Rene — Time Out of Joint — Western dominance, Islamist terror, and the Arab imagination

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Time Out of Joint
Western dominance, Islamist terror, and the Arab imagination
Sadik J. Al-Azm
There is a strong injunction in Arab Islamic culture against shamateh,
an emotion-like schadenfreude-of taking pleasure in the suffering of
others. It is forbidden when it comes to death, even the violent death
of your mortal enemies. Yet it would be very hard these days to find
an Arab, no matter how sober, cultured, and sophisticated, in whose
heart there was not some room for shamateh at the suffering of
Americans on September 11. I myself tried hard to contain, control,
and hide it that day. And I knew intuitively that millions and
millions of people throughout the Arab world and beyond experienced
the same emotion.
I never had any doubts, either, about who perpetrated that heinous
crime; our Islamists had a deep-seated vendetta against the World
Trade Center since their failed attack on it in 1993. As an Arab, I
know something about the power of vengeance in our culture and its
consuming force. I also knew that the United States would respond
with all its force to crush the Islamist movement worldwide into
oblivion. But I didn’t understand my own shameful response to the
slaughter of innocents. Was it the bad news from Palestine that week;
the satisfaction of seeing the arrogance of power abruptly, if
temporarily, humbled; the sight of the jihadi Frankenstein’s
monsters, so carefully nourished by the United States, turning
suddenly on their masters; or the natural resentment of the weak and
marginalized at the peripheries of empires against the center, or, in
this case, against the center of the center? Does my response, and
the silent shamateh of the Arab world, mean that Huntington’s clash
of civilizations has come true, and so quickly?
In the end, no. Despite current predictions of a protracted global war
between the West and the Islamic world, I believe that war is
over. There may be intermittent battles in the decades to come, with
many innocent victims. But the number of supporters of armed Islamism
is unlikely to grow, its support throughout the Arab Muslim world will
likely decline, and the opposition by other Muslim groups will surely
grow. 9/11 signaled the last gasp of Islamism rather than the
beginnings of its global challenge.
Terrorism, Joseph Conrad once wrote, is an act of madness and
despair. The madness of the Islamists’ spectacular attack on the World
Trade Center is self-evident; its despair lies in its inevitably
annihilating impact on the plotters and perpetrators themselves, world
Islamism in general, and the al Qaeda networks, organizations, and
systems of support in particular (including the Taliban regime in
Although unique in its horror, in its desperation 9/11 can be compared
to past terrorist acts that foretold the ends of the movements in
whose names they were committed: for example, the abduction and
murder of the German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer by the
Bader-Meinhoff gang in the summer of 1977 and the abduction and
murder, a year later, of Aldo Moro, the dean of Italy’s senior
political leaders after World War II, by the Italian Red Brigades. In
these cases a swift and decisive response would devastate not only
the plotters, perpetrators, and their supporting networks and
organizations, but ultimately their protective communist regimes and
worldwide radical leftist movements as well. Looking back after 9/11
it seems to me that the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s in Europe
was indeed a futile attempt to break out of the historical impasse
and terminal structural crisis reached by communism, radical labor
movements, Third Worldism, and revolutionary trends everywhere. The
terrorism of that period was the first visible manifestation of that
impasse and the prelude to the final demise of those movements,
including world communism itself.
Today the hard-core Islamists’ spectacular terrorist violence reflects
a no less desperate attempt to break out of the historical impasse
and terminal structural crisis reached by the world Islamist movement
in the second half of the 20th century. I predict this violence will
be the prelude to the dissipation and final demise of militant
Islamism in general. Like the armed factions in Europe who had given
up on society, political parties, reform, proletarian revolution, and
traditional communist organization in favor of violent action,
militant Islamism has given up on contemporary Muslim society, its
sociopolitical movements, the spontaneous religiosity of the masses,
mainstream Islamic organizations, the attentism of the original and
traditional Society of Muslim Brothers (from which they generally
derive in the way the 1970s terrorists derived from European
communism), in favor of violence. Both were contemptuous of politics
and had complete disregard for the consequences of their actions.
Michel Foucault, when asked about the social and revolutionary
significance of his books, answered something to the effect that they
are no more than Molotov cocktails hurled at the system; they consume
themselves in the act of exploding and have no significance beyond the
flash they engender. Foucault believed that the only way to oppose the
system is direct action in the form of local attacks, intermittent
skirmishes, guerrilla raids, random uprisings, and anarchistic
assaults. This is a desperate rebellion without either cause or clear
Translated at the minimalist level into the activist Islamist idiom,
we get, first, what some Islamists call “an act of rage in favor of
God’s cause,” and second, the rejection of politics in almost any
form-conventional, radical, and revolutionary-in favor of the violent
tactics of nihilism and despair. For them, the only other alternatives
are co-optation or the admission of defeat.
Translated at the maximalist level, we get an apocalyptic form of
terrorism on a global scale: the belief that spectacular violence will
destroy the obstacles to the global triumph of Islam, catalyze the
Muslim people’s energies in its favor, and create poles of attraction
around which the Muslims of the world will rally-for example, the al
Qaeda networks, organizations, and training camps and the Taliban
model of a supposedly authentic Muslim society and government for
modern times.
As the September 11 attacks have shown, the perpetrators of the
apocalyptic form of terrorism, like their European counterparts, are
not the desperately poor of the Arab world, but, more often than not,
well-off, upwardly mobile, university-educated youths. They also share
with their European counterparts a sense of entrapment in an alien and
alienating monolithic sociopolitical reality and a tragic world view
centered around a violent and salvific moment of truth that exposes
the enveloping world of untruth, false consciousness, and false
appearance. Out of the rubble, an essential Truth will emerge. In
Europe it was conceived as an authentically humane and egalitarian
socialist society. In the Arab world it is the authentic Islamist
order reflected in such slogans as “Islam Is the Solution” and “Islam
Is the Answer.”
The beginnings of this kind of apocalyptic vision can be seen in the
1979 occupation of the Meccan holy shrine. In Saudi Arabia the ruling
tribal elite has since the 1950s conspicuously wrapped itself, its
society, and its system in the mantles of strict Muslim orthodoxy,
moral purity, social uprightness, and Bedouin austerity. At the same
time the contradiction between this official pretense and the
country’s real substance of life has only deepened. According to
official pretense, all non-Wahhabis are Kafirs (apostates, infidels),
but Saudi society is managed and the economy run by these very
infidels and in huge numbers; Saudis kowtow in all important matters,
internal and external, to the United States and its policies, and the
ruling classeslead profligate, ostentatious and debauched lifestyles,
mostly behind drawn curtains. All Riyadh-and the rest of the Arab
world-knows these things.
The sons and daughters of the system who took the religious pretenses
seriously staged an armed insurrection, occupying the Meccan holy
shrine in 1979 and shaking the kingdom to its foundations in the
process. In the world of Islam, no action could be more spectacular
than storming and seizing the Ka’ba itself, although the occupation
itself was peaceful. The leader of the insurrection, Juhaiman
Al-‘Utaibi, declared one of his followers the “Mahdi” (the divine
savior) and demanded an end to the ludicrous discrepancy between
official Saudi ideology and pretense on the one hand and the substance
of the kingdom’s real life on the other by bringing the latter into
strict conformity with the religious orthodoxy as officially announced
and propounded.
It took some time to flush Juhaiman and his followers out of the
Ka’ba. The Saudis had to call in Western assistance and expertise to
be able to accomplish the job without damaging the shrine. Of course,
calling on such help contradicted all the pious pretenses of the
regime, and all Saudi Arabia knew it too. Those involved in the
incident were eventually beheaded.
Like the 1979 occupiers of the Meccan shrine, the young Saudi
perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were products of the same
schizophrenic system. In fact, their leader, bin Laden, may be seen as
a more dangerous, advanced, and global version of Juhaiman
Al-‘Utaibi. While Juhaiman directed his desperate, spectacular
intervention against the most important local legitimizing symbol of
the Saudi system, bin Laden attacked the American core without which
the local system could not possibly survive. But both acts of
terrorism exposed the essential weakness of today’s Islamists: the
embrace of the inevitable emergence of a new Islamic order is itself a
symptom of a self-deluding fantasy that has afflicted the Arab and
Muslim world for more than two centuries.
A cultural form of schizophrenia is also attendant on the Arab (and
Muslim) world’s tortured, protracted and reluctant adaptation to
European modernity. This process has truly made the modern Arabs into
the Hamlet of our times, doomed to unrelieved tragedy, forever
hesitating, procrastinating, and wavering between the old and the new,
between asala and mu’asara (authenticity and contemporaneity), between
turath and tajdid (heritage and renewal), between huwiyya and hadatha
(identity and modernity), and between religion and secularity, while
the conquering Fortinbrases of the world inherit the new century. No
wonder, then, to quote Shakespeare’s most famous drama, that “the time
is out of joint” for the Arabs and “something is rotten in the state.”
No wonder as well if they keep wondering whether they are the authors
of their woes or whether “there’s a divinity that shapes [their]
For the Arabs to own their present and hold themselves responsible for
their ‘Ä®future, they must come to terms with a certain image of
themselves buried deep in their collective subconscious. What I mean
is this: as Arabs and Muslims (and I use Muslim here in the historical
and cultural sense), we continue to imagine ourselves as conquerors,
history-makers, pace-setters, pioneers, and leaders of world-historic
In the marrow of our bones, we still perceive ourselves as the
subjects of history, not its objects, as its agents and not its
victims. We have never acknowledged, let alone reconciled ourselves
to, the marginality and passivity of our position in modern times. In
fact, deep in our collective soul, we find it intolerable that our
supposedly great nation must stand helplessly on the margins not only
of modern history in general but even of our local and particular
We find no less intolerable the condition of being the object of a
history made, led, manipulated, and arbitrated by others, especially
when we remember that those others were (and by right ought to be) the
objects of a history made, led, manipulated, and arbitrated by
ourselves. Add to that a no less deeply seated belief that this
position of world-historical leadership and its glories was somehow
usurped from us by modern Europe fi ghaflaten min al-tarikh-while
history took a nap, as we say in Arabic. I say usurped-and usurpation
is at the heart of Hamlet’s tribulations and trials-because this
position belongs to us by right, by destiny, by fate, by election, by
providence, or by what have you.
With this belief goes the no less deeply seated conviction that
eventually things will right themselves by uncrowning this usurper,
whose time is running out anyway, and by restoring history’s
legitimate leaders to their former station and natural function. This
kind of thought and yearning comes through loud and clear in the work
of authors like Hasan Hanafi and Anwar Abdel-MaIek, as well as in the
tracts, analyses, and propaganda of the more sophisticated Islamist
thinkers and theoreticians.
The constellation of ideas they draw on is captured in the title of a
European classic, Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the false
implication being that if the West is declining then the Arabs and
Islam must be rising. Or, to put it somewhat differently (in a way
that relates more to the title of Abdel-Malek’s book Rih al-Sharq [The
Wind of the East]), if the wind of history is abandoning the sails of
the West, then it must be filling those of the East (East means
principally, here, Islam and the Arabs). If we use the title of an
equally famous Islamist classic by Muhammad Qutb, Jahiliyyat al-Qarn
al-Ishrin, The Jahiliyya of the 20th Century, then the implication
would be, Now that European Modernity has come full circle to the
Jahili condition, the Arabs and Muslims must be on the verge of
leading humanity once more out of the Jahiliyya created by Europe and
defended by the West in general.
But this is not the end of the story. Reviewing the classics of Arab
nationalism, it now often appears to me that the deeper objective of
these works was not so much Arab unity as an end in itself but Arab
unity as a means of retrieving that usurped role of world-historical
leadership and of history-making. In fact, I can easily argue that the
ultimate but unarticulated concern is not so much a struggle against
colonialism, imperialism, and foreign occupation, or for independence,
prosperity, and social justice, but for the restoration of the great
umma (nation) to a role of global leadership appropriate to its nature
and mission. After all, the historic civilizations of our part of the
world have always been of the conquering and extroverted type: ancient
Persia descending on Greece, Alexander conquering Persia and
everything else within reach, Hannibal, Rome, Islam, the Ottomans,
European modernity, and so on.
When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated
self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of
Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insignificance, especially in
international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive
inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism,
political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale
terrorism of the kind we have become familiar with all over the world.
The contradiction that I have been trying to delineate is perhaps best
captured-quite gently and very ironically-in the title of Hussain
Ahmad Amin’s pointed and lively book, Dalil al-Muslim al-Hazin ila
Muqtada al-Suluqfi al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin. The author is a well-known
Egyptian historian and high-ranking diplomat and the son of Ahmad
Amin, the great historian produced by what the late Albert Hourani
called the Arab Liberal Age. Interestingly enough, the title of Amin’s
book hints at that great classic of Western thought, Moses
Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed (Gui, Dalalat al-Ha’irin). So
a free translation of Hussain Ahmad Amin’s title would read, A Guide
for the Sad andPerplexed Muslim Concerning the Sort of Behavior
Required by and in the 20th Century.
The contemporary Muslim or Arab is so sad and vexed in Amin’s account
because his cherished convictions about his civilization, religion,
and providence, and their role in modern history are all given the lie
by hard realities every waking minute of his life. Furthermore, the
radical transformations and sacrifices required to transcend this
contradiction are either undesirable or unbearable. So what else can
the Muslim or Arab do but muddle through his sad perplexity in the
21st century with the conviction that perhaps one day God or history
or fate or the revolution or the moral order of the universe will
raise his umma to its proper role once again. Under these
circumstances, various kinds of direct-action violence (including
terrorism in some of its most spectacular forms) present themselves as
the only means of relief from this hopeless impasse.
There is no running away from the fact that the Arabs were dragged
kicking and screaming into modernity on the one hand, and that
modernity was forced on them by a superior might, efficiency, and
performance on the other. Europe made the modern world without
consulting Arabs, Muslims, or anyone else for that matter and made it
at the expense of everyone else to boot.
While the Crusades were ultimately repulsed, Bonaparte’s militarily
insignificant adventure in Egypt and Palestine not only triumphed but
made a clean sweep of all that had become irrelevant on our side of
the Mediterranean-the traditional Memluk and Ottoman conduct of
warfare, the supporting production systems, local knowledges, and
forms of economic, social, legal, and political organization. The
massive difference between the effects of the Crusades and the results
of the French expedition of 1798 distills the essence of European
modernity and puts it on show for our chastisement and edification.
In fact, modern Europe’s violent intrusion into the Islamic and Arab
worlds created a final and decisive rupture with the past that I can
only compare to the no less final and decisive rupture caused by the
violent Arab-Muslim intervention in Sassanid Persia. And just as the
history of post-conquest Persia stopped making sense without the Arabs
and Islam, the post-Bonaparte history of the Arab world stopped making
sense without Europe and modernity. In my view, there is no running
away from this reality no matter how many times we reiterate the
partial truth that modern Europe got it all from us anyway: Averroes,
Andalusian high culture and civilization, science, mathematics,
philosophy, and all the rest. Without finally coming to terms,
seriously and in depth, with these painful realities and their so far
paralyzing contradictions, we truly will abdicate our place in today’s
Is there, then, an inevitable clash of civilizations coming between an
archaic Islamic world and the modern secular West, as Huntington seems
to affirm in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World
Order? I would say that in the strong and serious sense of clash, the
answer in no. In the weak and more casual sense of the term, the
answer is yes.
Huntington argues that after the collapse of world communism, the main
source of grave international conflict (and possible wars) ceased to
be the hostile rivalry between two incompatible totalizing economic
systems and came to be the antagonistic self-assertion and vying of
the large, comprehensive, and more or less self-contained systems of
fundamental beliefs and values that dominate the post-Cold War scene,
such as traditional Islam on the one hand and triumphant Western
liberalism on the other.
I can make the same point differently by saying that according to
Huntington, now that the historical challenge of communism, socialism,
working-class movements, and Third Worldism to Western capitalist
hegemony has come to a definite end, we have to look for the sources
of international danger, conflict, and tension in the existing major
belief and value systems that are inherently incompatible not only
with capitalist liberalism but with each other as well.
For Huntington, civilization seems to reduce itself to culture,
culture to religion, and religion to an archetypal constant that in
the case of Islam is bound to produce the phenomenon of Homo islamicus
propelled on a collision course with, let us say, the West’s Homo
economicus and instinctive liberalism as well as with India’s Homo
hierarchicus and natural polytheism.
It seems clear to me that Huntington’s thesis involves, first, a
reversion to old-fashioned German philosophie des geistes and, second,
a rehabilitation of the classical orientalist essentialism that Edward
Said demolished so well in his book Orientalism. What comes
immediately to my mind in this context, for instance, is the famous
concoction of spirit and the system of Protestant ethical beliefs and
fundamental values used by Max Weber to explain the rise of capitalism
in Europe. Here we already have the spirit of capitalism clashing with
the prevalent spirit of feudalism and the new Protestant ethical
belief system clashing with the antecedent, adjacent, and rival Roman
Catholic one.
Weber’s rivalry, clash, and struggle of the two spirits and two ethics
turns global and international with Huntington. This vying of spirits
and belief systems is not simply historical, sociological or
evolutionary but essentialistic, ontological, and static. This kind of
ahistorical and anti-historical reasoning sets the stage for the clash
of civilizations by exclusively juxtaposing a reified system of basic
Western beliefs and values against another reified but incompatible
system of equally basic Muslim beliefs and values.
At a more practical level, this means that such values as liberalism,
secularism, democracy, human rights, religious toleration, freedom of
expression, etc. are to be regarded as the West’s deepest values, from
which the contemporary Muslim World is permanently excluded on account
of its own mostly deeply cherished values-theocracy, theonomy and
theonomism, scripturalism, literalism, fundamentalism, communalism,
totalitarianism, sexism, absolutism, and dogmatism-which are
antithetical to the core to liberalism, secularism, democracy, and the
The interesting irony in all this is that the Islamists find
themselves in full agreement not only with Huntington’s basic thesis
but with its theoretical implications and practical applications as
well. Their theoreticians and ideologists also reduce civilizations to
culture, cultures to religion, and religions to inherently
incompatible archetypal constants that vie, clash, and struggle with
and against each other. For them, Islam will emerge triumphant in the
To temporarily relieve the harshness of the clash of civilizations
thesis, President Khatami of Iran called for a dialogue of
civilizations instead. The president’s main concern here is,
naturally, a dialogue between Islam and the West in general and Iran
and the United States in particular. Is Khatami sincere or
hypocritical in his call? In the long run he is hypocritical because
the Islamist version of the Huntingtonian logic to which he is
strategically committed requires a clash of civilizations and the
ultimate triumph of his own. In the short run he is sincere, because
dialogue is not a bad momentary tactic for the much weaker side in
this confrontation.
The clash of civilizations between Islam and the West indeed exists in
the weak, ordinary sense of clash, but not in the strong and more
dramatic meaning of the term. Islam is simply too weak to sustain in
earnest any challenge to an obviously triumphant West. In fact,
contemporary Islam does not even form a “civilization” in the active,
enactive, and effective senses of the term. It may be said to form a
civilization only in the historical, traditional, passive, reactive,
and folkloric senses.
The two supposedly clashing sides are so unequal in power, military
might, productive capacity, efficiency, effective institutions,
wealth, social organization, science, and technology that the clash
can only be of the inconsequential sort. As one literary metaphor
says, If a stone falls on an egg the egg breaks, and if an egg falls
on a stone the egg breaks too. From the Arab Muslim side of the
divide, the West seems so powerful, so efficient, so successful, so
unstoppable, that the very idea of an ultimate “clash” is fanciful.
As for the current tensions, suspicions, confrontations, and enmities
that characterize the relationship of Islam to the West, they are
certainly not purely affairs of the spirit, or simply clashes of
religious ideas or theological interpretations, or merely matters of
beliefs, values, images, and perceptions. They are the normal affairs
of history, power politics, international relations, and the pursuit
of vital interests. <
Sadik J. Al-Azm is an emeritus professor of modern European philosophy
at the University of Damascus and a recipient of the 2004 Erasmus
Originally published in the October/November 2004 issue of Boston
Copyright Boston Review, 1993-2004. All rights reserved.