Arab protesters demand democracy—but not secularism.
By Michael Scheuer
The Arab world’s unrest has brought forth gushing, rather adolescent analysis about what the region will look like a year or more hence. Americans have decided that these upheavals have everything to do with the advent of liberalism, secularism, and Westernization in the region and that Islamist militant groups like al-Qaeda have been sidelined by the historically inevitable triumph of democracy—a belief that sounds a bit like the old Marxist-Leninist claptrap about iron laws of history and communism’s inexorable triumph.
How has this judgment been reached? Primarily by disregarding facts, logic, and history, and instead relying on (a) the thin veneer of young, educated, pro-democracy, and English-speaking Muslims who can be found on Facebook and Twitter and (b) the employees of the BBC, CNN, and most other media networks, who have suspended genuine journalism in favor of cheerleading for secularism and democracy on the basis of a non-representative sample of English-speaking street demonstrators and users of social-networking sites. The West’s assessment of Arab unrest so far has been—to paraphrase Sam Spade’s comment about the Maltese Falcon—the stuff that dreams, not reality, are made of.
A year from now, we will find that most Arab Muslims have neither embraced nor installed what they have long regarded as an irreligious and even pagan ideology—secular democracy. They will have instead adhered even more closely to the faith that has graced, ordered, and regulated their lives for more than 1400 years, and which helped them endure the oppressive rule of Western-supported tyrants and kleptocrats.
This does not mean that fanatically religious regimes will dominate the region, but a seven-year Gallup survey of the Muslim world published in 2007 shows that a greater degree of Sharia law in governance is favored by young and old, moderates and militants, men and even women in most Muslim countries. While a façade of democracy may well appear in new regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia, their governments will be heavily influenced by the military and by Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. If for no other reason, the Islamist groups will have a powerful pull because they have strong organizational capabilities; wide allegiance among the highly educated in the military, hard sciences, engineering, religious faculties, and medicine; and a reservoir of patience for a two-steps-forward, one-step-back strategy that is beyond Western comprehension. We in the West too often forget, for example, that the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda draw from Muslim society’s best and brightest, not its dregs; that al-Qaeda has been waging its struggle for 25 years, the Muslim Brotherhood for nearly 85 years; and that Islam has been in the process of globalizing since the 7th century.
As new Arab regimes develop, Westerners also are likely to find that their own deep sense of superiority over devout Muslims—which is especially strong among the secular left, Christian evangelicals, and neoconservatives—is unwarranted. The nearly universal assumption in the West is that Islamic governance could not possibly satisfy the aspirations of Muslims for greater freedom and increased economic opportunity—this even though Iran has a more representative political system than that of any state in the region presided over by a Western-backed dictator. No regime run by the Muslim Brotherhood would look like Canada, but it would be significantly less oppressive than those run by the al-Sauds and Mubarak. This is not to say it would be similar to or more friendly toward the West—neither will be the case—but in terms of respecting and addressing basic human concerns they will be less monstrous.
The West’s biggest surprise a year out may well lie in being forced to learn that Westernization, secularization, and modernization are not synonyms. The postwar West’s arrogance—dare I say hubris?—has long held as an article of its increasingly pagan faith that these concepts are identical, inseparable, and the proudest achievement of superior Western culture. Well, not so. Muslims make an absolute distinction among the concepts.
Modernization, in the sense of the tools of technology, is something they pursue with a passion. From air-conditioning to computers to a variety of other communications gear and high-tech weaponry, there is little Luddism among Muslims. Indeed, the military forces of the United States are now losing wars to Islamist mujahideen who stay one step ahead of Western military technology in areas like improvised explosive devices and using topography to disguise their locations from satellite photography. Through their sophisticated use of the Internet and other media vehicles, moreover, they are dominating the so-called information war and making Western propaganda efforts appear for what they are: reality-defying, intellectually sterile, and designed for the non-existent I-am-ready-to-blow-myself-up-because-Americans-drink-beer Islamist enemy.
As Washington and its allies remain locked in two wars with Islamists—and itch to start another in Libya—they are cultivating a new generation of Muslim enemies by neglecting the fundamental difference, for Muslims and other non-Westerners, between modernization on one hand and Westernization and secularization on the other. In Steve Coll’s fine book The Bin Ladens, he describes the late Saudi King Faisal as a champion of technical progress without privatization of religion; indeed, Faisal was an austere and pious man who was the motive force behind an attempt to modernize the kingdom, but at the same time he was prepared to resist secularism with force. As Coll also notes, Osama bin Laden attended a “modern” school that taught math, sciences, geography, and English—as well as faith—that was established by Faisal. Bin Laden, Coll writes, received an up-to-date but fiercely anti-secular education that was “inseparable from the national ideology promoted by King Faisal in the late years of his reign.”
This is the point at which the West’s jejune expectations for secular democracy in the Muslim world will come dramatically a cropper in the years ahead. By willfully misinterpreting English-speaking, pro-democracy Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian Facebookers as representing the Arab world’s welcoming view of secularism, Western leaders, especially the media, have deluded one another into believing that Islam’s doors are open for women’s rights, pornography, blasphemy, man-made law, popular elections, and a host of the West’s other secular-pagan attributes.
In this judgment they will be dead wrong, and they will find that any Western help dispatched to move Muslim societies in these directions will earn the Faisal/bin Laden response: fierce and possibly violent resistance. Two examples of this phenomenon—one country specific, one international—are already on display.
In Afghanistan, the country’s post-2001 inundation by Western non-governmental organizations and private-sector construction, mercenary, and consulting firms brought with it bars, bordellos, and the proliferation of Western dress—all viewed by many pious Afghan Muslims as offenses to their faith. The creation of this pint-sized version of Hollywood’s lifestyle in Kabul had particularly unfortunate consequences for the U.S.-led coalition. This un-Islamic behavior helped prompt much of the city’s citizenry to collect and pass information about the West’s military and civil plans—and those of the Karzai regime that abetted the Westerners—to the Taliban and other mujahideen groups for violent exploitation.
Worldwide, the West’s extravagant—not to say mindless—praise for the once Muslim but now anti-Islamic feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a further example of its ignorance about the depth of anti-secularism in the Muslim world. Hirsi Ali is the perfect embodiment of the West’s unshakeable conviction—best expressed by Secretary Clinton and Madeleine Albright—that Muslim women want to be “just like us.” This Western image of Hirsi Ali as a kind of Joan of Arc bent on freeing Muslim women from their religion’s superstitious shackles is shared by some Muslim women—but very few. The bulk of reliable polling data by Gallup shows most Muslim men and women alike want a large measure of Sharia law to be employed by the regimes that govern them. There is no data showing that Muslim women long to decamp to a semi-pagan society where Lady Gaga and Lindsay Lohan are role models.
Indeed, the West’s heroic Hirsi Ali tends to be viewed in the Islamic world as an apostate to her faith. She also is seen as a new edition of the British imperialist Lord Curzon, bent on performing anew Kipling’s call for improving the lot of her little brown sisters by diktat or force.
At day’s end, the success of the United States and its allies in concluding their war with the Islamist movement depends on an adult assessment of the Muslim world. The basis of this analysis must be a realization that modernization, Westernization, and secularization are not interchangeable terms. The technological tools of the West are largely welcomed, admired, and used in the Muslim world—witness the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—but continuing attempts to impose Westernization and privatization of religion will, at this point in history, remain a vibrant casus belli for Muslims and earn a fierce and martial resistance.
We must begin to recognize that while America’s neoconservative and progressive thinkers fallaciously prattle on about the Islamists being on the verge of Islamicizing the West, it is the West’s half-century campaign to impose and then maintain secularist tyrants on Muslim states that has supplied the main motivation for the growing number of Muslims who believe themselves and their faith to be at war against the West. Continued failure to make this simple and clear semantic distinction will bring the late Professor Huntington’s concept of a clash of civilizations much closer to fruition.
Michael Scheuer is a former senior CIA officer and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University. His new book is Osama bin Laden.