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Islam Today

Islam and the Modern World, Autumn 2005-Winter 2006

Islam has high visibility in America be­cause of what happened on September 11, 2001. But it has low understanding. Most Americans associate modern Islam with violence and terrorism. Their knowledge is limited by hostility and distance. The varieties and complexities of Muslim life are not part of their perception.

Early Islam was a surprising story of phe­nomenal success. Inspired by the teachings of an Arab prophet from Mecca, the armies of Islam went out to conquer the civilized world in 635 C.E. They defeated the Greeks and Persians and boldly annexed most of their empires. Within only one century the Muslim world stretched from India to Spain. It was one of the most amazing conquests in the history of humanity.

Within three centuries most of the con­quered people had become Muslims and had adopted the Arabic language and Arabic culture as their own. An authoritarian govern­ment and an authoritarian clergy, supported by an authoritarian law, unified this vast domain. From the Qur’an[1] to the mosque, a new intensely religious civilization evolved. Although it tolerated Christians and Jews, its outreach and demands were totalitarian.

The religious intensity was bound to spawn division. Establishment Muslims were called Sunni. The dissenters took such names as Kharijites, Shiites, and Druse. All of them were united by mutual hatred and self-righ­teousness. While the wars with the Christian and Hindu worlds dominated politics, the internal wars were equally fierce.

The decline of the Muslim world before the advent of the urban industrial revolution in Western Europe was due to many factors. There was the economic reversal that came with the shift of the trade routes from Europe to Asia, the ocean voyage replacing the camel caravan. There was the trauma of the Mongol and Turkish conquests. There was the absence of a strong and vital middle class. Above all, there were the intransigent clergy, who nixed all scientific inquiry. The Muslim world en­joyed no Renaissance. By the nineteenth cen­tury the Islamic realms were overwhelmingly poor, backward, and passive. The doctrine of kismet (fate) discouraged any notion of hope and progress. The once-mighty conquerors were ripe for conquest.

The trauma of modern Islam was the con­quest of this depressed and volatile world by the great powers of Europe. Within one cen­tury the British, the French, the Italians, and the Russians had occupied almost all of the former Muslim territories. The humiliation of Islam was complete. The Christian world, which had, at one time, cowered before the might of the Muslims, was now the victor.

But there was one major difference in this reversal. The “Christian” powers of Europe were no longer Christian in the way they had been in earlier centuries. They had become the children of the first urban industrial revolu­tion. They were interested in the pleasures of this world, not the rewards of the next. They preferred cheap labor to converts, markets to shrines. If they were missionaries, they were missionaries for capitalism and free enter­prise. If they were educators, they were edu­cators of science. If they were idealists, they were idealists for secular states, industrial freedom, and female liberation. Nationalism had replaced religion as their chief passion. In many ways they were purveyors of a post- Christian civilization.

The encounter of Islam with the post- Christian West turned into both attraction and confrontation. Many Muslims wanted to imitate the West, either because they saw some personal advantage in changing or because they believed that only “modernization” could restore Muslim power. Many of these Muslim secularists shifted from religion to national­ism, imitating the West by becoming ardent Arabs, Persians, and Turks. But most Muslims were traumatized by the encounter. Modern Western secular culture violated the social order that gave structure and meaning to their lives. Individual freedom, secular education, and the liberation of women and children, in particular, were provocative. They simulta­neously envied the West and hated Western culture. And their antipathy was reinforced by the fanaticism of their clergy.

The Muslim secularists were initially successful, despite the conservative masses. They were often supported by the conquer­ing European powers. They had the ad­vantage of Western education. They found many adherents among native army of­ficers who yearned to expel the foreigners. Ataturk in Turkey, Pahlavi in Persia, and Nasser in Arab Egypt led political revolutions that sought to empower their nations through modernization. Later, Boumeddine in Al­geria, Qadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and Hussein in Iraq followed the secularist road. But to no avail. Their modernization plans were foiled by growing populations, corrupt bureaucracies, military dictatorship, and the absence of vital middle classes. In the end their reigns produced some West­ernization — but mainly sullen and disillu­sioned masses.

Muslim fundamentalism is a militant response to the Muslim encounter with the ideas and values of urban industrial civilization. Fundamentalists are more than traditionalists. They are at war with secularism. Secularists are the agents of the Devil and must be eliminated — their beliefs and their values undermine the foun­dations of Islam. Only a holy war, which restores the original faith of the Muslims, can defeat them.

Contemporary Islam embraces three components. The first consists of the belea­guered secularists, who have lost ground over the past thirty years. The second is the militant fundamentalists, who have been winning increasing support in all the nations of the Muslim world. The third is the ambivalent middle, who are the clear ma­jority. They vacillate between the visions of material prosperity offered by the secularists and the militant piety of respected religious leaders. Since they are an amorphous mass without any clear direction, they offer no ef­fective resistance.

Muslim fundamentalists, despite their recent amazing growth, face many problems.

The first is science. Fundamentalists depend on Western technology to maintain their power but cannot produce an educational system that can give them scientists. They rely mainly on “stealing” the technology of the nations they despise. The second problem is the clergy. Economic and social manage­ment by the imams and the mullahs produces lethargic and corrupt regimes. The clergy are wonderful at mobilization; but they are a di­saster when it comes to maintenance (think Iran and Afghanistan). The third problem is internal feuding. Sunni fundamentalists hate Shiite fundamentalists, and both branches of Islam are divided into factions incapable of compromise.

But the main problem is that urban indus­trial civilization is taking over the planet. The global economy, with all its secular choices and freedom, will not easily be crushed. In the end Islam, like Christianity and Juda­ism, will have to adapt to it. The first wave of Muslim secularists may have achieved limited success. But the inevitable second wave will be reinforced by a transformation that is sweeping over China, India, and Latin America. Political and religious terrorism may not cease. But the consumer culture moves relentlessly on. The mullahs in Iran will not conquer poverty. Nor will they be able in the long run to persuade their Muslim adherents to stay poor.


 

Jews and the Muslim World

Colloquium 07 – Summer 08

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism.