Culture, Civilization and Humanity. By Tarek Heggy. London and Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 2003. 391 pp. $64.50 ($26.50, paper).
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. By Tariq Ramadan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 272 pp. $29.95.
Islam under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. By Akbar S. Ahmed. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2003. 213 pp. $19.95, paper.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, historian Bernard Lewis crystallized the key question about Muslims by asking "What went wrong?" Nor was Lewis alone, for a number of Muslim writers have authored books in response to it. Among the most prominent are Tarek Heggy and Tariq Ramadan, the former an Egyptian and the latter of Egyptian descent, and Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani living in the United States. Heggy and Ramadan publish not only in English but also in Arabic and so transcend audiences. Ahmed's books, too, are widely translated, even appearing in Indonesian and Chinese. Significantly, all three live in the West. Such important and active debates are simply not possible in countries that still punish dissent and open intellectual discussion. By choice and circumstance, they find themselves dragomen and diplomats between two worlds. Their writings reflect the Muslim dilemma of how to separate Islam as a transcendent faith of universal appeal from the immediate history of Muslim societies. All three are well regarded in their home communities. Their works are widely read and followed, and their commentaries on the state of Muslim politics and society earnestly sought by a diverse global audience interested in Muslim affairs.
Individual Vs Society in the Islamic World
Tarek Heggy's Culture, Civilization, and Humanity is a collection of his essays providing insight into contemporary politics in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East with emphasis on his native Egypt. Partly polemical and partly analytical, Heggy seeks to awaken Arabs to how extensive is their collective responsibility for derailing themselves from progressing as a civilization. Heggy does not offer any striking new perspective to explain how and why the Arab world has fallen so far behind the West. The United Nations Development Program's Arab Human Development Report for both 2002 and 2003 have provided a catalogue of reasons as to why Arab countries have shown such poor socioeconomic development compared to other late-modernizing societies such as South Korea, Malaysia, and even India. But what Heggy's essays lack in originality, they make up for in the frankness with which the author discusses the historical and cultural failings of Egypt and the Arab world which retards the human potential of nearly 300 million people in a region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
In a culture preoccupied with form over content, and where collective honor trumps collective self-examination of the gap between rhetoric and reality, Heggy explains his purpose:
I write to urge Egyptians to accept criticism and to engage in self-criticism because, unless they are willing to do so, they will not discover the root causes of the ills they complain of today … I write in defense of freedom of belief but not in the context of a theocratic culture that places our destinies in the hands of men of religion. No society should allow its affairs to be run by clerics who are, by their nature and regardless of the religion to which they belong, opposed to progress … I write to call for an end to the Goebbels-style propaganda machines operating in Egypt and the Arab world and their dangerous manipulation of public opinion.
Heggy thus highlights the tensions between the individual and the community. Egypt remains caught in a vortex of contradictory pressures in respect to individual rights, rationality, and democracy in a clash with tradition that venerates the past while holding the future at ransom. While important to voice, there is nothing new about such discussions within the Arab world. The late Oxford historian Albert Hourani chronicled this intellectual ferment in the Arab world in his important study, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939.
Heggy does not limit himself to repeating the ideas of intellectuals of the past and is not afraid to critique socialism and Marxism, a subject to which he has devoted some of his writings. This is important because both Marxist ideology and the patron-client relationship between the Soviet Union and Arab states influenced the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the politics of Arab nationalism. Nasser borrowed not only his state-centered economic planning but also his political vision of a single party state from his Soviet patrons.
Heggy's most important contribution is to shed light on the mind set of a culture responsible for the attacks of 9/11. He describes a society in part held hostage to the "Big Talk" syndrome, a situation in which a society is beholden to exaggeration, inflated rhetorical flourishes and bragging as individuals and groups strive to outdo each other in verbal displays of superiority. While in the modern age, "there is no room for big talk, only for moderate language that tries as far as possible to reflect the unembellished realities of science and culture," Heggy observes that in the Arab world, "our culture … has a long tradition of declamatory rhetoric that places more value on the beauty of the words used than on their accurate reflection of reality." Such a cultural trait hampers critical assessments and contributes to a failure to understand lack of progress and defeats such as those suffered in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Instead, the "Big Talk" syndrome promotes an indulgence in nostalgia to escape from the demands of the present and punishes individuals who break the collective code of honor. Heggy explains,
Of all the nations of the world, we sing more loudly and frequently of our history, our past glories, and our superiority to others … This leads to the prevalence of subjectivity rather than objectivity and ultimately to the formation of judgments from a purely personal perspective.
Politics under these conditions encourage demagoguery and extremism and repress moderation. Conspiracy theories thrive. Realists live in fear of the radicalism of those who view subjects in absolute terms. This makes for a society of despots and demagogues. In shedding light on the sensitive aspects of a people's culture, Heggy's book illuminates how problems of a stalled society in the Muslim world have contributed to politics uninhibited in the use of terror.
The Islamic Community in New Domains
Tariq Ramadan is a controversial Geneva-based academic and public intellectual, listed by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most prominent thinkers for his efforts to interpret Islam in the West. Since 9/11, Ramadan's views and writings have come under increased scrutiny. In July 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to revoke his visa to the United States, preventing him from teaching at the University of Notre Dame during the current academic year. In December 2004, Ramadan withdrew his visa application. Ramadan's recent book is important, if only to see how an individual who describes himself as a bridge between cultures retains Islamist ties that remain suspect in the West.
The intellectual work of any individual is inseparable from his biography. Tariq Ramadan is not an ordinary academic. In the words of Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins, "In the world of new Islamism, Mr. Ramadan was pure nobility." Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Beginning in 1928 and lasting until his 1949 assassination, Banna preached a dangerous mix of religion and violence. Though Banna's life was short, his influence cut across a wide swathe of Egyptian society and the Arab world. He is not just the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he is also the source of modern fundamentalist politics in the Arab-Muslim world. His teachings evolved and mutated into the politics and terrorism of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and similar organizations. Ajami explains why Ramadan's lineage is so important:
The genealogy of Tariq Ramadan was fundamental to his ascendancy to power and prominence: Nasab (acquired merit through one's ancestors) is one of the pillars of Arab-Islamic society. Cunning in his use of his grandfather's legacy, Mr. Ramadan could embrace his grandfather while maintaining, when needed, that the sins of his ancestors cannot be visited on descendants. But … pride in his grandfather suffuses his work. In a piece of writing in November 2000, the reverence for Banna was astounding. No, he would not, he said, disown his descent from a man who "resisted British and Zionist colonialisms, who founded 2,000 schools, 500 social centers, and as many developmental cooperatives," and who never ordered or sanctioned terrorist attacks.
As Ajami rightly points out, such assertions stand in sharp contrast to reality. This was a period when Banna provided the potent mix of religion and politics to the rising tide of Arab nationalism eventually putting an end to Egypt's brief inter-war flirtation with liberal politics.
Nasser forced Ramadan's father to leave Egypt in 1954. He found refuge in Geneva where he established an Islamic center. Tariq Ramadan grew up in Geneva and in his adult years began to see himself as a bridge between his adopted home and the Egypt of his grandfather. He expressed this self-identity recently while responding to his critics: "Those so focused on my genealogy should examine my intellectual pedigree, which along with my grandfather and father includes Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche."
Ramadan's Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is a sequel to an earlier book, To Be a European Muslim. These books are Ramadan's response to the reality for Muslims in a globalized world where increasing numbers live outside of lands traditionally demarcated as dar al-Islam (abode of Islam). He writes,
More and more young people and intellectuals are actively looking for a way to live in harmony with their faith while participating in the societies that are their societies, whether they like it or not. French, English, German, Canadian, and American Muslims, women as well as men, are constructing a "Muslim personality" that will soon surprise many of their fellow citizens. Far from media attention … they are drawing the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitely rooted in Western societies. This grassroots movement will soon exert considerable influence over worldwide Islam: in view of globalization and the Westernization of the world, these are the same questions as those already being raised from Morocco to Indonesia.
In this world of flux for Muslims, Ramadan recognizes that traditional categories of Islamic thinking and practice require re-conceptualization for the modern age. For such an effort to succeed, he sees the need first to rediscover the essential timeless principles of Islam as a transcendent faith, and then to situate them within the boundaries of Islam but beyond the limiting context of customs and traditions.
In the traditional world of Islam, there was harmony between faith and customs for Muslims. North Africa and the Middle East were dar al-Islam. Beyond their boundaries lay the dar al-harb, or abode of war, a land of infidels and those who had not seen the revelation. But such terms, which are keys to both Arabic and European explanations of Islam through the twentieth century, have increasingly diminished in importance as pluralism has spread and as Muslim communities have established themselves throughout the world. As an example of re-conceptualization, Ramadan offers the phrase dar ash-shahada (abode of testimony) as a substitute for dar al-harb to designate lands beyond dar al-Islam. But the effectiveness of re-conceptualization is questionable if it means changing labels for terms and phrases without repudiating the thinking and politics of that stream of traditional Islam that mutated into an ideology that motivated the 9/11 attacks.
Ramadan is acutely aware that the central issue confronting Muslims in the West is one of loyalty. While the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath accentuated this issue, its tension predates the destruction of the World Trade Center. For traditional Muslims, religion and politics are inseparable. In the religion's early years, an imam or caliph ruled over the umma, or community of believers. But history made the reality of umma redundant a very long time ago. Long before the age of colonialism, the Islamic world fragmented. The concept of the umma, nevertheless, remains important among some Islamic thinkers who see it as an ideal point of reference for those who believe that reconstructing such an arrangement is a religious duty for the believers in the message of Muhammad. Ramadan's counsel to Muslims living in the West is to embrace the West's pluralist democracy in order to eliminate suspicions about Muslim loyalty. Indeed, the West can be a useful refuge, if only to protect the essential principles of Islam since "the West still appears to be a place where Muslims can live securely with certain fundamental rights granted and protected."
But Ramadan cannot entirely shield himself from critics who charge him with relativism, arguing that in the attempt to find a common ground between Islam and the West, he descends a slippery slope of diluting Islam to the point of compromising its authenticity. Muslim reformers have invariably found themselves trapped in this conundrum and have consistently been undone by the logic of traditionalists.
What Ramadan does not do is to break the intellectual straightjacket that disallows any challenge to the traditionalists' definition of Islam, faith, and history. Traditionalists maintain any dissent from their collective judgment is misleading and an opening for error. The probable reason for his inability to make the break and engage in real reform is biography. Ramadan is bound by his own loyalties and shies away from the more demanding post-9/11 task of explaining how Islamists have gotten away with defiling Islam without generating apposite outrage among Muslims. To engage in such an accounting would require placing responsibility first on the practices of traditional Islam that laid the ground upon which Islamists nurtured, and second, on mainstream Muslims who have reacted with silence and refusal to banish Islamists from their midst, thus making them accomplices. The reality of the post-9/11 world is mutual suspicion between the West and Islam. Western Muslims, whom Ramadan addresses, will have to decide where their loyalty rests. Ramadan's experience in being denied entry to the United States should demonstrate to him that space for accommodating Muslims who are not unambiguous about their loyalty to the country where they wish to reside has greatly shriveled in the West.
Islam under Siege
Akbar Ahmed's writings are fine examples of an attempt to reconcile conflicting beliefs as an aid in understanding and explaining the turmoil of the Muslim world. An anthropologist by training, Ahmed does not hesitate to reflect on his own experience in order to examine the internal disorder of Muslim society. In Islam under Siege, he weaves a tapestry of explanations to unmask how and why a civilization that once shone a beacon of light on the world became a seedbed of terrorism, bigotry, and war.
Ahmed's origin is in South Asia, a region that, beginning in the sixteenth century, was the seat of one of the great empires of Islam. Born in India, as a child he moved with his family to the newly established Islamic state of Pakistan. He joined Pakistan's elite civil service corps in 1966, working as a civilian administrator in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering on Afghanistan, and eventually became his country's high commissioner in Britain. After resigning from the diplomatic service, he began a second career as an academic in the United States.
His personal story sheds light on the trajectory of the "decay of development" of Muslim societies in the post-colonial period. At the time when Ahmed began as a civil servant, many in the United States saw Pakistan as a successful model of a rapidly modernizing economy in the developing world. But that promise turned sour when Pakistan fell apart as a result of a violent and costly civil strife in 1971. When Bangladesh succeeded, it shook Pakistan's self-image as a nation where religion transcended ethnic identity. Pakistan never fully recovered and increasingly turned towards a form of militantly fundamentalist Islam to renew its identity.
Islam under Siege attempts to explain the 9/11 attacks as a product of the decaying political reality of the Muslim world. The siege, Ahmed argues, is primarily internal to the society. On one hand, there is a widening gap between Muslim societies and the rest of the world. On the other hand, there are rising expectations within Muslim societies, which have simultaneously experienced a demographic explosion and the declining effectiveness of governing institutions. The effects of accelerating global change and internal population pressures have undermined the traditional social and cultural cohesion of Muslim societies, setting them adrift in the modern world.
Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, in fact leans heavily on Ibn Khaldun, the great North African scholar of the fourteenth century, to explain the breakdown of the Muslim world's social and moral order. Using Ibn Khaldun's notion of 'asabiya—"group loyalty, social cohesion, or solidarity"—he describes the making and breaking of a closed circle of authoritarian politics in the Muslim world. Ahmed, also, cites Ibn Khaldun's belief that "social organization is necessary to the human species." Without organization, Ibn Khaldun argues, "the existence of human beings would be incomplete. God's desire to settle the world with human beings and to leave them as His representatives on earth would not materialize." Ahmed elaborates: "Social order thus reflects the moral order; the former cannot be in a state of collapse without suggesting a moral crisis."
When 'asabiya weakens, relationships binding individuals together also weaken. Unless these are replaced and strengthened by a new set of relationships, individuals are driven to abnormal behavior. Ibn Khaldun theorized that there was a four-generation cycle where existing orders would rise, peak, and then collapse, only to be replaced by a new order. But in the modern world, Ahmed argues, loss of social cohesion is brought about by the speed and impact of a fast-paced globalization. This leads to bewilderment compounded by an inchoate desire of victims to punish those they view as responsible for their misery.
Traditional societies are bound by a sense of honor to some higher authority providing norms for behavior. Ahmed dwells on how traditional societies construct honor and conduct themselves accordingly. He suggests that in the process of globalization, when speed of communications shrinks the world and compresses the boundaries of traditional societies, the old meaning of honor disintegrates, and "people respond by an excessive emphasis on group loyalty—or hyper-'asabiya—and create conditions for our post-honor society."
Ahmed seeks to explain elements that produced bin Laden's mentality, something neither Heggy nor Ramadan address. His approach, combining cultural anthropology and political history, is somewhat persuasive. He argues that the mentality of bin Laden and like-minded individuals is reflective of a traditional society and culture mostly in ruin as a result of its collision with the fast-paced, scientific, and technologically-minded modern world. But it remains a frustrating exercise because the description of the Muslim world caught in a vortex of "anger, incomprehension, and violent hatred" does little to explain how it can break the cycle of decay in which it appears stuck.
After 9/11 and the unremitting series of Islamist atrocities from Bali to Beslan, Muslims have reached a cul-de-sac of their own making. They have nurtured their demons from the first generation of Islam, from the killers of Muhammad's companions and rightly-guided caliphs Uthman and Ali, whose brief leadership of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death ended with assassins' knives, to those who have made suicide-bombing a religiously sanctioned method of warfare. The demons are internal, and how Muslims deal with them will speak much more compellingly about who they are than their protestations about being victims of history or the nobility of their faith. Moreover, their effectiveness, or the lack of it, in confronting their demons and eliminating the conditions that nurture them is now a global concern.
The core issue most Muslim intellectuals leave unaddressed, or address with diffidence, is what happens when religion becomes a handmaiden of politics. Islam became a tool of men in power, and men in power bent Islam to their purpose and interests. In the process, politics squeezed religion of its spiritual content and made examples of those individuals, such as Mansur ibn Hallaj, an Islamic mystic who was nailed to a gibbet in tenth century Baghdad, who insisted on holding to Islam as faith and not bending to the demands of politics in its name.
The Muslim world is not alone in the whirlwind of globalization. People of other cultures, also, contend with the same forces of economics and technology as do Muslims. This is why it might be said that the words of the Qur'an, "Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts," applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Salim Mansur is associate professor, department of political science, University of Western Ontario.
 Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Arab Human Development Report 2002 (New York: United Nations Development Program, July 2, 2002); see "How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report 2002," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.
 Tarek Heggy, Culture, Civilization and Humanity (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2003), pp. 54-5.
 London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
 Heggy, Culture, Civilization and Humanity, p. 59.
 Ibid., p. 64.
 Time, Dec. 11, 2000.
 Daniel Pipes, "Why Revoke Tariq Ramadan's U.S. Visa?" The New York Sun, Aug. 27, 2004; The Washington Post, Aug. 28, 2004; Tariq Ramadan, "Scholar under Siege Defends his Record," The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 31, 2004; Tariq Ramadan, "Too Scary for the Classroom?" The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2004.
 Fouad Ajami, "Tariq Ramadan," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 7, 2004.
 Tariq Ramadan, "What You Fear Is Not Who I Am," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Aug. 30, 2004.
 Leicester, U.K.: The Islamic Foundation, 1998.
 Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Gustav F. Papanek, Pakistan's Development: Social Goals and Private Incentives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 1-26.
 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, N.J. Dawood, ed., Franz Rosenthal, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 98-115.
 Akbar S. Ahmed, Islam under Siege (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2003), p. 77.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 46.
Related Topics: Islam | Salim Mansur | Winter 2005 MEQ
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