A country in crisis sometimes needs a new religion. Kemal Ataturk, faced with the long and seemingly irreversible decline of the Ottoman Empire found it necessary to propose the reform of Islam, an act for which he is variously remembered. Professor Ethem Figlali describes him as a devout, but secularizing reformer. Some bloggers have accused him of destroying Islam. One author simply calls him a Jew.
Radical shifts in religion are feature of Middle Eastern history. There was the Muslim conquest of Egypt itself. And there was a brief vogue of Leftism, whose best known derivative was Nasserism.
Spanning the domestic and international spheres, it combines elements of Arab socialism, republicanism, nationalism, anti-imperialism, Developing World solidarity, and international non-alignment. In the 1950s and 1960s, Nasserism was amongst the most potent political ideologies in the Arab World….
Though mindful of the Islamic and Christian heritage of the Arab World, as with Ba’athism, Nasserism is largely a secular ideology. Just as with other manifestations of Arab nationalism, this led to direct conflict with Islamic orientated Arab political movements from the 1950s onwards, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
The mid-20th century was a golden age for Arab atheism, borne upon the wings of Marxism-Leninism. Many of the “resistance” figures of the 1960s were westernized Communists who got religion only after Nasserism got pounded into the dust by Israel and the Soviet was bulldozed into oblivion by Ronald Reagan. But underneath the new wave Islamism, an undercurrent of the old atheism still remained. As’ad AbuKhalil writes:
It was lost on Western media that Hamdeen Sabbahi, the third-ranked candidate in the Egyptian presidential election, is a staunch Nasserist. Furthermore, there are atheist communists who played important political roles in the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt (in Syria, those communists suffered early imprisonment and repression by the regime, which prefers to face Islamists of the various kinds). And those atheists are making their voices heard: The new leftists and communists, and secularists in general, are far more brave and daring than the discredited class of orthodox Stalinist Marxists who — under strict orders from Moscow — did not wish to challenge religious authorities and did not wish to spread atheist beliefs.
The brief rule of Ikhwan in Tunisia and Egypt, and the public manifestations of Salafi groups in many Arab countries, has had the reverse effect: Many young Arabs are being turned off from religion altogether. It is significant that a young woman in Tunisia yesterday attempted to expose her breasts in front of a popular mosque to protest a Salafi gathering. Nude protests have also been registered in Egypt, and despite the superficial nature of such protests and their gimmicky quality, they represent a new daring trend that does not shy away from offending religion.
But neither atheism nor Islam were “new religions” in respect to each other insofar as the political behavior of their societies was concerned.
Both were handmaidens of authoritarianism. As I explain in my pamphlet, Rebranding Christianity, Marxism-Leninism and Islamism are “kingdoms of this world” in addition of course, to Islam being also of the Other World. As such they offer comprehensive solutions to the problems of life on earth. Their structures are roughly parallel. The Party, the Brotherhood. Armed struggle, the Jihad. Socialist legality, Sharia. Political correctness, Islamic morality. Nasser, Morsi. The Mainstream Media, the Muttaween.
Human freedom has very little scope in either system. One awaits the Master of Time or the restoration of the Caliphate. The other awaits the Worker’s Paradise. Although Islam and Marxism may seem as different as day and night, both are comprehensive systems of human organization from which significant dissent is impossible.
As As’ad AbuKhalil wrote in the quote above, the failure of Islamism in Egypt may lead, not to more freedom, but to less. People, having forgotten the disasters of Nasserism, but with the debacles of Islamism fresh in their minds, may return to 1960s. Islamism is dead. Long live Nasser.
But in a way that is like saying, “handcuffs are dead, long live leg irons”. Though the changes will be theologically profound they will be socially insignificant. Essentially people will still select a Strong Man and wait for him to save them. If history is any guide both Marxism and Islamism are bound to disappoint. They both have an excellent track record of reducing countries to backwardness, penury and defeat.
An Egyptian Ataturk might ask, “why not introduce a new religion?” One that emphasizes human freedom. One which teaches that nobody is going to save you but yourself. One which suggests that human government will at best be a necessary evil, to be limited and watched with great vigilance. A belief system that inculcates the idea that cumulative improvements to individual lives add up to a better society.
Of course such a religion may already exist, and it’s first letter may begin with a “J” or a “C” as you prefer. Or it may be the secular equivalent of the American faith. One which rejects Kingdoms of This World in favor of allowing people to pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness. But in the nature of things proposing this new religion may be too radical for acceptance because they have such bad press.
That is no matter. The important thing is the idea. If the failure of Nasserism and Islamism in the Middle East mean anything it lies in that all attempts to build a Tower of Babel must lead to the structure collapsing under its own weight. Freedom apparently saves. And while everyone is free to choose Islamism or Communism as he prefers, freedom ought to a product on offer in the ideological shelves.
That it is not on sale is a circumstance of the Western infatuation with Marxism. A friend who is writing a book on the subject noted that the Victorian and Edwardian English intelligensia had a natural fascination for Islamism. They adored Arabism and its accidents, the flowing robes and the harsh desert. They had only despicion for soft and plodding Christianity. Nor have things changed. Their successors, the cultural Marxist-Leninists of the 21st century, are far more comfortable with Islamists than their so-called Christian co-religionists.
They admire Islam’s strength, severity and freedom from restraint. “Like a crystal bullet …” Sir John Philby, Kim Philby’s father, combined it all. He was a socialist, arabist and Muslim. He was also one of the key figures in the development of the oil industry in the region.
Philby was of the view that both British and the Saudi family’s interests would be best served by uniting the Arabian peninsula under one government from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, with the Saudis supplanting the Hashemites as Islamic “Keepers of the Holy Places” while protecting shipping lanes on the Suez–Aden–Bombay route of the British Empire.
Philby settled in Jeddah and became a partner in a trading company. Over the next few years he became famous as an international writer and explorer. Philby personally mapped on camel back what is now the Saudi–Yemeni border on the Rub’ al Khali. In 1932, while searching for the lost city of Ubar, he was the first Westerner to visit and describe the Wabar craters. In his unique position he became Ibn Saud’s chief adviser in dealing with the British Empire and Western powers. He converted to Islam in 1930. In 1931 Philby invited Charles R. Crane to Jeddah to facilitate exploration of the kingdom’s subsoil oil. Crane was accompanied by noted historian George Antonius, who acted as translator.
In May 1932, Standard Oil of California (SoCal) sought out Philby in its quest to obtain an oil concession in Saudi Arabia, ultimately signing Philby as a paid advisor to SoCal. Philby, in turn, recognizing that competition by foreign interests would get a better deal for his friend, the Saudi King, made contact with Dr. George Lees, Chief Geologist of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in order to alert him to SoCal’s interest in gaining oil exploration rights in Saudi Arabia. Anglo Persian was one of five international partners in the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), through which it pursued its interest in the Saudi concession. In March 1933, IPC sent a representative, Stephen Longrigg, to join negotiations with the Saudi government in Jeddah. However, Philby’s primary loyalty was to the Saudi King and, although he was being paid by SoCal, he kept the arrangement a secret from Longrigg. In May 1933, IPC instructed Longrigg to withdraw from Jeddah, leaving SoCal free to conclude negotiations with the Saudi Arabia for a 60-year contract to obtain the exclusive concession for exploration and extraction of oil in the al-Hasa region along the Persian Gulf.
If you want cool, Jack Philby was cool. In the modern world there is no defense against cool. Ask Alec Baldwin, he can do anything. Perhaps the most serious charge that can be laid at the feet of the Obama administration is that they did not have the courage to advocate America’s own values in the region, perhaps because they did not believe in it themselves. They instead came to the conclusion that the best thing for Egypt would be the Muslim Brotherhood; though look where it got them. They will perhaps now conclude that in light of its failure the succeeding alternative should be some kind of authoritarianism. Like a blinker bulb it will go: Nasser-Islam-Nasser-Islam-Nasser …
The the last thing Washington will offer the Egyptians is the concept of freedom bequeathed to them by their own culture. What that? Who believes in that but flyover country?
Freedom has no friend at court in the West any more. Freedom is for little people. But there are a lot of little people and in the end history suggests that the end the “meek shall inherit the earth” and the “truth shall make you free.” It took Western civilization a long to learn this lesson but only a very short time to forget it. The Egyptians have yet to learn it in this millennium though they may yet succeed, albeit under another name. But it will be one of history’s ironies if they discover the discarded jewel the West has thrown away.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99