by M. Shahid Alam
It has become fashionable in some circles after September 11 to
excoriate Islam as the source of the problems facing the Islamic
world. The air is thick with theories which claim that Islam has been
paralyzed by a deadening obscurantism since the twelfth century, and
this paralysis will only end when Muslims decide to replace Islam with
secular humanism. It is time these theories were deconstructed.
A Matter of Timing
I will turn directly to the thesis of the early demise of Islamic
civilization: since the castigation of Islam often hinges on how and
when this happened.
First, and this is very important, this thesis is quite wrong
about the timing of the decline. It claims that Islam lost its
creative power in the twelfth century as a result of the twin blows
dealt by orthodox 'Ulama - the religious scholars of Islam - and the
Mongols. These ideas have an Orientalist odor.
This canard was first challenged by Marshall Hodgson in The
Venture of Islam (1974). He believes that the brilliant works, in
architecture, philosophy, and the visual arts, created during the
sixteenth century - in Isphahan, Istanbul, Delhi and Agra - were not
inferior to the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
The scientific work did not face sudden death either. In fact,
George Saliba, in A History of Arabic Astronomy, extends Islam's
golden age to the fifteenth century. After the Mongols are supposed to
have devastated Eastern Islam, major observatories were being set up
as late as the fifteenth century. The astronomical tables computed at
these observatories, together with the work of Ibn-Shatir (d. 1375), a
time-keeper in the central mosque of Damascus, were passed on to
Europe, and are believed to have contributed to the Copernican
Did Islam Stumble?
If Islam did not suffer a decline in the twelfth century, when did
this happen? The beginnings of this process, as well as its sources,
must be sought not so much in Islam as in Europe. It wasn't Islam that
stumbled. Rather, it was Europe that gathered speed and moved ahead,
in gunnery and shipping, starting in the sixteenth century.
Europe employed its maritime strength to plunder the gold and
silver of the Americas, create an Atlantic economy, and dominate the
commerce of the Indian Ocean. This deepened Europe's commercial and
financial capital, while squeezing the trading profits of the major
Islamic empires as well as the smaller trading states in the Indian
Ocean. Over time, Europe's military advantage became decisive. And by
the beginning of the nineteenth century - in India even before that -
Europe started its project of dismantling the Islamic polities in the
Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
Why couldn't Islamic - or other - polities resist this growing
European thrust? The Euro-centric narratives would have us believe
that this was fait accompli: the simple working out of Europe's
racial, geographic, climatic, and cultural advantages over others.
Asia and Africa could have done little to resist.
A historical narrative tells a different story. Their colonization
of the Americas, their growing control over the trade of the Indian
Ocean, their mercantilist rivalries and incessant wars - all rooted in
the anarchy of nation states - accelerated the dynamic of historical
change in Europe, allowing it to outpace the more centralized, mostly
land-based empires in Asia and Africa. Europe's advantages were
historical - and, in part, accidental.
This takes us to the troubling question of Islam's failure -
unlike India and China - to mount an adequate recovery from the losses
of the colonial epoch.
Why has Islam, which commanded several power centers before the
rise of Europe, failed to reconstitute its lost power in the
post-colonial period? Once again, those who attribute this failure to
Islam are inverting the order of causation.
As recently as 1750, Islamic polities stretched from Mauritania
and the Balkans in the West to Sinjiang and Mindanao in the East. But
this power lacked an adequate social base. In 1800 the Arab population
in the Middle East was quite thin. Elsewhere, in the Balkans and
India, the Islamic empires ruled over mostly non-Muslim populations.
The early collapse of Muslim power in India and the down-sizing of the
Ottomans in Europe had much to do with these demographic draw-backs.
The Ottomans, the Maghreb and Egypt faced another handicap: they
were only a few day's sail from Europe. This made them tempting
targets for European capital and cupidity, mixed with some of the old
zeal for eradicating Islam. This mission was taken up successively by
France, Britain and Italy. An early and deter-mined Egyptian effort to
industrialize - initiated in 1810 - was dismantled by the British and
French in 1840. When the Egyptians mobilized again in the 1870s, it
led to their colonization in 1882. Britain, France and Israel mounted
another invasion of Egypt as recently as 1956.
This suggests some sobering reflections for those who would blame
the present troubles on Islam's antipathy to modernity. Imagine if the
Egyptian bid to industrialize had not been dismantled by imperialist
Britain and France; it is then likely that an industrialized Egypt
would eventually have led the entire region to industrial growth,
prosperity and power. This thought experiment explains why Egypt's
industrial drive had to be aborted. An industrialized Middle East may
have renewed the old threat of Islam to Europe.
The disarray of the Arabs in the post-colonial period goes back to
two additional factors: the Zionism and oil. The Zionist movement was
founded on a confluence of Jewish and Western interests in the Middle
East. In time, this led in 1917 to Britain's support for the creation
of a Jewish state in Palestine, the dismantling of the Ottoman empire
in 1919, the vivisection of the former Ottoman territories in the
Levant, the British mandate over Palestine, and the creation of Israel
in 1948. The Islamic Crescent had been splintered, and part of it
occupied by a Jewish colonial-settler state.
In the meanwhile, United States and Britain were making
arrangements in the Persian Gulf to ensure Western control over the
richest oil reserves in the world. They decided to place the region
under archaic, absolutist monarchies whose survival, against the
rising tide of nationalism, would depend on United States. As part of
this plan, when the Iranians overthrew the monarchy in 1953, United
States and Britain instigated a coup to re-instate it. In 1967, with
the decisive defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan - leading to the
occupation of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza -
Israel cut short the career of secular Arab nationalism. The Middle
East straightjacket was now securely in place.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 did not loosen the straightjacket.
On the contrary, by raising the specter of Islamist power, this
revolution paved the way for an 'Arab' war against Iran, with the
blessings of United States. In time, after the collapse of Soviet
Union, this led the corrupt Arab regimes to form a grand alliance -
under the aegis of United States and Israel - to control and repress
their Islamist movements. When foolhardy Iraq dared to challenge this
grand alliance, it was bombed back to the stone age and crippled with
comprehensive economic sanctions.
A new 'cold war' had descended on the Islamic world in the 1990s.
Its rules were clear. The United States would support the Islamic
despots - of whatever stripe - so long as they kept the lid on
political Islam. If any country dared to depart from the terms of this
contract, it faced economic and military sanctions; and, if these did
not work, they would be followed by swift and devastating reprisals.
Iraq showed to the Islamic world the price it would pay for
challenging this new contract. Similarly, Algeria stands as an example
of what happens when the democratic process threatens to empower
An explanation of why the 'democratization' of the 1990s bypassed
the Islamic world might be found in this new cold war. Most Western
commentators think otherwise: they choose to blame Islam. Their method
is classic - damnation by accusation. If Islam is obscurantist,
anti-rationalist, fanatical, and misogynist, then, it must also be
opposed to democracy. The Orientalist has spoken: the case is closed.
Those who believe that Islam is anti-democratic need a short
lesson in the modern history of constitutional movements in Islam.
Muhammad Ali of Egypt appointed his first advisory council in 1824,
consisting mostly of elected members. In 1881, the Egyptian
nationalist movement succeeded in convening an elected parliament, but
this was aborted only a year later by British occupation. Tunisia had
promulgated a constitution in 1860, setting up a Supreme Council
purporting to limit the powers of the monarchy. But this was suspended
in 1864 when the French discovered that it interfered with their
ambitions. Turkey elected its first parliament in 1877, though it was
dissolved a year later by the Caliph; a second parliament was convened
in 1908. Iran's progress was more dramatic. It started with protests
against a British tobacco monopoly in the 1890s, and quickly led to an
elected parliament in 1906, with powers to confirm the cabinet. A year
later, however, the British and Russians carved up Iran into their
spheres of influence, a development that would lead to the dissolution
of the parliament in 1910. Nevertheless, the constitutional movement
persisted until it was suppressed in 1931 by a new dynasty brought to
power by the British.
Compare these developments with the history of constitutional
movements elsewhere, not excluding Europe, during the nineteenth
century - and the world of Islam does not suffer from the comparison.
Incredible as this appears to minds blinded by Euro-centric prejudice,
Tunisia, Egypt and Iran were taking the lead in making the transition
to constitutional monarchies. The 'resistance to democracy' in the
Arab world even today does not come from their population. Quite the
opposite. It comes from neo-colonial surrogates - brutal military
dictatorships and absolutist monarchies - imposed by a United States
determined to safeguard oil and Israel.
A New Colonial Contract
The US-imposed straightjacket has deepened the contradictions of
global capitalism in the Islamic world: a development that is pregnant
with consequences which threaten to spin out of control.
During the Cold War, the elite factions in many Third World
countries - especially their military elites - competed to win the US
contract for repressing their populist movements. As long as they did
their job, they enjoyed a degree of autonomy in managing their
economies. A few of them in East Asia, the most favored ones, became
showcases of capitalist success. When Soviet Union collapsed in 1990,
this contract was terminated. It was replaced by the Washington
Consensus, enforced by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and
World Trade Organization. The elites in the periphery would now
compete to open up their economies for takeover by multinational
There are two versions of this new colonial contract. Countries in
the non-Islamic periphery are generally encouraged to compete for the
contract through the ballot box. In countries that have strong
Islamist movements, this option is not available; they are allowed to
keep their dictators and monarchs. The excuse for this two-track
policy is flimsy. It is charged that the Islamist parties oppose
democracy: that they will use the ballot to shut down the ballot. The
real reason is Western nervousness over the Islamist's twin goals:
introducing an Islamic social order, and reversing the fragmentation
This siege of the Islamic world is unlikely to produce the desired
results. On the contrary, it has engendered contradictions that will
only deepen over time. After the rout of the Arab armies in 1967, the
failure of secular, nationalist movements to reverse Arab
marginalization was becoming transparent. In 1973, with appropriate
offers of American 'aid', Egypt made a separate peace with Israel. In
abdicating its leadership of the Arab world, Egypt wrote the obituary
of Arab nationalism. From now on, the historic task of liberating the
Arab world would be assumed by the Islamists.
Although defeated, the corrupt Arab regimes remained ensconced in
power. They owe their survival to the new colonial contract which
allowed them to keep their repressive apparatus if they used it to
wage war against their own people. The turn around was quick, moving
through capitulations at Camp David and Oslo, normalization of ties
with Israel, and capitulation to the Washington Consensus. The war
against Islam intensified. The Islamist parties were banned, rooted
out of professional associations and trade unions, and eventually
their leaders were jailed, executed, or hounded out of the country.
This repression of Islamists has produced two results. Nearly
everywhere, it immobilized mainstream Islamists who wished to work
through the institutions of civil society: through political parties,
professional associations, the media, the courts, and charities. The
focus now shifted to the extremists willing to engage in violent
action to gain their ends. But the extremists too had little crawl
space under the repressive Arab regimes. Those who survived were
driven underground, or went into exile in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or
the Western countries.
At this point, some of them decided to change their strategy. They
would target their problems at its source - and inflict damage on
United States. They wanted to sting the United States into lifting its
siege of Islamic countries. Alternatively, they hoped to start wars -
like the one in Afghanistan - on the chance that this would spark
rebellions against the American surrogates in the Islamic world.
Giving Up 'False Notions'?
Of late, sagely voices - outside and inside Islam - have been
counseling Muslims to give up the 'false notions' of Islam. I hope to
have shown that the false notions we need give up are the Orientalist
narratives - of an Islam that has been (mis)represented as irrational,
misogynist, fatalist and fanatical.
Rational thinking did not begin with the Enlightenment. In fact,
several Enlightenment thinkers turned to Islam to advance their own
struggle against medieval obscurantism and the intolerance of an
organized clergy. It is time for alienated Muslim intellectuals to
tear the Orientalist veil that obscures the face of Islam, re-enter
the historical currents they have abandoned, create a deeper
understanding of the dynamics of derailed Islamic societies, and lead
them into an Islamic vision of a world where all communities
participate in a race to create works of excellence.
The West too must give up its false notions of Islam as the
irreconcilable 'Other', that must forever be battled and besieged. If
Islam is a greater threat to the West than India or China, that is
because our actions - in large part - have succeeded in preventing it
from reconstituting its center, its wholeness and history. More than a
fifth of the world's population seek their place in the world within a
stream of history that flows from the Qur'an. They want to live by
ethical ideals that in the past have produced nobility, magnanimity,
sobriety, tolerance, science, mathematics, philosophy, architecture
and poetry. Islam may do so again if only we lift the siege - and
allow the light, freshness and sweetness at its core to find
expression again in a contest of creative minds and soulful hearts,
intertwined with reason and mercy.
M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University,
Boston. Born in Dhaka, he attended schools in Bangladesh, Pakistan and
Canada. He is the author of
Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan:
2000). His translations of Ghalib have appeared in several US literary
Michael Neumann, "Has Islam Failed?,"
The Wisdom Fund, May 15, 2003
Copyright © 2002 M. Shahid Alam