Perspective on Islam

The Islamic upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s is in some respects the successor of the radical Arab nationalism that in the 1950s and 1960s made the establishment of stable relationships and the protection of Western interests in the Middle East so difficult.

The more recent phenomenon differs in two respects from the earlier one -- one favorable and the other less favorable to Western interests.

Radical Arab nationalism was never (as some thought at the time) either the tool of communism or its inevitable ally. Yet it did regard Western imperialism as its prime enemy and it turned readily to the Soviet bloc as a natural ally against a common enemy. Islamic revivalists, on the other hand, regard atheistic Marxism as a branch -- and a pernicious one -- of the alien Western culture they are rejecting.

To the extent that Soviet imperialism is now more in evidence, as in Afghanistan, and most Muslims now see that the Western powers respect the independence of Muslim states and their right to live their own way of life, the atmosphere is more favorable for Muslim- Western cooperation against Soviet expansion than it was a generation ago.

What makes it impossible for the West to take advantage of this more favorable atmosphere is that the Arab Muslim countries regard the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan (with -- as they see it -- Western acquiescence) as a more heinous and longstanding aggression than the Soviet invasion of Afganistan.

The less favorable difference between the 1950s-1960s and the 1970s-1980s is that today's more extreme exponents of Islamic fundamentalism are so remote from the rationality in which (with all its limitations) international discourse is conducted that any kind of negotiation becomes extremely difficult or impossible.

In the case of the Tehran hostage problem, this could conceivably have led a group of zealots who are initially more committed ideologically against Soviet communism than any of their kind to seek an alliance with the Soviet Union because a particular emotion -- with hatred of the Shah and those who supported him -- is so obsessive as to exclude all other considerations.

The differing themes of the 1950s-1960s and the 1970s-1980s are, in fact, not basically new. They have been present as point and counterpoint in the intellectual development of the Middle East throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Broadly speaking, the one might be described as a secular, liberal nationalism directly inspired by the 19th-century libertarian and nationalist movements in the West. Some of the earliest generation of Arab nationalists in Syria welcomed European intervention as a necessary means to the end of liberation from the dead hand of Ottoman Turkish rule. (Succeeding generations have been disillusioned and bitter about the consequences.)

The other theme is a determination to defend the Islamic heritage against encroachment by alien Western culture, which dates from Napoleon's expedition to Egypt of 1798 and was pushed deeper into the area by European political and economic penetration there- after.

Thus the current Islamic revival is not just a recent and novel phenomenon. Yet there is a fresh impetus observable in recent years, spreading beyond the Arab countries and Iran to Pakistan and even to Malaysia.

The explanations offered for it vary widely and seem sometimes contradictory. On the other hand, one is told that it reflects Muslims' increased confidence in themselves and their culture, a confidence (it is argued) that has been buttressed by the economic power accruing to the peoples of the oil-producing countries. In Egypt, however, most people with whom I have discussed the Islamic upsurge relate it to the mood of despair and humiliation that spread among Egyptians and other Arabs after their defeat by Israel in the "six- day war" of 1967.

They said so many gods had failed them. Western liberal democracy had imposed Israel on the Arabs. Gamal Abdul Nasser's Arab nationalism and Arab socialism had failed within Egypt. The alliance with Soviet communism had failed to avert military disaster. The reaction, they explained, was a turning back inward to the old faith, to the God of their spiritual and cultural roots. The "holy war" theme was much in evidence in the October war of 1973, in which Arabs to a great extent purged themselves of the humiliation of their 1967 defeat.

The disillusionment with "other gods" and consequent Islamic revival have their parallel in Western societies over the past decade or so -- particularly among the young, a parallel that has found expression in a search for religious faiths both old and new. This should alert outsiders to the danger of identifying the phenomenon in Muslim lands only with its freakier and more fanatical manifestations.

It is also signficant that along with the Islamic revival in Egypt there has been a revival within the traditional Coptic Christian Chruch there. (The Coptic Church antedates the revival of Islam in Egypt.) Thirty years ago the Coptic monasteries in the desert seemed to be reaching the end of their 1,500 -year-long active history, with no replacements reporting for the shrinking core of aged priests. But over the past decade the monasteries have been repopulated by young, educated Copts. A charismatic desert abbot and former hermit, Matthew the Poor, attracts flocks of visitors to the monastery of Amba Makarios.

A reservoir of strength on which the Muslim revival in Egypt has been able to draw is the Islamic faith's strong hold over the mass of the Muslim population -- in its sometimes idiosyncratic Egyptian version. This hold seems to have been largely untouched by the Western intrusions of the past two centuries.

During religious festivals, you can see in Cairo the Sufi or dervish orders performing their rituals as they were described by English author Edward W. Lane , writing of the city in the 1820s. It is not just the uneducated who are students and followers of "the ways," as the orders are called in Arabic. They come from a wide spectrum of the educated and of social classes.

There was another marked change that this writer noted between his two periods of residence in Cairo in the 1950s and the 1970s. Between the two decades there was an increase in the numbers of people observing the basic religious duties, with mosques crowded and overflowing into the streets for Friday prayers. Among educated middle- and upper-middle-class Egyptians mixing with foreigners there was much less either of outright skepticism and neglect of religion or of an apparent self-conscious need to explain or justify a commitment to religious observance where it persisted. By the 1970s the general attitude had changed to one of unself-conscious, unfanatical -- yet certainly not apologetic -- religious observance.

Here are two examples.

The first is a successful business consultant, trained as an engineer in Europe, who has held high ministerial office. He told me he first made the pilgrimage to Mecca out of curiosity when he was a skeptical young student -- attracted, too, by the cheap fare offered. In recent years, however, he has returned for the main annual pilgrimage, finding the occasion one of spiritual renewal.

On the air journey to Saudi Arabia today, he says, he finds tears streaming down his cheeks at the thought of joining once again in the ceremonies that have come to mean so much to him, practical man of the modern world that he nevertheless remains.

The second example is someone who has also held high ministerial office. He is respected at home and abroad as a medical practitioner and teacher. He makes the pilgrimage to Mecca every year. On a social occasion, I have seen him the only person sitting with his back to a stage performance, a presumably because he disapproved on religious grounds of the entertainment being offered. (I would have deemed it an intrusion of his privacy to have asked him why.) His gesture was a personal, quiet, and unostentatious act, with no attempt to force his views on the company around him.

Both these men I regard as sincere believers. Both are tolerant of the beliefs of others. Both are staunchly pro-Western in their political beliefs. Any appraisal of the Islamic revival has to take account of them as well as of the ayatollahs who make the headlines.

Yet their moderation is not universal in Egypt. The revival is very strong among university students. To the outsider, this is most noticeable in the dress -- hair covered by a wimple, long sleeves, and long skirts -- worn by girl zealots. The Muslim students' organization was a year ago -- and presumably still is -- capable of winning most of the student elective offices, far outrunning the leftists.

The organization is not -- at least openly -- linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the best known fundamentalist group in Egypt. The latter is officially illegal and prevented from forming a political party by a constitutional provision against any party having a confessional basis. But President Sadat has tolerated the brotherhood's existence. The former speaker of the Egyptian Parliament told me that he regarded the brotherhood's supporters as an important political force and found it useful "to keep in touch."

At the furthest extreme in recent years has been a group -- probably dissidents from the Muslim Brotherhood -- following a tradition of fundamentalism that goes back to earliest Islam. (It has, incidentally, Christian parallels.) Its name, "Takfir wa Hejira," literally means the rejection as "infidels" of all Muslims who do not join their sect in preparation for a new emigration heralding the Islamization of the whole world.

This shows how wide is the spectrum of resurgent Islam in Egypt. When it comes to other Muslim countries, there is a parallel complex mixture and interrelationship of local history and conditions with the general Islamic revival as it affects them.

As for the Islamic revolution in Iran, it has had less effect in the Arab world to its west than would probably have been the case were Iranians not predominantly Shia Muslims. The Arab mainstream is Sunni Muslim, a difference that has always been a factor in Arab- Iranian rivalry. (Lebanon and Iraq, with substantial Shia communities, are exceptions in this.) Further, a wide segment Arab Muslim opionion has found the extremism and violence of the Iranian revolution distasteful.

Saudi Arabia is very much a case on its own. The state, the ruling family, and the puritanical version of Islam they follow all derive from a fundamentalist movement that came out of central Arabia 250 years ago. In every generation since then, the ruling Saud family has intermarried with the family of the movement's founder, Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab.

Largely as a result of this, the Saud family see themselves as natural leaders within Islam. They support Islamic missionary efforts far and wide; and the late King Faisal founded the Islamic Congress, the organization of Muslim states based on Saudi Arabia. Yet these credentials do not give the ruling Saud family an immunity from the unsetting effects of the Islamic revival.

The country's great oil wealth has made Saudi Arabia a land where the impact of modernization has come most forcefully on a tenaciously traditional society -- with all the consequent tensions.

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