For two generations the world has witnessed a mounting confrontation between so-called Western modernism and what in recent years has been termed the “Arab street.” The latter refers to the state of disgruntlement and social malaise that allegedly afflicts Islamic societies, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia and adjacent regions of Northern Africa. The failure of most of the societies in these regions to attain full economic development, to overcome mass poverty, to evolve secular political institutions, and establish constructive relationships with the advanced industrial societies, whom they accuse of being the cause of all their social woes, has resulted in perpetual political turmoil and escalating patterns of domestic violence, international conflict and terrorism, and, in the end, full-scale war. The bringing down of the Twin Towers on 9/11 by Muslim hijackers acting in the name of Islamic fundamentalism brought this crisis of political despair to a frightening climax. War with Afghanistan and Iraq followed in quick succession. Terrorism in Palestine and Kashmir continue exacting their tragic toll of innocent lives.
There have been numberless analyses on both sides of the political divide concerning the causes of this deep cleavage between two competing versions of right and wrong. Here I do not mean merely the often asserted Huntintonesque sweeping distinction between Islam and Christendom but instead the more purely sociological distinction between the secular-modernizing synthesis that has been driving the advanced industrial societies, embodied by NATO and the EU, plus Japan, and most recently China and India, on the one hand, and the backward-looking revivalistic religiosity that pervades much of the grass-roots radical leadership in the Muslim world, on the other.
When viewed from this standpoint, one need not enter into ethnocentric judgemental questions about the rightness or wrongness per se of any particular version of “civilization”. It requires rather some conclusions regarding the qualitative consequences of actions taken. Did the means employed, however much they may have been influenced or legitimized by cultural norms, achieve results that advanced the collective well-being of the society write large..
There has been no dearth of criticism leveled against America’s political conduct in dealing with the non-Western world in general and the Muslim world in particular. Much of this criticism is well deserved. The United States indeed has been rightly faulted for pursuing double-standards toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, for propping up feudalistic Arab regimes with few redeeming social or political virtues, like Saudi Arabia, in order to keep the oil flowing and military bases intact, for winking at Saddam Hussain’s Stalinism as long as it served American strategic interests in the Middle East, and for winking at Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism against India as long as General Musharraf played ball in combating the versions of terrorism that America chooses to find reprehensible – i.e., Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Clearly, there has been the Devil to pay for American expediency, and a misguided propensity to disdain world opinion in its employment of massive military power on a unilateral basis.
Yet, in all fairness, America has been far less a monolith than has the Islamic world when it comes to public debate over the political and moral efficacy of their country’s dominant credo for addressing the world’s problems. There has been an abundance of domestic political dissent concerning the courses the country’s neo-conservative faction has embarked upon following 9/11. There has been much agonizing, even breast-beating, over the reasons why things have gone so wrong. There is widely held acknowledgment that the US’s seeming excessive partiality toward Israel in the Palestinian dispute has been misguided and has played a significant role in intensifying and justifying anti-Americanism throughout the Arab world. There has been abundant criticism of America’s tolerance of the double standard which Pakistan practices toward terrorism– allegedly combating it vis-a-vis Afghanistan while obviously encouraging it vis a vis India. Even after 9/11, strong voices have been raised over blanket prejudice manifested against Muslims at home and abroad.
This contrasts vividly with the pervasive Nazi-style anti-Semitism currently being propagated by Islamic radicals, voiced not only by rabble on the Arab street but by purportedly responsible government officials and the media in leading Muslim countries. Behind this, as has been pointed out by many commentators, lies a mentality of un-self-critical denial that tends to blame the outsider for social and political ills that are ascribable to and should be responsibly debated and dealt with by the current ruling classes in these countries.
Had there been greater concern and inner reflection on the part of moderate elements in these countries about the wisdom of the tactics advocated by the Islamic radicals to right the wrongs that allegedly reduced Islamic civilization to its present state of despair, one wonders whether they would have so readily gone along with the violent remedies advocated by men like Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, movements like Wahabism, and terrorist organizations like Hizbollah, Jaish-i-Mohammed, and Islamic Jihad.
Thomas Freedman recently has attributed the moral and political plight of the Muslim world to the state of “humiliation” that pervades it. He quotes a Pakistani friend who says that what the US needs most in Iraq (and by implication generally in the underdeveloped world ) is “a strategy of dehumiliation and re-dignification.” (NYT, Nov 10th). Two cheers for that! But is this really enough, especially when it has become obvious, precisely as a result of what is taking place in Iraq, that even the world’s only superpower lacks the capacity to accomplish this on its own.
Some things just have to come from within. In this case, the great need is for the middle-classes, who thrive on secularism, free markets, civil society, female emancipation and peace, to rise up and slay the fundamentalist totalitarian demons in their midst. Easier said than done, you say. Agreed. But history demonstrates that it can and indeed has been done. The entire history of the West, as well as more recent entrants into the brotherhood of modern secular nations, like India and Japan, epitomize the successful struggle of the emerging middle-classes to separate church from state, curb the capacity of fanatics and fundamentalists to control the political process, and establish constitutional government. Without this indigenous dimension, all the efforts by outsiders to ameliorate the sense of collective humiliation will come to nought because by itself this will not sufficiently promote the growth of the basic institutions which a successful struggle of the Muslim middle-classes with the anti-democratic forces in their midst alone can and must bring about.
If the United States, the Western Coalition, and the United Nations are to make a difference in this contest over the very idea of Civilization, it will have to take the form not only of waging war against “terrorism” and encouraging “friendly regimes” in the Islamic world. It will have to find the means and the will to strengthen and amplify the power of the Islamic middle-classes to de-humiliate and re-dignify themselves by taking control of their own institutional destiny. Certainly there are many things that can be done that stop short of paternalism and the aroma of colonialism to reinforce this process. Greater cultural sensitivity and more direct interaction with indigenous social groups would help, as blundering, culturally ignorant American policies in Iraq makes painfully evident. A more dynamic infusion of basic material resources (a kind of mini-Martial Plan) would certainly strengthen the hand of Islamic moderates. But in the end, the civilized elements in Muslim societies must stand up and be counted. That is the most crucial ingredient.
Harold A. Gould is visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be reached at: Harold.firstname.lastname@example.org.