Essay in Pakistan newspaper traces roots of crisis in the Islamic world

In an essay published June 25 in The Friday Times (out of Lahore, Pakistan), Thomas W. Simons, Jr. -- a CISAC consulting professor and former Payne Visiting Lecturer at SIIS -- traces "today's crisis in the Islamic world" back to conditions in the 1970s "in Islam's old Arab and Iranian heartlands."

The post-1970 crisis in the Islamic world and Pakistan's role

It is possible to trace today's crisis in the Islamic world back to the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the four Righteous Caliphs. Many Salafists among Muslims and many so-called Orientalists among Westerners do just that. Opposed in every other way, they both believe in an Islamic "essence" unchanged since then. Others go back to the 19th century CE, to the onset of Western domination over much of the Muslim 'umma. Yet it seems to me that to understand today's crisis adequately we need go no further back than the years around 1970 in Islam's old Arab and Iranian heartlands. Admittedly a number of factors had to come together to produce the dilemmas we still live with.

The 20th century struggle against colonialism raised high hopes that the departure of the colonisers would usher in a new era of dignity and prosperity for Muslims. The main ideology of these hopes was the kind of republican nationalism associated with Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser in Egypt and Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran. By about 1970 these hopes had collapsed.

Not only had Israel persisted as a reminder that decolonisation did not mean an end to subordination, but the 1967 Six Days' War was such a catastrophe that its casualties were not just military: it discredited the republican nationalist ideology as well. The Arab world was rent by rivalries between republicans and monarchists, with the Cold War protagonists egging them on and paying them rents for friendship. Worst of all, the postcolonial regimes turned out to be authoritarian and corrupt.

Nor was that the whole story. There had also been much economic and social development, yet it was of very special kinds. State-led industrialisation had been based mainly on oil and gas, and oil and gas are special commodities. The iron and steel that drove earlier Western growth had created new middle and working classes; oil and gas do not, and their profits are easily captured by sitting elites. To pay for industry, moreover, states ran down agriculture. Within decades this drove millions from farms and small towns into cities that then exploded their infrastructures. The states offered education, particularly at higher levels - at one point Egypt was producing 75,000 graduates a year - but beginning about 1970 states were withdrawing from the economy and turning responsibility for growth over to captive and anaemic private sectors. So more and more first-generation graduates were entering increasingly slack economies with no real prospects for jobs or dignity.

All this was a recipe for political radicalism, and the ideological vacuum left behind by discredited republican nationalism was filled by the dream of recreating the unity and purity of the original 'umma in the 7th century CE. That dream had been part of Islamic discourse almost from the beginning, but it had mainly appealed to the 'umma's fringes, the Bedouin soldiers of the Khariji movement, the small townsmen of Islam's middle years who had then become Shi'a or Sufis. Now, around 1970, the dream had been modernised by thinkers like Sayyid Qutb in the Arab lands, 'Ali Shariati in Iran, and Maulana Abu-l-'Ala Maududi in this country, and in that form it entered the Islamic mainstream. It became the chief ideology of opposition to the authoritarian and corrupt postcolonial regimes.

The result has been thirty years of savage and bloody civil war among Muslims. It has struck Westerners and Israelis too, but most of the victims have been Muslim, because the regimes were now headed by Muslims. When Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad retook the city of Hama from Sunni insurrectionists in 1982, he killed at least 10,000 people, three times the casualties of September 11.

What would it take for Muslims to transcend this crisis? Time after time in their history they have overcome huge challenges by creating marvellous new syntheses of thought and feeling and practice. I have no doubt that they have the spiritual and intellectual and physical resources to do so once again. But what would be the elements of renewal at this new stage?

Some elements have already been moving into place.

As the civil war has proceeded, there has been covert movement on both sides toward a new centre. Regimes have been Islamising themselves. They have been introducing some Islamic law and some Islamic practice into their governance. Conversely, Islamists have been entering the political system. They now run for election; they enter cabinets; they serve in parliaments; they function as (more or less) loyal oppositions.

The process has been drenched in bad faith on both sides, but movement has been real.

Concurrently, more and more Muslims who might have become Islamist political revolutionaries two decades ago are now forsaking politics for community action in the 'umma. Rather than bombs and guns, the name of the game is now schools, clinics, charities, and the Islamic piety of individual Muslims and their families.

Moreover, with the end of the Cold War sitting regimes can no longer collect rents from the USSR, and they find it harder to collect rents from the US now that competition with the USSR is over. Even the new rents the US is paying since September 11 will never match Cold War largesse. There will never again be enough official assistance to keep regimes in power by sustaining their growth rates.

Now they must rely instead on private foreign direct investment (PFDI). This is because all over the world production of knowledge is replacing production of things as the engine of economic growth. PFDI flows mainly on economic grounds. It is not attracted by the archaic, state-dominated, information-shy economies of the Arab Middle East and Iran. Their share of world PFDI has fallen from 12 percent in 1990 to 3-4 percent today. To attract it, they need reforms that will make them less rigid, less state-dominated, and less information-shy. Such economic reforms typically lead to demands for political reforms too. That is their quandary.

Such pressures will not end Islamist radicalism. The conditions that give it birth are often still there. But such pressures do tend to force radicalism to the margins of the 'umma once again. Osama is a perfect example: through the 1990s he was forced step by step back to the only place in the world where he now had a double layer of protection and hence the space and time needed to mount an operation like September 11.

Nor will such pressures automatically generate the new Islamic synthesis the planet needs. But they do create a new opportunity for Muslims to fashion an authentically Islamic modernity that is adequate to their history and their hopes.

I would argue that September 11 did not change this basic picture. It came as a shock to most Muslims, and even Islamists asked themselves whether Osama's methods were the best path to the common goal. Iraq, of course, has been much more problematic. There military defeat was so rapid and complete that it rekindled the usual Arab feelings of helplessness and rage, and the botched aftermath has given these feelings time to swell and take political form. Radicalism is reconstituting itself, but - it should be noted - on a new basis.

For Osama, for Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islam may still be the banner of revolutionary overthrow. For younger Muslims, Islam is increasingly the badge of membership in national communities. It is no longer just an ideology for outsiders. More and more it is the ideology of outsiders and deprived or threatened ruling ethnic elites: Sunni Tikritis in Iraq, Pushtuns in Afghanistan. Driven toward the margins by repression, cooptation or military defeat, Islamism is re-entering the body politic through the service entrance of Islamo-nationalism.

The consequences can be unhealthy. If only Muslims should be citizens, Christians and Jews are excluded in ways quite novel in Islamic experience, and quite dangerous. But there may also be a new and exciting opening for an Islamic legitimation of the modern nation-state that is valid for Sunnis.

So far, the only place in the Islamic heartlands to produce such a legitimation has been Iran. Not long before he died in 1989, Imam Khomeini ruled on religious grounds that in emergencies national interests can take precedence over the shari'a. It helps explain how Iran has emerged from the charismatic phase of Islamic rule without widespread violence. But Iran's special Shi'i traditions make it hard to transpose to Sunni-majority societies. Taliban rule in Afghanistan was perhaps an effort to create a version for Sunnis, but it ended before it succeeded. In both cases, moreover, the effort took place within a theocratic framework, direct rule by 'ulema.

Theocracy is not a mainstream Islamic tradition and will not appeal in most Muslim countries. A broader version of religious legitimation of the nation-state could be taking shape now in Iraq. It may be that the Americans are needed both as a parameter and as a target. But the outcome is very uncertain, the circumstances very special. And Iraq too has a majority of Shi'a.

Where does Pakistan fit in this picture? I see some similarities and more differences.

Like some Arab states, Pakistan inherited a postcolonial security threat that has absorbed disproportionate resources and has thereby reinforced older socio-political structures and a traditional sense of political irresponsibility: someone else is always to blame.

Although Pakistan was founded as an Islamic nation-state by modern means and modern people, here too modernity is so associated with the West that it must be denied as un-Islamic.

And Pakistan too has been stranded by the end of the Cold War and the onset of the IT era in economics. New rents from the war on terrorism will not restore the levels of official assistance Pakistan attracted before 1990, and private foreign direct investment has not rushed in to fill the gap.

But Pakistan is also different from the Arab world and Iran in relevant ways. Some are counterintuitive; most are to Pakistan's advantage.

First, Pakistan is not dependent on oil and gas, and can be better off for it. Pakistan is dependent on cotton, and compared to oil and gas, cotton and cotton textile production makes for larger middle and working classes, better attuned to modern political and economic needs than Middle Eastern elites.

Second, Pakistan is less developed than the old Islamic heartlands - more agricultural, less urbanised, less educated - and that too can help. It has not destroyed its agriculture. Except for Karachi, rural outmigration has not exploded its cities, and even there civil war has been on an ethnic and not a religious basis. And the graduating cohorts entering the limp economy have been relatively small. In other words Pakistan has not yet produced the conditions that brought Islamist radicalism to the centre of Middle East politics. It therefore has a window of opportunity to create better structures less conducive to civil war.

Third, Pakistanis have been struggling for over half a century to bring religion and politics together in a functioning system of governance. The need to experiment came with Pakistan's original mandate; it has led through the Ahmedi riots, the Objectives Resolution, the MRD in 1977 (sic: PNA is meant), and various Islamisation steps thereafter. Certainly, however, experimentation has been particularly intense since 2002. Its outcome is also quite uncertain.

What this means, though, is that Pakistanis have a wealth of lived experience wrestling with issues that are newer and more destructive in other Muslim societies, and of doing so mainly without violence. They should therefore be better able to integrate the religious impulse into a basically democratic political system without first establishing theocracy. If they can, it will be a first version of religious legitimation for the modern nation-state in a society with a recognisably Sunni majority. Where Pakistan fits in todayís Islamic world is as a major test case. Not for Americans: for Pakistanis. And for all the other members of the 'umma.

*Footnote: This essay draws on themes from the writer's book on Islam and a talk he gave at the Administrative Staff College in Lahore on May 24, 2004.