Political Islam still holds promise

Amir Butler

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Carly Fiorina, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, addressing an information-technology conference in Minnesota, extolled the importance of innovation and ideas to the technology industry.

She spoke of a civilization whose language became the language of much of the world; whose multicultural armies encouraged peace and prosperity; whose commerce extended from the Americas to China and who, driven by invention, gave humanity algebra and algorithms. The society cured disease, carried out complicated surgical operations such as the removal of cataracts, and laid the foundations for modern medicine while most of the world was steeped in ignorance and fearful of ideas.

This civilization kept knowledge alive and passed it on to others. That civilization, she told her audience, was Islamic civilization up until the 17th century. Its a civilization that was a long way from the corrupt, despotic regimes that rule over the Muslim societies of today - societies steeped in intellectual stagnation and under-development.

After leading the world for a thousand years in the arts and sciences, the Muslim world finds itself languishing at the bottom of world literacy rates. Whereas the Prophet Mohammed let the people to choose his successor, those who rule over Muslims today are either presidents for life or monarchs. The system of consultative government employed by the prophet and his successors has been replaced by the systems of quasi-fascist authoritarianism that characterizes most every country in the Muslim world today.

Despite that, it has become fashionable in some circles to impugn Islam as the cause of all these problems. However, the thousand years of intellectual advancement, nurtured and supported by governments that were theocratic sharia-law states, refutes this idea. Another fact that refutes it is that that the Muslim decline coincided almost exactly with an abandonment of the role of religion in public life, from the gradual corruption of the Ottomans to the socialist Saddam Hussein and the atheistic Baath Party.

Since the end of colonialism, the Muslim world has been looking for a saviour to lead it back to its former glory. Arab nationalism died a humiliating death in 1967 when Israel ravaged the Arab armies. Baathism has died its death with the collapse of Saddams neo-Stalinist junta.

Today, Muslims are increasingly looking to their history and realizing that their civilizations past greatness was intrinsically tied to the role of Islam in their societies. Its a vision that some may deride as "utopian" - an impossible dream, like communism.

Yet, is not the possession of ideals to which we can aspire a feature of all societies? The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, deems all men are created equal, and yet it is only recently (in broad historical terms) that women and blacks won the right to vote.

Naturally, Arab regimes view a resurgence of political Islam as a threat to their rule. The Algerian government had a near-death experience when it realized that the 1991 election seemed certain to usher the Islamic party into power. The solution was to cancel democracy, plunging the country into bloody civil war. The Turkish army had to oust the democratically elected Refah Party when it revealed a slightly Islamic hue - too much to stomach for the antireligion Kemalists of the Turkish military establishment. Other states, well aware of the likely outcome of any election, just dont bother with the veneer of democratic process.

Despite undemocratic, authoritarian and repressive governments in almost every Muslim nation, the West continues to enjoy a Faustian pact with these regimes: Keep the oil flowing and dont jeopardize our other interests, and well support you in the interests of "maintaining stability in the region."

Unfortunately, this unwavering support for despotic, unpopular regimes has come at considerable price to the United States: terrorism. It shouldnt be any surprise that the Sept. 11 hijackers were from Egypt and Saudi Arabia - two of Americas closest allies in the region.

Muslim anger at the United States stems not from a hatred of Western values but Western support for the dictatorships that oppress them. The crucial question now is whether the United States and its allies will begin to support real political pluralism or just replace one dictatorship with another.


Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee. He wrote this commentary for The Providence Journal. Contact him at abutler@muslimaffairs.com.
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