Thursday, September 25, 2014

Absolutism and Atavism* rule this chapter of Islamic history

For many months, this space has urged the Islamic world, both Sunni and Shia, to "tame the monster" within its midst. More recently, the world has watched as AlQaeda morphed into Al Shabbab, Al Nusra, and more recently into ISIS, the most virulent and most violent and most extreme of the Islamic terrorist groups. The world, for a very brief moment, glimpsed a 'new world order' birthing from the so-called Arab Spring, hopefully based on a more democratic and more diverse and more inclusive Middle East, and perhaps even beyond, without harsh dictators like Mubarak, Ghadafi, Assad, and those in charge in places like Saudi Arabia. Single "man" rulers, a holdover from history, have, in the modern world, given way to a much more diffuse deployment of political power and influence, along with the need to make public and articulate arguments by those aspiring to political office. And those offices were only available to those willing and courageous enough to offer their names for the turbulent experiment of submitting their ideas to an educated electorate where they would (or could) be examined critically in comparison with ideas proposed by opponents also seeking the same office.
However, in the last few years, the world has learned from painful experience that it may well have been those very dictators with whom the west made significant deals, for the military needs of the Arab leaders and for the fossil fuel appetite of the industrial, modernized developed world, who kept the rise of radical and virulent Islamists from exploding both in their own countries and around the world.
Egypt is a case in point, where the overthrow of Mubarak, followed by the "election" of the Muslim Brotherhood and the erstwhile president Mohammed Morsi was succeeded by the overthrow and imprisonment of Morsi by the military, with the installation of Sissi, a military general as president. A 'secular state' in which individual human rights trump all religious ideologies, permitting the practice of a personal faith along side the practice of a personal atheism and agnosticism, a condition to which most of us in the 'west' take for granted, after centuries of heavy-handed dictators, is a very complex and difficult goal to achieve. It will not be achieved in a decade, or perhaps even in a century.
Furthermore, in the process of the chaos that poured into the streets of the Middle East in the Arab Spring, opportunistic individuals searched and found allies among the disaffected to wreak violence on those they perceived as infidels, starting with the Jews their lifelong enemies, and spreading easily and quickly into the Christian world and eventually into other branches of Islam. Their campaign first used violence to attract attention and to bring about their desired change, and more recently has morphed into what looks like a state of mind that says violence is not only the means to the end, but actually sees violence as the end in itself. Inside this world have been schools and instructors where hatred, contempt, distrust and bigotry have been the menu of the curriculum, linked deeply with a view that women were never to be educated, released from the absolute control of their male dominators, in an impassioned pursuit of something lost, some distant vision of a world in which only radical Islam belonged.
This week, the world, including Sunni-Islamic states, declared war on the ISIS as well as the Khorasan sects of the radical Islamic terrorist movement through diplomatic and financial and military air strikes. Significantly missing from the world's attempt to excise this cancerous tumor from the world's body politic are countries like Russia, Iran, China....all of whose intentions will emerge over time. The president of Iran, interviewed yesterday by Charlie Rose, the dean of U.S. interview broadcasters, directly confronted the Obama-led coalition as 'the use of violence to create even more violence" and stated that it was not the road to go down to eradicate this scourge.
It is true that violence begets more violence, as history demonstrates. Revenge is an integral component of the human psyche and certainly the beheading of now four individuals, two Americans, one Brit and just yesterday one French mountain climber in Algeria are acts of revenge for the air strikes on ISIS in both Iraq and now in Syria.
Nevertheless, as Obama told the world in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, there is no negotiation with these terrorists and the only thing they understand is violence and killing.
For Americans, and now for a few Sunni nations, taking action to denigrate and perhaps even destroy this killing machine is trumping all other options, if they do in fact exist. (The Iranian president did not offer any alternative in the Rose interview, by the way.)
However, this period of disturbing and even frightening turbulence is likely to continue to see more refugees, more deaths, more dismemberments and more violence for a long time. And in the Middle East, where the old world has eroded, it will take even longer to evolve into a truly 'new' and humane and compassionate and respectful world in which human rights of all are respected, protected and sustained.
Even those who study Islam and the Middle East, have written about the roots of this virulence, within the Islamic world itself. And that is an honest and courageous dialogue long overdue. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that begins to outline the initial stages of this troubled and troubling dialogue:

The rise of the Islamic State, also known and ISIS, is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst. Look at a few samples, starting with “The Barbarians Within Our Gates,” written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel.
“With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama ... is stepping once again — and with understandably great reluctance — into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down. Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.
“Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed,” Melhem added. “The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. ... The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk — what was left of a broken-down civilization.” (By Thomas Friedman, New York Times, September 25, 2014)
*(Atavism is the tendency to revert to ancestral type. In biology, an atavism is an evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing which had disappeared)

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