that an effective cure of a disease requires a sound diagnosis is to state the
obvious. Yet, in the face of the
9/11 plague, and of the scourge of terrorism in general, the Bush administration
has utterly failed to shed any light on some of the submerged factors that might
have provoked such heinous attacks.
Instead, the simplistic and politically expedient explanations such as
"good vs. evil," "clash of civilizations," or the "Islamic incompatibility with
the modern world" have shed more heat than light on the issue.
from their poisonous implications for international relations, such explanations
simply fail the test of history.
The history of the relationship between the modern Western world and the
Muslim world shows that, contrary to popular perceptions in the West, from the
time of their initial contacts with the capitalist West more than two centuries
ago until almost the final third of the twentieth century, the Muslim people
were quite receptive of the economic and political models of the modern
world. Many people in the Muslim
world, including the majority of their political leaders, were eager to
transform and restructure the socio-economic and political structures of their
societies after the model of the capitalist West. The majority of political leaders, as
well as a significant number of Islamic experts and intellectuals, viewed the
rise of the modern West and its spread into their lands as inevitable historical
developments that challenged them to chart their own programs of reform and
of this background, the question arises: What changed all of that earlier
receptive and respectful attitude toward the West to the current attitude of
disrespect and hatred? This brief survey of the relationship between the Muslim
world and the Western world, especially the United States, will show that the
answer to this question lies more with the policies of the Western powers in the
region than the alleged rigidity of Islam, or "the clash of civilizations." It will show that it was only after more
than a century and a half of imperialistic pursuits and a series of humiliating
policies in the region that the popular masses of the Muslim world turned to
religion and the conservative religious leaders as sources of defiance,
mobilization, and self-respect. In
other words, for many Muslims the recent turn to religion often represents not
so much a rejection of Western values and achievements as it is a way to resist
and/or defy the humiliating imperialistic policies of Western powers.
Responses to the Challenges of the Modern World
did the early modernizers of the Muslim world embrace the Western technology,
but they also welcomed its civil and state institutions, its representational
system of government, and its tradition of legal and constitutional rights. For example, the Iranian intellectuals
Mulkum Khan (1833-1908) and Agha Khan Kermani (1853-96) urged Iranians to
acquire a Western education and replace the Shariah (the religious legal
code) with a modern secular legal
code. Secular political leaders of
this persuasion joined forces with the more liberal religious leaders in the
Constitution Revolution of 1906, and forced the Qajar dynasty to set up a
modern constitution, to limit the powers of the monarchy and give Iranians
some of the Ottoman sultans pursued Western models of industrialization and
modernization on their own. For
example, Sultan Mahmud II "inaugurated the Tanzimat (Regulation) in 1826,
which abolished the Janissaries [the fanatical elite corps of troops organized
in the 14th century], modernized the army and introduced some of the
new technology." In 1839 Sultan
Abdulhamid "issued the Gulhane decree, which made his rule dependent upon a
contractual relationship with his subjects, and looked forward to major reform
of the empire's institutions."[ii]
dramatic, however, were the modernizing and/or secularizing programs of Egypt's
renowned modernizers Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) and his grandson Ismail Pasha
(1803-95). They were so taken by the
impressive achievements of the West that they embarked on breakneck modernizing
programs that were tantamount to trying to hothouse the Western world's
achievements of centuries into decades: "To secularize the country, Muhammad Ali
simply confiscate much religiously endowed property and systematically
marginalized the Ulema [religious leaders], divesting them of any shred
of power."[iii] In the face of dire conditions of
underdevelopment and humiliating but unstoppable foreign domination, those
national leaders viewed modernization not only as the way out of
underdevelopment but also out of the yoke of foreign
the secular intellectuals, the political elite, and government leaders but also
many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as "Islamic modernizers," viewed
modernization as the way of the future.
But whereas the reform programs and policies of the political/national
leaders often included secularization, at least implicitly, Islamic modernizers
were eclectic: while seeking to adopt the sources of the strength of the West,
including constitutionalism and government by representation, they wanted to
preserve their cultural and national identities as well as Islamic principles
and values as the moral foundation of the society. These
Islamic modernizers included Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), Muhammad Abduh
(1849-1905), Qasim Amin (18631908), and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Naini in Egypt
and Iran; and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) in
sure, there was resistance and, at times, even violent clashes. But, by and large, nationalist
modernizers in many Muslim countries did manage to pursue vigorous agendas of
social, economic, and political reform.
John Esposito, one of the leading experts of Islamic studies in the
United States, describes the early attitude of the political and economic policy
makers of the Muslim world toward the modern world of the West in the following
Both the indigenous
elites, who guided government development programs in newly emerging Muslim
states, and their foreign patrons and advisers were Western-oriented and
Western-educated. All proceeded
from a premise that equated modernization with Westernization. The clear goal and presupposition of
development was that every day and in every way things should become more modern
(i.e., Western and secular), from cities, buildings, bureaucracies, companies,
and schools to politics and culture.
While some warned of the need to be selective, the desired direction and
pace of change were unmistakable.
Even those Muslims who spoke of selective change did so within a context
which called for the separation of religion from public life. Western analysts and Muslim experts
alike tended to regard a Western-based process of modernization as necessary and
inevitable and believed equally that religion was a major hindrance to political
and social change in the Muslim world (1992: 9).[iv]
Armstrong, author of a number of books on religious fundamentalism, likewise
points out the following:
hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the
West, which at that time meant Europe.
America was still an unknown quantity. Politicians and journalists in India,
Egypt, and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France;
philosophers, poets, and even some of the ulama (religious scholars)
tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic model of the
West. They called for a nation
state, for representational government, for the disestablishment of religion,
and for constitutional rights. Some
even claimed that the Europeans were better Muslims than their own fellow
countrymen since the Koran teaches that the resources of a society must be
shared as fairly as possible, and in the European nations there was beginning to
be a more equitable sharing of wealth.[v]
then asks: "So what happened in the intervening years to transform all of that
admiration and respect into the
hatred that incited
the acts of terror that we witnessed on September 11?"
profound questions of this type could go some way to help a national debate over
some of the more submerged factors that contributed to the 9/11 atrocities, the
beneficiaries of war dividends-who are closely linked to the U.S. Defense
Department and the Zionist lobby, and who seem to be in charge of the Bush
administration's foreign policy making-have successfully kept such questions off
the national debate. In fact, these
beneficiaries have so far succeeded in preempting a national debate on the issue
necessary to acknowledge, once again, that the Muslim world's earlier openness
to the modern world was far from even or uniform: along with advocates of change
and adaptation there existed forces of resistance and rejection. Focusing primarily on such instances of
rejection, proponents of the theory of "clash of civilizations" can certainly
cite, as they frequently do, many such incidents of resistance in support of
their arguments that horrific acts like those committed on 9/11 "are due to
inherent incompatibility of the Muslim world with Western values."[vi] But such selective references to
historical developments in order to support a pre-determined view do not carry
us very far in the way of setting historical records straight. A number of issues need to be pointed
contrary to the rising political influence of "radical Islamists" in recent
years, radical Islamic circles of the earlier periods did not sway much power
over the direction of national economies and policies. Their opposition to Western values and
influences was largely in the form of passive "rejection or elusion."[vii] They simply refused to cooperate or deal with the
colonial powers and their institutions (such as modern European schools)
spreading in their midst: "They did not attempt to assume direct political
control but used their position to preserve tradition as best they could under
the rapidly changing conditions of the time." And while they "remained an important
factor in influencing public opinion, ...they basically used their position to
encourage obedience to those in power."[viii]
change almost always generates resistance.
Resistance to change is, therefore, not limited to Muslims or the Muslim
world. In fact, the Christian
Church's nearly 400-year resistance to capitalist transformation in Europe was
even more traumatic than that of the Muslim world. The resulting travail of transition
created more social turbulence than has been observed in the context of the
Muslim world. Whereas the Church of
the Middle Ages anathemized the very idea of gain, the pursuit of gain and the
accumulation of property are considered noble pursuits in Islam. Opponents of transition to capitalism in
Europe not only tried (and almost hanged) Robert Keane for having made a
six-percent profit on his investment and "prohibited merchants from carrying
unsightly bundles" of their merchandise, but also "fought for the privilege of
carrying on in its fathers' footsteps."[ix] As Karen Armstrong points out, during
the nearly 400 years of transition, the Western people often "experienced...bloody
revolutions, reigns of terror, genocide, violent wars of religion, the
despoliation of the countryside, vast social upheavals, exploitation in the
factories, spiritual malaise and profound anomie in the new megacities."[x]
Muslim societies, like less-developed societies elsewhere, are expected, or
compelled by the imperatives of the world market, to traverse the nearly four
hundred-year journey of the West in a much shorter period of time. Furthermore, the travails of transition
in the case of these belatedly developing countries (vis-à-vis the case of early
developers of the West) are often complicated by foreign interventions and
imperial pressures from outside.
External pressure has included not only direct colonial and/or imperial
military force, but also pressure exerted from the more subtle market forces and
agents such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade
Organization. Despite its
turbulence, the painful process of transition to capitalism in the West was
largely an internal process; no foreign force or interference could be blamed
for the travails of transition. And
the pains of transitions were thus gradually and grudgingly accepted as
in the case of belatedly developing countries. Here, the pains of change and transition
are often perceived not as historical necessities but as products of foreign
designs or imperialist schemes.
Accordingly, the agony of change is often blamed (by the conservative
proponents of the status quo) on external forces or powers: colonialism,
imperialism, and neo-liberalism. Actual foreign intervention, realizing and
reinforcing such perceptions, has thus had a delaying impact on the process of
reform in the Muslim world. For
intervention from outside often plays into the hands of the conservative,
obscurantist religious leaders who are quite adept at portraying their innate
opposition to change as a struggle against foreign domination, thereby
reinforcing resistance to reform, especially religious reform. Today, for example, U.S. intervention in
the internal affairs of countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey, far from facilitating the process of reform or helping
the forces of change in these countries, is actually hurting such forces as it
plays into the hands of their conservative opponents and strengthens the camp of
Happened to the Once-Popular U.S. in the Muslim World?
World War II, England and other European powers dominated world politics and
markets, not the United States. In
its drive to penetrate into those markets in competition with European powers,
the United States, often citing its own war of independence from the British
empire, frequently expressed sympathy with the national liberation struggles of
the peoples of the colonial and other less-developed regions. Unsurprisingly, this made the United
States-not just the country, its people, and its values but also its foreign
policy and its statesmen-quite popular in the less-developed world, especially
the Muslim world, as it portrayed the prospect of an unconditional ally in a
rising world power.
for example, when the late Egyptian leader Jamal Abdel Nasser faced the European
opposition to his state-guided economic development program, he turned to the
Unites State for help. Nasser's
appeal for the U.S. support had been prompted by the United States' veiled
expressions of understanding of Egypt's aspirations to chart an independent
national policy. Nasser perceived
those sympathetic gestures as signs of genuine friendship and cooperation. But when the United States revealed its
conditions for the promised cooperation, the Egyptian leader was deeply
major condition required Egypt to enter into the then U.S.-sponsored military
alliance in the region, the Baghdad Pact.
This was one of the early military alliances that the Unites States
established in the region, not only to counter the Soviet influence but also to
supplant its enfeebled allies, Britain and France. As a savvy statesmen, Nasser understood
the "necessity" of such alliances and was, in fact, willing to join the proposed
military pact. But the United
States expected more. In addition,
the U.S. wanted to "shape" Egypt's economic policies. As Mahmood Hussein put it, "the United
States claimed the right to control the Egyptian state's economic policies."[xi] Disillusioned-indeed, with his back
against the wall-Nasser turned to the Soviet Union to temper the pressure thus
exercised against Egypt. The turn
to the Soviet Union was, therefore, precipitated more by expediency, or by
default, than by ideological affinity.
Egypt's Nasser, Iran's liberal-nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq also
initially harbored illusions of unconditional friendship with the United
States. This was because, in the
dispute between Iran and England over the control of Iranian oil, the United
States had originally conveyed signs of neutrality, even sympathy, with Iran's
grievances against England. Prior
to the 1953 nationalization, Iran's oil was essentially controlled by
Britain. As promised during his
election campaign, Mossadeq took steps to nationalize the country's oil industry
soon after being popularly elected to premiership in 1951. As England resisted giving up its
control of Iran's oil industry, a severe crisis ensued between the two
countries. "Mossadeq had thought
that the United States might warn London not to interfere, and for a while
Truman and Acheson maintained the pretense of neutrality by advising both sides
to remain tranquil."[xii] It soon became clear, however, that
while trying to weaken the British Empire, the United States was pursuing its
own imperialistic agenda. And when
Mossadeq resisted compliance with that agenda, he was fatally punished for
"insubordination": His democratically elected government was soon overthrown by
the notorious 1953 coup, which was orchestrated by the CIA and British
intelligence. The coup also brought
the Shah-who had fled to Rome-back to power, aboard a U.S. military plane with
the CIA chief at his side.
now common knowledge that, since the 1953 violent overthrow of Mossadeq's
government in Iran, the United States has helped or orchestrated similar coups
against duly elected governments in a number of other countries. In each case, the United States replaced
such legitimate governments with "friendly" dictatorial regimes of its own
choice. A sample of such handpicked
regimes includes those of General Pinochet in Chile, the Somoza family in
Nicaragua, Duvalier in Haiti, and
Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.
The list of the U.S. interventions and adventures abroad is quite long.
In his latest best-seller, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To
Be So Hated, Gore Vidal lists some 200 such interventions since WW II.[xiii] Most of today's regimes in the Muslim
world (such as those ruling in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait,
and a number of smaller kingdoms in the Persian Gulf area) are able to maintain
their dictatorial rule not because their people want them stay in power but
because they are useful to some powerful interests in the United States.
not surprising, then, that many people in these countries are increasingly
asking: Why can't we elect our own governments? Why can't we have independent
political parties? Why can't we
breathe, so to speak? Why are our governments so corrupt? Why are our people,
especially Palestinians, treated like this? Why are we ruled by regimes we don't
like and don't want, but cannot change? And why can't we change them?
the majority of these countries' citizens would say, because certain powerful
interests in the United States need them and want them in power!
is it surprising that many people in the Muslim world, especially the frustrated
youth, are flocking into the ranks of militant anti-U.S. forces, and employing
religion as a weapon of mobilization and defiance. It is
also no accident that desperate
violent reactions are usually directed at the symbols of U.S. power-not at those
of the Japanese, for example.
Correlation between U.S. foreign policy and such reactions was
unambiguously acknowledged by the members of the United States' Defense Science
Board, who wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of defense for
acquisition and science, "Historical data shows a strong correlation between
U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist
attacks against the United States."[xiv]
such tragic and often destructive reactions to U.S. international involvements
"blowbacks from imperialistic U.S. foreign policies," Chalmers Johnson in his
illuminating book, Blowback, lists many instances of U.S. interventions
in the domestic affairs of other countries, as well as some of the violent
responses to such interventions:
daily press reports as the malign acts of 'terrorists' or 'drug lords' or 'rogue
states' or 'illegal arms merchants' often turn out to be blowbacks from earlier
American operations.... For example,
in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. government organized a massive campaign
against the socialist-oriented Sandinista government. American agents then looked the other
way when the Contras, the military insurgents they had trained, made deals to
sell cocaine in American cities in order to buy arms and supplies. If drug blowback is hard to trace to its
source, bomb attacks, whether on U.S. embassies in Africa, the World Trade
Center in New York, or an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia that housed U.S.
servicemen, are another matter.[xv]
point here is, of course, not to condone or justify, in any way, the destructive
or terrorizing reactions to U.S. foreign interventions-legitimate grievances do
not justify illegitimate responses.
Nor is it meant to disrespect the innocent victims of such atrocious
reactions, or to disparage the pain and agony of the loss of the loved ones. The
point is, rather, to place such reactions in a context, and to suggest an
explanation. As Gore Vidal puts it, "It is a law of physics...that in nature there
is no action without reaction. The same appears to be true in human nature-that
is, history."[xvi] The "actions" Vidal refers to here are
U.S. military or covert operations abroad, which are sometimes called state or
wholesale terrorism. "Reactions,"
on the other hand, refer to desperate individual, or group, terrorism, which are
also called retail terrorism.
scrutiny of the Muslim world's early responses to the challenges of the modern
West reveals that, despite significant resistance, the overall policy was
moving in the direction of reform and adaptation. That policy of adaptation and openness
continued from the time of the Muslim world's initial contacts with the modern
world in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries until
approximately the last third of the twentieth century. During that period, the majority of the
political elite and/or national leaders viewed the rise of the modern West, and
its spread into their territories, as an inevitable historical development that
challenged them to chart their own programs of reform and development. Not only did the political elite, the
intellectuals, and government leaders view modernization as the way of the
future, but so did many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as "Islamic
is true that obscurantist conservative forces, both religious and otherwise,
have always defied reform and resisted change. It is also true that, at times,
played an important role in the anti-colonial/anti-imperial struggles. But because Islamic leaders often lacked
clear programs or plans for the reconstruction and development of their
societies, political leadership on a national level often fell into the hands of
secular nationalists who offered such nation-building plans. After WW II, those plans were fashioned
either after the U.S. model of market mechanism, as in the cases of the Shahs of
Iran and the Kings of Jordan, or after the Soviet model of "non-capitalist
development" and/or Arab "socialism," as in the cases of Nasser's Egypt and
Qaddafi's Libya. Both models
nurtured dreams of economic progress, democratic rights, and political/national
sovereignty. Accordingly, secular
nationalist leaders who promoted such models, and promised economic well being
and social progress, enjoyed broader popular support than the conservative
religious leaders who lacked plans of economic development and national
as the hopes and aspirations that were thus generated remained alive, promises
of an "Islamic alternative" remained ineffectual in their challenge of the plans
of the secular nationalist leaders.
But as those hopes gradually and painfully turned into despair and
hopelessness, such promises began to sound appealing. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, most
of the national governments' hopeful and auspicious plans that had hitherto
nurtured dreams of economic progress, democratic rights, and political
sovereignty turned out to be hollow and disappointing. Frustrated, many Muslims
turned to religion, and sought solace in the promise of an "Islamic
disappointing were the policies of the United States in the Muslim world. Before
supplanting the European imperial powers in the region, the U.S. promised
policies of neutrality and even-handedness in the Muslim world. Once it firmly replaced its European
rivals, however, the United States set out to pursue policies that have not been
less imperialistic than the policies of its European predecessors. U.S. imperial
policies in the region have, therefore, strongly contributed to the nurturing of
the Islamic revival of the recent decades.
historical observations refute the claim that Islam and/or the Muslim world are
inherently incompatible with modernization, and that, therefore, the rise of an
Islamic militancy in the last few decades, and the violent reactions such as the
9/11 attacks, are essentially manifestations of "the clash of civilizations."
The claim that attributes the Islamic resurgence to the "inherently
confrontational nature of Islam" tends to downplay, or overlook, specific
socioeconomic factors and geopolitical policies that underlie the rage and
reactions of the majority of the Muslim people.
About the author:
Dr. Ismael Hossein-zadeh teaches
economics at Drake University, Des Moines, IA
[i] See, for example, Armstrong,
Karen. Islam: A Short
History (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), p. 149.
[iv] Esposito, John. L.
The Islamic Threat (New York/Oxford: 1992), p. 9.
[v] Armstrong, Karen. "Ghosts of Our Past," Modern
Maturity (January/February 2002), p.
[vi] A sample of these proponents include (a) Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and
Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2001); (b) Samuel
Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
(Touchstone Books, 1998) ; (c)
Charles Krauthammer, Interview, Middle East Quarterly (December 1994);
and (d) Daniel Pipes, "There are no
Moderates: Dealing with Fundamentalist Islam," The National Interest
[viii] Voll, John. O.
Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, second ed. (Syracuse University Press: 1994),
[ix] Heilbroner, Robert. The Worldly Philosophers (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p.
[x] Armstrong, Karen.
Islam: A Short History (NY: The Modern Library, 2000), p. 145.
[xi] Hussein, Mahmood. 1973. Class Conflict in Egypt,
1945-1970 (New York: Monthly Review Press), p. 136.
[xii] Ali, Tariq. 2002. The Clash of Fundamentalisms:
Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (London/New York: Verso), p. 133.
[xiii] Vidal, Gore. 2002.
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/
Nation Books), pp. 22-41.
[xiv] As quoted in Eland,
Ivan. 1998. "Protecting the Homeland: The Best
Defense is to Give No Offense,"
Policy Analysis (Cato Institute), No. 306 (May 5, 1998).
[xv] Johnson, Chalmers. 2002. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences
of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company), pp. 8-9.
[xvi] Vidal, Gore. 2002.
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/
Nation Books), p. ix.