Saturday, July 13, 2013


Indian Express
The Sunday Express
New Delhi,  Sunday, Jul 07 2013
Crisis of the Muslim world

There was the unrest in Istanbul against a non-secular government. Now there is a repetition of mass demonstrations in Cairo and the Army has taken it upon itself to remove a legitimately elected president. Was it because he was from a non-secular party or because unemployment and economic stagnation tipped the balance for the crowds in Tahrir Square?

The dismissal of Morsi is a setback for Arab Spring. Elsewhere in Syria, the civil war has now lasted two-and-a-half years with over 1,00,000 dead, chemical weapons used, arms flooding in financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the Sunni opposition armies and from Hezbollah and Iran for the government (Shia) armies.

There is no end in sight. The Iraq experience has frightened off the US and UK from rushing in too quickly. Russia and China have stalled the Security Council. Lebanon is already being dragged into the war since Hezbollah is involved. Jordan and Turkey are receiving massive floods of refugees. Iraq with its Shia majority is playing along with Iran on Assad's side. Russia has supplied strategic missiles to Assad, which worry Israel. There is, for the first time in many years, a prospect of general conflagration involving the great powers in the Middle East.

There are two overlapping crises. The old, long-running saga of the demise of the Ottoman Empire has been alluded to in these columns. But, add to that the crisis of legitimacy, which has haunted the Middle East since 1973 when the Arab armies suffered their third and most decisive defeat at the hands of Israel. The region abandoned secularism and socialism as panaceas and turned back to religion. Sunni and Shia identities were reinforced; in Iran after the Khomeini revolution and in Saudi Arabia with the revival and international propagation of Wahhabism.

The revival of orthodoxy threw back the reform process in Islam which had been progressing for some decades. The other two Abrahamic faiths—Judaism and Christianity—have had their reform movements and continue to have their accommodation with modernity. The old texts have been reinterpreted and liberal values have been encouraged even in face of the old texts, which argue against liberal values. Thus misogyny and homophobia are being debated in Christian churches. The Scriptures are no longer held to be literal truths. There are some Creationists in the US but, by and large, the truth of Darwin's findings has been absorbed.

Not so in the recent revival in Islam. Here the literal truth of the text has been reaffirmed. There is an absence of the textual criticism to which the Bible has been subjected. The challenge of modernity has been met by its rejection and insistence that nothing has changed and the word of God is literally true as it always was.

But orthodoxy, however sound theologically, is no help in coping with the challenges of modernisation and globalisation. Jobs have to be found, incomes have to be earned, education is vital, especially for women. The luxury of a medieval lifestyle, which keeps women under wraps, unable to participate in modern life, is no longer affordable. Some Arab countries have had oil as a cushion for a while. But as we see from the anxiety in Saudi Arabia and Oman, local youths who are unemployed and unskilled need jobs and the immigrants who were useful for doing the dirty work are no longer affordable.

The Taliban wants to shoot women who go to school and the al-Qaeda is no better. This way half the population is confined and lost as an asset to the nation. But when oil is no longer enough to sustain a medieval lifestyle at the current price of $100, how will the countries cope when the oil price collapses, thanks to shale gas, to $50 and lower? The countries without oil are already struggling and hence the riots all over the Middle East and the Maghreb.

The war will take many more lives over many more decades before we see any real reform. But then Europe did the same, except that it was centuries ago. Islam has come to the task rather late in the day.

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