Today’s big issue: Islamic political movements. One of the four big questions we have been addressing all semester is the nature of the state, and this week they read Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of ibn Fattoumeh. The main character journeys the world looking for a just society, noting the variety of states in the world and the ways in which they (do not) adhere to the kind of polity that idealists would have sought.
I explained that pundits and policy-makers had been using “Islam” as an explanation for all they find confusing or disturbing about the Middle East. Instead of providing the sorts of answers we would expect when analyzing uprisings or rioting or government abuses in, say, France, certain public “intellectuals” substitute “Islam” for analysis when discussing the Middle East.
I showed the students a series of slides with too-long quotes from Amnesty International. Each detailed government abuse, torture, poverty, police brutality, lack of freedom, discrimination based on gender, origin, or religion–all real, measurable issues that compromised human rights and well-being. The culprit was not “Islam” but both secular and religious governments in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Then I illustrated US support for many of those same governments:
I wanted them to think about the variety of possible responses to these problems, but instead of asking them to produce a list, I provided one–something I will change next time I teach this course.
I argued that, even though Islam was not the explanation for the problems in the region, which were quite complex but can certainly be analyzed, some people in the Middle East see Islam as the solution for those problems. They argue that, since neither the secular Western states nor the socialist bloc had created sustainable and just regimes, it was necessary to turn to a new way. Islam, they argue, offers alternatives to corrupt and unjust governments–and to nearly all those things that Amnesty International had documented. Islamic politics would rely on existing institutions and provide an “authentic” alternative to the failed policies of the past, in their view.
I pointed out that, though the Muslim Brotherhood had begun in Egypt in the 1920s and the Wahabbis had begun more than a century before that, the 1980s had become the heyday for religious politics around the globe (the BJP won elections in India, the religious right in Israel, the Christian Coalition in the US, the Islamists in the Middle East). And right now, the notion that religion belongs in the US government seems to be gaining adherents: Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had just announced that all rights come only from God.
Unfortunately, although I noted that there are important differences among Islamic political movements, I did not have time to describe them.
I did tell the students that the US has long had close ties with Islamic political movements and (self-described) Muslim governments. The longer historical context of the Cold War and US intervention in the region was evident when I pointed out that support for such (non-communist) resistance movements had even been official policy. When asked whether he regretted “having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?” Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, famously responded, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”