Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, A Review

On July 27th, in the midst of the twin crises in Gaza and Ukraine, Representative Mike Rogers on Face the Nation ‘revealed’ to Americans that Iran is supporting both Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah, leaving Bob Shaffer as confused as his listeners.  What the American media is missing - never mind the public - is an understanding of the concept of ‘Resistance’ that applies equally to Islam’s two main sectarian groups.  Alastair Crooke’s book Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution fills that crucial gap.

Crooke is a former British diplomate who advised Xavier Solana on the Middle East when Solana was the UN’s High Representative to that region. In 2006 he founded Conflicts Forum in Beirut, whose purpose is “to shift Western opinion towards a deeper, less rigid, linear and compartmentalized understanding of Islam and the Middle East.”:

In 2009 Crooke published Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.  I cannot say that it is an easy read, or that it could not have benefitted from some serious editing, but it goes a long way toward fulfilling Conflict Forum’s remit.  In this review I will concentrate on the differences between Western philosophy and political theory and those of Islam, which form the book’s core.

Crooke quotes at length from a series of discussions with a ”tall, bearded, white-turbaned ‘Hojat-al-Islam’ - a position nudging on that of Ayatollah”, whose knowledge of Western thinking is certain to come as a surprise to many readers. The Shi’te cleric sees  Protestantism’s essential difference from Catholicism is that it replaced a community-based faith with an individualistic one.  Protestantism “was no longer concerned with ‘managing social divisions’, but rather ‘accepted constant transformation as the normal and desirable human state…. The Anglo-Saxon ethos, with its pursuit of business, efficiency and an ever-rising standard of living was unconnected to any deeper vision of life or meaning.”  In classical terms,“it lacked Plato’s telos, or rationality and purpose,” which is contrasted with the democracy of the Athenian port, rough and rowdy.

“For the Iranian Revolution, democracy is the higher project of justice, equity and compassion…. Instead of being used to perceive truth and values, in the West rationality is a tool for fulfilling man’s psychological and material needs…..Western thinking has been channeled into the construction of a desire-seeking and materialistic society.”

Who would have thought that a religion supposedly stuck in the Middle Ages could be echoing the growing number of contemporaries who are disaffected with Western society?

The Hojat continues: “By eliminating God from society, [the West] has eliminated the values and structures which enable men to advance and to aspire to perfection.’” 

Personally, I do not think humans should aspire to perfection, even if this were not an impossible goal. However I agree with the rest of the message, even though I’ve been an atheist since the age of ten:  “The separation of faith from reason was contrived deliberately to eliminate from our minds the potential to know the values and realities of the world.  This severance facilitated man’s materialistic mind to dedicate itself to the ‘management of society’ - without the intrusion of God - and without ethical values.”

In the early nineties, after writing a book in French that foresaw the reunification of Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I began to reflect on attitudes toward death and their relationship to politics. It led me to spell out my conviction that while modern man does not need religion, he does need the serenity that can be gained from the insights of ancient intuitions that are confirmed by the new physics.  The resulting work, ‘A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness.’ underwent many iterations over more than a decade, but its basic political message remains: Remedying society’s ills does not require the presence of a supreme being - or the external authority of government,  but rather each individual’s trust in his or her own ‘internal authority’.  The chapter ‘Islam and Otherness’ states:

“The notion of sacredness implies that responsibility does not derive from any Truth-as-an-absolute, but flows from man’s only real freedom. It is inalienable, not because it is given by God, but because it is internal. This realization could enable both Islam and the West to walk the path of life with a modicum of serenity.
For this to happen, both the West and Islam need to move away from their dualistic ethos, with its linear implications, toward recognition of the Whole of which we are a part.” 

Imagine my satisfaction when I read:

“According to Islam, the individual is part of the reality of existence, and there is no separation between him and existence.”  

With respect to the ecological crisis I had written: “As the Muslim world confronts the ecological crisis, the overarching imperative of obeying God could be translated as preserving the life that God created, in Qutb’s words, establishing a non-distorted relation between man and the physical world.”

Resistance provides a firm foundation for what had essentially been a leap of faith on my part. The Hojat affirms that: 

“The system of existence of which we are a part is a moral one. Moral and ethical values are part of this existence and of this world. Values such as justice, love and freedom are things within existence, and no one has the right to transgress or breach them.  When Islam talks about God and the values of existence - an existence that is dependent on God - God is not an abstract concept.”

I can live with this until people realize that God is simply another word for the order/disorder dyad of modern physics. In both views humans are part of a greater Whole that encompasses other humans, creatures and the planet, making them responsible toward that Whole. 

Crooke delves deeply into the philosophical foundations of the Iranian religion, whose basis is ‘resistance’ to Western values that place man at the center of the universe, endowing him with a freedom tempered only by the freedom of others.  When writing about the difference between the liberal definition of freedom and that of socialists, I have described the former as situated at the apex of a triangle, with responsibility beneath it together with other obligations embodied in the ten commandments.  As Crooke’s Hojat says:

“Values are only a means to power and to satiate personal desires and pleasures … Justice and rights in the West no longer represent any meaningful criteria by which to define an individual’s ‘welfare’.  Man’s welfare is greater than mere power of enjoyment. It is the individual’s ‘right’ to pursue his own welfare, but (in theWest) its attainment is a purely personal matter; he or she is not expected to consider the welfare of the community.

In the West, such Islamic concepts often have been confused with, and not correctly distinguished from, Christian doctrine.  The belief in God in Islam is, before anything, a belief in an invariable order of values and ethics - in the sense that the reality which created the world is also the reality which created the order of values and ethics for the world…..As for what are today called man’s personal needs, these are not capable of providing true human happiness.”

It is interesting to note that while some Westerners who join the Islamic jihad do so out of a thirst for adventure, others are responding the above spiritual analysis. Beyond these extreme cases, dissatisfaction with the Western way of life, long known as ‘the rat race’, is rising in places as diverse as Turkey and Brazil. It will come to China when the emptiness of the consumer society hits home.)

The Islamic message regarding the belief in God is about reason:

“Reason in Islamic thought is the guide by which man may obtain knowledge of the values of existence, and from which he may build a sound society.  The concepts of governance and politics in Islam do not permit of the notion of one man dominating another, or of man’s domination over nature. In Qur’anic thought, man is the criterion around which all revolves.

In opposition to a secularism that believes that values are contained within man, and are made by man, Islam believes that values are more sublime than man and are the point of perfection and happiness for man. Therefore acting justly and wanting peace and observing the rights of others as well as the rights of the environment are all duties of man.”  

It is from this point of view that Crooke examines the devastating repercussions of the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate and the secularization of Turkey by Ataturk, as well as the philosophies of the main Islamic contributors to the concept of resistance. HE takes us from the Sunni Qut’b and his followers, continuing with the Shi’a fathers of the Iranian Revolution: Ali Shariati, Baqir Sadr, and of course Ayatollah Khomeini and crucially for today, the Marxist influence on the Iranian Revolution. Although Russia is no longer ruled by a Soviet system, an understanding of Marxism helps explain the fact that Russia, Iran, Assad’s Syria - and the Sunni Baathists - are on the same side of the ideological divide vis a vis the West. As I have written many times, not-withstanding the prominent role played by oligarchs in post-Soviet Russia, the government did not throw the welfare baby out with the Communist bathwater, while Islam’s fundamental command is that humans treat each other with justice, equity and respect.

Examining resistance from the perspective of the two leading resistance movements, the Sunni Hamas, and the Shia Hezbollah, Crooke argues that “armed islamic resistance is not, as parodied in the Western press, a reactionary violence directed against a modernity to which Islamists are either resistant or incapable of assimilating….Its purpose is to force the West to change its behavior, not to exterminate Westerners as the crusaders sought to do to Muslims in the Holy Land.

When Islamists dispute the claim that Western secular modernity brings human welfare, ‘they are rejecting a particular process of instrumental western thinking - and the abuses of power to which it has given rise’…A part from a small minority of Muslims who see the struggle in eschatological terms or in terms of ‘burning the system to rebuild it afresh’ as Al Qaeda does’ , the revolution is a struggle - a resistance - centered not on killing but on ideas and principles.”

In brief: “Islam charges that the West is guilty of distorting the foundational concepts of its own Enlightenment…..It has evolved a different concept of rational human beings, society and the individual, from that of the Enlightenment, one that is separated from the legacy of cumulative human experience.”  And Cooke adds: “It’s because of this fundamental dichotomy that the Iranian cleric is skeptical that dialogue with the West can be meaningful.”

Readers who do not have a background in contemporary philosophy will be surprised to learn that the cleric’s reservations are echoed by the celebrated Frankfurt School, who’s major  thinkers, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, are, according to Crooke, all widely read in Teheran. 
In a final, brilliant note, Crooke contrasts the ideas of the Frankfurt School with those of the Chicago School, embodied by Carl Schmitt, the postwar German refugee whose ‘language of instrumentalist diplomacy’ helped American Neo-Cons deliver Ukraine to a liberal coalition that relies on Neo-Nazi thugs. And toward the end of the book, an excerpt from J.-M. Coetzee’s novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, illustrates British writer Terry Eagleton’s comment that ‘reason on its outer edge is demented because it seeks to possess the whole world, and to do so must override the recalcitrance of reality’.

This book is worth sticking with, even if you haven’t had Philosophy 101.  At a time when the notion of Islamic “resistance” long familiar to Europeans, is becoming current in the United States, it reveals a worldview that confronts the West using the West’s own heritage - and whose goal is the opposite of confrontation.

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