Should states really be secular?

Posted on May 6, 2006


How many of you believe, fundamentally, in the firm division between religion and state? My thought has always been: conflagrating the two sure didn’t work out for the West, and it won’t in the Middle East, not if the Middle East expects to achieve “modernity” or “democracy” – concepts which are, of course, western-defined. A mainstream view, pretty much, despite the acres of materials thrown at me in various history and political philosophy classes that asserted quite firmly that Islamic political thought contemplates, and even encourages, democratic decision making, and that the role of the religion in public life is fundamental since it has legal, economic and political aspects. In this view, Columbia scholar Richard Bulliet concurs; and his thoughts on the topic (summarized in a Washington Monthly article) centre around Islam being the secret to achieving democracy. The Muslim Brothers should gather this man unto their bearded bosoms.
Commentators such as sandmonkey would have you believe, in common with Bernard Lewis (that old fart) that in order to protect itself from militant Islamists, the U.S. picked on Iraq – which felicitously had the most assholic leader – to spearhead its democratic initiative, which it hoped would spark a domino effect bringing democracy to all the countries in the region. The words “domino effect” cause bile to rise in my throat, as it should in anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of American foreign policy. That shit simply DOES NOT HAPPEN. I don’t see neighbouring Arab states lusting after widespread violence and a puppet government. They have that shit already, and don’t need “democracy” to bring it to them. What they should have done, of course, is find some dissatisfied persons and quietly supply them with intelligence and/or weapons to make it look like a people-supported initiative. Worked nicely with Egypt.
As an additional logical fallacy, sandmonkey also suggests that one of the motives behind the Iraq war was to remove the necessity of a military presence in Saudi Arabia, something that irked the likes of Bin Laden. What a crock. If they wanted to leave Saudi Arabia, they could have at any time. So what if Iraq invaded Kuwait and wreaked havoc in the region? It doesn’t affect their interests, except for the oil, and they would get that anyway. They could always intercede if and when Israel was threatened. No, the only answer is their basic patriarchal belief in their role as world policemen and arbiter of justice. A geopolitical, realist analysis offers no answers here.
But I have digressed considerably (sandmonkey is hard to argue with on msn as he won’t let you get a word in, so here it is). My intention was to discourse on Bulliet’s notion of Islam as a democratic watchdog. He argues that:

For centuries…comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans’ success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny. This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars, Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet. What the Arab world should have seen was not an increase in modernization so much as an increase in tyranny. By the 1960s, that prophecy was fulfilled. You had dictatorships in most of the Islamic world. Egypt’s Gamel Nasser, Syria’s Hafez Assad, and others came in the guise of Arab nationalists, but they were nothing more than tyrants.
Yet there was no longer a legitimate force to oppose this trend. In the place of traditional Islamic learning which had once allowed, even encouraged, science and advancement there was nothing. The old religious authorities had been hounded out of public life, back into the mosque. The Caliphate was dead; when Ataturk destroyed it in Turkey, he also removed it from the rest of the Islamic world. Into that vacuum roared a fundamentalist reaction led by brilliant but aberrant amateurs like Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, the founding philosopher of Ayman Zawahiri’s brand of Islamic radicalism who was hanged by al-Nasser, and later, Osama bin Laden, who grew up infected by the Saudis’ extreme version of Wahhabism. Even the creator of Wahhabism, the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was outside the mainstream, notorious for vandalizing shrines and denounced by theologians across the Islamic world in his time for his doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy.
Wahhabism’s fast growth in the late 20th century was also a purely modern phenomenon, a function of Saudi petrodollars underwriting Wahhabist mosques and clerics throughout the Arab world (and elsewhere, including America). Indeed, the elites in Egypt and other Arab countries still tend to mock the Saudis as D-class Bedouins who would have stayed that way if it were not for oil. It’s as if Jimmy Swaggert had come into hundreds of billions of dollars and taken over the church, one Arab official told me. The hellish culmination of this modern trend occurred in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s, when extremist Wahhabism, in the person of bin Laden, was married to Qutb’s Egyptian Islamism, in the person of Zawahiri, who became bin Laden’s deputy.
Critics were right to see the bin Laden phenomenon as a reaction against corrupt tyrannies like Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s, and ultimately against American support for those regimes. They were wrong to conclude that it was a mainstream phenomenon welling up from the anti-modern character of Islam, or that the only immediate solution lay in Western-style democracy. It was, instead, a reaction that came out of an Islam misshapen by modern political developments, many of them emanating from Western influences, outright invasion by British, French, and Italian colonialists, and finally the U.S.-Soviet clash that helped create the mujahadeen jihad in Afghanistan.

Interesting shit (aside from the slightly painful redundancy of “mujahadeen jihad”). But it still comes back to blaming it on colonialism, a chant that has filled every Arab’s ears forever. Whether we blame the current state of affairs on colonialism, or on more recent Western support for the corrupt tyrannies, it’s still Their Fault, isn’t it? Not that I disgree with that; but what is to be done now? Can radicalism be reversed then, except by killing them off (do I hear a cheer in the back there?)? Apparently, it can, but it will take time:

Today, the anti-Lewisites argue, the only hope is that a better, more benign form of Islam fights its way back in the hands of respected clerics like Sistani, overcoming the aberrant strains of the Osama bin Ladens and the Abu Mousab al-Zarqawis. Whatever emerges in Iraq and the Arab world will be, for a long time to come, Islamic. And it will remain, for a long time, anti-American, beginning with the likelihood that any new Iraqi government is going to give the boot to U.S. troops as soon as it possibly can. (That same CPA poll showed that 92 percent of Iraqis see the Americans as occupiers, not liberators, and 86 percent now want U.S. soldiers out, either immediately or after the 2005 election.) America may simply have to endure an unpleasant Islamist middle stage and Arabs may have to experience its failure, as the Iranians have before modernity finally overtakes Iraq and the Arab world. Railing against Islam as a barrier to democracy and modern progress cannot make it go away so long as tyranny is a fact of life for most Muslims, Bulliet writes. Finding ways of wedding [Islam’s traditional] protective role with modern democratic and economic institutions is a challenge that has not yet been met.

I’m feeling it. The article has a lot more interesting points to make, out of date or not. Read it, and thank you nutgraph. I’m going to go get that book. I’ve never read a non-fiction book voluntarily before, but I see I’m going to have to if I continue to aspire to intellectual pretensions. Anti-neocon voices need more loudspeakers, in the form of the humble yours truly <ahem>. Cheers.

Posted in: politics, religion