May 6, 2006


Finding hope in the Middle East: Democratic change is stirring in the Arab world, says the venerable historian Bernard Lewis: But he has a few words of advice for Washington — informal, as always — on how to handle Iran (LYNDA HURST, May 6, 2006., Toronto Star)

In Toronto this week to talk at the high-profile Grano Speakers' Series, Lewis is probably best known to the general public for his 2002 book, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity.

It was in proof form when 9/11 happened. When it appeared, the American public, indeed, much of the world, was still reeling and mystified by the terrorist attacks, desperate for explanation. It was a best-seller.

Lewis wrote that during the 20th century, it became abundantly clear that things had gone badly wrong for the Middle East. Once a great and enlightened civilization, the Islamic world was now mired in resentful malaise, oppressed by "a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to dictatorships that are modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination."

The dominance of the West was there for all to see. And it became essential for Arab governments to find outside scapegoats to block the mounting anger, "to explain the poverty they have failed to alleviate and to justify the tyranny they have introduced."

Having inherited the mantle of the old colonial powers, the U.S. was the primary target for blame and, when it came to it, for the 9/11 attacks by fundamentalist extremists.

In a pre-speech interview, Lewis lists several devastating statistics to show how the Middle East has failed to get a foothold in the modern world. The combined gross national product of the Arab world is less than that of Spain, he says. Total exports, other than oil, amount to less than Finland's. The total number of books translated into Arabic is less than in Greece, "and so on."

But modern communications, he says, are starting to change everything. "Now they know what's going on, they know more about themselves and how awful their situation is. You only know things by comparison and even the humblest and illiterate are realizing the differences between their society and free societies."

In a sense, this is the phenomenon that brought down the Soviet system, says Lewis.

"If the Soviets had rejected the new technologies, they'd have fallen behind the West. If they accepted them, they'd lose control. The various tyrannies of the Middle East face the same dilemma.

It's not generally reported by media that think only "bad news is good news, but I assure you there are democratic stirrings; quite dramatic changes, that would have been inconceivable in earlier times, are happening."

Lewis is fed up with the skeptical view that the Arab world is "incapable of decent government;" that whatever the West does, it will still be ruled by corrupt tyrants, therefore foreign policy should be to ensure they're friendly, not hostile, tyrants.

"That is, for reasons beyond my grasp, described as the `pro-Arab' point of view," he says dryly. "In fact, it is anti-Arab. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt of the Arab present and unconcern for the Arab future."

Corrupt tyrannies are a modern development, he says, a European importation. On this he is vehement: "They have no roots at all in Arab or Islamic tradition."

Which isn't to say democracies in the Western sense ever flourished in the region. But Lewis says they had "government under law, consensual, consultative, even contractual. The roots are there, so by no means is it hopeless to try and develop some sort of democratic life in these countries."

Just look at the "extraordinary courage" of the millions of Iraqis who risked their lives by lining up to vote this year, he says. "How many people in Canada or the U.S. or anywhere in the West would line up to vote if they knew they'd be under fire?"

But open and free societies took centuries to develop in the West, he adds, and going too fast in the Middle East will be a major mistake. Just as leaving Saddam in power was a mistake in 1991.

Lewis has never succeeded in finding out why that was done but assumes "a tamed Saddam Hussein was safer than what might happen if he was removed. It was a very wrong decision," for which the Kurds and other Saddam opponents dearly paid, he says.

There's a podcast of his lecture online here and Fouad Adjami's here.

Algerian Reformist Malek Chebel: 27 Propositions for Reforming Islam (Nathalie Szerman, 5/05/06, MEMRI)

Malek Chebel, a renowned anthropologist focusing on the Arab world, is one of today's prominent French-speaking North African intellectuals. In 2004, he established, in France, the Foundation for an Enlightened Islam.

Chebel has published some 20 books on Islam, in which he has frequently dealt with sensitive and uncommon subjects, such as love in Islam: He claims that Islam is a sensuous religion and condemns the strict fundamentalist approach to relations between men and women. He has also tackled such taboos as wine and homosexuality in Islam. His publications include a Love Dictionary of Islam (Plon, 2004) and an Encyclopedia of Love in Islam (Payot, 1995). His other main focus is reform of Islam, to which he has dedicated two major books: Islam and Reason: The Struggle of Ideas (Perrin, 2005), and Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam (Hachette, 2004).

In his Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam (Manifeste pour un islam des lumières), Chebel puts forth 27 proposals for extensively reforming Islam. He turns to the values of the 18th-century European Enlightenment for guidance, when rationalism and secularism guided the drive towards cultural, social and political progress. Chebel's first two propositions set the principles of reform: a new interpretation of the Koran, and the preeminence of reason over creed. However, he dismisses atheism, noting that "nothing very important is achieved outside the framework of religion." [1]

Chebel calls for putting an end to violence in the name of Islam; for renouncing Jihad, which is, in his eyes, immoral; for abolishing all fatwas calling for death; and for abolishing Islamic corporal punishment. Chebel stands against female genital mutilation and for banning slavery and trafficking in human beings in the Arab world; for strict punishment of the perpetrators of honor crimes and for promoting the status of women.

Most of Chebel's propositions deal with politics: He advocates an independent judiciary, the preeminence of the individual over the Islamic nation, and the struggle against political assassinations in an effort to promote democracy in the Arab world. He also advocates fundamental cultural changes, such as turning freedom of thought into a Muslim value, renouncing the cult of personality, respecting the other, and fighting corruption.

His other propositions address technology, bioethics, ecology, and the media. The last one reaffirms the preeminence of human beings over religion. Chebel's propositions aim at providing keys to a modern, reformed, enlightened Islam.

The following is the fourth in the North African Reformist Thinkers Series. [2] The report focuses on Malek Chebel's response to the issue of women wearing the veil in Islam and the issue of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in September 2005 by the Danish paperJyllands-Posten, and presents Chebel's 27 propositions for reforming Islam. [...]

Returning to the Original Islam to Combat Islamism

Islam used to be modern, whereas today it is backward, says Chebel. He explains that only a return to the "intellectual heritage" of Islam will counter Islamism: "This disgusting ideology [Islamism] is fed by a kind of complicity, of indifference, of fatalism [...] We must provide Muslims with an alternative solution to which they can adhere. In order to achieve this, we should go back to the intellectual heritage of original Islam [...] This is what I am trying to do when I advocate a true and therefore modern Islam. As a matter of fact, [true] Islam has always carried [within it] modernity." [8] He says that as a "modern" religion, the original Islam did not deprive Muslims of their freedom of choice: "The Islam I love is freedom. But current Islam is not. It is controlled by a certain number of structures [societal, political, educational, and religious structures] aiming at destroying freedom. They impose one vision, one judgment, one outlook. They prevent any kind of free choice." [9]

The "enlightened Islam" Chebel advocates is based on the values of secularism. But, he explains, today the Arab world considers secularism to be a Christian threat: "Muslims have associated the concept of secularism with Christian aggression against Muslims. The word 'secular' sounds derogatory in the preaching of several preachers, like an insult." [10]

The Reform Movement in the Arab World

Chebel holds that while Islamism is very popular in the Arab world, there is also a growing reform movement against it: "Today, a certain Islamic trend is progressing in the right direction, even if we do not see it or do not want to see it.," [11] Chebel believes that in the long run, Islam will be forced to accept change in order not to be left behind by other civilizations. He says that this will happen through "addressing a number of issues Muslims do not want to address right now: the aspirations of young Muslims, equality between men and women, and, most importantly, the preeminence of the individual over the community." [12]

But these issues will be fully addressed only when the despotic regimes are removed: "I am saddened by the huge waste that prevails in the Arab world today: in this region of the world undermined by despotism and unrestrained corruption, a magnificent youth is being held at bay. The region enjoys intellectual and material resources that could significantly improve the gloomy social and economic conditions, if they were distributed fairly. Unfortunately, a bunch of potentates, autocrats, and theocrats is preventing the proper use of these resources. However, a whole generation of Muslims will not accept this any longer. In today's world, information spreads rapidly, and this allows for hope.” [13]

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 6, 2006 8:47 AM

That's it, as some of us have been saying all along. Communications technology makes it impossible for the Spiritual Jailhouse to operate as it has done in the past.

Simple repression won't be enough. The inmates will have too much information coming through the bars.

It remains to be seen whether the reformation of Islam will follow that of Communism or that of Shinto. Either path, of course, leads to oblivion.

A respectable body of analysis holds that the Japanese knew all along that they had no chance, but attacked anyway. We in the West do not know yet which path Islam will follow. They are certainly not so crazy as the Japanese, but their lack of institutions to guide change is an ominous portent.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 6, 2006 9:15 AM

To the contrary, communications make it impossible to maintain the spritual jailghouse they imported from the West and inevitable they'll return to a healthier originalism.

Posted by: oj at May 6, 2006 9:46 AM

Let's not forget, as well, the historical and cultural significance of an organization like MEMRI. Not only are the dictators of the Arab world not able to hide from the Internet, the Islamist radicals are also not able to perform Taqiyya as easily as they used to.

Posted by: Brad S at May 6, 2006 11:50 AM