The modern struggle between faith and reason

Christopher de Bellaigue

Bodley Head   ISBN 978-1-847-92241-0

 reviewed by Alan Dent

            Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. Its population was four million. In Cairo there were twenty schools. Productivity was dismal, taxes crushing and some Egyptians starved in spite of the country’s rich grain harvest. Part of the Ottoman Empire, its rulers were as cruel as they were inefficient and paid tribute to the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman administration was known. The principal domestic literary witness to the invasion, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Jabarti described it as the start of “the fierce fights and important incidents; of the momentous mishaps and appalling afflictions, of the multiplication of malice and the acceleration of affairs; of successive sufferings and turning times; of the inversion of the innate and the elimination of the established; of horrors upon horrors and contradicting conditions; of the perversion of all precepts and the onset of annihilation; of the dominance of destruction and occurrence of occasions.” What he learned of the French confounded al-Jabarti, but he could but conclude that the invasion was God’s will.

            1798 might be taken as a convenient date for the start of recent Western colonialism in the Middle East. This book, which explores in impressive detail the history of Tehran, Cairo and Istanbul over the last two centuries, and traces the emergence of an enlightened form of Islam, couldn’t be more pertinent in its depiction of the creation of the benighted form which is causing so much current distress. The recent foolish spat in the media as to whether foreign policy has any influence over the thinking and action of terrorists is made to look the schoolboy idiocy it is by de Bellaigue’s superb scholarship. Violent Islamism is a perversion of a long campaign against Western involvement in and exploitation of the Middle East. In his conclusion, de Bellaigue is clear that of the many Muslims seeking refuge in Europe from war, poverty and oppression, an infinitesimally small number want to “destroy our way of life” as the ludicrous tabloid rants have it. What the diligent, expert work of this thoroughly excellent book makes evident is that the Middle East as it exists today is to a significant degree the creation of Western intervention. From Napoleon to Suez the West bears a huge responsibility for the problems as well as some of the advantages of the region.

            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: Egypt should seek its destiny by refusing to mimic the West which was in the grip of capitalist greed and empty materialism. More than a century of effort on the part of reforming leaders and movements to reconcile Islam with Western progress (whatever that might mean) was put in question. Not that Banna rejected benefits like science, technology and education; but he insisted they must not be employed to rival the West on its terms, in the manner of Ataturk, but integrated into an Islam which clung resiliently to its simple and conservative values. Later, the Muslim Brotherhood set up its paramilitary wing and at its conference in 1939 Banna declared: “Death is better than this life, a life of slavery and oppression.”

            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 Jordan and Saudi Arabia was created when Churchill, during the butchering of the Middle East after the First World War, burped as his hand was drawing the line. Mark Sykes, joint architect of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, produced the charming idea of creating French and British zones by drawing a line from e in Acre to the k in Kirkuk. Such are the arrogance and nonchalance of colonialists. Churchill was responsible for shifting the navy from coal-powered to oil-powered vessels, a move which made the fleet swifter but also dependent on the Middle East for its fuel. Oil’s importance to the region after the First World War is, of course, attributable to much more than the relatively minor change in power for the British navy. It ensured the economies of the region became imbalanced and that the West, with its unquenchable thirst, would see Middle Eastern countries as client states. In addition, the cynical slicing up of the region gave rise to Saudi Arabia which cast into the political mix the narrow, dogmatic doctrine of Wahhabism.

            In 1948 The Muslim Brotherhood joined in the Arab campaign against the creation of Israel. It was an ignominious failure which prompted the Prime Minister, Nuqrashi, to ban the Brotherhood. Acting alone, it seems, an outraged brother assassinated Nuqrashi. In turn, on 12th February 1949, Banna was shot dead in Cairo. The news reached Washington DC where an obscure poet was improving his English. Sayyid Qutb is a name not known to many people in the West but his influence over the creation of violent Islamism is far from insignificant. Born in 1906 in the poor village of Musha, Qutb’s visits to America didn’t soften him to the blandishments of capitalism and representative democracy. Apparently severely disappointed in his romantic-erotic life, his resistance to the injustice he saw around him in his early life was combined with a bitter resentment which impelled him towards a puritanical, uncompromising politics. After the assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, Qutb was imprisoned. He continued to write while in custody. Qutb was afflicted by that disease which seizes some adherents of persuasive creeds: implementation must be absolute or not at all. There could be no compromise, no piecemeal changes. His view was the opposite of Bevan’s wisdom that those who want to do everything at once end up doing nothing at all; rather, he concluded, that if everything was not done at once, nothing at all would be done. He accepted the ancient doctrine of bila kayf (without asking why), an effective rejection of Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism.

            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 Tehran, he wrote fiction, translated the French existentialists, refused to dismiss Darwin out-of-hand, was well disposed to Israel, but embraced a smidgen of Qutb’s Manicheanism in his view of the West and Islam. His most influential book in this regard was Gharbzadegi, translated variously as Westoxication, Westruckness, Euromania and Occidentosis. De Bellaigue compares this to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. For a time, Al-e Ahmad was a communist. His anti-Western polemic has much in common with the left’s view of capitalism: it is “meringue culture”, in de Bellaigue’s term. Certainly, Al-e Ahmad was less immune to the attractions of Western liberalism than Qutb, much more subtle, yet in his hard-to-reject belief in resistance to Western exploitation of the Middle East, he leaned heavily on a doctrine of radical Islam which was incompatible with compromise and democracy and easily seized on by those who believe that only violent annihilation of the enemy will suffice.

            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 of Egypt, was in favour of women’s rights because he believed that without the emancipation of the female population, his country could not compete with the West. Ahmad Bey, the governor general of Tunis, set his face against slavery, abolishing it in 1846, some years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The Lebanese novelist Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq was an admirer of Laurence Sterne and bequeathed a funny, unconventional novel in Leg Over Leg. Huda Sharaawi in Egypt and Halide Edib in Turkey showed that women could cast off their traditionally passive, subservient roles, shows their faces in public and be energetic, imaginative and resourceful organisers and innovators.

            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 Persia to assume control of the tobacco concession granted by the Shah. For a paltry annual rent of £15,000 Talbot received 25% of the profits. These were not inconsiderable. Everybody smoked. The redoubtable Jamal al-Din, effective leader of the protests against the concession, appealed to Shirazi, leader of the Shias. A few months after receiving al-Din’s letter, Shirazi proclaimed the use of tobacco an insult to the twelfth imam and forbade it. The entire country stopped smoking. The concession was withdrawn.

            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, Nice, Westminster Bridge, Manchester and more linked to Western foreign policy towards the Middle East, not since the Iraq War, not since Suez, but for the past two hundred years? You bet.