Saturday, August 2, 2008

Islamic Fundamentalism and the Arab Political Culture Part II

By David Bukay

2nd part of 3

The opposite pole of honor is shame. Researchers are not certain what is more important, the notion of honor or the fear of the shame that will be caused if honor is compromised. It is not honor, but shame that is the key issue. Public exposure is what harms a man's honor and humiliates him. The Arab is constantly engaged in avoiding whatever causes shame, in word and deed, while striving vigorously to promote his honor. Beyond shame and preventing its occurrence, there is vengeance, which is also to be displayed to all.4 Arab culture reflects a collective ethos, and esteems tradition and honor. It is circumspect in regard to avoiding insult or causing shame; hence, it is better to lie so as to prevent conflict and not offend someone. Whereas the Jewish approach turns one cheek, on the basis of "We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have done wickedly," and the Christian approach turns the other cheek and discards responsibility, the Arab-Islamic approach is essentially aggressive: "I have a problem? Then you are to blame." This constitutes open and emphatic defiance of everything that is perceived as wrong, unjust, and an inability to accomplish one's goals. There is no effort at compromise, certainly no tolerance and consent to the rights and rightness of the other. Nor is there any comprehension that relative concepts are involved. The phenomenon has been starkly evident in the Arab approach to the issue of Palestine. The concept is absolutely total. Justice and truth belong only to the Palestinians, in a manner absolute and without appeal, and the political discourse manifests this clearly. Language is a cultural phenomenon of supreme importance. Prominent among the Arabs is the use of expressions, proverbs, metaphors, linguistic allegories, as well as exaggeration (mubalaghah) and glorification (mufakharah). As a result, spoken Arabic is replete with exaggeration, verbal pathos, and the frequent use of high-flown phrases. This approach contrasts completely with the language of understatement in Western culture. This linguistic contrast contributes to a major problem of communication between members of the two different cultural spheres. What happens in an encounter between Arab culture's language of overstatement and Western culture's language of understatement? This is one of the major causes of Israel's difficult position in world public opinion which believes the Arab culture of exaggeration reflects an actual reality. The impact of the rich and beautiful Arabic language on Arab conduct is remarkable. There would not be such ardent feelings of veneration, such conscious and intensive use of the language, if these were not so powerfully propelled by the written or spoken word. The Arabic language is a mirror through which the Arabs examine the world. Even the language of the uneducated is very rich, and fosters exaggerations and excessive emphases. The Arabs are proud of their language and convinced that it is the greatest and most beautiful of the world's tongues. The Arab personality abounds in contradictions. This is a deeply rooted duality: only a small part of the people is happy and content, yet they give strangers a warm and enthusiastic welcome. They are also intensely emotional, and easily prompted to extremes of hostility and resentment with no self-control. Under the influence of distress and fanaticism, they are capable of any act of cruel violence in an appalling magnitude. The shift can be dramatic and extreme. This is characteristic of tribalism: an admirable fatalism and passivity of self-control along with an astonishing impulsivity and capacity for draconian, uncontrolled violence. All the mechanisms of hospitality, blessings, and affability are aimed at creating a defensive buffer, at mitigating the threatening interpersonal encounter. Life in a hostile environment in the desert, with scarce resources, in social and political alienation, forged a society that acquiesces to the harsh reality out of political conformism, and accepts the rules of behavior that defined society's objectives in religious terms. These are ingrained symptoms of behavioral polarity between: a) unity and separateness, b) honor and shame, c) violent aggression and passive submission to rule, d) fantasy that ascends to the heavens and the earthliness of the burning desert, e) hatred of the imperialist West and admiration for its attributes, f ) the desire for anarchic desert freedom that reflects the turbulent and emotional personality, and g) patience and endurance in the face of the harsh reality. The tribal origins of the Arab Middle East were assimilated into a rural society. The urban society developed only in the 20th century, but retained the patterns of thought and activity of the rural-tribal frameworks. Indeed, in many respects, Arab society manifests the desert anarchy, whether they wear fine tailored suits or gold jalabas. All this is reflected as well in the polar duality of Islam. The phenomenon of the "return of Islam" has many names, according to the eye of the beholder: awakening, rebirth, return, reassertion, resurgence, resurrection, fundamentalism, messianism, political Islam, Islamism, radical Islam, Islamic extremism, Islamic movement, Islamic fanatics. The Muslims refer to the phenomenon in positive terms: rootedness (usuliyah), origins (asliyun), Islamists (Islamiyun), believers (mu`minun), and God-fearers (mutadayinun). However, the notion of fundamentalism, which initially referred to the late 19th century Protestant movement in the United States, is the most useful, both because it is related to "rootedness" in Arabic (usuliyah) and because it is more understood and meaningful in the Western political discourse. Only on September 11, 2001, after the terrorist strikes on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, was the Islamic threat internalized in the West. It then began to penetrate the Western political consciousness that the Arab-Islamic political culture is aggressive and violent, can arouse popular forces that are enormous in scope, and embraces worldwide aspirations. The Muslim weakness, compared to Western supremacy, left profound feelings of frustration and inferiority among the Muslims, a sense that their just, victorious religion had been humiliated by the infidel West. This reality is not only unfamiliar, but unacceptable, since it contradicts all the laws of Muslim logic. The reactions to the weaknesses of Islam were perceived and defined as religious. The problems were formulated in religious terms, and so were the solutions that were proposed for them: a return to the original Islamic tenets, with the goal of restoring in the present the achievements of the past, and applying the principles of the past to successful activity in the present. The violent Islamic aggression does not stem only from frustration, the most prominent factor in social science theories of aggression. Islam is characterized by violent and aggressive principles and a radical ideology, whose source is in the Arab political culture. The combination between sweetness and amiability as preached by the Qur`an on the one hand, and the fanaticism of wild, destructive violence on the other, is amazing. The phenomenon of the suicide bombers, for example, is Islamic in nature: from Chechnya to Iran, Hizbullah, and the Palestinians. The society sanctifies the phenomenon of turning abject cowards who attack innocent, defenseless civilians, into heroes whose murderous deeds are approved by their families, not to mention the monetary rewards and adulation they receive. In the West, this phenomenon is neither perceived nor understood. It must be emphasized that it is not a matter of a few extremists. Yet the West has a hard time understanding why Islam does not work to eradicate the phenomenon. The first fundamentalist movements in Islam developed on the periphery of the Arab world, amid the waning of the Ottoman Empire. Its devotees had an internal orientation, focusing on reforms or a revolution in Islamic society. The Wahabiyah movement in the Arabian Peninsula founded by Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahab (1703-1792), was influenced by the radical, puritanical hanbali movement and the interpretations of Ibn-Taymiyah. The Sanusiyah movement founded by Muhammad bin `Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859) in Cyrnaika (Libya) was a mystical and reformist movement, suited to the cultural values of North Africa. And the Madhiyah movement founded by Muhammad Ahmad bin `Abdallah al-Mahdi (1843-1885) flowered in Sudan as a puritanical movement similar to Wahabiyah. But the movement that led fundamentalist Islam into the 20th century was the reformist al-Salafiyah movement headed by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), who preached pan-Islamic solidarity and resistance to Western penetration. The success of this movement was via its disciples, Muhammad `Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Muhammad Rida (1865-1935), who were active in Egypt. The triumphant stream was the radical activism of the Muslim Brotherhood lead by Hasan al-Bana (1906-1949). This movement gained enormous success, and established influential branches in almost all the Arab states. Geertz defines religion as a system of symbols that confers meaning on reality, formulates views and outlooks, supplies answers to all the issues, and creates an ethos for action.5

It is commonly claimed that Islam is the political movement of the popular strata, and provides a solution to the social-economic-cultural difficulties of the Muslims. By contrast, we maintain that the Islamic awakening (al-sahwah al-Islamiyah) does not involve the return of Islam as a religion, since in fact it was always there, and never underwent a secularization process. What has occurred is that Islamic religion has become a significant factor in political discourse. Furthermore, there are many different Islamic movements that employ a variety of modes of attaining political ends and of gaining power via political and social mobilization of the masses. These are aggressive and violent movements that use modern technological tools to subvert Arab and Islamic states that are defined as secular. The Islamic movements are not part of the regime, but their functional orientation is strongly political. Islam is, indeed, the most political of all the religions. In contrast to the Christian ideal of the kingdom of heaven, and the Jewish ideal of the messianic age, Islam sees the ideal as immediately applicable via the state as long as it functions according to the shari`a. In practice, this means that Muslims strive for a blend of Arab nationalism and Islam in its fundamentalist formulation. The mixture of the two is tantamount to embark upon a revolution whose ultimate objective is the reinstatement of the Islamic caliphate embodied in the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of the 20th century. The dominant notion in the West is that Muslims today are expressing disappointment and frustration over the failure of modernization. They are displaying a cultural rearguard battle against a modernity that dissolves their traditional value system. Our view differs. We contend that the current Muslim uprising is a political reaction that seeks to promote political objectives as an alternative to the existing regimes, and, no less significant, it seeks to counteract capitalist and communist ideology for which it regards itself as an alternative. The Islamic awakening is not a negation of modernity, but a reaction to its Western model. Western modernity is perceived as a direct threat to Islamic civilization, which is the most important collective framework of identity. Thus, the only possible resistance to the West's cultural onslaught is Islam in its fundamentalist form presented as a comprehensive system that provides all solutions (al-Islam huwa al-Hall) to the problems of society. The Islamic solution is authentic and its roots run deep in the existing culture. Western penetration induced a severe reaction precisely among those who came into direct contact with the West, those in the middle class who experienced modernity and higher education. Modernity is perceived as the source of all sin, and permissiveness and materialism as a catastrophe. But the greatest sin of the West is to place the individual and the rule of reason at the center, as opposed to total submission and devotion to Allah. The Islamic victory in Afghanistan and overthrow of the Communist regime there in 1988 raised the issue anew, and served as proof that Islam could vanquish the infidels through the power of enthusiasm and religious faith. Indeed, Allah is with Islam, and Islam triumphs because he is just.

Fundamentalist Islam has begun its march through Arab-Islamic society. Analysis of the causes of its rise focuses on a number of factors: a reaction to Western penetration, and a fierce animosity toward its presence and influence in the Arab political system. This mindset is prevalent among city dwellers, those who have had more direct contact with the West, and the educated middle class, who have experienced modernity and technology: first there was an economic conquest, then a military-territorial one. And when the Arab states succeeded in liberating themselves from Western colonialism, the Western cultural invasion began. The challenges of Western technology and the global village threatened the foundations of Islamic society. Second is the failure of the secular political alternative. The authoritarian regimes and patrimonial leadership repress and alienate the masses who experience no political participation and exert no influence over how the government functions. The third factor is the collapse of the secular Arab ideologies, not only socialism and communism but also nationalism, Nasserism, and Arab unity, together with the Arab inability to solve the "question of Palestine". As a result of these processes, a severe dissonance developed between the world-view of the Muslim Arab and the reality of his social-political environment. The cultural conflict of values acted as a strong catalyst for a return to the familiar world of Islamic values, which offered a lifeline in a stormy sea. Alongside the ideas developed thus far, it remains important to focus on still another dimension of the current Muslim predicament, namely the crises of identity and legitimacy,6 and personal and collective. In Arab-Islamic society, no practical ideology developed that could provide a platform for nation building, a basis for socio-economic development, enabling the formation of a civil society. The Islamic societies have mostly remained rural and traditional, hence suffused with a religious mentality. Most of the Arab states are in a pre-industrial stage, and some of them are in the feudal era, with religion exerting wide influence over the population.

The processes of vast and uncontrolled demographic growth had a destructive impact. The results are the subversion of the social and traditional frameworks, the widening of the socio-economic disparities, and the frustration and anomie of an alienated society, in states that comprise non-political and non-civil societies. The combination of a frustrated intellectual and religious minority, the force that exhorts and leads, and the indigent masses, the flock with its numerical magnitude, forms the basis for the rise and endurance of the Islamic movements, a raft in the storm that gave the population feelings of affiliation and self-worth.

In such circumstances, the conclusion of the Islamic movements was clear and unyielding: one must return to the sources, to a pure and just Islam that offers solutions for all distress and need, especially for the cultural contradictions and identity crises of Arab society. Arab unity cannot be achieved, and a solution to the Palestine problem requires the overthrow of the secular Arab regimes. In place of the secular Arab state, what is offered is the pan-Islamic framework under the laws of the shari`a. Secularism is regarded as the gravest threat to traditional society. That is why secularism and Islam cannot join forces, a fact that only a few authors about Islam still fail to comprehend. Islam is a permanent opponent of secularism, and the Islamic awakening contradicts modernity.7

In the view of Lewis and Pipes, Islamic anti-Westernism stems from deep feelings of humiliation among those viewing themselves as the inheritors of the dominant civilization of the past, which was subjugated by those regarded as inferior. The more appealing Western civilization became, the greater the fundamentalist hostility and will to struggle against it.8 It is worth, however, considering a different aspect of this attitude. The resentment and abhorrence are at Western culture, not necessarily at the West. It is not Western politics but rather the cultural ubiquity of the West, and the threat to Islamic society that shape the Islamic outlook and behavior. Under such circumstances, the Arabs put their ears to the ground to listen for ancient drumbeats calling them back to the Golden Age.

David Bukay


No comments:

Post a Comment