The Roots of Muslim Rage
Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West,
The separation of Church and State
and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified
IN one of his letters Thomas Jefferson
remarked that in matters of religion "the maxim of civil government" should
be reversed and we should rather say, "Divided we stand, united, we fall."
In this remark Jefferson was setting forth with classic terseness an idea
that has come to be regarded as essentially American: the separation of
Church and State. This idea was not entirely new; it had some precedents
in the writings of Spinoza, Locke, and the philosophers of the European
Enlightenment. It was in the United States, however, that the principle
was first given the force of law and gradually, in the course of two centuries,
became a reality.
If the idea that religion and politics
should be separated is relatively new, dating back a mere three hundred
years, the idea that they are distinct dates back almost to the beginnings
of Christianity. Christians are enjoined in their Scriptures to "render
... unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which
are God's." While opinions have differed as to the real meaning of this
phrase, it has generally been interpreted as legitimizing a situation in
which two institutions exist side by side, each with its own laws and chain
of authority -- one concerned with religion, called the Church, the other
concerned with politics, called the State. And since they are two, they
may be joined or separated, subordinate or independent, and conflicts may
arise between them over questions of demarcation and jurisdiction.
This formulation of the problems posed
by the relations between religion and politics, and the possible solutions
to those problems, arise from Christian, not universal, principles and
experience. There are other religious traditions in which religion and
politics are differently perceived, and in which, therefore, the problems
and the possible solutions are radically different from those we know in
the West. Most of these traditions, despite their often very high level
of sophistication and achievement, remained or became local -- limited
to one region or one culture or one people. There is one, however, that
in its worldwide distribution, its continuing vitality, its universalist
aspirations, can be compared to Christianity, and that is Islam.
Islam is one of the world's great religions
Islam is one of the world's great religions.
Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim,
mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless
millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and
impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in
brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable
tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims
lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched
the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods
when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence.
It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of
the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though
again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.
We should not exaggerate the dimensions
of the problem. The Muslim world is far from unanimous in its rejection
of the West, nor have the Muslim regions of the Third World been the most
passionate and the most extreme in their hostility. There are still significant
numbers, in some quarters perhaps a majority, of Muslims with whom we share
certain basic cultural and moral, social and political, beliefs and aspirations;
there is still an imposing Western presence -- cultural, economic, diplomatic
-- in Muslim lands, some of which are Western allies. Certainly nowhere
in the Muslim world, in the Middle East or elsewhere, has American policy
suffered disasters or encountered problems comparable to those in Southeast
Asia or Central America. There is no Cuba, no Vietnam, in the Muslim world,
and no place where American forces are involved as combatants or even as
"advisers." But there is a Libya, an Iran, and a Lebanon, and a surge of
hatred that distresses, alarms, and above all baffles Americans.
A surge of hatred that distresses, alarms,
and above all baffles Americans.
At times this hatred goes beyond hostility
to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes
a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but
what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes.
These are indeed seen as innately evil, and those who promote or accept
them as the "enemies of God."
This phrase, which recurs so frequently
in the language of the Iranian leadership, in both their judicial proceedings
and their political pronouncements, must seem very strange to the modern
outsider, whether religious or secular. The idea that God has enemies,
and needs human help in order to identify and dispose of them, is a little
difficult to assimilate. It is not, however, all that alien. The concept
of the enemies of God is familiar in preclassical and classical antiquity,
and in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Koran. A particularly
relevant version of the idea occurs in the dualist religions of ancient
Iran, whose cosmogony assumed not one but two supreme powers. The Zoroastrian
devil, unlike the Christian or Muslim or Jewish devil, is not one of God's
creatures performing some of God's more mysterious tasks but an independent
power, a supreme force of evil engaged in a cosmic struggle against God.
This belief influenced a number of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sects,
through Manichaeism and other routes. The almost forgotten religion of
the Manichees has given its name to the perception of problems as a stark
and simple conflict between matching forces of pure good and pure evil.
The Koran is of course strictly monotheistic,
and recognizes one God, one universal power only. There is a struggle in
human hearts between good and evil, between God's commandments and the
tempter, but this is seen as a struggle ordained by God, with its outcome
preordained by God, serving as a test of mankind, and not, as in some of
the old dualist religions, a struggle in which mankind has a crucial part
to play in bringing about the victory of good over evil. Despite this monotheism,
Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was at various stages influenced,
especially in Iran, by the dualist idea of a cosmic clash of good and evil,
light and darkness, order and chaos, truth and falsehood, God and the Adversary,
variously known as devil, Iblis, Satan, and by other names.
The struggle of good and evil very soon
acquired political and even military dimensions
IN Islam the struggle of good and evil
very soon acquired political and even military dimensions. Muhammad, it
will be recalled, was not only a prophet and a teacher, like the founders
of other religions; he was also the head of a polity and of a community,
a ruler and a soldier. Hence his struggle involved a state and its armed
forces. If the fighters in the war for Islam, the holy war "in the path
of God," are fighting for God, it follows that their opponents are fighting
against God. And since God is in principle the sovereign, the supreme head
of the Islamic state -- and the Prophet and, after the Prophet, the caliphs
are his vicegerents -- then God as sovereign commands the army. The army
is God's army and the enemy is God's enemy. The duty of God's soldiers
is to dispatch God's enemies as quickly as possible to the place where
God will chastise them -- that is to say, the afterlife.
Clearly related to this is the basic division
of mankind as perceived in Islam. Most, probably all, human societies have
a way of distinguishing between themselves and others: insider and outsider,
in-group and out-group, kinsman or neighbor and foreigner. These definitions
not only define the outsider but also, and perhaps more particularly, help
to define and illustrate our perception of ourselves.
In the classical Islamic view, to which
many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided
into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and
the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it
is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam. But the greater part
of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands,
according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been
undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy
war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel
Like every other civilization known to
human history, the Muslim world in its heyday saw itself as the center
of truth and enlightenment, surrounded by infidel barbarians whom it would
in due course enlighten and civilize. But between the different groups
of barbarians there was a crucial difference. The barbarians to the east
and the south were polytheists and idolaters, offering no serious threat
and no competition at all to Islam. In the north and west, in contrast,
Muslims from an early date recognized a genuine rival -- a competing world
religion, a distinctive civilization inspired by that religion, and an
empire that, though much smaller than theirs, was no less ambitious in
its claims and aspirations. This was the entity known to itself and others
as Christendom, a term that was long almost identical with Europe.
The Struggle Between the Rival Systems
of Islam and Christendom
The struggle between these rival systems
has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of
Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present
day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads
and crusades, conquests and reconquests. For the first thousand years Islam
was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. The new faith conquered
the old Christian lands of the Levant and North Africa, and invaded Europe,
ruling for a while in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France.
The attempt by the Crusaders to recover the lost lands of Christendom in
the east was held and thrown back, and even the Muslims' loss of southwestern
Europe to the Reconquista was amply compensated by the Islamic advance
into southeastern Europe, which twice reached as far as Vienna. For the
past three hundred years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege
of Vienna in 1683 and the rise of the European colonial empires in Asia
and Africa, Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian
civilization of Europe and her daughters has brought the whole world, including
Islam, within its orbit.
FOR a long time now there has been a rising
tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert
Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness. The Muslim has suffered successive
stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to
the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining
of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas
and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers,
and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third -- the
last straw -- was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated
women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak
of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that
had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated
the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this
rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should
draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.
Europe and her daughters? The phrase may
seem odd to Americans, whose national myths, since the beginning of their
nationhood and even earlier, have usually defined their very identity in
opposition to Europe, as something new and radically different from the
old European ways. This is not, however, the way that others have seen
it; not often in Europe, and hardly ever elsewhere.
Though people of other races and cultures
participated, for the most part involuntarily, in the discovery and creation
of the Americas, this was, and in the eyes of the rest of the world long
remained, a European enterprise, in which Europeans predominated and dominated
and to which Europeans gave their languages, their religions, and much
of their way of life.
For a very long time voluntary immigration
to America was almost exclusively European. There were indeed some who
came from the Muslim lands in the Middle East and North Africa, but few
were Muslims; most were members of the Christian and to a lesser extent
the Jewish minorities in those countries. Their departure for America,
and their subsequent presence in America, must have strengthened rather
than lessened the European image of America in Muslim eyes.
In the lands of Islam remarkably little
was known about America. At first the voyages of discovery aroused some
interest; the only surviving copy of Columbus's own map of America is a
Turkish translation and adaptation, still preserved in the Topkapi Palace
Museum, in Istanbul. A sixteenth-century Turkish geographer's account of
the discovery of the New World, titled The History of Western India, was
one of the first books printed in Turkey. But thereafter interest seems
to have waned, and not much is said about America in Turkish, Arabic, or
other Muslim languages until a relatively late date. A Moroccan ambassador
who was in Spain at the time wrote what must surely be the first Arabic
account of the American Revolution. The Sultan of Morocco signed a treaty
of peace and friendship with the United States in 1787, and thereafter
the new republic had a number of dealings, some friendly, some hostile,
most commercial, with other Muslim states. These seem to have had little
impact on either side. The American Revolution and the American republic
to which it gave birth long remained unnoticed and unknown. Even the small
but growing American presence in Muslim lands in the nineteenth century
-- merchants, consuls, missionaries, and teachers -- aroused little or
no curiosity, and is almost unmentioned in the Muslim literature and newspapers
of the time.
The Second World War, the oil industry,
and postwar developments brought many Americans to the Islamic lands; increasing
numbers of Muslims also came to America, first as students, then as teachers
or businessmen or other visitors, and eventually as immigrants. Cinema
and later television brought the American way of life, or at any rate a
certain version of it, before countless millions to whom the very name
of America had previously been meaningless or unknown. A wide range of
American products, particularly in the immediate postwar years, when European
competition was virtually eliminated and Japanese competition had not yet
arisen, reached into the remotest markets of the Muslim world, winning
new customers and, perhaps more important, creating new tastes and ambitions.
For some, America represented freedom and justice and opportunity. For
many more, it represented wealth and power and success, at a time when
these qualities were not regarded as sins or crimes.
And then came the great change, when the
leaders of a widespread and widening religious revival sought out and identified
their enemies as the enemies of God, and gave them "a local habitation
and a name" in the Western Hemisphere. Suddenly, or so it seemed, America
had become the archenemy, the incarnation of evil, the diabolic opponent
of all that is good, and specifically, for Muslims, of Islam. Why?
Some Familiar Accusations
Among the components in the mood of anti-Westernism,
and more especially of anti-Americanism, were certain intellectual influences
coming from Europe. One of these was from Germany, where a negative view
of America formed part of a school of thought by no means limited to the
Nazis but including writers as diverse as Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernst Junger,
and Martin Heidegger. In this perception, America was the ultimate example
of civilization without culture: rich and comfortable, materially advanced
but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown;
mechanical, not organic; technologically complex but lacking the spirituality
and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and
other "authentic" peoples. German philosophy, and particularly the philosophy
of education, enjoyed a considerable vogue among Arab and some other Muslim
intellectuals in the thirties and early forties, and this philosophic anti-Americanism
was part of the message.
After the collapse of the Third Reich
and the temporary ending of German influence, another philosophy, even
more anti-American, took its place -- the Soviet version of Marxism, with
a denunciation of Western capitalism and of America as its most advanced
and dangerous embodiment. And when Soviet influence began to fade, there
was yet another to take its place, or at least to supplement its working
-- the new mystique of Third Worldism, emanating from Western Europe, particularly
France, and later also from the United States, and drawing at times on
both these earlier philosophies. This mystique was helped by the universal
human tendency to invent a golden age in the past, and the specifically
European propensity to locate it elsewhere. A new variant of the old golden-age
myth placed it in the Third World, where the innocence of the non-Western
Adam and Eve was ruined by the Western serpent. This view took as axiomatic
the goodness and purity of the East and the wickedness of the West, expanding
in an exponential curve of evil from Western Europe to the United States.
These ideas, too, fell on fertile ground, and won widespread support.
But though these imported philosophies
helped to provide intellectual expression for anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism,
they did not cause it, and certainly they do not explain the widespread
anti-Westernism that made so many in the Middle East and elsewhere in the
Islamic world receptive to such ideas.
It must surely be clear that what
won support for such totally diverse doctrines was not Nazi race theory,
which can have had little appeal for Arabs, or Soviet atheistic communism,
which can have had little appeal for Muslims, but rather their common anti-Westernism.
Nazism and communism were the main forces opposed to the West, both as
a way of life and as a power in the world, and as such they could count
on at least the sympathy if not the support of those who saw in the West
their principal enemy.
But why the hostility in the first
place? If we turn from the general to the specific, there is no lack of
individual policies and actions, pursued and taken by individual Western
governments, that have aroused the passionate anger of Middle Eastern and
other Islamic peoples. Yet all too often, when these policies are abandoned
and the problems resolved, there is only a local and temporary alleviation.
The French have left Algeria, the British have left Egypt, the Western
oil companies have left their oil wells, the westernizing Shah has left
Iran -- yet the generalized resentment of the fundamentalists and other
extremists against the West and its friends remains and grows and is not
The cause most frequently adduced
for anti-American feeling among Muslims today is American support for Israel.
This support is certainly a factor of importance, increasing with nearness
and involvement. But here again there are some oddities, difficult to explain
in terms of a single, simple cause. In the early days of the foundation
of Israel, while the United States maintained a certain distance, the Soviet
Union granted immediate de jure recognition and support, and arms sent
from a Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia, saved the infant state of Israel
from defeat and death in its first weeks of life. Yet there seems to have
been no great ill will toward the Soviets for these policies, and no corresponding
good will toward the United States. In 1956 it was the United States that
intervened, forcefully and decisively, to secure the withdrawal of Israeli,
British, and French forces from Egypt -- yet in the late fifties and sixties
it was to the Soviets, not America, that the rulers of Egypt, Syria, Iraq,
and other states turned for arms; it was with the Soviet bloc that they
formed bonds of solidarity at the United Nations and in the world generally.
More recently, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran have offered
the most principled and uncompromising denunciation of Israel and Zionism.
Yet even these leaders, before as well as after the death of Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini, when they decided for reasons of their own to enter
into a dialogue of sorts, found it easier to talk to Jerusalem than to
Washington. At the same time, Western hostages in Lebanon, many of them
devoted to Arab causes and some of them converts to Islam, are seen and
treated by their captors as limbs of the Great Satan.
Another explanation, more often heard
from Muslim dissidents, attributes anti-American feeling to American support
for hated regimes, seen as reactionary by radicals, as impious by conservatives,
as corrupt and tyrannical by both. This accusation has some plausibility,
and could help to explain why an essentially inner-directed, often anti-nationalist
movement should turn against a foreign power. But it does not suffice,
especially since support for such regimes has been limited both in extent
and -- as the Shah discovered -- in effectiveness.
Clearly, something deeper is involved
than these specific grievances, numerous and important as they may be --
something deeper that turns every disagreement into a problem and makes
every problem insoluble.
THIS revulsion against America, more
generally against the West, is by no means limited to the Muslim world;
nor have Muslims, with the exception of the Iranian mullahs and their disciples
elsewhere, experienced and exhibited the more virulent forms of this feeling.
The mood of disillusionment and hostility has affected many other parts
of the world, and has even reached some elements in the United States.
It is from these last, speaking for themselves and claiming to speak for
the oppressed peoples of the Third World, that the most widely publicized
explanations -- and justifications -- of this rejection of Western civilization
and its values have of late been heard.
The accusations are familiar. We
of the West are accused of sexism, racism, and imperialism, institutionalized
in patriarchy and slavery, tyranny and exploitation. To these charges,
and to others as heinous, we have no option but to plead guilty -- not
as Americans, nor yet as Westerners, but simply as human beings, as members
of the human race. In none of these sins are we the only sinners, and in
some of them we are very far from being the worst. The treatment of women
in the Western world, and more generally in Christendom, has always been
unequal and often oppressive, but even at its worst it was rather better
than the rule of polygamy and concubinage that has otherwise been the almost
universal lot of womankind on this planet.
Is racism, then, the main grievance?
Certainly the word figures prominently in publicity addressed to Western,
Eastern European, and some Third World audiences. It figures less prominently
in what is written and published for home consumption, and has become a
generalized and meaningless term of abuse -- rather like "fascism," which
is nowadays imputed to opponents even by spokesmen for one-party, nationalist
dictatorships of various complexions and shirt colors.
Slavery is today universally denounced
as an offense against humanity, but within living memory it has been practiced
and even defended as a necessary institution, established and regulated
by divine law. The peculiarity of the peculiar institution, as Americans
once called it, lay not in its existence but in its abolition. Westerners
were the first to break the consensus of acceptance and to outlaw slavery,
first at home, then in the other territories they controlled, and finally
wherever in the world they were able to exercise power or influence --
in a word, by means of imperialism.
Is imperialism, then, the grievance?
Some Western powers, and in a sense Western civilization as a whole, have
certainly been guilty of imperialism, but are we really to believe that
in the expansion of Western Europe there was a quality of moral delinquency
lacking in such earlier, relatively innocent expansions as those of the
Arabs or the Mongols or the Ottomans, or in more recent expansions such
as that which brought the rulers of Muscovy to the Baltic, the Black Sea,
the Caspian, the Hindu Kush, and the Pacific Ocean? In having practiced
sexism, racism, and imperialism, the West was merely following the common
practice of mankind through the millennia of recorded history. Where it
is distinct from all other civilizations is in having recognized, named,
and tried, not entirely without success, to remedy these historic diseases.
And that is surely a matter for congratulation, not condemnation. We do
not hold Western medical science in general, or Dr. Parkinson and Dr. Alzheimer
in particular, responsible for the diseases they diagnosed and to which
they gave their names.
Of all these offenses the one that
is most widely, frequently, and vehemently denounced is undoubtedly imperialism
-- sometimes just Western, sometimes Eastern (that is, Soviet) and Western
alike. But the way this term is used in the literature of Islamic fundamentalists
often suggests that it may not carry quite the same meaning for them as
for its Western critics. In many of these writings the term "imperialist"
is given a distinctly religious significance, being used in association,
and sometimes interchangeably, with "missionary," and denoting a form of
attack that includes the Crusades as well as the modern colonial empires.
One also sometimes gets the impression that the offense of imperialism
is not -- as for Western critics -- the domination by one people over another
but rather the allocation of roles in this relationship. What is truly
evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers.
For true believers to rule misbelievers is proper and natural, since this
provides for the maintenance of the holy law, and gives the misbelievers
both the opportunity and the incentive to embrace the true faith. But for
misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural,
since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and
to the flouting or even the abrogation of God's law. This may help us to
understand the current troubles in such diverse places as Ethiopian Eritrea,
Indian Kashmir, Chinese Sinkiang, and Yugoslav Kossovo, in all of which
Muslim populations are ruled by non-Muslim governments. It may also explain
why spokesmen for the new Muslim minorities in Western Europe demand for
Islam a degree of legal protection which those countries no longer give
to Christianity and have never given to Judaism. Nor, of course, did the
governments of the countries of origin of these Muslim spokesmen ever accord
such protection to religions other than their own. In their perception,
there is no contradiction in these attitudes. The true faith, based on
God's final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other
faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection.
THERE are other difficulties in the
way of accepting imperialism as an explanation of Muslim hostility, even
if we define imperialism narrowly and specifically, as the invasion and
domination of Muslim countries by non-Muslims. If the hostility is directed
against imperialism in that sense, why has it been so much stronger against
Western Europe, which has relinquished all its Muslim possessions and dependencies,
than against Russia, which still rules, with no light hand, over many millions
of reluctant Muslim subjects and over ancient Muslim cities and countries?
And why should it include the United States, which, apart from a brief
interlude in the Muslim-minority area of the Philippines, has never ruled
any Muslim population? The last surviving European empire with Muslim subjects,
that of the Soviet Union, far from being the target of criticism and attack,
has been almost exempt. Even the most recent repressions of Muslim revolts
in the southern and central Asian republics of the USSR incurred no more
than relatively mild words of expostulation, coupled with a disclaimer
of any desire to interfere in what are quaintly called the "internal affairs"
of the USSR and a request for the preservation of order and tranquillity
on the frontier.
One reason for this somewhat surprising
restraint is to be found in the nature of events in Soviet Azerbaijan.
Islam is obviously an important and potentially a growing element in the
Azerbaijani sense of identity, but it is not at present a dominant element,
and the Azerbaijani movement has more in common with the liberal patriotism
of Europe than with Islamic fundamentalism. Such a movement would not arouse
the sympathy of the rulers of the Islamic Republic. It might even alarm
them, since a genuinely democratic national state run by the people of
Soviet Azerbaijan would exercise a powerful attraction on their kinsmen
immediately to the south, in Iranian Azerbaijan.
Another reason for this relative lack of
concern for the 50 million or more Muslims under Soviet rule may be a calculation
of risk and advantage. The Soviet Union is near, along the northern frontiers
of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan; America and even Western Europe are far
away. More to the point, it has not hitherto been the practice of the Soviets
to quell disturbances with water cannon and rubber bullets, with TV cameras
in attendance, or to release arrested persons on bail and allow them access
to domestic and foreign media. The Soviets do not interview their harshest
critics on prime time, or tempt them with teaching, lecturing, and writing
engagements. On the contrary, their ways of indicating displeasure with
criticism can often be quite disagreeable.
But fear of reprisals, though no doubt
important, is not the only or perhaps even the principal reason for the
relatively minor place assigned to the Soviet Union, as compared with the
West, in the demonology of fundamentalism. After all, the great social
and intellectual and economic changes that have transformed most of the
Islamic world, and given rise to such commonly denounced Western evils
as consumerism and secularism, emerged from the West, not from the Soviet
Union. No one could accuse the Soviets of consumerism; their materialism
is philosophic -- to be precise, dialectical -- and has little or nothing
to do in practice with providing the good things of life. Such provision
represents another kind of materialism, often designated by its opponents
as crass. It is associated with the capitalist West and not with the communist
East, which has practiced, or at least imposed on its subjects, a degree
of austerity that would impress a Sufi saint.
Nor were the Soviets, until very recently,
vulnerable to charges of secularism, the other great fundamentalist accusation
against the West. Though atheist, they were not godless, and had in fact
created an elaborate state apparatus to impose the worship of their gods
-- an apparatus with its own orthodoxy, a hierarchy to define and enforce
it, and an armed inquisition to detect and extirpate heresy. The separation
of religion from the state does not mean the establishment of irreligion
by the state, still less the forcible imposition of an anti-religious philosophy.
Soviet secularism, like Soviet consumerism, holds no temptation for the
Muslim masses, and is losing what appeal it had for Muslim intellectuals.
More than ever before it is Western capitalism and democracy that provide
an authentic and attractive alternative to traditional ways of thought
and life. Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western
civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to
retain or restore for their people.
A Clash of Civilizations
THE origins of secularism in the west may
be found in two circumstances -- in early Christian teachings and, still
more, experience, which created two institutions, Church and State; and
in later Christian conflicts, which drove the two apart. Muslims, too,
had their religious disagreements, but there was nothing remotely approaching
the ferocity of the Christian struggles between Protestants and Catholics,
which devastated Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
and finally drove Christians in desperation to evolve a doctrine of the
separation of religion from the state. Only by depriving religious institutions
of coercive power, it seemed, could Christendom restrain the murderous
intolerance and persecution that Christians had visited on followers of
other religions and, most of all, on those who professed other forms of
There was no need for "Separation of Church
and State" in Islam
Muslims experienced no such need and evolved
no such doctrine. There was no need for secularism in Islam, and even its
pluralism was very different from that of the pagan Roman Empire, so vividly
described by Edward Gibbon when he remarked that "the various modes of
worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the
people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the
magistrate, as equally useful." Islam was never prepared, either in theory
or in practice, to accord full equality to those who held other beliefs
and practiced other forms of worship. It did, however, accord to the holders
of partial truth a degree of practical as well as theoretical tolerance
rarely paralleled in the Christian world until the West adopted a measure
of secularism in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
At first the Muslim response to Western
civilization was one of admiration and emulation -- an immense respect
for the achievements of the West, and a desire to imitate and adopt them.
This desire arose from a keen and growing awareness of the weakness, poverty,
and backwardness of the Islamic world as compared with the advancing West.
The disparity first became apparent on the battlefield but soon spread
to other areas of human activity. Muslim writers observed and described
the wealth and power of the West, its science and technology, its manufactures,
and its forms of government. For a time the secret of Western success was
seen to lie in two achievements: economic advancement and especially industry;
political institutions and especially freedom. Several generations of reformers
and modernizers tried to adapt these and introduce them to their own countries,
in the hope that they would thereby be able to achieve equality with the
West and perhaps restore their lost superiority.
In our own time this mood of admiration
and emulation has, among many Muslims, given way to one of hostility and
rejection. In part this mood is surely due to a feeling of humiliation
-- a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant
civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those
whom they regarded as their inferiors. In part this mood is due to events
in the Western world itself. One factor of major importance was certainly
the impact of two great suicidal wars, in which Western civilization tore
itself apart, bringing untold destruction to its own and other peoples,
and in which the belligerents conducted an immense propaganda effort, in
the Islamic world and elsewhere, to discredit and undermine each other.
The message they brought found many listeners, who were all the more ready
to respond in that their own experience of Western ways was not happy.
The introduction of Western commercial, financial, and industrial methods
did indeed bring great wealth, but it accrued to transplanted Westerners
and members of Westernized minorities, and to only a few among the mainstream
Muslim population. In time these few became more numerous, but they remained
isolated from the masses, differing from them even in their dress and style
of life. Inevitably they were seen as agents of and collaborators with
what was once again regarded as a hostile world. Even the political institutions
that had come from the West were discredited, being judged not by their
Western originals but by their local imitations, installed by enthusiastic
Muslim reformers. These, operating in a situation beyond their control,
using imported and inappropriate methods that they did not fully understand,
were unable to cope with the rapidly developing crises and were one by
one overthrown. For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic
methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny,
even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that
so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic
ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan
innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed
for his people.
The Struggle of Fundamentalists against
Secularism and Modernism
ULTIMATELY, the struggle of the fundamentalists
is against two enemies, secularism and modernism. The war against secularism
is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing
secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing
it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States. The war against
modernity is for the most part neither conscious nor explicit, and is directed
against the whole process of change that has taken place in the Islamic
world in the past century or more and has transformed the political, economic,
social, and even cultural structures of Muslim countries. Islamic fundamentalism
has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment
and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional
values and loyalties and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs,
their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their
There is something in the religious culture
of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity
and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equalled in other
civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the
deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can
give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the
government of an ancient and civilized country -- even the spokesman of
a great spiritual and ethical religion -- to espouse kidnapping and assassination,
and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent
for such actions.
The instinct of the masses is not false
in locating the ultimate source of these cataclysmic changes in the West
and in attributing the disruption of their old way of life to the impact
of Western domination, Western influence, or Western precept and example.
And since the United States is the legitimate heir of European civilization
and the recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States
has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up
hate and anger. Two examples may suffice. In November of 1979 an angry
mob attacked and burned the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. The stated
cause of the crowd's anger was the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca
by a group of Muslim dissidents -- an event in which there was no American
involvement whatsoever. Almost ten years later, in February of 1989, again
in Islamabad, the USIS center was attacked by angry crowds, this time to
protest the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Rushdie is
a British citizen of Indian birth, and his book had been published five
months previously in England. But what provoked the mob's anger, and also
the Ayatollah Khomeini's subsequent pronouncement of a death sentence on
the author, was the publication of the book in the United States.
It should by now be clear that we are facing
a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies
and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations
-- the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival
against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide
expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should
not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction
against that rival.
Copyright © 1990 by Bernard Lewis.
All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1990;
The Roots of Muslim Rage; Volume 266, No. 3; pages 47 - 60.
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