Saturday, October 3, 2009

Islam and the yellow submarine

What makes the Ummah different from the European nation-state?

Another week, another book. "God's Rule" by Patricia Crone, describes the first 600 years of Islam through the eyes of its thinkers about community, salvation, and government. The point she hammers home time and again is that Muslims think of their polity very differently than we do in the European tradition. She invokes a very nice metaphor of the caravan, (which I have updated using a Beatles song), to say that Muslims equate community with religion with government. They are all the same thing- they hang together in an idealized community that travels along a straight and narrow path, obeying the will of God in this life and, if right-guided, obtaining salvation in the next. Given this conception, it only makes sense that stragglers, detractors, and skeptics would be harshly punished for imperiling the community, and that religious leaders would tend just as much to the community as a body as to any individuals within it.

The Muslim conception derives straight from the Arabic tribal situation where one's leader was in charge of everything- war, women, worship, navigation, inspiration, punishment, ... the whole operation, top to bottom, as eventually modelled by the perfect man, Muhammad. This unitary organization obviously became untenable when the Muslim world rapidly bloomed to vast proportions after their conquests. Yet it took hundreds of years for Muslims to break apart any of these communal elements in principle, and when they did, it was not to separate religion from the community at large (as we have in the secularized and individualized West), or to separate mosque from state on a principled basis. The Islamic compromise was to resign themselves to governments that were hopelessly imperfect, even corrupt. By their conception, living with ill-guided governments was a way to avoid civil war, since no government could be perfect. But at the same time, governments were never viewed as unislamic:

"As far as medieval Islam is concerned, it [separation of government and religion] stands for a change in the manner in which God's government was executed on earth, not for a process whereby government was emptied of religious significance. It means that there ceased to be a single person endowed with the fullness of God's delegated power: scholars took over the task of guiding people; the deputy of God was left with the coercive role, which eventually passed to kings. This was a separation of power and religion comparable to that which obtained in medieval Europe, in which God kept His sword in one institution and His book in another. But in both cases, the sword and the book alike continued to be God's. He just did not assign both to the same keeper anymore. Similarly, when amirs, sultans, and kings are referred to as secular rulers, it means that they were rulers of a type that could appear in any society rather than rulers of the specific type called for by the Sharia: there was nothing specifically Islamic about them. It does not mean that they had no religious role to play. However external they were to Islam by origin, and sometimes outlook too, their prime role was still as protectors of a religious institution."

And of course, just as Europeans had their fairy tale visions of benevolent states helmed by happy kings and queens with stable and wise lines of succession populated by princes and princesses, Muslims had their own fairy tale of state- the Islamic Ummah as a vast whole, (indeed the entire world!), helmed by Islamic scholars of the highest rank and merit (such as Ayatolla Khomeini) who would be sure to guide the yellow submarine in the most godlike direction, for the benefit of everyone's salvation. At the core is a communitarian interpretation of what God wants- not so much individual hearts dedicated to him, (indeed, Muslims can be rather blasé about what happens behind closed doors- they may be totalitarian, but they tend not to be Orwellian), but mass and public obeissance, exemplified in the incredibly durable phenomenon of Friday prayers.

Unfortunately, here is where the tale turns a little dark, since we have to deal with jihad. Crone gives little attention to the post-9/11 platitudes of Islam being a religion of peace, or the pleasant and popular postion that perhaps it is the "inner" jihad that is most significant in Islam. No, while "jihad" means striving (in the path of God) and thus has gotten various connotations, especially among the Sufis, the original verse outlining this pillar of Islam uses the word "al-quital", which means fighting and warfare quite explicitly. Crone mentions ".. it is a bit of a mystery that jihad came to be the technical term for holy war." And of course the historical and scholarly records bears this out abundantly, with conquest of infidels and their land one of the favorite activities of Muslims, promoted by their scholars up to the present day.

And conversion in the sense of Christian individual conversion was not even the point, again in keeping the communal/imperialist ethos of Islam. If an adversary was offered the truth of Islam and refused it in advance of battle, that was it- if defeated, they were put under Islamic/Arabic rule, and their conversion was no longer a prime issue. They or their descendents would convert in due time, given the many political, financial, and social disabilities they would otherwise be under. This is the story of Iran, which struggled for centuries to come to terms with its traumatic subjugation to Arabic Islam.

Today, the Islamic world struggles with this unitary and communal mind-set which makes the perfect (scriptural guidance) the enemy of the good (liberal, effective government). The decently-governed Islamic states tend to be on the periphery or have other unusual conditions, like benevolent monarchs- Turkey, Jordan, UAE, Indonesia. The Islamic world remains unable to fully comprehend or assimilate the political science revolutions of the European world- strong, constitutional, and federally governed national states anchored in liberal domestic freedoms, set in a competitive international system (too competitive at times, looking back over history, but that is another matter).

A prime example is the Palestinian dilemma. When European Jews first colonized the lands of Palestine, their fervent hope was to found a state in the European model, which they did at the first possible opportunity. In that state, they found both a psychic homeland and the kind of strength possible under a well-run government. In contrast, the Palestinians have never taken statehood very seriously, being easily corrupted and divided by the British during the mandate period, then succeeding to a series of clownish excuses for governments down to the present day, exemplified by both Fatah and Hamas. The Palestinians beseeched the Ummah to save them, and while the Arab community did make a couple of disastrous stabs at Israel well over thirty years ago, it could not do one essential task for the Palestinians, which was to organize them.

Power comes from organization, and to leave temporal power in the hands of venal, corrupt tribal leaders while awaiting salvation through the five pillars of Islam, complete with the regular Friday rehearsal of misdirected grievances and prayers, is to give up any hope of effective politics and community power. At one time, sheer audacity and ferocity was enough to win an empire. No more. Modern states have awesome powers commensurate with their organization and based on broad, internal support generated by good governance. The perennial corruption and misgovernment of Muslim states, whether due to tribalism / feudalism (not to say feud-ism) that predates Islam, or to the misplaced ideals of Sharia and a certainty that political science was solved 1400 years ago, is fatal to the basic aspirations of Muslims, nowhere more so than in Palestine. (Though Afghanistan comes a close second- more on that next week.)

  • An important corrective, or at least adjunct, to Keynes, on rebalancing the role of central banks. It conceives of recent economic growth as being a succession of bubbles inflated by increasingly permissive monetary policy jags in response to each prior bubble. It claims that bubbles can be fought in advance by monetary policy, and should be, so that economic performance is better controlled over the long term.
  • How well do medical markets really work?
  • Deeply insightful article on American geostrategy in the broadest sense.
  • Off-the-hook blog post from San Diego State University.
  • Props to Trotsky
  • What comes of the theory of religious law superceding secular law, here in the US.

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