September 11 and the Struggle for Islam

Six hundred years ago the great Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, observed that popular religion in Muslim societies tends to oscillate between periods of strict religious observance and others of devotional laxity. An astute observer of social life, Khaldun (1958) attributed this cultural cycle to features of ecology and social organization peculiar to the Middle East. Urban settlements across the region, he noted, are located amidst grasslands and deserts inhabited by nomads only nominally controlled by urban-based rulers. In principle, the nomads share the townspeople’s faith. Tempted by the pleasures of cosmopolitan living, however, town dwellers tend over time to relax their moral guard and sink into what is, from a zealot’s perspective, decadent impiety. Immunized by the spartan demands of desert living, the nomadic population is more resistant to this moral slide. The result is that nomads have the potential to serve as a reserve army if and when an Islamic reformer arises, decrying urban decadence and demanding a return to the purity of the Word. Where he can tap nomad resentment in this manner, Khaldun remarked, the reformer may succeed in pressing the urban population into scriptural piety for a generation or two. Eventually, however, urban temptations lure the townspeople back to their old ways, creating the conditions for yet another cycle of religious reform.

Khaldun’s model never really applied to the entire Muslim world or all of Muslim history. The great Muslim kingdoms in Mesopotamia, Turkey, Islamic Spain, and Southeast Asia were, relatively speaking, nomad free, yet they too experienced periods of religious reform. It is nonetheless striking how much of the Khaldunian model rings true still today. Its central insight lies, not so much in the details of desert living, but in its recognition that religious reformation and contestation have long been features of Muslim society. Equally important, Khaldun reminds us that, in modern as in classical times, movements for Islamic reform often involve the attempts of pious preachers to link their religious ambitions to some disadvantaged or aggrieved social class. Where such a linkage is created, movements of Islamic reform may extend their horizons beyond the aim of heightening piety toward the goal of social and political transformation.

Directed as they were at the United States, the attacks of September 11 prompted a blizzard of speculation in the media on the nature and scale of the “Islamic” threat. The boldly-lettered title on the cover of the October 15 edition of Newsweek captured this concern vividly: “Why They Hate Us: The Roots of Islamic Rage and What We Can Do About It.” In the aftermath of a tragedy as great as the September 11 attacks, America-centric reflections of this sort are understandable and necessary. Nonetheless, it would be a shame if the focus on threats to our own freedom led us to overlook the fact that the violence was directed, not merely against the United States, but against moderate and democratic-minded Muslims around the world. The attack was but the latest chapter in a long struggle between moderate Muslims and Islamists hardliners for the hearts and minds of Muslim believers.

Although, as Khaldun observed, competition between rival visions of Islam is nothing new, over the past thirty years the struggle has taken a new form. As late as the 1950s, the great majority of Muslims were still rural people. After achieving independence, however, nationalist governments launched ambitious programs of mass-education. By the 1970s, they had succeeded in elevating rates of literacy and education to several times their earlier proportions (Eickelman 1992). Nation-building programs brought roads, markets, mass media, and intrusive state administrations into previously well-contained communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, electronic communications and the media drew Muslims even deeper into the new “global ecumene” (Hannerz 1992). Through these and other changes, Muslim societies were opened to outside influences like never before, and were forced to confront the vexing question of how to deal with the diversity of our age.

All these developments posed serious threats to traditional Islamic leaders, whose authority was premised on a neat unity of society and religion. In the congested slums of Cairo, Kabul, or Jakarta, however, the small-world anchors of family, lineage, and local imam no longer served as effective compasses for residents. In the early years of independence and nation-building, some of the anomie experienced by urban migrants was neutralized by popular appeals to nationalism. Corruption, failed policies, and simple bad luck, however, combined to insure that the nationalist leadership in many Muslim countries failed to make good on its promise of prosperity and progress.

It was in these unsteady circumstances that in the 1970s and 1980s the Muslim world witnessed a religious resurgence of unprecedented proportions. In the early postwar period, nation-building programs had tried to privatize and depoliticize the profession of the faith, subordinating Islamic life to secular ideologies and state-based agencies. Rulers also sought to impose strict limits on the activities of the guardians of religious knowledge, the ulama (lit., “those who know,” i.e. classically trained Islamic scholars), requiring permits, for example, when religious scholars preached in public. By the late 1960s, however, the combination of general education and the mass-marketing of inexpensive Islamic books (Atiyeh 1995) made Islamic literature accessible to a broad reading public. Although they lacked the credentials of traditional scholars, ordinary Muslims came to believe that they, too, had a right to determine the forms and meanings of their faith. A similar democratization of religious authority had occurred, of course, in American Protestantism in the early twentieth century (see Wuthnow 1988).

Through these and other developments, public life in Muslim societies witnessed growing “competition and contest over both the interpretation of [religious] symbols and the control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce and sustain them” (Eickelman and Piscatori 1996: 5). Traditional scholars found their role as interpreters of the faith challenged by a host of rival Muslim leaders. The meaning of Islam itself became the focus of fierce public debate.

Contrary to the claims of hardline Islamists and some reports in the Western media, there was and is still today no uniform political disposition to the resurgence (Hefner 2000). Some among the resurgents insisted that Islam knows nothing of democracy, human rights, and civil society. Exacerbated by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the plight of Muslims in Bosnia, and other international developments, some Muslim leaders speak in a manner reminiscent of Western policy analysts, warning of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West (see Fuller and Lesser 1995; Halliday 1996; and, on the clash of civilization itself, Huntington 1996).

Others among the new Muslim leadership, however, have come to see their faith as deeply consistent with ideas of democracy, civic freedom, the rule of law, and partnership with the West (An-Na’im 1990; Esposito and Voll 2001; Cooper, Nettler, and Mahmoud 1998). This stream within modern Muslim politics has been given a number of names, including neomodernism, Islamic liberalism, or, simply, democratic Islam. The precise strength and ideological emphases of democratic Islam vary in different national settings. In general, however, Muslim democrats embrace the concepts of constitutional government, a balance of state powers, civic freedoms, and a separation of religious and state authority. The civic freedoms they emphasize include three directly opposed to conservative Islamist views: freedom and equality in the profession of religion, rather than the relegation of non-Muslims to the second-class status of “protected minorities” (dhimmi); equal citizen rights for men and women, rather than the hierarchical subordination of women to male authority; and the freedom of Muslims to dissent from established religious opinion, rather than risk banishment or death as apostates (see, for example, An-Na’im 1990; Soroush 2000).

While rejecting the idea of an “Islamic” state, Muslim democrats typically do not support the full privatization of religion, which is to say religion’s retreat from public life and relegation to a purely private realm. During the years following the Second World War, it was an article of faith in Western policy circles that modernization requires that religion retire from public life in this manner. Today most specialists of religion in the West realize that, in fact, religious traditions in countries like the United States continued to play a vital role in public life (see Casanova 1994; Wuthnow 1988). The lesson is that one can be religious and democratic at the same time. The key as to how to do so lies in abandoning any ambition of fusing religion and state, and instead concentrating one’s religious energies in civil society and the public sphere. As with religious citizens in the West, Muslim democrats insist their faith is compatible with civic habits — if and when it strengthens the public’s commitments to freedom, equality, and tolerance. By strengthening democratic values, religion can help to provide the social resources needed, in Robert Putnam’s (1993) words, “to make democracy work.”

Like Judaism, Islam is a religion of divine law or shari`ah. Over the long run, the democratic reformation of Islam will require painstaking intellectual labors of Muslim jurists and intellectuals willing and able to bring their tradition into dialogue, not just with the sources of the law, but the demands of the late modern world (An-Na’im 1990). The long-term success of this effort will in turn depend, not just on the cogency of intellectual arguments, but on a balance of powers among rival Muslim groupings in state and society.

It is this last fact that makes the United States’ current military campaign in Afghanistan so fraught with opportunity and danger. Jihadi Islamists are already using the campaign to mobilize against their moderate rivals. Even if the U.S.’s military campaign in Afghanistan should prove a success, the battle between these two visions of Muslim politics and society will continue for many years to come.

Over the long term, a favorable outcome will require that the United States and other countries dedicate themselves to resolving once and for all the Israel-Palestine conflict. As long as that impasse remains, Muslim democrats’ appeals for peace and tolerance across civilizations will receive a cool reception in some Muslim circles. A positive outcome to the struggle for Islam will also depend on the West’s long-term commitment to educational and economic programs in the Muslim world. These are needed to insure that the majority of Muslims realize that they have a stake in their government, and in a global political order in which they are treated as valued partners.

There is no clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The really decisive battle is taking place within Muslim civilization, where ultraconservatives compete against moderates and democrats for the soul of the Muslim public. The globalization so widespread in our age will never bring about a world-wide homogenization of culture and identity. What the process has done is make the interests we share with the great majority of Muslims all the clearer. One hopes that we Americans will not forget this fact as we move beyond the events of September 11. The lesson to keep in mind is that our suffering and outrage were shared by millions of Muslims. They look to us now to remember just how deeply we share political challenges and a common humanity.


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