Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Islam’s Civil War

By Barry Rubin

I’m reading a good book by Richard Dowden, a veteran reporter on Africa who now heads the Royal African Society. It’s entitled Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, published recently by Public Affairs press. Especially interesting from a Middle Eastern standpoint is his chapter on Somalia:

“Somalis are Sunni Muslims, but always followed the Sufi tradition….Their religious spirit is tolerant…and is mixed with elements of Somali’s pre Islamic Cushitic beliefs....In recent years their culture and religious practice have been undermined by Arab Wahabi preachers and Saudi money. Until recently Somali women played a major role in society, dressed in bright colors and did not cover their heads or arms. Today Somali women are expected to dress in the full Saudi black niqab and obey their men.”

This seems a bit too romantic. Somalia's Islam could be very strict and intolerant, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes in her own childhood. Nevertheless, Dowden makes an important and valid point: things have gotten much worse in recent years.

In addition, a radical Islamist movement has arisen in Somalia which at times has come to dominate the country, impose harsh laws, and even links up with al-Qaida. Dowden stresses that a lot of these developments are due to local conditions, including people being fed up with warlords and civil wars tearing apart the country causing famine and bloodshed. Islamism imposes unity and at least for a little while a decline in internal conflict.

While Afghanistan was always far more—if one can use this word—puritanical in its Islam, the pattern there with the rise of the Taliban was similar. Islamism, that is the political rule by an Islamist movement imposing its version of Islam, has the appeal of imposing a moralistic system on chaos and unity on anarchy. Elements of this kind of situation were visible among the Palestinians and Iraq, for instance, as well.

Still, the result of putting such movements into power is horrendous first and foremost for their subjects.

My view is that for centuries what I call conservative, traditional Islam dominated societies. It was politically quietist focusing more on individual behavior. Islamism is a definite break with that world view though, of course, it is rooted on basic Islamic teachings, beliefs, and writings.

The Egyptian thinker Tarek Heggy, who appears to be the Arab world’s most interesting and creative intellectual today, makes a distinction between a more moderate Egyptian-Ottoman Islam and a more intolerant Wahabi-Saudi version. That is a viable way of looking at the developments, though a lot of Islamism emerged from Egypt and other places that are not at all Wahabi, too.

Heggy also points out the great debates among Muslim thinkers in the early medieval period which led to the defeat of those more flexible and ready to integrate logic by the hardliners, who were the ancestors of the modern Wahabis but also of contemporary Islamists more generally.

When one looks at places like North Africa, Indonesia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there is clearly the phenomenon Dowden writes about in Somalia. In part, ironically, it is due to moderate transportation and communication, when the ideas of hardline Muslims and Islamists in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are quickly transported to every corner of Muslim communities throughout the world. Money is sent; teachers are trained or dispatched to outlying areas.

The idea of Islam as a religion of peace is as simplistic as that of Islam as innately extremist. There is a struggle going on. The difference, however, is that in other religions, the moderates have been gaining victories for the last 500 years, while in Islam the hardliners closed down the use of reason in religion (closing the gates of ijtihad) 800 years ago and have been making huge new advances in the last 50 years.

One sees a steady erosion of conservative-traditionalist Islam as the Islamists have been pulling much of it over, steadily in their direction.

An example is suicide bombing. A couple of decades ago if someone had argued that this behavior qualified as an act of martyrdom he would have been thrown out of the offices of mainstream clerics. Now, lots of them accept this deed as heroically proper in Islamic terms albeit only under certain conditions.

The same can be said with the idea of implementing a violent Jihad in contemporary situations. When Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who split off to engage in revolutionary activity, wrote the book about Jihad, "The Neglected Obligation," almost thirty years ago, he was viewed within Islam as a marginal crank. Now his views are mainstream and motivating thousands to fight and millions to support them.

The Islamists gains have not been enough to take over whole societies—one should also never underestimate the attractiveness of Arab nationalism as an ideology and of the regimes’ power to survive--but if this trend continues things could get a lot worse for the region and its inhabitants. At a minimum, fighting out this battle will take the next 30 to 50 years at least.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

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