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Saturday, Dec. 1, 2001

A (temporary) love affair with death


LONDON -- "I love death more than you love life," said Osama bin Laden in a recent interview, clearly convinced that this gave him moral superiority over the whole of Western civilization. There are plenty of young men in the refugee camps that litter the Muslim world who would make the same assertion. It creates the impression among non-Muslims that Islam is a very different faith, and perhaps a very dangerous one.

Then there is the response of Muslim leaders to the hideous events of Sept. 11. Many individual Muslims are revolted by what was done in their name by the Arab suicide-hijackers who slaughtered over 3,500 Americans, but there have been remarkably few unequivocal condemnations of their motives and tactics by Islamic religious authorities.

At last month's emergency summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar, not one of the 56 heads of state and foreign ministers actually managed to speak the words "bin Laden" or "Taliban." They formally condemned the attacks on the United States, but not for a moment did anyone acknowledge that the Arab and Muslim identity of the attackers needs to be addressed.

This strained reticence at the leadership level of Muslim societies conceals widespread resentment and contempt for the West at the popular level. Western leaders go about proclaiming that Islam is a religion of love and tolerance, as they must do in order to ward off reprisals against innocent Muslim citizens of their own countries. But the truth is that across broad swaths of the Muslim world there is a deep hatred of the West, and of the U.S. in particular.

This hatred goes far beyond bitterness at American support for Israel, though that is certainly an irritant. It is quite undiminished by the fact that all of America's recent military actions abroad, from Somalia to Bosnia to Kosovo, have been attempts to protect innocent Muslim people from horrible suffering, often at the hands of brutal Christian tormentors. It is just an existential fact.

At first glance, this fact seems to confirm the arguments of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, who insists that the problem is not Islamic fundamentalism but Islam itself. It is, says Huntington, "a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power."

Huntington is all over the U.S. media these days, peddling his theory that there must inevitably be a great confrontation between the intolerant world of Islam, with its "bloody borders," and the West, whose power and success it so deeply resents. But this alleged Islamic propensity for violence, even in Huntington's formulation, is linked to the relative failure of Muslim countries to modernize and democratize, especially in the Middle East.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, whose optimistic speculations about the global triumph of liberal democracy and the "end of history" were the main target of Huntington's 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations," recently attacked this issue head-on.

Conceding that the Muslim countries include very few democracies and almost no countries that have made a successful transition to developed status, he asked the key question: Is there something that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity?

"Islam . . . is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of . . . whether this rejection is somehow inherent in Islam. For if the rejectionists are more than a lunatic fringe, then Huntington is right and we are in for a protracted conflict . . . ."

Fukuyama fears that they are. "Certainly the group of people willing to go on suicide missions against the U.S. is tiny. But . . . sympathy for the terrorists is characteristic of much more than a 'tiny minority' of Muslims, extending from the middle classes in countries like Egypt to immigrants in the West." He still believes that the ultimate destiny of Muslim societies is to modernize, but now thinks that there may be a long and painful "rear-guard action" first.

The problem is that Huntington and Fukuyama both believe that "modernity" and "Western civilization" are synonymous. It's an assumption they share with bin Laden, but it is nonsense. The West just happened to be the first large civilization to go through the process of modernization.

It took centuries of upheaval and internal conflict for the West to make the transition to modernity, but the process has gone faster for everybody else since the trail was already blazed. From time to time, however, some culture runs into a really difficult patch.

Seventy years ago, it was the Japanese, whose project for high-speed modernization stalled with the onset of the Great Depression. What followed was very similar to the current "Islamic" reaction: authoritarian rule, an obsession with cultural purity, a hatred of the West -- Gen. Tojo Hideki spoke of "overcoming Western civilization" -- and eventually even a death cult epitomized by the kamikaze pilots of 1945.

And then it all went away: Japan is now indisputably both modern and successful, though it has remained utterly Japanese. God forbid that it should take a cataclysm like 1945 to break the Middle Eastern societies out of their current politics of hatred and despair (Asian Muslim societies are modernizing much more successfully, and so are less vulnerable to this sort of thing), but even the Middle East will get there sooner or later.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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