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Modernity is not what Muslims resent

Since World War II, it has been easy to see the world as a center stage of bipolar competition between communism and capitalism. The sudden injection, therefore, of Islam as a third force hostile to both the Christian West and the communist bloc has overturned some carefully nurtured assumptions held by many an observer of world events.

A number of Western commentators have attributed recent events, beginning with the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, to an irrepressible reaction against modernization, precipitated and sustained by a widespread interest in returning to the traditional Islamic values and way of life. Such an analysis, resting on hastily formed ethnocentric impressions, fails to touch on the underlying causes behind the ferment in Muslim countries.

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To ascribe the current turmoil to an apparent Islamic revival presupposes that Islam had become moribund when, in fact, Islam has always exercised overwhelming influence on the poor, who constitute a majority in the Muslim world.

Islamic revival, manifested through revolutionary fervor, represents an estrangement from the corruption of the ruling classes, coupled with a reaction against the West which supports them.

In the East, Islam -- believed by many to be a complete code of life -- is widely perceived as a just religion and a panacea for all ills. Injustices in society are seen to be linked to deviations from Islamic teachings which, therefore, can be rectified by strick adherence to Islamic values.

For the poor, implementation of Islam at the social level promises a gateway to a more egalitarian society.

The urban and the feudal rich, for their part, can use Islam's recognition of private ownership to justify their amassing of wealth.

The restive, disillusioned middle class, hard hit by inflation, unemployment, and political repression, looks to Islam as a system which can best combine political expression with socioeconomic justice, while preserving traditional values.

In view of the differing emphases placed on Islam by differing social classes , it is not surprising that in Iran Islam was invoked to serve revolution and topple a monarchy, whereas in Saudi Arabia it is invoked to endorse reaction and sustain a monarchy.

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It is a pity that the United States has had to learn about the Muslim world the hard way.

For years, US foreign policymaking has been flawed by a tendency to link American fortunes and interests to unrepresentative ruling elites, while concurrently treating the ruled as if they did not exits and their interests did not matter. All too often, such governments accept the outward manifestations of Western life -- technologically advanced gadgetry and consumer products, Western fashion and music, discos, bars, and a relaxation of sexual barriers -- while carefully excluding from the knowledge of their people the pillars of Western society: the sense of work ethic, responsible rule of law, and accountability of government to the people.

Exposed to the vices but not to the virtues of Western society, Muslims perceived it as evil and decadent. Moreover, since many governments in the Muslim world are viewed by their people as enemies of the people, the friends of government logically would be considered in a similar vein. Unsurprisingly, therefore, anti-government agitation often widens to include anti-American sentiments.

It is remembered that, while US politicians screamed that Nixon should be thrown out and disgraced because of a "third-rate burglary" and its subsequent cover-up, these same voices reasoned that the Shah should remain enthroned because Iran under his "great leadership" was an "island of stability."

It is not modernity which is resented but the fact that its benefits have seldom filtered down to the poor. The elites' adoption of Western lifestyles has served to widen the gap between the rich and poor. Since the purveyors of modernity are also its greatest beneficiaries, stingy in their dispensation of technological amenities, popular unrest against this privileged group leads also into a symbolic rejection of the West.

Intertwined with domestic resentment against the West is a strong feeling that the West, despite its coziness with some Muslim countries, in inherently inimical to the aspirations of the larger Muslim community. Historically, this is assigned to the antagonism of the Christian West toward the Islamic world, dating back to the Crusades. More recent is massive American support of Israel, couple with US opposition to the so-called "Islamic bomb" of Pakistan. This opposition is particularly galling to many Muslims when juxtaposed against American acquiescence in the fostering of nuclear programs in Israel, South Africa, and India.

What, in effect, does the Islamic "resurgence" mean for the West? Not very much, had not the Muslim world found itself in control of an economic resource -- oil -- upon which the West is crucially dependent. It will mean more if the Islamic world begins to shake off its lethargy, identifies its problems, and fixes its priorities with hard-headed clarity.

Already, the Soviet takeover of an independent Muslim country -- Afghanistan -- illustrates how poverty, ignorance, disease, together with the disproportionate influence of the predominantly uneducated mullahs, clinging to medieval feudalism, can lay open the possibility of an intervention from external forces. If governments of Muslim countries do not set their own houses in order, the future may well see the recurrence of unsolicited "invitations" to greater powers to do the same.


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