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Islamic Renaissance

By Crispin Sartwell

One very predictable result of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been the unleashing of Islamic revival. Islamic sentiment daily acquires momentum in Iraqi street demonstrations, and in the role that Shiite and Sunni clerics expect to play in forming a new structure of authority. For though Saddam tried to associate himself with Islam in the fight against Christian "crusaders," his Ba'ath party was essentially secular.

Indeed, all over the Islamic world, as we have seen vividly in revolutions in Afghanistan and Iran - and as we could see in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere - religious revival and rule is held in check only by dictatorial power of the sort that Saddam exercised.

George W. Bush - like several other high-ranking members of his administration, such as the Attorney General - considers himself to be an evangelical Christian. In one way, this must make the Islamic revival seem incomprehensible, since evangelical Christianity teaches that the only possibility of salvation lies in accepting Jesus as one's personal savior.

But evangelical Christianity and "Islamism" are also very closely aligned, and Bush & co. should be able to understand the aspiration of renascent Islam as well as anybody. Both movements have their origins in nineteenth-century reactions to scientism, secularism, and imperialism. Both movements see themselves fighting for authentic spiritual values in a world dedicated to greed and hedonism.

One difference between Islam and Christianity, however, is that Christianity - a religion that originated among politically powerless peasants during the Roman empire - has always recognized a distinction between religious and secular government. As the New Testament puts it: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the thing that are God's."

This makes it possible, though barely, for Bush at once to be a spokesman for his brand of Christianity, and a spokesman for the political freedom, capitalist greed, and hyper-sexualized pop culture that the world associates with America.

But Islam (like Judaism, by the way) was almost from the moment of its inception an expansionist theocracy that instituted a political system to administer holy law.

Nevertheless, Bush ought to understand the idea that one's faith is the source of one's fundamental values; he ought to understand that the Islamic revival is an expression of deep and genuine human needs: an aspiration to live in a decent way that is pleasing to God. It is possible that the revivalists have a point, that Donald Trump and Christina Aguilera may not be emblems of cultural superiority.

As we deal with the construction of a new authority in Iraq and as we seek to re-make the nations of the Middle East, we need to take this aspiration seriously. The people there are unlikely willingly to accept as progress some pure form of capitalism and secular democracy. They expect to see their deepest values reflected in the structure of their governments and their cultures, and we are going to have to accept that and work with it if we want to have any sort of decent effect.

This is true not only because the spiritual aspirations are themselves legitimate, but because if the United States continues to be associated with an uncritical equation of greed and exhibitionism with liberation, we will continue to make ourselves targets of terror. It will continue to appear to people that God must will our destruction, and that each westerner is an embodiment of evil and, hence, of defiance of God.

And as a practical matter, if we start toppling Middles East regimes without a clear idea of what the people ruled by them want and a resolution to respect it, we will fail. There is little nationalist sentiment in Islamic countries, many of which were artificially marked off by European empires. What unifies people is religious rather than national identification.

There are elements of traditional Islam that, no doubt, we should and will reject, such as the political and religious subordination of women. But Islam has an extremely varied and open-ended history that includes, for example, the ecstatic mysticism of universal love associated with Sufism, and the vast scientific and philosophical achievements of such figures as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.

If we are not merely to be hated conquerors, we had better learn this history and resolve to respect it.


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