Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Prism of War 2

Bernard Lewis's Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East illustrates of how the significance of an event can be overlooked until it is too late. (Hat tip: MIG) He describes in exceptionally lucid prose the consensual roots of classical Islam and concepts which, although a little strange to Western eyes, are the functional equivalents of Liberty and Equality. This older, "libertarian" Islam died by slow degrees, first strangled by Oriental despotism, later by crude attempts at modernization to overtake the West in pursuit of which the Arab world finally imbibed in the worst poisons of Europe.

The second stage of political upheaval in the Middle East can be dated with precision. In 1940, the government of France surrendered to Nazi Germany. .. the governors of the French colonies and dependencies were free to decide: they could stay with Vichy ... Vichy was the choice of most ... this meant that Syria-Lebanon was wide open to the Nazis, who moved in and made it the main base of their propaganda and activity in the Arab world.

It was at that time that the ideological foundations of what later became the Baath Party were laid, with the adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation. ... The leaders of the Baath Party easily switched from the Nazi model to the communist model... This was a party not in the ... sense of an organization built to win elections and votes. It was a party in the Nazi and Communist sense, part of the government apparatus particularly concerned with indoctrination, surveillance, and repression.

But these totalitarian systems, Lewis argues, were also fundamentally alien to the Arab-Islamic soil, a circumstance that political Islam exploited superlatively. Islamic preachers raised up their communities against the wannabee Hitlers and Stalins.

Political Islam first became a major international factor with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 ... what happened in Iran was a genuine revolution, a major change with a very significant ideological challenge, a shift in the basis of society that had an immense impact on the whole Islamic world, intellectually, morally, and politically. The process that began in Iran in 1979 was a revolution in the same sense as the French and the Russian revolutions were. Like its predecessors, the Iranian Revolution has gone through various stages of inner and outer conflict and change and now seems to be entering the Napoleonic or, perhaps more accurately, the Stalinist phase.

A tectonic shift was about to occur, though President Jimmy Carter might not have thought it significant at the time. Then a series of events then transpired whose importance was not immediately evident. The development of vast oil deposits in Saudi Arabia made an obscure Wahabist sect globally important and it soon set about exercising its vast power.

The first great triumph of the Sunni fundamentalists was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they saw -- not unreasonably -- as their victory. For them the Soviet Union was defeated not in the Cold War waged by the West, but in the Islamic jihad waged by the guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan. As Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have put it, they destroyed one of the two last great infidel superpowers -- the more difficult and the more dangerous of the two. Dealing with the pampered and degenerate Americans would, so they believed, be much easier.

In Bernard Lewis' view immense and destructive forces crept unnoticed onto modern world stage until they manifested themselves on September 11 upon a nearly blind America. It was a witches' brew, compounded of the worst aspects of Nazism and Communism, which in turn fueled a reaction by political Islam, overlaid by the limitless ambitions of the Sunni Wahabists. Somewhere in all of this, Lewis calls out, like a father seeking a lost child, for the libertarian Islam: the Islam of justice and equality of centuries gone by. Whether he will find it is open to debate; and sadly observes that in the West, both freedom and the memory of its existence in the Islamic world are still being edited away.