Death to America Day

Roger Hardy

  • Europe and the Mystique of Islam by Maxime Rodinson, translated by Roger Veinus
    Tauris, 163 pp, £19.50, April 1988, ISBN 1 85043 104 3
  • The Political Language of Islam by Bernard Lewis
    Chicago, 168 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 226 47692 8
  • Islam and Revolution in the Middle East by Henry Munson
    Yale, 180 pp, £15.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 300 04127 6

There was rage and defiance, as well as humiliation, in the remarkable speech broadcast in Ayatollah Khomeini’s name on 20 July. In drinking the poisoned chalice of a truce with Iraq, he hurled execration at his enemies like some latterday Lear. Islam would he avenged on America, Israel and the house of Saud. The survival of the Islamic revolution required an unpalatable peace with the enemy next door, but there could be no let-up in Islam’s war against those ‘world-devourers’ – Zionism, capitalism and communism. Earlier in the month, on 3 July, when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civil airliner over the Gulf, and America and the Islamic Republic of Iran seemed on the verge of open war, the victims were mourned in what was officially declared ‘Death to America Day’.

The image of an angry Islam, wounded and wounding, has persisted through the Eighties, following the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war the following year. That image has been reinforced by the Sh’ite bombers who killed more than two hundred and forty American Marines in Beirut in 1983; by the kidnappers of Terry Waite and John McCarthy among others; by the hijackers of the Kuwaiti plane in April, and of the TWA plane in 1985, when an American Navy diver was brutally murdered – an act for which Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a young Lebanese Shi’ite, is currently on trial in Frankfurt. The prospect of an end to the Gulf War may ease Muslim anger but is unlikely to end it.

It sometimes seems that militant Islam was spawned by Ayatollah Khomeini, and hence that it is no more than a decade old. But the ‘crisis of Islam’ has much deeper roots, though Khomeini’s Islamic revolution has certainly given it a new dimension. The clash between America and Iran may be its current manifestation, but this confrontation was foreshadowed by the intrusion of Europe into the Middle East more than a century and a half ago. Indeed, many date the crisis of Islam – meaning the collision between the traditional world of Islam and the modern European world – to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798.

Is the history of Islam and the West, then, merely a record of battles and bigotry? Maxime Rodinson’s Europe and the Mystique of Islam makes clear that the relationship has been much subtler. By chronicling, succinctly and elegantly, the West’s changing images of Islam, Rodinson – one of the leading French scholars of Islam and the Middle East – demolishes the notion of two monolithic blocs frozen in eternal hostility. Hostility there certainly was, and the Crusades often stimulated the most wildly inaccurate images of Islam and the ‘Saracen hordes’. But Rodinson shows how the popular stereotypes gradually broke down as Christian and Muslim merchants and scholars – as well as soldiers and statesmen – came into closer contact with each other. European science came to rely on Arabic translations of some of the great lost works of Classical Antiquity. The Arabic texts were then translated into Latin and spread, often from Spain, to various parts of Europe. Simultaneously, Christian writers sought a better knowledge of Islam – often in order to challenge it – and were sometimes surprised by what they discovered.

As the Crusades fizzled out, Muslims became less of a threat. The intellectual contribution of Muslim writers – Avicenna, Averroes, al-Ghazali – became an established part of European culture. Even with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, the confrontation between Europe and the Muslim Turks was more a political problem than an ideological contest. A kind of co-existence was established, and with co-existence, Rodinson explains, came greater objectivity. Knowledge of Islam and Muslims crystallised into what became known, by the late 18th century, as Orientalism – the study of the history, languages and cultures of the East.

Rodinson treads with calm authority on terrain that has been bitterly fought over in recent years. A fierce debate broke out in 1978, when, in his book Orientalism, Edward Said launched an attack on Western scholars and others for viewing the East – particularly the Middle East – through the distorting lens of imperialism and ethnocentrism. Rodinson, polite but critical, takes a more measured view. The great merit of Said’s book, he says, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, challenging their claim to academic neutrality. But Said’s critique was, he believes, too sweeping, and Said loaded the dice by choosing as his targets only British and French Orientalists – the representatives of big colonial empires. ‘There was an Orientalism,’ Rodinson reminds us, ‘before the empires.’ ‘Orientalism = imperialism’ is a simplistic formula.

One of Said’s principal targets in Orientalism was Bernard Lewis, a British scholar now at Princeton University. Said and Lewis have become well-known sparring partners in the Orientalism debate – although their clashes have sometimes generated more heat than light. Lewis’s new book, The Political Language of Islam, is a classic example of the Orientalist approach which Said so strongly dislikes. In one sense, it is a model of old-fashioned scholarship – a linguistic and historical study, involving an intimate knowledge of Arabic, Turkish and Persian, of how classical Islam envisaged the body politic, the relationship between ruler and rules, the concept of jihad.

Much of this is fascinating. The problem arises when Lewis seeks to relate this classical vocabulary to 20th-century Islam. His thesis, in essence, is that the impact of the modern West has been superficial. Influenced by new and alien concepts of national rather than religious identity, the Muslims of today have created ‘a patchwork quilt of soi-disant nation-states’. The façade of these nation-states is now beginning to crack, revealing the old Islam – sometimes distorted into a new Khomeinist form.

This contention is not altogether false: nevertheless, it seems to me a gross exaggeration. A century and a half of modernisation, of rapid material and intellectual change, cannot be so easily dismissed, by either a Lewis or a Khomeini. In their insistence on one Islam – austere, unbending, hostile – the professor and the ayatollah are oddly at one. Lewis’s view has been challenged by (among others) James Piscatori, in his book Islam in a World of Nation-States, which argued persuasively that the modern idea of nationalism has been fully absorbed into the mainstream of Muslim thinking, from Morocco to Indonesia.

Lewis is implicitly challenged in a number of respects, too, in Henry Munson’s stimulating book, Islam and Revolution in the Middle East. Take, for example, Lewis’s endorsement of the familiar argument that there is no separation of religion and politics in Islam. ‘It is all very well,’ Munson writes, ‘to say there was no distinction between religion and politics at the time of the prophet Muhammad, but there certainly has been such a distinction throughout most of the 20th century – and for many centuries before that according to some scholars.’

It is a good example of a down-to-earth approach which contrasts with Lewis’s lofty generalities. In part, this is the difference between the social scientist and the traditional Orientalist. The latter is preoccupied with what Islam says, and hence with texts. The former is much more interested in what (so far as we can tell) Muslims actually believed and did, and what they believe and do today. Munson, author of a vivid oral history of a modern Moroccan family, provides in his new book a kind of handbook to the debate on Islamic fundamentalism – a term which he and Lewis dislike but which has by now become unavoidable. The first part of the book reconstructs, very succinctly, the history of Islam as it is perceived by a modern Islamic fundamentalist. This is a fascinating case-study in the re-invention (one might almost say the hi-jacking) of tradition. The fundamentalist sees the Prophet, for example, as the model of a modern revolutionary – a political as well as religious leader, bearing a message of radical change and social justice. Munson explains the key differences between the traditions of Sunni Islam (the orthodox mainstream) and Shi’ite Islam (the heterodox minority). The role, for example, of a charismatic leader such as Khomeini is much more deeply rooted in Shi’ite than in Sunni tradition. He also explains the gap that often exists between fundamentalist belief and popular practice. Fundamentalists strongly disapprove, for instance, of the cult of local saints and the Sufi (mystical) practices still common in many rural areas.

This forms a prelude to the question: why has an Islamic revolution occurred in Iran and not elsewhere? Munson takes four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria – and compares their experience of Islamic radicalism. His account of each is tantalisingly brief, but he poses a sensible and central question. Why have revolts and crises in the three Arab countries – the capture of the mosque at Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Sadat in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria from 1980 to 1982 – not led to the revolutionary experience that toppled the Shah? Munson’s answer is partly that the Shah’s brutal dictatorship, and the deepening resentment of American support for him, made Iran special; and partly that Arab Muslims – who are predominantly Sunni – have sharply different traditions from those of Shi’ite Iran. Sunni fundamentalists, he says briskly, ‘have been far more successful in making headlines than-they have in making revolutions’.

I find this convincing, as far as it goes. Those who subscribe to a ‘domino theory’, whereby Muslim states will, one by one, succumb to Iranian-style revolutions, are surely mistaken. But to conclude that Islamic fundamentalism is a spent force, or that it does not pose a serious threat to existing governments in the Muslim world, would be equally mistaken. Munson does not explicitly draw such a conclusion, but in his demythologising zeal he may lead some of his readers to feel there is little to worry about.

By the year 2000, the Arab population will have grown from about 200 to about 300 million. Half this population will be under 14. Almost 60 per cent will live in cities. As Munson makes clear, it is the educated urban young who are the main social group drawn to Islamic fundamentalism. A dozen years from now, will its appeal be any less strong to young, educated, urbanised – and, in many cases, alienated – Arabs? Will their governments be any more democratic or representative than they are today? Will their regional environment in the Middle East be any less chaotic and unstable? Will they draw inspiration, if not from Iran (Khomeini – though one can never be sure – will have departed from the scene), then from the revolt of fearless, stone-throwing young Palestinians (if, as seems depressingly likely, their future is no nearer resolution than it is today)?

Islamic fundamentalism, while often appearing irrational to the Western mind, has its own rationale. It is rooted in a double failure. The first is the failure of those outside powers – of East and West – who seem to regard the conflicts of the Middle East and the Islamic world as a standing invitation to intervention. The Americans, by re-installing the Shah on his Peacock Throne in 1953 and then helping to keep him there for quarter of a century, and the Russians by their brutal war in Afghanistan, have, wittingly or unwittingly, reminded Muslims of the humiliations of the colonial period. Such actions have reinforced the notion that, while certain material benefits may flow from the ‘developed’ nations, their political – and cultural – hegemony must be resisted tooth and nail.

The second failure is that of the local leaders, the Shahs and mini-Shahs. When the priority was to win independence, the secular, Westernised nationalist élite had a powerful rallying-call. A leader such as Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia could, with a good deal of popular support, create a liberal, Gallicised (although largely undemocratic) secular state – a process which required only an occasional gesture of respect for Islam (‘Muslim gesticulation’, as Rodinson has aptly called it). What happened to Bourguiba was instructive. As he became increasingly senile and authoritarian, he crushed the secular opposition but failed to crush a burgeoning Islamic fundamentalist movement. It was essentially to pre-empt the growing power of the fundamentalists that he was overthrown by a Western-trained technocrat in November last year. Whether the technocrat can tame the Islamic tiger remains to be seen.

It is this double failure, internal and external, which gives today’s Islamic radicals their golden opportunity. Far from being gibbering fanatics – ‘beardies and weirdies’, as one diplomat in Cairo calls them – many of them are impressively articulate. Their critique of the failings of their own societies, and of foreign intervention in their affairs, is often unanswerable. They remain, as Munson stresses, a minority – but a minority which is ready to impose its wishes on the majority. Much will depend, therefore, on how the majority reacts. Outsiders can help or hinder, but ultimately only Muslims can calm the fever in the house of Islam.