The last six months have proved a climacteric in the history of Islam. An astonished world has witnessed the deposition of rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, revolts in Syria and Libya, the intensification in Iran of a struggle between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, and the United States’ imposition on Osama bin Laden of a wild but under the circumstances salutary justice.
Yet however tumultuous the events may be, Islam seems unlikely to undergo the reformation its most generous hearts and intelligent minds desire. The revolutions in the Arab states more nearly resemble the abortive ones of 1848 than the successful ones of 1989: Only the identity of the ruling cabals is likely to change. Osama is dead, but his cult and myth live on. He has already been enrolled by many Muslims in the register of their martyrs, while others piously approach his house in Abbottabad as they would a reliquary shrine.
In Iran the conflict between the messianic president and the apocalyptic ayatollah has been phrased, not in the language of liberty and the just limitation of power, but in a cryptic idiom concerned with the invocation of djins (genies or demons) and the proper method of computing the coming of the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam, who, it is foretold, will raise a Black Standard, have a natural mascara around his eyes, and establish the new caliphate.
A small number of Islamic intellectuals, many of them educated in the West, have during the last few decades attempted to open the Islamic mind and reconcile the teachings of the prophet with individual liberty, freedom of conscience, the rule of law, and wide and accurate learning. They have sought to disprove the pessimistic conclusion of Charles Doughty, who after living for some time among the Arabs complained, in Travels in Arabia Deserta, that “the Moslem religion ever makes numbness and death in some part of the human understanding.”
These humane Islamic intellectuals — I met a few of them some years ago in Fez and Rabat — have been faithful to the spirit of Dr. Aziz in Forster’s A Passage to India. Aziz has an open mind; “for so young a man he had read largely; the themes he preferred were the decay of Islam and the brevity of love.” But however promising this humane Islam might be, it remains the dream of a few isolated philosophers whose idiom and orientation are largely Western, and who have no idea how to appeal to the sensibilities of ordinary Muslims.
The Islamic intellectual who seeks the regeneration of his faith finds promise in the mystic saints and learned faylasûfs (philosophers) of Islam’s golden age. But Islam today is very different from what it was in its springtime. A few years ago a U.N. report noted that “Spain translates in one year the number of books that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years.” Greece alone translates “five times more books every year from English to Greek than the entire Arab world translated from English to Arabic.”
The light of Averroes and Avicenna, of Rûmî and Junayd of Baghdad, long ago waxed dim, and when one today visits a country where Islam is the religion as by law established, it is difficult to escape the feeling that a darkness has come over the faith. Not the creative darkness that begets illumination but an oppressive darkness under cover of which millions of people live without freedom, opportunity, or the useful employment that offers a way out of squalor and sloth.
A rich spiritual life, it is true, might be an adequate or indeed a more than adequate compensation for the want of material felicity, and he is unwise who would dismiss the spiritual recompense of Islam. Coleridge, Mill said, “considered the long or extensive prevalence of any opinion as a presumption that it was not altogether a fallacy. . . . The long duration of a belief, he thought, is at least proof positive of an adaption in it to some portion or other of the human mind; and if, digging down to the root, we do not find, as is generally the case, some truth, we shall find some natural want or requirement of human nature which the doctrine in question is fitted to satisfy . . .”
Islam, to have flourished as it has, must put down deep roots in the soul. But in the present darkness even the spiritual virtues of Islam are blighted. Whatever is divine and true in its orthodoxy has been obscured by a vengeful and intolerant fanaticism. A wise soul might prefer a high, pure spiritual culture to what Emerson called the “vulgar aims,” the “erudition of sensation,” the “civility of trifles, of money and expense,” characteristic of a wholly materialist culture, as the West’s is perhaps coming to be; but the spiritual culture of Islam, in its most visible forms, seems no longer to be pure. On the contrary, it appears gloomy and bigoted — a machinery of intolerance and obscurantism manipulated by mob-masters and demagogues who, though they masquerade as holy men, derive power and profit from the malignant passions they excite.
Because the Islamic mind, in its present benightedness, is so largely a closed one, the Islamic state can only be barren and corrupt. A constructive renovation of the Islamic regimes, if it is to take place at all, can take place only after more light has been let into the intellectual part of the Islamic mind. But what prospect is there of this? What Islamic leader today is preaching sweetness and light? From India to China, non-Islamic Asians, many of whom grew up under the most oppressive authority, are opening their eyes. But the Islamic peoples, for the most part, vegetate in darkness.
As epochal as the events that have shaken Islamic civilization in the last six months seem to have been, they have not let in the sun and can bring forth little fruit. New tyrants will replace old tyrants; living terrorists will replace dead terrorists. The darkness will remain, and will not be dispelled until a new and different sort of leader emerges, to show his people a better way.
— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites.