Saturday, September 17, 2011
Islam Transitioning to the Future
I found this pair of articles by Frank Viviano quite valuable in grasping what is presently taking place in the
Middle East. The
young are forcing the acceptance of modern systems in order to propel their own
lives forward. It is messy and it will
be messy but the future is clear to the revolutionaries in the example newly
and the many other non Muslim examples around the world. Turkey
More critically, the place holders see their own failures in the same light and are folding their tents in the face of outright insurgency.
It is also a true insurgency that is self organized and is prepared to fight for the necessary changes. There is nothing anyone can do about it except buy some time to show good faith. For millions of people prepared to hit the bricks, a few hundred dead is acceptable. That is why
Libya fell and why the fight continues in . Syria
No one in the
East can be complacent any longer and we can expect active moves
on reforms everywhere, even were no activity even took place. Everyone is on notice!
Islam at the Crossroads
A decade after 9-11, the Muslim world is gripped by an insurgency vastly different than expected.
By Frank Viviano, 9 Sep 2011, New
Tahrir Square, Cairo, March, 2011: Protesters called for an unrestricted press, the freedom to organize political parties and the drafting of a democratic constitution.
On Sept. 18, 2001, I landed in
on an extended assignment in the Islamic world. It was nearly impossible to
find an Egyptian who believed foreign news accounts of the events that had
one week earlier. America
Very few would unequivocally condemn the attacks on
York City and Almost no one conceded that
Muslims had been involved in planning them. Washington,
It seemed unimaginable in 2001 that an immense insurgency would engulf Muslim nations less than a decade later, not with a cry for militant political Islam but for Western-style personal freedom and democratic reform.
As much as the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling into ruins, the Muslim reaction to September 11 -- not only Egypt, but around the globe -- shocked the West and raised fears of outright war with Islam, a "clash of civilizations" in the words of Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.
Strident denials, painful doubts
But strident denial, in nations as well as individuals, is often a tacit expression of doubts that are too painful to confront directly.
Behind the rage that exploded on September 11, and the wall of denial erected around it, was a profound internal crisis, bred by centuries of stagnation in what was once the most advanced civilization on Earth.
"We learn every day, in our homes and our schools and our mosques, that we stand at the apex of history, that almost all of modern science and mathematics is based on discoveries by Muslim thinkers a thousand years ago," a Saudi official told me in 2003.
"What no one wants to talk about is the thousand years that followed," he admitted. "What we seldom ask out loud is where we are today."
In 2011, that silence was broken as never before.
An unprecedented popular revolt, seeded in 2009's mass protests in Iran, led to enormous demonstrations last winter and spring that toppled presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. By March, it had provoked a full-fledged civil war in
that eventually overthrew
Muammar Gaddafi. The movement now threatens the leaders of Yemen and Syria, and
has spread to points as distant as Morocco, the Gulf oil states, Sudan, Iraq
and Malaysia. Libya
Together, Teheran's Green Wave and the Arab Spring have focused attention directly on volatile frustrations -- and modern aspirations -- inside the Muslim bloc itself.
A crossroads lies ahead for one-fourth of the Earth's population--1.6 billion people comprising the Islamic Ummah, the international community of believers.
By almost any measure, an overview of the Muslim community in 2011 makes for grim reading.
Only two of the world's 40 Muslim-majority nations -- excluding the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Southeast Asian
-- have per capita Gross Domestic Products above the global median, according
to the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, a rising power, is one. In the
second, mini-state of Brunei ,
the economy is controlled by non-Muslim ethnic Chinese. Malaysia
The figures for 17 Muslim nations are less than half the world median.
Explosive economic growth and modernization in East Asia, Latin America and
has opened a yawning chasm between Muslim economies and those of their former
peers in the developing world. India
In 2010, Islam's four largest states -- Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, with a total of 640 million people, half the population of China -- had a combined annual GDP of $2.2 trillion.
's alone was $10.1 trillion,
almost two-and-a-half times bigger in per-capita terms. China
per capita GDP was significantly higher than those of both China and , its military and economic
arch-enemy. Today, India's per capita GDP is 50 per cent higher than that of
Pakistan, which is increasingly regarded as a failed state, perilously
destabilized by terrorism, tribal conflicts, government ineptitude and massive
corruption. Nowhere is the crisis of the Islamic world more telling than in the
realm of political development. India
In the wake of September 11, pundits and scholars predicted that the day of the military autocrat, which took center stage in Muslim countries a half-century earlier, was finished. The next era would belong to Islamic theocracy. The ensuing decade witnessed unremitting violence between authoritarian regimes and a constellation of fundamentalist groups inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and structurally modeled on Al-Qaeda.
Yet despite millions of casualties -- overwhelmingly Muslim -- the overall picture of governance had barely changed before this year's Arab Spring. In 2011, more than half of the 54 outright authoritarian regimes on the planet rule Muslim-majority populations. Their record speaks for itself.
Not one Muslim-majority nation is listed in the top third of countries ranked by the World Health Organization on their per capita health care expenditures as a percentage of GDP. But 22 are in the bottom third.
Just two Muslim nations score in the top 50 of 179 countries in overall educational achievements, according to an annual survey compiled by The Economist. Both are former Soviet republics that inherited school programs established by
A dismal 18 wind up in the lower 50 -- including eight of the world's lowest
There is no exaggerating the weight of these failures. In the course of four years on the Islamic road after September 11, a paralyzing sense of futility was among the most common reasons cited by those who denied a Muslim role in the attacks.
The hijackings "must have been plotted by the Israelis or the CIA," a noted Egyptian intellectual maintained. "They have the will, the sense of organization and the capacity. We don't."
SKIN TIGHT SLACKS, FIRST SIGN OF CHANGE
On Sept. 11, 2001, puritanical extremism seemed to have seized control of Islam's destiny. Yet in retrospect, the roots of today's youthful, modernist insurgency were visible even then.
I watched its emblematic scenes unfold at the end of the 1990s, along
Iran's frontiers with the .
Every hour or so, busloads of young Iranians arrived on holiday excursions at
the border posts. As soon as the busses parked, the black-cloaked women
passengers charged into "comfort stations" on the Republic of Azerbaijan
side. They emerged wearing flimsy summer dresses, skin-tight Azerbaijan , and then-fashionable shredded blouses
that looked as though they had been torn off of one shoulder. Levis
Iranian young men changed on the busses into equally tight slacks and tailored shirts. All of them, of both genders, furiously scrolled through their cell phone contacts, calling friends who were already in
the Azeri capital on the Caspian Sea, for
advance word on the nightclub scene.
Theirs was a journey between the two poles of Muslim-majority governance: political Islam in the guise of puritanical mullahs and a military-backed regime under authoritarian president Haydar Aliyev. This former member of the Soviet Politburo had crushed any sign of political dissent, but he had no objection to tight slacks.
Similar scenes were common by 2005 in
. There, youngsters from
Baghdad and Kirkuk flocked to the Kurdish-controlled north not only to escape
the Arab south's endless sectarian bloodshed, but also to buy state-of-the-art
cell phones, iPods and laptops in booming shopping malls. Iraq
A strange Saudi version of these rites took hold on the main commercial streets of coastal Jeddah, where honking traffic jams cruised after dark, their cars respectively full of veiled young women or white-robed young men.
As the vehicles passed each other, blizzards of folded paper squares flew between them.
"They write their cell phone numbers and a proposed meeting place on them. It's a way of making secret dates," my interpreter explained.
The dating games, nightclub and electronics shopping excursions were not expressly political. But their unambiguous contempt for repression foreshadowed the protests in Teheran in 2009 and the Arab countries 18 months later.
The new insurgents
A third contender has now joined the struggle for the future of the Muslim world: the vast youthful insurgency that occupied central Teheran and
's Cairo Tahrir Square in the name of democracy
The unanswered question is whether history -- and the realities that define it -- is yet on the insurgents' side.
What is clear is that these young people bring new ideas and new methods to the arena. Their outlook has been molded by constant exposure to the global universe opened by advanced communications technologies, which served as highly efficient organizing tools in their protests.
Their agenda, most fully expressed in a
Tahrir Square manifesto published on the
Internet, is a compendium of everything an internationalized generation of
Muslim youth has come to detest in the old regimes. It takes aim at both the
military authoritarianism embodied by Mubarak, Gaddafi and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and the
fundamentalist ideologues of Iran
and . Saudi Arabia
The Tahrir demands, echoed in protests almost everywhere, included the formation of a civilian government, answerable to the electorate, with the military held to a limited role.
The protesters called for an unrestricted press, the freedom to organize political parties and the drafting of a democratic constitution. Corrupt officials were to be prosecuted. Police and state security agencies were to be made accountable to statutory guarantees of human rights.
All of the elements that frame the Islamic crossroads are writ large in
-- as are all of the formidable obstacles that lie in its path. Egypt
Political Islam has its very origins in the Cairo-born Muslim Brotherhood. Eight decades old, and in principle non-violent, it is the forerunner of Al Qaeda and its emulators. One Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician, was the acknowledged operations chief of the September 11 conspiracy. Another, Mohammed Atta, was the assaults' commander.
In the person of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, its strongman from 1952 to 1970,
forged the authoritarian military-backed model of governance that still
prevails in most Muslim nations. Egypt
To date, it can also be argued, the youthful insurgents of
Tahrir Square have
registered the new movement's most notable achievements. Egyptian president and
former air force commander Mubarak, Nasser's successor after the assassination
of Anwar Sadat in 1981, was not simply another entrenched military autocrat.
For three decades, he was a central player in both Middle Eastern and African
geopolitics, ruling over 80 million people -- by far the largest Arab nation,
and second only to Saudi Arabia as a Sunni-Islam religious center. It was Washington's generous defense-assistance budget -- second
only to that for
-- which supplied and bankrolled Mubarak's security forces. Israel
To those who say Muslims have neither the will nor the capacity to modernize their societies or make their own choices, the cry of the movement's legions is "Yes we can!"
On the surface, youthful demographics would appear to favour the insurgents, amplifying the generational thrust for change with the sheer force of numbers. The population of
-- like almost all Muslim-majority nations -- is very young, with a median age
of just 24, roughly half that of Europe.
One of the movement's most charismatic personalities is Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, who led opposition to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which took "temporary" control of the government following Mubarak's ouster. Charged with "calling for armed rebellion," Mahfouz now faces prosecution by a military tribunal. Her case has galvanized political dissent across the spectrum from the religious right to the feminist left.
Mahfouz is among a significant cohort of women playing major roles in the insurgency, marking yet another break with the past. The campaign to have her charges dismissed, like the Arab Spring itself, has been organized on Twitter and Facebook.
But beneath the surface of public events, which reflect the cosmopolitan experience of
Cairo and , lies another
country -- a rural backwater, home to 60 per cent of the population, that
mirrors the larger Islamic world's crippling fatalism. Alexandria
According to various estimates, from 78-97 per cent of Egyptian women have been subjected to genital mutilation in accordance with traditional customs.
In a comprehensive 2010 study of women in 134 countries, issued by the World Economic Forum, 15 of 20 nations with the world's worst gender gaps were Muslim. The study examined employment participation and opportunity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment. No Muslim nation in the Middle East or
North Africa placed in the top
It would be premature to bet against the Islamic world's young insurgents, who have demonstrated astonishing courage in their challenge to autocracy and extremism. But it would be naive to underestimate the challenge of drawing a billion of the barely educated rural poor into a modernist revolution.
Devout religious observation is the norm in towns and villages. Whether the setting is the Nile Delta or
's agrarian heartland, an
army career -- and the autocratic patronage system that is its ladder -- is a
time-honoured means of escaping dire poverty. Pakistan
To succeed, the insurrection cannot depend exclusively on the tools of modern technology or the language of participatory democracy. Egyptian women grasped this early in the protests. Many wore veils to signal their own conviction that the institutions of democracy and modernization are not inconsistent with Islamic values or contemptuous of the faithful.
The crucial challenge, the real test at the crossroads of history, is to persuade the worldwide community of the Ummah that change is possible and critically necessary -- and that its intent is not heresy, but the fulfillment of one of Mohammed's key injunctions in conversations with his followers.
"What is the best type of Jihad?" Islam's founder is asked. "Speaking truth before a tyrannical ruler," he answers.
This article is the first of two on "Islam at the Crossroads." On Monday The Tyee will publish "A Bridge to the Future -- in Doctrine and Politics."