Democracy and Islam After September 11
by Stephen Schwartz
The remarks below were delivered earlier today at the 23rd annual convention of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, as part of a panel discussion titled "Reevaluating Democracy and Islam after September 11."--Ed.
I MUST BEGIN by saying that there is nothing I would choose to revise, regarding my prior views of Democracy and Islam, in the aftermath of that terrible day, September 11, 2001. Perhaps because I do not come to this debate from an academic or government background, but rather as an author and journalist, my understanding of Islam has always been based on an encounter with reality, rather than speculations about abstractions. I learned about Islam in the Balkans--that is, in an environment suffused with the pluralistic traditions of the Ottoman empire.
From the beginning of my examination of the Balkan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly with regard to the fate of Bosnia-Hercegovina, I observed a preeminent example of the potential for democratic progress, prosperity, and stability in the Islamic ummah, represented by the indigenous European Islam of the Balkans. Throughout my engagement with this topic I pointed to Bosnia-Hercegovina as a country poised to become a beacon of Islamic spirituality and progress, based on a secular, multiethnic, multireligious, and fully European sensibility.
Tragically, as we all know, Bosnia-Hercegovina's promise as a leader in Islamic progress was partially, and I believe only temporarily, thwarted by the Slavic Orthodox terror that descended on the country in 1992. Nevertheless, my encounter with Balkan Islam led me to see no impediment in the faith of Muhammad, in the Koran, or in Islamic traditions of governance, to successful democratic transitions in countries and societies throughout the ummah.
I am a former radical leftist and will confess to remaining a Marxist materialist in certain respects. I believe human existence creates human ideas, not vice versa. I do not believe that the religious values by which a country lives determine its aptitude for economic development and democracy, that is, for the attainment of a successful bourgeois society. Rather, I believe that free market activity produces the prosperity allowing democratic institutions and religion to flourish. I believe that adherence to a set of economic values, including entrepreneurship, individual accountability, and free contract between people makes possible the growth that generates a middle class and, on that foundation, stable democratic institutions and the advancement of religious virtues. In recent decades we have seen this repeatedly. Among the Asian "tigers," which I know are models of development and governance for many Turkish Muslims, we see that economic development, in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, fueled the expansion of democracy. We also see that Malaysia, an Islamic monarchy, has sustained a stable, prosperous, parliamentary government for decades with, notably, no interference in the process by its military.
The Prophet Muhammad was a caravan merchant. The Koran repeatedly calls on the believers to be scrupulous in honoring their commitments. Islam is a religion of contract. These values are the bedrock upon which democratic fortresses may be built. There is nothing in Islam as a faith or a tradition or a culture that should stand as an obstacle to democracy.
Nevertheless, the shock of September 11 has led many Westerners to posit that horror as an outcome of an alleged clash between Islam and Western sensibilities, or between faith and secularism, and, finally, as an act of "Islamist" aggression.
Democracy had much to do, in my view, with September 11, as did "Islamism." But my paradigm for understanding these issues differs considerably from those advanced by others.
I do not see September 11 as an act of protest by Muslims or Arabs oppressed by the advance of Western democracy or the success of Israel. I see it as an act of provocation by Saudi-based extremists, intended to divert the younger, better-educated, middle-class strata of Saudi society, and similar social elements elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab worlds, from their growing demands for restoration of Islamic pluralism and the right to live normal lives, in a normal country, in a world at peace. Generations have grown up and become educated in Saudi Arabia, and they are no longer willing to live in the old way. This is a self-evident fact. Furthermore, the Saudi monarchy and its allies, the Wahhabi religious hierarchy, can no longer rule in the old way. This is also a manifest truth.
By fostering the terrorism of Osama bin Laden, and then by seeking to shift blame for the atrocity of September 11 to Israel, the most reactionary elements in the Saudi ruling elite seek to quiet the growing demands of the educated and entrepreneurial classes for a new direction in society. This is an old phenomenon in the disintegration of tyrannies. September 11 had little to do with U.S. power in the world, and everything to do with bourgeois society knocking at the door of Saudi Arabia; little to do with Israel and the Palestinians, and everything to do with the recuperation of Islamic pluralism in Mecca and Medina.
I believe millions of Muslims and Arabs are sick of corruption and hypocrisy in their rulers and have turned their face toward democratic renewal of their societies.
How, then, does the political category known as "Islamism" fit in the world after September 11? I must say I never liked the term. For me, with my Bosnian experiences, I saw no utility to a neologism that could legitimately be applied to the Bosnian Party of Democratic Action (SDA)--a party that defends Muslim community interests, and that seeks to advance Islamic culture, values and morality in society, while embodying European political norms. Of course, as many in the West now see for the first time, the Turkish Islamic movement has had the same character. And for that reason, as well as many others, some among us have welcomed, with the greatest enthusiasm, the election of Abdullah Gul as prime minister of the Turkish Republic, representing the Justice and Development Party.
I do not need to emphasize before this body that the Turkish Republic represents a positive political example for Western understanding as well as for the future of the Islamic ummah. The Turkish experience with secular government has proven that an Islamic society may be successfully governed according to Western principles. But I also believe that Ottoman Islam, with its traditional pluralism, represents a positive spiritual example for the West as well as for the Islamic ummah. With evil men seeking to exacerbate the alleged "clash of civilizations," the open nature of Turkish Islam and Turanian culture represent a powerful antidote to Islamophobia.
I would dare say that in praising and protecting the Turkish Republic, we should also praise and protect such elements of the imperial cultural legacy as the extraordinary record of partnership between Turkish Muslims and Jews. It is well known that for many Americans, Turkish soldiers fighting in the Korean War represented the very best we could ever ask for in a military ally: courage, commitment, and resistance. But I believe that the effective response of the Ottoman authorities to Wahhabi terrorism in Arabia, in the 19th century, also represents a precedent valuable in an ally, as we confront Saddam Hussein and other international lawbreakers.
Saving the world from terrorism, and saving Islam from extremism--two worthy goals facing all of us--cannot be accomplished by accommodating extremism. Extremism is a poison tree that must be uprooted, down to the last tendrils. It is only by completely defeating the Islamofascists--the adherents of Wahhabism and such neo-Wahhabi cults as the so-called Muslim Brotherhood--that we can effectively support the indigenous European Islam of the Balkans. It is only by defeating the Islamofascists that we can secure for Muslim immigrants in Western Europe their proper rights and dignities. It is only by defeating the Islamofascists that we can gain for Turkey its rightful place at the European table.
Islamofascism must be destroyed, to assure the educated, growing middle class in all Islamic societies their rightful place in leading their countries "from the world of necessity to the world of freedom."
I have flattered myself in saying that I learned about Wahhabi terrorism the way George Orwell learned about Stalinism. Orwell did not go to Moscow; he went to Barcelona, where he witnessed the nefarious activities of the Soviet secret police. I did not go to Riyadh to study Wahhabism; I witnessed the attempt of Wahhabi-Saudi agents to take over Balkan Islam, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania. I first heard the term Wahhabi in a Yugoslav context more than 10 years ago.
I had, in fact, originally gone to the Balkans, beginning in 1990--that is, before the actual outbreak of fighting in the country--with the double interest of journalistic reporting and researching the remnants of Jewish life there. I deeply investigated the magnificent legacy of respect, cooperation, and syncretism--the fusion of differing faiths in popular religiosity--between the Sephardic Jews and Muslims in the Ottoman Balkans. There also I began my real encounter with Balkan Islam--which continued in an interfaith manner, through my work with an Albanian Catholic institute, a uniquely useful forum for the study of Balkan religious life. But with the outbreak of the horrific aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina, I learned that Bosnian Muslims, who were isolated and desperate, and who needed any friends they could get, were nonetheless extremely suspicious of the Saudis and Wahhabis. They view Wahhabi-Saudi Islam as a mortal threat to their own traditional, pluralistic, and spiritual form of Sunni Islam.
After much study, interviewing, and publishing on these topics, I went to the Balkans to live in 1999. With the end of the Kosovo intervention, I worked in that region, most notably on the project of a permanent Kosovo interreligious council bringing together Albanian and Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and a very small Jewish remnant. In post-Dayton Bosnia, the Wahhabi-Saudis had been viewed coldly by the local Muslims, but in Kosovo the Albanian Muslims were much more hostile to them, and it was among Albanians, from 1999 to 2001--only weeks before September 11, 2001--that I witnessed, and had the honor of participating in, the resistance of the local Muslims to Saudi-Wahhabi efforts at control and indoctrination.
As I have come back to the United States, Balkan Muslim intellectuals with whom I am close have called on me to expose Wahhabi-Saudi religious colonialism to the Western public. This profound charge became even more serious after September 11. In writing my book, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror," I learned that hostility to Wahhabi extremism is prevalent throughout the Muslim world. I drew on informants, most of them confidential, that included Saudi subjects, West Africans, Moroccans, Algerians, Egyptians, Somalis, Syrians, Turks, Chechens, Ingushes, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Indian Muslims, and Malaysians as well as Balkan and American Muslims.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, I do not believe, finally, that the great struggle we are seeing today--a battle for the soul of the Islamic ummah--is about Islam per se, or about Israel, or about American hegemony, or even about Saudi corruption. Rather, it is about Beethoven.
You may ask, what can that mean?
In his greatest symphonies, Beethoven attempted to express in music the conquering, transforming world idea embodied in Napoleon Bonaparte; that is, the global triumph of the bourgeois idea, and of bourgeois society.
In 1798, Bonaparte marched to the banks of the Nile. Military resistance to him was led by an Albanian-born Muslim, Mehmed Ali, who was the same age as Napoleon. With the French armies repulsed, Mehmed Ali was named governor of Egypt.
But the triumphant world idea embodied by Napoleon was contagious. Mehmed Ali Pasha developed a plan for the transformation of the Ottoman empire, its modernization and adoption of the new ideas emanating from Europe. As described by a contemporary American observer, William Brown Hodgson, Mehmed Ali Pasha "desire(d) to raise Egypt to the level of European civilization The patronage which he (gave) to the arts and sciences; his encouragement of Europeans of talent; his printing-presses; polytechnic, elementary, and medical schools; his factories and internal improvements, (were) evidence of enlightened views in civil administration."
Mehmed Ali Pasha remains one of the greatest figures in Ottoman and Islamic history, but his project for transformation of the Islamic and Arab worlds was halted. Mustafa Kemal, father of modern Turkey, carried his spirit forward.
Still, on the banks of the Nile, in Hejaz, and elsewhere in the Islamic world the spirit of Mehmed Ali Pasha waits. His transforming project has been delayed for two hundred years. More than by Western imperialism, the forces of progress and freedom in the Islamic and Arab world have been blocked for two centuries by obscurantism and reaction.
For 200 years the spirit of Mehmed Ali Pasha has waited for its moment. Now, today, in the spirit of the Turkish Republic, and of Ottoman Islam, we must observe and recognize reality. Throughout the Muslim and Arab world, bourgeois society is breaking through the barriers of corruption and autocracy. History is knocking at the door. And to all believers, I would cite a phrase from Jewish tradition: "If not now, when?"