Against The West

The twenty-first century has been defined, so far, by an increasingly violent war on ‘Terror’. At the current rate it promises to be the most murderous century yet. In the minds of many this conflict is polarised into a conflict between two amorphous entities, ‘the West’ and Islam. But in its most simplistic form this polarisation is misleading.

For one thing, neither are real entities. The West is not a place but a metaphor for a certain (equally vague) way of life – godless, materialistic and amoral. Against this secular entity is faced a faith-based world, the dar ul-Islam – ‘the domain of faith’: the land under sharia law wholly based on religious observation. Only this is more of an aspiration – or mirage – constantly beguiling religious zealots, but never quite achieved. For, if anywhere, this place, like El Dorado, exists in the imagination.

Rage and resentment further obscure these entities. Rage against the Western way of life came to characterise the writings, for example, of the founding father of Al Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb, and his many disciples. But so equally does it of many Christian fundamentalists. Whilst, in the name of Western values, George Bush pursues his ‘War on Terror’, as a declared born-again Christian he draws much support from a powerful Christian lobby which equally rages against the godless, materialistic and amoral society that is ‘the West’. Other Churches feel likewise. This could not have been put more plainly than by the present pope, Benedict XVI, when, as head of the Holy Office, he said that, ‘the most urgent task facing Christians is that of regaining the capacity of non-conformism… to oppose many developments of the surrounding culture.’ That there was a need for ‘confrontation’ with the West!

The polarisation now becomes confused. What we find is similar elements in both fundamentalist Christianity and Islam that make them feel they have much to agree with about their common enemy: Islam and Christianity ranged against the West and the rest. This situation was epitomised in the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development held at Cairo. For the Vatican and various Islamic factions ‘family planning’, abortion and feminine rights were equally anathema so they secretly colluded to frustrate any resolutions at the conference. An example of ‘non-conformism’ at work!

Reflecting on this situation the editor of The Tablet, John Wilkins, put the whole issue in its wider context, commenting, ‘The conflict at Cairo is not simply over sexual ethics. It is over Western values, specifically the values of the European Enlightenment.’ He added that Cardinal Ratzinger was ‘explicit in his criticism of the Enlightenment.’ The ‘so called’ Enlightenment (to use John Paul II’s withering dismissal of this great cultural metamorphosis) and the modern secular society that emerged from it were problematic for the Church, Pope John Paul II bizarrely making it responsible for fascism and likening the EU to a fascist organisation (cf. Memory and Identity).

It is not surprising, therefore, that it should be even more problematic for Muslims. For them the alien notions of the Enlightenment – with its concepts of integral human rights and a religiously neutral civil order – did not emerge from within the matrix of their faith. They were imported on the back of an oppressive imperialism. Thus, democracy could be seen as a kufir concept: if the Prophet had wanted it he would have thought of it. But then the same could be said for the telephone and motor-car…and it was said by the radical Wahhabi Ulema of Saudi Arabia. For them, in the quest of re-establishing a true Islamic identity and state of dar ul-Islam, accommodation was apostasy.

However, such differences obscure some deeper convergences which emerged in the nineteenth century, as the West expanded into the domain of the Orient. As C.A. Bayly comments in his study of The Birth of the Modern World, ‘Perhaps the most important point was that Asian religions rapidly took up Christian missionaries’ methods of preaching and evangelization.’ By aping the imperial powers, which liked dealing with organised bodies, religions like Islam began taking on more organised institutional forms, with religious leaders being expected to speak authoritatively for cohesive communities.

If tidy organisation pleased imperial bureaucrats it also had a more ominous side. The organisation of clandestine resistance to the West also began to accelerate. Its leaders also wanted a new kind of cohesive pan-Islamism with which to oppose imperialism. In his study of the roots of the modern jihad, Charles Allen, in God’s Terrorists, charts how extremist Muslim groups in the nineteenth century anticipated in almost every detail the present activities of Al Qaeda as a new and radicalised Islam appeared: ‘The end result was a seismic shift in the Sunni Islam of South Asia, which became increasingly conservative and introverted, less tolerant and far more inclined to look for political leadership to the madrassah.’ We are now living with the consequences.

Throughout the nineteenth century, not only was there an increasing feeling that it was a religious duty to fight against Western influences but there was an accompanying sense of the need for a return to spiritual roots, the salafi – the ‘following of the forefathers’. This was accompanied by a nostalgia for the glories of the past – of the Moguls and the Caliphate, particularly the kingdom of Andalusia (when Islam overawed Europe). All formed part of what Allen calls a ‘great leap backwards’, as Muslims turned their backs on progress in favour of the past. It was eulogised in the influential poetry of Iqbal and expressed itself politically in parties such as the Jamaat-I-Islam (Party of Islam) and ultimately led to the creation of Pakistan. This would be, in Jinnah’s thinking, a ‘land of the pure’: the necessary dar ul-Islam from which to confront the West. Its genesis revealed the deep antithesis that existed between Muslim and Western mentalities: the former looking backward and inward, the latter looking forward and outward.

The difference is epitomised nowhere better than by the illustrated cover of Bacon’s ‘Novum Organum’ – with vessels sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules seeking new treasures, both material and intellectual. Through the discovery of new worlds and the growth of an empirically based scienza nuova a technological whirlwind had been unleashed. A new secularised and industrialised civilization emerged which became ‘the West’ (as distinct from Christendom). The sense of newness and the pursuit of innovation was accompanied by a willingness to cast aside the past. Not that this new West was without its own ‘non-conformists’. The Gothic revival became the powerful expression of a nostalgic counter-flow, paralleling what was happening in the Islamic world, whilst, as David Cannadine noted in his study of how the British saw their empire, Ornamentalism, the empire was promoted by romantics like Lawrence of Arabia (who fully supported the Wahhabite House of Saud), ‘seeking to escape from the travails of industrialisation, democracy and big cities’, so much so that Sir Edwin Lutyens said going to India made him feel very, ‘pre-Tory Feudal.’

But, romanticising the past leads to a denial of history. The much vaunted caliphate (long held by the Ottoman Turks), and which zealots now wish to restore, was itself destroyed by the same brand of fanaticism (in alliance with Western powers during the Great War). This puritanical Wahhabism – which underpins all the radical Islamic movements from the eighteenth century down to Al Qaeda – set about consolidating the reign of God in a remarkably similar way to the Calvinist-inspired Christian fundamentalism of sola Dei, sola scriptura. The former resolutely destroyed any historical associations or customs vaguely associated with the Prophet – a policy continued by the Wahhabite Saudi Government. The parallel Christian fundamentalism was equally iconoclastic of historical piety and dismissive of the record of reality revealed by biblical archaeology. If the imagined past did not quite coincide with the real past best then, in the interests of belief, better to destroy the evidence – if necessary by gun powder!

Yet, when we look for the reason the ‘golden ages’ of these faiths ended it was not because of some external attack so much as from internal defect. The Ages of Faith, both for Islam and Christianity, were ages of growing intolerance. The title of Gazali’s famous book, Destruction of the Philosphers, written in 1090, really says it all: it was an exercise in using reason against reason on behalf of religion, based on the assumption that faith should be obedience not knowledge. By the time of Gazali the use of independent reasoning (ijtihad) to interpret the laws of the sharia was deemed to be no longer necessary; everything that needed to be said had been said, henceforth ‘the gates of ijtihad were closed’ – all that remained was to obey. The consequent stultification of thought and creativity by religious dogmatism became increasingly apparent. But, as the distinguished Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson noted (in The Unity of Philosophical Experience), it was ‘an attitude that is exactly analogous to that of a large group of later Christian theologians’. What the ijma did for Islam the Inquisition did for Christendom.

To the zealots of either faith none of this mattered. For both faiths were born of an apocalyptic mentality, in which the end was always imminent – so temporal inconvenience was irrelevant: remember the Branch Davidians of Waco! To the innumerable millenarian movements of Western Europe (including the crusades) the Final Coming was always at hand to usher in a better world. Similarly, the innumerable uprisings of various mahdis were forever anticipating the destruction of the infidels and a new order through the final jihad. Even in the interim, whilst the ‘born again’ await the Rapture, which (it is believed) will sweep the faithful up to heaven, the zealot-cum-terrorist proactively poses on the threshold of paradise.

In our own time the notion of a Final Conflict has taken on a new dimension. Whereas once crusaders and jihadists used swords or muskets the weaponry is now nuclear. When Dr.A.Q.Khan stole the secrets of the atom bomb for Pakistan, he made it clear that this was to be the ‘Islamic bomb’, and promptly set up a clandestine network dedicated to passing these secrets on to other Islamic nations so as to be in a position to confront the West. Unlike in the West, where the nuclear ideology is one of deterrence fronted by pragmatic politicians, in the Muslim world it is one of defiance, of the defence of Islam fronted increasingly by intolerant clerics. So apocalyptic thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent destruction.

Yet the West and Islam are both oppositional and interactive. Within both there are those who would simply chose the traditional path dictated by religious revelation; equally, there are those who would reject this for the path of the Enlightenment. For example, amongst the most vociferous opponents of introducing the sharia to western states are Islamic women who came to the West to escape it. Similarly, the most likely victims of the traditional ideas of ‘honour’ are women who instead of tribal honour simply want a recognition of their human rights. In contrast to the religious fundamentalist – for whom everything is foreseen, full of hidden portents and providential significance – in the secular West the future is unstructured, undetermined and open to chance. A consequence is that genuinely new things and new ways become possible. An effervescent sense of ‘newness’ makes the West. For the religious fundamentalist renewal is simply a return to the past or it is nothing (the failure of the ‘renewal’ agenda of Vatican Council II clearly illustrates this), freedom to be found in submission (aslama /Islam).

What emerges from all this is not simply a conflict of the West versus Islam but something more complex. Not so much polarities as movements – a rather confused ’quadrille’ of uncertain ‘partners’ – motivated by differing mentalities. There are those in both the West and East united in looking backward, but to differing pasts. Then there are those looking forward, but to something different from the present. Because it is different it is more difficult to discern and therefore more tenuous.