September Apocalypse: Who, Why and What Next?
by Karen Armstrong
Guardian Unlimited, Saturday October 13, 2001
About a hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the west, which at that time meant Europe. America was still an unknown quantity.
Politicians and journalists in India, Egypt and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France; philosophers, poets and even some of the ulema (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic, liberal model of the West. They called for a nation state, for representational government, for the disestablishment of religion, and for constitutional rights.
Some even claimed that the Europeans were better Muslims than their own fellow-countrymen: the Koran teaches that the resources of a society must be shared as fairly as possible, and in the European nations there was beginning to be a more equitable sharing of wealth. So what happened in the intervening years to transform all that admiration and respect into the hatred that incited the acts of heinous terror that we witnessed on September 11? It is not only terrorists who feel this anger and resentment, although they do so to an extreme degree.
Throughout the Muslim world there is widespread bitterness against America, even among pragmatic and well-educated businessmen and professionals, who may sincerely deplore the recent atrocity, condemn it as evil, and feel sympathy with the victims, but who still resent the way the western powers have behaved in their countries.
This atmosphere is highly conducive to extremism, especially now that potential terrorists have seen the catastrophe that it is possible to inflict, using only the simplest of weapons. Even if President Bush and his allies succeed in eliminating the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his network, hundreds more terrorists will rise up to take their place, unless we in the west address the root cause of this hatred.
This task must be an essential part of the war against terrorism. It is a painful process, as we British know only too well. Every time an IRA bomb explodes in London or Manchester, more and more of us are becoming uncomfortably aware that England's behavior in Ireland is in large part responsible. And this widespread acknowledgement has been an essential ingredient of the Northern Ireland peace process.
We cannot understand the present crisis without taking into account the painful process of modernisation. In the 16th century, the countries of western Europe and, later, the American colonies had embarked on what historians have called "the great western transformation".
They created an entirely different kind of civilization, which was without precedent in the history of the world. The distinguishing mark of any modern society is that instead of being based economically upon a surplus of agricultural produce, it is based upon technology and the constant reinvestment of capital.
This liberated the west from the constraints that had inevitably hobbled all traditional, agrarian societies. The great agrarian empires were economically vulnerable; they soon found that they had grown beyond resources that were inevitably limited, but the western countries found that they could reproduce their resources indefinitely.
They could afford to experiment with new ideas and products. Today, when a new kind of computer is invented, all the old office equipment is thrown out. In the old agrarian societies, any project that demanded such frequent change of the basic infrastructure was likely to be shelved.
So originality was not encouraged; instead people had to concentrate of preserving what had been achieved.
So the great western transformation was exciting and gave the peoples of the west new freedom, but it demanded fundamental change at every level: social, political, intellectual and religious.
To preserve the momentum of the continuously expanding economy, more and more people had to be involved - even in a humble capacity, as printers, clerks, or factory workers.
Thus more and more of the population had to acquire a modicum of education, so that they could imbibe the new ethos and work to the required standard. And as they became more educated, the common people inevitably demanded more political rights.
It was found, by trial and error, that a successful modern society had to be democratic. There were political revolutions - some of them succeeded by reigns of terror - that brought this change about.
Again, in order to draw upon all of a society's human resources, outgroups, such as the Jews or women, had to be emancipated and brought into the mainstream.
Countries, such as those in eastern Europe, which did not become secular, tolerant and democratic, fell behind. But those that did fulfill these norms, such as Britain and France, had become so powerful that no agrarian, traditional society, such as the Islamic countries, could stand against them. The modern spirit had two main characteristics.
The first of these was independence. Modernisation proceeded by declarations of independence on all fronts: social, political, intellectual, as scientists, for example, demanded the freedom to pursue their insights, despite the disapproval of the established churches. The agrarian societies had simply not been able to afford to allow individual liberties, but freedom became a necessary hallmark of the modern state.
The second mark of the new society was innovation: western people were constantly breaking new ground and creating something fresh; they institutionalised change in a way that had been quite impossible in a preindustrial civilisation.
This process of modernisation took a long time; modern society did not come fully into its own until the 19th century. Like any major social change, the period of transition was traumatic and often violent.
As the early modern states became more centralised and efficient, draconian measures were often required to weld hitherto disparate kingdoms together. Minority groups, such as Catholics in England or Jews in Spain, were persecuted or deported. There were acts of genocide, terrible wars of religion, the exploitation of workers in factories, the despoliation of the countryside, and anomie and spiritual malaise in the newly industrialised mega cities.
Today we are witnessing similar upheaval in developing countries, including those in the Islamic world, that are making their own painful journey to modernity. In the Middle East, for example, we see constant political upheaval.
There have been revolutions, such as the coup of the free officers in Egypt in 1952, or the Islamic revolution in Iran.
We see such autocratic rulers, because the modernising process is not yet sufficiently advanced to provide the conditions for a fully developed democracy.
We have seen ethnic cleansing, such as Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Kurds, and religious turbulence, as traditional faith tries to address new and unprecedented conditions.
We have completed the modernising process, and have forgotten what we had to go through, so we do not always understand the difficulty of this transition.
We tend to imagine that we in the west has always been in the vanguard of progress, and have sometimes seen the Islamic countries as inherently backward.
We have imagined that they are held back by their religion, and do not realise that what we are actually seeing is an imperfectly modernized society.
The Muslim world has had an especially problematic experience of modernity. These countries have had to modernise far too rapidly. They have had to attempt the process in a mere fifty years, instead of 300. Nevertheless, this in itself would not have been an insuperable obstacle.
A country like Japan has created its own highly successful version of modernity. But Japan had one huge advantage over most of the Islamic countries. It had never been colonised. In the Muslim world, modernity did not bring freedom and independence; it came in a context of political subjection.
Modern society is of its very nature progressive, and by the 19th century, the new economies of western Europe needed a constantly expanding market for the goods that funded their cultural enterprises.
Once the home countries were saturated, new markets were sought abroad. Between 1830 and 1915, the European powers occupied Algeria, Aden, Tunisia, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya and Morocco - all Muslim countries.
These new "colonies" provided raw materials for export, which were fed into European industry. In return, they received cheap manufactured goods, which naturally destroyed local industry. The colony also had to be modernized and brought into the western system, so some of the "natives" had to acquire a degree of familiarity with the modern ethos.
After the collapse of the Ottoman empire during the first world war, Britain and France set up mandates and protectorates in its former provinces, in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine This new impotence was extremely disturbing for the Muslim countries. Until this point, Islam had been a religion of success.
Within 100 years of the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, the Muslims ruled an empire that stretched from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees. By the 15th century, Islamdom was the greatest world power - not dissimilar to the United States today.
When Europeans began to explore the rest of the globe at the beginning of the great western transformation, they found an Islamic presence almost everywhere they went: in the Middle East, India, Persia, south east Asia, China and Japan.
In the 16th century, when Europe was in the early stages of its rise to power, the Ottoman Empire.- which ruled Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa - was probably the most powerful and up-to-date society in the world.
But once the great powers of Europe had reformed their military, economic, and political structures according to the modern norm, the Islamic countries could put up no effective resistance.
Some, such as Turkey and Egypt, attempted to copy Europe and modernise themselves, but they were too far behind to achieve an effective riposte. Muslims would not be human if they did not resent this, yet still, as I have said, the most prescient felt great admiration for modern Europe. But this did not last.
The colonial powers treated the "natives" with contempt, and it was not long before Muslims discovered that their new rulers despised their religious traditions.
True, the Europeans brought many improvements to their colonies, such as modern medicine, education and technology, but these were sometimes a mixed blessing.
Thus the Suez Canal, initiated by the French consul, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was a disaster for Egypt, which in the end had to provide all the money, labour and materials as well as donating 200 sq miles of Egyptian territory gratis, and yet the shares of the Canal Company were all held by Europeans.
The immense outlay helped to bankrupt Egypt, and this gave Britain a pretext to set up a military occupation there in 1882 in order to protect the interests of the shareholders. Again, railways were installed in the colonies, but they rarely benefited the local people. Instead they were designed to further the colonialists' own projects. And the missionary schools often taught the children to despise their own culture, with the result that many felt that they belonged neither to the west nor to the Islamic world.
One of the most scarring effects of colonialism was the rift that still exists between those who have had a western education and those who have not, and remain perforce stuck in the premodern ethos.
To this day, the westernized elites of these countries and the more traditional classes simply cannot understand one another. Even when democratic institutions were established, they could not always function normally. In Egypt, for example, there were 17 general elections between 1923 and 1952: all 17were won by the popular Wafd party, which wanted to reduce British influence in the country. But the Wafd was only permitted to rule five times; after the other elections, they were forced by the British and the Egyptian king to stand down.
In Iran, there had been a revolution led by a coalition of secularist Iranians and reforming ulema: this resulted in the establishment of a parliament and a constitution, but the British, who wanted to set up a protectorate in Iran after the discovery of oil there, kept rigging the elections.
Then from 1921, the Pahlavi shahs, backed first by Britain and later by America, set up dictatorships in which there was no possibility of parliamentary opposition. After the second world war, Britain and France became secondary powers and the United States became the leader of the western world.
Even though the Islamic countries were no longer colonies, but were nominally independent, America still controlled their destinies. During the cold war, the United States sought allies in the region by supporting unsavory governments and unpopular leaders.
A particularly fateful example of this occurred in 1953, after Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi had been deposed and forced to leave Iran; he was put back on the throne I a coup engineered by British Intelligence and the CIA.
The United States continued to support the Shah, even though he denied Iranians human rights that most Americans take for granted.
The Muslim clerics simply could not understand how President Jimmy Carter, who was a deeply religious man and passionate about human rights, could support the Shah after the massacre of Tudeh Square in 1978, when nearly 900 Iranians were killed by his troops.
Later Saddam Hussein, who became the sole president of Iraq in 1979, became the protege of the United States, who literally allowed him to get away with murder, even after a chemical attack against the Kurdish population.
It was only after the invasion of Kuwait that he incurred the enmity of America and its allies. Many Muslims resent the way America has continued to support unpopular rulers, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or the Saudi Royal Family.
Indeed, Osama bin Laden was himself a protege of the west, which was happy to support and fund his fighters in the struggle for Afghanistan against Soviet Russia. Too often, the Western powers have taken a crudely short-term view, and have not considered the long-term consequences of their actions. After the Soviets had pulled out of Afghanistan, for example, no help was forthcoming for the devastated country, whose ensuing chaos made it possible for the Taliban to come to power.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
September Apocalypse: Who, Why and What Next? (Part II)
We in the first world must learn more about other ideologies and develop a "one-world" mentality in the coming years if we want to win the war agasinst terror, writes Karen Armstrong
When the United States supports autocratic rulers, its proud assertion of democratic values has at best a hollow ring.
Increasingly Muslims have felt helpless - some have said that they feel that they are prisoners in their own countries. Their rights and protests have too frequently been ignored. What America seemed to be saying to them was: "Yes, we have freedom and democracy, but you have to live under tyrannical governments."
The creation of the state of Israel, the chief ally of the United States in the Middle East, has become a symbol of Muslim impotence before the western powers, which seemed to feel no qualm about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homeland and either went into exile or lived under Israeli occupation.
Rightly or wrongly, America's strong support for Israel is seen as proof that as far as the United States is concerned, Muslims are of no importance and simply do not count.
In their frustration, many have turned to Islam. The secularist and nationalist ideologies, which they had imported from the west, seemed to have failed them, and by the late 1960s, Muslims throughout the Islamic world had begun to develop what we call fundamentalist movements.
Fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon, however, and is by no means confined to the Islamic world. During the 20th century, every single major religion has developed this type of militant piety. Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against the secularist ethos of modernity. Wherever a western-style society has established itself, a fundamentalist movement has developed alongside it.
The first fundamentalist movement appeared at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the showcase of modernity, and it only developed in the Islamic world after a degree of modernisation had been achieved.
Fundamentalism is, therefore, a part of the modern scene. Although fundamentalists often claim that they are returning to a golden age in the past, these movements could have taken root in no time other than our own.
Fundamentalists believe that they are under threat. Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced that modern, secular society is trying to wipe out the true faith and religious values.
Fundamentalists believe that they are fighting for survival, and when people feel that their backs are to the wall, they can often lash out violently. This is especially the case when there is conflict in the region. American fundamentalists have not generally resorted to violence, because until September 11, the United States has not suffered enemy attack.
But in a region like the Middle East, which has been convulsed by war for over fifty years, fundamentalism has spilled over into violence and terror. The vast majority of fundamentalists, however, do not take part in acts of violence. They are simply struggling to keep the faith alive in what they see as an inimical world.
They are trying to bring God from the sidelines, to which he has been relegated in secular culture, and back to center stage. They create counter-cultures, enclaves of pure faith, such as the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City, Bob Jones University in Indiana, or the training camps of Osama bin Laden.
Here they sometimes plan and put into effect a counter-offensive against the values of the modern secular world.
In recent years, various fundamentalisms have been becoming more extreme. In the United States, for example, some Christians expect the imminent destruction of the federal democratic government by an act of God.
Some Islamic fundamentalists too have resorted more and more frequently to terror. But in so doing, they utterly distort the faith that they purport to defend.
Every single major world faith, including Islam, teaches an absolute respect for the sacred rights of others. But in their fear and anxiety about the encroachments of the secular world, fundamentalists - be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim - tend to downplay the compassionate teachings of their scripture and overemphasize the more belligerent passages.
In so doing, they often fall into moral nihilism of which there is no more telling example than the suicide bomber or hijacker.
To kill even one person in the name of God is blasphemy; to massacre thousands of innocent men, women and children, as was done on September 11, is an obscene perversion of religion itself.
Osama bin Laden subscribes roughly to the fundamentalist vision of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 1966. Qutb developed his militant ideology in the concentration camp in which he, and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were interred by Nasser, often without trial, and having done nothing more incriminating than handing out leaflets.
After 15 years of mental and physical torture in these ghastly prisons, Qutb and others became convinced that secularism was a great evil, and that it was a Muslim's first duty to overthrow rulers, such as Nasser, who paid only lip service to Islam.
Similarly, Bin Laden's first target was the government of Saudi Arabia; he has also vowed to overthrow the secularist governments of Egypt and Jordan, and the Shiite Republic of Iran.
Fundamentalism, in every faith, always begins as an intra-religious movement; it is directed in the first instance against one's own countrymen or coreligionists. Only at a later stage do fundamentalists take on a foreign enemy, whom they feel to lie behind the ills of their own people.
Thus in 1998 Bin Laden issued his fatwa against the United States. This, however, is entirely contrary to the central tenets of Islam, which essentially preaches peace.
Far from declaring war, as Bin Laden has done, on "Jewish-Christian Crusaders", the Koran insists that Muslims treat the "people of the book" with courtesy and respect. "Say to them: 'We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one." It also insists that there must be no coercion in matters of religion. It is not a pacifist religion, but accepts the fact that sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values or in self-defence.
But the number of occasions on which a Muslim is entitled to declare war are hedged around with a great deal of intricate legislation. Bin Laden holds no official position; he is simply not entitled to issue such a fatwa, and has, like other fundamentalists, completely distorted the essential teachings of his faith.
The Koran insists that the only just war is one of self-defence, but the terrorists would claim that it is America who is the aggressor. They would point out that during the last year, hundreds of Palestinians have died in the conflict with Israel, America's ally; that the homes of Palestinian Muslims have been bombarded with American shells; that Britain and America are still bombing Iraq; and that thousands of Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have died as a result of the American-led sanctions.
And yet, as usual, they would say, America does not care. None of this, of course, excuses the September atrocities. These were evil actions, and it is essential that all those implicated in any way be brought to justice.
This is by far the most wicked and vicious act ever undertaken by fundamentalists of any faith. I must confess, however, that I am puzzled by the terrorists of September 11, because they are like no other fundamentalist that I have studied.
It appears that Muhammad Atta was drinking vodka before boarding the airplane. Alcohol is, of course, forbidden by the Koran, and it seems incredible that an avowed martyr of Islam would attempt to enter paradise with vodka on his breath.
Again, Ziad Jarrahi, the alleged Lebanese hijacker of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, seems to have frequented nightclubs in Hamburg.
Muslim fundamentalists lead highly disciplined, orthodox lives, and would regard drinking and clubbing as elements of the jahili, Godless society that they are fighting to overcome.
I have no theory to offer, but would just like to note that these seem to be very unusual fundamentalists indeed.
What can we do to prevent a repetition of this tragedy? As the towers of the World Trade Centre crumbled like a pack of cards, our world changed for ever, and that means that we can never see things in the same way again.
These events, however wicked, were an "apocalypse", a "revelation" - words which literally mean an "unveiling". They laid bare a reality that we had not seen clearly before. Part of that reality was Muslim rage, but the catastrophe showed us something else as well. In Britain, until September 11, the main news story was the problem of our asylum seekers. Every night, 80 or 90 refugees from the developing world, make desperate attempts to get into Britain: some cling to the undercarriage of trains, others stow away in trucks; some try to walk through the Channel Tunnel.
There is now a strong armed presence in our ports. England suddenly seemed like a privileged, gated community, designed to keep out impoverished intruders. The United States also has a problem with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants; and the Bush administration had tended to retreat from foreign affairs and returned to an isolationist policy.
It is almost as though we in the first world had been trying to keep the "other" world at bay, but as the September apocalypse showed, this cannot be done indefinitely.
If we try to ignore its plight, that world will come to us in shocking and devastating ways.
So we in the first world must develop a "one-world" mentality in the coming years.
Americans have often assumed that they were protected by the great oceans surrounding the United States. As a result, they have not always been very well informed about other parts of the globe. But the September apocalypse has shown that this isolation has come to an end, and revealed America's terrifying vulnerability.
This is deeply frightening, and it will have a profound effect upon the American psyche. But this tragedy could be turned to good, if Americans use it to cultivate a new sympathy with other peoples who have suffered mass slaughter and experienced a similar helplessness: in Rwanda, in Lebanon, or Srebrenica.
We cannot leave the fight against terrorism to our politicians or to our armies. In Europe and America, we ordinary citizens must find out more about the rest of the world.
We must make ourselves understand, at a deep level, that it is not only Muslims who resent America and the west; that many people in non-Muslim countries, while not condoning these atrocities, may be dry-eyed about the collapse of those giant towers, which represented a power, wealth and security to which they could never hope to aspire.
We must learn about the working conditions of those who make our nice shirts and jeans, in such countries as Indonesia (another American-backed Muslim country, whose present regime came to power after committing hideous crimes against humanity, and where men and women earn a dollar a day and work 36-hour shifts). We must find out about foreign ideologies and other religions, such as Islam. And we must also acquire a full knowledge of our own governments' foreign policy, using our democratic rights to oppose them, should we deem this necessary.
We have been warned that the war against terror may take years, and so will the development of this "one-world" mentality, which could do as much, if not more than our fighter planes, to create a safer and more just world.
Karen Armstrong is the author of The battle for God; Islam: a brief history; and Muhammad, a biography of the prophet.
Home Page | Al-Hewar
Center | Calendar | Magazines | Subscriptions | Feedback | Advertising | About
Copyright ©2001 Al-Hewar Center, Inc. All rights reserved.
For more information, please
contact Al-Hewar via e-mail