May 8, 2009


Predicting the death of Islam: a review of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization by Ali A Allawi (Spengler, Asia Times)

Allawi's book provides an antidote for the superficial, condescending sort of reform-mongering that too often characterizes Western discussions of Islam. The previous administration in Washington, for example, seemed to think that simply by appropriating the democratic norms of the West, Muslim countries could join the modern world. But the differences between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West run far deeper than the political surface, Allawi argues, and they begin with a radically different view of the individual, or more precisely, the view that the individual human being really does not exist to begin with.

"Islam departs from the mainstream of modern constructs of the individual and the group," Allawi observes. The notion of a human individual is absent from Islamic thinking and impossible to describe in the Arabic language, he argues. Only God has individuality and uniqueness; the individual is merely an instrument, as it were. Many Western readers will skim uncomprehending over this material, and thus miss the radical thrust of Allawi's argument. Western political scientists do not learn theology, whereas Allawi argues that in the Islamic world, politics is theology. Even if it is a bit technical, Allawi's discussion is worth quoting at length:

In classic Islamic doctrine, the problem of the nature of the individual as an autonomous entity endowed with free will simply does not arise outside of the context of the individual's ultimate dependence on God. The Arabic word for "individual" - al-fard - does not have the commonly understood implication of a purposeful being, imbued with the power of rational choice. Rather, the term carries the connotation of singularity, aloofness or solitariness. The power of choice and will granted to the individual is more to do with the fact of acquiring these from God, at the point of a specific action or decision - the so-called iktisab - rather than the powers themselves which are not innate to natural freedoms or rights. Al-fard is usually applied as one of the attributes of supreme being, in the sense of an inimitable uniqueness. It is usually grouped with others of God's attributes (such as in the formula al-Wahid, al-Ahad, al-Fard, al-Samad: The One in essence, state and being, and the everlasting), to establish the absolute transcendence of the divine essence. Man is simply unable to acquire any of these essential attributes.

"Therefore," concludes Allawi, "to claim the right and the possibility of autonomous action without reference to the source of these in God is an affront." This is a remarkably clear formulation of a central premise of Islam, worth the price of the book alone, for it makes clear why individuality in the Western sense is inconceivable within Islam: an absolutely transcendent God leaves no room at all for the individual. The individual acquires from God whatever appearance of individuality he might have, but has no autonomy, in sharp contrast to the Western notion. "The entire edifice of individual rights derived from the natural state of the individual or through a secular ethical or political theory is alien to the structure of Islamic reasoning. The individual has a reality, but this is contingent upon a greater reality."

It is a commonplace to compare Islamic theocracy to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. That has been the approach of such critics as Daniel Pipes and Paul Berman, among others. But Islam is much older than modern totalitarian forms, and Allawi, like Tariq Ramadan and other modern Islamic philosophers, offers a persuasive case that the "totalitarian" character of Islamic society requires no emulation of European models, but stems directly from Islam itself.

Allawi's explanation of why the individual disappears into the Islamic whole bears comparison to Franz Rosenzweig's account of Islam as a pagan parody of revealed religion. Analytically, Allawi's explanation of the mere contingency of the individual is identical to Rosenzweig's; they differ only whether they think this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Just finished (and reviewed)an extraordinary little book by Arnold Toynbee, The world and the West. In it he makes two points central to this discussion. The first, almost in passing, is that Islam and Marxism are both just Christian heresies. And what he says directly of the Communist heresy also applies to the Islamic:
A theologian might put it that our great modern Western heresiarch Karl Marx has made what is a heretic's characteristic intellectual mistake and moral aberration. In putting his finger on one point in orthodox practice in which there has been a crying need for reform, he has lost sight of all other considerations and therefore has produced a remedy that is worse than the disease.

It was this losing sight of all the other considerations that left the Islamic world (like the Communist world) so retarded and deprived it of the benefits--liberal democracy, capitalism, protestantism--that went with Christianity, especially once it had Reformed itself. Now--in a process accelerated by the communications revolution--its leaders find themselves having to deal with restive populations that demand all or part of these benefits but with a worldview incapable of delivering them. To put it bluntly, Islam has failed by its own terms and must import aspects of Westernism in order to elevate its civilization to the point that it can compete with the West.

Ah, but there's the rub...for, Toynbee makes clear, you can't actually make yourself partially Western and maintain the rest of your anti-Western civilization anymore than you can be a little bit pregnant. It goes almost without saying that a system that is premised upon totalitarianism can not adopt political, economic, and religious freedoms without ceasing to exist. Nor can it, in the long run, allow freedom in one sphere but totally control the others:

If a splinter is flaked off from one culture and is introduced into a foreign body social, this isolated splinter will tend to draw in after it, into the foreign body, in which it has lodged, the other component elements of the social system in which this splinter is at home and from which it has been forcibly and unnaturally detached. The broken pattern tends to reconstitute itself in a foreign environment into which one of its components has found its way.

We can see this process at work most clearly in Iran, which wanted to be at least somewhat democratic in politics but authoritarian everywhere else. Now, despite the rejectionism of an accidental lunatic as president, the common people are demanding that Western economic reforms be undertaken and the Grand Ayatollah recognizes that they are necessary if anything is to be preserved of the Republic. Similarly, the Gulf states, for which Allawi has such contempt, may have only wanted to import some capitalism to aid their economies, but have ended up with an increasingly liberal personal sphere as well. Democracy will be next.

Contra Spengler, this is the genius of W's insistence that the Islamic world will be Reformed by importing even discrete particulars of the Western model. Unlike swine flu, Westernism is lethal.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2009 7:31 AM
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