THE ISLAMIC ENLIGHTENMENT
The modern struggle between faith and reason
Christopher de Bellaigue
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
1798 might be taken as a convenient date for the start of
recent Western colonialism in the
The first three chapters look at the history of the three major cities. The next two, Nation and Vortex, widen out and take more of an overview, without losing, it is worth stressing, any of the author’s marvellous attention to the essential. If this review focuses mostly on the final chapter, Counter-Enlightenment, it is because it is there the strands all come together and the convincing argument of the book, one that every serious person should address, is expounded.
“Islamism as we know it,” writes de Bellaigue, “is the harvesting of Islam for political use and the manipulation of religious dogma in order to create ideologies suitable for modern politics or revolutionary activity outside the established political order and cutting across national boundaries.” The man arguably most responsible for its creation is Hassan al-Banna. He was born in 1906 influenced in his political thinking by Colonel Urabi, the nationalist leader whose rose from the peasantry and led the rebellion which sparked the British invasion of 1882 and occupation till 1922, and in 1928 established the Muslim Brotherhood. Banna, who at the age of ten won a campaign for the removal of a semi-naked statue from a Nile boat on the grounds of its obscenity (perhaps a prophecy of the fatal combination of Tartuffe-like over-sensitivity to display and determined, effective gathering of support), was well-known among the poor for his pragmatic assistance. When six labourers approached him complaining of their disaffection with their situation and that of the nation, it was the catalyst for the establishment of the most influential Muslim organisation of modern times.
In 1936 Banna addressed a letter to King Farouk:
This is curiously reminiscent of the leftist slogan: “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Both miss what Shakespeare says in Measure for Measure: “The weariest and most loathed worldly life/ That age, ache, penury and imprisonment/ Can lay on nature/ Is a paradise to what we fear of death.” Presumably, delight in life can endure a great deal. To put death on its pedestal, life needs to be downgraded.
Great strides towards a Western form of economy and society were made by Ataturk and Reza, with one lacuna: democracy. Ruthless dictators, they exhibited in their private behaviour those excesses and indulgences dictators can never resist. Somewhat like recent Western politicians who have detached themselves from the people, Ataturk and Reza left the people behind. They, the people, clung to their comforting traditions and became the ground of reaction. Ataturk and Reza were fascistic. Their essential contempt for the people played a part in turning a proportion of their populations against a compromise between so-called Western values and Islam.
There is a story that the wiggle of a border between
In 1948 The Muslim Brotherhood joined in the Arab campaign
against the creation of
His most influential book is Milestones. He defends freedom, by which he means doing what God dictates. People must not decide. He is opposed to parliaments. Quite who is going to implement God’s will and how, doesn’t seem to be clear, but as always, those who claim to know God’s will are not hesitant in arrogating to themselves the right to apply it. This was certainly Qutb’s view of violence. “It would be naïve to assume,” he wrote, “that a call to free the whole of humankind throughout the world may be effected by preaching and exposition of the message alone.” His ambition was hardly petty. Inevitably, like all those who are convinced they possess the absolute truth and know what is best for everyone, he was glib about the need for bloodshed.
Milestones was published in 1964 and sold like bottled water in the desert. Two years later Qutb was hanged. He went to his martyrdom proudly. The authorities made a serious error: they created a martyr who remains an example to today’s Islamists. As de Bellaigue says: “Victory doesn’t go to the last man standing, but to him who dies best.”
Less intellectually and emotionally rigid than Qutb, Jalal
Al-e Ahmad, is another figure little known to many in the West but
whose influence needs to be taken seriously. Born in 1923 in
At the core of the Islamic or Islamist rejection or scepticism towards the West, is the notion that material advance entails spiritual impoverishment. This is hardly original. The notion of alienation has been central to the left’s criticism of capitalism for almost two centuries. The fault in the Islamic view, as in a vulgar-left view, of course, is the lazy thinking which assumes my enemy’s enemy is my friend. That the West has descended into meringue culture is uncontroversial, but that violent destruction and embracing a creed which rejects the equally uncontroversial benefits of Enlightenment evidence-based thinking, science, technology, artistic liberty, freedom of expression and democracy is the sensible alternative, doesn’t bear consideration.
The sections of this book which deal with Islam’s ability to
think creatively, to recognize that dogmatic adherence is less
beneficial and exciting than a faith which doesn’t deny reality, are
heartening. Besir Fuat, son of an Ottoman civil servant, born in
1852 was a diligent reader of Voltaire and a great adherent of
science. The Egyptian newspaper
al-Muqtataf (The Digest)
published articles which accepted the essence of the theory of
evolution. Quasim Amin, a bureaucrat in the British administration
What the bulk of this book shows is that there is no inevitable clash of civilizations, that Islam is not a religion of violence, backwardness, bigotry and intolerance; that those who have purloined it to justify a murderous rampage whose outcome could be nothing but vicious dictatorship, are a small faction whose antecedents are some of the least imaginative, most purblind members of their faith; but what it shows too is that colonialism breeds resistance and violence breeds violence.
In 1891 the British Major Talbot arrived in
Such is what can be achieved by leadership and discipline. It is what a certain section of the Western left has always dreamed of and been disappointed about. Meringue culture makes people flabby and indulgent. The kind of acceptance of common standards and impersonal values which permitted the tobacco campaign to succeed is weak in capitalist democracies. People treat political decisions, and therefore moral decisions, as a form of consumerism. In the tobacco protest, people renounced consumption, gave up something they enjoyed, for the sake of a higher principle. Capitalist societies are too atomised for that. Qutb had a point, though it was distorted by his angular imagination. Al-e Ahmad was right, to an extent. Western capitalism is a very poor model if what you want is a culture based on self-transcendence.
The struggle between faith and reason doesn’t need to end in
the obliteration of one or the other; but crucial to the avoidance
of disaster is the distinction between politics and religion. The
essential grievance of the Muslim countries against the West is that
its foreign policy has been brutal, exploitative, deceitful,
benighted, self-interested. The essential demand is
self-determination. The question is in the air: are the Bataclan,