Monday, 30 May 2005

Exporting the Enlightenment to the Middle East

Some people objecting to my comments linked from this article protested that Islam as a religion is not necessarily opposed to freedom. Crap. The very values of Islam are fundamentally opposed to freedom, and virulently opposed to the 'apostasy' of non-belief.

Islam once harboured the philosophy that engendered the Western Enlightenment, but it never embraced it; it did however embrace authoritarianism and theocracy because these are both fundamental to Islam, as Azam Kamguian says over at Butterflies and Wheels:
Non-believers - atheists under Islam do not have "the right to life ". They are to be killed. According to Islamic culture, sins are divided into great sins and little sins. Among the seventeen great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, adultery and so on... In a feeble attempt to disguise the Islamic attitude to apostasy, apologists often quote the Koranic verse: “There shall be no compulsion in religion”. For a Muslim wishing to leave Islam this is simply not true. In Yemen it’s punishable by death as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan under the Taliban and other Islamic states.
Islam needs the Enlightenment as badly as did the West, and Azam is optimistic about its embrace in Iran.

And I am delighted to say that hopes continue coming from Iran where the society has changed dramatically and deeply since 1979. The movement for secularism and atheism, for modern ideas and culture, for individual freedom, for women's freedom and civil liberties is widespread. Contempt for religion and the backward ruling culture is deep. Women and the youth are the champions of this battle; a battle that threatens the foundation of the Islamic system. Any change in Iran will not only affect the lives of people living in Iran, but will have a significant impact on the region and worldwide.

Therefore, we must fight the battle for Enlightenment in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

[Hat tip Stephen Hicks.]


  1. I must say that this post actually frightens me. Firstly, you seem to quote from one academic as proof of your view. I view this asd largely irrelevant to showing any kind of prevalent view among Islam.

    I think a far better sign to look at is the Pew polls conducted in Islamic countries. In general, most muslims say that they believe Islam and western-style democracy are complitely reconcilable - and generally have a higher regard of democracy that those living in them. Very much a case of wanting what you don't have and treasuring it as such.

    Moreover... to prove your point, you seem to say (or rather, quote one academic)that defection from religion is terrible according to Islam. And yes, some dictatorial regimes do not like those who renounce their Islamic faith. I'm sorry if I fail to see therefore any link between the two. Yes, dictators aren't good. Yes they may punish people who do not agree with them. So why does that make Islam anti-democracy?

  2. Couldn't agree more. What you are saying is complete crap. You could just as easily judge all christians on fundamentalist nutcases in the US who believe in the rapture etc. Riverbend makes a similar point in a posting today on an article Thomas Friedman has written on contemporary Iraqi politics. We too easily resort to stereotypes when we know little about the cultures we are critiquing.

  3. CS, you say "So why does that make Islam anti-democracy?" Well, actually I don't say that at all. I'm suggesting that Islam is fundamentally anti-freedom.

    What I'm suggesting is that Islamic countries have all too enthusiastically embraced authoritarianism and theocracy. Whatever polls might say, the historical record is clear: the embrace of Islam has resulted overwhelmingly in the imposition of theocracy; the idea of a separation of church and state seems to be anathema to Islam.

    The reason for that, unsuprisingly, can be found in the religion itself, which is the point Azam is making and you fail to address. Islam, at root, calls for free speech to be banned, for freedom of worship to be banned, for freedom from religion to be outlawed -- and in so many Islamic theocracies these 'outrages' that amount merely to thining for oneself may all attract the penalty of death.

    You don't challenge at all what Azam is saying. Do you challenge for example Azam's assertion that 'According to Islamic culture, sins are divided into great sins and little sins. Among the seventeen great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, adultery and so on...'? Do you challenge the record in Yemen, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia and so on?

    I'm all for looking at what is hopeful and trying to be optimistic, as Azam is about Iran, but that optimism is based on a rejection of mysticism, not an embrace of it. That's what embracing Enlightenment values actually means: a rejection of the culture of mysticism and theocracy in favour of one of reason and individualism. For there are only two ways of dealing with people, either by reason or by force. As long as Islam continues to reject the former, it will be mired in the latter.

    As Irfan Khawaja from the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society says in his organisation's mission statement, "We believe that Islamic society has been held back by an unwillingness to subject its beliefs, laws and practices to critical examination, by a lack of respect for the rights of the individual, and by an unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints or to engage in constructive dialogue."

    If you don't like what Azam said, CS, then challenge what he said and explain why. Don't simply say you object to what he says because it frightens you. Subject your ideas to the critical thinking Irfan advocates -- that too is an Enlightenment value worth adopting.

  4. Lloydois, you said, "What you are saying is complete crap. You could just as easily judge all christians on fundamentalist nutcases in the US who believe in the rapture etc."

    Yes, we could coudn't we. And to the extent that Christians reject reason and advocate theocracy that'd be right, wouldn't it?

    The blog you link 'argues'"Now, it is always amusing to see a Jewish American journalist speak in the name of Sunni Arabs. When Sunni Arabs, at this point, hesitate to speak in a representative way about other Sunni Arabs, it is nice to know Thomas L. Friedman feels he can sum up the feelings of the "Sunni Arab world" in so many words. His arrogance is exceptional."

    What your source is saying is that those of one ethnicity are unable to understand those of another, and are unable to speak on them or to examine their culture. This is sheer abject racist nonsense.

    Analysis is not done by use of 'Jewish logic' or 'Sunni logic' or 'Shi'ite logic' -- analysis if done properly is done by use of reason, which done properly is immune to the ethnic origins of the analyst. This too is an Enlightenment value.

    But we may not judge the culture of another you say? Nonsense. As Thomas Sowell says, cultures are not museum pieces but the working machinery of everyday life, and you judge them by how well they work for those within them. Anyone is entitled to make that judgement, based on how well they're working.

    Islamic theocracies have not worked at all well for those within them, and there's no need to "resort to stereotypes" to say that. The record is there to be seen. But as Azam says, it's not too late to embrace secularism instead of sectarianism, as he sees happening in Iran.

    I too hope that "the majority of Sunnis and Shia just want to live in peace as Muslims- not as Sunnis and Shia," as Riverbend Blog says, but I suggest that Iraqis of all stripes will first need to ensure that freedom of religion is properly protected and respected in order to do so -- that a complete separation of church and state is effected, as it was in much of the west at the time of the Enlightenment -- and they (and the blogger) will need to stop making excuses for the killings that continue in Iraq as 'a protest against occupation' when they are nothing but simple butchery.

  5. These people will tell you that they are free. In few way they are, how? well, in a moslem country, the religion are as strong as the government. People can use religion to override government.

    Ok, so they have many things that the rest of the world just can't accept. But it goes the same for them. They see prostitution, gambling, alcohol, etc. And these simple people just don't want any of this. And I think its just fair enough!

    Ok, so we see many injustice done in their country (mostly through news). But remember, it is easy to see the faults of other. I think there are as many if not more injustice in the west, probably of a larger scale.

    We should just learn to mind our own business.

  6. Riverbend is very much a secular Sunni and all she is saying is that Friedman has an incomplete understanding of what is happening in Iraq.
    There are lots of people in Iraq who desperately want U.S. troops, politicians, and corporate sharks to leave their country. They want Iraq to be run by Iraqis. Somehow, they got the idea that this is what real democracy looks like. Some of them (a surprisingly small number, really) have chosen to use guns and bombs to get what they want. Americans can hardly criticise their choice of means. After all, they spend nearly half-a-trillion dollars a year preparing to use guns and bombs to get what they want and call it "national security." Not surprising really that some Iraqis are choosing to do the same.

    Some of the violent Iraqis have allied with non-Iraqi Muslims who are waging an anti-U.S. campaign, by any means necessary. (They’re the ones Friedman calls "jihadists.") Again, it’s hard for Americans to criticise that choice. They have a rich tradition of allying with anyone who will help them gain their national goals. And that has included some pretty nasty characters.

    In other words, the "enemy" is acting in a perfectly normal, rational, predictable way, by American standards. They are doing just what Americans would do, if they been conquered by another country. So the war in Iraq is not about American good versus "enemy" evil. It is an ordinary power struggle for control of Iraq.

  7. Lloydois, you said, "Riverbend is very much a secular Sunni," which may be true, but what's also true is that she is a nationalist whose nationalism is blinding her.

    As I said in the piece, Islam needs to embrace the values of the Enlightenment, which includes not just the rejection of mysticism and theocracy in favour of reason and capitalism, but also a rejection of nationalism in favour of the value of individualism.

    It's not impossible; as Johann Norberg points out here Arabs do very well when free of the political and economic oppression of their own countries.

    To clarify exactly what I mean by enlightenment values, I point you here to an interview here with Alan Kors on just what the Enlightenment was about.

    And I don't propose to relitigate the war with you on this thread. If you do want to, let's do it over on the 'Bush was Right' thread.

  8. You are right this not the thread to be arguing this and it's probably not the forum either. i've already been banned from Sir Humphrey''s because of my views on this and it does get a little tedious as there doesn't seem to be a middle ground on this issue - it's become a matter of faith and never the twain shall meet.


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