Cigarette dangling from his lips, the moneychanger squinted at me as if I were a phony dinar note. “You are American?” he asked, as a group of men behind him fixed me with unfriendly stares. “Tell me,” he continued, slapping Iraqi bills on the countertop, “why does Bush invade our land?” Seeking a quick exit from this conversation, I suggested that the U.S. sought to bring democracy to Iraq. “You are wrong, my friend,” declared the moneychanger, as his friends snorted and shook their heads. “America cares nothing about democracy—she wants only to steal our oil and make Israel more powerful. Believe me, we know this. America invaded Iraq to make Israel number one!”
I’d entered this Baghdad storefront last March to change some dollars, not talk politics. Yet while I usually ignored the opinions of the Iraqi “street,” this time something compelled me to respond. “America invaded Iraq to make Israel ‘number one?’ That’s stupid!” I scoffed, startling the Arabs. “Israel already is number one. In its military and economy”—thinking of per capita GDP here—“Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East. And do you know why? Because it is a democracy! Once Iraq becomes a democracy, who knows? Maybe you’ll be number one!” Unsure if I was criticizing Israel or supporting Iraq, the men looked confused and I left without further discussion. At last, I thought, a riposte to Arab conspiracy theories!
My conversation with the moneychanger returned to mind this month when I read an op-ed piece in the Financial Times by French scholar Olivier Roy. In his piece, entitled “Radical Islam appeals to the rootless,” Roy argued that Islamic fundamentalism—or salafism--is a “tool for uprooting” Muslim societies in order to create a “universal religious identity, unlinked from any specific culture.” Diffused by radical websites, Roy continued, “deculturalized Islam” appeals to an “uprooted, disaffected youth in search of an identity.” And this, in turn, helps fuel a jihadist ideology unfettered by the inherited traditions of religion, family and nation. In the virtual ummah, Roy implied, there’s just the internet, the holy warrior and 70 virgins waiting in the afterlife.
What intrigued me about Roy’s article were the questions it left unanswered. Why do so many Muslims renounce their cultures for rebirth in the death-cult of Islamofascism? Why do they reject the moderating aspects of Middle Eastern art and literature for literalist interpretations of the Koran? When they do discard their cultural legacy for fundamentalism, why do they so often turn to violence?
In pondering these questions, I reflected on my experiences traveling through Iraq and Iran. In both these countries, I detected a profound despair that underscores daily life (the violence in Iraq, of course, intensifies this feeling). Now, we’ve heard ad nauseam about how Muslim despair is the result of colonialism, imperialism, American hegemony, and so on. This is partly true—but why did the Islamic world become so feeble that these factors affected it in the first place? A deeper cause for the despondency of the Middle East might be the petrifying creed of Islam itself, especially when entwined with tribal customs more suited for pre-modern, agricultural-based societies. At least since Napoleon landed in Egypt, this combination has crippled Muslims’ ability to compete with the West. Interestingly enough, the terror masters seem to agree.
Take, for example, your average Islamofascist. He seeks to restore the lost glories of the Caliphate and unify the ummah from Andalusia to the Straits of Malacca. Unfortunately, his home base—the Middle East—is surrounded by infidels who occupy its land, steal its national resources and corrupt the morals of its people. Moreover, Western colonialism has splintered dar al-Islam into “nations,” which war among themselves and make alliances with the Crusaders, even as social factors within these artificial countries further divide Muslims into tribal and religious factions. Since the 1967 catastrophe it has been clear that pan-Arabism is incapable of unifying the faithful into a force puissant enough to defeat the West and its Zionist ally. What’s a radical Muslim to do?
“Slay the idolaters wherever you find them,” advises the Koran. Or, as Mohammad once observed, “A single endeavor of fighting in Allah’s cause is better than the world and whatever is in it.” Clearly, these and other divine endorsements of religious violence are instructions for the salafist to reduce Islam to its bellicose core, sweep away the moderating buffers of Muslim culture and fuse believers together with the “iron band” of jihadist terror. And Allah has provided no shortage of potential mujahadeen to draw from, what with hordes of young men (and increasingly women) whom Islamic clerics insure are poorly educated, sexually repressed and wracked with self-loathing and despair. Indeed, one wonders if Islamofascism is less interested in replacing Muslim ways of life—as Roy asserts--as in parasitically drawing strength from its failure.
Salafists and neo-conservatives share similar views of the Muslim world: poor, ignorant, backwards, its development retarded by archaic social customs and tribal mores—and both want to reshape this world in ways conducive to their interests. The difference is that neo-cons favor democratization, while radical mullahs aim at what Roy calls “re-Islamization.” Where one envisions a pacified, liberal and prosperous Islam, the other desires a pumped-up, ultra-misogynistic, martial creed capable of battling both Great and Little Satans. Most Westerners think it a no-brainer for Muslims to choose democracy if provided a choice—especially given Israel’s example of the strengths it confers. Yet we witness, particularly in Iraq, thousands of people like my Baghdad moneychanger—not to mention the Sunni Triangle paramilitaries—who view American efforts to nurture liberalism with deep, often murderous, distrust. The question remains: why?
There are many answers, of course, but one became clearer to me the longer I dealt with Iraqis. Burrowed deep within the Muslim-Arab weltanschauung, it seemed to me, lurks a sense of grandiosity that holds the rest of the world in contempt. Exacerbated by Islam’s claims to spiritual superiority, the parochial nature of tribalism and the addictions of oil wealth, this self-aggrandizement hampers Muslims’ ability to make realistic assessments of their options and weaknesses. Since we are pre-eminent, their unconscious thinking goes, the infidel world must adapt to us, not vice-versa.
This view is supported by a recent essay appearing in the Boston Review by Syrian scholar Sadik Al-Azm. In it, Al-Azm posited, “as Arabs and Muslims, we continue to imagine ourselves as conquerors, history-makers, pace-setters, pioneers and leaders of world-historic proportions.” When this inflated self-image collides with the “impotence, frustration and insignificance” of the Arab-Muslim world, Al-Azm noted, “a host of problems ensue: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence and, lately, large-scale terrorism.”
The viewpoints of Roy and Al-Azm present a grim diagnosis of Arab-Muslim culture. It’s tribalism, misogyny and—above all--religious obscurantism have created a historical cul-de-sac for millions of people. Seeking escape from their failing societies, many Muslims yearn for the limited, non-heroic but empowering structures of liberal democracy. But too many, unable—or unwilling—to transcend fantasies of Islamic superiority, fall prey to parasitical salafism. No wonder radical Muslims proclaim to “love death more than life”—trapped in a kind of cultural narcissism, they have little idea what real life is like.
This is why the much-maligned vision of democratizing the Middle East is so important. Assaulted internally and externally, traditional Arab-Muslim cultures are in large part decaying, and must yield to either liberal pluralism or religious tyranny. We have a responsibility to help them choose the first and renounce the second. And yet, liberating nations and defeating death-squads are not enough: as the Baghdad moneychanger demonstrated, even when presented with the benefits of democracy, many Muslims would rather wallow in fantasies of past glory, victimization and, ultimately, self-annihilation. Clearly, true change in the Middle East will only occur when these lost souls decide for themselves to reject grandiosity in favor of the more sober compensations of reality. This choice, of course, lies beyond our abilities to make happen: we can only pray that it does happen—and soon. For the alternative threatening civilization is too terrible to imagine: the apocalyptic glory of Islamofascism, followed by the void.