Sunday, August 29, 2010

"The Islamic Exception"

"To be honest, the people prefer the Taliban."
Afghan tribal elder
In 1736, Voltaire wrote, "Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror." (Tout homme sensé, tout homme de bien, doit avoir la secte chrétienne en horreur.)

Similar sentiments concerning Christianity -- some more diplomatic, others even more harshly worded -- can be found in the writings of many of the greatest literary, philosophical, and political figures over the last five centuries of Western history (as well as among many modern day writers and thinkers, including many prominent historians and scholars of religion).

But the fact remains that Western culture is still, in the 21st century, predominantly Christian, and, therefore, it should come as no surprise that there continues to be a strong counter-current in Western thought that not only defends Christianity, but that seeks to portray all criticism of it as intemperate and ill-informed at best, and persecutory at worst.

No clearer example of this counter-current could be asked for than that of the spectacle of Christians claiming "discrimination" whenever the establishment clause of the first amendment is consistently adhered to!

In the past, attempts to portray Christianity and Christians as the poor victims of shameful bigotry whenever anyone dares to articulate perfectly reasonable, and factually well-supported, criticisms of their religion, have been left to reactionaries aligned with the most unabashedly regressive and authoritarian elements of Protestantism and Catholicism. But more recently, a "progressive" discourse of exculpatory religious apologetics, hiding behind the facade of "multiculturalism", has been making its shrill, monotonous voice increasingly heard. And now the religion being defended is Islam.

Among the favorite mantras of the multiculturalist defenders of Islam is the insistence that extremists make up only a tiny, isolated fraction of Muslims. However, this is disproven quite undeniably every single time there is an election in a predominantly Muslim country, and it is often painfully obvious even when there are no elections. A tribal elder in the Baghlan district of Afghanistan recently told New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin: “To be honest, the people prefer the Taliban."

The following is excerpted from Fareed Zakaria's 2003 book The Future of Freedom. (It should be noted that Zakaria is himself a Muslim and a vocal supporter of those who wish to build a lavish mosque complex at Ground Zero). The excerpt comprises the opening paragraphs of Chapter Four of Zakaria's book, which is titled "The Islamic Exception."
It is always the same splendid setting, and the same sad story. A senior diplomat enters one of the grand presidential palaces in Heliopolis, the neighborhood of Cairo from which President Hosni Mubarak rules over Egypt. He walks through halls of marble, through rooms filled with gilded furniture -- all a bad imitation of imperial French style that has been jokingly called "Louis Farouk" (after the last king of Egypt). Passing layers of security guards, he arrives at a formal drawing room where he is received with courtesy by the Egyptian president. The two talk amiably about U.S.-Egyptian relations, regional affairs, and the state of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Then the American gently raises the issue of human rights and suggests that Egypt's government might ease up on political dissent, allow more press freedoms, and stop jailing intellectuals. Mubarak tenses us and snaps, "If I were to do what you ask, Islamic fundamentalists will take over Egypt. Is that what you want?" The conversation moves back to the latest twist in the peace process.

Over the years Americans and Arabs have had many such exchanges. When President Bush urged Palestinian leader Yasser Aragat to agree to the Camp David peace plan that been negotiated in July 2001, Arafat reportedly responded with words to this effect: "If I do what you want, Hamas will be in power tomorrow." The Saudi monarchy's most articulate spokesman, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, often reminds American officials that if they press his government too hard, the likely alternative to the regime is not Jeffersonian democracy but a Taliban style theocracy.

The worst part of it is, they might be right. The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed. But are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than what would likely replace them. Elections in many Arab countries would produce politicians who espouse views that are closer to Osama bin Laden's that those of Jordan's liberal monarch, King Abdullah. Last year the emir of Kuwait, with American encouragement, proposed giving women the vote. But the democratically elected Kuwaiti parliament -- filled with Islamic fundamentalists -- roundly rejected the initiative. Saudi crown prince Abdullah tried something much less dramatic when he proposed that women in Saudi Arabia be allowed to drive. (They are currently forbidden to do so, which means that Saudi Arabia has to import half a million chauffeurs from places like India and the Philippines.) But the religious conservatives mobilized popular opposition and forced him to back down.

A similar dynamic is evident elsewhere in the Arab world. In Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco, on virtually every political issue, the monarchs are more liberal that the societies over which they reign. Even in the Palestinian territories, where secular nationalists like Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization have long been the most popular political force, militant and religious groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are gaining strength, especially among the young. And although they speak the language of elections, many of the Islamic parties have been withering in their contempt for democracy, which they see as a Western form of government. They would happily come to power through an election, but then woudl set up their own theocratic rule. It would be, as the saw has it, one man, one vote, one time.
[pp. 119-121]
see also:
Do Muslims really bear no responsibility at all for 9/11?
The right to oppose Islam
A Plague On Both Their Houses: Notes Toward a Renewal of Liberal Anticlericalism


SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

This is ahistorical. The reason that fundamentalism is what will rise when restrictions are limited is because AUTHENTIC OPPOSITION WAS ALREADY KILLED, and if that history is erased, the most important part of the picture, as I see it, is disappeared. Both Islamic regimes and British-American empire were both so anti-Marxist that any leftist organization was so heavily suppressed or squashed that opposition, dissent, and anger were left in the hands of the fundamentalists.

Well, then, that's convenient for the leaders then, isn't it? Because then they can play the game of "If we allow freedom, the fundamentalists will take over". It's a loaded game.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

First of all, whether or not it is ahistorical is secondary to the validity of the claim that extremists are a tiny, isolated minority -- with the truth being they are not, and that extremism enjorys broad popular support throughout the Muslim world.

Second of all, the ideology of the "fundamentalists" in Islam is consistent with the teachings and practices of Islam throughout its history.

Third of all, Islamic societies have always been authoritarian -- from the time of Muhammad to now.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

All I am saying is that we have to be dialectical in our evaluations, and properly assess varied currents that are in tension. It's not that I wouldn't support a critique of Islam, but that I would like that critique to be more rigorous, and indicative of positive directions Muslims could take to progress their cultures. One of which might be to coherently keep telling America to stop squashing its labor movements.