Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Islamic Imperial Hubris?

In "Islam's Imperial Dreams," Efraim Karsh argues that, from its inception, Islam has been a vehicle both for religious thought and for worldly conquest. The use of arms has been central to the Islamic desire to create a empire -- preferably a world empire -- in which everyone must submit to Allah and, of course, his representatives here on earth. And because politics have rarely been separated from religion in the Islamic Middle East, there is very little evidence of true political discourse in the region.
Physical force has remained the main if not the sole instrument of political discourse in the Middle East. Throughout the region, absolute leaders still supersede political institutions, and citizenship is largely synonymous with submission; power is often concentrated in the hands of small, oppressive minorities; religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts abound; and the overriding preoccupation of sovereigns is with their own survival.

At the domestic level, these circumstances have resulted in the world's most illiberal polities. Political dissent is dealt with by repression, and ethnic and religious differences are settled by internecine strife and murder. One need only mention, among many instances, Syria's massacre of 20,000 of its Muslim activists in the early 1980's, or the brutal treatment of Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish communities until the 2003 war, or the genocidal campaign now being conducted in Darfur by the government of Sudan and its allied militias. As for foreign policy in the Middle East, it too has been pursued by means of crude force, ranging from terrorism and subversion to outright aggression, with examples too numerous and familiar to cite.

Reinforcing these habits is the fact that, to this day, Islam has retained its imperial ambitions. The last great Muslim empire may have been destroyed and the caliphate left vacant, but the dream of regional and world domination has remained very much alive. Even the ostensibly secular doctrine of pan-Arabism has been effectively Islamic in its ethos, worldview, and imperialist vision. In the words of Nuri Said, longtime prime minister of Iraq and a prominent early champion of this doctrine: "Although Arabs are naturally attached to their native land, their nationalism is not confined by boundaries. It is an aspiration to restore the great tolerant civilization of the early caliphate."

Our last discussion was about the possibilty of democratic governance in the Middle East. Some have argued that the lack of democratic institutions in the Middle East makes this difficult at best. Others have argued that people around the world are the same and that the Iraqis will be the first to show that Muslims can in fact listen to democratically elected representatives (and not dictators or sheikhs or imams) and respect both freedom of speech and freedom of the press that allow the necessary exchange of ideas. Karsh offers an interpretation that casts doubt on the Iraqis being able to shake off fourteen hundred years of history.

What do YOU thnk?

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