‘Can the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy?…Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?’
– Orhan Pamuk, Snow, 2004
In 1998, I visited the chief mufti of Sarajevo, Dr Mustafa Ceric, to talk about relations between Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia after the war, for ABC TV’s Compass program. A youngish, bareheaded woman dressed like any European office worker chatted as she showed us into a quiet, plainly furnished waiting room. My lapsed-Catholic Compass colleague remarked on the contrast with the previous day’s interview with the Bishop of Sarajevo. Then, a veiled, silent nun had conducted us to his Grace, who dismissed her with the barest nod.
Ceric, when he finally appeared, was ebullient, urbane and sceptical. He, like many Sarajevans at the time, seemed weary of answering questions about ethnic relations. ‘We’re all still here,’ the long intakes of breath before each answer seemed to say,’What more do you want?’
Only when I asked him about whether there had been an increase in the number of Bosnian Muslims actively practising their faith did his answers become less emollient. ‘Now people are coming to Islam,’ he agreed, ‘but you know who brought them to Islam? Mr Karadzic. More than anyone else Mr Karadzic succeeded in bringing Muslims back to Islam, more than [in]fifty years of our missionary work. And you know why? Because he put all Muslims on a genocide program.’
The head mufti’s mordant response to my naive question is worth reflection. Conventional wisdom among Western commentators had it that Bosnia was a genocidal war just waiting to happen; once the ancient ethnic hatreds, which had been suppressed or submerged under communism were allowed to escape, like so many zombies emerging from the tomb of Tito, war was inevitable.
In fact, as Ceric’s comment suggests, the opposite was true. Many urbanised Bosnian Muslims, particularly in the larger cities, did not think of themselves as Muslim any more than my Compass colleague thought of himself as Catholic; at least not until Karadzic’s snipers began shooting at them and his paramilitaries in the villages began murdering their relatives. Those ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ were the cynically manufactured and manipulated constructs of a decaying state, conjured into life by Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia as their hold on power slipped. Or, as the Polish writer Adam Michnik puts it: ‘Nationalism is the last gasp of communism, seeking a social basis for dictatorship.’
Ceric’s words, uttered three years before most people in the West had even heard of al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah, highlight the common Western fallacy that Islamic fundamentalism is a regression to pre-modernity, to an era of unalloyed faith. Exactly the opposite is true: like the ethnic conflicts in Bosnia, it is a quintessential product of modernity. Nor is it exclusively anti-Western. Political Islam appears primarily in countries that are emerging from colonial domination – whether by European empires or Soviet communism.
One of the most volatile and potentially explosive sources of Islamic ferment in the 1990s was the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. In the 1930s, Stalin decreed that the fertile valley would supply all the cotton for the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, communism and cotton monoculture had devastated the soil, poisoned the water and left a social legacy of high unemployment and a corrupt bureaucracy. Small wonder that by the early ’90s, when the former communist president of Uzbekistan tranformed himself into an Uzbek nationalist, the disaffected youth of the Ferghana Valley (65 per cent of the population was under 18) looked to the emerging Islam movement for an alternative solution. Since then, President Islam Karimov has murdered, tortured and imprisoned Islamic activists and other political dissidents with a brutality and alacrity that would have impressed Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly drawn attention to abuses and religious persecution in Uzbekistan; but Karimov has the blessing of the West, a consequence of support for the United States during the Afghanistan War.
‘Islamic fundamentalism’, or political Islam, as the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk refers to it in Snow (Knopf, 2004), is not simply a reaction to and rejection of Western values, culture or the secular humanist tradition. It emerges in a historical moment and a specific set of social and political conditions, and it takes on unique forms in each country. We ought to be suspicious of sweeping generalisations that purport to identify Islamic fundamentalism in countries as diverse as Uzbekistan, Algeria, Turkey and Indonesia, as though it were just another global franchise operated by bin Laden and Sons.
Nevertheless, it’s worth identifying common features that appear to be connected with the emergence of political Islam. In countries like Turkey and Algeria, the ‘Western modernising project’- insistence on the secular nature of the state, greater individual freedom, universal basic education for both sexes – has typically been imposed by a modernising nationalist regime, enforced, often brutally, by a powerful and unaccountable military and supported by an educated and privileged elite. In Pamuk’s novel, Sunay Zaim, the actor who leads an abortive military coup in the provincial Turkish town of Kars, in order to thwart victory by moderate Islamists in local elections, angrily reminds the narrator of this reality: ‘Are you afraid of the shame you’ll feel when the Europeans see what we’ve done here? Do you know how many men they hanged to establish that modern world you admire so much? AtatÃ¼rk had no time for bird-brained fantasists- he had people like you swinging from the rope from the very first day.’
Some of these characteristics also apply to the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. It seems to have eluded the attention of most Western observers, for example, that the recent rise of militant Islam in Indonesia followed closely on the financial crisis of 1997. The crisis, precipitated by a flight of Western capital and magnified by the austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, wiped out twenty five years of economic development in a few months and, as one renegade World Bank official pointed out at the time, condemned thousands of Indonesian children to permanent brain damage as a consequence of malnutrition.
So long as these regimes deliver rising living standards and the promise of social mobility, the appeal of political Islam remains low. Poor people appear willing to tolerate corruption, nepotism and arbitrary state violence, so long as economic modernisation holds out the hope that they, or their children, will have a better life. Once economic stagnation and high unemployment set in, this social contract can speedily be cancelled.
However, these broad sociological and economic factors do not explain why it is political Islam, and not some other movement or ideology, that has become the conduit for popular discontent. One answer is that few alternatives remain after the collapse of Soviet communism and the decline of the non-communist left. As one of the characters in Snow, an ageing ex-communist teacher who now runs a small provincial hotel, tells the narrator: ‘In the old days, the police came for the leftists and democrats; now, they’re no longer interested in us, it’s the Islamists they’re after.’
A more nuanced explanation about the rise of Islamist fundamentalism might begin with the ‘crisis of legitimacy’ of the modernising state and the strong identification of secularism in the minds of poor rural people with the values of privileged urban elites. But that would only be a beginning. It would need to progress beyond the simplistic opposition posited by many Western commentators between ‘Islamism’ and the values of the Western Enlightenment.
It’s worth recalling that the European Enlightenment, and what would now be called its ‘core values’ – tolerance, respect for human autonomy and human flourishing – did not spring spontaneously and fully formed from the pens of Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant. It was a reaction to three centuries of religious wars in which the soil of northern Europe was soaked in blood. When the citizens of the 18th-century ‘republic of letters’ attacked superstition and ignorance – code words for established religion – they did so not as an act of hubris, a desire to spit in the face of God, but out of a profound desire to end religious violence and what Kant called ‘tutelage’. By tutelage he meant a condition in which we are not able to become fully human, because we are not capable of that free exercise of reason that is the distinctive feature of humanity.
To even begin to encompass the complex and sometimes violent phenomenon that is political Islam, we need to confront the uncomfortable reality that it, too, is a response to specific modern forms of ‘tutelage’. Kant stressed that the responsibility for liberating ourselves from ‘tutelage’ lies primarily with the individual: I am the author of my own freedom, my own enlightenment. In becoming so, I face the problem that the narrator of Pamuk’s novel faces: the crisis of the modern, autonomous individual facing a world in which the central philosophical questions of our lives are no longer sought and answered in the shared values of a ‘faith community’ but in existential doubt and spiritual isolation. In the West, a succession of writers and philosophers, from Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky to Kafka and Camus have confronted this problem with courage and humanity. Writers like Pamuk are doing so now in the ‘Islamic’ world, if we can speak of such a thing. We ought to be listening to them.
Griffith REVIEW: The Lure of Fundamentalism (ABC Books) will be published next week.
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