Democracy Holds Little Allure in Muslim World

Monday, 28 April 2003 05:06 By Jonathan 0aRaban, Truthout | name.

Go 0ato Original

Democracy Holds Little Allure in the Muslim World
The Seattle Times

Sunday 27 April 2003

Whatever its immediate apparent outcome, the war on Iraq represents a 0acatastrophic breakdown of the British and American imagination. We've utterly 0afailed to comprehend the character of the people whose lands we have invaded, 0aand for that we're likely to find ourselves paying a price beside which the body 0acount on both sides in the Iraqi conflict will seem 0atrifling.

Passionate ideologues are incurious by nature and have no time for 0aobstructive details. It's impossible to think of Paul Wolfowitz curling up for 0athe evening with Edward Said's "Orientalism," or the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, 0aor "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," or the letters of Gertrude Bell, or the recently 0apublished, knotty, often opaque, but useful book by Lawrence Rosen, "The Culture 0aof Islam," based on Rosen's anthropological fieldwork in Morocco, or Sayyid 0aQutb's "Milestones." Yet these, and a dozen other titles, should have been 0arequired reading for anyone setting out on such an ambitious liberal-imperial 0aproject to inflict freedom and democracy by force on the Arab world.

The single most important thing that Wolfowitz might have learned is that in 0aArabia words like "self," "community," "brotherhood" and "nation" do not mean 0awhat he believes them to mean. When the deputy secretary of defense thinks of 0ahis own self, he - like I, and, probably, like you - envisages an interiorized, 0asecret entity whose true workings are hidden from public view. Masks, roles, 0apersonae (like being deputy secretary for defense) mediate between this inner 0aself and the other people with whom it comes into contact. The 0apost-Enlightenment, post-Romantic self with its autonomous, subjective world is 0aa Western construct, and quite different from the self as it is conceived in 0aIslam.

Muslims put an overwhelming stress on the idea of the individual as a social 0abeing. The self exists as the sum of its interactions with others. Lawrence 0aRosen puts it like this: "The configuration of one's bonds of obligation define 0awho a person is... the self is not an artefact of interior construction but an 0aunavoidably public act."

Broadly speaking, who you are is: whom you know, who depends on you, and to 0awhom you owe allegiance - a visible web of relationships that can be mapped and 0aenumerated. Just as the person is public, so is the public personal. We're 0adealing here with a world in which a commitment to, say, Palestine, or to the 0apeople of Iraq, can be a defining constituent of the self in a way that 0aWesterners don't easily understand.

The recent demonstrations against the U.S. and Britain on the streets of 0aCairo, Amman, Sana'a and Islamabad may look deceptively like their counterparts 0ain Athens, Hamburg, London and New York, but their content is importantly 0adifferent. What they register is not the vicarious outrage of the anti-war 0aprotests in the West but a sense of intense personal injury and affront, a 0aviolation of the self. Next time, look closely at the faces on the screen: If 0atheir expressions appear to be those of people seen in the act of being raped, 0aor stabbed, that is perhaps closer than we can imagine to how they actually 0afeel.

The idea of the body is central here.

On the Web site of, a London-based magazine, Yusuf Patel writes: "The Islamic Ummah is manifesting her deep feeling for a part of her body, which 0ais in the process of being severed." It would be a great mistake to read this as 0amere metaphor or rhetorical flourish. Ummah is sometimes defined as the 0acommunity, sometimes the nation, sometimes the body of Muslim believers around 0athe globe, and it has a physical reality, without parallel in any other 0areligion, that is nowhere better expressed than in the five daily times of 0aprayer.

The observant believer turns to the Ka'aba in Mecca, which houses the great 0ablack meteorite said to be the remnant of the shrine given to Abraham by the 0aangel Gabreel, and prostrates himself before Allah at Shorooq (sunrise), Zuhr (noon), Asr (mid-afternoon), Maghreb (sunset) and Isha (night). These times are 0acalculated to the nearest minute, according to the believer's longitude and 0alatitude, with the same astronomical precision required for sextant-navigation. (The crescent moon is the symbol of Islam for good reason: the Islamic calendar, 0awith its dates for events like the Hajj and Ramadan, is lunar, not solar.) 0aPrayer times are published in local newspapers and can be found online, and for 0abelievers far from the nearest mosque a $25 Azan clock can be programmed to do 0athe job of the muezzin. So, as the world turns, the entire Ummah goes down on 0aits knees in a never-ending wave of synchronized prayer, and the believers can 0abe seen as the moving parts of a universal Islamic chronometer.

In prayer, the self and its appetites are surrendered to God, in imitation of 0athe Prophet Mohammed, the "slave of Allah." There are strict instructions as to 0awhat to do with the body on these occasions. Each prayer-time should be preceded 0aby ritual ablutions. Then, for the act of prostration, and the declaration of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), the knees must touch the ground before the hands, 0athe fingers and toes must point toward Mecca, and the fingers must not be 0aseparated. Forehead, nose, both hands, both knees and the soles of all the toes 0amust be in contact with the ground. The body of the individual believer, 0aidentical in its posture to the bodies of all other believers, becomes one with 0athe Ummah, the body of the Islamic community on Earth. The abdication of self 0afive times a day, in the company of the faithful millions, is a stern reminder 0athat "self-sufficient" is one of the essential and exclusive attributes of 0aAllah, mentioned many times in the Koran. Human beings exist only in their 0adependency on each other and on their God.

The physical character of this is unique to Islam. Jewry and Christendom have 0anothing like it. The Ummah, a body literally made up of bodies, has a corporeal 0asubstance that is in dramatic contrast to the airy, arbitrary, dissolving and 0areconstituting nations of Arabia. To see the invasion of Iraq as a brutal 0aassault on the Ummah, and therefore on one's own person, is not the far-fetched 0athought in the Islamic world that it would be in the West.

During the invasion, the Jordan Times - like every other newspaper in the 0aregion - carried front-page color pictures of civilians wounded or killed in 0aOperation Iraqi Freedom. Government censorship being what it is, the photographs 0acould afford to be more eloquent and candid than the stories printed beneath 0athem. On April 2, the picture was of an Iraqi father in a dusty gray jellaba, 0aarms spread wide, screaming at the sky in grief, while at his feet, in a single 0abare-wood open coffin, lay huddled the three small, bloodied bodies of his 0achildren. His rage and despair can be seen exactly mirrored in the faces of 0aEgyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square, as the Ummah bewails the injuries 0ainflicted on it by the Western invaders. Geographical distance from the site of 0athe invasion hardly seems to dull the impact of this bodily assault.

It's no wonder that the call of the Ummah effortlessly transcends the flimsy 0anational boundaries of the Middle East - those lines of colonial convenience, 0adrawn in the sand by the British and the French 80 years ago. Wolfowitz 0arepeatedly promises to "respect the territorial integrity" of Iraq. But 0aintegrity is precisely what Iraq's arbitrary borders have always lacked: One 0amight as well talk about respecting the integrity of a chainsaw, a pair of 0atrousers and a cherry pie.

When the British cobbled together Iraq out of three provinces of the 0acollapsed Ottoman Empire, they were deliberately fractionalizing and diluting 0atwo of the three main demographic groups. It made good colonial sense to split 0aup the ever-troublesome Kurds (Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs) between Syria, 0aTurkey, Persia and Iraq. Equally, the Shi'as had to be prevented from dominating 0athe new state. In her letters home, Gertrude Bell described the Shi'as as, 0avariously, "grimly devout," "violent and intractable," "extremist," "fanatical 0aand conservative."

By contrast, the Baghdad Sunnis were seen as generally docile, 0aforward-looking and pro-British. A representative democracy was out of the 0aquestion, because the majority Shi'as would promptly hijack it. Bell wrote: "I 0adon't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the 0aSunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority, otherwise you'll have a 0amujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil."

(Wolfowitz, please note. Out of the lawless turmoil of liberated Iraq there 0aemerged one image of placid civil order: a photo, taken on Friday, April 11, and 0apublished in The New York Times, showing some 700 Basra Shi'as seated in neatly 0aserried rows outside their damaged mosque, listening to a sermon. This in a city 0aotherwise then given over to riot, looting and murder. The contrast between the 0apower of the occupiers and the power of the ayatollahs could not have been more 0aforcefully stated.)

Bell and her colleagues sent for Faisal - son of the emir of Mecca - who had 0aalready had a go at being king of Syria before the French deposed him. As a 0amember of the Hashemite family, direct descendants of the prophet, Faisal, 0athough a Sunni, was acceptable to the Shi'as. So the perils of democracy were 0aneatly circumvented. Bell again:
"Lord! They do talk tosh. One of the 0asubjects that even the best of (the Arabs) are fond of expatiating upon is the 0acrying need for democracy in Iraq - al damokratiyah, you find it on every page. 0aI let them run on, knowing full well that Faisal intends to be king in fact, not 0amerely in name, and he is quite right."

From the start, the unwieldy assemblage of Iraq needed not a government 0abut a ruler. When monarchy failed, tyranny of a peculiarly Middle Eastern kind 0atook over. Lawrence Rosen interestingly asserts that the idea of "state," in the 0aWestern sense of a complex machinery of government independent of the person of 0athe ruler, barely exists in the Arab world, because an entity as abstract and 0aimpersonal as a state cannot be credited with those "bonds of obligation" that 0adefine and constitute the Islamic self.

This is borne out by fundamentalist Web sites that warn their followers not 0ato vote in Western elections for fear of committing the sin of shirk, or 0ablasphemy: to show allegiance to a secular state, instead of to the Ummah and to 0aAllah, is to worship a false god. The typical Arab ruler is likely to echo Louis 0aXIV: The state, such as it is, is him - a warlord-like figure on a grand scale, 0awith an army and a secret police at his disposal, like Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, 0aKing Saud, or Saddam Hussein. For the individual strong man, even a secular one, 0ais compatible with strict Islamist teaching in a way that a strong secular state 0ais definitely not.

In the case of Iraq, arrogant colonial mapmaking happened to conspire with 0aIslamic tradition to create a state that would permanently tremble on the verge 0aof anarchy, or at least of violent partition into a Kurdistan to the north, a 0aShi'ite theocracy to the south, and a Sunni-led secular statelet in the middle 0awith Baghdad as its capital. That Iraq still conforms - just - to its 1921 0aborders is a tribute to the extraordinary power and brutality of Saddam Hussein.

Yet, Wolfowitz singled out this state-that-never-should-have-been for his 0abreathtakingly bold experiment in enforced American-style democracy. On April 6, 0ahe went the rounds of the Sunday-morning talk shows to "warn" the nation that it 0amight take "more than six months" to get Iraqi democracy up and running. He 0ashould be so lucky. What seems to be happening now is that, as American troops 0atake full possession of Iraq, they're beginning to find out - in Baghdad, Ur, 0aKarbala, Mosul - that the country they invaded has effectively ceased to 0aexist.

A longer version of this article was published April 19 in the Guardian 0anewspaper of London,

Jonathan Raban's new book, "Waxwings," a novel set in Seattle, will be 0apublished by Pantheon in September. His other books include "Bad Land" (1996) 0aand "Passage to Juneau" (1999).

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is 0adistributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in 0areceiving the included information for research and educational 0apurposes.)

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:38