What do Muslims think? Do most Muslims reject the radical fundamentalist interpretation of their faith peddled by Osama bin Laden and his associates, or do they increasingly embrace it? As simple and even empirical as the question is, Western observers do not agree on the answer. Several efforts by Western polling organizations to answer this and related questions have clarified little and raised serious arguments over the reliability of their methodologies.
Most do agree, however, that the question is important, for the answer ought to tell us how to fashion the political aspects of the global War on Terror—the struggle for “hearts and minds”, as it is commonly and more softly called. If most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims oppose radical views, then U.S. (and Western) policy could usefully help organize, mobilize and in other ways support majority moderate Muslim views against minority radical ones. There would be a robust future for public diplomacy and little worry about a clash of civilizations. The short-term risks of destabilizing authoritarian Arab allies in an effort to open up political spaces within their borders, too, could be borne confidently. On the other hand, to the extent that Muslim societies have become radicalized in recent years and if still further radicalization is to be expected, then public diplomacy will not be able to accomplish much, a civilizational clash looms, and cooperation with less-than-democratic regional allies becomes a more attractive tactic.
Just a dozen years ago, virtually no one debated this question. Despite the radicalizing influence of the Iranian Revolution and the Wahhabi proselytizing of an inexhaustibly wealthy Saudi Arabia, virtually all knowledgeable observers would have dismissed the possibility that radicals would ever make up a majority, or anything near it, within the Muslim world. Now there is a plausible argument otherwise. Radicalization has advanced rapidly, runs the argument, through a combination of factors: the frustrations of living under corrupt and dysfunctional governments that have failed to congeal a focus of loyalty other than that of tribe and sect; greater literacy and urbanization, which privilege higher, formalized standards of piety over the traditional folk Islam of the countryside; reaction against the alien indignities of Western materialism, accelerated by the growing scope of post-Cold War globalization; the integration of Muslim political consciousness (and grievances) worldwide thanks to the information revolution; and an aggressive post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that has fueled nativist reactions against Westernization on a massive scale.
As persuasive as such a narrative may be, it is mistaken. Yes, radicals have been making a lot of noise in recent years, and yes, a rise in Islamist zeal has been manifest in violent behavior on every inhabited continent. Islamist radicalism will no doubt surge in some Muslim-majority countries, and in some European ones with Islamic communities. These dangers must not be ignored. Nevertheless, broad social and intellectual trends in the Muslim world do not support a pessimistic assessment. Radical Muslim advocates today are standing on soapboxes suspended in very thin social air. Underlying currents, which Western observers almost never read about in their newspapers and magazines, point another way.
The Sound and the Fury
Seen from the West, the Muslim world has appeared over the years to be either a dark continent frozen in an epochal silence or a maze of boisterous souks—the proverbial “Arab street”—ready to explode with anger. The history of Islam in the past two centuries or so—that is to say, since the first “shock of civilizations” it experienced upon encountering modern Europe—has been marked by alternating periods of samt (silence) and jahr (loudness). What is certain is that for most Muslims the latest period of samt that started in the late 1950s, largely imposed by despotic regimes, is over. The world of Islam today finds itself in a new period of jahr, and with an unprecedented number of participants.
There are many reasons for the intellectual effervescence in most Muslim countries today, but three are of special importance. The first is that decades of investment in mass education have borne fruit, releasing into society millions of educated men and women, thus ending the monopoly that the clergy and its allies in the government bureaucracy enjoyed for centuries. Urbanization, the emergence of new middle classes and growing contact with the West, often thanks to hundreds of thousands of young Muslims sent there for higher education, have also helped create mass audiences for current debates.
The second is the general weakening of the state, which is faced with a crisis of legitimacy and is losing its monopoly on information. No longer enjoying the prestige of the early post-colonial era, alternative sources of moral and intellectual authority have either emerged or reasserted themselves outside state structures—universities, cultural associations, literary clubs, non-governmental organizations and business and professional unions among them.
Finally, the emergence of mass transnational media, including satellite television, the Internet and multi-edition newspapers and magazines, have offered means of self-expression on an unprecedented scale. A decade ago, the number of people in the Middle East (excluding Israel) with access to the Internet was about 3.5 million. Since then that number has quadrupled. In Iran alone more than six million people reportedly surf the net each day. In 1997, the Muslim world had two satellite television networks, both in Arabic, broadcasting only a few hours a day—and the fare they offered was mostly staid and dull. Today there are more than fifty such networks in 11 languages, often on the air around the clock, competing for viewers. There is nothing staid and dull about Muslim satellite television these days.
There has also been a massive increase in the number and circulation of newspapers and magazines—the reverse of the trend in most Western countries. In some cases, such as Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the increase might be regarded as an accident of history. Elsewhere—for example, in Saudi Arabia—it reflects a natural development of demand for information and ideas. Some of this demand no doubt has been stimulated by the growth in electronic media.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of Muslim bloggers, whose number doubles almost every year, has boosted the concept of the individual as a legitimate and necessary participant in public life, and it has had a significant democratizing impact. Among the bloggers, one finds princes and presidents along with ordinary citizens from all walks of life. Muslim women, who are supposed to be neither seen nor heard in many countries, are especially keen bloggers, for reasons that do not require much imagination.
Of course, the current jahr does not affect all the fifty or so Muslim-majority countries the same way. But to allude to the diversity of the Muslim world is also to note that discussion and debate are no longer limited to the few nations, notably Egypt, Turkey and Iran, regarded as trend-setters in the “heartland of Islam” until recently. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is making a major contribution far from the traditional “heartland”, as is remote Mauritania at the opposite end of the “arc of Islam.” Even countries like Libya and Syria, which still try to wall themselves in, have been unable to prevent a massive invasion of information, ideas and images from the outside world.
Because part of today’s debate roams in cyberspace, Muslims living in non-Muslim countries—almost 400 million people—also participate. This creates unprecedented opportunities for Muslims to communicate across political, cultural and, of course, geographical boundaries. Many participants in the Islamic debate live in the West, including the United States. Often without realizing it, these “Western” Muslims convey attitudes and styles into the heartland of Islam that challenge traditional institutions such as the mosque, the hussainiya, the takiya, the howzah, the jirgah and the diwaniya, where political, cultural and religious discourse has been shaped for more than a thousand years.
To put it in the vernacular, things in the Muslim world are all shook up—indeed, for many of the same reasons indicated by those predicting an unstoppable radical surge. But they do not see beyond the superficial, outer layers of the tumult. In truth, several features distinguish the current debate from other periods of jahr in Islam’s recent history. Understanding these features gives a more textured and nuanced grasp of realities in the Muslim world.
Faith and Power
The first of these new features is the predominantly this-worldly character of the current debate. Writing at the end of the 19th century, the Persian political agitator Mirza Malkam Khan advised Muslim reformers to formulate their ideas in religious terms. “Whatever reform you look for”, he liked to say, “find a justification for it in the Quran or the sayings of the Prophet.” When a local ayatollah issued a fatwa banning the use of eyeglasses made by the “infidel”, Malkam’s riposte was ingenuous: “Believers need glasses to read the Quran.”
This advice has become a wasting asset. Some Islamists still try to win arguments by quoting Quran or Hadith, but the public is fast losing its taste for such citatory tactics. Once upon a time, a saying attributed to Muhammad would have closed a debate; today it is far more likely to re-launch it, if only because increasingly literate and educated audiences will have already read and thought for themselves about the quote. But another reason is that Islamic theology, which started a long and agonizing decline in the 12th century, has been moribund for many decades. Over these decades, Muslim clergy have been gradually reduced to jurists of capillary scale, ruling in their responsa largely on questions of ritual detail, but unable to come to terms with the broader moral challenges raised by a convulsively changing world.
Without a living theology for more than a century, Islam as a religious tradition today simply lacks the vocabulary needed for discussing issues of contemporary import. The character of contemporary Muslim debate has been further secularized by a recent avalanche of new terms into all the main languages of Islam: Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu among others. Almost all of these terms are borrowed from various European languages, especially English and French, and at least implicitly express Western ideas and ideals. How does an Arabic speaker today discuss human rights, civil society, pluralism, accountability, elections, democracy, good governance, the rule of law and social justice without going beyond Islamic frameworks and concepts? It is impossible, which is why even Muslim clergy now regularly appeal to wider audiences by employing the terms of the Western political lexicon. Muhammad Khatami, a former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a mid-ranking Shi‘a mullah, quotes Hobbes, Hegel and Locke more often than he does any Shi‘i scholar or imam.
Not only is debate in the Muslim world today this-worldly, it is overtly political. Seen from the outside, Islam may look to be a monolith. In reality, it is a house of a thousand mansions, as riven by sectarian differences as is Christianity. Shi‘a have as much in common with Sunnis as Anabaptists have with Catholics, and each of the two main schools is divided into dozens of smaller branches that often disagree even over fundamentals of the faith. And that is one of the reasons why current debate has remained predominantly political—at least until very recently—for those engaged in it recognize that conducting it at a religious level would provoke murderous and self-destructive schismatic tensions. Even for those with deep religious convictions, the prudent course is to avoid overt religiosity and to seek a broader Islamic consensus on political issues.
For example, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the “guides” of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Arab Sunni movement, can never agree with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Guide of Khomeinist Shi‘i Iran, even on Islam’s basic principles. For Qaradawi, there are three such principles: the unity of God (tawhid), Muhammad’s prophethood (nubuwwah) and the Day of Reckoning (yawm al-ma‘ad). Khamenei, however, adds two more: justice (‘adl) and the rule of the imamate (imamah). It is only in politics that the two can find a terrain d’entente by calling, for example, for the destruction of Israel or the expulsion of the United States from the Muslim world. This politicization of debate in Islam is everywhere to be seen. In most mosques anywhere in the world, even in Brooklyn, God makes only a cameo appearance in sermons delivered to the faithful these days. Instead, worshippers hear about “Zionist conspiracies”, “Islamophobia”, “the corruption of Western civilization” and the U.S. “attempt at imposing its hegemony on the world.”
This distortion of religion is simply unsustainable, and it is increasingly unpopular. Most people seek religious affiliation for the comfort and stability it brings, for the bonds it provides to family and the solace it offers in times of sickness, disappointment and tragedy. Politicized religion cheapens and denies all this, and Muslims who understand and value their traditions will not allow themselves to be thus dispossessed. Increasingly common are remarks like those of Murad Ahmed, a British Muslim who wrote, after the revelation in late January of a radical plot to abduct and behead a British soldier of Muslim faith: “It’s a failing of our ‘silent majority’ for being silent too long. For cowering in the face of the perceived moral superiority of nutcases because they seem to believe in the faith more than we do. It’s time to get a megaphone and tell these people that they don’t speak for us.”
The New Debate
The internecine battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims is hardly over. It has barely begun. As the thin political façade of the latest round of this conflict wears away, and genuine religion comes to terms with the world, we will see a different social reality. For non-Muslims, it will help to know the principal participants in the new era of jahr as this reality takes shape.
Two generations ago, two groups dominated the debate in most Muslim countries: leftist parties and organizations on the one side, and nationalist ones on the other. From these social locations came the “who’s-who” of literary, philosophical and artistic stars of the 1940s and 1950s in Turkey, Iran and most Arab countries. Today, however, with the exception of Iraq, where the Communists have a dozen seats in parliament, the Left is hardly present anywhere in the Muslim world. Nor are there significant nationalist movements. Kurdish nationalism is vibrant largely because the Kurds lack a state of their own. Some Persianists try to use Iranian nationalism against Khomeinist ideology, but they are relegated to the margins of society, as are small ultra-nationalist groups in Turkey.
The virtual disappearance of the Left and the nationalists has allowed two new, or reshaped, forces to dominate social discourse. The first of these is broadly Islamic in character, but is itself divided into three conflicting tendencies. The second is hard to name. Let’s call it “secularist”, even though we recognize that word as having a distinctively Western historical origin.
The Islamic camp includes all who believe that Islam as a civilization is capable of self-renewal and, given favorable circumstances, could offer a universally attractive alternative to the Western model of society. This camp divides into three tendencies: holy war (jihad) and conquest (fatah), which most casual Western observers presume subsumes the entire camp; reason (‘aql) and propagation (tabligh); and traditional quietism.
The current version of the “holy war and conquest” brand of Islamism finds inspiration in two 20th-century fighter-philosophers: the Pakistani journalist and propagandist Abul-Ala Maududi (1903–79) and the Egyptian educator Sayyid Qutb (1906–66). The most vocal and popular representatives of this tendency are supported by a network of often clandestine political and social organizations, including al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Armed Combat. Many wealthy Arabs, including some who are not religious at all but who wish to vex and pressure their own or other local regimes, finance the publication and dissemination of jihadist work. Its principal outlet in the mainstream media is the al-Jazeera satellite television network and its websites, owned by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al-Thani. One of the group’s best-known sympathizers, Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric working in Qatar, helps spread their ideas through an Islamic version of his weekly televangelist shows. In turn, al-Qaradawi is supported by an outfit called the European Council of Ulema, which is partly financed by the European Union.
Outside the Arab world, the school of “holy war and conquest” attracts many political activists but has few prominent writers and propagators. Among the few are the Pakistani Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder and leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Good), and Khurshid Ahmad, a British Pakistani.
The “reason and propagation” tendency traces its political ancestry to the Persian pamphleteer Jamaleddin Assadabadi, alias al-Afghani (1838–97), and his Egyptian disciple, Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905). In recent times, their followers have sought to describe themselves as salafis (followers of righteous predecessors), although that term has also been appropriated by parts of the “holy war and conquest” tendency. The backbone of the salafi movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, a loose association of scores of formal and informal societies spread across the globe and financed by wealthy Muslims, big corporations and, from time to time, various Arab and Muslim governments.
The “reason and propagation” camp also includes a number of Shi‘a writers and scholars, almost all of Iranian origin, most notably Sayyed Hussain Nasr, a former adviser to the Empress Farah, Hashem Aghajari, formerly of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and Abdul-Karim Sorush, a former aide to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
These two Islamic camps, though divided from one another by theology and temperament, are both opposed by traditionalist quietists, who believe that both camps have harmed Islam by making it excessively political. This tendency is especially strong among Shi‘a. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, primus inter pares as a leader of the Shi‘i faith, is the best-known representative of the quietist tradition, but there are many others. The quietist tradition is numerically larger than the others, but by its very nature is politically self-effacing.
Among the three Islamic tendencies (and even within them) there is much diversity and dispute. Indeed, the most vociferous and effective opponents of the “holy war and conquest” tendency are not secularists but those within other Islamic schools. They all share a certain Islamic sensibility, and insist that Muslims should try to change the world through Islamic religious and cultural paradigms. What divides them is the nature of those paradigms.
While the three Islamic camps dominate much of the space in current Muslim debates, they are by no means alone. Outside the Islamist orbit there is a growing mass of intellectual energy that is decidedly non-religious, at times overtly secular or even atheistic. Many areas of cultural and artistic life in most Muslim countries have already been thoroughly secularized, not to say de-Islamicized. Even in the Islamic Republic of Iran and conservative Saudi Arabia, much of the literature and art produced is effectively Western in both form and content. The Muslim world today cannot boast a single notable Islamic poet or novelist. Books on Islamic ritual still sell, and there is a significant market for vitriolic pamphlets against “Jews and crusaders”, including the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. But no one writes The Great Islamic Novel and there is little sign of Islam making a comeback as an influence in history, sociology or philosophy. Although a dozen governments, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, offer generous grants and prizes for Islamic studies, few applicants are found inside the Muslim world.
It is in the mainstream media, however, that the strategic retreat of Islamism is most vivid. Although still capable of flexing muscle in the streets, Islamists find it increasingly difficult to defeat their enemies on the battlefield of ideas. Modern Islam generates much heat but little light. Indeed, though it will come as news to most Western readers, many secular writers and political leaders enjoy a vast and growing audience across the Muslim world. The Iranian philosopher Dariush Shayegan has been translated into all major Muslim languages. His late compatriot, Fereydoun Hoveyda, has also secured a following in the Arab world. In Egypt, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Abdul-Mun‘im Saeed, Hassan Naafeah and Mustafa Bakri are household names despite attacks against them by both Islamists and the despotic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. And there are many others, in every Arab and Muslim country, together constituting the other side of a Muslim intellectual civil war, the core issue within which is basically the same today as it was a century ago: modernity and what to do about it.
Should the modern world be rejected because it is non-Islamic, not to say anti-Islamic? Radical Muslim thinkers generally reply “yes”, secularists “no”, and traditionalists “it depends.” But in practice these are not consistent replies, and really cannot be. Radicals see the contemporary world order as a new “age of ignorance” (jahiliyah) comparable to the one Muhammad brought to end. In their critique of the modern world, however, Muslim anti-moderns borrow massively from the anti-Western philosophers and writers of the West itself. In emphasizing the evils of materialism, industrialization and lack of concern for the environment, they have little original to say. At the same time, militant Islamist movements have no qualms about using Western technology and methods of organization and management.
Secularists, on the other hand, oppose rigid views about Islam as the final message of God that cancels out all other religions. They also reject the division of the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War), urging Muslims to regard their faith as one of many possible “paths to the Divine.” But secularists, who experience Islam as a civilization more than a religious faith, still fear being amalgamated into an attenuated Christological Western culture. Modernity in its present form is a problem for them, too.
The Power of Tradition
Traditionalists by their very nature are reluctant to change, but the fact is that all traditions do change or they would not, could not, exist. The wisdom of tradition is that it knows how to preserve the essence of a culture even as outward forms evolve over time. Tradition must evolve slowly, however, lest its secret for success become conscious, for that would destroy its power. But if we look at the issues at play within the Muslim world today, the case is strong for the ultimate success of enlightened tradition—defined in this way and bounded by the pressures of Islamist purism on the one side and the secularizing tendencies of modernity on the other.
For example, radical Islamists parody Western notions of human equality. Islam is based on a baroque hierarchy of inequality. Secularists embrace the language of equality, but their anchors in Islamic civilization often hold back their acting upon their own words. It is thus left to traditionalists to produce a sustainable synthesis, and they are doing so. A decade ago, there were hardly any human rights pressure groups anywhere in the Muslim world. Today, more than 400 human rights groups are active in all but two (Libya and Sudan) of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Who leads these groups? Self-described secularists, agnostics, atheists? Sometimes, but more often they are led by pious Muslims unafraid to engage with the modern world. These pious Muslims include increasingly large numbers of women—and here we come to a truly critical subject.
In the Muslim debate about equality and modernity, all Islamists—militants, radicals and traditionalists—struggle with the issue of women in Muslim societies. In some Muslim countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, women now constitute a majority of university students. In Iran, Egypt, Syria and Algeria women’s rights activists are in the vanguard of the struggle against despotism and for democracy. Islamists offer women a set of specific rights derived from the Quran, but Muslim women increasingly reject the offer as a form of gender apartheid. Next to human rights and the concept of equality, the issue of women’s status in modern Islam is certain to remain a burning one in the current debate for many years to come.
We already see glimmers of how this struggle is likely to turn out. Purely secular approaches to gender issues are unlikely to prevail in Muslim societies, at least for many generations. But radicals cannot prevail either, for their strictures are a formula for economic stagnation, collective neurosis and social decay. So we now hear, for example, arguments about the Quranic source for the hijab—not surprising, because there is no Quranic source for it. As more and more people, especially women, become literate and educated and can read the Quran and Hadith for themselves, it becomes increasingly difficult for hidebound clerics to maintain their authority and social power. Religious authority will have to change and compromise. And, very likely, enlightened tradition will be the means for this in Islam as it has been in other religious traditions over the centuries in Europe and elsewhere. Whatever else they may be, religions are mediating templates between human communities and their environments; they cannot spite reality forever and survive.
We can see social change happening along these lines throughout the Muslim world. In economics, virtually all of the Islamic principles derived from the Quran and Hadith have been either discarded or modified beyond recognition in recent decades. Because the Quran forbids usury, most Muslim ulema were opposed to the creation of banks in Muslim countries. Islam also forbids insurance, because it presumes to pre-empt the Divine will. It also forbids limited liability companies, because a Muslim cannot transfer any part of his personal responsibility to a notional body, even one sanctioned by temporal law. Another institution long regarded as “sinful” is the stock exchange. Today banks are a key feature of economic life in all Muslim countries. Insurance companies are present everywhere and prospering. The limited liability company is now the most widespread type of business enterprise in the Muslim world. In some cases, especially in Shi‘a Iran, companies include among their shareholders one or more Shi‘i “saints”, allocating part of the profits to endowments named after them. And even Iran and Saudi Arabia now have stock exchanges. These innovations have all required juridical rationales, and enlightened tradition has provided them. Religious authorities have changed codes of proper conduct while insisting that nothing essential has changed—and nearly everyone believes it. Secularists may bring pressure for change in these directions, but secularists alone could never turn pressure into results in most Muslim countries.
There is more. The Islamic “labor code” has also been discarded, replaced by norms spelled out by the International Labor Organization. Islamic “taxation” has also been discarded by virtually all Muslim states: Even Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot collect the various Islamic taxes: zakat (purification of wealth, equivalent to 2.5 percent of an individual’s net worth); khoms (one-fifth of income); and ushr (one-tenth of profits).
Islamists have also lost the battle of ideas over the structures of the modern state. The idea of creating a universal Caliphate still appeals to a few dreamers in Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami and to the Iranian-American scholar Sayyed Hussein Nasr. Some Khomeinist theoreticians—like Muhammad-Hussein Fahdlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese branch of Hizballah—also dream of a pan-Islamic state under a Shi‘i imam. But they are a tiny minority even among Shi‘a. The vast majority of Muslims have accepted the Western concept of the state as a given of their political existence, and they have also accepted Western standards of political legitimacy. In most schools of Sunni Islam, legitimacy is derived from the ability to impose one’s rule (sultah). An effective ruler, or a “sultan”, becomes wali al-amr (custodian of affairs) on behalf of God and is thus worthy of respect and obedience by the faithful. Unless the ruler tries to prevent Muslims from practicing their faith, he is owed obedience even if he is despotic or corrupt. Rebellion against the wali al-amr is fitna (sedition), a cardinal sin. In Shi‘i Islam, all governments formed in the absence of the Hidden Imam (who disappeared in 940 CE) are regarded as ja‘ber (despotic) and ja‘er (oppressive), and thus undeserving of believers’ genuine loyalty. Today, however, these concepts are dead letters for all practical purposes. All governments in the Muslim world have structures borrowed from the West, and all claim legitimacy on largely secular grounds such as the anti-colonial struggle, real or imagined revolutions, tribal affiliations, dynastic memories, victories in civil wars and free elections, in a few inchoate and still fragile cases like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea of elections as both a source of legitimacy and as a means of changing governments and policies reached the Muslim world in the first decade of the last century, but only now is it achieving broad consensus. Apart from small groups of hard-line Islamists, virtually all Muslims acknowledge elections as a major, if not the only, source of a government’s legitimacy. The latest convert is the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest international political organization of radical “reason and propagation” Sunnis. True, in many cases the elections held by corrupt regimes or supported by hard-line Islamists are far from free or fair. But even then, the exercise merits attention as a compliment that vice pays to virtue, as La Rochefoucauld once put it.
Yet another domain of Islamist retreat concerns the role of science in society. Traditionally, Islam encouraged scientific research and study only insofar as it served to confirm “the truth of the Quran.” Indeed, the term ilm (science) was specifically reserved for those sciences, such as physics and mathematics, regarded as instrumental to a better understanding of the divine. Today, however, all traditionalists acknowledge that science has a specific space of its own. A recent debate in Saudi Arabia illustrates the point.
Last year, an argument arose over which day should be regarded as the end of Ramadan and thus the start of Eid al-Fitr. According to Sheikh Salih al-Humaydan, the Saudi Chief Justice, the proper time could not be fixed unless a group of religious scholars or appointed witnesses literally observed the crescent of the new moon and informed the faithful of its sighting. Sheikh Abdallah bin-Mani‘e, however, issued an edict insisting that astronomers be empowered to calculate the end of Ramadan on the basis of scientific measurements. Heated and often acrimonious debate echoed in mass circulation newspapers as well as radio and television, and it soon became clear that the pro-science party enjoyed overwhelming support. Sheikh Humaydan’s claim that “matters of faith be left to scholars of faith”, was roundly rejected by most participants in the debate, including many theologians.
Also as regards matters of science and faith, it is worth noting that the absence of a central ecclesiastical authority in Islam has allowed Muslim societies to adopt pragmatic approaches to many controversial scientific issues that also roil Western societies: abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, in-vitro fertilization and animal cloning, to mention the main ones. In actual Muslim societies, as opposed to the caricatures most Westerners receive from their increasingly dysfunctional news media, it turns out that many Muslim countries allow controlled research programs and practices in areas that are either banned or severely restricted in most Western democracies. For example, both secular Turkey and Islamist Iran have government-funded stem-cell research programs, while euthanasia has been implicitly accepted and routinely practiced in Indonesia, Malaysia and even very traditional Saudi Arabia. It is not always so clear where pragmatism and fundamentalism may be found in today’s world.
Islamists are also in retreat on many social and lifestyle issues. Although Islam expressly forbids adoption, for example, most Muslim countries acknowledge it as a fact and allow it within a framework of laws and regulations. A majority of Muslim states now allow women to sue for divorce and, while Islam recognizes only men as guardians of their offspring, custody is often granted to women in divorce cases.
Islamic practices such as the execution of female adulterers by stoning or the dismemberment of those found guilty of burglary have also long been discarded by most Muslim societies (with occasional exceptions in Iran and Sudan). Polygyny, a right granted in the Quran, is still legal in all but one Muslim country (Tunisia), but outside the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and Pakistan, it is rarely practiced. Even where it is practiced, polygyny is generally regarded as either weird or scandalous. The popular Saudi television comedy show Tash-Ma-Tash (“Hit-or-Miss”) caused a furor last year by lampooning men who take more than one wife. The overwhelming majority of those who reacted to the program endorsed its critical stance.
Islamic law mandates death as the punishment for male homosexuality, but in practice most Muslim countries prefer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach punctuated by cringing tolerance—an attitude more or less consistent with Islamic life over the past dozen centuries. Al-Qaeda leaders are the only ones who advocate the mass execution of gay people, a proposition most Muslims think is crazy.
Islamism in its various forms is a mortally wounded beast. It has lost most of the major political debates of contemporary life and is in retreat on most core issues of Islamic political, economic and social practice. But it still manages to maintain a vast audience by appealing to xenophobia: more specifically, to virulent anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. In religious and cultural terms, the Jew is the quintessential “other” whom Muslims ought to simultaneously admire and fear. The American represents the “other” in terms of political and military power.
Hence Islamist writers dismiss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a Jewish invention” designed to open the way for Jews to become rulers of the world in the name of equality. Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia and a leading preacher of Islamism, claims that democracy, too, is a Jewish invention and that the concept of “one man, one vote” is designed to destroy Islam’s hierarchy of worth. The Israel-Palestine conflict is presented and analyzed in religious rather than political terms. Israel is portrayed as “a dagger pushed into the heart of Islam” rather than a nation-state with whom some Arabs are in dispute over land, water and other secular issues. As to the United States, the typical Islamist is in no doubt that, thanks to its democracy and capitalist economic system, it is the latest manifestation of the taghut (“the rebel”, a code-name for Satan). The United States is presented as the arch-tempter, with an almost magical appeal to man’s “basest material instincts.” Thus, wiping Israel off the map and defeating the United States have emerged as the two principal slogans of virtually all radical Islamists, Sunni and Shi‘a.
Radial Islamists hang on to these themes partly because they have no defensible positions on issues of real political, economic and social life. And here, too, a good part of the anti-Jewish and anti-American literature consumed by radical Islamists is imported from the West, including the United States itself. It is not unusual to find in an Arabic newspaper an American columnist castigating the United States or Israel in translation, while an Arab writer on the same page offers a far more nuanced or even sympathetic view of both the “Great Satan” and the “Zionist enemy.”
The anti-Semitic and anti-American emphasis of radical Islam owes much to the large market for grievance in the Muslim world. Muslims are depressed by the political impotence and manifest economic dysfunction of their states, and by the personal frustrations that trickle down to them as a consequence. There is, however, not a lot that an average citizen can do about any of this. Letting off steam by associating with a “bad boy” cause becomes attractive under such circumstances. Again, Murad Ahmed puts it well in the context of British Muslims:
A poll for Policy Exchange last week found that about a third of younger Muslims would like to live under sharia. Ask a stupid question. Ask these kids if they can explain the details of sharia. When they can’t, ask them what they’re really upset about. . . . They’re born angry, and now need a reason to be. Radical Islamism has become an off-the-peg label that young Muslims can wear to rebel against their dads and wider British society. Like punks before them, they’ll grow up and grow out of it.
There are special reasons for anger and alienation among young Muslims in non-Muslim majority societies. In most Muslim-majority countries, however, radical Islamism is in retreat on all fronts. But it still exerts influence thanks to the appeal of grievance populism. Islamists are also still capable of assassinating or intimidating many critics, and where Islamists are in power, as in Iran and Sudan, they can drive millions of real or potential critics into exile. Islamists gain some legitimacy simply by being the most ardent opponents of despotic secular regimes, such as those in Egypt and Syria. At times, they also benefit from insinuating themselves into the ranks of the global anti-American movement that cobbles together the remnants of the Stalinist Left, misguided eco-radicals and assorted new age “useful idiots” who have been persuaded that the United States is a war-mongering, hegemonic power. This is the political life-support structure of Islamic radicalism today. It is not robust.
Islamism is unable to offer a coherent analysis of contemporary Islam. It has no theology for a place and time where genuine religion is sought, and it has no political program to deal with real issues. It is losing ground to traditionalists and secularists nearly everywhere. It is doomed to ultimate defeat.