The Crisis of Islamic Civilization
December 22, 2010 § 1 Comment
Ali Allawi on his book The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. (see Robin’s review)
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Thank you very much, Joanne, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I had really two choices. One was to try to summarize Islamic civilization in half an hour, or to discuss this more in a personal way and a personal capacity which I thought might be interesting at such an early hour. I’ve called my talk, “In Search of Islam’s Civilization.”
I was born into a mildly observant Muslim family in Iraq. The 1950s in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world were a time when the secular elements of society, the ruling political class, and cultural and intellectual feats had moved far from an overt identification with Islam. It appeared then to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it may have still had on the peoples and societies of the Muslim world.
Even the latter term was unusual for the period. Muslim countries identified themselves more in terms of national or ethnic status or ideological affinities. For an impressionable child at the time, Islam was not a factor in daily life. Religion was a mandatory course in school, it is true, but life around us was clearly decoupling from Islam.
Nobody taught us the rules of prayer or expected us to fast in Ramadan. We learned the shorter verses of the Koran but the holy book itself was kept on the shelves or in drawers, mostly unread. The pilgrimage to Mecca was only for the old, atoning for the transgressions of their lives in preparation for their inevitable end, more an insurance policy than an act of piety.
I don’t recall ever coming across the word jihad in any contemporary context. The rhetoric was more to do with Arab destiny and anti-imperialism. A bit of religious fervor popped up during the Suez crisis of 1956 when Cairo radio blared out martial songs calling for divine support against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion.
That was about it. Women, not only in my own family but throughout the middle classes, wore only western clothes. They had long ceased to wear the hijab. The only connection to a pre-modern past that I had was my grandfather, who always wore the distinguishing and dignified robes and turbans of an old line merchant.
Apart from religious holidays, the observances and the public rituals of Islam were not widely manifested. The Shia rites of Muharram were celebrated, often wildly, but we were advised to stay well away from them. They were somewhat unbecoming for refined folk who preferred to hold semi-literate soirées to remember the passion of the martyr and saint. Tears were ritually shed and after a short catharsis normal conversation returned.
Modernity was flooding in everywhere and people seemed to want more of it, cinemas and snack bars, cabarets and country clubs, freely flowing alcohol and mixed parties. Baghdad was turning into Babylon, its hedonistic predecessor of Europe. And it was not much different, as memoirs of the times amply testify, in Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi, and Jakarta.
Secularism and modernity had the Muslim world by the throat. It may not have been precisely in the form that I have experienced but the end result was the same. Islam was ignored, marginalized, or rejected by the modernizing classes. It continued to provide some form of ethical scaffolding to people’s lives but even that became frayed as people moved into a modern, urban environment.
When I first left Iraq, it was as a youth who was far more secularist than religious, far more confident about the promises of modernity than our own calcified legacy. Whatever interest in religion I had was ground down by my first exposure to an Anglican school in England in the 1950s. In reaction to the enforced chapel-going and the tedium of listening to endless formulaic sermons, I developed an abiding distaste for organized religion, or at least the late Victorian version of it that was practiced in minor public schools. But the seeds of my awakened interest in Islam may well have been laid then.
I know that I used to instinctively react to the slights against Islam that ran throughout the syllabus, from the depiction of the crusaders as brave knights against marauding Saracens, to the casual dismissal of the leaders of the Indian Mutiny as bloodthirsty barbarians.
No one tried to convert me, partly, I suppose, because our own headmaster, a reverend himself, was undergoing his own crisis of faith. I kept going a type of rearguard schoolboy rebellion in favor of whatever Islamic identity I had. I used to recite the opening verses of the Koran at the beginning and the end of the day and every time I entered the chapel.
There were other Muslims in the school, mostly from Britain’s shrinking empire. But they were no different from me. They all came from the same type of secularized background and had similar experiences. Our presence in England was in some ways an affirmation that modern civilization was anchored firmly in the West. Our Islamic past may have been glorious but it was just that: a past. The future was now, and it was in the West, the more West the better.
I spent most of my last year in school plotting to leave England for the United States, and I succeeded. I landed in Boston in the fall of 1964 right at the beginning of the great cultural revolution of the 1960s. It would have been impossible not to have been swept up in the events of the times, even if you were an outsider. Youth and membership in the great global postwar baby boom was what united us. I enthusiastically participated in all the defining events of the times, from the sit-ins and teach-ins, to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam Moratorium.
It was the struggle for black empowerment, however, in America, that reawakened in me the potential of the spiritually charged movement to effect great transformations. It was not lost on me that Martin Luther King was also a minister of the church, but a far cry from the establishment of churchmen that I had earlier encountered. More appositely, Malcolm X, the radical black leader, had become a practicing Muslim in the year before his assassination. His pilgrimage to Mecca had opened up to him the liberating potential of Islam. It became integral to his struggle for black political and economic rights.
I began to pay a bit more attention to the potential in Islam as a force for change. The search for a meaningful ethic to fill the spiritual and moral void of the times preoccupied me throughout the 1970s.
A great number of young people were also trying to find an inner balance to the excesses of the counterculture. But I was altogether more sober or reticent about following fashionable gurus or attaching myself to the burgeoning self-awareness movement. I made a few unsuccessful attempts to find such an outlet within the broader Islamic tradition, but this was a forlorn exercise in 1970s Washington where I resided most of the time.
It was in the unlikely setting of 1976 London, enmeshed in a disintegrating British economy beset by labor strife and the whiffs of hyperinflation, that I came across an extraordinary event. Between April and June of that year, London was hosting something called the World of Islam Festival, an event that strove for nothing less than representing the richness and diversity of Islam’s culture and civilization to the West. But more importantly it showed the unity of Islamic civilization over a vast territory and across a multiplicity of cultures and peoples.
Islamic civilization transcended its component nations, languages, and cultures. Although the festival was backed by nearly all the Muslim countries, the spirit behind the former organizers was one of Islam’s great unsung heroes of modern times, the Raja Mahmudabad. He had encouraged the organizers in this project and was instrumental in achieving broad support for the idea from a number of Muslim countries. I had befriended one of the Raja’s relatives who then introduced me to him.
During my stay in London in 1968 and 1969 when I was doing post graduate work at the London School of Economics, I frequented the Raja’s company at his small home adjacent to London’s Regent’s Park Mosque, of which he was a director. He had moved to London in 1967 for the second time from Pakistan, a country which owed a great deal to him. He was the long time treasurer of the All India Muslim League, led by Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The League had pushed for the establishment of Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslims of India. The Raja was an heir to a vast fortune which he expanded in its entirety in the cause of the Muslim League and the Muslims of India. He could not quite adjust to the lethal politics of Pakistan and soon fell foul of the new political class. He took issue with the secular politics of the country and its dominance by the feudal and military costs.
He shunned various officers of high office from Pakistan’s president, eager to dissuade the person who had been instrumental in founding the state, and he remained firmly loyal to his vision of the Islamic state. The Raja was a deeply idealistic and egalitarian person. His Islam was entirely anchored in virtues and in good works. He performed manual labor and frequently wore coarse home-spun cloth and walked around barefooted to express his solidarity with the poor.
He could somehow combine deep fealty to Islam, a pronounced radical and even revolutionary bent, and incredible charm that endeared him to all manner of people, including various heads of state. He was spiritual, even mystical in his leanings, and his passion came through during the evenings that I spent in his company.
The Raja used to be a frequent visitor to the shrines of the imams in Iraq. I later discovered that he had been a good friend of my late father-in-law and in one instance, in a story related by my father-in-law, the Raja and he had just left visiting the shrine of Imam al-Hussein in Karbala in Iraq. Walking in the night air, the Raja was suddenly overcome with a powerful spiritual state and in a trance-like condition, recited endless verses from the poet Khafl [phonetic].
The Raja left a powerful imprint on me, but I would not appreciate its significance until I encountered Islam once again in London of 1976. These two often conflicting currents of my understanding of Islam have dominated my life ever since, the mystical inter-dimension of the faith and the outer political and social expressions of it.
Within two years of the festival the world would be turned on its head. One event, the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, convulsed the planet. Political Islam erupted on the global stage in a huge social and political revolution and whatever we may think of it, embodied the hopes and fears of millions of people around the world.
A parallel revolution was also engulfing the world of Sunni Islam, the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of militant Islamism. The world in general, and Muslims in particular, were confronted with a host of questions and assertions about the role of Islam in society and politics. I dare say that no Muslim of the period—and since—has not been exercised in one form or another, whether recoiling in alarm, perplexed and anxious, or as an enthusiastic advocate of the rise of political Islam and the increasingly assertive and controversial role of Islam in society.
For a long time the two worlds of Islam which impacted me, the outer world of political and social action and the inner world of moral and spiritual realization, seemed entirely at odds with each other. One was angry at its subordination, insistent on recognition and power and challenging to the status quo, and the other was serene, introspective, and immersed in the intangible.
The canvas of the first was societies and nations. The background of the second was the self and the individual. Rituals of Russia in Islam were supposed to be the bridge between these two worlds, but they were bent to suit the demands of one or another. They did not serve as a connecting bridge between these two worlds. I began to recognize that the essential unity of Islam had been greatly diminished, if not quite yet destroyed.
People could no longer move effortlessly between these two worlds. Momentous crises affected the Islamic world in the past quarter century. They all demanded engagement and action, no doubt, but they all tilted the balance towards the political arena.
As I became more involved in these issues through writings, speeches, and then direct political action, it became clear to me that only a few of the Muslims that I encountered in the political arena could resonate in the spiritual or ethical aspects of Islam.
In particular, Islamists behave no differently—and often worse—as the prospects of power loom for them in a number of countries, including Iraq. The Islam that I had experienced was increasingly devoid of any deeply ethical content and was at odds with my own understanding of Islam’s legacy.
That is not to say that the preoccupation of the vast majority of Muslims with their outer condition was in any way reprehensible, but it was deficient, as it framed the crises that Islam was facing entirely in terms of the political, social, or jurisprudential aspects of the religion.
The moral education of individual Muslims was an altogether different matter and did not fuse with the preoccupations of the leaders of the Muslim world, whether in power or in opposition in mainly Muslim lands or in the growing diasporas in the West.
Muslims may have been overwhelmed by the scale of real or imagined disasters befalling them, but this should not have stopped them from holding a mirror up to themselves. What that mirror would have shown was a fading of their own civilizational drive and an increasingly obvious indifference and often abandonment of the foundational, ethical, and spiritual bases of the faith.
I experienced this first hand in the conflicts and wars that engulfed Muslims and the Muslim world in the past 30 years. The divisions within and between Islam were breaking out into incredible paroxysms of violence. Sectarian, ethnic, and racial hatreds continuously trumped the ideals of Islamic unity. The Iran-Iraq War and the internecine warfare that accompanied the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan were just such examples.
It was in post-Saddam Iraq, however, that I encountered the extent that the dissonance in Islamic political and social life had reached. The murderous violence that was unleashed by radical Wahhabi-inspired Islamists was accompanied by laborious jurisprudential justifications for these murders. These were accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide and legitimated the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians.
The counterterror that followed in its wake, which was mainly the work of Shia militias, was largely arbitrary in its selection of victims. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed and millions displaced or exiled in the country’s descent into chaos and strife. This ghastly work was done mainly by people who claimed an Islamic motivation for their deeds.
Political Islamists of all stripes jettisoned their entire ideologies, for which many of their militants had given their lives, in indecent haste as they scrambled for political advantage in the new order. Not once during my entire three-year stint in the Iraqi government did I witness a single episode of a formally Islamist party now in power promote or champion an Islamic cause that they had earlier propounded in their manifestos.
The ethical standards as a whole in the public office fell to appallingly low and squalid levels. The obsessive drive for personal material gain at the public interest seized the minds of a huge swathe of the political class and fed the extraordinary levels of corruption. It was a sad and dispiriting spectacle.
Muslims by and large seemed to have decoupled from the wellsprings of Islamic ethics. I had actually guessed as much before I returned to Iraq. But it was in Iraq that I began to systematically reflect on the matter.
The end result of this process was my writing of the book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. It is one person’s attempt to understand the factors behind the decay of the spirit of Islam and what the future entails if this process is not halted or reversed. Islamic civilization has its own perspectives on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the powers and responsibilities of the state, the appropriate balance between human rights and duties, as well as the nature of justice, freedom, and equality.
In many ways, these perspectives are different from other civilizations and in particular from the dominant globalizing world order. Almost by definition, Islamic civilization has to acknowledge the role of the transcendent or the sacred or divine, call it what you will, in its makeup. If that element is absent, then Islam cannot be forced into the dynamics of modernity without affecting its integrity.
But the shocks to Islamic civilization by the encounter, first with expanding Western powers and then with the forces of modernity and globalization, severely jolted this consciousness. The ascendant forces of the modern global order have made deep inroads into the outer world of Islam and equally importantly into the minds of Muslims. They may deny it and fight numerous rearguard actions, but this reality cannot be easily effaced unless Muslims confront another harsh fact: Any civilization has an inner and outer aspect, an inner aspect of beliefs, ideas, and values that inform the outer aspect of institutions, laws, government, and culture.
The inner dimensions of Islam no longer have the significance or power to affect the outer world in which most Muslims live. Most Muslims, knowingly or otherwise, have lost sight of the utter centrality of the sense of the sacred in the makeup of their historic civilization.
Their world has become gradually desacralized and this has affected entire aspects of how Muslims now think, believe, and behave. Islam’s outer civilization presence has been in constant retreat as a result and this has affected Muslims’ perspectives on the state, power, institutions, laws, politics, values, economic life, culture, and society.
These are the areas where the debate on the future of Islam has mainly taken place. But the answer to the question of whether a uniquely Islamic order can ever be recreated again does not lie only there.
I have no doubt that Islam as a religion, or as a code of outer conduct and transactions, will continue into the indefinite future. But I cannot say the same about Islamic civilization, a universe that is recognizably Islamic, and which draws its vitality and inspiration from the inner and outer aspects of Islam and the bridge that connects the two. It is this world that is in danger of disappearing. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Would it be possible to ask you, since you spoke about the past 50 years, to look forward to the next 50 years and the possibilities of overcoming the strife between Shiites and Sunnis, the power of a militant Islam, of the Taliban, the attraction that they have? How are you recommending that Muslims overcome this morass that you have described and become both more spiritual and better attuned to getting along with Christians and Jews and Buddhists and other religions?
ALI A. ALLAWI: I’m not very good at predictions, but what I have been trying to say in the book and what I believe is that modernity, or post-modernity, now really has sunk very deep roots.
What you see is basically the shrinkage of Islam to its political and religious aspects. These cannot really form the basis of an entire civilization. What we’re going through now is a kind of fever. Political Islamic extremism, or what passes for Islamic extremism, the Taliban, all of these are reactions of a system that’s trying to come to grips with a world that’s moving on.
And it is unlikely to survive. Political Islam in its Talibanist form cannot really survive for any amount of time in the outside world. Of course it can survive if it feels under attack. The best thing to do, if you ask me, is to ignore it. Because what will happen is that the societies which they are creating, I would call them “reactionary dystopias.” They cannot really provide the wherewithal for modern living and that is what people mainly want. So if you look at it as a phase, I think it does not have much of a life span.
What I think will happen, as I said, my conclusion, is that modernity, or post-modernity, will become basically the desired end for Muslims, and their spiritual life will shrink to a private faith. But when you do that, you basically have conceded the outer space to whatever is the prevailing order. So the civilization of life is lost.
The only way to regain the civilization of life, in my opinion, is to connect it to the inner dimensions of the faith, which is the creative forces do not come from the two aspects that are now dominating, which are the political aspects and the world of the pious and observant.
QUESTION: From a civilizational point of view, Christianity was deeply divided for a millennia and fought bitterly. And one would say that the Protestant-Catholic divide is still not resolved. You didn’t touch too much on the Sunni-Shiite divide. I’d like to hear more of what you have to say, because I think that that’s going to mark at least the immediate future of the Islamic world.
ALI A. ALLAWI: I think there are a number of aspects here that have to be looked at in terms of the Sunni-Shiite divide. First of all, the Sunnis are in the vast majority. They are over 85 percent of the Muslim world. So the Shiites are in a minority and are really contained in a certain geographic area around Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and bits and pieces elsewhere. So it is a far more constrained expression of Islam than the broader Islam.
The other aspect of it is that to look at the Sunni-Shiite divide in the way that the Protestant-Catholic divide emerged is I think wrong. First of all, the Reformation went on for 200 years. There was a great deal of mayhem and slaughter that went on, and I quote in the book C.V. Wedgewood, the population of Europe dropped by two-thirds during the Thirty Years’ War, which ultimately had to do with wars of religion.
These huge encounters and conflicts within Christianity are not replicated in the history of Islam, whatever you may think. The Shiites and Sunnis had an accommodation which very, very infrequently broke out in warfare. In fact, there’s no case until modern times where there have been large-scale civil wars specifically between the Shiites and the Sunnis. This accommodation came to an end as a result of the political ideology of radical Islam.
In the past, one or two incidences may make us question this claim, but, for example, how did Iran become a Shiite country? It became a Shiite country actually through a form of force, coercion on the part of the suffragist state and it took nearly 100 or 150 years before Iran became entirely Shiite. This was only 400 years ago.
But apart from that, the Shiite communities in the Muslim world had a certain role and certain relationship with the power structure. There were riots and so on, but frankly not too different from the kind of football riots you get by hooligans in Europe.
It’s only in the modern period, and especially in the last 20 years, that this has become an issue of communities confronting each other. And in my opinion it has to do with the radicalization of traditional Sunni by jihadist-inspired ideology, and the counter-response to that from people who feel threatened. So you find these expressions of Shiite-Sunni strife in Iraq and Pakistan. To some extent in Lebanon, but not to the point where there’s actual warfare between the communities. So I think the comparison is not really correct.
QUESTION: Do you think the divide will close with the Sunnis?
ALI A. ALLAWI: The divide will not close as long as the discourse, as it were, of radical Wahhabi-inspired Islamists holds sway, because they basically cast the Shiite to the circle of infidelity and therefore can be attacked. If that ideology becomes the default position of the Sunni majority, then I think that division, that dogmatic, doctrinal division, will become permanent and it will become very serious, especially in countries where there are confrontations between the two. That mainly means Pakistan and the Gulf countries, because in Iraq the Shiite predominate and in Iran they are the vast majority and in Lebanon they are becoming the largest communities.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of talk about the need for a reformation in Islam similar to the reformation of Christianity. Do you think there is such a need, and, if so, how would that reformation take place? What would be the substance of it?
ALI A. ALLAWI: I think no. If you look at the reformation in stock terms as the rebellion of the individual against the hierarchical church and then access to the divine without this intercession, and from there you get all of these things unfolding, then I don’t think this is the case.
The linear view, as it were, of the way in which the western world reached its present condition is I think to some extent false, because it’s from the reformation you end up with the notion of rights and then these become enshrined in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment is the basis for a secular, political order, and so on into modern times.
This kind of linear trajectory is not really applicable. Although I must say, after the 9/11 period, it was very fashionable to try to talk about reformation of Islam. This is one aspect.
The other aspect of it, which is something that’s frequently overlooked, is that you should not wish too much for something because you may get it.
In the past, the so-called reformers of Islam, starting with the 19th century figures such as Muhammad Abdu [phonetic] and so on, can be connected directly to the most extreme Islamist, and in some ways the Wahhabi insurgency in Islam is a form of reformation. But you might not end up with the kind of humanist liberal democratic order that you expect. You might end up with some kind of extreme, sect-based interpretation of the religion, which is in my mind more probable.
What we need to do is to anchor Islam back in its traditional schools rather than to constantly try to reinterpret things. The counter-reformation, which I think is what, in the Western sense, Wahhabism is, always talks about a pure and hard Islam, which is in many ways more interesting to the average semiliterate person in the Muslim world than a very flowery expression of the faith that comes with a traditional way of looking at it. So with reformation of Islam, you have to be very careful.
QUESTION: A large body of Muslims lie in South and Southeast Asia. In countries like India and Indonesia, radicals seem not to have made much progress and indeed have reduced the number of radicals in power. To what extent are the South and Southeast Asian states affected by what has happened in the Middle East and to what extent may they at some point affect what’s happening in the Middle East?
ALI A. ALLAWI: I think it’s a good point, because there’s always a tendency to associate Islam with Arabs, but Arabs are only 20 percent of the Muslim world.
Islam, if you want to look at it in ethnic terms or national terms, there a really four or five broad areas. One is the Arab world, with 300 million people or thereabouts. Another is the Muslims of the south continent, about 300 or 400 million. Then the Muslims of the Malay archipelago, another 300 million perhaps. There are the Muslims of Africa, similarly, and you have what I call the Persian-inflected universe, which are the peoples who are very much affected by Persian and the Iranian culture, which obviously includes Iran and a number of countries around it.
Iran has a very powerful “pull” culture, people like the Kurds, people from Central Asia, and even the more intellectual elites of the Indo-Muslims. What’s happening now in Turkey, say, or in Indonesia, it’s true that it’s a rejection of political Islam in one way or another in its idealogized form, but I don’t think it’s the end of the story.
Elections can change directions, and they have. Political Islam is not dead in the sense that it’s unable anymore to seize power. Many of its precepts have already filtered into so-called non-Islamist parties so it’s not the kind of stark division that we have had in Turkey, between the secularists and people who want to hold an Islamic legacy.
I think there’s now a much greater sense of disconnect in the various non-Arab Muslim countries from the Arab world and I think in time this will probably become more and more pronounced. The fact that most of the jurisprudence in Islam is written in Arabic, the Koran is in Arabic, and so on, gives the Arabs a head start. But a lot of the newer interpretations are taking place outside of the Arab world.
The other thing I think you have to recognize is that probably more than half of the world’s Muslims now live in democracies of one form or another. So if you look at the entire Indian subcontinent, it’s now living in a democratic framework, and Indonesia is the same. Turkey is the same.
Muslims in the West now probably include Europe and the United States, maybe another 100 million people living outside of the frontiers of the circle of the Islamic world. So most Muslims I think in the next five years will probably live in some kind of form of democracy, and they have to come to terms with the new ways of organizing their political lives.
QUESTION: I read recently that one of the ways the Taliban gains strength is that in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas, a few families control most of the land, so it becomes an economic battle in a way and they close schools, as everyone knows, and many times you have to give one son to fight. Now because Pakistan has the bomb, many people are frightened. How can we just ignore it? What approach would you take, given the extreme danger?
ALI A. ALLAWI: You have to isolate the danger. If it’s a question of control of nuclear weapons, that doesn’t necessarily imply a certain set of political and strategic decisions. In the case of Pakistan—I know Pakistan reasonably well because I go there quite a lot—what’s going on in the Swat Valley is a form of class war, if you believe in these things anymore. It’s a very, very small group of people who control huge swathes of land.
And the fear in Pakistan is not so much that the Taliban will expand. The Pakistan Taliban are no match in military terms for the Pakistani army, you have to understand. The Pakistan army and the security services are extremely well entrenched. They define the state in Pakistan. The fear is that the model, as it were, of expropriating land owners, handing over title to peasants, and so on and so forth, becomes attractive in parts of Pakistan that are still dominated by feudal systems.
The Pakistan state is extremely dysfunctional. In many ways it’s unjust. The courts don’t work. The masses are ignored by the elites. The budgets are misappropriated or misspent. And you have a rising middle class, which is something that wasn’t there, say, 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. You have a literate and articulate middle class. Most of those who can are trying to leave, but those who stay are holding these people to account.
So I think in Pakistan there has to be a serious attempt to remove these imbalances and injustices in society. And the Taliban will always be there, but they will not be an existential threat. They will not end up in Islamabad and whatever mounting caves these weapons are hidden and then use them against the world.
So I think you have to divide the issue—whether you want to make sure that nuclear weapons don’t fall into the hands of the renegades, or you want to make sure that renegades can never get to the point where they can dominate their societies. And I think it is to do with removing these very, very serious imbalances in these countries.
QUESTION: In your vision of the evolution of the culture of Islam, would you see a particular role for the Muslims in Europe and, if so, what kind of role would they have in the context of the Islamic culture that you described?
ALI A. ALLAWI: Muslims in Europe right now are feeling very defensive and they’re not really in a position to act as a beacon for the rest of the Islamic world. Until they get they get their situation in order, until they find a place or accommodation that is accepted and recognized, both by the state in society as well as the culture, I think they will not be more than just a marginal element.
However, where they can play a very important part, and also Muslims in the United States, is that they are confronting in their daily lives all kinds of issues that don’t emerge in the Muslim world or don’t emerge in the same way. Issues with political rights, gender situations, the workplace—all of these notions that are in many ways, I won’t say alien, but not experienced in the same way in the Muslim world.
The responses that they will evolve towards in their long process of accommodation or adjustment to the West and the West’s process again of finding a space for them—I think these will be very, very important. For example, issues like free mixing of the sexes, issues like alcohol, issues like the role of personal sharia, as it were, and how much you can extend it to the outer domain—these will have to be negotiated in Europe, unless they abandon Islam, which they may in time. Abandon it in the sense they will lose their formal identity with it. It becomes a private faith. That may happen; it happened in Spain after the Moriscos.
I don’t think things will happen the same way, but it is probable that there will be a mass abandonment of Islam’s effects on the outer society. There will be a recognition that Islam in the West needs acknowledgment of the superiority or the permanence of values that are not necessarily expressions of the sharia or the expressions of inner conditions of Muslims. And then that would be their response. How that translates into the world where Muslims are in a majority is another matter.
QUESTION: A few weeks ago [at the Carnegie Council] two gentlemen from The Economist were talking about God in the world [see "God is Back" transcript], and when asked what was going to happen in the Islamic world they spoke in rather general and vague terms about a reformation followed by an enlightenment; and you’ve already said that this is pretty tricky ground.
I would just like you to comment on two aspects of this. One, it seems to me that as far as the western countries are concerned with the more difficult and radical parts of the Islamic world, if they are states which are likely to expire of their own limitations because they are not in line with the will of the people to be modern, then we should do nothing and let it happen, just as the Soviet Union expired with a little bit of help from policies.
But the other side of it is, how do we deal with the “Dutch politician” point of view about the Islamic people in Europe and the Islamic people in the United States? In one sense, the views are what you just said: They may abandon or they may come to terms with modernity, but they are the aspect of Islam which interests us the most perhaps. If they can bring about an enlightenment, how do we help them do that?
ALI A. ALLAWI: When we say the West, I think we have to be clear there are two different continents and Muslims in Europe have different problems than Muslims in America. One of the great, I won’t say failures, but one of the great gaps in Islam in the West is it has been singularly unsuccessful in converting people to Islam.
Wherever Islam encountered other civilizations in the past it was indigenous. People think that the Arabs occupied Spain and then the Spaniards took over Spain and the Arabs left. That’s not the case. The Muslims in Spain were 85 percent Spanish indigenous peoples. The Muslims of India are not all invaders, no matter what the internationalists say. The vast majority of them are converts. The Muslims of the Malay archipelago are also people who converted to Islam and so on down the line.
With the exception of African Americans who have their own particular relationship to Islam, most Muslims in the West are immigrants or children of immigrants and have not been able therefore to create, especially in Europe, a kind of space where they are, not protected, but they are enforced by a large number of natives or indigenous people who convert to Islam. In Europe, most Muslims, or the vast majority of Muslims, are really of low socioeconomic status. Most of them came as workers after the World War II economic boom and from former colonial territories, and in the 1990s they were added to by refugees and people who sought economic and political refuge in Europe.
In America, most of the Muslims, with the exception of the African Americans, are really children of people who are of quite good educational background and relatively high income and so on, so they have a different relationship. And I must say that America is far more accommodating to outsiders as groups than Europe is. Europe in many ways, with the exception of the U.K., has ethnically centered nation states whose openness was severely tested by these waves of people who have an apparently different culture and different values and so on.
The second and third generation have to overcome a great deal of obstacles before they can become fully participating citizens. In the U.K., for example, there is a disproportionate number of Muslims who are in the disadvantaged categories. In France, for example, most of the population of the prisons are Muslim. These ratios don’t really hold in this country.
So the issue of Islam and Europe I think can follow many directions. One is ghettoization, marginalization, exclusion. Another one is basically adoption of the mores and values of the host society or dominant society. And then there is a third way that is being tried now which is to keep your specific identity but limit its outer expression so that it becomes more, as it were, acceptable.
I think that it is probably going to move in the first direction, that is a large number of people, just for reasons of survival, will probably acknowledge that they have to give up the outer expressions of Islam and accept whatever are the norms and then in time one or two generations later it becomes a private faith and a badge of identity.
I have a slightly different scenario for the U.S., because the U.S. has been accommodating to all kinds of religious groups and dissenters. The U.K. I think also has a good potential for Islam to keep a unique status for itself by people who ultimately will be considered as part of the mosaic. And that’s because of the general acceptance of religious dissenters who learn English history and culture. So right now Muslims are like the Catholics; they have been in the early 19th century, excluded, but in time they will move into the mainstream. So it depends on the country you’re speaking about.
QUESTION: As I’ve heard your discussion you’ve lamented the decline of Islamic civilization. Living in the United States, I don’t think most people talk about a Christian civilization or a Jewish civilization. What is your sense of what you would like to see be the future relationship between people of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faith?
ALI A. ALLAWI: It has to be not so much a forced toleration and more of an accommodation and mutual respect. Again, I don’t romanticize Islamic history, but there was actually a great deal of accommodation and a great deal of a form of toleration. It may have been guarded toleration in most cases, but nevertheless it never spilt over into what we have seen in other cases.
I haven’t recorded any specific ethnic or religious killings on a mass scale in the world of Islam. There’ve been a lot of killings, a lot of mass killings, many by Muslims against other Muslims, but not necessarily focused on a group until modern times. Then the terms of everything changed.
So I think what Muslims should ask for is for those minorities or for other places or religions in their own space, as it were, to create a vital sense of accommodation and, not only respect for, but an acknowledgement that other people think differently, other people have different ways of organizing their lives and they should be respected.
A kind of toleration that acknowledges the other but assumes that the other will always work under the mantle of the dominant power, I don’t feel really works in the case of Islam. It has to go one way or the other. So I think regaining the spirit of accommodation and recognizing the uniqueness of cultural and religious traditions and respect for the institutions and for the outer expression I think is very important.