Friday, December 20, 2013

Martin Kramer on Islamism: "a moral universe left behind by time"

Arab Protest

In "The Arab crisis" (Sandbox, December 17, 2013), Professor Martin Kramer, expert on the politics and culture of the Middle East, offers an intriguing analysis on the current changes disrupting the Arab world:
This is a crisis of culture[,] . . . . to be precise, the implosion of the hybrid civilization that dominated the twentieth century in the Arab world[, a hybridity that constituted a] . . . . defensive, selective adaptation of Islamic traditions to the ways of the West. The idea was that . . . [such] tradition[s] could be preserved, that . . . [their] essence could be defended, while making adjustments to modernity as needed. The [supposedly] timeless character of the political, religious, and social traditions of the region could be upheld, even as upgrades were made to accommodate modernity[, in short, then,] . . . . a hybrid of the Arab-Islamic tradition[s] with Western-style modernity . . . . [Pretending] to be revolutionary, . . . it permitted the survival of those pre-modern traditions that block progress, from authoritarianism and patriarchy to sectarianism and tribalism. This hybrid civilization has now failed, and what we have seen [in this failure] is a collapse, not of a political system, but of a moral universe left behind by time . . . . [In] the great centers of Arab-Islamic civilization, from Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad, the crisis of the political order is primarily a symptom of the collapse of their own hybrid of tradition[s] and modernity . . . . [The failure of this hybrid culture] is most dramatically evidenced by the rise of sectarianism. The Sunni-Shiite divide has lots of layers, including a disparity of power, often the legacy of [modern] colonialism. But the mindset of sectarianism is thoroughly pre-modern. Modern nationalism was devised at least in part to blunt sectarianism among Muslims[, so the] . . . . jihad of Muslim against Muslim is a huge reversal . . . . [Because] tradition[s] had to be respected, the hybrid civilization of the region tolerated the exclusion of Jews and the marginalization of Christians[, leaving] . . . . only one step from there to the defamation by Shiite of Sunni, by Sunni of Alawi, and on and on. The jihad of Muslim against Muslim, whether waged by Lebanon's Hezbollah in Syria, or by extreme Islamists in parts of Iraq and northern Syria, is a huge reversal. It is like a page taken straight out of eighth- or ninth-century Islamic history. Here we are in a Middle East where the major divide isn't over the form of government, or the nature of the economic system, or the extent of individual liberty. It is over a[n old] dispute dating from the seventh century of Islam -- the sort of thing Europe left behind when it secularized during the Enlightenment.
With this breakdown of the Middle East's hybrid civilization, we see the rise of Islamist radicalism in Muslim against Muslim -- the homefront of Islamist attacks on Western Modernity -- for ridding the world of infidelity requires not merely that one eradicate unbelief in the non-Muslim realm but also, and even more imperative, that one eradicate unbelief in the Muslim realm itself, with "unbelief" being defined as any innovation in Islamic traditions. Thus the accusation of takfir leveled by Muslim against Muslim.

Professor Kramer concludes that "millions of people [in the Middle East] . . . must reconfigure the way they see themselves and the world, not just through a political revolution, but through a cultural one," that no "power outside can deliberately accelerate or channel this transformation, " and that "we are much closer to the beginning of that process than the end," so the Middle East "will remain a cauldron for years if not decades to come."

We have a lot of ancient history to look forward to . . .

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