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Trump’s dangerous delusions about Islam

The long read
Trump’s dangerous delusions about Islam
The president and his advisers paint Muslims as enemies of modernity. The neglected history of an age of Middle Eastern liberalism proves them wrong

by Christopher de Bellaigue
Thursday 16 February 2017 06.00 GMT

The radical Islamists and the Trumpists subscribe to complementary visions of history that sharpen the conflict between them. Islamism of the kind practiced by Islamic State and other jihadi groups is based on a triumphal view of Muhammad’s mission, according to which Islam, as the last of the revealed Abrahamic faiths, is destined to consume the other two.

Western clashism, on the other hand, derives from the picture of Islam as an aberrant departure from Judeo-Christian civilisation that has for hundreds of years set its face against the noble, Enlightenment ideals of progress.

This view, which takes the essence of Muslim identity to be its rivalry with the west, was given much airtime by Bernard Lewis. Over a long career – he turned 100 last year – he has depicted the wellspring of Muslim aversion to modernity as deep and historical. According to Lewis, the animus of Muslims for the west – the “Why do they hate us?” question – is sour grapes, going back to the Ottoman failure to take Vienna in 1529 and 1683. (For the past 300 years, Lewis wrote in 1990, “The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat.”) In the centuries that followed, Muslim jealousy and anger were compounded by resentment at Europe’s record of scientific, military and commercial achievement – and, more recently, by a hatred of social freedoms found in the west.

The clashist view denies the possibility of a sustained and fruitful engagement between the lands of Islam and modernity
The clashist view, in short, denies the possibility of a sustained and fruitful engagement between the lands of Islam and the values and technologies that we consider part and parcel of modernity, from modern communications to feminism and representative democracy. It is Islam’s rejection of this engagement that signals its hostility and constitutes the threat its believers, however outwardly pacific, pose to western liberal societies.

But the problem with this argument is that such an engagement is more than a possibility: it has already happened.

The “long” 19th century, ending in 1914, is a crucial part of the history of the Middle East that has been neglected or deliberately ignored by those who insist on its impossibility, when the main centres of Muslim culture and politics came thundering into the modern age – with a burst of technological and social change far more rapid than Europe had experienced. Furthermore, when that transformation hit the buffers, after the first world war, the western powers helped bring Islam’s liberal moment to a halt.

Not that you would glean this from the partisans of the clash. Following a logic that conveniently rationalises European attempts to colonise the “backward” Middle East after the first world war, and has been deployed with similar intent ever since, they do not acknowledge that new societies were being formed in Iran, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, still less the possibility that they constituted a dynamic and creative force.

It is this blind spot in the historical understanding that lends a spurious respectability to claims of a Muslim hatred of progress as old as progress itself. Only by eliminating the blind spot can the this persistent caricature of Muslim failure and envy be challenged.

The history that has been excised from the conventional account of “Muslim rage” challenges the widespread belief that the sheer inability of Muslims to deal with the modern world explains their antagonism for it. But the modern Middle East was for long periods much more dynamic and restless than is generally believed. Far from being a placid backwater, by the turn of the century the region, in particular the catalysing territories of Iran, Turkey and Egypt, had become a maelstrom of modern ideas and technologies that gave rise to social novels, political parties, feminism, nationalism and total war. Hardly surprisingly, in this vortex of change traditionalists complained that the that the ground was being cut away from their feet, while progressives felt irresistibly alive.

Improved public health and security led to steady population rises – especially in the cities, which, with their concentrations of jobs and amenities, became magnets for rural migrants. On the eve of the first world war Istanbul’s population was higher than one million; only three cities in the United States were bigger.

Culture and lifestyles were transformed by new conceptions of autonomy and power. As education spread, information ceased to be the monopoly of the neighbourhood sheikh. Hundreds of new periodicals and newspapers acquainted an expanding bourgeoisie with subjects of a bewildering variety; the reader of an Istanbul newspaper in 1900 might encounter dispatches on Darwinism, baldness and the condition of the Lapps.

Revolutionaries in Iran and Turkey curtailed the powers of their hereditary rulers and set up parliamentary democracies
In Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran, upper-class women were increasingly able to decide the details of their personal lives, marrying and travelling as they wished, with a freedom that would have been unthinkable for their mothers. Among the growing Cairene middle class, it quickly went from being socially unacceptable to educate one’s daughter to being socially unacceptable not to do so. As the harem fell into desuetude, women went out, first to shop, then to study and finally to work. They also began to dress with more freedom, and in 1909 one Egyptian woman complained that the face veil had become “more transparent than an infant’s heart”. It wouldn’t be long before some women abandoned the veil entirely.

The hoary old institution of slavery was virtually extinguished in just a few decades; between 1877 and 1899 some 18,000 slaves were enfranchised in Egypt alone, part of a trend that led to almost all Egyptian slaves being freed by 1905.

After decades of accelerated innovation – which saw the rapid introduction of the printing press, quarantine and train travel – liberal modernity reached a high-water mark in the Middle East in the first decade of the 20th century. Revolutionaries in Iran and Turkey curtailed the powers of their hereditary rulers and set up parliamentary democracies; only the British invasion of Egypt in 1882 aborted a similar, “constitutional” revolution on the Nile.

Intellectuals influenced by western ideas provided support for the rapidly changing politics and lifestyles. In Cairo the grand mufti – the highest official of religious law — Muhammad Abduh, whose French was described by a European friend as “faultless in its grammar, and almost Parisian in its intonation”, dispensed controversial fatwas permitting what Islam had hitherto forbidden (wearing a brimmed European hat; eating meat slaughtered by Christian butchers). In the Ottoman port of Salonica the father of modern Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp, gave classes on the cutting-edge science of sociology. The climax of a rising tide of irreligion came in 1909, when a crowd in Tehran witnessed the public execution of a reactionary ayatollah who had opposed the constitutional revolution.

Naturally the rise in democratic sentiment and religious scepticism aroused opposition from sheikhs and royalists. They were able to appeal to a considerable body of ordinary, less-educated Muslims, who fretted that the new innovations were displeasing to God. Campaigns of reaction were mounted, such as in 1908, when the reactionary shah of Iran enlisted the help of a Russian force to bombard parliament into silence – temporarily, as it turned out. Opposition to a dilution of power is the default position of most absolute rulers, as the west’s own slow, faltering history of democratisation had shown. But an even more serious threat to the Middle East’s progressive trend would come after the first world war, in the form of a new ideology – Islamism – that used religious activism as a weapon against the intensified incursions of the west.

This picture of a Middle East that embraced many aspects of modernity should give the lie to the caricature of centuries of incurable Islamic stagnancy. But doubt must also be cast on a related idea, equally essential to the clashists – that Muslims were universally sour and resentful toward the European merchants, soldiers, consuls and commercial agents who poured into the region in the 19th century. This is the Muslim chip-on-the-shoulder theory, and it, too, is incomplete.

Surprisingly in view of the current reciprocal rage, for much of the 19th century, Europe’s prestige among many Middle Easterners was high. Freelance French doctors built hospitals and French soldiers a modern army for Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s great early reformer; and in 1882 the influential educationalist and town planner Ali Mubarak published a novel in which the son of a sheikh is talked out of taking his father’s vocation by an wise English orientalist (yes, a wise English orientalist), who urges him to devote himself to Egypt’s development instead.

Ali Mubarak was part of a generation of Muslim opinion-formers who formed their ideas about human potential during periods of study in Europe, and who returned home convinced that an injection of modern values would revitalise the cultures of Islam. Faith in not only the message but also the messenger was in evidence during Iran’s pro-democracy revolution of 1906, which might not have happened as it did were it not for the enlightened British diplomats who let thousands of constitutionalists take refuge in the legation during their stand-off with the shah, and who gave them lessons in representative government within the same walls.

By 1914, however, the benevolent Englishman and the disinterested Frenchman had disappeared from view. (Russia, looming over Iran from the north, had never been considered anything but scary.) In reality, this moment had been long coming. Quite apart from the British occupation of Egypt, which had caused much nationalist soul-searching among Egyptians, the European powers had spent the latter part of the 19th century acquiring rights to key sectors of the Middle Eastern economy, such as transport and agriculture, and encouraging the Turkish sultan, the Iranian shah and the Egyptian khedive to indebt themselves to European financiers. In the Ottoman heartlands the western powers looked after the interests of Ottoman minorities such as the Armenians and Maronites; defending these clients gave the Europeans leverage over the sultan.

But the European powers’ pre-war involvement in this Middle East of sovereign polities was positively benign compared to the colonial settlements they tried to impose at the end of hostilities. The first world war had finally destroyed the Ottoman empire. The powers now resolved to extract maximum benefit from the chaos.

This meant denying the Middle Easterners the self-determination for which they yearned, and which, in many cases, the allies had promised them. Egypt, having been led to expect self-government in return for support against Germany, had to tolerate continued British control of its main asset, the Suez canal. The Ottomans’ former Arab possessions were parcelled out as “mandates” under the new League of Nations: France got Syria and Lebanon while Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan went to Britain. The mandate system was advertised as a form of “trusteeship” for “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. Naturally the powers saw it as being in their best interests to ensure that the peoples in question remained unable to “stand by themselves”.

Having been invaded by the allies at the end of the war, Turkey avoided long-term subjugation only thanks to nationalist forces led by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), a former officer in the Ottoman army; he kicked out the allies and in 1923 set up a Turkish republic from the debris of the empire. It was a similar, if less dramatic, story in neighbouring Iran. There, nationalists put the kibosh on a British plan from 1919 which had aimed to impose a protectorate on the country. In 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran’s answer to Atatürk, seized the throne assuring the British that he would not jeopardise their interests, which increasingly centred on the oil industry in the south-west of the country. But to his compatriots the shah promised to release Iran from the grip of the powers.

In this way, over the 1920s and 1930s the threat and reality of colonisation redefined Muslim relations with the west along lines that anticipated today’s combustible enmity. At the beginning of the century the efforts of the political class in Turkey, Iran and Egypt had been directed at nation building and the consolidation of parliamentary regimes. In the 1920s and 1930s the paramount issue became getting rid of the foreigners or keeping them at arm’s length. Of course the powers objected. Britain and France argued that the mandates were not ready for independence. Reza Shah was toppled by the allies in 1941 for showing partiality to Nazi Germany. And in 1953, in a breach of Iran’s sovereignty that would convince many Middle Easterners of the west’s fathomless duplicity, and CIA and MI5 overthrew Muhammad Mossadegh, Iran’s most successful constitutional politician for half a century, as punishment for his temerity in nationalising the oil industry.

The age of colonisation in the Middle East was brief but devastating; its reverberations were profound and enduring. Westernisers such as Atatürk and Reza Shah reacted defensively to the threat of colonisation by the technologically and organisationally more advanced European powers by aping them in their most authoritarian and nationalist manifestations. They built illiberal regimes that frog-marched people towards a secular modernity similar to that of Mussolini’s Italy, and turned the clock back on the Middle East’s liberal moment.

The great many Muslims in the Middle East who disliked these secular strongmen showed another kind of reaction. They saw this illiberal – and godless – modernity as a capitulation to all that was worst in the west. So, a second form of defence emerged. This was Islamism – the Islamism that is now the justification for travel bans, extreme vetting and other security measures across the western world.

Islamism is the harvesting of Islam for political use, and is sometimes prosecuted violently, which in the eyes of many damns Islam itself as inherently violent. But Islamism did not emerge from seventh-century Arabia; it was a modern political reaction to the increasingly aggressive agenda of the colonial powers after the first world war. If the 19th and early 20th century witnessed a period of Enlightenment-style progress in the Middle East, the advent of Islamism in the 1920s marked the beginning of a current going the other way: Islam’s counter-Enlightenment.

For all the durability of hidebound, xenophobic expressions of the faith, Islam’s liberal moment at the turn of the 20th century hadn’t faced a challenge from any social and political programme that we would call Islamist. Wahhabism, an austere revivalist dogma in opposition to Ottoman reform, had not yet spread far beyond its birthplace in Arabia, while Salafism, which advocates a “return” to the conditions of early Islamic society, had yet to evolve into political ideology. But the post-war Anglo-French settlement created a sump of disgruntlement from which modern Islamism – including both of these rebarbative creeds – rose to the surface.

In the late 1920s, on the west bank of the Suez canal, where the lavish houses of the foreign commercial agents stood in contrast to the hovels inhabited by Egyptian workers, a gregarious, thick-set young teacher called Hassan al-Banna set about turning Islam’s liberal moment on its head.

That al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in response to an approach by six lowly employees of the local British garrison, “weary of this life of humiliation”, indicates that the world’s most important Islamist network had its roots in anti-colonial frustration. While in al-Banna’s view there was little to be gained by reversing the technological and even some of the social advances of past decades – he expected women to play a big part in his movement, for example – homespun qualities of piety, thrift and solidarity would liberate Muslims from the materialist servitude into which they had been lured by the west and its local collaborators.

This was the message, spread by roving proselytisers – of whom al-Banna was the most charismatic – that over the next decade expanded the original group of six into a charitable and educational organisation boasting hundreds of thousands of members and many overseas sister organisations, notably in Palestine, where another colonial injustice was being perpetrated by European and American supporters of Zionism.

In 1936 al-Banna abandoned his habitual political abstinence and in a widely circulated letter urged the youthful King Farouk – who had acceded to the throne amid high hopes that he would guide Egypt to independence and self-respect – no longer to follow the west, whose politics had been “razed by dictatorships”, but to anoint the country with the “purifying waters of pure Islam”.

Farouk turned out to be the wrong man for such an appeal – even by the standards of Middle Eastern monarchs he was unfeasibly louche and silly. (His collection of red cars was known for its array of custom-made klaxons and officials locked up their daughters whenever he was around). But al-Banna’s letter would be of lasting significance because it entrenched the idea that the west’s superficially attractive ideology of progress could not be uncoupled from colonialism, persecution and impiety. It was one of the founding documents of the Islamic counter-Enlightenment.

Like many Islamists, al-Banna was sceptical about democracy, a system of government that was constantly touted by the west – which worked so poorly in Cairo that it seemed only to generate new opportunities for western meddling, all the while frustrating genuine schemes of national regeneration.

Under Farouk, the British and a corrupt political establishment, there seemed little prospect of such a regeneration. During the second world war the British used Egypt as an operational base, toppled a government they didn’t like, and kept close tabs on undesirables such as al-Banna. After the fighting was over, the Brothers activated their military plans, attacking British installations and assassinating politicians whom they considered insufficiently patriotic or hostile to the infant state of Israel.

In the late 1950s and the 1960s the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had risen to power after leading a military coup against Farouk in 1952, jailed and tortured thousands of Brotherhood members and sympathisers and executed others who were considered particularly threatening to his programme of secular development. Nasser enjoyed popularity as a patriot – in 1956 he nationalised the Suez canal, and he briefly presided over a political union with Syria, which had gained independence from the French. But his prestige fell when he lost the October 1973 war against Israel, and in 1981 his successor, another military man, Anwar al-Sadat, was assassinated by Islamist soldiers in his own army.

The counter-Enlightenment that was spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood would eventually spread throughout the Middle East. In 1979, the shah of Iran was toppled in a revolution; much like the Muslim Brothers themselves, the hardline clerics who remade Iran in the 1980s distrusted western-style democracy and hankered for the traditional values that the shah had abandoned in his zeal for modernisation.

The secular polity that had been built by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was also Islamised after the second world war, though this process was partly concealed by the continued dominance of a westernising establishment led by the Turkish army. The decline of this establishment was capped in 2002 by the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development party – which is still in power today, President Erdoğan (as he has become) showing all the severity of an Islamist Vladimir Putin.

Militarism in Egypt; one-man rule in Turkey; semi-theocracy in Iran; and chaos in much of the rest of the Middle East – this is the picture almost a century after the liberal experiment was ended by war and colonisation and two roads to salvation presented themselves. Almost everywhere the Islamists ended up commanding more popular support than the authoritarians in uniform.

Just as Islamism in its first iteration was sparked by western aggression and then inadvertently fuelled by secular authoritarians, often allied to the west, who were distrusted and disliked by many of their citizens, it is hard to see how its bestial mutation into the jihadism of Islamic State could have taken place without the invasion of Iraq.

It is of course impossible to know what other shapes Islamism would have taken if the Middle East’s liberal moment had not been ended by the first world war and the imperial mop-up that followed. But the fact remains that the history of Islamism is also the history of a hyperactive west, blundering into the Middle East (and Afghanistan) not just once, but over and over again.

Even accounting for the new arrivals of recent years, Muslims amount to just 6% of Europe’s population, and 1% of that of the US. But proportionality of response is not considered a virtue among the new nationalists – and even if the Muslim immigration figures were to start to fall, and all fear of submergence under a Muslim tide was demonstrated to be empirically groundless, who’s to say the populists would allow the thrill of fear to abate?

What seems more likely is that today’s proponents of harsh anti-Muslim measures will find retroactive justification in any virulent reaction they excite, leading to even more and harsher measures against Muslims – much as the European powers whose interventions helped hasten the collapse of the Islamic Enlightenment at the start of the last century felt their actions were vindicated by the violence that followed.

For those whose primary concern is the perpetuation of cultural homogeneity, the pressing question is a simple one: what is to be done with the Muslims? The clashist version of history makes their antipathy to modernity indisputable; integration and assimilation are therefore impossible. This would seem to be the position of the 60% of Germans, for example, who have been found in surveys to agree with Frauke Petry’s AfD that Islam does not belong in their country.

We already know what Trump’s reaction to the next atrocity will be: 'I told you so'
This is the kind of polling that converts easily into action by a decisive commander-in-chief. And it is surely legitimate to observe that Islamism of a strident and intermittently violent sort has made inroads in European societies, bringing a combative intolerance to parts of the continent where the socio-economic indicators are in any case low.

But the question for anyone concerned for the overall health of society is a more complicated one; the answer will have to address the actual threat of jihadism, calm the fears of those who believe an intangible and precious part of their culture is endangered, and revive the dimming faith in the possibility of inclusive, multi-ethnic liberal democracy.

We already know what Trump’s reaction to the next atrocity will be. “I told you so,” he will say, and give the screws a turn. Electronic tagging; deportations; orders to shoot illicit refugees (a suggestion of the AfD’s Petry) – the menu of vengeful retributions before the clash-mongers is long and mouthwatering.

For those grappling with the second of the two questions, the options are already limited. The European refugee crisis has hardened the continent’s heart, probably forever, and sectarian identity has been placed at the heart of western political debate. All of this happened before Trump entered the White House; under Obama, it was already hard enough for anyone hailing from a Muslim-majority country to gain entry to the US.

But as Trump and his allies are eager to demonstrate, there is a vast difference between the existing regimes of stringent border security – which effectively served as a moratorium on any mass Muslim migration – and the new environment of official vilification. The scapegoating of Muslim communities in Europe and America is the road to pogroms, and it is that road that we are starting down, even if we can still turn back.

Relish for the clash is in the air. Bannon is up for it. So are the jihadis; Trump is doing their work for them, proving that the west hates Islam for xenophobic reasons, which is what they said all along. The entrenchment of clashism – as an observation presented to a few academics in 1957 becomes the creed of a new ruling class – will only draw more and more people into believing its truth. •

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