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ICG Risk Blog - [ Putting bin Laden into the perspective of Islam, Part I ]

Putting bin Laden into the perspective of Islam, Part I


When living in the Middle East in the 1960s I would tell colleagues that, "The Arabs live in a past glory for which the West gives them no credit," that the Islamic world, Arabs included, have an extraordinarily rich tradition that rose parallel to Rome and saw Islam supporting knowledge, discovery, and learning while Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. Dismissing them as "rag heads," hijacking their nationalism, first on behalf of British Petroleum and then the Seven Sisters, and treating them as serfs in their own country, was not a path to popularity. It was not a popular opinion then, and besides I was told that we strong ally governments in Tehran and Riyadh…

It is hard to express the unhappiness of even centrist Islamists to what they perceive as the dominance, even hegemony, of the West over the Third World in which Western civilization -- based on a Judeo-Christian ethic -- is promoted as "the universal civilization." Pan-Arab hopes for a cultural and political revival upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and later upon the discovery of oil were each dashed in turn. It is doubly damning for Islamists to admit their dismal political and economic failure, a failure that fell so low in their view as to permit the establishment of a Jewish state in their midst and on sacred ground.

If you accept Keohane’s definition of hegemony in "After Hegemony" you can see why Arabs could be outraged: "The theory of hegemony, as applied to the world political economy, defines hegemony as preponderance of material resources. Four sets of resources are especially important. Hegemonic powers must have control over raw materials, control over sources of capital, control over markets, and competitive advantages in the production of highly valued goods." Add to that, the usurpation of cultural, military and technological matters and you have a recipe for seeking redress.

Arabs see our dominant Western systems as created to enforce the rules of an international economic order, the main purpose of which is to promote the interests of the dominant powers -- the industrialized West. Arabs astute in Western politics like to quote George Kennan, the doyenne of Soviet containment and postwar strategic policy from one of his policy planning studies: "[We] have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population....Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity .... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality...We should cease to talks about vengeance and ...unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization."

"Arab unity" is a contradiction in terms, yet this growing resentment is a potentially reuniting force for an Islam that is decidedly not monolithic. It has its Sunni and Shia division paralleling our Protestant-Catholic divide (largely based upon whether you preferred the prophet’s trusted childhood friend and ally, Abu Bakr, or Ali, the husband of the prophet’s daughter, Fatima, to ascend to the Caliphate upon the death of Mohammed). It had its Martin Luther in Mohammed, and for much the same reasons. It had its conservative resurgence in the Whahabistic Renaissance that swept the Saudi peninsula as ibn Abdul Al Whahab sought to 'purify' Islam by returning to the sources of the religion -- a renaissance that remains the underpinning of the current government in Riyadh.

There is a wide spectrum of liberal (Egypt and parts of the Maghreb) to conservative (Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia) and the battle rages between their conservatism as much as between the theologies of Sunni versus Shia.

Part II

Gordon Housworth

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