Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lesson from 1848 is wait and see

There will no doubt be much debate by historians about the 2011 Revolution in the Muslim world, perhaps even akin to the 1848 Revolution in Europe. Beginning in Italy, the spirit of constitutional democracy spread to the Low Lands, France, Germany, Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Denmark. In the Low Lands and Denmark, modest reforms were conducted and accepted, and everyone went home. Elsewhere there was required a more concerted effort required disentrench the monarchies involved (in France, the 1789 Revolution was a brief, bloody interlude), and in the end, despite some movement to appease the reformers, those countries monarchies remained with most of their authority intact. It wasn’t until after France’s defeat in 1871 that the monarchy in that country was finally abolished, and in 1918 the absolute monarchies elsewhere. The reason for this delay was, predictably, because competing reform factions were disorganized and had competing agendas; no party was willing to let someone else to speak for the whole; in France, public disgust with infighting allowed “President” Louis-Napoleon to dissolve the National Assembly and crown himself Napoleon III.

There may be lesson here for those in the media arrogantly acting out like they are a part of history they clearly don’t understand; the business end of "revolutionary" discontent are not the "friendly," fresh-faced kids TIME put on its cover--as some self-imagined media "super stars" operating without the cover of U.S. military have discovered. Democratic revolution, like all modernizing “revolutions,” seem to come late to the Muslim world, and real revolution does not come without pain. In the West, the Reformation sought to “purify” the Christian religion back to its “essence,” although none too successfully, and merely served as an excuse to litter the battlefields of Europe with dead bodies. The Enlightenment freed-up the human mind to discover different explanations for the workings of nature and human intercourse that dispensed with "comforting" notions like the will of God--forcing humanity to confront the costs of its baser nature. The Industrial Revolution began the inexorable march toward demolishing previous traditional mores and turning this limitless globe into a very small world indeed. Not that the Islamic world would not eventually discover the fruits of these labors following various foreign interventions in the Twentieth Century, but their acceptance has been at best a matter of suspicion and cagey tolerance. Modernization and the West have been so intertwined that its failure to uplift the life of a majority of Muslims has placed in the mind of many, perhaps most, that both are anathema to their way of being.

Not that there were no modernist thinkers in the Muslim world; Ahmad Kasravi, an Iranian intellectual, political reformer and anti-clericalist in the first half of the 20th Century, was swayed by Western science that could explain the workings of the natural world without resort to superstition and magic tricks taught by Imams. Kasravi also believed that Shiite Imams deliberately led their followers into ignorance and fear for their own selfish purposes—including the cult of personality every Imam seemed to insist upon themselves. He even went so far as to propose that the Shiite faith be cleansed to its essence, meaning stripping Imams of all trappings of personal idolatry and forcing them to perform their true role as “enlightened shepherds.” Kasravi, of course, made many enemies with the Iranian clerics of his day, and he would be assassinated by an Islamic fanatic.

There were constitutional movements in Iran from at least 1900, but there was always only sporadic cooperation between reformers and Muslim clerics; they might agree in principle to a goal (overthrowing the power of the shah), but not on what to do afterwards. The turn-of-the-century National Consultative Assembly sought to give “the people” a voice in affairs, and secularize some institutions in Iran, such as schools. This is was opposed by extremist clerics like Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, who was eventually tried and executed for treason—but is now viewed as a “martyr” against the vices of Western-style democracy. Ali Shariati, who was a disciple of Kasravi and was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s principle rival in revolution, might have led Iran in a different direction had he lived; but he mysteriously died before he could take part in the 1979 revolution.

The media still seems to be under the impression that Western-style democracy and Islamic fundamentalism can coexist. We have been led to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is of fairly recent origin, but in fact it has been in existence since at least the 1950s, and even then it was preaching an Islamic state; the Egyptian military is virtually the sole instrument for modernization, and we know that. Nial Ferguson in his idiotic piece in Newsweek may not know that (why is it that someone who speaks with a “British” accent can sell any dumb American a sack of shit?), but we should. Westerners seem to believe that with the march of modernity, the Islamic world would become more secularized, and religion would become less important in shaping national, social and economic identity as it had in the West. But this has not happened in states that did not first have powerful secular forces shaping their destiny (Pakistan, Turkey). Most Muslims are simple farmers for whom tradition is the guiding force in life; they are not the ones we see marching in the streets. In the West, modernization comes despite tradition; in the Muslim world, tradition is maintained in spite of modernization. If modernization doesn’t conform to Islamic tradition, it is malformed into a shaped that we wouldn’t recognize. An unemployed Muslim may not have understood the utility of a modern explosive device in his everyday life, but when told by the appropriate person, like a cleric, that this explosive forms a link between yesterday, today and tomorrow following a “tradition” like jihad, it shows how little we understand what we are dealing with. And if an Islamist understands “democracy” at all, it is a legal means to creating a one-party state based on Islamic, not secular, law. What this means is that we should not be jumping up and down shouting “freedom” with these folks. It remains to seen what comes out of all of this.

Even without the Islamists involved, we have to remember that most of the countries in the Mid East are artificial creations (much as those in Africa are). There are significant religious minorities or competing tribal units, amongst whom there is no shared feeling of nationalism, and those created states have held together through the compulsion of military force; in fact, in countries like Egypt, the military has been and is the only entity currently capable of maintaining order out of potential chaos. People in Egypt and Tunisia want jobs; they want to be “free” to find jobs—and beyond wishing to express their displeasure without being arrested and tortured, they don’t care if it is Islamists or some other combination of forces that creates jobs. True democracy will not come easy to Egypt (if at all), as it will not in Tunisia or anywhere else. For that matter, we don’t even have a true democracy in this country, just shadow governments run by corporations. We already know that there is no true democracy in Iran, as the Revolutionary Guard is already calling for the arrest, trial and execution of opposition leaders.

Meanwhile, the Economist recently reported that in the West Bank, ¾ of the people identify themselves as a religious unit rather than a national one. Although the Palestinian Authority has regained some control—mainly by replacing Hamas’ charity networks with their own, and suppressing the imams who prefer to preach jihad rather than religion—Hamas is lying low, its leaders readily admitting that they are busy replenishing and re-equipping its militant cells not for peace or nationhood, but to resume their goal of driving Jews out of the region permanently. These are the people that the media and Palestinian sympathizers are calling “victims” of Israeli aggression.

Despite oil wealth and toying with “modernization,” there remains great poverty in the Muslim world, and the reality that must be faced is that Muslims have tended to blame this on the foolish acceptance of Western ideas, for which they are being punished. Islamists, especially Shiite Imams who always railed against acceptance of the West, were left unscathed, even though they didn’t offer anything markedly different save a promise of "paradise" in the hereafter. They now have the upper hand, if “freedom lovers” allow them to have it.

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