The Malady of Islam

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.