Harold J Wilson
 

 

ISLAM AS A PRE-MODERN RELIGION

 

It can easily be asserted that all the major world religions are ‘pre-modern’ in their origins as well as in their metaphysical vocabularies. It is also a critical cliché to note that Islam has never passed through its own Enlightenment Period which would have conveyed to its adherents some greater sense of a modern self entitled to human rights and legal privileges. This said, we can perhaps go on to some further considerations of what Hillman has called  ‘unilateral monotheism’ in its Islamic social setting, and of the cultural inheritance which provokes my use of the term ‘tribal.’.

Societies convey and instate values through social rhetorics employed signally by teachers, religious leaders or politicians: There is usually in the West a dominant ‘Global’ or ‘Metropolitan’ rhetoric which competes to some degree with a ‘Provincial’ or ‘Tribal.’ narrative which may be more narrowly nationalistic or sectarian in its emphases. One could perhaps see this division of values embodied in recent Balkan history after the break up of Yugoslavia, with the Slovenians considering themselves as ‘European’ while Serbian nationalists defined themselves ‘tribally’, and even racially over against Muslims, Croats, and others whom they considered inferior races subject to their rule even to the point of organized rape and ethnic cleansing.

The Modernist narrative which emerged from the European Enlightenment and which expressed itself in notions of modern Democracy includes Bills of Rights and
constitutional rule with checks and balances and it is found primarily in the European states which emerged from that international cultural experience along with a set of universal assumptions about the human race as ‘rational’, educable, capable of ‘progress’ etc.. This broad secularist viewpoint was opposed from its Renaissance beginnings by the Roman Church and by various Protestant sects of a largely fundamentalist nature who wished to assert the dominion of a transcendent Deity over all life and to uphold the literal authority of the Christian Scriptures.

Modernist or ‘liberal’ Christians, Jews, and other assorted believers, such as myself, may not find it necessary in the twenty-first century to oppose the idea of evolution, the equality of women before the law, or the freedom of sexual relations between consenting adults. Such believers also may not affirm the literal truth of all assertions made in their sacred scriptures. Many modern Roman Catholics would find the 1864 Syllabus of Errors promulgated by Pope Leo XIII a curious document nowadays when the Vatican itself has embraced some (?) notion of the theory of Evolution. The fear of dominant ‘Secularism’ obviously still exists in the West, however, both among right-wing Protestants and Catholics, and with some reason, since militant secularists deny the validity of any and all religious belief.

There is a long-established tradition in scholarly Islam of regarding religious rules as subject to some degree of reinterpretation. This tradition has always been opposed by the more numerous fundamentalist mullahs who prefer the absolute letter of Koranic law – no matter how abused or ignored in practice. It now seems to be the case that a large proportion of present-day Muslims take an increasingly narrow view of the rights of women, and the rights of other kinds of believers in a Muslim state, and indeed of the demands which any non-Muslim state may make upon its Muslim citizens. The present predominance of militant Wahabi and Deobandi mullahs (trained Muslim teachers and mosque officials) in non-Muslim countries such as Britain has fostered a particularly virulent and hostile interpretation of Islam even upon the more moderate Muslims who inhabit Western countries.

Those westerners who have lived in Muslim countries or who have studied their history will know of the reputed ‘seventy-seven sects’ of Islam as well as of the often violent clashes between Sunni and Shia believers. The Iraqi situation is, in this connection, a kind of educational clinic for most westerners who follow the news. Likewise, the uncontrolled growth, and indeed deliberately fostered rise of armed Sunni religious militias in Pakistan (Deobandis especially) issued eventually in the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and has continued to feed the ranks of those militarily trained mujahideen from many countries who have fought on, after the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, as active insurgents in Chechnya, Bosnia, and now Iraq. There is also the Iranian Islamic Revolution and their terrorist arm, Hezbollah, which they have supported in Lebanon and now in Palestine against the Israelis. Americans have good cause to remember the Hezbollah bombings in Lebanon which killed 242 Marines in their sleep, demolished two American embassies in Beirut and tortured to death an American CIA station chief .

It should perhaps be noted that on a religious level, it has often been asserted by such militants that the notion of Jahiliyah or ‘chaos’ should be applied to western society so that the old ‘People of the Book’ category will no longer embrace Christians and Jews. According to this modern Wahabi notion, those of us who belong to the ‘Dar al Harb’ or world outside of Islam cannot claim protection from those of the ‘Dar al Islam’; we are in fact only subhuman at best and since our societies are against Islam, we are all enemies of Allah and thus deserving of death. Many Muslims ‘of good will,’ especially those who live in western societies, do not of course believe this. But one asks who is it that teaches the faith of Islam to their children ?

One might also mention the ongoing active recruitment of middle-class youths in British universities to this point of view as well as in Muslim countries. Islam, partly because of the prejudice against any more ‘liberal or revisionist’ interpretation of its scriptures has never settled the difference between Mohammad’s earlier, more benevolent view of Christians and Jews ( he knew only the Arabian variety, mind you) and his later, more dismissive judgments.    

There are excellent historical reasons, many of them, for these developments and for the effect that they have had upon the present world situation. However, much of the public rhetoric which addresses this problem of ‘miscommunication’ between Muslims and westerners is so bland as to seem almost pointless. It is the product of years of conditioning in optimistic ‘global’ thinking about the differences between people such as that issuing in the educational philosophy of Multiculturalism which has proven such a signal failure in promoting either cultural understanding or goodwill between people of differing values.

Using such descriptive terms as ‘tribal’ or ‘premodern’, however, smacks rather of a sort of too-easy cultural arrogance. The standard retort of ‘developing nations’ when their corruption and fiscal and institutional breakdowns are mentioned in the West is that the more developed nations have taken advantage of them and have, in any event, abused their own prerogatives of power, both at home and abroad. There is a great deal of truth in this, though it excuses no one. In this connection, I treasure in my memory the rhetorical question of Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, “Is France ready for self-government?”

But let us shift our focus a little from the merely global to the specifics of an actual Muslim country, Pakistan, with which I am personally more familiar than with any other Muslim state. My thought is to examine some of the difficulties of this one Islamic state and then to generalize from these particulars to instances of similar problems in other Islamic countries. Bear with me a little, if only for the purpose of eventual disagreement.

One must always be mindful of the western debt to the higher Islamic cultures of the middle ages. Their ‘renaissance’ was in fact earlier than ours, which itself owes much to the more advanced culture of al Andaluz and the ‘Caliphate’ of Cordoba. Christian theology derived much stimulus from both the Aristotle texts passed down through Islam and also from the NeoPlatonic mysticism for which Islam was a bearer. The courts in Moorish Spain were a fertile source of music and song for ambitious jongleurs and troubadors in Christian Spain and France. It is now an accepted fact in scholarly circles that our tradition of Courtly Love which stems from Provence and then passes on to Sicily and the later poetry of Dante and Cavalcanti (ca.1300) in the old Tuscan tongue of Florence derived its earliest beginnings from the far more cultivated courts of Muslim Spain.

This is not to mention the achievements in Baghdad and Damascus of Muslim architects, experiments in optics, great gains in mathematics and in the arts of war. The immense arc of Muslim culture which curved from Spain through the Middle East to India and China was far ahead of the Europe of its time in almost all fields. What happened to it later is a matter of historical record and argument and a different story from my present brief which is to describe in some few critical categories the Islam which is presented to us today in its rather more culturally truncated political and religious dimensions. 

Pakistan, ‘the pure Muslim state,’ came into being as a result of the Indian Muslim League’s belief that there would not be enough freedom for Muslims in an India dominated by a large Hindu majority though it can now be plausibly argued that Nehru and Patel forced this decision upon Jinnah – who had previously dismissed any such alternative. After the many communal riots and murders which Gandhi was powerless to halt, after the butchering of whole train-loads of fleeing emigrants on both sides, and after the early death of its founder Ali Jinnah, that very secular Muslim married to a Parsee wife, Pakistan limped into being as a secular state dominated by religious prejudices and divided in the west by its different and mutually suspicious regions: tribal Baluchistan in the Southwest, feudal Sind around Karachi - its main banking and seaport city, dominant Punjab with its agricultural heartland, and the mountainous Northwestern Territories, the land of the perpetually warring and smuggling Pushtun tribes. It was also divided from Eastern Pakistan, now Bangla Desh, by a thousand miles and the considerable differences between Bengali and Punjabi culture.

After two winless wars with India (’65 and ’71), Western Pakistan had lost its Bengali state to the east as well as its access to Indian-occupied Kashmir, and had shrunk back upon its slender economic base, mainly cotton exports. Its fabled ‘twenty-two families’ had monopolized its industrial development and the banks had been corrupted by easy and continual recourse to non-repayable political loans. A many-thousanded host of Muhajirs, or lately-come Indian Muslim refugees had also poured in, largely centred in Sind, and created a new and militant political group competing for influence along with the larger Muslim League and the more left wing People’s Party (PPP) headed by the Bhutto family.

Between the intra-party violence and the rampant corruption based upon the politicisation of all public institutions including the Civil Service, and the universities and colleges after the rule of Zulfiqhar Bhutto, the only national security seemed to lie in military government. This was true for the eleven year rule of Zia al Haq who hanged his predecessor, Bhutto, and it was true for Pervaiz Musharraf who finally took over after two terms each of disastrous and blatantly corrupt governance by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Zia ul Haq (’77-’88) had entertained some thoughts of bringing Afghanistan within the orbit of Pakistan and partly to that end had encouraged the growth of militant madrassahs or seminaries for the incubation of dedicated jihadists willing to fight for the establishment of a Muslim state based wholly upon Islamic law ( Sharia) and who were also generally repressive of women’s rights and a free press and judiciary. By the time Zia was blown up in ’88, the powerful Inter Services Intelligence or ISI had been thoroughly dominated by officers forwarding this scheme, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan presented a further opportunity for Pakistani expansion into the southern regions populated by Pushtun tribes. Hence the subsequent  development of an armed Taliban force moving into Afghanistan and putting up an oppressive government ruling across the southern tier from Kabul to Kandahar.

If one goes back to the late eighties, when the Lahore English language weekly, The Friday Times, for which I used to write occasional columns under the comical heading, ‘Our Man In Washington’ began its detailed reporting on the ethnic makeup of voting results in Pakistani elections, one finds that Pakistanis tend to vote in regional blocs composed of e.g., Rajputs, of Hindu converts or Muhajirs, along with various tribal groupings in Baluch or Pushtun areas as well as sectarian Shia groups. People often tend not to vote their individual judgments as much as their sense of collective advantage for various caste groups, sometimes described as ‘biraderis,’ hence the term ‘Biraderi Democracy.’ Religious extremists have never had the sheer voting power in the past to put their leaders into important offices, but nowadays they  have had provincial majorities in the Frontier and in Baluchistan.

One notes that there are still significant insurgent groups, especially in Waziristan, who are fighting Pakistani army forces. President Musharraf tried to force the armed religious militias to register their seminaries but with varying success. Musharraf was also unable to change the dreadful blasphemy laws which guarantee the imprisonment and conviction of almost anyone accused on any basis whatever of making statements which are alleged to be disrespectful of the Koran or of the Prophet, like the man who, e.g., said, “Muhammad was not always a Muslim”, a matter of historical record for which reminder he was condemned to death for blasphemy. The widely reported ‘honor killings’ of women who are alleged to have brought their families into disrepute is another matter which the President has only recently been able to reform.  These practices are, in a sense, ‘religious’, but one might describe them with equal accuracy as ‘tribal’ or cultural customs. 

One could go on endlessly detailing the various levels of corruption and tribalistic revanchism in Pakistani public life. After Bhutto, legislators were frequently described  as ‘lotas’ since that term refers to the small water pitcher which Pakistanis use to clean themselves after defecating. Like some legislators in other countries (signally including the US), at both the provincial and national levels, they were willing to accept money from any special interest which needed their vote. After this, as you may surmise, they were able to immediately cleanse themselves by forgetting any possible debts to their past patrons. Hence the use of the term ‘Lota’to describe
The way in which one is immediately purged of sin by the simple application of a little water of forgetfulness! So much for Islamic penitence.

The constant pilfering of foreign mail by the Post, the infinite bribability of Customs officials, the intimidation of the Judiciary and of prosecution witnesses, the frequent thefts of property from vulnerable women and older people, the endless winked-at scams in the business field, the unpaid bank loans of nearly all well-known politicians, these are all familiar features of everyday life in the country. The WAPDA energy board has been paid off for years to wink at numerous billing scams; the Cricket Board has been similarly corrupted. Imran Khan, the Pakistani team captain, once said publicly that he always had at least four ‘sifarshis’ on the national team, i.e., players who were there because of their connections, not their ability. If one could call Pakistan a ‘modern state’, you would have to say that it is a dysfunctional one, or at least a bad model.

I have not undertaken to describe the huge influence over the last twenty years of the black economy – largely money from drugs and guns – which has created a nouveau riche class of arrogant profiteers who are convinced that everything is for sale. The poppy is grown in Afghanistan and then processed in various compounds there or in the Frontier, then shipped south in bulk, often in large trucks which are owned by the various Pushtun transport mafias. A few years ago some American agency or other estimated that there were about 175 drug syndicates in Pakistan, many of them associated with the names of well-known generals and politicians. When the American authorities were offended at the general availability of hashish at tobacco kiosks in Pakistan back in the eighties, hashish then became more unavailable and was replaced by the less conspicuous heroin – often disguised as Marlboro cigarettes! Succeeding Pakistani governments simply ignore the growing addiction problem – just as they largely ignore the growth of AIDS and the problem of general illiteracy.

Since only 1% of the Pakistani national budget is spent on Education – and that is mainly spending money for whatever minor political figurehead is the current Minister of Education, one can expect that most of the education that goes on will be in private schools or under religious auspices. The government is now making feeble efforts to compel the countless Muslim madrassas to teach something besides memorized Koranic verses and the hatred of non-Muslims or different Muslims, but no one reposes much confidence in their belated attempts to do this. There are also numerous private academies at every level of academic competence; Karachi Grammar School and Aitcheson College in Lahore have students who gain legitimate British A Level grades and enter British universities or American ones. Edwards College in Peshawar and Lahore College of Arts and Sciences (founded by my wife) are likewise capable of such academic preparation.

After these elite institutions, comes a whole host of wannabe academies which cannot attract a similar level of  teachers or students and do not prepare their children very rigorously since they will be attending only the national colleges or universities. During the final years of the British Raj, there were strong standards at some of the national institutions of learning but when Bhutto nationalized all the private schools, though some of the Catholic schools remained independent, the rot fully set in.

Kinnaird College, the premier institution for young women, lost its international accreditation in the seventies and trebled its student body. Now it is largely a finishing school for the elite classes’ daughters. Punjab University also lost its international accreditation and for many years the eight senior administrative positions were held by a clique of four men while the campus itself was (and still is)dominated by various student mafias associated with the ruling political parties. I remember a younger friend whose MA paper in French was so well written that it was taken and sold to someone else while she was failed (her paper conveniently ‘disappeared’), although she did manage to get her degree the following year. Faculty were routinely warned that a failure to pass certain undergraduates would result in their being beaten up and their offices trashed. I was assured of this by faculty of that university, well known to me, who themselves had been subjected to this treatment.

I myself spent a few interesting months teaching a special language class at Punjab University which was highly amusing and also very educational. I must note that  Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) is something of an exception to this tale of woe. I once had a summer job there helping to edit case histories. It was founded on excellent principles and has attempted to teach its students (those who didn’t seek MBA’s abroad) how to become successful entrepreneurs on Pakistani models. Its staff and teachers are highly qualified.

To this day there is the usual seasonable rash of reports in the press about the national exam questions-with-answers being supplied to student candidates at the high school level, sometimes by servants calling them out of the exam room to give them answers which have been bought from some other source. Attempts by exam proctors to interfere with this practice result in their being threatened with beatings. At the private high school where I taught for two years, the Copy Room men were paid off every year to provide exam questions ahead of time to various students. Had they failed to do so, they were threatened with being physically harmed. “We know where you live.”        

Pakistani students are frequently quite bright and entirely capable of passing courses with good grades when they are called upon to prepare themselves properly; however the system of cheating is so entrenched that many if not most students accept it as 
an entirely acceptable means of self-advancement. In the US, one of my wife’s old students told her that the Pakistani and Indian students had managed to hack into their local state university’s computer system (in the American Midwest) and could give their friends whatever grades they wanted. Talent will out!

Pakistan is rather a special case. Its population is a wonderful gene pool containing the layered deposits of Indo-European, Mongol, Turkic, Arab and Indian DNA from over the many past centuries. This rich mixture of aggressive genes has created a highly talented population. However the country’s post-colonial institutional decline can be instanced not only here but in most former colonial countries where subsequent populist governments have politicised employment and preferment in the interests of their core constituencies. And so the question remains, is there anything particularly ‘Muslim’ about this decline in standards?  

The answer to this question is inevitably No and Yes: No, these difficulties have all been experienced by developing countries whose native elites are greedy for wealth and advancement. But yes also, since there are peculiar Muslim institutions and frameworks which cause their societies to fluctuate between the absolutism of   ‘unilateral monotheism’ and a cultivated indifference to what westerners might regard as acceptable standards of truth or honesty. In a word, to speak in a dreadful global generalization, what you have in most Muslim countries today is a dogmatic monotheistic faith grafted onto unassimilated tribal values and disguised by a screen of western institutions of government, economy, and education. Muslims fluctuate between their ‘western’ personalities (“I think in English”), their Asian values of family advantage, mutual competition, personal and collective ‘face’, and their Islamic identity whose uncompromising demands are sometimes ignored and at other times obeyed to the letter.

Upperclass Muslim women often enjoy a carefree childhood, a western education, and then take the veil of  Purdah  after marriage, for, say, fifteen years, during which time they cannot go outside the home without a family escort, must observe religious law and custom in the home and cannot speak with other non-family males. Muslim men become westernised, play around for a while, and then somehow turn into conservative religionists who are punctiliously observant. The Asian ‘shame culture’ which values honor and appearance wars against the legalistic morality of Islam and then makes bargains with it. Somewhat in the style of medieval Christian pilgrims, going on the Haj to Mecca may wipe out years of bad conscience and poor religious observance.

What I would hazard as a partial explanation of the pervasive corruption of a monotheistic society is that the theological idealisation of a totally transcendent deity leads to some unexpected results: Since no one, apart from the Holy Prophet, can totally live up to the expectations of such a deity, everyone must fall back upon a customary familial or tribal basis of behaviour. These systematic lapses may, however, be recouped religiously, by significant acts of piety or personal (‘jihadist’) risk. Thus one’s religious standing is regained. Ramadan may be conspicuously observed by constant fasting (and afterward feasting); one may go on greater or lesser Haj trips to Mecca or become more conspicuously patriotic or at least pro-Muslim. But there is always the relapse into ‘business as usual,’ and the familiar question, “Am I worse than anyone else?” finds its perennial answer, “I am certainly not worse than all these rich and powerful kaffirs of the west who afflict us daily.”

Sharia or the enveloping framework of Muslim law is both the province of Muslim scholars who have quarrelled over its various points and priorities for many years, and also the basis of shared moral values for the society at large – along with the local and more ‘tribal’ values which dictate in Pakistan, for instance, a largely Hindu set of marriage rituals which are in practice assimilated to local custom. The rights of women is a particular case in question, since in many Muslim countries they appear to have been slighted and diminished in favour of a presumption of male superiority. The fact that women in the developing countries do about 75% of all the physical labour, and especially the more menial jobs and the ‘stoop work’ may have a lot to do with this, although male pride is also partly dependent on the status and behaviour of one’s women, hence the continuing incidence of ‘honour killings.’ This gratification of male pride has much to do in Islamic countries with lessening the natural envy of class conflict. So long as you have your women doing most of the donkey work and can buy basic staples at a government-supported price, you can feel a loyal part of the body politic. In America, it has to do with petrol prices, so that you can afford to drive home to the suburbs!

Usury or loaning money for interest is forbidden by Islam as it used to be for medieval Christians. Catholic monarchs employed Jewish financiers for this purpose and later on Protestant ones. But if you have a credit system without charging interest  as banks do – how can you use it to accumulate the capital needed for industrial development ? And do you continue to cut off the hands of convicted thieves? What about politicians who default regularly on their bank loans? Do you flog women for certain crimes ? Islamic societies have no common agreement on many suchlike questions, and therefore they have widespread disagreement about rights, expectations, penalties, and standards. Perhaps an old fashioned and highly corruptible Asian Shame Culture with its emphasis on not getting caught is about what you can expect under these circumstances.

The fact that observant Muslims are not supposed to live in a non-Islamic society puts western Muslims in a very ambiguous position. In the UK, the more educated or, one might say, culturally ‘assimilated’ Muslims are far outnumbered by their less apt and skilled brethren, many of them uneducated Kashmiris, who are often convinced that British society is prejudiced against them. Extremist mullahs work up this discontent and play upon it to encourage young men in particular to contemplate enlistment as jihadis in various insurgent groups. They are convinced that England holds no bright future for them and do not see further education as an answer to their low socio-economic status.

That this is obviously true for France as well has been demonstrated by the recent riots there. The ‘cities of light’ are surrounded by ‘cities of darkness’ whose inhabitants from the Maghreb, particularly the young males, have no sense of being Frenchmen or owing any loyalty to French society. Germany, the Scandinavian states, and recently Holland, have all had to confront this burgeoning problem of disaffected Muslim males (Muslim women have less trouble assimilating culturally and in finding work). But it is only too apparent that increased dialogue between middle class ‘men of good will’ on either side is likely to have no effect whatever upon the heady rhetoric of alienation and self-excuse which is fostered among the younger and more chronically unemployed men in many Muslim mosques and meeting places. The high percentage of Muslim participation both in crime and in receiving welfare benefits in northern Europe has come in for some attention recently.

The emergence of Al Qaeda and their more or less accidental success in their 9/11 attack on the U.S., was facilitated by the stupidity and ineptitude of the American security agencies which had been warned in detail as to the likelihood of some use of hijacked airplanes as weapons, but it provided an international focus for a military jihad against Western states which are perceived as ‘Dar al Harb’ or outside of God’s justice and mercy, indeed as Satanic enemies of Allah.

The use of these terms to define western societies means, as I have pointed out, that none of our citizens is innocent or entitled to the mercy of Allah al Rahim, the Compassionate. Just as middle class black young people in the United States are influenced by the vicious criminal rhetoric of black ‘Rap’ music to feel that this is what truly being ‘black’ is all about for them – and one notes that even white children are influenced by Rap music because it is so transgressional and politically incorrect, so young, mostly male, Muslims in western societies may well romanticize their future as suicide bombers or military jihadis, their violent imaginations given free rein by these exclusionary concepts of westerners as less than human..

One can thank the Bush Administration in particular for popularising the hero image of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda by attributing to them such powers and devilish skill as they themselves had never earned or perhaps only dreamt of. But the notion of the Ulema or community of Muslim scholars, is another of those incomplete ideas which has haunted Muslim history. Similar to the idea of the Consensus Fidelium in the west, it is, in Iran, vested in the person of a supreme Ayatollah much as the Pope of Rome has defined himself to be the repository of wisdom and authority for all Christians.

In practice, Muslim scholars argue over every jot and tittle of Islamic law, when exactly Ramadan begins, when and where the new moon is to be sighted, etc. Since there is – apart from Persia - in practice no one authority to decide religious matters, this makes it possible for the religious right in most Muslim countries to blackmail the state by threatening strikes, demonstrations, circulating rumours and otherwise causing violence and destruction as well as weakening the government politically. The recent, rather belated, demonstrations against the reviled Danish cartoons( which almost no one had even seen) with all of their destruction of private property and the widespread  looting of ice cream shops  ! is a reminder of such widespread irresponsibility.

If the mass of Muslim faithful can be mobilized against sitting governments in this manner, then one can imagine what reserves of national loyalty a non-Muslim government is likely to be able to call upon from its Islamic citizens. The Saudi State which is the divinely appointed guardian of Mecca (due mainly to their preferment by the British) managed to dodge this difficulty with its ‘religious right’ for a long time by embracing the rigorist and puritan Wahabi sect and enforcing its religious laws in Saudi itself while the hundred-fold princelings of the Saudi royalty drank their Scotch and entertained blondes on their yachts throughout the Mediterranean.

The subsequent training and sending overseas of multitudes of semi-uneducated Wahabi mullahs to serve congregations in western mosques functioned as a way to spread this retrograde form of Islam as well as to conveniently shift its focus away from the mother country where the thirty-five sons of Ibn Saud and their by-now countless offspring were happily converting the Saudi oil revenues into playtime and villas in the nicer parts of the world, replete with all manner of luxury consumer goods religiously prohibited at home..

The only political answer to this inherent instability in Islamic societies was not far to find. Military elites surfaced in Syria and Iraq under their respective Baath parties; in Egypt as opposed to the extremist Jamaat; in Iran under the Shah and then Khomeini; under the King in Morocco, the Junta in Algeria, Gaddaffi in Libya, the military in Turkey, and clearly in the largest Muslim state of them all, Indonesia. Malaya is a somewhat dissimilar case, as is Brunei, and Oman which was saved by the British at the behest of its capable Sultan who summarily removed his father from office when the state was under siege by Yemeni Maoists.

The United States is presently employed on another exercise in futility in Iraq where the population, yet again, is subsiding into its tribal origins and values, while hoping that oil money may somehow paper over the cracks till the next military strong man can forge some kind of national state. Countries like Somalia and Yemen and the Sudan are clearly so tribal as to be pre-national.   But I would have to say that the rigid notion of a totally transcendent deity, completely in control of a theocratic state, is such an unachievable ideal that the heirs of this doubtful legacy are doomed to an entirely predictable, mischievous and troublesome failure. What it issues in, actually, is a state dominated by military and business elites.

 What Islam might be if its considerable energies were harnessed to some useful this-worldly pursuits, if its leaders could consider the possibility of birth control, if its strong sense of family were applied to a sense of neighborhood, municipality, to participation in a democratic state such as Britain or the US, is an amazing thought. This would provide some corrective to the blurred and diffuse effect of a weakened world Christianity and assure the possibility of partnership instead of continual self-excusing hostility between two monotheisms which have so much in common..

The notion of ‘unilateral monotheism’ is a suggestive conceptual term. I am not yet entirely sure how to unpack all its meaning, but James Hillman, the dean of the NeoJungians, has also criticized what we call Monotheism from a psychological point of view. I would like to make a few speculative comments in this connection. To begin with, it is obvious that Monotheism per se is a culture-destroyer in the sense that it cuts across a whole network of tribal and family relations, imposing its own codes in a ‘unilateral’ sense. Medieval African kingdoms dealt with this problem by designating one of the princes to remain a traditional non-Muslim religionist so that he could perform the needed sacrifices to the ancestors. In this respect and in others, as I have tried to indicate, Muslim societies make ‘deals’ with the demands of their religion just as all societies do. At some points there is the unmoderated emphasis on Sharia and the rule of Islam along with the usual violence against other religionists, as e.g., a recurrent problem in Nigeria. And then there is the sort of thing which the tradition of female circumcision, widely observed in Africa, may perhaps encapsulate as one of the moral difficulties involved in the surrender to local custom, not to mention concessions to the African custom of polygamy.   

Islamic Monotheism also is subject to projections of utter dominance by self-appointed ‘Mahdis’ or cultic leaders who fancy themselves as messianic voices. This sort of leadership appeals to certain kinds of unbalanced mentalities who have the ‘charisma’ to attract some sort of following. Apart from the ‘charismatic leaders’ of various Muslim countries who have shown themselves to be astoundingly incompetent at any kind of reasonable governance, it is interesting, in this respect, to consider how many Catholic countries in Europe became Communist after the world war, and lost faith in the authority of the popes who had made common cause with fascist powers in the interests of owning a sole religious franchise in Spain, Italy, the Caribbean and other countries.. There is a definite need for authority within the human psyche and Monotheism, even in its most perverse cultic forms appeals to that need, although it may this need may be filled by secular movements such as Nazism or Communism.

Monotheism tends to be mono-sexual as well and this way of catering to the male archetype of authority and strength most often manages to ignore the emotional side of human nature and to undervalue the feminine. The effects that follow from this are many. The most noticeable is perhaps the immaturity of the male population, their susceptibility to sexual distractions, and to manipulation by religious demagogues as well as political ones. One could equally instance, in this respect, the Christian right-wing sects in America as well for their consistent indifference to the prophetic message of Jesus about concern for the poor and the disadvantaged, for women, and for social justice. 

In describing this panoply of pathologies, conjugated under the heading of ‘Islam’,
I cannot avoid the concession that Christianity, and  elements of  Judaism, fall obviously under the same headings. I also cannot forget the wonderful fellowship and hospitality which, over the years, my wife and I have enjoyed, particularly in Pakistan. People are people and there is a kind of personal Muslim faith, which to me carries much the same religious value and weight as the Christian one. And, pace all my critical comments, I will be forever thankful for the warmth and acceptance and friendship which has been offered to me in that Muslim country.

Harold J. Wilson, December 2009