Islam and the Arab Awakening: As Islamists across the Arab World continue to enshrine sharî’a concepts in their constitutions, noted academic Tariq Ramadan asks, are other alternatives available?
August 10, 2012
Do the secularist intellectuals of the Global South have an alternative to propose for their own countries? Over and above the simulacrum of a debate pitting them against religious conservatives and Islamists, do they have a vision of society drawn up for the people, with the people, and in the name of the liberation of the people? The debate over secularization and political Islam is to the secularists of the Global South what the foreigner (and today, the Muslim) is to the populist xenophobes of the North: a pretext, and an alibi.
The true challenge of the day is to choose the right battle, to mobilize the creative energy of the people in the attempt to find real solutions to real problems. The march toward democracy in the Global South entails a thorough reconsideration of the three “fundamentals”: economic (and agricultural) policy, educational policy, and cultural and media policy (in the general sense). The secularist elite would be well advised to acknowledge that it truly has nothing new to offer in these three vital policy categories. At the risk of sounding repetitious, there can be no true political democracy without a profound restructuring of the economic priorities of each country, which in turn can only come about by combating corruption, limiting the prerogatives of the military and, above all, reconsidering economic ties with other countries as well as the modalities of domestic wealth distribution. Concern for free, analytical, and critical thought must take the form of educational policies founded upon the construction of schools and universities, revising the curriculum and enabling women to study, work, and become financially independent.
Despite their parents’ fulsome declarations, the children of the secular elites often end up pursuing their studies in the West. While progressive statements about women have never troubled entrenched traditional and patriarchal attitudes within those elites, their fine words must at last be translated into genuine social and educational policy at the local and national level. These are the issues; they must now be addressed.
Much has been made of alternative media and the internet culture, of social networks and virtual relationships. Given that they helped generate mass mobilizations strong enough to overthrow regimes, any humanist thought worthy of the name, particularly if it defines itself as secular, must study and assess today’s internet culture and, more generally, the media. Though it has empowered the masses, this same cult tends to relieve individuals of their personal responsibilities, hidden as they are behind virtual relationships, anonymity, and an obsession with surveillance, manipulation, and conspiracy. The internet, paradoxically, may represent the marriage of communication technology and regression in human interaction; of the power of networking with the dispossession of the person. When combined with a certain fascination for the West, it may exert a powerful influence on young people who enjoy little freedom, have no social opportunities, no educational prospects, and no jobs. The consequences can be serious; just how serious can be observed in the timeworn debate between secularists and conservatives or Islamists, which is not only inappropriate, it is a historical blunder.
Traditionalist, literalist, and conservative religious organizations, as well as Islamist movements and parties, have more often than not accepted the terms of the warped debate between “secularists” and “Islamists”–and occasionally imposed these terms themselves. Their point was to challenge the legitimacy of those who claimed to be speaking for the people. If the (literalist or Islamist) supporters of tradition are often right when they point out that the secularists belong mostly to a western-influenced elite cut off from the population, their own critical arguments only deal at a superficial level with the real issues that have undermined Muslim-majority societies in general and Arab societies in particular. They are more concerned with giving “Islamic” legitimacy to their rhetoric than with providing concrete answers to contemporary challenges. Once again, they may be sincere and well justified in fearing alienation or westernization.
The fact remains, however, that in the confrontation of ideas, religion is more frequently exploited to provide symbolical credibility and power than it is employed as an inspiration and a reference by minds that refuse to deny the complexities of reality. The endless conflicts between secularists and the advocates of “tradition and Islamic references” make it impossible for them (as for the secularists) to take critical stock of a century of struggle, achievement, and failure.
In the first place, it should be noted that it is difficult, just as it was with the secularists, to discern any concrete or innovative contributions made by the conservatives, and a fortiori by the Islamists, on the three broad issues outlined above. What concrete proposals have they developed to reform the economic policies of the societies of the Global South? Terms like “Islamic economy” or “Islamic finance” are bandied about, but in the realm of fact, on the national and international levels, no real alternative that can claim to originate in Islamic ethics has been put forward. Much the same can be said of educational policy, which should be concerned with the training and the intellectual and critical autonomy of peoples. The conservatives and the Islamists may indeed be closer to the population than the secular elite, but they are lacking in terms of need management. Their social work is important, but what are their proposals for public instruction and education? The reforms they would enact are primarily structural, focused on religious instruction, which–even in private Islamic institutions–continues to be marked by the lack of a critical approach to teaching methods and curricula.
Recurring in such institutions, these features point to an absence of global vision: They tend to concentrate on religious instruction using traditional methods of rote memorization, give undue weight to purely scientific disciplines (medicine, engineering, computer science, etc.) and relegate the humanities to a subsidiary position. A similar dearth of innovative cultural policies is also striking, as is their inability to meet the challenges of the new media environment. Aside from criticism of the West and its cultural imperialism, the ways and means advanced by the conservatives–in the petro-monarchies for example–and by the Islamists to conceptualize new, forward-looking cultural and media policies are striking in their poverty; projects that deliver on their claims can be counted on the fingers of one hand in North Africa and the Middle East.
In the realm of facts, the political rhetoric and vision of conservative traditionalists and of the Islamists have more often than not been trapped in themes relevant in the early twentieth century when the struggle for decolonization made it normal and necessary to think in terms of the nation state. Against the French, British, Dutch, or Italian colonial rulers, it was of vital importance to envision the structure of a free and autonomous state that would emerge from the cultural and historical references of the peoples fighting for independence: precisely what the slogans of Islamist and pan-Islamist movements wanted to express when they referred to the “Islamic state.”
Behind the label that identified the state as “Islamic” lay the desire for reconciliation with their heritage, and the imperative to break free from western domination and to chart an original path leading to independence. Traditional classics, like al-Mawardi’s al-Ahkâm al-Sultaniyya or Ibn Taymiyya’s al-Siyâsa al-Sharr’iyya, were revisited in the light of the challenges facing modern states. The aim was to gain (or claim) “Islamic” legitimacy for political projects, state models, and structures. An example is Saudi Arabia, where the idea of democratic elections was–and still is – seen as contrary to Islamic tradition. The issue has been a subject of fierce debate among the various Islamist trends since the 1940s (within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and between different currents of thought in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia). The early stages of the Iranian revolution were also marked by intense exchanges of ideas over the specific features of the “Islamic Republic,” exchanges and contradictions that still fuel the respective positions of conservatives and reformists within the system itself…
August 10, 2012
The rise of China notwithstanding, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower. Its military (and, to a considerable extent, political) hegemony extends not just over North America or even the Western hemisphere, but also Europe, large swaths of Asia, and Africa. Its interests are global; nothing is outside its potential sphere of influence. There are an estimated 660 to 900 American military bases in roughly forty countries worldwide, although figures on the matter are notoriously difficult to ascertain, largely because of subterfuge on the part of the military. According to official data there are active-duty U.S. military personnel in 148 countries, or over 75 percent of the world’s states. The United States checks Russian power in Europe and Chinese power in South Korea and Japan and Iranian power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. In order to maintain a frigid peace between Israel and Egypt, the American government hands the former $2.7 billion in military aid every year, and the latter $1.3 billion. It also gives Pakistan more than $400 million dollars in military aid annually (not including counterinsurgency operations, which would drive the total far higher), Jordan roughly $200 million, and Colombia over $55 million.
U.S. long-term military commitments are also manifold. It is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the only institution legally permitted to sanction the use of force to combat “threats to international peace and security.” In 1949 the United States helped found NATO, the first peacetime military alliance extending beyond North and South America in U.S. history, which now has twenty-eight member states. The United States also has a trilateral defense treaty with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral mutual defense treaties with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. It is this sort of reach that led Madeleine Albright to call the United States the sole “indispensible power” on the world stage.
The idea that global military dominance and political hegemony is in the U.S. national interest—and the world’s interest—is generally taken for granted domestically. Opposition to it is limited to the libertarian Right and anti-imperialist Left, both groups on the margins of mainstream political discourse. Today, American supremacy is assumed rather than argued for: in an age of tremendous political division, it is a bipartisan first principle of foreign policy, a presupposition. In this area at least, one wishes for a little less agreement.
In Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, Christopher McKnight Nichols provides an erudite account of a period before such a consensus existed, when ideas about America’s role on the world stage were fundamentally contested. As this year’s presidential election approaches, each side will portray the difference between the candidates’ positions on foreign policy as immense. Revisiting Promise and Peril shows us just how narrow the American worldview has become, and how our public discourse has become narrower still.
Nichols focuses on the years between 1890 and 1940, during America’s initial ascent as a global power. He gives special attention to the formative debates surrounding the Spanish-American War, U.S. entry into the First World War, and potential U.S. membership in the League of Nations—debates that were constitutive of larger battles over the nature of American society and its fragile political institutions and freedoms. During this period, foreign and domestic policy were often linked as part of a cohesive political vision for the country. Nichols illustrates this through intellectual profiles of some of the period’s most influential figures, including senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, socialist leader Eugene Debs, philosopher and psychologist William James, journalist Randolph Bourne, and the peace activist Emily Balch. Each of them interpreted isolationism and internationalism in distinct ways, sometimes deploying the concepts more for rhetorical purposes than as cornerstones of a particular worldview.
Today, isolationism is often portrayed as intellectually bankrupt, a redoubt for idealists, nationalists, xenophobes, and fools. Yet the term now used as a political epithet has deep roots in American political culture. Isolationist principles can be traced back to George Washington’s farewell address, during which he urged his countrymen to steer clear of “foreign entanglements” while actively seeking nonbinding commercial ties. (Whether economic commitments do in fact entail political commitments is another matter.) Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment when he urged for “commerce with all nations, [and] alliance with none.” Even the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States declared itself the regional hegemon and demanded noninterference from European states in the Western hemisphere, was often viewed as a means of isolating the United States from Europe and its messy alliance system.
In Nichols’s telling, however, modern isolationism was born from the debates surrounding the Spanish-American War and the U.S. annexation of the Philippines. Here isolationism began to take on a much more explicitly anti-imperialist bent. Progressive isolationists such as William James found U.S. policy in the Philippines—which it had “liberated” from Spanish rule just to fight a bloody counterinsurgency against Philippine nationalists—anathema to American democratic traditions and ideas about national self-determination…
August 10, 2012
Sometimes the mind just boggles.
The Atlantic has an article this month with the title “Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It).” I am always curious when intellectuals announce that the people (who in the American constitutional system serve as the sovereign power) don’t know what’s good for them (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) or don’t even know what they want.
Implicit in all of these revelations, of course, is the firmest, if never directly expressed, belief of the Left: That the average person is too stupid to run his own life, let alone make public policy decisions. Those few, those happy few, that band of liberal intellectuals, must do that for them.
The author of the Atlantic article, Dan Ariely—a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke—divided the American population into quintiles according to wealth. He then asked a representative sample of more than 5,000 Americans to guess how the country’s wealth was distributed amongst these quintiles.
He doesn’t say exactly how he determined the population’s wealth. Are the hundreds of billions of dollars in union and government pension funds that will fund the retirement of millions of blue-collar and government workers considered an asset of those workers? I’d guess not. Does this money greatly improve their standard of living? You bet, just like a trust fund improves the standard of living of some rich man’s grandson. But let that go.
It turns out that the overwhelming majority of the sample population thought the distribution of wealth was much more equal than in fact it is. The average guess was that 9 percent of the country’s private wealth belonged to the bottom 40 percent and that 59 percent of it belonged to the top 20 percent. According to the author, it is in fact 0.3 percent of American privately held wealth that belongs to the bottom 40 and 84 percent that belongs to the top 20. But, again, without some insight into the methodology, these figures are impossible to evaluate. They are simply declared ex cathedra.
Ariely then asked people in the sample population to pick an ideal distribution of wealth among the quintiles. The average of their choices was much more egalitarian than is the American reality. The average proposed distribution was 11 percent for the poorest quintile and 32 percent for the richest.
The rest of the article is devoted to a discussion of how best to get to that preferred distribution.
A few points:
1) As long as no one lacks the wherewithal for a decent standard of living, is a very unequal division of wealth necessarily a bad thing and a more evenly distributed pattern of wealth necessarily a good thing? Professor Ariely blithely begs this fundamental question.
2) American society is notoriously fluid. Rising from a log cabin to the presidency is American folklore. It is also American reality. The majority of the Forbes 400 created their own fortunes.
But there is not an inkling here that individuals often transition through different quintiles during their lives. Someone might start off in the top quintile, living with his affluent parents. Then he graduates from college, gets an entry-level job and a studio apartment in a crummy part of town, and bam! He’s in the bottom quintile. He works hard, gets ahead, saves some money, and he’s in the next-to-bottom quintile. He marries a woman with a good job and moves up another. His parents help with the down payment on a house and 20 years later, once the mortgage is paid off, he’s in the next quintile. His father dies, leaves him a million dollars, and he’s in the top quintile. Then the market goes to hell, his net worth declines drastically, and, as a result, he drops down a notch or two. And so on.
Instead, there is an unmistakable implication in the article that the various quintiles are self-perpetuating, with the proletariat at the bottom leading lives of quiet desperation and a few fat cats at the top lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. That might have been true in the 1840s when Marx began writing (although the early 19th century was also a time of many new fortunes). It sure isn’t true in today’s America, where a bright idea for an iPad app can make you rich practically overnight (just ask the guy who invented Angry Birds) and talent is far more valued than ancestors.
3) How on earth are 5,500 people chosen from all walks of life—from janitor to rocket scientist—supposed to have the faintest idea what the ideal distribution of wealth should be in today’s rapidly changing economy? These people are picking numbers out of the air and saying, “Oh, that seems right.” Is it? Professor Ariely simply assumes that it is….