September 4, 2002


Hmmmm… very interesting. I don’t have time to give it the attention it deserves, but here are some stream-of-consciousness comments:

Peters is spot-on when he speaks of the American tendency to over-privilege Arab-centrism in Islam, and he is right that the real center of Islamic thought need not be Arab. But, he seems to discount the role of Arabia and parts of the Middle East as the “holy land” — and this privileges whoever lives in these regions vis-a-vis the wider tenor of the religion. The hajj is a critical example. It has served the Saudis every bit as well as has their oil wealth.

Peters also is a bit quick to over-simplify “Arab” Islam. There are many and significant divisions within the faith amongst Arabs, and these are every bit as important for the future of the religion as are divisions in the wider world. He is too quick to “write off” the region as “lost.” I think the current discontent in Iran is symptomatic of a growing disillusionment with “fundamentalism” elsewhere — but this tendency is squashed by the characteristic lack of civil liberties in the region. I am confident that many mellow or progressive Muslims wish the radicals would shut up, but are just terrified to say so. Often the tensions are between older generations and the archetypical “angry youth.”

This said, I agree with Peters’ basic argument that it is critical not to ignore the wider Islamic world. His description of Indonesia reminds me very much of the dynamics of Islam in West Africa, complete with tensions between nouveau-Wahabis and mellow sufis. Oh, and MTV, since al-Jazira currently competes with “Yo MTV Raps!” in much of West Africa. This reality is representative of a wider theme. To Muslims beyond the Middle East, Arab society, despite Peter’s ondemnations of backwardness, still represents an image of “modernity” — even if that modernity is something of an artificial creation of oil wealth.

Forgive me for sounding overly academic, but Fundamentalists don’t really call as much for a return to the past as they are re-creating the past in the image of their own modernity. The past they describe never existed… Islam often WAS what Peters says it needs to be. This is a struggle over defining the past as well as the future (said the historian).

Indeed, my main beef with Peters is the generally ahistorical bent of his article. His characterization of Islam as “young” seems to miss the point that Christianity is only a few hundred years older. Further, his claim that the West has ignored Islam is only correct from an American standpoint. Goodness knows that the Europeans have been deeply engaged in things Islamic (often from a ‘social engineering’ perspective) for over 100 years. Heck, chopping up the Ottoman Empire and backing the Saudis after WWI was seen as a means of restructuring Islam… and look where that led! The colonial legacy is critical here, in that for most of the world colonialism represents (and delegitimated) much of what is thought of as “Western.”

The critical question, and here I really agree with what I think was Peters’ central point, is that somehow the “West” has to offer the world’s Muslims an alternative to fundamentalism which is both realistic and palatable. Shoring up anti-Muslim dictators is just the sort of temporary fix Peters warns against, and I agree that that is not productive in the long run. Sure didn’t work with the Shah. Indeed, as I have said before, one of the most effective strategies is to let the Fundamentalists have their way. Thirty years of “revolution” in Iran have left the population with a very nasty taste in their mouths. Now they want their MTV.

Yet tempting folks with Britney Spears is only that — temptation. In the long run the West has to help insure that REAL rewards come from westernization. Quasi-colonial style “globalization,” which seeks to maintain most of the world as producers of raw materials and consumers of finished goods simply breeds political corruption and popular anger. Just look at what oil has done to Nigeria (and, heck, the whole Middle East). Some can say “what governments do with the money isn’t our problem — but that would fly in the face of the current evidence, now wouldn’t it? The West really needs to find a way to engage countries economically without engendering massive corruption and inequalities of wealth. This means REAL globalization where the West drops the barriers to products produced elsewhere and stops dumping products like subsidized rice on the rest of the world. Yes, that would mean losing US jobs, at least in the short run. But do we or don’t we believe in free trade and competition?

Here is a thought. There are many types of “capital”. Most people prefer the cash variety, but in its absence they will seize upon other varieties… such as raw power or piety. Fundamentalism (Islamic or otherwise) combines both these elements and thrives where they are more attainable than economic advancement. This is why poverty and corruption are very real contributing factors to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Obviously the bin Ladens of the world already have financial capital, but they are preying upon the absence of it to spread their ideology and hence their power. Indeed, these guys NEED poverty in order to peddle their wares. To “win” the West has to help spread real economic development — which will both show the advantages of being more Western and also diffuse one of the contributing factors to the spread of fanaticism.

Perhaps one reason Indonesia has so successfully resisted fundamentalism is because the country was on an up swing economically for much of the previous century. If the country continues to face economic decay, however, we might see a change for the worse.

How’s this for a slogan? “Fight Terrorism: Buy Indonesian.” But to work, it has to extend far beyond Indonesia.

So there you are. Any comments?

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