Islamic Studies / Is It Really a Zero-sum Game?

At a time when the masses in the Middle East are mounting the barricades and demanding democracy, a book is published in Israel that assesses the view that Islam will prevail over the Western world. It goes without saying that the picture is more complex

The Decline of the West, The Rise of Islam?
Philosophical Readings on the Future of Civilizations, edited by Uriya Shavit.
Hakibbutz Hameuchad ‏(Hebrew) 270 pages, NIS 88

"They never ever eat off of copper plates, and not from serving dishes made of copper, or even of white copper − all of which are intended exclusively for cooking. They always use coated plates. They begin the meal with soup, followed by meats and after that all sorts of foods, such as vegetables and salad. Sometimes the dishes are decorated with the color of the food being served on them; for example, salad plates are decorated with the color of the salad. They end their meal with fruits and then an alcoholic beverage, but take only a little of it, and finally, tea and coffee. This repast is served to both rich and poor, each in accordance with his ability. After he has eaten from a certain cooked item, everyone replaces it, and then takes an unused plate to eat the next item. Afterwards they offered us the bed linens, and it is a practice among them that a person must sleep on a raised platform, such as a bed.”

Tahrir Square protest Reuters

This wonderful description of the way people lived in 19th-century France is offered by the Egyptian intellectual Rifa’a al-Tahtawi in his book “The Extraction of Gold, or an Overview of Paris,” written in 1831, when he was 30 years old.

Al-Tahtawi views the West with envy. He was not a politician and did not possess any authority as a ruler, but al-Tahtawi eventually came to be considered not only the person who imported Western culture into Egypt, but also the one who desecrated the honor of Islam by “staining” Egypt with the scourge of Westernism. Religious philosophers from the radical stream, such as Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed in 1966 in Egypt, and his brother, Muhammad Qutb, proclaimed that al-Tahtawi and several other likeminded liberal thinkers were to blame for the current standing of Islam and the inferior status of Muslims, for having been blinded by the artificial light of the atrophied, valueless West. If al-Tahtawi were alive in Egypt today, and asked about the new West, Barack Obama’s America that abandoned Mubarak, and the pro-democracy demonstrations, his enthusiasm for all three would presumably be a great deal less pronounced.

The manner in which Islamist thinkers today assess the West, and primarily the United States - which has supplanted Britain and France as the arch-representative of the West - is the crux of the book “The Decline of the West, The Rise of Islam?” edited by Uriya Shavit. The book includes 11 quotation-rich articles on the topic by Israeli scholars, the sum total of which is an attempt to outline what they and other colleagues see as a coherent, nearly uniform worldview of modern Islamic thought vis-a-vis the West.

The selection of the Islamic intellectuals for analysis, and the fastidious way in which this was undertaken, is not accidental. The criterion used for selecting articles is founded upon the ideas of German historian Oswald Spengler, as expressed in his most well-known work, “The Decline of the West,” which is masterfully evaluated here by Pini Ifergan. The main tenet of Spengler’s theory, which is considered a cornerstone of “decline literature,” is that from the moment it became a civilization − meaning from the moment it peaked − Western culture, just like any other culture, began to atrophy and decline. According to Spengler’s civilization model, this is the point at which “spiritual creativity loses strength. Life itself becomes a problem.”

What is the proper dosage?

Methodically, and at times in what seems to be an unnatural attempt to prove that Islamic philosophy is engaged in a perpetual struggle with the declining West ‏(as opposed to an internal struggle with itself‏), the scholars adopt the stance that there is a prophecy predicting the decline of the West and the corresponding rise of Islam. With this as its starting point, there is, of course, no room for thinkers such as al-Tahtawi, Taha Hussein, Mohammed Arkoun, Muhammad Abd al-Jabarr or the numerous others who viewed the West as a success, or at least as a model that ought to encourage a reconsideration of Islam’s path.

Exceptions to this rule are the eye-opening articles by Mira Tzoreff and Sagi Polka, who avoided building their analyses upon a single central idea - namely, Spengler - and who instead present an expansive and complex portrait of the Islamic discourse. Tzoreff’s comprehensive article focuses on Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and skillfully shatters several stereotypes related to his philosophy. Al-Banna does not absolutely reject the West, and patriotism for the nation-state is one of the fundamentals of his philosophy. As Tzoreff explains, he adopts modernism and holds that, “All of us seek correction and change, and the fulfillment of modern life, but all under one condition: that it not contradict the Eastern spirit.”

Neither does al-Banna object to Western democracy, so long as it is adopted in the proper dosage. But what is the proper dosage? There is no need to put this question to al-Banna. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar Assad and King Abdullah of Jordan have made it clear that democracy must be introduced into every country in only the proper measure. Tzoreff’s conclusion is right on the mark: “The West was not, as far as al-Banna is concerned, just another ‘other,’ but an ‘other’ with a dual image: a conqueror that had to be broken away from and a culture whose foundations should be examined, requiring us to decide what elements of it were desirable to adopt.”

This conclusion places al-Banna not only in the same orbit as other religious thinkers, but also with secular and liberal intellectuals such as the contemporary Egyptian economist Jalal Amin, and the philosopher Salama Moussa, a member of Taha Hussein’s generation, both of whom could have also signed off on these words. Nevertheless, the internal discourse between latter-day and early-stage religious thinkers, between those “guilty” of importing the West and those who guarded against it, is largely missing from this book.

Destined to decline

The opting for the “decline” view over other theses, or the presentation of Muslim thought as merely reflecting Spengler’s beliefs, is not invalid, but when it is presented as being the central pillar of Muslim thought, it overlooks the complexity of Muslim discourse. In his article, Sagi Polka meticulously sketches the colorful nature of another religious intellectual, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is considered very popular among legal arbiters and commentators, not only because of his profound knowledge but also due to the broad use he makes of satellite television and the popular website he administers ‏(‏). Although al-Qaradawi, who in recent weeks returned to his native Egypt, post-Mubarak, after decades in exile, does evaluate the failures of the West, a large part of his writing is devoted to intra-Islamic criticism.

This writing shows multiple faces, a familiar concept for Polka, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Wasatiyya ‏(the “middle path” movement‏), of which al-Qaradawi is one of the founders. Yet in the chapter he contributed to this book, Polka preferred to focus on al-Qaradawi’s apocalyptic perception of the decline of the West. This may in itself be an important chapter. Nevertheless, it is liable to add yet more fuel to the portrayal of Islamic discourse as a struggle against the West, without any examination of internal Islamic discourse.

The detailed survey conducted by the book’s editor, Uriya Shavit, addresses this complexity in the Islamic discourse, while skillfully skipping between early and present day-day philosophers in presenting an enlightening historic picture. Nevertheless, with Shavit, as well, a perceptible effort is made to prove that Islamic thinking toward the West consists of the idea that “It is the destiny of the West to decline” and that Islam will supplant it in the days to come.

True, this aspect is found in abundant examples of Islamic writing. But the Muslim philosophers profiled in this book, who prophesy the decline of the West, have set out on an additional mission: They wish to reinforce the link between the “blinded” believers from the West and their faith, and not necessarily to take the place of the West. The Israeli academics who contributed articles to the book are quite familiar with the pragmatic writing of these thinkers, the legal rulings handed down by most of them ‏(which are intended to provide a response to the Muslim who lives in the West or who has adopted a Western lifestyle‏), and most certainly their arguments against secular liberals as part of the struggle for hegemony in the public discourse. Yet these aspects of Muslim thought will have a difficult time finding their way into a book whose title suggests a dichotomous question: Decline of the West, or rise of Islam? As if the subject were a two-dimensional zero-sum game.

Nevertheless, this is an essential book, and not only for those readers with an interest in Muslim philosophy. It will also appeal to those wishing to understand the relationship between politics and religion in the Middle East, and above all for anyone who wishes to reach an essentialist understanding of the “Muslim world.” For it is the thoughts of legal scholars and the writings of Hassan al-Banna as well as Taha Hussein that feed the daily vacillations of intellectuals and politicians in the Middle East, who pore over the United Nations’ global development reports and ask themselves why a majority of Middle Eastern states rank at the bottom of the charts.

Zvi Bar’el is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs for Haaretz.