam and the West are two cultures shaped by long, complex histories, and we need to understand both our own culture in the West (something most people fall short on these days) and the culture of the Islamic world.  Ultimately reconciliation and partnership will only be possible if we know and understand each other, otherwise it’ll be fraught with misunderstandings and caricatured thinking.   I’ve heard of people watching coverage of the Karabala rituals and thinking them barbaric due to the drawing of blood, not understanding what is really happening.  The challenge of globalization is not just political, economic or even environmental.  All of these are part of a challenge to understand and respect each other’s cultures.

Earlier Posts in the Islam and the West Series:

Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6, 2008)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15, 2008)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22, 2008)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30, 2008)
Part Six: Jews, Christians and Muslims (July 17, 2008)

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