I would like to see ulama and ordinary Muslims all over the world coming out against all acts of unIslamic violence more strongly, and without equivocation. I wish, in fact, that a Muslim were manning this Beliefnet Q and A, instead of a non-Muslim like me. American and British Muslims, whose remarks are often too timid, must join the debate in a more public manner.
In the current climate, it is understandable that they are afraid to speak out. Also, while Muslims may abhor the wickedness of terrorism, they have grave and painful reservations about American foreign policy in the Middle East. And because Muslims all over the world feel generally threatened in a Western-dominated world, they naturally feel it important to stick together.
As their countries make the painful rite of passage to modernity, the ulama themselves have not been able to address the difficulties Muslims are experiencing. The Sheikhs of Al-Azhar, probably the most prestigious Madrasah in the Sunni world, were so cowed by some Egyptian leaders' modernizing policies that they simply retreated to their studies, and withdrew.
In their absence, people turned to such laymen as Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who was assassinated by the Egyptian government in 1949. Or Sayyid Qutb, about whom we spoke yesterday. For many Muslims--including the terrorists--the conventional ulama are part of the problem.
Why are there few Islamic democracies?
Democracy is not created by an act of will. The form we know today emerged very gradually in the West. It was not simply dreamed up by political scientists or inspired statesmen but appeared as the result of a process of trial and error. Over time, we've found to be the best way to run a modern society.
In the 16th century, Europe and, later, what would become the United States began to create an entirely new kind of society. In what we call the premodern world, all civilizations were based economically on a surplus of agriculture, which could be used for trade. But at the time of the scientific revolution, the West began to create a society founded on technology and reinvestment of capital, enabling Europe and America to replicate its resources indefinitely.
This involved major change at every level of society, and it was a painful process. Modernity did not come fully into its own until the 19th century, and during that time the Western countries experienced revolutions, violent wars of religion, exploitation of workers in factories, the despoilation of the countryside, and great distress as people struggled to make sense of this profound change--similar upheavals are going on now in developing countries, including the Islamic countries, as they make this difficult rite of passage.
The new order demanded change on every level: social, political, intellectual, scientific and religious. And the emerging modern spirit had two main characteristics: independence and innovation.
There were declarations of independence in nearly all fields. The American Declaration of Independence was a modernizing document, and the war with Britain a modernizing war. But people also demanded independence intellectually: scientists could not permit themselves to be impeded by a coercive state or religious establishment; the Protestant Reformers who declared their independence of the Catholic Church were also forces for modernization. And innovation: constantly people were making something new, breaking unprecedented ground, discovering something fresh. There was excitement as well as the distress that inevitably accompanies major change.
Similarly, to make full use of its human resources, governments found they had to draw upon minority groups such as the Jews, which had been either persecuted or confined to ghettos in Europe. In England, Catholics were emancipated. Those societies that were secular and democratic seemed to work best. In Eastern Europe, countries that reserved the fruits of modernity for an elite, and that used more draconian measures to bring Jews into the mainstream, fell behind.It's important to note that this modernization took about 300 years. New ideas and ideals had time to filter down to society's lower echelons, under the dynamic of its own momentum. This has not been the case in the Islamic world. Here modernization has been far more accelerated, leaving no time for the trickle-down effect. Consequently, society has been polarized: only a privileged elite has been educated to take part in modern politics, while the vast majority find their society changing in ways that seem incomprehensible and bewildering. It has been compared to the trauma of watching a beloved friend changed by mortal illness. Religion has been a solace--but of course religion too has to change in the modern world.