Modern history


When General Bonaparte arrived in 1798, there were only two sovereign states in the Middle East: Turkey and Iran. Today, these are resuming their historic roles as the major powers of the region. The present regimes in both, were founded by revolution—the secular republic of Turkey and the Islamic republic of Iran. Both were inspired by revolutionary ideologies which might be named after their founders as Kemalism and Khomeinism. And both ideologies, albeit in very different ways, are under attack at home.

Today, increasing numbers of Middle Easterners, disillusioned with past ideals and—in many countries—alienated from their present rulers, are turning their thoughts or their loyalties to one or other of these two ideologies—liberal democracy and Islamic fundamentalism. Each offers a reasoned diagnosis of the ills of the region and a prescription for its cure.

In this struggle, fundamentalism disposes of several advantages. It uses language that is familiar and intelligible, appealing to the vast mass of the population in a Muslim country. At a time of economic deprivation, social dislocation and political oppression, many are ready to believe that these evils are a result of alien and infidel machinations and that the remedy is a return to the original, authentic way of Islam. The fundamentalists also have an immense advantage over other opposition groups in that the mosques and their personnel provide them with a network for meeting and communication which even the most tyrannical of governments cannot suppress or entirely control. Indeed, tyrannical regimes help their fundamentalist opponents by eliminating competing oppositions.

The exponents of democracy, in contrast, offer a program and a language that are unfamiliar and, for many, unintelligible. They have the further disadvantage that the name of democracy and those of the parties and parliaments through which it operates have been tarnished in the eyes of many Muslims by the corrupt and inept regimes that used these names in the recent past. In contrast, appeals in the name of God and the Prophet to cleanse society by restoring his holy law have a force and immediacy unattainable by democrats whose arguments, examples, and even vocabulary are recognizably alien. An Arabic loanword like dimuqratiyya lacks the resonance of shari'a.

But things are changing. In countries where fundamentalists are a powerful force and still more in those where they rule, Muslims are learning to distinguish between Islam as an ethical religion and way of life and fundamentalism as a ruthless political ideology. In countries where they oppose the regime, such as Egypt and Algeria, fundamentalist terrorists have shown a callous brutality that shocks and repels ordinary, decent believers. In countries where they rule, such as Iran and at times Sudan, they are, perhaps inevitably, disappointing the high hopes that they evoked. The regime of the mullahs in Iran is not noticeably less corrupt than that which it replaced. It is more efficiently and pervasively repressive, and increasing numbers of Iranians, in desperation, are turning against Islamic fundamentalism and sometimes even against Islam itself. Many good Muslims in Iran and elsewhere see in this a mortal danger to their faith and civilization, and there is a growing movement which challenges Islamic fundamentalism, not in the name of secularism, but in the name of Islam. The most serious challenge to the Iranian regime may well come from within its own ranks.

The fundamentalist regimes are also failing by the more palpable test of performance. In Iran, the effects of fundamentalist rule will for a while be palliated by the availability of money from oil and the remarkably skillful use made of this resource in dealing with foreign governments and business corporations. But it is only a palliative, and of limited duration. Elsewhere, where no such palliative exists, the most visible effects of fundamentalist rule are poverty, tyranny and unending internal warfare. The programs and activities of fundamentalist oppositions in other countries promise nothing better. It is becoming increasingly clear that whatever political and propaganda successes they may achieve, fundamentalist movements—and governments—have no real understanding and therefore no solutions for the pressing problems of modern society. Their diagnosis is moral—society has been corrupted and enfeebled by pagan and infidel ways, especially in sexual matters; their remedy is legal—the restoration and strict enforcement of the holy law, that is to say, of those parts and those interpretations that form the basis of fundamentalist ideology. The importance of morality and of law is immense and obvious, but it does not suffice in confronting the pressing economic and social problems of the modern world. The resulting tensions grow daily more serious. They will become critical if these problems persist until the time when oil revenues are no longer available.

A triumph of Islamic fundamentalism would have far-reaching consequences outside as well as inside the region and would evoke sharp responses from other religions—and other fundamentalisms. From the advent of Islam in the seventh century, Muslim jihad wrested vast lands from Christendom and incorporated them in the realm of Islam. After several centuries, Christianity—a religion with a pacifist core—at last reacted with a jihad of its own, variously known as the Reconquest and the Crusades.

It could happen again. Most Christians—even in the highest ecclesiastical hierarchies—have abandoned the triumphalism and militancy of their forebears. But Muslim triumphalism and militancy could bring a revival, and there are signs that this has already begun. The problem begins with the position of non-Muslims in Muslim states. The very real tolerance once accorded by Muslim states to non-Muslims living under their rule was predicated on their acceptance of the supremacy of Islam and the primacy of the Muslims. When modern ideas disrupt the old consensus, the old tolerance comes under severe strain and is often broken. Attacks on Christians in Iran, in Egypt, in Algeria, in Sudan and elsewhere are reviving old and deep-rooted fears. They have also prompted, in some quarters, a perception of Islam as the new world menace, taking the place vacated by the defunct Soviet Union and its dead communist creed. For the time being at least, this view is an exaggeration of the strength of Muslim militancy and a misinterpretation of the nature of Islam. But the warnings of a new religious response to militant Islam are already there.

In the struggle between democracy and fundamentalism for power in Muslim lands, the democrats suffer from a very serious disadvantage. As democrats, they are obliged to allow the fundamentalists equal opportunity to conduct propaganda and to contend for power. If they fail in this duty, they are violating the very essence of their own democratic creed. Paradoxically, it is the Western concern for democratic freedom, even at the cost of Western values and of freedom itself, that sometimes prevents the Muslim secularists from dealing with this problem in the traditional way.

The fundamentalists are under no such disability. For them, winning an election is one of several possible roads to power—and it is a one-way road on which there is no turning back. Fundamentalists, speaking at home, do not even pretend any commitment to democratic choice and make it clear that, once in power, they would in no circumstances be willing to depart by the road through which they came. On the contrary, it would be their solemn duty to eradicate elements and ideas contrary to the law of God and to enforce that law against all transgressors. The strength of the democrats, and the corresponding weakness of the fundamentalists, is that the former have a program of development and betterment, while the latter offer only a return to a mythologized past. The problem is that the weaknesses of the democrats are immediate and obvious; their strengths are long-term and, for many, obscure.

Some speak of a possible compromise between the rival extremes—a type of representative democracy not formally secular, in which a moderate but not fundamentalist Islam might play the role of the established churches in Britain and Scandinavia or of the Christian democratic parties in continental European countries. There is little sign of any such compromise as yet, and at the present time it seems unlikely that any will emerge. But the idea of a combination of freedom and faith in which neither one excludes the other has achieved some results among Christians and Jews and may yet provide a workable solution for the problems of political Islam.

Until recently, one would have said that the best prospects for the emergence of such a compromise are in Turkey, a country in which most of the population are committed Muslims and in which a parliamentary democracy—albeit with difficulties and reversals—has now functioned for more than half a century. Turkey was the first Muslim country to establish and maintain such a democracy; it was also the first in which the leader of an avowedly Islamic party, Necmettin Erbakan, became prime minister by electoral and constitutional means. He was pushed out of power by the military; his party, Refah (Welfare), was banned. But younger Islamists found their way to power, again through the ballot box. A former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, picked up where Erbakan had faltered. Now it is becoming clear that the party he leads, the Justice and Development Party, is not just Islamic; it is, for many of its adherents, fundamentalist. The party press reveals attitudes that are anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Western and, more generally, antiliberal and antimodern. Its leaders and spokesmen show affinities—and form alliances—with the most extreme elements in Iran and in some of the Arab countries.

The alarm caused by these developments is increased by reports of the spread of fundamentalist activities in the political, economic and cultural spheres, and, still more dangerous, by the fundamentalists' acquisition of large quantities of guns and other weapons. As secular elements in the state and more particularly in the armed forces speak darkly of a showdown, the fear is widely expressed that Turkey might become another Algeria or, more plausibly, another Iran. If that happens, the trouble would certainly spread rapidly, both northwards to the ex-Soviet Turkic states and southwards to the ex-Ottoman Arab states.

But this is not inevitable. The Turks, unlike all their Muslim neighbors except Iran, have long experience of sovereign independence. They also have a unique experience of democratic change. One may hope that the Turkish political class will recover the skill and steadiness which it appears to have lost amidst the troubles of recent years. The Turks have often been leaders in the Middle East—in Islamic empire under the Ottomans, in nationalist self-liberation under Kemal Atatürk, in responsible parliamentary government under his successors. Perhaps they will show the way again. There is no denying Turkey's troubles and the split between the secularists in the military and the Islamist government. In February of 2009, more than a dozen senior military officers were arrested on charges that they had been engaged in a plot to destabilize the government. By now it would seem that the government has obtained control of every part of the state except the judiciary—and that is under way.

In either case, what happens in Turkey will have immense and perhaps decisive effects in the region as a whole. A triumph of Islamic fundamentalism would probably spell the end of any hope of Islamic democracy for a long time. A fundamentalist Turkey might, for a while, maintain good relations with Iran, but sooner rather than later the historic pattern of the region would reappear. An Islamic Turkey and an Islamic Iran would again confront each other as rivals for leadership, the choice this time, as it was centuries ago, being between the Sunni and Shi'a versions of the faith.

In the meantime the fundamentalist movements pursue their distinctive patterns of action—terror at home while in opposition, repression at home and terror abroad when in power. Slitting the throats of harmless villagers in Algeria, bombing parties of uninvolved tourists who are the guests of Egypt, blowing up hotels in Amman—these have become the specific tactics of the movements that we have come to call Islamic fundamentalism. Terror against civilians has become their trademark.

But what do they have to do with Islam? The Qur'ān states not once but several times that "No man shall bear another's burden," that is to say that no one should be punished for the misdeeds of another. Islamic law permits hostages only in a reciprocal voluntary exchange as pledges for the fulfillment of an agreement. The Islamic laws of war prescribe good treatment for women, children and other noncombatants—"Do not attack them unless they first attack you." Yet the so-called Islamic fundamentalists seize hostages by force and sometimes torture and kill them and carry out random massacres of villagers, passengers, tourists and mere passersby with bombs, guns and kitchen knives.

Some Muslims are already beginning to ask whether the effect of fundamentalist activities is to uphold and defend Islam or discredit and undermine it. The mindless, ruthless, callous violence of so many fundamentalist actions may well strengthen these doubts.

The struggle between democracy and militant fundamentalism is not limited to the Arab and Islamic world. It is becoming increasingly important in Israel.

Religion as such has always played an important part in Israeli life. It is, after all, the core of Jewish identity and therefore also of Israeli statehood. What is new in the situation is not the role of religion as such—this goes back for millennia—but the new religio-political ideology, which is gaining increasing support among Israeli Jews and is already a powerful—at times divisive—factor in Israeli domestic politics.

Without the threat of major war from outside, the Israelis will be free to concentrate on their own internal problems and, more specifically, on their own internal differences. In the past, these were along more or less European lines—between a socialist left, a conservative right and a liberal center. There are signs that this is changing and that the fault line in Israeli politics in the coming years will be less European and more Middle Eastern. This means that the major confrontation will not be between right and left in the conventional Western sense of these terms, but between secular democracy and religious ideology.

The establishment and flourishing of democracy in Israel in the 60-odd years since the foundation of the state are in themselves astonishing. At first sight, there would seem to be every reason why democracy should fail in this country and in this situation. The vast majority of the inhabitants in Israel originated in countries with little or no democratic experience or tradition. The virtually continuous state of war and the consequent importance of the army and its commanders might easily have led to a military regime—the more so in a region where such regimes are normal. To make matters worse, the Israelis saddled themselves from the start with what must be one of the worst electoral systems in the free world and then, by the direct election of the prime minister, found a way of making it even worse. Fortunately, they have since repealed this "reform."

Nevertheless, democracy has survived and even flourished. Because of its enforced isolation from the region in which it is situated, Israel has, for most practical purposes, been part of the Western world, and its democracy functioned naturally in a predominantly Western international environment. For most Israelis, Washington, London, Paris or Rome were nearer than Damascus, Baghdad or Cairo.

But this situation is changing and Israel is becoming, much more than in the past, a part of the Middle East. To some extent, this is due to the increasing proportion of Jews of Middle Eastern origin in the population and therefore in the government of Israel; to a much greater extent, this is due to the increasing network of relations with Middle Eastern countries. Middle Eastern influences are already perceptible in many aspects of Israeli life. They are likely to continue and expand. In this respect, the peace process may bring a threat to Western-style democracy in Israel; it may also give much needed encouragement to the development of democracy in Middle Eastern countries. For example, the Arab League's permanent commission on human rights, founded in 1968, has hitherto concerned itself exclusively with the human rights of Palestinians under Israeli rule. It may now follow the example of the Organization of American States and the Organization of African Unity, with which it shares several members, and look at human rights in member states. There are already active groups in several Arab countries—or in exile—concerned with this issue. They will surely grow in numbers and in influence.

In Israel as in the Muslim lands, the threat to democracy does not come from religion as such, but from a religiously expressed ideology imbuing old terms with new meanings and using—or misusing—the faith and hope of the devout in order to gain and retain power. Faith and piety are perfectly compatible with an open, democratic society. State-enforced holy law administered by self-styled holy men is not.

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