There be dragons!

Friday, August 4, 2006

Bernard Lewis on the Muslim Crisis

In his great essay on the Muslim crisis, “What Went Wrong?” Bernard Lewis has several excellent insights. Among these he states:

The idea that any group of persons, any kind of activities, any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought. There is… no distinction between canon law and civil law, between the law of the church and the law of the state, crucial in Christian history. There is only a single law, the shari‘a, accepted by Muslims as of divine origin and regulating all aspects of human life: civil, commercial, criminal, constitutional, as well as matters more specifically concerned with religion in the limited, Christian sense of that word.


What this implies, of course, is that participation by Muslims in a democratic government proves by its nature to be difficult at best, impossible at worst. If there is no room for secular government in the imagination Muslims dealing with issues as small as traffic control, energy allocation, building codes would either assume the dimensions of religious questions or be seen as too trivial to merit real attention. How can one contribute to the ongoing development of civil life under such conditions? Something would have to give. One of three possibilities would then be open. Either government would become a monumental exercise in which each decision held the weight of eternal salvation/damnation, government would be grossly neglected because of its insignificant and worldly nature, or religious convictions would have to be relaxed or abandoned. The Muslim who takes seriously his religion, unlike the Christian, Jew, or even Buddhist or Hindu is thus placed in a difficult spot.

Lewis goes on to note that the blame leveled at the outside world by Muslims is an ancient malady.

“Who did this to us?” is of course a common human response when things are going badly, and there have been indeed many in the Middle East, past and present, who have asked this question. They found several different answers. It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one’s misfortunes. For a long time, the Mongols were the favorite villains … but after a while historians, Muslims and others, pointed to … flaws in this argument … . The rise of nationalism … produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks who had ruled them for many centuries. Turks could blame the stagnation of their civilization on the dead weight of the Arab past in which the creative energies of the Turkish people were caught and immobilized. Persians could blame the loss of their ancient glories on Arabs, Turks, and Mongols impartially.

Blaming others for the collapse of the Muslim seems to stretch back to the 16th century when Muslims first began to notice how Western culture was advancing beyond them. Never did they ask, however, “Could this failure be due to religion & culture?” There is no statement in Muslim culture to the effect that the king derives his power from the dukes who support him. Nor is there any statement that each man’s body may be the king’s but his conscience is his own. Muslim culture contains no political thought to the effect that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, nor do they begin to suggest that governments are instituted among men to secure these inalienable rights or that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.

Yet Islam is so vastly inferior to the West in so many areas that there must be a root cause to the misery under which the Muslim people suffer. They currently blame the Great Satan of America and the Little Satan of Israel (not to mention the minor choirs of Satans in Britain, Italy, and Australia), yet as Lewis points out, though

The period of French and British paramountcy … produced a new and more plausible scapegoat – Western imperialism. … Anglo – French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle – Eastern states and societies.

It is certainly easier to blame others for one’s own failure, especially when introspection and self-examination are absent. Add to this the infection of inherited from the West of anti-Semitism and the crisis in Israel & Lebanon which we are currently witnessing takes on a new dimension. Again, as Lewis points out,

With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, (Muslims) tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948 – the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine – all the more of a shock. As some writers at the time observed, it was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.

Middle Eastern Muslims (of which the current diaspora of Muslims throughout the West is derived) harbor a bitter resentment against the insult dealt them by Israel.

Lewis’ conclusion is good, though not fierce enough.

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination… If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, then they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization.
I would suggest that unless they deviate from their current path the only result is genocide and annihilation, not for the West, but for Islam and the Middle East. It seems, then, that hope for the Muslim people exists, but perhaps not in the form of Muslims as they currently are.