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Islam and the World Order
by Khaldoun Samman
17 October 2002 19:24 UTC
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  10 - 16 October 2002
Issue No. 607


Islam, Palestine and the world order

If Muslims are to play a positive and significant role in the world today, the concrete problems of Muslim societies should be addressed, writes George Giacaman*

The tragic events of 11 September 2001 have generated much public debate about the role of Islam in the present global order. The mass media in many Western countries has been quick to conclude that a "clash of civilisations" is brewing, and US President George W Bush's declaration that the US would launch a "crusade" on terrorism has left many Muslims and Arabs thinking that they will be the target.

Though Bush later chose different words to describe the campaign, such damage control did not completely succeed. Religious figures appearing on various satellite stations in the Arab World continue to refer to the Western "crusade" against Islam, part of a campaign of defamation, vilification and distortion as far as they are concerned.

But if the simplification and sensationalism of much coverage in the Western media related to the present role of Islam is not to be taken at face value, any more than is the hectoring of ideologues on the other side, what are the issues regarding Islam's present global role?

First, it should be said that any generalisation about Muslims or about Islam as a historical phenomenon is bound to be hazardous. As a major world religion, Islam's adherents in the world today number over one billion, and its history spans a period of 14 centuries, its followers being dispersed across the globe. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam admits of a diversity of sects, traditions and interpretations of its articles of faith.

Indeed, it could be argued that Islam admits in principle of more flexibility and adaptability to changing conditions than does Catholicism, for instance, since formally there is no "church" in Islam. Thus, if adaptability and change are needed at any given historical juncture, their lack would be the responsibility of Muslims rather than of Islam.

Moreover, religious fundamentalism is not unique to any one religion. There are Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists in the world today, and, while some in the Middle East may see Muslim fundamentalists as threatening, Hindu fundamentalism appears just as threatening to Muslims in India. However, this is not to deny that a problem exists in the relation between Muslims, especially Muslims in the Middle East, and the West, that problem having much to do with Western policies, both historical and contemporary.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been working to fashion the rest of the world in its image. In particular, US support for authoritarian regimes, its lack of support for a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the growing disparity between rich and poor in the world today are issues that continue to fuel discontent.

Two years of the second Intifada and the reoccupation of the West Bank by the Israeli army have also refocused Arab attention on Palestine. Israel's hegemonic role in the region is a cause of great concern for Arabs on the eve of a possible US-led war on Iraq, since the blind support of the Bush Administration for the Sharon government in Israel is seen by many Muslims and Arabs as a virtual declaration of war upon them.

It has been argued that Islam, unlike Christianity, did not undergo a reformation or a period of enlightenment, and as a result it is unable to cope with modernity, let alone "post- modernity", whatever the latter may mean. Such a view is partly true, and partly false: many Muslim fundamentalists perceive themselves to be engaged in a "reformation", much like that led by Calvin and Luther in Europe in the 16th century, interpreting religion in a way that departs from orthodoxy.

Moreover, such individuals are not hostile to modern science per se, either as technique or as "power over nature", to use the words of the 17th-century English writer and philosopher Francis Bacon, an early advocate of modern science. It is true that they are opposed to secularism, and hence that their weltanschauung, or world-view, might be incompatible with democracy, if democracy is thought to require it. But opposition to secularism need not necessarily imply "extremism", either in domestic politics or in international relations. President Khatami of Iran is a case in point, since he is a reformer both domestically and in Iran's relations with other countries, or he would be if the US and Israel would allow it.

Indeed, a reform movement, focusing on religious, social and political reform, began in the Arab World in the middle of the 19th century and continued through the 20th. The need for reform was propelled by Arab contacts with the West, and the fact that most Arab countries were under the direct control of Western powers at the time did not prevent Muslim and Arab writers and thinkers from seeing aspects of Western forms of organising society as models.

This reformist movement was thwarted for various reasons, some of which continue to the present day. While in the period between the last century's two world wars liberal-democratic regimes modelled on Western forms of government were in place in several Arab countries, by the1950s most of these regimes had been overthrown and replaced by authoritarian forms of government that promised to remedy the failures of their predecessors.

Such failures lay in three main areas: internal distribution of wealth, subservience to foreign domination and these regimes' defeat by Israel in 1948, resulting in the creation of the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict and the expulsion of a majority of Palestinians from their homeland. The first two of these factors were important, for example, in the collapse and overthrow of the US-backed regime of the Shah in Iran, though the internal repression carried out by the Shah's police also had a lot to do with his overthrow.

That protest movements, and movements seeking political and social change, whether extreme or moderate, acquire a religious garb is not new in the history of humanity, especially at a time when few secular ideologies survive. The Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, for example, was an early precursor of what are now global trends.

However, to focus solely on the religious and ideological expressions of protest, to the neglect of the claims, needs and interests that propel it, would be a serious mistake. Such "essentialising" of others is a direct route to racism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, one of the first lessons of social science in its attempts to explain human behaviour is that the claims that individuals make in explaining their actions are not always the actual causes of their behaviour. This is not a cynical view; rather, it is one that seeks to anchor behaviour in the lived historical experience of human agents.

If Muslims are to play a positive and significant role in the world today, as they have so often done in the course of their long history, the concrete societal problems that many suffer from have to be addressed. Issues related to poverty and to social justice come first, but domestic reform, political participation and pluralism in Muslim societies need also to be addressed. The responsibility for change naturally falls upon Muslims, but it falls equally on a world order that might impede such change.

If extremism breeds on failure and pessimism, reform requires confidence and realistic hopes for a better future. It is no accident that at the core of the European Enlightenment lay the idea of progress -- the firm belief in the possibility of a better future. Admittedly there is much to be done, but the stakes are equally high.

* The writer is dean of Graduate Studies at Birzeit University and director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, based in Ramallah, Palestine.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

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