Researchers and commentators have hardly noticed that at the center of the storm shaking Arab countries for the past three-and-a-half years is the thorniest ideological crisis ever in Muslim civilization – a crisis now under way for more than 250 years.
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The ideas formulated by Arab intellectuals’ since the second half of the 19th century to address the growing gaps between Muslim society and the West have failed: pan-Arabism, nation-states, the secular Baath movement in Syria and Iraq, Arab socialism in Egypt.
Even the final hope for a solution, radical Islam – which stemmed from the failures of authoritarian regimes and their pretentious ideologies – collapsed when the Muslim Brotherhood won an election in Egypt and failed to offer a program, save for a constitution that meets the test of sharia law.
During this period tremendous efforts were made to introduce military, political and structural reforms, as a response to the growing threat of Europe’s military might and notions of freedom and democracy, the source of its superiority.
These ideas were seen by Muslim intellectuals as a secret that explained both the superiority of the West and the backwardness of the East. This cultural influence was seen as an unparalleled challenge, threatening Muslim society’s religious identity and the Muslim empire’s rich heritage, from Spain to India and Indonesia.
In counterpoint to the need to adopt the West’s values to get Islamic society on its feet was the danger of surrender to the West and the loss of Islamic roots – a loss of identity. The basis of the failure to confront the West’s challenge was an inherent inability to accept modernity, to create a separation between religion and government, which depend on each other.
The Arab East lacked the conditions that spawned the processes of secularization in the West. From its inception, Christian theology recognized the existence of a heavenly authority and an earthly authority, creating a productive tension between sacred and profane. It weakened the power of religious authority and prevented the priesthood from wielding state power.
In the 16th century, the Reformation made its contribution. It eliminated the need for intermediaries between man and God as established by the Catholic Church; it attacked the Church’s promise of salvation to its believers.
In addition, Islam cloaked in Arab dress what it absorbed – through its language and traditions – in a process of adoption and rejection. It borrowed from Hellenistic Greek, Persian, Christian and Jewish culture. To Islamic believers, every introduction of change to this complex structure endangered its very foundations.
This was the source of sanctifying tradition as a shield against innovation and skepticism. This was the reason for targeting a more sophisticated understanding of ancestral tradition. The Muslim believer knew and accepted man’s limitations and played down his abilities. He found happiness in adapting to the will of God.
In this complicated situation the chances for secularization and a separation of religion from state are very small. That is, there is little chance Islam will adopt modern ideas stressing man’s autonomy. There is little chance it will adopt thinking freed from tradition and dogma, or critical thinking about social mores. There is little chance it will recognize the crucial nature of change.
Reports by Arab scholars on “Arab human development” attest to the dismal situation in all areas of life in Arab countries. Note that the liberal Arab intellectuals of the 1930s and ‘40s who promoted Egypt’s modernization did not have a sufficient material and societal base to support their ideas. They were therefore replaced by Nasser’s despotic officers’ regime.
In the sea of ideas about secularization and modernization, Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the most important religious scholars in years. He says the answer lies only in Islam — that all Muslims must implement sharia to solve their many problems.
The writer is a former researcher for Military Intelligence.