*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

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BC’s weekend reads

  1. Power, Islam, and Pragmatism in Turkish Strategy
  2. Anthropology, Empire and Modernity
  3. Would New Borders Mean Less Conflict in the Middle East?
  4. Cairo: A Museum of Ghosts
  5. Obama in London
  6. Rand back to being Rand

American Foreign Policy: Predictions, Assumptions and Falsehoods

On November 1st 2011 I got into an argument with Dr Delacroix about US foreign policy. During that time, if you’ll recall, a debate on the merits and demerits of bombing Libya was raging across the blogosphere and in the halls of power. Here is what I wrote in the heat of the moment two years ago today:

Time will tell, of course, which one of our predictions comes true. In two years time, Tunisia, which did not get any help from the West, will be a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power.

The Egyptian military will be promising the public that elections are just around the corner, and Libya will be in worse shape than it is today. Two years from today, Dr. J, you will be issuing an apology to me and making a donation to the charity of my choice.

Since you are very good at avoiding the facts on the ground in the name of democratic progress, I think we should establish a measurement rubric by which to measure the progress of Libya. How about GDP (PPP) per capita as measured by the IMF?

Not too shabby, eh? In case you haven’t been staying up to date on current events in the Middle East, Tunisia is a functioning democracy with a ruling coalition of moderate Islamists in power. It is not Switzerland or Iceland, but it is doing much better than the two states who were on the receiving end of US “help” during the Arab Spring.

Egypt, for example, is currently being run by the (US-funded) military, and the military is promising Egyptians that elections are just around the corner.

In Libya, GDP (PPP) per capita for 2013 started off the year at $11,936 (in international dollars). In 2011, prior to the uprisings and subsequent US bombing campaign, Libya’s GDP (PPP) per capita clocked in at $14,913 (you’d have to look at 2010 to see where Libya started off). That’s a nearly $3,000 drop in purchasing power parity. Here is the relevant IMF data (it starts off in 2010 and you can go from there).

Perfectly predicting the current mess in the Middle East has less to do with my genius than it does with applying a general libertarian framework to the situation. For example, I know that government is very bad at doing nearly everything. Government is a name we have given to an organization that has a monopoly on force. This monopoly on force is usually consented to because it is expected that it will provide an honest court system and a way to interact with other polities (“diplomacy”). When this monopoly on force is applied to anything other than these two functions, peace and prosperity give way to war and impoverishment. The trajectory that war and impoverishment take in a society depends on any number of variables, but the general libertarian framework I just outlined never fails to impress.

Now, my perfect prediction was made in the heat of the moment during an argument. If my argument was right, what did the other side of the debate have to say? Is it at all possible that Dr Delacroix had an argument that somewhat conformed to reality as well? Decide for yourself, and remember, this was written near the end of 2011:

There are several benefits to the Libyan/NATO victory for this country […] First, rogues and political murderers everywhere are given a chance to suppose that if you kill Americans, we will get you afterwards, even if it takes twenty years […] Two, Arabs and oppressed people everywhere are figuring that we mean it when we say we like democracy for everyone […] Three, this Obama international victory will cost him dearly in the next election. A fraction – I don’t know how large – of the people who voted for him the first time around oppose all American military interventions.

I don’t know about you, but it looks as if Dr Delacroix got Libya, the rest of the Arab world and American domestic politics horribly wrong, and on every level possible. If I am being disingenuous or unfair to Dr Delacroix’s argument, please point out to me where I go wrong in the ‘comments’ section.

Let’s take a second to reflect on something here. I was factually correct in my assessment of what would happen in the Middle East if the US intervened militarily. Dr Delacroix was factually incorrect. I think the drastic difference in outcomes occurred because our assumptions about how the Middle East works are informed by different history books. This is odd because we agree on nearly everything else.

Were I proved to be wrong, and shown how devastating the effects of my assumptions on societies could be,  I know I would do some deep questioning about my prior assumptions of how the world works.

There are four assumptions Dr Delacroix makes, in recent blog posts, that I believe are unfounded. When these unfounded assumptions have gained traction policy-wise, the consequences have been devastating. When these unfounded assumptions have been defeated in open debate, the consequences have been minute. By pointing out these assumptions, and ruthlessly criticizing them, I hope to provide a framework for those who read this blog to use when thinking about foreign affairs.

  • False Assumption #1: “Bullies will try to pull off worse and worse brutalities until they become intimidated. The unopposed brutalities of one bully encourage others to go further. Some who had the potential but never acted on it will be encouraged by the impunity of others to become bullies themselves.”

Comparing leaders of authoritarian states to schoolyard bullies is a bad way to go about understanding international relations. I think this is done on purpose, of course, in order to obfuscate the reality of a given situation. Dictators in authoritarian states often enjoy broad coalitions of support from the populaces over which they rule. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein enjoyed support from Sunni Muslims, Christians, secularists, socialists, trade unions, domestic corporations, women’s rights groups and the poor. Dictators often enjoy broad support from their populaces because of the fact that they bully, to use Dr Delacroix’s term, the bullies (see False Assumption #2 for more on this).

Here is another example: Bashar al-Assad has broad support in Syria because he protects religious and ethnic minorities from the passions of the vulgar mob. Dictators rarely care about the actions of dictators in other countries, unless it serves their own domestic purposes, and slaughtering people randomly is something I have never heard of a dictatorship doing. A dictator’s attacks are calculated, quite coldly I admit, so as to bolster support from the factions they are allied with. Dr Delacroix would like nothing more than to have the Middle East actually be a place where dictators take comfort in the actions of other dictators. Were this to be true, his argument would be right. His predictions would come to pass. Alas.

  • False Assumption #2: “By the way, as little as four years ago and even less, Western liberals and misguided libertarians were still blaming the American military for Iraqi on Iraqi violence. The US military is gone; the violence is rather worse.”

Attempting to sweep the violence and high death count associated with the US invasion of Iraq under the rug does nothing to inspire confidence in Dr Delacroix’s framework. The Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence occurred after the US military illegally removed the bully’s bully from his position of power. Prior to the US military’s illegal invasion, the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence Dr Delacroix points to was kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s heavy-handed tactics. When Hussein gassed Kurds, for example, he did not do so simply because the Kurds “revolted” against his rule. He did so because the Kurds had been murdering Arabs and engaging in terrorist activities that targeted Iraqi infrastructure. The intrastate warfare in Iraq was quite negligible until the United States decided to break its own laws and illegally invade and occupy Iraq.

Of course, you can always choose to believe Dr Delacroix’s theory of events, but I think the results of our predictive power speak for themselves (on the inevitability of intrastate warfare in post-colonial states, see the discussions about “post-colonialism,” “secession” and “decentralization” here at NOL).

  • False Assumption #3: “In World War Two, we could have stopped the genocide of the Jews or slowed it to a crawl. We did not because there was a strong but vague reluctance to ‘get involved.’”

In 1939 France and the United Kingdom had worldwide empires. The Soviet Union was 25 years old. So were the small, independent states of Turkey, Hungary and Austria. Germany, despite its defeat in World War 1, was an industrial power. The was no such thing as cruise missiles. There was no such thing as jet airplanes. There was no such thing as satellites. Or the internet. The Jews that were slaughtered in Europe lived in places that could not be reached by the American military of 1939. Indeed, they lived in places in Europe that could not be reached by the American military of 1945. The Eastern Front in World War 2 was many things, but certainly I think you can see why it wasn’t a “reluctance to get involved” on the part of the American people that is partly responsible for the Holocaust. To assume that the American military could have marched into Eastern Europe during World War 2 and stopped, or even slowed, the Holocaust is delusional.

  • False Assumption #4: “Today, I am ashamed to be an American because of our passivity with respect to the slaughter of Syrian seekers for freedom.”

Since the end of World War 2, when the US assumed its place as the world’s most prominent polity, Washington has continually opted to support the socialists (Ba’athists, Nasserists, Ghaddafi, etc.) over the Islamists in the Arab world (liberal Arabs simply, and unfortunately, emigrate to the West). The most obvious reason for this support is that the socialists do not send their agents to fly planes filled with people into commercial buildings filled with people. Pretending that the US is putting its head in the sand is disingenuous. Washington is well-aware of the consequences of letting Assad fight it out with the Islamists. We have made our decision after weighing the costs and benefits of every option available. We did this through open debate. Socialists make better enemies (and allies) than Islamists.

Now, these are just some small examples of jingoism and delusions of grandeur I have picked out. There are many more examples, especially in the national press, but Dr Delacroix’s are much, much better reasoned than any of those. If you are reading the op-eds in the national press rather than Dr Delacroix you are going to be woefully misinformed about the nature of the world. Your brain will be slightly more malnourished than it otherwise would be (this is one of the reasons why I like blogging with him). His arguments are informed by a lifetime of prestigious scholarship; they are informed by somebody who has the benefit of understanding two distinct cultures in an intimate way.

And look how incredibly wrong he has been proven to be. Assumptions matter. So, too, does truth and falsehood.

Legitimizing Terrorism in Egypt

Mr Morsi is president of Egypt through valid and hotly contested elections. I don’t like his Islamic Brotherhood. I like even less his extremists Salafist allies. There is almost nothing to like about that crowd.

There is every reason to dislike Morsi and his coalitions. Reasons include: they would end up stopping the pretense of separation of religion from government in their large Arab country; eventually, they would implement a severe downgrading of the status of women; immediately, Morsi’s followers are venting their rage brutally persecuting Egypt’s remaining minority:the native Coptic Christians.

As I write, at least 500 of Mr Morsi’s followers have been killed in the streets by the Egyptian police and by the Egyptian army. That’s the same army that was displaced through a popular revolution only two and a half years ago. A couple of weeks ago, that army staged a coup to overthrow the properly elected government of Egypt. The Obama administration declined to call it a coup although everyone in the world knew that it was a coup. That was another way Mr Obama reconciled America with the World in general and with the Arab World in particular; through shameless lying, through a lie so gross there is zero chance anyone will believe it.

The army coup was triggered, encouraged, applauded by my natural buddies: The Egyptians – mostly urban, I guess – who are secular, and the many moderate Muslims who do not aspire to a religion-ridden government. My natural friends couldn’t resist the temptation: Take the easy way, ask the armed forces to do what they did in Egypt for forty years: Be the government, supplant the will of the people as expressed through proper elections.

The latest military coup achieves two things:

First, it will stand as a sort of proof that Arabs do not really want a democracy or that they are unable to sustain democracy. The reasoning will go like this: If democratic habits cannot take place in Egypt, a country with a long deeply rooted tradition of secularism, where will it?

Second, the current massacres in the streets of unarmed (or almost completely unarmed )civilians are planting the seeds of fifty years of future rage. Rank-and-file Islamists will have the right to say, “We tried their democracy; it was only a trap to defeat us, to make us cower in fear of our lives, of our children’s lives. We now know that only the fear of us will bring the kind of society we want.”

The current repression in Egypt sounds like a declaration of legitimacy for terrorism.

Now, I know that elections, even fair elections – such as the elections that brought Pres. Morsi to power do not, in and of themselves, constitute democracy. Other institutions matter, some matter more. It would be easy to convince me that the rule of law, for example, is more important than elections. Yet, if you love democracy, if you hate authoritarianism, close your eyes and ask yourself which side is acting heroically in Egypt today. Is it the narrow-minded, bigoted obscurantist religious party that was removed militarily, or is it those who have clamored for and obtained another twenty or thirty years of military dictatorship for their country?

US Allies in Egypt: Economically Adept or Not?

It also isn’t clear that the secular crowd is economically more adept than the Muslim faithful. Socialism has been a hard-to-kick drug for Egypt’s legions of nominally college-educated youth, who came of age expecting government jobs. Capitalism has probably got firmer roots among devout Muslims, where Islamic law teaches a certain respect for private property.

This comes from Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal. This is something that hawks in Washington (and Santa Cruz) have yet to confront. Interventionists – advocates of robust government programs in foreign affairs – want democracy in the Middle East, though they have yet to define democracy for those of us who are skeptics of overseas intervention.

What we do know is that there are two major currents of thought about governance in the Middle East today: national socialism and Islamism. The national socialists get their education from the universities. The Islamists from religious schools. None are friendly towards democracy.

Here is the upside though: democracy is not the end all be all. Liberty is. In fact, democracy is a byproduct of liberty. By liberty I mean, of course, a regime that protects individual rights (including private property), adheres to a system of checks and balances, and is generally favorable towards free trade. By trying to form alliances with various national socialist or Islamist regimes over the past three or four decades, the United States has continually shot itself in the foot. This is because Washington has made the simple mistake of confusing democracy for freedom.

If hawks are really concerned with helping other people (and it is not clear that they are), then it would be wise on their part to slow down and actually start looking at the factions of the Middle East and what they advocate. One thing has become crystal clear over the past 25 years, though, and that is that virtually no political faction in the Middle East – from Rabat to Tel Aviv to Tehran – is friendly to liberalism. This does not bode well for anybody.

Bombing these regions, and supporting dictators in these regions – in the name of liberalism to boot – only makes this hostility that much worse.