Islam Without Extremes

Mustafa Akyol, 2011

A World Without Islam

Graham E. Fuller, 2010

2 mini-book reviews: IslamWithout

Islam is mysterious to Westerners, and many people hate what they do not understand. I have not yet read the Quran, but I get the impression that it is a spare document with a lot of poetry and inspiration to living well, a synthesis of a portion of the Christian and Jewish traditions, but not as prescriptive. The Quran ("he recited") is claimed to be messages from God, transmitted through Mohammed the messenger. Tradition says these messages were written down by scribes, who wrote down different things, so the canonical Quran was compiled 20 years later under Caliph ("successor", "steward", "deputy") Uthman ibn Affan.

Because many people use religion to bind others (and themselves if necessary to bind others more), the Koran itself is too permissive and undefined for them, so most Muslims add "Hadith", additional restrictions and sayings drawn from derivative memories of Mohammed's life, interpreted as inflexible traditions. This seems dodgy, but most religions seem to work that way.

Islam Without Extremes - A Muslim Case for Liberty, by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, describes an emerging, liberal Islam compatible with freedom and "modernity". According to Akyol, this is the Islam that was ascendant when the caliphate was, producing the world's inventions, philosophy, mathematics, and science. This is the Islam that rests on reason, not authority or power. In the modern era, it emerges from the remains of Ataturk's Soviet-inspired suppression of religion in Turkey, which borrowed some "modern conveniences" from secular Europe, but also damaged much of what was rich and progressive in the late Ottoman Empire that it replaced.

Mohammed's first wife was the 40 year old Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a wealthy merchant who was the 25 year old's employer. As a merchant, Mohammed was exposed to many cultures from many places, as well as the tribal Arabs around Mecca. Much of the Koran is an attempt to upgrade the primitive and fragmented Arab culture with a more modern one, with more civilization and freedom, especially for women. While 8th century Islam might seem less liberal than the 21st century west, it was a giant step towards enlightenment - and it was resisted by the Traditionalists, who fought for a return to patriarchy and hierarchy.

Much of Akyol's book is about the conflict between independent thinking and obedient tradition. Traditional schools (People of Tradition, ahl al-hadith) are associated with the Abbasid dynasty, Almohavids, Asharism, Hanabali, Jabriyyah, Kharijites, Salifis, and Wahhabis. Liberal schools (People of Reason, ahl-alray) are associated with Hanafi, Jahmiya, Murjiites, Mutazilites, Qadarites, and the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads were ascendent in Damascus at its scientific peak, but this merchant/trade/capital oriented culture was replaced by a power/landlord/feudal culture under the Abbasids. The Fatimids in Egypt, and the al-Andalus in Spain, preserved science, multiculturalism and tolerance of Christians and Jews until those were suppressed. After two centuries of tribalist Berber Almohavids in Spain, the Iberian penninsula was conquered by the Spanish Reconquista, who completed the destruction of civilized Andalusia.

Eastern Islam was destroyed by the Mongols, and reconstituted into the Ottoman Empire under the Muslim Turks led by Osman Bey. The Ottomans extended from Algeria in the west, through Egypt and Mecca to Somalia and Aden in the south, to the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea in the west, and to the gates of Vienna and Kiev in the north. This was an Empire, with all the attendant repressions and revolts, but for the time it was tolerant of other religions, such as Orthodox Christianity and Judaism. Author Akyol seems approving of the Ottomans, by and large, especially the Tanzimat reform period (1839–1876), when the weakening empire instituted many modernizations.

The Ottomans lost the Balkans to war and Christian nationalism, and north Africa to the British and French in the 1880s. They backed the wrong side in World War 1, and their empire was dismantled by the Europeans. Kemal Ataturk's revolution rebuilt Turkey in 1923, abolished the Caliphate in 1924, and suppressed Islam. Authoritarian Kemalists ruled Turkey until 1950, when free elections replaced them with progressives, until a Kemalist military coup in 1960. The country changed hands many times, with the Islamists pushing for democracy and the secularists pushing for top-down control. Akyol's intellectual father was imprisoned from 1980 to 1982. In the 1990s, a modern synthesis of Islam, democracy, capitalism, and industrialism emerged. Akyol approves!

The latter part of Akyol's book is about Islam and modernity merging in Turkey, with headscarves instead of hedonism out of choice, not coercion. Turkey has done well in recent years. I am not there to observe, but I have a Turkish engineer friend with a Turkish lawyer wife - she has room to excel in that culture, compared to much of the Islamic world.

A cursory word-search through the English language translations of the Quran reveals many approving references to Christians (including a whole Sura) and Jesus (as the first among prophets, not as a deity) and Mary, as well as approval and support for peaceful and devout Jews. If Judaism comes off a little less well, Mohammed and his followers were betrayed by some of Medina's Jews, hence the Quran's reference to Jews who have strayed from their own scripture. Understandable given the circumstances. Eruptions of lethal hostility by Jihadists against other religions are ignorant, intolerant, tribalist perversions of Islam, not the message of Mohammed. So what is the source of the violence and hatred?

A World Without Islam by Graham E. Fuller (former CIA National Intelligence Council vice-chair) frames the conflict between the West and the Middle East as a reaction to Western invasion and exploitation. Fuller shows us the invasions of the Greeks under Alexander, followed by the Romans, followed by the "Byzantines" (a 16th century name, they called themselves Romans and the locals called them "Rum"), followed by the Crusaders, followed by the Russians. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ottoman empire was dismantled by wars with the Europeans, with the territory carved up by arbitrary lines on the map, and some portions handed out to formerly obscure desert tribes (like the Wahhabi Saud) in return for oil and loyalty.

Fuller tells us that the ebb and flow was driven by economics, cultural friction, and nationalism. The first Caliphate was built by military conquest, not religion. Since conquered people produced taxes, while converted people were entitled to political power and a share of those taxes, conversion was not encouraged, and "people of the book" (ahl al-Kitab, Christians and Jews) were encouraged to keep their Islam-approved religions. Christians under the oppressive yoke of Constantinople welcomed the Muslims as liberators. Given the many parallels between the religious practices of the Damascus region Christians and the Muslims, they were much closer to each other than either were to the Byzantine Church and its politically-controlled patriarchy. To the Christians, the Muslims were more like a comfortable variation of the God-centered mystical Christianity they practiced, rather than the Jesus-focused doctrines of Constantinople and Rome.

In 1095, Pope Urban II had a problem. The East did not recognize his authority as the "vicar of Christ", defining the human aspect of Jesus as one of the Pope's congregation (!). Western Europe was overpopulated with the sons of nobility, and bandits upsetting the social order. So Urban called a Crusade against the East, to retake the Holy Land and Jerusalem from the "heathens" - including the eastern Christians peacefully coexisting with Jews and Muslims in Palestine. Many invasions followed, Jerusalem ran ankle-deep with the blood of its inhabitants of all three religions. Constantinople was sacked, and run by "Latins" for two decades. There were multiple crusades, with the last Crusaders driven out of Acra in 1291.

This was nasty, but a relative pinprick compared to the massive Mongol invasions of the 1200s, with Bagdhad besieged and falling to the Mongols in 1258. The Mongols conquered the land, but in time many became Muslims.

Fuller describes more centuries of ebb and flow, and moves towards the present, with the West establishing autocrat rulers in the artificial "countries" it created to manage the flow of resources out of the region. This, plus the taking of Palestine and giving it to displaced European Jews, created anger and resentment, expressed as nationalism in the 1980s, and as Islamism and Jihadism in the 2000s. Fuller's principal message is that Islam was recruited as the face of this revolutionary activity after nationalism failed, and that if Islam had never happened, the West would be in conflict with Eastern Christians and Zorastrians for the same reasons. Like Pope Urban, there are problems to solve, and religion is a unifying banner.

The Quran expressly forbids attacks on civilians, women, and children. The Turks eschewed catapult attacks on walled cities for this reason. Suicide is also forbidden - this "innovation" was introduced in the 1980s in Lebanon. The suicide vest was invented by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and adopted by extremists thoughout the world. As of 2008, there were 1840 suicide bombings over 25 years, with 86% occuring since 2001. According to Fuller, Marc Sageman attributes this to group-think; groups of friends who jointly decide to die for the cause. The rage comes first; suicide seems like the only way to express it. Which brings on more western bombardments, and more rage, in an escalating spiral. War is mutual insanity.

Fuller argues for military disengagement - build schools and hospitals, don't drop bombs. This makes sense in the abstract; but dollars do not build schools, people do, and dollars pay for the delivery of materials and expertise. If the materials are stolen and the experts taken hostage, no schools, more outrage. I think his idea needs clever elaboration - in the age of robotics and "smart materials", there may be ways to accomplish the end results without putting western lives at risk. Teaching the "natives" to do the building themselves may be an option, but many of the 9/11 terrorists were in the US on student visas. There are probably safe 3rd countries where western teachers and eastern students can safely meet - perhaps Saudi Arabia, or Turkey.

If we can do remote-control death from the air, perhaps we can learn to do remote-control material delivery and construction. This will be difficult - it is easier to bomb a building than to build one. How big of a plastic/composite building can be delivered by helicopter? Can the electronic core of a solar-powered school be light enough to add to a durable, lightweight building shell, with plugin repair components delivered to local unskilled craftspeople? Can we build the components and materials so they are well suited for practical education, but unusable as bunkers, government indoctrination and interrogation centers, or Jihadist training schools? Can we replace conflict with engineered collaboration?

I don't know. Fuller makes a good point - these people need time to lick their wounds and rebuild, and perhaps the best way to help this happen is to leave them the hell alone. But that won't happen until we stop using their resources, and given the shared engineering illiteracy of the major political factions in the west, that won't happen soon.

In my ideal world, the Saudis stop trading oil for dollars, and dollars for expensive consumer toys to spoiled Saudi princelings. Instead, they use the oil to tow giant iceberg rafts from the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica, billions of tons of water, and make the Arabian peninsula bloom with ammonia fertilizer created from flare gas. They sell food to the world, especially Africa. Food diplomacy seems more "palatable" than oil diplomacy. Maybe. I'll let them figure that out.

IslamWithout (last edited 2014-10-09 06:15:56 by KeithLofstrom)