Since 9/11, the West, and the United States in particular, has been wrestling with the problem of how to deal with the pathology, or what Abdelwahab Meddeb, the Paris-based Tunisian writer, calls the “malady of Islam.” There seems to be no relevant past experience that the West might draw upon in confronting this malady.
The pathologies of German-Italian fascism and Japanese militarism were eventually severely dealt with by the Allied powers, and their defeat followed by reform of those societies made the world more secure and prosperous. Similarly, a combination of diplomacy and military force by the West contained the pathology of the former Soviet Union until the communist system collapsed. But presently, there is great reluctance in the West — especially from the new Obama administration in Washington — to learn from the past and to tackle the challenges the Arab-Muslim world will continue to pose in the years ahead if the malady remains uncured.
Much has been written in recent years about Islam. I will comment here on an aspect of the problem of Islam and our modern world as a Muslim drawing upon my own lived experience.
First, the Arabs constitute less than a fifth of the world’s Muslim population. Yet despite their minority position Arabs are the center of gravity in the Islamic world. Non-Arab Muslims, for a host of reasons, look to Arabs for their understanding and practice of Islam. Hence, the malady of the Arab-Muslim world is intimately bound with the cultural norms of Arabs. Region-wise, the most affected areas extend from the Atlantic to the River Indus.
Secondly, the malady has been exacerbated by the Arab response to modernity. Modernity has multiple meanings: industrialization, urbanization, adoption of liberal values, women’s rights, elected governments, etc. I want to emphasize here the concept of citizenship as a core component of modernity. The idea of citizenship is linked to the idea of individuals in society possessing unalienable rights. The evolution of this idea has meant that even though society is a collection of individuals, individual rights override collective rights and distinguish modern society from mob rule. On this idea rests the modern democratic society, wherein political leaders are elected by citizens to whom they are accountable. They hold office with citizen approval; they make laws, but none might be passed that override the unalienable rights of citizens written into the constitution. They govern with support of the citizens and are replaced when they fail to meet the goals that saw them elected.
Let us now consider the malady of Islam given the above description of the problem as I see it. Modernity, and its concept of individual rights, is Western in origin. It evolved through centuries of philosophical and political debates, and then equally long periods of war to defeat those who opposed the principle of individual liberty. Eventually modernity and its off-shoot, citizenship, prevailed over the opposition and were more or less firmly established in the West and places beyond by the end of the last century.
Arabs were in close proximity to these ideas and the struggle that accompanied them. What, it might be asked of the Arabs, was their response to modernity? Even with all the apologia and obfuscation, the answer that cannot be evaded is that the collective Arab response has shown a preference for totalitarian ideology. In the period following the end of the World War II and European colonialism, there were three ideological responses that marked out the Arabs into three groups: secular Muslims, and orthodox Muslims divided into the majority Sunni and minority Shi’i sects.
Secular Muslims were mobilized by Arab nationalism embodied in the Ba’ath party. Sunni Muslims chose Wahhabism/Salafism embodied in the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban. Shi’i Muslims followed Khomeinism embodied in the politics of the clerical regime in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Sadrists in Iraq.
All three ideologies and movements they spawned are totalitarian. For all their professed belief in Islam’s sacred scripture, Arabs — given their blood-soaked history of suppressing dissent and despite their close proximity to the evolution of liberal movements in Europe — have been engaged in suppressing or eradicating any form of individual liberty while making no allowance for their opponents. Arabs have shown by their conduct that tyranny is their preferred response to modernity.
Liberalism in the Arab-Muslim world is peripheral. Muslim liberals are scorned, or treated worse. They look for support in the West or flee to the West. Those who have fled are viewed as stooges of the West in their native countries. Then many among them torn by remorse and guilt turn against their Western hosts and become caricatures of their past lives, railing against the West even as they prosper personally and professionally in the freedom West provides.
America’s response to 9/11 under President George W. Bush has been hugely consequential for the advance of freedom over tyranny in the Arab-Muslim world. Two of the three tyrannies (Iraq under the Ba’ath and Afghanistan under the Taliban) have been destroyed.
The remaining tyranny (Iran under Khomeinism) is in a unique situation. It is trapped between emerging democracies, even as it is seen as a bastion of reactionary hope among besieged tyrannies and their defenders. This circumstance has opened a second front in the war against Islamist terrorism, and one may observe the rise of proxy armies far and wide as a result.
Among supporters of the defeated tyrannies are the urban elite. Members of the urban elite, particularly among non-Arab Muslims, are Westernized, share little in common with the populace, live in privileged enclaves, and send their offspring to schools in the West. Their rule has brought much ruin to their people, as in Egypt and Pakistan. But they have avoided taking any responsibility by railing against the West and blaming it for their failure. This blame game will not end soon, especially as the West continues to contort itself in making apologies for the colonialism that ended some time ago.
Muslims need to ask themselves what they have against modernity. Does it go against their scripture? Does it undermine their political interests? Does it impede their progress from poverty to a life of dignity and improved well-being? Except for the obstacle posed by the urban elite and the influence of Arab culture, Muslims in general have no reason not to embrace modernity.
Freedom and democracy have been planted by American arms in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. Violent reactions were predictable given the history of the people and the region. But the defeat of two tyrannies and their accompanying ideologies is a beginning. It opens a new chapter for Muslims to prove to themselves they can be free people respecting of individual liberty and making progress with a better and reformed understanding of Islam. Conversely, if the malady of Islam is not cured it will increasingly infect the West; hence, apart from any other reason, prudence itself demands the West steadfastly remain committed to the curing of Islam’s malady.