November 16, 2001
Breaking the Circle
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Although it was never his intention, Osama bin Laden has triggered the most serious debate in years, among Muslims, about Islam's ability to adapt to modernity. In Arab states this debate is still muted. But in Pakistan and other Muslim countries with a relatively free press, writers are raising it openly and bluntly. Nothing could be more important.
Here's why: Many Arab-Muslim states today share the same rigid political structure. Think of it as two islands: one island is occupied by the secular autocratic regimes and the business class around them. On the other island are the mullahs, imams and religious authorities who dominate Islamic practice and education, which is still based largely on traditional Koranic interpretations that are not embracing of modernity, pluralism or the equality of women. The governing bargain is that the regimes get to stay in power forever and the mullahs get a monopoly on religious practice and education forever.
This bargain lasted all these years because oil money, or U.S. or Soviet aid, enabled many Arab-Muslim countries to survive without opening their economies or modernizing their education systems. But as oil revenues have declined and the population of young people seeking jobs has exploded, this bargain can't hold much longer. These countries can't survive without opening up to global investment, the Internet, modern education and emancipation of their women so that they will not be competing with just half of their populations. But the more they do that, the more threatened the religious authorities feel.
Bin Laden's challenge was an attempt by the extreme Islamists to break out of their island and seize control of the secular state island. The states responded by crushing or expelling the Islamists, but without ever trying to reform the Islamic schools — called madrasas — or the political conditions that keep producing angry Islamist waves. So the deadly circle that produced bin Ladenism — poverty, dictatorship and religious anti- modernism, each reinforcing the other — just gets perpetuated.
Some are now demanding the circle be broken. Consider this remarkable open letter to bin Laden that a Pakistani writer and businessman, Izzat Majeed, wrote in last Friday's popular Pakistani daily The Nation:
"We Muslims cannot keep blaming the West for all our ills. . . . The embarrassment of wretchedness among us is beyond repair. It is not just the poverty, the illiteracy and the absence of any commonly accepted social contract that define our sense of wretchedness; it is, rather, the increasing awareness among us that we have failed as a civil society by not confronting the historical, social and political demons within us. . . . Without a reformation in the practice of Islam that makes it move forward and not backward, there is no hope for us Muslims anywhere. We have reduced Islam to the organized hypocrisy of state-sponsored mullahism. For more than a thousand years Islam has stood still because the mullahs, who became de facto clergy instead of genuine scholars, closed the door on `ijtehad' [reinterpreting Islam in light of modernity] and no one came forward with an evolving application of the message of the Holy Quran. All that the mullahs tell you today is how to go back a millennium. We have not been able to evolve a dynamic practice to bring Islam to the people in the language of their own specific era. . . . Oxford and Cambridge were the `madrasas' of Christendom in the 13th century. Look where they are today — among the leading institutions of education in the world. Where are our institutions of learning?" [Click here for the original letter.]
The Protestant Reformation, melding Christianity with modernity, happened only when wealthy princes came along ready to finance and protect the breakaway reformers. But in the Muslim world today, the wealthiest princes, like Saudi Arabia's, are funding anti-modern schools from Pakistan to Bosnia, while the dictators pay off the anti-modern mullahs (or use them to whack the liberals) rather than reform them. This keeps the soil for bin Ladenism ever fertile.
Addressing bin Laden, Mr. Majeed concluded, "The last thing [Muslims] need is the growing darkness in your caves. . . . Holy Prophet Muhammad, on returning from a battle, said: `We return from little Jihad to greater Jihad.' True Jihad today is not in the hijacking of planes, but in the manufacturing of them."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company