Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Spread of Islamic Fundamentalism

I used to believe, wrongly as it turned out, that my reading of the reasons behind the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideas had settled into a permanent or semi-permanent form. As I saw it, the situation could be summed up as follows:

•  The interpretations of Islam for one thousand and two hundred years after its inception were characterized by the existence of what was, by the standards of the Middle Ages, a moderate, indeed, often an extremely moderate, Sunni trend. Side by side with this moderate trend there existed various schools, trends and interpretations ranging from relative moderation to extreme radicalism, whether within the main Sunni schools [represented by ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya within the Hanbali trend], or radical sects like the Khawarij , the Qarmations and other secret sects. For the most part, though, it was the moderate interpretations of Islam that steered the course of Muslim societies.

•  Although the moderate trend in interpreting Islam prevailed for twelve centuries, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of the Christian calendar this trend, with its emphasis on rationality, received a devastating blow when the ruling political class, along with hordes of men of religion and even educated classes turned towards the school of naql , which called for strict adherence to orthodoxy and tradition. So potent was the influence of this school that its leading exponent, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali, was dubbedHujat al Islam [the authoritative source of Islam]. At the same time, the works of the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, who championed the primacy of reason, were burnt. While Al-Ghazzali believed that intuition, not reason, was capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God, Ibn Rushd, a student, interpreter and expositor of Aristotle, believed just the opposite, upholding the primacy of reason as Aristotle had done centuries earlier. The blow suffered by moderate Islam during this period set the stage for what was later to become the dangerous spread of the ideas derived from the teachings of Ahmed Ibn Hanabal, ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya.

•  In the middle of the eighteenth century of the Christian calendar, a hitherto marginal trend was propelled to the fore with the creation of a state whose system of government and judicature were based on an extremely rigid interpretation of Islam. This was the system that grew out of the alliance forged in 1744 between the ruler of Dir'iyah, Mohamed ibn-Saud, and its judge, Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahhab, who gave his name to Wahhabism.

•  In the last two centuries moderate Islam, which had hitherto presided over the shaping of the Muslim mindset, was edged out of its central role by the radical school of thought through two gateways: the first was the establishment of a political system that derived its legitimacy from a rigid interpretation of Islam; the second was the unprecedented wealth created by a massive influx of petrodollars into the coffers of religious hardliners who allow no scope for reason or independent thinking when it comes to the interpretation of holy texts. Concomitant with this development, societies traditionally espousing a moderate brand of Islam were in full retreat at all levels – political, economic, cultural and educational.

•  This gives a panoramic view of the changes that have taken place in the way Muslims understood their religion for over fourteen centuries and how the last two centuries have seen the rise of rigid, doctrinaire interpretations as a result of a combination of strategic, political, economic, ethical, cultural, educational and social factors coupled with the overwhelming impact of sudden wealth derived in a manner and of a magnitude unprecedented in human history.

When we place what happened in Egypt after July 23, 1952 , in the context of this general framework, the picture becomes even more dramatic. I believe the essence of the political dream behind the July 23 project was the expansion of the Egyptian middle class. That is a noble aspiration in every sense, but as many will agree, the same cannot be said in respect of the practical measures taken to turn the dream into reality. There is no doubt that the regime that came to power on that date inherited an Egyptian middle class [inclusive of its three components: lower middle, middle middle and upper middle] that was vibrant and richly textured. But it formed a relatively thin crust below which the vast majority lived in circumstances far removed from the march of history. The big dream was to expand the Egyptian middle class both vertically and horizontally, to increase its size, numbers and layers. Was the dream realized? The answer is both yes and no. from the quantitative point of view, there has been a huge expansion in the size of the middle class with its different layers. However, this has been achieved at the expense of quality, with the deterioration, not to say collapse, that has occurred at all levels, perhaps best exemplified by the difference between the standard of Cairo University today and its status as a world-class academic institution sixty years age.

Against the backdrop of these sea changes – the extremists taking over the helm of Islamic affairs from the moderates and the sharp decline in the standards of learning, education and culture of the Egyptian middle class [among the highest in the world between 1900 and 1950] – we find ourselves in a new reality, bereft of a large middle class capable of defending the moderate brand of Islam that held sway in Egypt for close on one thousand and three hundred years.

Among the negative effects of the decline in the standard of the middle class is that it has lost its capacity to serve as an example to be followed, whether in the political, social or cultural domains. The upper middle class in pre-1952 Egypt , as in other societies, performed two functions: on the one hand, it admired the classes above it, including the large foreign contingent living in Egypt at the time, and sought to emulate them; on the other, it was itself a model that the lower classes admired and sought to emulate.

It can be said that art in all its forms, particularly cinema, as well as songs, were all a mirror reflecting these two functions. As someone interested in the philological and sociological analyses of language, I find that the colloquial Arabic used in Egypt today attests to the decline in standards. Sixty years ago, language reflected each class's aspiration to rise to a class higher than itself. Today this process has been turned on its head, with the language used at the base of society moving upwards towards its summit.
I believe that if the post-1952 regime had realized its dream of expanding the Egyptian middle class while maintaining the same high quality of knowledge, education and culture it enjoyed previously, the school of extremism in interpreting Islam would not have made as much headway as it succeeded in doing. Its main achievement is the hold it has gained over Egyptian culture and mindset, an achievement the extremist schools consider as important as their success in spreading their message throughout the world.

Every religion has its share of zealots who preach ideas contrary to the march of human progress. The history of Judaism and Christianity is rife with such examples. Even today there are proselyters in both faiths who hold extremist views. But their followers are few in number and do not constitute a serious problem for humanity. In Islamic societies, on the other hand, those who preach an extremist, doctrinaire version of Islam manage to attract a huge following, while their moderate counterparts succeed in reaching only a limited number of believers.

I always used to attribute the success of the extremists in Islamic societies to political, economic and social factors. However, I have recently come to the conclusion that this explanation is inadequate. Perhaps the point I am trying to make is best illustrated by the situation in Kuwait today, a society whose extreme affluence has not prevented the rise of a particularly rigid and regressive Islamist trend, isolated from the march of civilization and humanity. As I now realize, the phenomenon represented in the huge numbers that find the message of the extremists so appealing is more complex than to be explained solely in terms of poverty, anger and frustration. The real explanation is the absence of a modern, forward-looking middle class with an up-to-date educational formation that can defend the values of progress and modernity. The existence of such a class serves as the main bulwark against the spread of extremist ideas that do not lack the means to expand in all cities and continents, not only in our own societies but in Europe, America and throughout the world.

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