The Fuel of Intolerant Islam
Those who are quick to point an accusing finger at external forces should realize that if Egypt had been a haven of social tolerance, brotherhood and peace, it would not have been susceptible to interference from abroad. This means that other local factors have created a favorable climate for such attempts to succeed.
Over the last few decades, many societies in Islamic countries were subjected to various types of despotic rulers, governing their countries with an iron fist in a setting of widespread autocracy. The most dangerous of the many negative effects of political oppression is the impediment of social mobility: it impairs the opportunity for the most qualified citizens to rise to leading positions in various fields.
The disappearance of a healthy process of social mobility makes for a static situation in which inept and mediocre persons come to occupy top positions by dint of accepting, indeed, of supporting, oppression through unquestioning loyalty to their superiors. This occasions a downward spiral that I call "the equation of destruction": Oppression and autocracy produce followers, not competent people. Lack of social mobility destroys competence across the board at all societal levels. Lack of competence, in turn, results in the collapse of all institutions and in widespread mediocrity which then becomes the norm. This engenders a powerful subversive energy of despair and rage, which breeds the mentality of violence. That mentality devalues the worth of human life, whether of one’s self or of others, as well as spreading a desire for revenge. This acquired "mentality of violence" has come to permeate many of these societies.
By the same token, oppressors prevent the growth of civil society, widen incompetence and divide political life into two levels:
a level above ground (which belongs exclusively to the rulers and their cohorts)
a level below ground (which belongs to symbols of Wahhabi, Qutbi, or other such versions of Islam, who receive the best possible training in the art of growing underground in secrecy).
In the absence of civil society, with the lack of social mobility and the prevalence of incompetence, the stage is set for a new group of oppressors who are at the same time themselves incompetent.
No sooner are there changes causing the downfall and removal of the despotic ruler in these societies (Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq), than there emerge on the scene representatives of the fanatical interpretation of Islam by the only political force which existed underground, and who now put themselves forward as saviors. However, they will only succeed in leading their societies to greater depths of backwardness, distancing them still farther from the modern age and sinking them even deeper into social problems. Some people are fooled into thinking that these fanatic representatives are the only political power produced by those societies, when in fact this state of affairs is produced by the despotic rulers and their autocratic regimes who kill social mobility.
Both sets of oppressors, those operating above ground and those belonging to clandestine underground organizations, are products of this equation. A valid question is: Why is this the only model that emerges whenever an oppressive regime falls in a Muslim or Arab country? The answer is simply that this is a natural result of the widespread despair felt by those living under an autocratic regime that allows no political activities above ground. Hence, the only organizations that can survive in its shadow are those operating underground.
The cure must start with the first link in the chain, not with the last. The educational and media institutions are incapable of redressing this disaster: they too have been corrupted at the hands of incompetent leadership.
Wahhabism and Tribal Values
When I was studying towards a degree in comparative law, I acquired a knowledge of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. My readings took me beyond the circle of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence to those of the Shi’ites and the four main doctrines of the Khawarij, as well as to other schools, such as the eponymous Al-Tabari and Al-Laith and many other interpretations. [Other worlds closely linked to the field of Islamic jurisprudence, the most important being the doctrine of the Mutakallimun (dialectical theologians), and delving deeply into the philosophical teachings of the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites. There was also the world of the Bateneyites in the history of Islam, to which I was introduced by a close friend, Dr. Mahmoud Ismail, whose writings on the thinking of the Khawarij, the Qarametta and of what he calls the other "secret sects" of Islam (radical fringe movements that never became part of mainstream Islam), served as one of my primary sources while studying the history of Islamic jurisprudence.]
In short, we are dealing here not just with one single model of Islam but with a multitude of interpretations by different schools. Islamic texts are amenable to many interpretations. Some of the earliest converts to Islam admitted as much some one thousand four hundred years ago when they said "The Qur’an displays many faces." Again, what counts is not the scripture or text but the person who reads, understands and presents it.
The practice of relying on one text while ignoring another is a destructive process that lends itself to abuse. As a student of the Torah and the Talmud, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, known as the Gemara, I do not allow myself to take at face value the words spoken by Joshua, son of Nun, on a certain occasion in a given context. By the same token, I cannot accept that "saddaq" (dowry) is an article of Jewish faith just because King Saul demanded it from David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem (King David for the Jews, the Prophet David for the Muslims) for the hand of his daughter Michal. I cannot go around brandishing this text as a divine revelation outside its historical, human and chronological framework.
For example, the sources of jurisprudence and the number of the Prophet’s "Hadiths" regarded as sources of religious doctrine and practice vary widely from one school to another. The great jurist Abu Hanifah accepted just over a hundred as apostolic precept, while the conservative theologian Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal accepted over ten thousand in his book Al-Musnad. Thus, the Hanafites rely on istihsan (literally preference, which means using few traditions and extracting from the Qur’an the rulings which fit their ideas) while the Malikites rely on istislah (public advantage). Then we have those who insist on a dogmatic interpretation of holy texts and others who, like Ibn Rushd, eschewed narrow interpretation in favor of deductive reasoning (al ta’weel).
Even when it comes to the consumption of alcoholic drinks, we have different opinions. Whereas most jurists interpret the text addressing the subject as banning drinking altogether, others like Abu Hanifah believe the ban applies only to intoxication. He makes his views on the subject clear in the following passage:
"If it gets me thrown into Hell I will not drink it,
"But even if I am thrown into Hell I will not call it sinful."
The Roots of Wahhabism
Having different trends, creeds and schools of thought, Islam has had its share of fanatical hardliners through the ages, from its inception to the present. As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents forgo violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on Truth. The phenomenon began with the emergence of Al-Khawarij (the Seceders) in 660 AD, the middle of the first Hijra century (their most important doctrine is the Abadeya School, still prevalent in a small region of Algeria and in most of the Sultanate of Oman). This sect preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture, and practiced a version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its teachings as heretics. This was the first such sect, but by no means the last. Throughout the history of Islam the quiet rhythm of religious life was disrupted many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their extremist views on the majority by violent means.
Among the earliest was Hamdan Ibn Qarmat, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka’bah, and the latest is the man now hiding in the caves of Wazirstan, Osama bin Laden. In between these two, was Sayed Qutb, who came up with a theory that will continue to be a wall separating Muslims from the rest of humanity and from any hope of progress until the wall is torn down. Known as the "theory of divine dominion," Qutb’s theory postulates that mortals are not ruled by mortals but by God. And who, you might ask, will make God’s wishes known to humans? The answer is, of course, "we, the ‘ulemas"! [Religious scholars.] It is a theory that holds Muslims hostage to a theocracy overtaken by the march of human progress and places them at the mercy of a power structure dominated by a caste of clerics — even though in most Muslim doctrines there is no such thing as a clergy in Islam and no intermediaries between Man and God.
As to the notion of men of religion passing themselves off as men of wide learning, which is the English translation of the word ‘ulema, a recent incident illustrates just how limited their fund of knowledge really is. In the course of a debate which took place recently, someone asked one of these ‘ulemas, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whether he knew who Bill Gates was. His reply: "I don’t, and it is not important to know!" This reply also shows how insular and isolated from the realities of modern life these self-appointed authorities truly are.
Alongside the groups and sects whose members insist on a literal interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all aspects of life, there is the general trend represented in the main Sunni schools, [the most important of these are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafici and Hanbali, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tabari] as well as the Shi’ites, who are split into a number of sects.
The most important Shi’ite sect is the Imamiyah, or Ithna’ashariyya, (i.e. Twelvers), so called because they accept as imams twelve of the descendants of Ali Ibn-Abi Talib. (According to their belief, the twelfth imam, who disappeared about 874 AD, is still living and will return).
It is within this general trend that prominent proponents of deductive reasoning emerged, like the great jurist Abu Hanifah, as well as uncompromising champions of tradition, like Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal. The conservative Ibn-Hanbal served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any intellectual endeavor and for a time exerted a considerable hold on public imagination. His influence eventually waned, but prior to the decline that preceded recent resurrection in 1744 AD, in his heyday tradition reigned supreme and very little room was left for reason. The two main disciples of Ibn-Hanbal were Ibn-Taymiyah and Ibn-Qaiyim Al-Jawzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of daily life. In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the truth as ordained by God, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who championed the primacy of reason. The exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first salvo was fired by Al-Ghazali with his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifah). Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense of rationality, "The Incoherence of the Incoherence" (Tahafut Al Tahafut). But despite his spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in Al-Ghazali’s favor, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the authority of tradition, and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. Islamic jurisprudence was dominated by the Mutakallimun, (dialectical theologians), who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql), as advocated by Al-Ghazali, over that of reason (‘aql), as advocated by Ibn Rushd.
In the course of this journey, I developed a strong aversion for those I call "worshippers of the word" and "prisoners of tradition," and a profound admiration for the proponents of reason, most notably, of course, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). His championship of the primacy of reason, though rejected by the Muslim world, took root strongly in Europe, particularly in France, which embraced his vision wholeheartedly. Europe’s gain was our loss; as in turning our backs on Ibn Rushd, we lost a historic opportunity for development. A close reading of all of Ibn Taymiyah’s works, as well as the works of his disciples, from Ibn Qaiyim Al-Jawzeya to Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab at the end of the eighteenth century, only heightened my admiration for the Mu’tazalites, who emphasized human responsibility in matters of religion, and for liberal thinkers who chose the path of reason over that of dogma — like Ibn Sinna (Avicenna), Al-Farabi and the leading exponent of this school, Ibn Rushd.
When one compares some of the works of Al-Ghazali [or example, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences" (Ihya’ Ulum ad-Din), "The Criterion of Knowledge" (Mi’yar al-‘Elm), "The Criterion of Work" (Mi’yar al-‘Amal), "Salvation From Perdition" (Al-Monqedh Min al’Dallal), "The Essence of Orthodoxy" (Al-Mustafa Min Elm al-Osoul) and the "Incoherence of the Philosophers" (Tahafut al-Falasifah)] which are distinctly lacking in rationality] with the writings of Ibn Rushd, [For example, "The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer" (Bidayat al-Mujtahid Wa Nihayat al-Muqtasid), "Relationship of Religious Law with Philosophy" (Fasl al-Maqal fi ma bayn al-Shari`a wa al-hikma min al-Ittisal), "Islamic Doctrine and Its Proofs" (Al-Kashf `an Manahij al-Adilla fi `Aqa’id al-Milla). in which rationality reigns supreme] one cannot help being amazed that the battle waged between the exponents of these two distinct schools ten centuries ago should have ended up in a clear victory for Al-Ghazali and a crushing defeat for Ibn Rushd. Nowhere is the difference in the approach of the two men more evident than in their defining works: Al-Ghazali’s "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" and Ibn Rushd’s "The Incoherence of the Incoherence."
Why had the Muslims chosen to follow the line advocated by Al-Ghazali, the proponent of orthodoxy and tradition — for whom knowledge meant only knowledge of religion, and who cancelled the role of the mind altogether by denying the possibility of acquiring knowledge through intuition — over the line advocated by Ibn Rushd — who upheld the primacy of reason and sowed the seeds of a renaissance we chose not to reap? Why were Al-Ghazali’s ideas so readily accepted while Ibn Rushd’s were rejected? The answer, I believe, can be summed up in one word: Despotism.
It is also amazing how historians of Islamic thought concealed the fact that Al-Ghazali was unfailingly supportive of despotic rulers, contrary to Ibn Rushd, who was a constant source of irritation for tyrants who were determined to keep their subjects in a state of intellectual inertia, thereby guaranteeing the perpetuation of the status quo and their continued authority unchallenged. If an active mind is the source of questions, and questions lead to accountability, questions have eyes and answers are blind.
At a time when despotism in the Arab and Muslim world was at its height, therefore, it is not surprising that Muslim rulers should have found Al-Ghazali’s ideas more appealing than those of Ibn Rushd.
The orthodox line was also more appealing to their subjects who, under the yoke of tyranny, found it safer and less demanding to go along with the views of those who required nothing more from them than a suspension of their critical faculties. In Europe, where the forces of enlightenment were locked in a confrontation with the clericalism that stifled intellectual initiative and rational thought, despotism was in retreat. This could be why, in the thirteenth century, a prestigious center of learning such as the University of Paris supported the ideas of the Arab Muslim Ibn Rushd over those of the European Christian Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher famous for his two-swords doctrine.
The Muslim world continued to be ruled by despots who brooked no challenge to their authority, and an equally despotic religious establishment which decried the use of reason and demanded blind adherence to the authority of tradition. Closely linked in methods, motivations and goals, these two factors created an atmosphere inimical to the unhindered pursuit of knowledge.
Matters, however, were not just black or white. True, the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd’s ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate encouraging debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science. But Muslims also have known both an Islam which allowed for the acceptance of the "Other," and another Islam –rigid, doctrinaire, and violently repressing free thought. The first took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the "Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam." The second, best described as the Bedouin model, was espoused by the secret sects (limited in number and influence) who emerged in remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula together with the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival launched by Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab, born in Najd in 1703.
Although the first model of Islam can in no way be described as secular, it adopted an enlightened approach to religion, dealing with it as a system of spiritual beliefs rather than as a system that ruled all aspects of life and governed the affairs of society. Even if it cannot claim to have attained the level of enlightenment, progressive thinking and freedom that characterizes the ideas of Ibn Rushd, it was nevertheless a gentle and tolerant Islam that could — and did — coexist with others.
Meanwhile, the altogether different Bedouin model of Islam was taking shape among geographically isolated communities living far from coastlines and hence from exposure to the outside world. Their insularity provided an ideal breeding ground for the ideas of Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn Qaiyim Al-Jawzeya and, towards the end of the eighteenth century, those of Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab.
This was the model that produced the Saudi Brotherhood who waged war on King Abdul Aziz Ibn-Saud (1870-1953) in the nineteen twenties. It has since metamorphosed into a powerful ideology thanks to the combination of the ideas of Sayed Qutb, petrodollars, and a series of blunders on the part of international, regional and local players. One such blunder was the fefeat of the Russians in Afghanistan at the end of the seventies. Another was the late President Sadat’s ill-advised decision to give free rein to Islamic groups and consider them allies in his war on the Left. Not surprisingly, the move was orchestrated by senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood acting through their mouthpiece, the wealthy businessman and close confidante of Sadat, Osman Ahmed Osman.
The Growth of Wahhabism
The man who founded Wahhabism was not a theologian but a proselytizer who was determined to convert the faithful to his harsh brand of Islam. Intellectually close to the dialectical Islamic theologians who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql) over reason (‘aql), Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab was a disciple of Ibn-Taymiyah, a strict traditionalist who allowed little scope for reason or independent thinking. He was also a product of his geographical environment, a remote outpost of history. Unlike Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where ancient civilizations had flourished and left their mark on human history, or places like al-Hijaz and a number of the Gulf coastal line cities, which lay on trade routes and dealt extensively with the outside world, the desert of Najd in the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia had no civilization to speak of before Islam. Nor did it ever become a cultural center like the various capitals of the Caliphate: Medina, Damascus and Baghdad. Thanks to its arid, barren landscape, Najd remained a cultural backwater, its sole contribution to the arts a traditional form of poetry that spoke of narrow tribal matters.
In 1744, Abdul Wahhab forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir’iyah, a tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed Ibn-Saud, who became his son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square meters of the Arabian Peninsula.
A collision between the two models of Islam was inevitable; in the second decade of the nineteenth century, they confronted one another on the battlefield. Mohamed Ali, who introduced Egypt and the entire region to the modern age, sent a huge army to the Arabian Peninsula. Led first by the Egyptian ruler’s son, Tousson, then by Tousson’s younger brother, Ibrahim, the army had as its objective the destruction of the newly established state in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula. Based in Najd, that state was governed according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. In 1818, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, arguably the greatest of the Egyptian ruler’s sons, the Egyptian army, and with it, the more enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, emerged victorious. They defeated the enemy, destroyed their capital, Al-Dir’iyah, and captured its leader, later executed in Istanbul.
Mohamed Ali’s decision to first send his son Tousson followed by his son Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi state, had implications going far beyond the political or military ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a "cultural and civilizational" confrontation between the two models of Islam — a confrontation the enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model decided to take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical Wahhabi model.
Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European model of development — and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs — believed the Wahhabi understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in favour of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to development. However, although the moderate, tolerant, mainstream version of Islam, which accepted coexistence in peace in with others and was not pathologically opposed to progress and modernity, emerged victorious in that particular round of its confrontation with the forces of obscurantism, it was later forced to retreat before the internal factors mentioned before: oppression, absence of social mobility, spread of incompetence, despair, outdated educational systems and corruption.
The years that followed were not kind to Turkey and Egypt. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I brought an end to Turkey’s ascendancy, while Egypt’s influence receded as its economy and educational system declined. At the same time, the proponents of the model of Islam — which demanded a strict adherence to the letter of scripture and had slammed the door shut in the face of rationality –suddenly found themselves in control of vast wealth unprecedented in history. This gave the Saudis an enormous edge over their moderate rivals and allowed them to extend their influence into the traditional strongholds of the Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, where they waged a systematic campaign to co-opt the establishment elite and institutions. The success of this campaign found its most salient expression in the emergence of fanatical movements like the Taliban. This other stricter version of Islam found, therefore, for the first time, opportunities to spread its uncompromising message to every corner of the world, aided by international conditions (and lack of vision) which allowed what had once been an obscure sect confined behind the sand dunes of Najd to impose itself on the world stage and boldly proclaim its brand of Islam as the one and only true Islam.
As the drama played out, some of the spectators chose to look the other way, while the sword-wielding hero of the piece was playing the role required of him at the time.
They thus failed to realize that the hero was no longer sticking to the script set for him, but was now playing a much more central and dangerous role.
This unfortunate state of affairs could have been avoided if the majority of Muslims had supported Ibn Rushd’s ideas, or if conditions had not forced the retreat of the Turkish-Egyptian model.
The harsh and unforgiving environment in which the Najdis lived explains why Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab found a receptive audience for his equally harsh and unforgiving brand of Islam. The same environment that produced the founder of Wahhabism later produced the radical Ikhwan movement, which challenged the authority of King Abdul Aziz Ibn-Saud.
In the nineteen twenties, the king took on the Ikhwan, who were openly accusing him of deviating from the true faith. When he returned to Riyadh after joining Hijaz to his kingdom, the Ikhwan said that he had left on a camel and returned in an American car.
This was just one of many clashes between the movement and the king over such issues as whether the radio was sinful, or the telephone an invention of the devil — in short, conflicts over any of the fruits of modernity which threatened their fundamentalist vision of the world.
It is a vision that can only be understood by studying what is known as the secret sects of Islam, as well as the message of Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab, who was the product of many factors, including the sociological and geopolitical environment of the deserts of Najd.
These factors allowed the Wahhabis, after they invaded Hijaz, to impose their austere understanding of religion throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Among other things, they banned tombstones and any structures identifying burial sites, insisting on unmarked graves flush with the land. They combated Sufism in Mecca and elsewhere as contrary to the teachings of Islam. They even entered into an armed clash with the Egyptian mahmal, a splendidly decorated litter on which the Egyptians sent a new cover for the Ka’bah every year.
The mahmal ceremony was a merry occasion celebrated by the Egyptians with their traditional love of music, dancing and revelry. For the Najdis, however, who had launched their puritanical revival movement to purge Islam of what they saw as deviations from the straight and true path of orthodoxy, such unseemly displays of levity could not be tolerated.
Most importantly, throughout its history, the desert wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula’s Eastern Province had suffered greatly from its geography. However, with the richest oil fields and the oil price boom that turned the desert kingdom into a major financial power, it was inevitable that this part of the world should try to market its ideas.
This it did with missionary zeal in the second half of the twentieth century. With a virtually endless supply of funds at their disposal, the Wahhabis were able to successfully propagate their model of Islam throughout the Arab and Muslim world and start to instill it in the West. Disillusioned populations, facing massive internal problems caused by political oppression and its consequences were easy prey, and mainstream Islam gradually lost ground to the austere, puritanical Wahhabi model that was now presenting itself as the one and only true Islam.
Educational systems that are out of step with the age are a vital link in the chain of destruction.
In most Islamic and Arab societies, educational systems encourage insularity and reinforce a sense of isolation from the rest of humanity.
Moreover, they promote fanaticism and lay down, without any scientific basis, religious frameworks for struggles that are purely political.
By invoking religious texts, taken out of context, they not only promote intolerance, non-acceptance of "the Other," and a lack of respect for pluralism, but also consecrate the lowly status of women. Worse, most of the curricula are designed to develop a mentality of ‘answering’ rather than of ‘questioning,’ in a world where progress and development are driven by the dynamics of questioning.
In most Islamic and Arab societies, educational programs fail to instill in the minds of the young that ‘progress’ is a human process — in the sense that its mechanisms are neither Eastern nor Western, but universal. This is borne out by the fact that the list of most advanced countries in the world includes some that are Western and Christian, like the United States and Western Europe, and others that have a Japanese, Chinese or Muslim background, like Malaysia. There is a clear and growing tendency in the humanities and social sciences to disengage from the common fund of human experience, the cumulative legacy built up over the ages by various civilizations.
In the sixties, my contemproraries and I had access to most of the classics, from Homer to Sartre, passing through hundreds of names, languages and backgrounds. We read these works in Arabic. The unfettered access we had at the time to the timeless classics of world literature linked us to humanity in a way that is inconceivable today, with the paucity of translations in the cultural milieu in Arab and Islamic countries. [We read Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, the Russian classics, the French classics, the Briitsh classics, the American classics and the gems of German philosophy — all in Arabic, translated by people predominantly from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and published mainly in Egypt and Lebanon.] Today, the gap between the minds of young people in Islamic and Arab societies and the masterpieces of human creativity has increased dramatically. In addition, the new generations have become increasingly ‘local,’ setting themselves still farther apart from humanity and increasing the culture of violence.
Religious Teaching in Egypt
Fully one quarter of those enrolled in the educational system in Egypt today are studying in religious educational establishments (schools, academies, and colleges run by Al-Azhar), according to some statistics. Other statistics reduce the number to one fifth, while a recent survey places it at no more than one sixth. Even if we assume that the lowest estimate of one sixth, — slightly over 16% — is the correct one, this means that more than three million students receive their education from start to finish in religious establishments.
If we accept the other statistics, the number would rise to four or five million.
What is certain is that we are facing an educational phenomenon that is bound to have far-reaching social, political and economic ramifications and therefore needs to be closely examined and analyzed.
The first question that springs to mind is "Why?" Why does a society like Egypt’s end up sending such large numbers of its youth to study at religious establishments? This question evokes another question: What brought us to this? Was it planned or is it a random development that grew out of a reality not governed by strategic planning, but by reactions and bureaucracy?
Before going into the question of why this phenomenon has reached such proportions in Egypt, it should be noted that, apart from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, no similar phenomenon exists in any other of the more than two hundred states in the world. Accordingly, we need to ask ourselves whether we have allowed matters to reach this point because we aspire to be not like Japan, Singapore, France, Canada or Spain (educationally and hence culturally) but like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen. And is this what we aimed for when we laid down a strategic educational policy in full awareness of its implications and consequences?
It beggars belief that we could knowingly have put in place an educational policy aimed at having one quarter, one fifth or one sixth of young people enrolled in the educational system receive their education in religious establishments. In fact, we probably never did lay down such a policy – or, indeed, any educational policy at all.
Matters seem to have evolved in the direction they did as a result of realities on the ground, as well as bureaucracy. The huge number of educational religious establishments we are now seeing sprouted up haphazardly, in reaction to specific problems, such as the lack of educational institutions within easy reach of children living in small towns and villages, and as a place of educational refuge for pupils who could not, whether for lack of material means or minimal educational requirements, join the general education system.
Among the more alarming facts is that we established the network of religious education as "the solution of least resistance" for the problems of the lowest social classes and the segments of society with the poorest learning skills. If this is so, then from a strategic point of view we are injecting huge numbers of the most disadvantaged elements of society — economically, socially and in terms of learning skills — into a religious educational system that is acquiring gargantuan proportions.
Moreover, we have done so without making any effort to consider the strategic results — political, economic and social — of this "solution" on the future of society.
Over the years when I’ve asked probably hundreds of junior employees and workers if their children were attending Al-Azhar schools, the great majority have replied in the negative and expressed disdain for the quality of education provided by these institutions. Their reaction led me to believe, perhaps wrongly, that religious education in our society is perceived as the last refuge of those who, for lack of social, economic or mental abilities, have no recourse to the general education system. Allowing this phenomenon to flourish unchecked will have dire consequences for society at large.
The time has come to study the adverse strategic results it is bound to produce rather than leave it to the culture of improvising ad hoc solutions that has prevailed for decades.
Over the past few decades, our society has been swept by a powerful wave of obscurantism, as evidenced by the primitive and archaic understanding of religion that has become all too prevalent. Yet no one seems to have studied the relationship between this wave and the hordes of mainly underprivileged members of society who have studied in religious educational establishments and who are, for obvious reasons, particularly vulnerable to the appeal of a simplistic understanding of religion.
Have any of our strategic thinkers looked at the phenomenon from another angle and asked themselves: What effect will these huge numbers of Egyptian students enrolled in religious establishments have on the country’s scientific, technological, industrial and trade sectors?
We have seen other countries expand religious education to the point which eventually gave rise to a cadre of men of religion determined to prevent their societies from joining the march of progress. Can we honestly say that we are not moving uncomfortably close to a similar scenario?
We should also question whether we have looked at the issue of religious education in Egypt from the extremely important perspective of progressive values: the set of values of progress which form an integral part of the ethos of every prosperous society. Among the most important of these is the belief in human diversity, pluralism, the universality of knowledge, human rights and women’s rights.
The curricula offered by Al-Azhar’s educational establishments in various subjects such as culture, literature and languages, are either totally devoid of any attempt to plant the seeds of these values in their students’ minds, or are actually actively promoting opposing values.
Are we aware of the magnitude of the problem we ourselves have created by producing graduates whose conscience and mentality are inculcated with values diametrically opposed to the values of progress? One might do well to remember that progress is more a function of a set of values than it is of material resources.
Has anyone, moreover, considered the possibility that by allowing such a huge number of religious educational establishments to mushroom in our midst, we are, from a strategic political perspective, ultimately serving the interests of a trend that has rightfully been described by the state as the worst enemy of civil society? Are we, as a society and a state, financing the enemies of civil society and of progress? Has anybody reflected on how such an extensive network of religious educational establishments will impact the general cultural climate, social peace and our nature as a Mediterranean society?
Or is the issue of such little importance that no one considers it worthy of attention?
Absence of "Competence"
Over the last four decades, many have written about the phenomenon of rising violence in a large number of Islamic and Arab societies. Strangely enough, none of those who wrote used the terms ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ in his analysis of this phenomenon. This is as true of eminent professors in top-notch universities, like Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama as it is of the media, which has taken up the concept and used – if not abused – this "Huntigtonian" concept, and turned it more or less into a slogan.
In all my readings on the subject I have never come across this key word. In a talk a few years ago to MBA students at the American University in Cairo, I remarked that in hundreds of conversations with various interlocutors about public figures, both local and international, the word competence never came up. It is an inexplicable omission, especially for someone who has worked in management, and who knows that problems are created by lack of competence while success in all its forms comes from competence. In fact, the despair felt by so many in Islamic and Arab societies, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that breeds anger and then violence, most likey stems from the fact that these societies are run by human resources selected not for their competence but for their subservience and allegiance. After all, competence, as defined by modern management science, is of no great concern to an autocratic political system.
The Example of Egypt: The roots of religious extremism in Egypt stem from three sources. The first is the harsh treatment meted out to the followers of the Islamic trend in Egypt by Nasser’s regime. Ever since the disputes between the regime and the Moslem Brotherhood erupted into serious conflict, the regime resorted to force and torture against the movement’s members. This happened in 1954 and again in 1965 when the confrontation was even more severe. Certainly the methods used by Nasser against the Islamic currents, whose members were persecuted, imprisoned, exiled and tortured, created generations of extremists among those who had suffered at his hands as well as among their progeny. Had they not been trampled upon so harshly by Nasser, the Moslem Brothers would perhaps not have produced elements as extremist, as reactionary and as insular as the militant Islamic groups we see today
Once again we can see, therefore, that terror breeds terror. The repression of ideas and beliefs produces unexpected forms of extremism, violence, terrorism and even crime. Significantly, the four largest terrorist groups in the world today emerged in countries which were subjected to repressive dictatorships for long enough to produce these forms of organized violence: the Bader Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan and the Basque group ETA in Spain. Those organizations emerged in the fascist countries which formed the Axis in World War II, with the exception of Spain which, nevertheless, was also a bastion of fascism under Franco.
In Egypt too, the many years of repressive dictatorship generated a climate of extremism where it had never previously existed. The second source of extremism in Egypt today is the prevailing socioeconomic situation.
Many factors combine to create the perfect climate for extremism and the spread of totalitarian tendencies, whether toward the left into Marxist groups or toward the right into sectarianism and religious dogmatism. These factors are: poverty, the decline in living standards, the appearance of a very wealthy minority noted for its conspicuous consumption, the harrowing problems of daily life and the social anarchy they create, as well as a breakdown in society’s system of values, the cornerstone on which the system is built.
Karl Marx’s famous appeal to the working class, "Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains" well illustrates the link between extremism and impecunious socioeconomic conditions. Economic crises generate feelings of deep frustration, especially among the young, who despair of attaining their legitimate right to a decent life.
The lack of access to such basic necessities as a home, food and clothes — and education — make them susceptible to hardliners who claim that society is corrupt and doomed and that it should be destroyed to make room for a better society.
These disenchanted youngsters were never given the tools to compare their society, whatever its shortcomings, to the insubstantial dream they are offered.
The crushing economic crisis, therefore, and the ensuing breakdown in social values, provide an excellent opportunity for advocates of extremism — whether communists or militant religious elements — to peddle their ideas.
Finding radical solutions to the social and economic difficulties besetting Egypt would certainly help extirpate some of these problems, reducing the appeal of the extremism we are witnessing today.
The third source can be attributed to external factors. Egypt is in the eye of a storm of radicalism blowing from every direction in the Middle East, especially from Iran and Lebanon — and the contagion is helped along with foreign funding and incitement.
This unhealthy climate is due to internal as well as external factors, mainly that the region, which did not succeed in producing democratic regimes, has now fallen into the hands of ruthless forces: Zionism, arms dealers and other parties with a vested interest in keeping the region in ferment.
The protection of the Egyptian society from the scourge of foreign intervention and financing is, of course, the task of the security forces. As important as this is, however, their role in dealing with the phenomenon of religious fanaticism cannot eliminate its causes nor bring it to a halt. The only proper cure is a combination of real democracy (as opposed to window dressing) and firm action by eminent religious figures who should use their moral authority to contain the problem, not fan the flames of extremism as so many do. Last but not least, we need the vigilance of the security forces, particularly in Upper Egypt where traditional tribal values combined with religious fanaticism constitute a highly explosive mixture.
II. "The Clash of Civilizations": True or False?
The mentality of violence produced by internal factors is a variable that has emerged only in the last four decades. Its inclusion as a constant in the paradigm of the ‘clash of civilizations’ is not only forced but belongs more to the realm of science fiction than political analysis.
A case in point is the famous book by Samuel P. Huntington, whose theory is closely linked to the issue of the mentality of violence First published as an article in 1992 under the title "Clash of Civilizations?" it was then expanded into a book and published the following year under the same title – but without the question mark. The significance of the omission will not be lost on the reader. The book was a publishing event, selling more copies and provoking more controversy than any other book that year (with the exception of fiction bestsellers). While I cannot pass the same kind of sweeping judgment against the author, his motives, aims and intentions as those passed against him in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world, I will say that I found the book to have three major flaws:
The first is that the author talks of Islam as a monolith, as though the Wahhabi model is the only version of Islam. In fact, Wahhabism was not a major trend in Islam, as previously mentioned, until the alliance that took place between Mohamed Ibn-Abdul Wahhab and Mohamed Ibn-Saud in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Prior to that, there were ideas similar to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, but they were completely marginal.
Mainstream Islam was quite distinct from the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and its culture. The only relationship between the Ottoman Empire, which represented Islam politically as a superpower for several centuries, and Wahhabism, was one of extreme animosity. If Huntington had used the term ‘Wahhabi Islam’ instead of Islam, his thesis would have been easier to accept. One must unfortunately conclude that Huntington is not very well versed in the history and factors which led to the rise of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The second is that he did not present any evidence to support his theory of an impending clash between the West and what he calls ‘Confucian’ societies, making the theory closer to fiction, specifically to the writings of H.G. Wells, than to political analysis.
It also owes much to Noam Chomsky’s equally unfounded theory that the United States needs an enemy to survive, and that this role was filled by the Eastern Bloc from 1945 to 1990. Following the collapse of communism, Chomsky believes that Islam is now the prime candidate for the role. But if so, how can one explain the enormous progress made by the United States between 1500 and 1900, without any external conflicts and without any clear enemy during this period of the development and completion of the American Dream? And how can one explain that despite Winston Churchill’s efforts from 1939 to 1941 to convince the United States to join the war on the side of the Allies, it was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that his efforts succeeded? How could the United States have resisted the opportunity to benefit from the existence of a ready-made enemy which, according to Chomsky, it needed for its very survival?
The third is that he did not devote enough space in his book to the largest conflict in the history of humanity, namely World War II, which was fought between forces belonging to the same Western civilization.
It was, further, a conflict within the Christian world; however, nobody ever mentioned religion as a factor in this huge conflict, which was primarily a conflict between European Fascism and European democracies.
To disprove the allegation that the violent groups and trends which turn their backs on modernity and call for a return to the Middle Ages are the true representatives of Islam, one has only to consider how some of the principal Islamic societies were functioning at the turn of the twentieth century. Countries like Egypt, Greater Syria (which included Lebanon at the time) and Turkey were models of tolerance, their majority Muslim populations living peacefully with minorities of other faiths. Renowned cosmopolitan cities like Alexandria, Beirut and Cairo were home to a wide diversity of minorities. Acceptances of the "Other" and of modernity, as well as a hunger for the great masterpieces of human creativity were features shared by all these societies. Intellectuals translated Homer, the plays of Ancient Greece, the best of modern European literature and the great philosophers like Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
Although they were in complete harmony with the scientific, philosophical and artistic consequences of the Renaissance, these countries retained their national identity as Egyptians, Turks and Syrians. It was a time when Muslims saw no contradiction between their religious faith and their enthusiasm for the material and cultural fruits of European civilization.
While under non-Wahhabi Islam, the Muslim communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were forward-looking, in tune with the times and living in harmony with large Christian and Jewish communities. It is inconceivable that Wahhabism would have tolerated the kind of cosmopolitan and broad-minded societies that flourished in Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Najdi version of Islam, on the contrary, exhorts its followers to remain in a constant confrontation with others, with the age and with modernity. Under Wahhabism, the word jihad is interpreted as the need to carry a sword at all times, yet, mainstream Islam for centuries understood this word as requiring Muslims to resort to force only to defend themselves against outside aggression. Even semantically, the word jihad is totally unrelated to the notion of armed violence; it stems from the root "juhd", and has the Arabic verb "yajtahid", which means something between "to try hard" and "to struggle".
Mainstream Islam also accepted the possibility of Muslims merging with the rest of humanity (especially before the chauvinistic tribal culture of Najd gained ground), while Wahhabism regards this not only as not possible, but unacceptable. Islam is often regarded as synonymous with subservience, a term that is widely used by those whose thinking is shaped by the Wahhabi model of Islam. If Noam Chomsky’s theory is valid, it applies just as much to the Wahhabis who need a strong enemy in order to survive.
The peaceful and harmonious coexistence of devout Muslims with the religious minorities living in their midst, and their equally harmonious relationship with the fruits of Western civilization proves that the adherents of "real" Islam are not violent fanatics — and that mainstream Islam has nothing to do with the Wahhabi model of militant Islam, whose success in winning over converts is due to the declining and depressing conditions in many Islamic societies.
Thus it is not the Islamic system of belief that leads inevitably to violence and clashes with the "Other". Violence and fanaticism are features of only one fringe sect that was virtually unknown outside the deserts of Najd as recently as a century ago.
Non-Wahhabi mainstream Islam prevailed in Islamic societies until two cataclysmic developments forced it to retreat: the first was the eruption of the violent model of Islam from behind the sand dunes; the second was the decline in living standards in many Islamic societies which allowed it to spread.
III. External Factors
Although the mentality of violence is, I believe, caused primarily by internal factors, I also believe that an external factor contributed to its spread, namely, the misguided attempts by some to use the forces produced by the mentality of violence for political purposes.
A case in point is the support offered by the India office of MI6 to a group that was attempting to unify the Arabian Peninsula under a political system deriving its legitimacy from a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Najdi movement, known as the Ikhwan or brotherhood, was a prime example of this trend during the twenties of the last century. King Abdul Aziz Ibn-Saud, founder of the third dynasty of the Saudi state, was forced to go to war against them after they accused him of deviating from the tenets of what they interpreted as being "real" Islam by accepting such Western abominations as radios, cars, telephones, and so on.
During the same period, Egypt saw an alliance formed between the British and the monarchy, where both had an interest in creating an alternative political entity, deriving its attractiveness from the popularity of religion in Egypt, to counterbalance the influential Wafd Party, which spearheaded the Egyptian struggle for a Constitution, a parliamentary life, and independence. Forged in secret, the alliance is now known to anyone studying Egypt’s modern history.
An example of the dangerous game politicians play with the mentality of violence in the hope that they can use it to further their own ends, the game was played again in Egypt in the nineteen seventies and repeated by the United States in Afghanistan. All these cases illustrate how an external factor helped the mentality of violence reach such a level of political and military growth. Had it not been for the Cold War and for the short-sighted belief by some that religion could be used as a winning card in the confrontation, the mentality of violence could never have reached its present alarming proportions. Although largely a product of internal factors, the mentality of violence was thereby given a huge boost by the unlimited petrodollar wealth – leaving aside the enormous American (USA) mistake, which can be described as the greatest miscalculation of the cold war era: the use of political Islam to counteract communism.
And so the world, having rid itself of Fascism, Nazism and then Communism, now finds itself locked in yet another confrontation, this time with a brand of militant political Islam resulting from a shift in the center of gravity in the Muslim world: its migration from Egypt to nomadic Arabia.
The assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an extremist group was a wake-up call alerting the world to the growth and spread of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi model of Islam and the retreat of the Turkish-Egyptian model.
A succession of similar events attested to the dangerous spread of this model in most societies with a Muslim majority, such as in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, a group of fanatics, belonging to the Wahhabi brand of Islam, launched attacks on New York and Washington that illustrated how the members of this sect view the "Other" in general and Western civilization in particular.
IV. Progress and Modernity Obstructed
During the first five hijra centuries, Muslims witnessed enormous intellectual breakthroughs across a broad range of subjects in Islamic thinking. These successes included topics such as the fundamentals of jurisprudence, linguistics, interpretation and historiography. These advances resulted in a revolution of opinions and interpretations that varied from the extreme conservative right, such as the HanbalÄ« school (in reference to Ahmad Ibn Hanbal), to the utmost level of reason-based interpretation proposed by the great thinker Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Between these two extremes were a multitude of other schools of thought. However, a combination of closed autocratic regimes, outdated educational systems, state-controlled media, and a rigid, often extremist, understanding of religion rendered many Muslims and Arabs wary of notions like ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’
The internal factors that were mentioned, coupled with a number of external factors, such as the infantile culture in some highly developed nations, have led the Muslim Arab mind to think that the call for progress and modernity is a call for dependence on the West, hence, the loss of cultural specificity.
What exacerbates the situation is that many Arabs and Muslims feel that the values of Western civilization are for Westerners only, and not for everyone.
I have exerted tremendous efforts to make it clear to my readers in Egypt and the Middle East that modernization is a human phenomenon first and foremost. The prescription for progress has no nationality or religion, as borne out by the different cultural backgrounds of such developed societies as the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. One of my books, "The Values of Progress", is devoted to demonstrating to the young people in my society the fallacy of the argument that progress and modernization will result in the loss of our identity and cultural specificity. As someone who has applied modern management techniques on a large scale, I know that there is ‘successful management’ and ‘unsuccessful management,’ but I have no knowledge of Arab, Chinese, African, or French management. Japan developed in leaps and bounds over the last fifty years, but Japanese society, especially outside the capital, is still quintessentially Japanese. Whoever denies that progress is a purely human phenomenon, and that the process leading to it is also human, has obviously never seen the mechanics of progress at first hand — which may be the reason most academics are not interested in this issue.
Oppressive regimes are matched by the local citizen who lacks any connection with the outside world and thinks that modernity is the other side of the coin of dependence.
He would not believe that democracy is a human product, and a human right rather than a Western commodity for Westerners, nor would he realize that the maxim that "for each society, there is the brand of democracy that suits it" is misleading.
For while it is true that there are many forms of democracy, it is equally true that they all contain mechanisms of accountability designed to bring rulers down from the realm of masters to that of servants of society.
Unfortunately, Muslims committed a grave mistake against themselves and their religion when they closed the door to ijtihad (interpretation by reasoning) and stopped searching for new concepts and solutions.
They became satisfied with simply emulating and reiterating what their ancestors had produced, although those concepts and solutions were the outcome of an ancient era and the fruits of the conditions of a past time.
Muslims are therefore living in a status quo environment where they ruminate on the thoughts of other men who exerted efforts to establish concepts that suited their time eight centuries ago. Compared to ancient Muslim men of religion such as Averroes, who is as important intellectually as Aristotle, current Muslim scholars read only in Arabic, are not aware of modern sciences, and find themselves in social environments that prevent them from being intellectually open to the innovations of humanity in the different fields of social and human sciences.
ScholarsWe are now in dire need of a new generation of scholars, who can comprehend the sciences, cultures and knowledge of the current age as well as understand the heritage of early Muslims. Seventy years ago, the grand imam of the Azhar, Dr. Mustafá Abd Al-Raziq, was a former professor of philosophy in a university — not the University of al-Riyadh or the University of Sana’a; he was a professor at the Sorbonne University.
In engaging in meetings with a number of scholars from the Vatican, I always bemoan and wonder why the Vatican abounds with men of religion with such splendid educational, intellectual and encyclopedic backgrounds in their various areas of knowledge, while our scholars hardly know anything about the great fruits of human creativity in many of the different branches of social and human sciences.
At a conference held a few years ago (2006) in Doha, there was a scholar who is considered by some as the greatest Muslim jurist and preacher of his time. He was an Egyptian with Qatari nationality who had fled from Egypt during the clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamal Abd Al-Nasser in 1954. He always used more than one interpreter, and never got involved in discussions about modern streams of thought. On the other hand, the Vatican scholars were using four or five languages in their discussions covering vast fields of knowledge. I felt ashamed that day at the primitive thoughts and approaches of this imminent Muslim scholar. It appeared as if he were a primeval human from the forests of "Borneo Island."
We desparately need a generation of Muslim religious scholars who have studied other religions, human history, world literature, philosophy, sociology and psychology and can speak several languages; the languages of civilization. Until this happens, our Muslim scholars will remain primitive and stay at their level of naivety, shallowness and isolation from the path of civilization and humanity.
Before I was twenty, two monks at the Dominican Monastery in al-Abbasiyah, Cairo, had taught me about Greek drama and ancient Greek philosophy. Another monk had taught me some simple things that have made many people nowadays think that I am an academic expert in Judaism. However, never in my life have I seen a Muslim man of religion who had encyclopedic knowledge in a number of different fields of interest.
Just as we are underdeveloped in all of the fields of science, we are underdeveloped in the sciences of our own Islamic religion. Our backwardness in Islam is the same as it is in medicine, engineering, information technology and space research. We are nothing but a ‘parasite’ of humanity. Even the weapons used by the militias of the groups calling themselves jihadis (related to Islamic jihad) are made by others who work hard at a time when we are insipid.
We need to see the emergence of a generat