I finally decided to send this letter about a very touchy and hot situation in many places in the world : the growing influence of radical Islam, both in Muslim countries and in western countries with a large percentage of emigrants. Using my usual approach, I shall base my comments on the review of some historical and sociological facts and tendencies. As an initial warning I wish to make, the letter shall discuss a number of aspects of religion in life, but does not discuss the existence of God, nor tries to define what is the best or worst religion. Those questions are left with your personal opinion and convictions.
European countries have evolved over the past few centuries from a close interrelation between politics and religion to the present secular governments, and all of them have at some stage been governed by a king or emperor ruling by the grace of God. In the 20th century, the situation was completely changed, with most countries having a strict separation between the State and the Church. A similar evolution had taken place in most Muslim countries, sometimes under the influence of colonial occupation like in North Africa, or by an internal evolution like what happened in Turkey with Atatürk. After the end of colonization, many of those countries were on the way to get closer and closer to European behaviors in that respect, and the influence of Islam in day to day life was decreasing fast, for example in Egypt, Lebanon and Iran. Leaders like Nasser in Egypt or even the Shah in Iran in the 60’s were promoting a secular version of Islam, although in very different ways.
Nasser promoted the status of women, pushed for the reform of Islamic education towards a softer, more European type of tolerance, ending the condemnation of Shias and Alawis as heretics, developed the principle of free education for all etc... He was in brutal conflict with the Islamic Brotherhood and he was almost killed in a terror attack. The link below to a video of Nasser talking about his discussion with Islamic leaders is fun and refreshing…
Nasser was also conflicting with western powers on the nationalization of the Suez canal, and his policy on non-alignment. Of course critics can be made about his authoritarian style and the energy he spent on the creation of a pan-Arabic republic with Libya and Syria, but one thing is sure, he was leading Egypt to a non-fundamentalist course, where religion was a private guidance for each individual who wanted it, and did not strongly interfere with political and public life, very much like what could be seen already at that time in Europe. Similar situation could be seen at that time in Syria and to some extend in Libya and Iraq.
In the largest Shia country, the Iranian Shah also pushed for a secularization of Iran, but on a less astute way, not pushing for the education of large masses across the country like Nasser did in Egypt, but by limiting external signs of fundamentalism by law, for example punishing women in burqa (chador). As a result, he created a very westernized Iran in big cities, while the country side remained very conservative and would later be a strong power base for the Khomeini regime. Here is a picture of an Iranian journal advertising for a fridge manufacturer… far from fundamentalist! By the way, at the beginning of the 70’s, Iran showed economic growth rates at the same level as then emerging power Japan!
Even if we consider Afghanistan, the home of the infamous Taliban, we see a similar environment in the 50’s and 60’s, with secularization reforms lead by King Zahir Shah. Another picture below of a shop in Kabul shows how a country can fall back to the middle ages within 20-30 years! After a period of political instability, a coup brought the communist party to power in 1978, that expended the secularization of society.
If we stop the film at that period, we see therefore a general secularization of societies in Muslim countries, from Teheran to North Africa. And in terms of women’s rights the picture was not very far away from Europe! We generally forgot about it, but in France for example, women had to get permission from their husband to work and could not open a personal bank account until 1965!
But there was a large exception to that tendency, in the Arabic Peninsula! Saudi Arabia and a few neighboring countries did not evolve at all and maintained a very strict regime based on Salafism or Wahabbism, a very conservative and literal reading of the Coran implying that almost all aspects of life should be ruled by Religion. Those countries always had a policy of expending their influence and the large amount of financing they get from oil made that goal achievable. They also, as closed allies of the US against the USSR always opposed Arabic or Muslim countries with a political orientation that would be on the side of the USSR like Afghanistan in the 70’s, or non-aligned like Egypt under Nasser. And in most cases, the major opposition to those regime were Islamic movements. Most western countries followed and also supported, financed and armed fundamentalists group to fight against regimes representing a political or economic risk for them.
In that way, the Brotherhood in Egypt got supported as early as the 60’s. They never managed to kill Nasser, but managed to assassinate Sadat in 1981, although or because he was willing to negotiate with them.
In Iran, the Shah started to be an embarrassing ally, but interestingly, the secular opposition to him never really got support from the west. For example, Mehran Nasseri ended-up in Paris airport and never received authorization by the French to enter the country and lived 17 year in the airport terminal, inspiring the film “Terminal”, or Shapur Bakhtiar who initially cooperated with Khomeini but soon understood what where the real plans of the Cleric, and had to exile himself in France, where he was assassinated in 1991 under strange circumstances. This is in big contrast with the way Khomeini was received and protected in France before his victorious return to Iran! The Iranian secular opposition and their western supporters were by the way surprised by the radical direction taken by Khomeini and many lost their life. They never paid enough attention to a book written by Khomeini 10 years earlier (Islamic Government), where in exposed in clear what he wanted to do – very much a repeat of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, that leaders in Europe should have taken more seriously in the 30’s!
The best example of such support is of course Afghanistan, where the US and Saudi Arabia spent large amount of money to support the fight against the Soviet Army, most of it going to Islamic fighters that could later be identified as leaders or members of Al Qaida. Depending on sources, the amount of money spent is between 6 and 40B$.. even the smallest number is quite impressive. The Soviet finally had to leave, but the Pandora box was open and the weapons were turned against the funding countries (of course not against Saudi Arabia – there are friends of occasion and family friends!).
In a closer past, similar support could be proven, going to Chechen fighters or to Muslim groups in the ex-Yugoslavia.
As an overall result, the Muslim world changed a lot over the past 40 years. It moved from a position of dominance of the civil/secular society over the political and cultural life (at least in the cities), to a growing influence of religious fundamentalism, and in some countries a full implementation of Sharia. Although for sure only a small part of the Muslim populations really want that situation – as we see today in Egypt and Tunisia, where radicals (even “moderate”) cannot hold the country, or in Turkey where the "soft” Islamic government gets into trouble if it wants to control parts of public life.
But we should not be wrong about the origins of that change. As stated above, the change was helped and sometimes originated by politic and economic interests that have little to do with the Coran or Muslim faith.
Any religion has been and can be used to move crowds and make them fight for a cause that in general is more linked to the financial and power goals of a few. This is true for all religions. European peasants a few centuries ago went to war in the name of the King, therefore in the name of God. Crusaders did leave not only to liberate Holy Land, but also looted many territories on the way, eventually destroying those cities that could rival major European cities, for example Venice – a major sponsor of Crusades…
The Inquisition in Europe was very effective at attacking and destroying the enemies of the ruling families, of course in the name of God. Again in the name of God many were slaughtered because they were Jewish or because they decided to follow Calvin or Luther interpretation of the Books...
Any Religion can be used to reach political goals, and all western religions, just like the Coran, are based on Books that contain phrases that – if read on a literal basis – can lead to brutal punishment and killing of sinners or heretics. The Bible, the Torah are no exceptions, and if Religions are out of fashion, other dogmas are created to lead the crowds, Communism or Nazism for example. I shall never forget a phrase in the film “Aguirre” by one of my favorite actor/producer Klaus Kinsky, when someone asks a monk for help when the leader of the exploration expedition goes crazy and starts to kill opponents to his rule : “You know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong!”.
Islam as such is not different from other religions, and all is depending on how people can be manipulated in the name of God, whatever his name. The less educated and the poorer crowds are, the easier can they be lured into fundamentalism and terrorism. Christian extremists in the US killing doctors who made abortions should be a wakeup call that Christian (or whatever faith) crowds, if confronted with poverty and lack of education, can bring us back to an area of pogroms and persecution – nothing is irreversible, not wealth, not progress, not democracy, not freedom, nothing.
In parallel, western countries counting large amount of Muslim emigrants (for example UK and France) are more and more confronted to fundamentalism, crystalized in France around the dressing code of women. Here again, the tendency took a long time to develop and was partly influenced by other countries that finance radical Islamic schools and educate radical preachers. But the radicalization of emigrant populations was also made possible by the disastrous situation of those groups of people, especially the young.
Emigrants in France in the 60’s or 70’s were in smaller number. They generally could find a job and participate to the growth of the economy. Males with French nationality had to go to military service, a way to better integrate and understand the values of the country, although I am not a great fan of conscription in general. The fundamental values of the Republic were also more apparent and respected by the local population. In short, they had something understandable and palpable to integrate to. Emigrants are always in need of new identity and positioning, although it does not mean a negation of their original identity. This can be achieved if the destination country has a positive and motivating image to give – see for example the US in its golden years, a great provider of ideals and enthusiasm that could be assimilated and adopted by millions of emigrants, independently of their culture of origin.
What has France to propose today? Massive unemployment, loss of faith in democracy and the political system, absolute reign of materialism and money in all aspects of life, weak political and social morale, years of neglect in emigration policies, citizens with lots of rights but no more duties and rules to respect....Piece of cake for the ones promoting radical Islam, starting with education and material support, then moving to the real stuff!
As the western world is on a good way to lose lots of its influence on the rest of the world, it is about time to recognize where are the real enemies and stop selling our souls to the regimes that protect our corporate interests but on the long term shall target the heard of our societies.
Nasser versus King Saud - Was it the right pick?