chapter 2. What Went On?

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Theory predicted that rulers freed from the bonds of the

sharia would seek absolute power, and they regularly lived

up to that expectation.

the question “What went wrong?” has

emerged as a compelling starting point for discussions

of the contemporary Middle East. It

appears to be a reasonable historical question.

Even within the Arab and Muslim world there

is broad recognition of weakness and failure,

and widespread fear that the passage of time

only makes matters worse. It is important to ask

the right questions, but one cannot do so until

one has explained why the question that is currently

being asked doesn’t work.

“What went wrong?” stands history on its

head. The notion that something went wrong

presumes a comparative perspective in which

there is a clear notion of how things should

have gone, something against which the actuality

of failure can be measured. One might hypothesize

an example from the Civil War. The

leadership of the Confederate States of America

sought victory; they lost. In the aftermath, their

asking “What went wrong?” would have made

good historical sense. It was their plans, after all, that had failed;

and the question would have presumed this perspective.

But whose perspective is involved when the question is raised

for the Middle East? Bernard Lewis, the popularizer of the phrase,

puts it this way at the outset of his book What Went Wrong?:

What went wrong? For a long time people in the Islamic world, especially

but not exclusively in the Middle East, have been asking this

question. The content and formulation of the question, provoked

primarily by their encounter with the West, vary greatly according to

the circumstances, the extent, and duration of that encounter and the

events that first made them conscious, by comparison, that all was

not well in their own society.1

This introduction avoids telling us just who in the Islamic

world has been asking the question; but it does make it clear that

the question is comparative in intent. Why do people in the Islamic

world live in circumstances they consider to be so much

worse than those of people in the West? As he proceeds with the

book, Lewis details the terms of this comparison. The Islamic

world, and especially the Middle East, sadly trails the West in freedom,

gender equality, secularism, economic and intellectual vitality,

material living standards—in fact, in just about everything.

But what path should have been taken? What caused the Muslim

societies to veer from that path? Comparison alone sheds no

light. Comparatively speaking, the United States lagged far behind

Europe in music, drama, and the visual arts well into the

twentieth century. This was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.

But no one would begin an analysis of this disparity by asking

“What went wrong?” because social and cultural circumstances

in the two regions were so disparate that there is no reason to suppose

that they should have attained equal levels of achievement.

The Muslim world never possessed a road map with a clearly

marked path leading to a promised land of equality with Europe.

To be sure, some rulers and statesmen sought to be as rich as the

European powers, or as powerful militarily, and a few believed

that liberal principles and governmental institutions might help

them toward those goals. No one, however, dreamt that an adroit

deployment of European ideas and techniques would lead, by the

end of the twentieth century, to societies, governments, and

economies that would be as free, as prosperous, and as dominant

as those of Europe and North America. The reason I can say this

with confidence is that no one in Europe and North America

knew where the ship they were sailing on was heading. The great

goals that the West now believes it has achieved—equality of race

and gender, peace and unity among European nations, global

dominance by Euro-American economic enterprise unencumbered

by the artificial boundaries and rivalries of empire, and the

unquestioned dominance of democratic government—were invisible

to Europeans and Americans alike throughout the whole of

the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth.

It is comforting to think, when things are going well, that

where you are is where you were destined to be, that you took the

right path. Ever since the Nazis were defeated, the Soviet Union

collapsed, the war-weary European empires gave up their colonies,

and France and Switzerland finally gave women the vote, it has

been tempting to believe that this is how history was meant to

come out. Yet things almost went horribly and irrecoverably bad,

as scores of millions of graves marking the victims of European

war, holocaust, and oppression testify.

To the extent that observers in the Muslim world tried from

time to time to look at things in a comparative perspective, and to

visualize ways of countering or matching the incontestable and

growing economic and political superiority of Europe, their standard

of comparison was not late-twentieth-century Euro-

American society. It was the dominant European society or political

regimes of their own day, the imperialists, the fascists, and the

communists, as well as the liberal-minded democrats.

In 1810, when Muhammad Ali was dreaming of making Egypt

as strong as any European power, his standard of comparison was

Napoleon: no democracy, no liberal values, just the massive power

of the imperial military state and the will of an absolute monarch.

Such was the path he chose. In 1856, in the aftermath of the

Crimean War, when an Ottoman sultan issued a series of decrees

instituting reforms along European lines, his standard of comparison

was the France of Napoleon III and the Great Britain of

Queen Victoria: no gender equality, no international economic

synergy, no universal education, just the velvet glove concealing

the imperialist fist. Such was the path taken two decades later by

Sultan Abdülhamit II. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was laying

down the principles of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, his standards

of comparison were Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin: no

political openness, no freedom of expression, no economic liberalism.

He took the same path.

The marvel of Europe at the outset of the twenty-first century

is that despite the horrors of the preceding two centuries, it has

said goodbye to empire, set aside national rivalries and military

confrontation, made a universal commitment to democracy and

civil liberties, and recognized, at long last, the fundamental equality

of all human beings. It is a wonderful outcome, but not one

that was predictable or inevitable, much less the consequence of a

developmental path that could have been observed and followed

to a similar end by people in other lands. The idea that people in

the Middle East once embraced the goal of becoming like Europe

and hoped that by adopting European ideas and institutions they

would someday experience all of the liberal values we recognize

in the Europe of today is nonsense. It assumes a historical outcome

for Europe itself that no one even in Europe could have


So where did the idea that something “went wrong” come

from? Since Bernard Lewis popularized the notion, his first important

scholarly work, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, is a reasonable

place to look. He completed the book in 1960, but its genesis

dates to 1949–50 when he went to Turkey to pursue research.

He relates his feelings about the Turkey of 1950 in the preface to

the book’s third edition, published in 2002, the year What Went

Wrong? also went to press:

Several factors, it seems in retrospect, determined the basic approach,

the dominant conception, and the final conclusions of the book . . .

In my historical studies, I began with medieval Islam, proceeded to

the Ottoman Empire, and then, later, to modern Turkey. . . . The fact

that I first came to Turkey, so to speak, from the past and from the

south [i.e., the heartland of medieval Islamic civilization, Lewis’ first

area of research] instead of from the present and from the west, gave

me a different—and I would claim better—understanding of the

country, of its history and culture, and therefore of its problems.2

I too spent many years immersed solely in medieval Islamic

studies before turning my attention on the modern Middle East,

and I share Lewis’ self-serving opinion that coming at the modern

period from the medieval Islamic past has given me a different—

and indeed better—understanding of the region’s history, culture,

and problems. Lewis again:

A second determining factor, of at least equal importance, was the

world situation during my formative years and during the period

when the book was begun and completed. For the men and women

of that generation, their whole lives, their every thought, was dominated

and indeed shaped by the titanic struggles in which they had

participated, or which they had at the very least witnessed—the defeat

and, so it seemed at the time, the destruction of fascism by an alliance

of democrats and communists; the ensuing struggle, commonly

known as the Cold War, between these former allies to decide

which of them would shape the future of the world; the emergence

of a third, neutralist bloc in some of the countries liberated by the

withdrawal of the western Empires. In the fifties, these issues loomed

very large, and the choices before us still retained something of the

clarity, even the starkness, which they had through the war years and

which they have subsequently lost.3

By “the men and women of that generation” it is clear that

Lewis is referring primarily to Europeans and Americans. For the

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli triumph of 1948, the Egyptians

who rose as a nation to support Gamal Abdel Nasser after

the revolution of 1952, the Iranians who cried in anguish when the

CIA and British intelligence helped the Shah crush Mohammed

Mossadegh’s nationalist movement in 1953, and the Algerians who

initiated a war to free their country of French colonial rule in 1956,

“their whole lives, their every thought, was dominated and indeed

shaped” by their own national dramas, not by the defeat of fascism

and the struggle against communism. And it is difficult to recognize

the thrill of achieving national independence, or the torment

of falling short of that goal, in what Lewis blandly recalls as the

“emergence of a third, neutralist bloc in some of the countries liberated

by the withdrawal of the western Empires.” The issues of

the fifties that gripped the western men and women of Lewis’ generation

were decidedly not the issues that gripped the same generation

of men and women in the Muslim world.

From Lewis’ standpoint, however, the startling political spectacle

of 1950 was understandably exhilarating. In free elections,

Turkey’s newly founded Democrat Party, led by Adnan Menderes,

unseated the Republican People’s Party that had dominated every

Turkish government since the establishment of both republic and

party by Atatürk himself. The military overthrow of Menderes,

and his trial and execution for violating the constitution, were still

ten years in the future. And with the clouds of the Cold War gathering,

no one was yet ready to speculate that Turkey’s sudden turn

toward democracy had something to do with American financial

and military support extended under the Truman Doctrine, or

with a desire, realized two years later, to be accepted into NATO.

(As today Turkey confronts explicit European demands for liberalizing

reforms as conditions for acceptance into the European

Union, the notion that history is repeating itself is hard to resist.)

This clarity of choice gave a special significance to the already dramatic

development of events in Turkey at the time when this book

was conceived and written. What could be more illuminating, more

in accord with the mood of optimism that victory had brought and

which the Cold War had not yet dissipated, than the spectacle of a nation

liberating itself from ancient bonds—a country of age-old authoritarian

habits and traditions turning to democracy; a regime [i.e.,

the Republican People’s Party] that had for decades enjoyed a virtual

monopoly of power setting to work, systematically, to prepare, organize,

and preside over its own electoral defeat. Even now, more

than fifty years later, despite all the ensuing setbacks and frustrations—

and there have been many—no one who was there at the time

can ever forget the excitement, the exhilaration, of Turkey’s first giant

step towards a free and open society.4

I would not dream of disputing what Lewis says of the exhilaration

of the moment, or of its continuing force fifty years later.

“The mood of optimism that victory had brought” is another

question. Whose victory? Whose optimism? Turkey was neutral

during World War II; Iran was militarily occupied and its ruler deposed;

the rest of the Middle East lived under more or less oppressive

imperialist control. Political aspirants in Egypt, Palestine,

Iraq, and Iran, to name but four, had tentatively reached out to the

Axis powers for support against imperialism. Six months after VE

day, Britain and France had announced no plans for loosening

their imperial grip on Muslim lands, nor had the Soviet Union

shown any indication of adhering to a wartime commitment to

evacuate Iranian territory. In the absence of specific corroborating

information, therefore, it would seem that to the extent that the

mood of optimism that Lewis describes was shared by the Turks,

it was not for the same reasons.

The question of who has been asking “What went wrong?” thus

finds its answer. It is not unnamed “people in the Islamic world,”

but rather Lewis himself. He witnessed in 1950, with decidedly

European eyes, what he took to be “Turkey’s first giant step towards

a free and open society,” and the vision is undiminished

more than fifty years later. Is there a free and open society in

Turkey today? No. Is there a free and open society anywhere in the

Muslim Middle East, or in the Muslim world at large? No. What

went wrong? Lewis’ vision of a goal provides the comparative

standard. Lewis’ perception of a derailment on the way to that

goal motivates the question.

Were it not for the publicity given to his question, there would

be no reason to address it in such detail. Every westerner who visits

the Middle East, whether only an occasional visitor or one who

lives there for a longer period, encapsulated in the typical cocoon

of an expatriate community, generalizes too grandly from his or

her experiences. (The same holds true for Middle Easterners who

sojourn in Europe and America.) Someone who happened to go

to Iran for the first time in 1971 during the build-up to the Shah’s

celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian imperial greatness might understandably

have come away with a vision of enduring autocratic

grandeur, just as someone who went for the first time in 1979

might understandably have come home convinced that Islamic

revolution was the wave of the future. Like Lewis, the former

might subsequently have wondered what went wrong when the

Shah abandoned his throne to Ayatollah Khomeini, and the latter

might have wondered what went wrong when the overwhelming

electoral victory of President Khatami led to harsh repression of

dissent rather than liberalization. Visitors collect snapshots and

connect dots. They examine scattered samplings of trees and extrapolate

forests. When they ask what went wrong, their standard

of comparison is of their own making.

What, then, do people within the Muslim world ask? Which of

the many constructions of history most helps to explain the welldocumented

miseries of today? The list of explanations is long: absence

of political freedom; squandering of national wealth on armaments;

suppression of dissent and free expression; stagnant

economic development; export of capital by people of wealth;

massive unemployment; stultifying educational institutions; religious,

ethnic, and gender inequality and discontent; excessive

population growth; etc. Certain constructions command great attention.

For many, what has seemed most important is the cre-

ation of the state of Israel, and the support of Israel by the United

States from 1967 on. For others, the heavy legacy of imperialism,

in all of its many forms, tells the tale best. Still others focus on

western conspiratorial plots to strip Muslims of their capacity to

act effectively in their own interests. And a few, like Lewis, find the

dead hand of Islam behind every failure. What these constructions

hold in common is the notion of a villain, a malevolent force persistently

preventing good things from happening.

Refuting these multifarious readings of history would be of little

value. Those who hold them dear are unlikely to relinquish

them, and most of them make some degree of sense. In any case,

there is no need for a single unitary explanation of so far-reaching

a phenomenon as the desolation besetting the Muslim world. Instead

of refutation, I would propose a question that is too seldom

considered: What went right?

What Went Right?

Lewis quite reasonably asks us to consider the viewpoints of people

in the Islamic world as they considered various disparities between

their own situations and those of citizens in western countries.

Some of these viewpoints are contained in memoirs, travel

accounts, political tracts, and novels. Others can be read into the

undertakings of rulers from the early nineteenth century to the

present, from Egypt’s Muhammad Ali and the Ottoman sultan

Mahmud II to the likes of Husni Mubarak and the recently enthroned

dynastic rulers of Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, and


All of these individuals, and thousands of others whose names

have gone unrecorded, have observed significant differences between

their own societies and those of Europe. But they have not

all observed the same differences. One writer will comment on female

shoulders fetchingly bared by French ball gowns, another on

European scientific achievements, a third on the shocking and awesome

firepower of western armies. As for the rulers, they typically

recognize disparities in economic and military power but disagree

in appraising the source of these disparities. Some want less Islam,

some want more. Some want freer trade; some want a closed door.

Nor do Arab and Muslim observations always reflect a sense

that things are better in the West. The Muslim zealot Sayyid Qutb,

the martyred firebrand of today’s revolutionary wildfire, spent the

years 1948–1950 in the United States, observed a multitude of differences,

and concluded that Islam afforded a better path to the future.

So it is far from self-evident that comparative observation results

in a consistent sense of what the Muslim world is lacking, or

even in a sense that differences with the West must always be understood

as Muslim deficiencies. Moreover, when differences are

cast as deficiencies, the nature of the deficiency, and the recommendations

for rectifying it, differ from observer to observer.

To start at the level of the individual, one example will suffice.

Writing from the most mundane and practical standpoint in the

1890s, a little-known Egyptian official named Yusuf Bushtali focused

on day-to-day life in his Hidyat al-Muluk fi Adab al-Suluk

(“The Conduct of Kings on the Propriety of Behavior”), subtitled

in French Etiquette.5 He takes as his topic “the entry of western

civilization and the customs of its people in our eastern land; the

acceptance by easterners of the acquisition of the westerners’ sciences

and arts; and the imitation of them in matters of eating,

drinking, residential living, and dressing.”6

The westerners, he observes, “spend dirhams and dinars and

cross seas and deserts to come to this land in order to study our

customs. They observe our homes, our mosques, and our meeting

places. They attend our weddings, our festivals, our birthdays, and

our funerals. Then they write fat volumes about them. They buy

our goods and the crafts of the people of our country for the highest

prices, and they use them to ornament their homes, their museums,

and the palaces of their rulers. They study our languages

and investigate the traces of our forefathers. They decipher the secrets

our ancestors have written on the faces of hard stones in

order to understand their customs and knowledge.”

Then, after enumerating and praising the traditional and continuing

virtues of his countrymen, he declares: “It is perfectly clear

that studying the customs and peoples of the West is an absolute

obligation”—here he uses fard wajib, a technical phrase from Islamic

law—“on every easterner who wants to mingle with them

and draw close to them in order to live among them as an acknowledged

equal, not as someone who is below them in understanding

and elementary education.”7

Four hundred pages of minutely observed description of western

customs follow. The topics range wide: riding in a carriage,

calling cards, party games, etiquette at dinner, wedding gifts,

dances, and a long section on western foods, including lists of

dishes in French, English, and Arabic with line engravings showing

how to carve a chicken or a rabbit.

Who was Bushtali? Nobody. A minor government official. The

histories of modern Arabic literature ignore him, and his prescription

of slavish imitation of western ways offends the Arab nationalist

sensibilities that surfaced two decades after his writing and

continue today. But his approach to the problem of difference

shows considerable insight of a behaviorist kind. The differences

he sees between the Egyptians and the Europeans are clearly deficiencies.

Though he puts the burden of learning how to behave

like the westerners only on those Egyptians who want to mingle

with them, he explicitly states that the cost of not doing so is European

disdain. Furthermore, Egyptians studying the behavior of

westerners are not mirroring the practices of westerners examining

the behavior, languages, etc. of Egyptians. European ethnography,

archaeology, and orientalism yield fat volumes, but he

never says that the Europeans aspire to be treated as equals by the

Egyptians. His prescription for his countrymen aims not at producing

ethnographic tomes, though that is precisely what he himself

is doing, but at producing equality of status, something that

involves not only social acceptance, but also acknowledgement of

a parallel level of understanding. An Egyptian who behaves exactly

like a westerner, he believes, will be received as a westerner.

One may wonder whether Bushtali actually believed that reading

a manual on etiquette would help very much. Nevertheless, his

basic perception was both sound, and very widespread. Untold

thousands of Muslims consciously or unconsciously acted on the

syllogism Bushtali sets forth: A) Europeans do not respect or accept

as equals non-Europeans who behave in “native” fashion. B)

Europeans do grant acceptance to non-Europeans who learn to

dress, converse, and otherwise comport themselves in a European

manner. C) Therefore, non-Europeans who wish to be accepted as

equals must learn to comport themselves in European fashion.

This simple idea, whether consciously articulated or intuitively

sensed, continues the guide the lives of many Arabs and Muslims

down to the present day.

Ingrained stereotypes relating to the Arab and Muslim world

over the past century or so contain many examples of westerners

reacting favorably to “natives” fitted out with European clothes,

manners, and social graces, and other examples of non-Europeans

being disparaged for trying unsuccessfully to ape western customs.

These reactions have lately reinforced political sentiments in the

warmth accorded impeccably tailored Arabs like Jordan’s late King

Husain or Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince

Bandar bin Sultan, as compared with the caustic comments often

made about Yasir Arafat’s unshaven face and inappropriate military

garb. But what alternative is there for someone who wants

western respect? Nonwesterners who stick to their own costumes

and practices may sometimes be admired as colorful denizens of

semi-civilized lands. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai with his colorful

robe and Afghan hat comes to mind. Derisive cartoons of Arab oil

sheikhs in gowns and checkered headdresses, however, associate

the retention of nonwestern styles and habits with primitive, if not

vicious, inclinations. As for Europeans who “go native” and adopt

local dress and customs—a not uncommon affectation among

nineteenth-century Englishmen—they are regularly dismissed as

eccentrics or mountebanks. A Turk or Arab or Persian wearing a

business suit may well be treated as an equal. An American, Eng-

lishman, or German wearing a turban is a fool. As Bushtali saw so

clearly, cultural exchange between west and nonwest presumes

western superiority.

Were Bushtali alive today, he would surely remark that things

have obviously gone right for many Arabs and Muslims. Kuwaiti

businessmen with flats in London, first-class tailors, and degrees

from American and British universities are unquestionably received

as equals, and their opinions accorded respect, in the western

circles they frequent. Iranian and Lebanese doctors practicing

in the United States stand at the highest levels of their profession.

Elegantly attired Palestinian professors at renowned universities

write cutting-edge works that command worldwide respect. In

Bushtali’s day, such a prospect was almost unthinkable, and it is

still hard to imagine it happening if the individuals in question had

chosen to rely on their personal talents alone without the accompaniment

of a western wardrobe, education, and comportment.

Needless to say, access to these desiderata of western acceptance

is not, and never has been, available to everyone. Ironically, those

individuals who by virtue of family position, wealth, or espousal

of non-Muslim religious beliefs have had the greatest opportunities

for assimilation to western modes of thought and behavior are

often the ones who feel most acutely the disparity between the life

circumstances of their compatriots and those of native-born Europeans

and Americans. Their anguish testifies to the fact that

while assimilation may enable individuals to bridge the gulf in life

circumstances, the problems of their home societies have to be addressed

in a systemic fashion.

Has the failure to keep pace with the west been rooted, then, in

wrong-headed leadership? In the history of nonwestern nations

trying to close the gap with Europe, the universally recognized

paragon of leadership is the Meiji emperor in Japan. Between 1868

and his death in 1912, Meiji presided over a transition in almost

every facet of Japanese life. A constitution and parliamentary electoral

system came into being. Equality of status was achieved in international

treaties. Industrial growth and military reforms led to

victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and subsequent recognition

as a great power. Whatever the problems besetting the Japanese

economy today, no one, either Japanese or western, finds serious

fault with the path taken during the Meiji period.

Meiji himself, however, was not the one who charted that path.

He chose the people to put in authority, and he stood behind their

decisions; but he did not govern and did not promote his own personal

ideas. His surviving writings consist almost exclusively of

poems. Though he observed military maneuvers, and insisted on

sharing the personal discomfort of his soldiers, he did so because

he thought it was his duty rather than because he wanted to learn

about strategy or join in war planning. He donated money to victims

of disaster, but his reluctance to spend money on himself kept

him from building a suitable palace in his capital city. Very well read

in the classics of Confucian thought, he served his nation with humanity

and diligence and was deeply mourned on his passing.

By comparison, the leaders of the Arab and Muslim world who

have most ardently sought equality with the West have also been

consumed with dreams of unlimited personal power. As heads of

state they have shared a common set of goals: to prolong or achieve

independence from European control, to make their countries militarily

and economically stronger, to tighten controls over their domestic

populations, to develop and make more European the skills

of those who serve their governments, and to free themselves from

real or potential criticism by Muslim men of religion.

Yet maximizing personal power has always loomed as an unspoken

end surpassing all of these proclaimed goals. Muhammad

Ali, a military commander sent by the Ottoman sultan to Egypt to

help regain control after the withdrawal of Napoleon’s expeditionary

force in 1801, used European military and economic techniques

to make himself omnipotent at home and a threat to his

master in Istanbul. He ultimately failed to unseat the sultan, but

he won for his descendants the hereditary right to rule Egypt. Sultan

Abdülhamit II, the paranoid “Red Sultan” who ruled the Ottoman

Empire from 1876 to 1909, pioneered techniques of internal

spying and oppression that flourish today in the tyrannies of

the Middle East. Relying on these techniques to quell dissent, the

nonmonarchical strongmen of today base their unlimited power

on elections in which they face no opponents, and aspire to

Muhammad Ali’s achievement of passing their positions on to

their sons. Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father Hafiz in Syria. Saddam

Hussein was grooming his sons Uday and Qusay for the succession

in Iraq. Husni Mubarak promotes his son Gamal as the

leader of the new generation in Egypt. This series of would-be dynasts

is matched, of course, by the real dynasts of Morocco, Jordan,

Saudi Arabia, and the states of the Persian Gulf. Whether

hereditary by right, hereditary by might, or simply a usurpation by

military or single-party strongmen, the power of rulers has inexorably

strengthened throughout the Middle East over the past

two centuries. And the rulers have with few exceptions been fixated

upon personal aggrandizement rather than self-sacrificing public


So something did go right—again at a personal level. The rulers

wanted more personal power, and they got more personal power.

The so-called despotisms of the eighteenth-century Islamic world

pale in totalitarian control beside the police-state governments of

the late twentieth century. And today’s media-powered cults of

personality, exemplified by omnipresent pictures of the ruler, exceed

by far past impositions upon the nation of a ruler’s personality.

Ottoman coins bore the ornate, and almost unreadable, signature

of the sultan; but his facial features were unknown to most of

his subjects. No ruler in the modern history of the Middle East remotely

resembles the self-abnegating, dutiful, and aloof Meiji emperor,

even though worldly aware Turks and Arabs consistently

looked upon Japan, from 1905 onward, as a model of successful

confrontation with Europe.

Sharia vs. Sultan

In the case of Meiji, lifelong immersion in Confucianist thought

conditioned the emperor to be the servant of his nation—albeit a

semi-divine iconic servant—rather than an exploiter of his nation

or a power-crazed autocrat. The remainder of this chapter will

argue that the worldviews of Arab and Muslim rulers have been

as conditioned by Islamic political traditions as Meiji’s outlook

was by his Confucian upbringing. I do not mean by this that because

they were Muslim, they behaved badly in power or fell prey

to the evil machinations of Muslim religious figures. My argument,

rather, will be that the historic relationship between state

and religion that in the Christian wing of Islamo-Christian civilization

culminated in an ideology of peaceful (and sometimes

not so peaceful) separation, developed in the Muslim wing into a

malignant rivalry in which personal tyranny, accompanied by suppression

of critical religious voices, developed as a self-fulfilling


Traditional Islamic political thought had a horror of fitna, a

word signifying upheaval and disorder and embracing everything

from riot to civil war. Anarchy was intolerable, government a societal

necessity. On the other hand, the impulse of rulers to maximize

their power to the point of tyranny, zulm, appeared as a natural

concomitant of government. All that restrained rulers from

acting as tyrants was Islamic law, sharia. Since the law was based

on divine rather then human principles, no ruler could change it

to serve his own interests. Since the interpretation of the law was

the prerogative of the ulama, the religious scholars, rulers who

were tempted to go beyond the law, and thereby achieve absolute

power, had to devise ways of coopting, circumventing, or suppressing

the ulama.

This portrayal needs little elaboration in its broad outline.

Scholars more or less agree on it. The Turkish historian Halil Inalcik

traces it back to a “circle of justice” in pre-Islamic times, citing

the words of a sixth-century Persian shah, apocryphally quoted

by an early Muslim chronicler: “With justice and moderation

the people will produce more, tax revenues will increase, and the

state will grow rich and powerful. Justice is the foundation of a

powerful state.” Then, from one of the earliest Turkish works on

statecraft, dating to the eleventh century: “To control the state re-

quires a large army. To support the troops requires great wealth.

To obtain this wealth the people must be prosperous. For the people

to be prosperous the laws must be just. If any one of these is

neglected, the state will collapse.”8

The Muslim version of the circle of justice sees the sharia as the

guarantee of that justice. Even Bernard Lewis, with his generally

negative outlook on Islamic traditions, acknowledges the strong

association of the sharia with justice and opposition to tyranny.

“Westerners have become accustomed to think of good and bad

government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. . . . For traditional

Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice

in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was

there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according

to God’s law, or at least according to recognizable moral

and legal principles.”9

The use of freedom as a metaphor has been a staple of European

political rhetoric ever since Herodotus celebrated the Greeks’ escape

from metaphorical “enslavement” by Xerxes’ invading Persians.

What underlies the metaphor changes over time, however.

The Greeks wanted to retain the independence of their city-states.

As slave-holders themselves, however, they knew perfectly well that

becoming subjects of the Persian emperor would not have been the

same as slavery. Two millennia later, “liberty” was still a codeword.

Patrick Henry’s cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” protested

the British crown’s financial exactions, not indentured servitude.

Even more recently, in echoing Moses’ “Let my people go,” Dr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind an equality of social and economic

opportunity that tragically had not accompanied statutory

emancipation. And the “Free World” of Cold War rhetoric equated

absence of freedom with communist one-party rule, even though

many parts of the Free World lived under non-communist oneparty

rule, dictatorship, or absolute monarchy.

What, then, is the indispensable “justice” of Muslim political

theory to be compared with if “liberty” is such a variable metaphor?

Some key episodes in the history of democracy’s rise in Europe and

North America direct our attention to taxation. “No taxation without

representation” was not so resounding a war cry as Patrick

Henry’s, but it reflected a concrete reality. Britain’s American

colonies resented being taxed by a parliament that did not represent

them. A decade later, it was France’s turn. Louis XVI summoned

the unruly parliament that touched off the French Revolution

because he needed to raise funds.

Tax revolt, of course, can go only so far in explaining rebellions

against legitimate authority. Unlike “freedom,” however, but like

“justice,” it is concrete. People experience tyranny in particular

forms—financial exactions, injustices—and look for a means of resisting.

If the tyranny is starved for money, withholding permission

to tax can be effective. If it is starved for soldiers in wartime,

as czarist Russia was during World War I, mutiny and desertion

can bring it down. When a populace speaks out in opposition to

tyranny, regardless of the cultural context, it uses the tools that

stand the best chance of achieving a positive result. In the Islamic

cultural context, an appeal for justice, and particularly justice rooted

in the sharia, is more often than not the tool of choice.

What is supposed to make an appeal to justice work, according

to Muslim political theory, is the fact that all Muslim rulers must

abide by the same divine ordinances that are incumbent on other

believers, and they must uphold those laws in their governance. In

addition, as we saw in the preceding chapter, the rulers must recognize

that the interpretation of the laws in judicial proceedings is

the job of the ulama, a body of religious specialists that originated

outside the orbit of government control. The pre-Islamic circle of

justice saw justice as depending on the moral character of the

monarch, thus raising Juvenal’s incisive query: quis custodiet ipsos

custodes? (“Who watches the watchmen themselves?”) In Islamic

political theory, the theoretical assumption is that, in fact, there is

someone other than the rulers themselves monitoring the rulers:

the ulama.

Sadly, as every historian of Islam knows, in practice the ulama

seldom succeeded in preventing despotism. For the post-1500 pe-

riod, contemporary chronicles of the Turkish (Ottoman), Iranian

(Safavid), Indian (Mughal), and Moroccan (Saadian) monarchies

abound in stories of arbitrary killing, licentiousness, internecine

outrages, and the like. Leading ulama, as often as not coopted by

the ruler’s money, seem to have weighed very little as a moral

counterweight. On the other hand, examples are hard to find of

ulama becoming the prime facilitators of royal domination after

the fashion of seventeenth-century European churchmen like Cardinal

Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, who as chief ministers paid

scant attention to religion in governing France for Louis XIII and

Louis XIV. On those rare occasions when Muslim monarchs do

seem to be subject to religious guidance, as under the first Saudi

regime in eighteenth-century Arabia, religious concerns appear to

take priority over despotic whim.

A litany of despotic acts in the face of a theoretical, but seemingly

impotent, countervailing force in the hands of the ulama tells

only part of the story, however. Muslim rulers have unjustly had

their sons strangled, their viziers decapitated, and compliant

stable-boys raised to the highest posts in government. But tyrannical

acts like these are not the concern of the ordinary populace

or of the theoretical circle of justice. Just as today in America, for

most people, justice means knowing that there is a stable and consistent

body of law to which one can turn for protection or redress,

and believing that the officials administering that law are

fair and impartial. The personal moral behavior of a president may

arouse a certain morbid fascination, but justice does not depend

on it. By the same token, in traditional Muslim societies, concerns

for justice focused not on royal caprice, but on a religious court

system staffed by ulama.

The twentieth-century sociologist Max Weber, extrapolating

perhaps from received European opinions about oriental despots,

coined the term “qadi justice” (referring to the judge presiding

over a Muslim court) to describe the utmost in arbitrariness of judicial

procedure.10 However, scholars who have gained access to

the judicial court records of the Ottoman Empire, unavailable in

Weber’s day, have thoroughly and repeatedly refuted this stereotype.

Minutely studying case after case, they have shown that justice

was generally meted out impartially, irrespective of religion,

official status, gender, or ethnicity. Clear indicators of the perception

that the qadi’s court was in fact a place where justice could be

found are the legal disputes involving two Jews or two Christians.

Not being subject to the sharia, Jews and Christians were free to

go to their own religious authorities for adjudication of disputes;

but in many cases they went instead to the qadi. In these cases the

qadi served essentially as the judge of a civil court. In addition,

close study of the way in which judges reached their decisions reveals

not arbitrariness, but careful and thoughtful study of precedent,

consultation of standard legal treatises, and application of a

time-honored system of legal logic.

Looking at Islamo-Christian civilization at large, the struggle of

monarchs to expand their personal jurisdiction and limit religious

jurisdiction is a common feature. In Latin Christendom it gave

rise to repeated conflicts between the crown and the church from

the Investiture Controversy of the eleventh century to the Peace of

Westphalia of 1648 that brought peace between Catholics and

Protestants by curtailing the extension of jurisdictional claims beyond

national boundaries. In judicial matters, the kings bested the


In the Muslim world, the priests (ulama) were weaker, but they

held their own. The century and more of Mongol rule inaugurated

by Genghis Khan’s invasion in 1218 accustomed the subject

populations to accepting a ruler’s decrees as law. Each decree was

called a yasa, leading some Muslim observers to believe that the

Mongols had an entire code called the Yasa equivalent in scope

and character to the sharia. Though the Genghis Khanid dynasty

that ruled Iran converted to Islam long before its last sultan died

in 1335, the various Mongol and Turkic warlords—Muslims all—

who fought over the remnants of his empire continued to revere

the family of Genghis Khan as a touchstone of legitimacy and con-

tinued to issue legal decrees. The Mongolian word yasa became

equated with the Arabic word qanun (taken ultimately from the

Latin word “canon”), and the issuance of qanuns, or edicts, became

a sufficiently normal part of post-Mongol imperial rule for

the Ottoman sultan known in the west as Suleiman the Magnificent

(r. 1520–1566) to be lauded by his subjects as Suleiman Kanuni,

Suleiman the Lawgiver.

If any of the caliphs of Baghdad had been vouchsafed a glimpse

of a future that included such acknowledgement of sovereign legislation,

they would surely have been amazed at the implied erosion

of religious jurisdiction. They too had issued edicts, usually,

like the Ottoman sultans, with the goal of raising money; but their

decrees had always been considered disreputable contraventions of

religious law. Newly installed rulers sometimes advertised their

cancellation of the illegal laws of their predecessors. Like the European

monarchs, then, the shahs and sultans of the post-1500 era

strove to increase their legislative authority; but in the absence of

a religious cataclysm like the wars of religion between Protestants

and Catholics, the Islamic legal system held firm. Lacking legitimate

grounds for establishing royal courts that would compete directly

with those dominated by the ulama, the rulers settled for

cooption. They funded and built elite seminaries (madrasas) and

exercised their prerogative of appointing judges (qadis) and legal

advisors (muftis). In matters of highest state policy, this produced

in most cases a gratifyingly compliant judiciary, but it did not diminish

the theoretical or practical dominance of the sharia, particularly

in the eyes of the ruler’s subjects. Nor did it wean the

justice-seeking populace from looking to religious courts,

presided over by ulama, for succor. As they had for centuries, the

people continued to look for leadership to the ulama, large numbers

of whom were trained in seminaries that were not under government


How aggravating for a would-be tyrant—or later a would-be

modernizer. Though the ruler’s hands were normally free, the

manacles of the religious law were in plain sight, just waiting for

him to go too far. Within the cultural discourse of Islam, there

seemed to be no way of eradicating this theoretical opposing


Reform and Resistance

The French Revolution and its Napoleonic epilogue punctured

the universe of theoretical Muslim discourse that had for so long

postulated a dynamic tension between tyranny and sharia. The

French occupation of Egypt after Napoleon’s invasion of 1798 was

short-lived. The invader’s pamphlets proclaiming a French objective

of liberating the Egyptians from the tyranny of their rulers

were met with ridicule. And the robust international market for

Egyptian wheat created by wartime conditions collapsed after Waterloo.

But the French emperor’s omnipotence and grandeur,

along with his establishment of the Code Napoleon as the law of

the land, and his reaffirmation of the anticlerical attitude spawned

by the French Revolution, provided for Muslim rulers a vision of

what a true tyrant might accomplish using modern European

methods. For a decade and a half, Napoleon commanded the attention

of every political personage on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Like Adolf Hitler in the twentieth century, he loomed

larger than life, and his deeds could not be ignored, even in Muslim


The history of post-Napoleonic efforts to maximize state power,

inaugurated by Muhammad Ali and Sultan Mahmud II and continued

by their respective successors, has been retold many times

with little recognition of how they parallel what was simultaneously

transpiring in Europe. The model for such studies is Bernard

Lewis’ The Emergence of Modern Turkey. While narratives of change

in Europe focus on the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and the royalist

efforts to oppose them led by the Austrian Prince Metternich,

narratives of change in the Muslim world concentrate more materially

on programs to bring armies and navies up to European

standards by introducing new armaments and training: factories

for uniforms and arms; military schools for instructing officers in

gunnery, medicine, and military music; compulsory army service

for common citizens; and economic measures, such as state monopolies,

to pay the costs.

Such programs required ambition on a Napoleonic scale and a

willingness to destroy the old to build the new. Muhammad Ali

slaughtered the Mamluk slave-soldiery that had dominated Egypt

for centuries, and then sent his own Albanian troops to fight a long

and draining war against the Saudi kingdom in Arabia. This effectively

cleared the decks for creating a completely new army. Mahmud

II slaughtered the soldiery of his own Janissary Corps in 1826

to remove the greatest obstacle to imitating Muhammad Ali. Both

men turned to European arms, European military advisers, European

instructors for their new military schools, and the dispatch of

prospective officers and administrators to Europe for training in

modern sciences and instruction in European languages.

In what would be a preview of the American campaign against

Saddam Hussein in 1991, in 1840 the European powers pulled

Muhammad Ali’s teeth after he became too threatening to the Ottoman

sultan, a neighbor whom the European powers were unwilling

to see fall. They demanded, and after initial resistance accomplished,

a substantial disarmament and a dissolution of the

economic monopolies—regime change—that had sustained the

previous build-up. Seeing the direction the wind was blowing

from, Ottoman officials involved in Mahmud’s rival military renewal—

warmly encouraged by European ambassadors—agreed

that “reforms” were needed in nonmaterial areas as well. Over the

following decades, through the mechanism of imperial edicts, they

introduced law-codes constructed on European models and

European-style judiciary practices. High schools with curricula that

stressed science and European languages were established to feed

into the military officer schools. And in 1876, an Ottoman constitution

was promulgated and an elected parliament convened—

only to be suspended almost immediately by Sultan Abdülhamit II.

The principle of religious equality between Muslims, Christians,

and Jews, pushed particularly strongly by the European ambassadors,

made steady headway throughout the period.

The entire movement, termed “renewal” (tajdid) in Arabic and

“reorganization” (tanzimat) in Turkish, is labeled “reform” by

some historians, “Europeanization” or “Westernization” by others.

But since every aspect of it was paralleled by contemporaneous

developments in certain European countries, most notably

Russia, there is little reason to separate it from the overall currents

of change, and resistance to change, that beset Islamo-Christian

civilization as a whole in the aftermath of the Napoleonic upheaval.

What separating the Muslim from the Christian political

sphere fosters is the retrospective imagining of a historical goal,

that goal being Muslim self-improvement aiming at a standard of

civilization set by the West.

From the point of view of historians of the modern Middle

East, that goal was never reached. “Reform” failed to turn the Ottoman

Empire into a part of Europe. Far from gaining the respect

of the Europeans, between 1830 when the French occupied Algeria

and 1920 when the League of Nations subjected the Arab

provinces of the fallen Ottoman Empire to European occupation

under the mandate system, every part of the Middle East and

North Africa, except Turkey, succumbed to European imperial


However, the master narrative of Europeanizing “reforms” and

their failure is not the only way of looking at the long-term results

of the post-Napoleonic upheaval in the Middle East. As in Europe

itself, new techniques and practices, such as state-controlled telegraphic

communication, railroad lines, military conscription, and

systematization of bureaucratic practices progressively enhanced

authoritarian control. The suspension of parliament by Abdülhamit

II (r. 1876–1909) reads as a tragic failure of reform when

looked at with the goal in mind of achieving parity with Europe,

but the sultan’s authoritarianism was right in step with Bismarck,

Napoleon III, and Czar Nicholas II, as was that of the dictatorial

triumvirate who seized power from the sultan in 1908, ostensibly

to restore the Ottoman constitution. Even Mustafa Kemal Pasha

(later Atatürk), who saved Turkey from foreign occupation following

World War I, and who was undoubtedly sincere in his

hope that Turkey would someday become a fully European state,

resembled Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini in his resort to authoritarian


The Muslim road to authoritarianism, however, differs significantly

from that in Europe. Prospective European dictators, as

well as hereditary absolute monarchs, had to contend with strong

public movements for constitutional government and electoral institutions,

but the Christian churches supported the rulers’ authoritarian

tendencies more often than they opposed them. The

opposite obtained in Muslim lands. Resistance to government “reforms”

centered among the ulama. Historians who interpret the

Europeanization movement as the Muslim world’s sole, and ultimately

forlorn, effort to catch up with the West see this resistance

as obscurantist and obstructive. How, after all, could the Muslims

enter the modern world with a benighted, backward-looking clergy

dragging them down? This viewpoint, which is certainly not

without merit in certain cases, considers the steps that would-be

dictators took to undermine the foundations of ulama influence

fully justifiable, given the need to free the government of their

clerical stranglehold. Whether sharing this viewpoint or withholding

judgment on the reformers’ anticlerical measures, historians all

agree that the reforming governments saw organized ulama power

as endangering their designs.

The question in terms of interpretation is: 1) whether the ulama

opposed reforms because they were against modernity, a view that

finds the most supporters today; 2) whether they opposed them

because they were part and parcel of a governmental attack on

their own well-being and social status; or 3) whether they opposed

them because they saw them facilitating the growth of tyranny.

The first two alternatives certainly go far toward explaining the

motivations of the ulama in many instances. But opposition to

tyranny cannot be easily dismissed. It is incontrovertible that

ulama and laymen of deep religious conscience played leading

roles in some of the best known episodes of opposition to domestic

tyranny. The Iranian Tobacco Rebellion of 1891–93 developed

when the shah granted a monopoly on the production and sale of

tobacco to a British entrepreneur. High-ranking ulama responded

to the complaints of Iranian tobacco merchants by pronouncing a

ban on smoking. The ban was so effective that the shah was forced

to cancel the concession. In another instance, the Arab uprising

against the Ottoman Empire during World War I was led by Sharif

Husain, the descendant of the Prophet, who was known to pilgrims

throughout the Muslim world because of his position as

governor of Mecca and Medina. Powerful religious opposition

also developed when Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1924 in

favor of his personal dictatorship. Religious figures from many

countries came together in several international conferences to call

for its restoration.

Religious scholars and Sufis also assumed leadership of numerous

movements resisting foreign domination. A charismatic religious

figure presenting himself as the Mahdi, or Messiah, led the

opposition to Anglo-Egyptian control of the Sudan in the 1880s.

Palestine’s grand mufti (chief jurisconsult), Hajj Amin al-Husaini,

took command of Palestinian resistance to Zionist settlement. And

a Sufi of the Naqshibandi brotherhood named Shaykh Shamil

fought tenaciously against Soviet expansion in the Caucasus.

Irrespective of the protagonists’ attitudes toward modernity and

reform, these acts of religiously led resistance testify to the continuing

potency of Islam as a bulwark against foreign and domestic

authoritarian rule. Muslims in distress accepted the notion that

men of religion should lead them. To be sure, resistance to dictatorship

by individuals of deep religious conscience is not unknown

in Europe. But priests did not lead armies, bishops did not anathematize

dictators, and popes did not ban smoking. Europe’s Christians

had long since shifted from looking to the church for protection

against tyranny to looking to political leaders working within,

or for the establishment of, constitutional or parliamentary institutions.

Such was the long-term consequence of the centuries of conflict

between church and monarch that culminated in the devastating

wars of religion in the seventeenth century. The Christian

clergy were tamed and henceforward served as tribunes of the people

only in local matters. By comparison, in Islam, the legal authority

of the ulama emerged intact from the sea-change of the

middle centuries. Despotic shahs and sultans routinely flouted it in

their personal lives, but no one dared deny his theoretical subjection

to the sharia. As for the common people, Muslim populations

that had long looked to the ulama or to saintly Sufi shaykhs as tribunes

of justice continued to do so. This was the natural locus of resistance

to tyranny and a long-standing part of the political culture.

Anticlericalism: Success or Failure?

This is not to say, however, that the efforts of the Westernizing

governments to undermine the ulama were ineffective, or even

that they were unwarranted in the context of changing social and

political values. My intention is not to maintain that the ulama

were more enlightened than they were. I am simply observing that

when a Muslim community feels threatened, looking to religious

leaders for help is an ingrained characteristic of traditional Islamic

political culture. This explains why so much state energy came to

be expended in pursuit of anticlerical objectives, objectives mislabeled

“secular” by most western observers. The reforming rulers

and their advisers believed that the goal of achieving parity with

Europe could not be reached without first maximizing autocratic

power, and that meant eviscerating the oppositional potential represented

by the sharia and the ulama. In terms of Islamic political

theory, what subsequently happened was what was supposed to

happen. Theory predicted that rulers freed from the bonds of the sharia

would seek absolute power, and they regularly lived up to that expectation.

By the 1960s most governments in the Muslim world had become

“secular” dictatorships. As for the ulama guardians of the

sharia, who were theoretically expected to defend against tyranny,

their power to act (though not their inclination) was severely curtailed.

This new imbalance in the traditional power equation resulted

from rulers following the “Napoleonic method,” if that

term can be used for authoritarian rule based on new military and

communication technologies, anticlerical principles, and appeal to

the higher goal of becoming a modern society. Unrelenting state

suppression of religion as a political force raised the hope that Europe

might someday recognize the “secular” Muslim countries as

equals, a hope still vigorously alive in Turkey. But anticlericalism

also stripped a political culture based on the circle of justice of the

one recognized force that in extreme cases could be summoned to

resist a slide into tyranny.

Narratives of “reform” give little space to the dislocation of the

sharia and marginalization of its guardians. Being typically western

in outlook and convinced that living and thinking like Europeans

was an appropriate goal for nineteenth- and early-twentiethcentury

Muslims, the historians who hatch these narratives tacitly

affirm that omelets cannot be made without breaking eggs. The

only flaw they see in the Europeanization movement is its ultimate

descent into unbridled tyranny. This failure, which ironically only

became generally recognized after 9/11 when religious resistance to

westernized Muslim dictatorships, and to the western governments

that supported them, broke with murderous force upon the

world stage, was no accident. It was built into the process of Europeanization

from the very start.

Someone writing within the traditional discourse of Islam

would craft a very different narrative of the last two centuries. The

modernizer sees Muhammad Ali’s seizure for state use of the vast

revenue-generating properties that generations of pious Egyptians

had donated for the upkeep of mosques, seminaries, and local public

services as an astute means of gaining the resources needed to finance

reform. The traditionalist would lament the loss of religious

and public services, and the loss of control and jobs by the ulama.

The modernizer sees the Ottoman sultans’ promulgation of law

codes based on European models as progress toward a freer and

more equitable civilizational standard. The traditionalist would

mourn the abandonment of the sharia and the ulama’s loss of control,

jobs, and public dignity. The modernizer takes the new state

schools emphasizing science and European languages, and the simultaneous

closure or shrinkage of seminaries, as evidence of modern

thinking on the rise. The traditionalist would see only a decline

in religious knowledge, a further shrinkage of ulama opportunity

and prestige, and a loss of religiously trained personnel in government

service. One can imagine similarly polarized interpretations

of the restrictions Europeanizing governments placed on Sufi

brotherhoods and Sufi-linked craft guilds, of their redesigns of

cities along European lines at the expense of local neighborhood

unity, and, in Atatürk’s Turkish Republic, of the successful substitution

of the Latin alphabet for the Arabic alphabet.

The anticlerical intent of the self-described reformers is clear.

But was it successful? Looking at the disappearance and degradation

of seminaries and the confining of the sharia to matters of

family and personal status in country after country, the answer

would have to be yes. But what about the hearts and minds of the

Muslim citizenry? Some evidence indeed points to a steady erosion

of religion as the touchstone of public life. Other evidence,

coming primarily from the second half of the twentieth century,

points to the persistence of a political culture based on a tense balance

between religion and state and an enduring popular acceptance

of religious leaders—albeit leaders of a new type, as will be

discussed below—as opponents of tyranny.

The first body of evidence, that indicating an ebbing of religion

as a focus of public life, can be seen in a comparison of data from

Massachusetts, Turkey, and Iran. Graphs 1–3 show similar declines

in parents giving their sons religious first names in all three regions.

The first graph, based on the names of Harvard graduates, reflects

the naming practices of prosperous families in Massachusetts. The

second tallies the names of members of the Turkish parliament and

their fathers. The third combines data from provincial cities in Iran.

In each case, the beginning of a steady decline in the popularity of

religious names coincides with a strong secular assertion of collective

identity: the onset of republican revolutionary ferment in the

1770s in Massachusetts, the beginning of the tanzimat reform

movement in 1839 in Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), and Reza

Shah Pahlavi’s advocacy of Persian nationalism and condemnation

of traditional religious practices, such as the complete veiling of

women, in Iran in the early 1930s.

Consider the many influences that come into play in naming a

child: family custom, remembering a deceased relative, adulation

of a public figure, honoring a friend or mentor. Complex and personal

factors like these determine many names; but their influence

remains more or less constant over time. They cannot explain

sweeping changes like those on the graphs. Parental expectations

regarding the future are subject to broad change over time, however.

Parents who think about helping their sons fit into the kind

of society they are likely to grow up in give names that reflect their

expectations of the future. In this way they reveal their individual

appraisals of the trajectory of change they see around them. Large

samples of names, therefore, reflect collective guesses about the future

being made by parents. As more and more parents visualize a

future in which public life does not revolve around religion, they

increasingly opt for nonreligious names.

The three graphs show that the American Revolution, the tanzimat,

and the reign of Reza Shah all triggered long-term declines

in religious naming. In the Iranian case, the decline temporarily

reverses in the pre-revolutionary years of the mid-1970s, when

Islam became a rallying point for those opposed to the tyranny of

Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah. This brief resurgence of

“Islamic” naming peaked around 1977. Then the decline resumed

despite the creation of the Islamic Republic two years later and the

great popularity of Ayatollah Khomeini. If this indicator should

prove an accurate harbinger of future developments, the Iranian

Revolution will ultimately be seen as the point of transition from

tyranny to democracy, rather than from secularism to theocracy.

And at what speed? Graph 4, which compares the rate at which religious

naming is declining in Iran with the historical rates in

Turkey and Massachusetts, suggests that Iranian parents are betting

on a more secular future at roughly the same rate as their

American counterparts did in eighteenth-century Massachusetts.

For a fuller exposition of this technique of measuring attitudinal

change, see the Appendix on Quantitative Onomastics.

Print Culture and New Authorities

Against these indicators of religion receding from societal and

parental consciousness in response to government attacks on the

sharia and on the traditional religious establishment, one must

weigh the evidence for the persistence of a political culture in

which the association of religion with justice empowers movements

that seek to curb tyranny and oppose foreign penetration.

 (These movements may also seek tyrannical ends of their own design,

but they do not advertise such unworthy goals.) Some historians

trace the ideological roots of Islamism, to use one of the labels

coined for such movements, to the formation of the Muslim

Brotherhood in Egypt in 1929; others take their search back to

eighteenth-century Arabia, West Africa, India, and Iran. For present

purposes, however, the content and genealogy of the various

Islamist ideologies are less important than are some new means of

communicating them.

Among the many Europeanizing measures aimed at putting the

government forever ahead of the ulama, one innovation, the printing

press, had the unintended consequence of setting the religious

culture of the Muslim world on a new path.11 Muhammad Ali introduced

the first Egyptian newspaper in 1824. Sultan Mahmud II

imitated his action in 1831, and the Shah of Iran brought Iran into

the print era in 1837. These first publications were essentially government

gazettes intended to disseminate news about official activities.

Beyond these official newspapers, the governments also

encouraged the publishing of books on secular subjects, most notably

textbooks for the new state schools. As had been the case in

Europe, however, printing proved too powerful a force to be easily


Historians agree that Gutenberg’s brainchild transformed European

thought and society from the fifteenth century onward.

Among other things, the printed word began to wean the literate

public from sermons and moral lessons delivered orally by clergy

from pulpits and school lecterns and reorient them toward authors,

editors, and publishers. Since in Europe printing and printers

eventually became associated with dissent from established religious

practices, the new technology seemed perfect for curing

the literate Muslim public of its propensity to listen overmuch to

the ulama. In practice, however, roughly a generation after governmental

and secular publications made their first appearance,

certain Muslims who were concerned with what was happening to

their societies, including a few ulama, began to grasp the potential

of the new technology. The result was the slow emergence of a

new class of religious authorities who experimented with using

the printing press as a pulpit.

Lines of religious authority had for centuries depended on personal

classroom linkages between teachers and disciples. Any literate

person might read religious texts, but men who did not have a

known mentor or a seminary degree commanded little attention

in religious circles. Women were totally excluded. With the advent

of printing, this changed. Writers, editors, and publishers did not

need the credentials provided by a seminary education or the endorsement

of an important member of the ulama in order to command

an audience. Just as in Europe centuries before, the intellectual

monopoly exercised by learned men holding forth in

religiously oriented schools and assemblies collapsed in the face of

the widespread dissemination of printed materials.

In principle, this is what the Europeanizing innovators desired.

It fit well with their other efforts to diminish the influence of the

ulama. What they did not foresee was the flood of novel religious

ideas that began to appear in newspapers, magazines, books, and

pamphlets. Just as Protestant authors in sixteenth-century Europe

used the newly invented printing press to publish works that contradicted

established opinions, so did an increasing number of

Muslim religious thinkers. And as in Europe, some of the new authors

lacked the traditional seminary education that was the hallmark

of the ulama. As the twentieth century progressed, more and

more of them came from secular educational backgrounds, being

trained as lawyers, doctors, engineers, economists, journalists, and

the like. Without the print media, these neophyte religious authorities—

the new authorities, as I will call them—would have

found no audience. But the transition from a classroom and pulpit

culture to a printing press culture made their lack of traditional

credentials unimportant. The new technology enabled authors

to become authorities simply by offering the reader persuasive

prose and challenging ideas. A Muslim in Egypt could become a

devoted follower of a writer in Pakistan without ever meeting

him, or meeting anyone who personally knew him, or knowing

whether or how he was qualified to write about the faith.

Why did printing cause this transformation? After all, Muslim

scholars had produced hundreds of thousands of religious manuscripts

over the centuries, and many of them were readily available

in mosque libraries or private collections. Yet knowledge acquired

from manuscripts lacked the cachet of knowledge acquired in the

religious classroom or at the foot of a preacher in the mosque. So

how did reading a religious text in print acquire greater import

than reading the same text in manuscript? Part of the answer lies

in the production of hundreds and thousands of identical copies.

One person reading a manuscript and relating its contents to

friends and families is a droplet; thousands of people reading and

talking about exactly the same text builds toward an ocean. Another

part is widespread distribution of these multiple copies.

Whereas lectures and sermons by ulama differ from city to city and

country to country, with printed texts, Muslims in South Africa

know that they are reading exactly what Muslims in Morocco and

Indonesia and Bosnia are reading. In this way the local intellectual

communities of ulama trained in seminaries gave way to an international

intellectual community of readers of significant books

and magazines. We take this for granted as an aspect of Euro-

American culture, but we had a four-century head start. In the

Muslim religious world it only developed in the late nineteenth


Even then the idea that authorship in and of itself might take

the place of traditional religious credentials was not immediately

apparent. The Arabic religious newspaper Al-Urwat al-Wuthqa

(“The Firmest Bond,” i.e., between man and God [Quran 2:256;

31:22]), published in Paris for 18 issues in 1884, ushered in the new

era with its call for an activist reinterpretation of Islamic principles

and strong opposition to British imperialism. But its two authors

were both trained as ulama: Muhammad Abduh, an Egyptian,

and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian who posed as an Afghan

to disguise his Shi‘ite background. The issues were distributed free

throughout the Muslim world until the British banned their import

into Egypt (since 1881 under British occupation) and India.

Picking up the briefly quenched torch, Abduh’s Syrian disciple

Muhammad Rashid Rida edited the Arabic-language magazine

Al-Manar (“The Minaret”) in Cairo between 1898 and 1935. Rida

had studied in both an Ottoman state school with a “modern” curriculum

and an Islamic school, but he wielded his influence as a

writer and editor. Thousands of Muslims around the world first

encountered the modernist ideas of Muhammad Abduh in the

pages of Al-Manar. After Abduh’s death in 1905, and the subsequent

defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, they followed

in its columns Rida’s own flirtation with nationalism, advocacy

of a revived Islamic caliphate, and eventual support for

Saudi Arabia as the guardian of Muslim independence in an imperialist


Al-Urwat al-Wuthqa and Al-Manar were both set in type, but

Muslim religious writers drew particular benefit from another

print technology introduced from Europe. Between 1793 and

1796, a Bavarian playwright named Alois Senefelder, looking for a

cheap way of printing his plays, developed a new process he called

lithography. When he wetted a flat piece of limestone and inked it,

the ink stuck to whatever marks he had made with a greasy crayon,

but not to the wet area. Every line, whether alphabetic or pictorial,

printed exactly as it had been drawn, and an unlimited

number of prints could be pulled from the stone without reducing

the quality.

European and American artists hailed this new and flexible way

of reproducing drawings, but the innovation of printing books

and newspapers by lithography took place outside of Europe and

America and became particularly widespread in the Muslim

world. Lithographed texts appeared everywhere and became much

more popular than typeset texts in Iran, India, and North Africa.

The British East India Company brought lithography to India in

the early 1820s, and lithographed books soon appeared in Istanbul

(1831), Iran (1843), Tunisia (1857), and Morocco (1865). (By comparison,

the first lithographic press in the United States started

turning out pictures, but not books, in 1825.) Besides allowing elegant

Arabic handwriting to be reproduced as written, lithography

depended on scribes rather than typesetters. How this affected

the control of the publisher, as opposed to the scribe, over the

intellectual content of the books he issued has not yet been studied;

but it certainly made the technology congenial to the ulama,

who were all well trained for scribal activities and who enjoyed

reading books that looked like traditional manuscripts.

Authors with western-style educational backgrounds, and little

or no traditional religious training, gained increasing prominence

after World War II, by which time the most popular, innovative,

and inspiring thinkers in the Islamic world were expounding their

ideas in print rather than in the classroom. These new authorities

effectively supplanted the old authorities, the traditional ulama,

whose power had been based on seminary education, judicial office,

and income from pious endowments. Sharia judgeships persisted

in a few countries, and such seminaries as remained continued

to train and employ ulama; but the Muslim public at large,

both male and female, increasingly learned about their religion

from a torrent of books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets,

written in large part by people who lacked the credentials to be

classified as ulama.

The Iranian revolution revealed the importance of the new,

print-based authorities. European imperialist domination in Iran

was indirect and late in developing, being formalized only in 1907

through an agreement between Britain and Russia to divide the

country into spheres of influence. Thus the strong pressure to impose

anticlerical measures and enforce religious equality that the

lands to its west had felt from European ambassadors, and later

under European colonial administrators, came late to the land of

the shahs. This is borne out by the very high rate of religious personal

naming that lasted through the 1920s. Delayed exposure to

Europeanization also explains why, despite the vigorous anticlerical

efforts of the Pahlavi shahs beginning in the late 1920s, Iran

lagged far behind Turkey and the Arab lands in marginalizing the

ulama. Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the wearing of turbans in parliament

and, in 1936, outlawed the figure-shrouding chador. He ordered

his police to forcibly tear the garment from women on the

streets. Nevertheless, seminaries and shrines remained active and

survived various measures designed to undermine their financial

independence. At the time of the revolution in 1979, most of the

population still looked to the traditional ulama, the old authorities,

for guidance. Further buttressing ulama authority was the doctrine

in Iranian Shi‘ism that every believer should personally follow a

leading cleric, called an ayatollah, in matters of faith and behavior.

The Iranian revolution drew much of its force from the popular

expectation that the ulama could be turned to for defense against

tyranny, an expectation that had previously manifested itself in the

Tobacco Rebellion of 1891 and a Constitutional Revolution in

1906. The latter achieved only limited success in curbing the

power of the shah, but the constitution it forced into being did

contain the seed of ulama veto power over legislative activities.

That seed quickly withered only to flower later—whether as a rose

or a nettle is a matter of opinion—in the constitution of the Islamic

Republic of Iran. Traditional ulama like Ayatollah Khomeini

exploited this expectation through the use of new media—

books, audiotapes, and television news. They also used traditional

means, sending their seminary students to spread their ideas. Nonulama

intellectuals contributed ideologically to the revolution, but

lacked the human network of the ulama. Ali Shariati, who was educated

in France, galvanized university students with his pamphlets,

spellbinding oratory, and novel ideas about Islamic history.

The French-educated economist Abolhasan Bani Sadr received

Khomeini’s blessing as the first elected president of the new Islamic

Republic in 1981. He succeeded the provisional government

leader Mehdi Bazargan, an engineer also educated in France. All

three of these figures gained wide audiences for their writings.

Throughout the Muslim world, displays of Khomeini’s portrait

signaled, for a few years, sympathy with Islamic revolution. But

outside of Iran, and of likeminded circles of Shi‘ite ulama in Iraq

and Lebanon, very few ulama stepped forward to lead the new

current of religious politics. Instead, the new authorities in Turkey

and the Arab world included writer-journalists like Egypt’s Sayyid

Qutb; European-trained lawyers like Mahmoud Muhammad Taha

and Hasan Turabi, both of whom founded political movements in

the Sudan; engineers like Necmeddin Erbakan, who founded the

first significant religious party in Turkey; students of European

pedagogy like Abbasi al-Madani, the founder of Algeria’s Islamic

Salvation Front (FIS), and Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of

Tunisia’s Islamic Tendency Movement; and university philosophy

professors like Egypt’s Hasan Hanafi and Algeria’s Muhammad

Arkoun, who used western scholarly approaches in developing

new thoughts about Islam. The same phenomenon manifested itself

in south and southeast Asia.

By the end of the twentieth century, men of deep religious conscience—

and for the first time women—had inundated bookstores,

newsstands, and sidewalk kiosks with a flood of magazines,

newspapers, pamphlets, and books expressing their personal views

of Islam. Many publications published fatwas, or religious opinions

on matters of law and religious practice. Traditionally, such

nonbinding opinions came from the pens of high-level ulama.

Now they represented the views of the magazine’s or newspaper’s

editors. Some authors called for a return to life as they imagined it

had been lived in Muhammad’s own time—a matter they did not

always agree on—and disparaged the teachings of scholars from

later centuries. Others expressed opinions of great novelty, many

of them calling for greater personal liberties and the creation of Islamic

republics, or at least the participation of Islamic parties in

free elections. Still others, most notoriously Osama bin Laden, an

engineer, and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon,

preached terrorist violence as the solution to Islam’s problems.

A Message Finds an Audience

In recent decades, the electronic revolution has reinforced the

print revolution. Radio and television, being under government

control in most Muslim countries, did not initially affect religious

authority. But audiocassettes and videocassettes, followed by the

Internet, have become effective media for transmitting personal

interpretations of Islam. These later technologies do not diminish

the historical importance of print because the audiences they

found had first been created by the printing press. Yet the use of

the new media by the new authorities does serve to underscore another

way in which anticlerical measures backfired on the governments

that put them in place.

Today’s Islamic political revival draws its mobilizing force from

three attempts at reducing the power of the ulama that ended up

producing unintended consequences. Two have been discussed.

First, the marginalization of the ulama, the old authorities, suc-

ceeded to a large extent in freeing aspiring authoritarian governments

from political threats from their long-term rivals. Today’s

ulama, at least in many countries, more often than not depend on

government salaries and government institutional support, and accordingly

defer to the government, or are seen by the general population

as deferring to the government, on controversial political

issues. However, the unintended consequence of this anticlerical

success was to make room for new authorities with different, and

less conservative, educational and intellectual backgrounds. Secondly,

the print revolution was intended as a vehicle for disseminating

governmental views and modern secular and scientific

knowledge. It succeeded on both counts. But it had the unintended

consequence of handing the rising new authorities a tool for

reaching a vast international readership and luring readers away

from the declining old authorities.

The third reforming backfire was made by the nationalist governments

that emerged after World War II (as well as nationalist

Turkey after World War I) when they adopted mass education as a

means of training young people for public service and indoctrinating

them with secular nationalist principles. They successfully

brought about mass youth literacy and political awareness, but

with the unintended consequence of creating an enormous audience

for the writings of the new religious authorities. Specific conditions

in particular countries contributed to a varying time lag

between the initial publication of modernist Islamic ideas in the

late nineteenth century and the surfacing of Islamist movements as

mass political phenomena. The Muslim Brotherhood became a

force in Egypt in the 1930s; parallel movements did not appear in

Iran until the 1960s. But wherever such movements gained headway,

their success depended in large part on youth literacy and a

politically aware public.

Political analysts in the early 1980s, belatedly forced by the Iranian

Revolution to focus on anti-regime religious movements,

often expressed puzzlement at the strength of these movements on

university campuses and their special appeal to students in the

most competitive and technical programs. Some dismissed the

student activists as rebellious teens who would become like their

fathers once they matured. Certain others sought more pragmatic

explanations: effectiveness of religious movements in arranging

study groups for poor students who could not afford to buy

copies of the professors’ lectures, the security of person afforded to

female students who wore Islamic dress, and so forth. Underlying

these rationalizations was an unspoken sense that rather than encouraging

religious ideas, modern education should have inoculated

students against such things. Secularization of society in the

West, after all, was historically associated with the role of secular

education in refuting hoary religious dicta, from the victory of

Copernican astronomy over church-supported Ptolemaic cosmology

to the triumph of Darwinism over creationism.

The mass educational systems in the Muslim world also succeeded

in transmitting modern scientific views, but they met only

limited success in inculcating anticlerical political views. Two characteristic

differences between western education and modern education

in the Muslim world shed light on this contrast: The latter

has always lacked a philosophy of liberal education, and the challenge

of teaching about Islam without empowering Islamic scholars

has never been resolved.

The educational philosophy of modern education in the Muslim

world has various roots. In countries like India, Algeria, and

Indonesia, which were subject to colonial rule, modern secular education,

more often than not modeled on the system of the imperialist

homeland, was usually reserved for a very small number of

students from elite families. With high career expectations and a

substantial stake in the existing power structure, most of these students

were intellectually and politically docile.

In countries like Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran, which

retained their independence long enough to institute their own

educational programs, the purpose of modern schools was education

for state service, first to train military officers and later to train

government officials as well. Though their curricula were Euro-

pean, these institutions were not without indigenous models. The

Palace School established in Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror

in the fifteenth century had trained both officers and administrators,

and Egypt had long had training barracks for the Turkish and

Circassian slave boys imported for service in mamluk regiments.

In both cases, instruction went well beyond military skills. In addition,

both in these countries and elsewhere, service in government

bureaus relied on apprenticeship training within each bureau.

Seminary alumni, who constituted the most numerous

group of literate citizens in the nineteenth century, seldom served

as military officers or civil administrators. They either became

ulama or went into civilian trades.

When modern educators, following the precedents laid down

by Muhammad Ali in Egypt and Mahmud II in the Ottoman

Empire, took it for granted that government employment was

their students’ primary objective, they devised curricula for that

purpose. They deemed history, philosophy, and literature of little

use. Religious instruction they kept at a fairly perfunctory level

since they did not want to create a new career track for the ulama.

In terms of overall educational philosophy, there was nothing

comparable to the notion of liberal arts, or the quest for intellectual

broadening for its own sake. Such notions of abstract inquiry

as existed were more at home among students training to be

ulama, who mostly applied them to religious rather than worldly

matters. Exceptions to this pattern were confined almost entirely

to foreign religious schools—The American University of Beirut

and Istanbul’s Robert College founded by American missionaries

in the nineteenth century, or the chain of Jewish secondary

schools supported from France by the Alliance Israélite Universelle—

or western-language preparatory schools like Victoria

College in Alexandria and Cairo and The American School in

Tehran that received support from western governments. No indigenous

private institutions of nonreligious higher education

arose to offer alternatives to the secular state schools and the seminaries

until the 1980s.

The basic philosophy of education in state schools did not change

when independent nationalist governments opted for universal educational

in the twentieth century. Students still hoped to work for

the government after completing their degree programs, though

nationalist fervor and, in some countries, socialist policies made notions

of government service less prosaic than those entertained by

students in the nineteenth century. Until the 1980s, the Egyptian

government would announce each spring how many new graduates

it would absorb into its bloated bureaucracy. As the systems grew,

instead of small numbers of students from elite families or military

castes, thousands of young men and women from humbler social

origins packed the lecture halls, and thousands more graduated

from high school but failed to gain university admittance.

Educated youth swelled the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed.

Their high school or university backgrounds made

them more politically aware than the young people in the villages

and workshops; their leisure, literacy, and discontent made them

avid consumers of religious tracts advocating political activism. In

response, apprehensive governments carefully monitored what

was being taught in the universities, just as they monitored, or dictated,

what was being preached in the mosques. With modern education

rooted in traditions of state service, governments had no

compunction about interfering in scholarly affairs and limiting

freedom of inquiry. Accordingly, the educational systems that had

once been the hope of dynamic nationalist regimes began to spiral

downward: no classroom freedom, no intellectual innovation, no

idealization of the life of the mind, no room in the lecture halls, no

jobs for the graduates, and no comparability with parallel institutions

in non-Muslim lands. A richer sea for the new religious ideologues

to fish in could not be imagined.

What Went On?

A careful follower of the sinuous course of my argument thus far

might now interject that the exception I took to Bernard Lewis’

pregnant question “What went wrong?” was quite unfair because

I am adopting the same logic myself. What are unintended consequences,

after all, except instances of something going wrong? In

their quest for modernity, equality with the West, and release from

the cold grip of religion, governments diminished the roles and

status of the ulama, introduced printing presses, and established

secular state school systems. They did many other things besides,

but in these three cases the cumulative outcome was to empower

a new and more assertive type of religious authority and create an

audience for it. A classic case of things going wrong: the goals

were clearly visualized, and they just as clearly miscarried.

Yet I would restate my objection to constructing the history of

the last two hundred years in terms of missed goals, because a

sound interpretation of goals and outcomes depends on a much

broader context. To understand why the nineteenth-century architects

of change were so single-mindedly anticlerical one must see

their actions in the context of a long-term contest between crown

and mosque over political legitimacy. The ulama were not discredited

simply because they were religiously conservative, or the

Sufi shaykhs because they encouraged superstition. Nor would

their hold on the mass of believers have withstood the challenge of

modern ideas if there had been no tradition of mobilizing the

faithful against tyranny and foreign intrusion. In this broader perspective,

what went on in the nineteenth century involved not just

the ulama as a reactionary class, but the entire tradition of the

guardians of the sharia as the protectors of justice. One can easily

find different cultural situations—the civil rights movement in the

United States, for example—in which would-be reformers have

looked upon religious leaders as allies rather than enemies.

By the same token, the printing press offered a public platform to

new thinkers of all kinds, and the people I have been calling the new

religious authorities were not the first or the most clamorous in

availing themselves of it. Nationalists, socialists, communists, and

secularists wrote thousands of shelf-feet of books, pamphlets, magazines,

and newspapers. They too attracted readers by the eloquence

and logic of their presentations. But the fires lit by these nonreligious

ideologies ultimately produced more smoke than heat, and

most of them died out for lack of the crucial combustible represented

by people ardently committed to stoking them higher. Print and

other new media thus only partly explain the comparative success of

the new religious authorities. The more important component of

success was their taking the place of the old religious authorities in a

political tradition of combatting tyranny with justice. People who

followed Hasan al-Banna into the Muslim Brotherhood, or who listened

raptly to Ali Shariati denouncing the Iranian monarchy, or

who joined Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda, would have followed a

self-proclaimed Mahdi in previous centuries, or a militant Sufi, or a

mufti proclaiming his opposition to an act of imperial tyranny. The

manifestos of the nonreligious print ideologues ultimately came to

naught for lack of roots in an indigenous political culture. The

preachings of the religious print ideologues sank deep because the

roots were already in place. What went on, then, was not just a

media revolution, but a media revolution that favored those who

could credibly cite Muhammad as their inspiration over those who

took their cues from Voltaire, or Thomas Jefferson, or Karl Marx.

As for mass education, outcomes might have been different if

every graduate had found a job in a bustling economy. But perhaps

not. Full employment may satisfy material longings, but it does not

keep people from chafing under authoritarian rule and suppression

of personal freedom, particularly in a world increasingly committed

to participatory government. The broader context of what went on

was a fulfillment of what Islamic political theory predicted: an increase

in authoritarian rule as Islam receded from public life.

In Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia, among

other places, the forms and ideals of secular democracy implanted

by imperial overlords could not prevent the rise of dictators. Nor

in Turkey, the most robust democracy, could the military guardians

of Atatürk’s secular political vision restrain themselves from repeated

coups. In Morocco, Iran, Jordan, and the sheikhdoms of the

Persian Gulf, monarchs deployed internal security forces to increase

their autocracy, often under the benevolent oversight of

western powers that were themselves committed to democratic in-

stitutions at home. Even in Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservative

Islam, the power of the royal family, the Al Saud, increased at

the expense of the Al Shaikh, the descendants of the kingdom’s

ideological founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and enforcement

of religious strictures on public behavior became an instrument

of royal social control.

Within the structure of what went on, the rise of Islamic ideologies

of resistance should have been predicted. Sharia and tyranny

balance each other. As sharia recedes, tyranny increases, until a

yearning for a return to a just society—as opposed to a wealthy,

powerful, or modern society—causes people to give ear to the

guardians of sharia. The idea that this dynamic permanently

passed away with the decline of the ulama was wishful thinking

based on the historical triumph of crown over clergy in Europe.

Islam and Western Christendom are sibling forms of a single civilization,

but this does not mean that an evolution of church-state

relations that took six centuries to accomplish in Christian Europe

could be duplicated in one in the Muslim world.

The lesson of what went on is that Islam cannot be dismissed as

a factor in the public and political life of Muslims. To be sure, millions

of Muslims live secular lives and deplore religion in politics;

but political cultures change only slowly, the wishful thinking of

secularists on both sides of the divide between Islam and the West

notwithstanding. Railing against Islam as a barrier to democracy

and modern progress cannot make it go away so long as tyranny is

a fact of life for most Muslims. The ghastliness of international terrorism

in the name of Islam, and the bleakness of lives lived under

the most oppressive of Muslim behavioral rules, cannot conceal

the fact that in rallying Muslims against domestic tyranny and foreign

oppression, the new religious authorities, whether peaceful

or violent, are acting according to a centuries-old political dynamic

designed to protect Muslims from tyranny. Finding ways of

wedding this protective role with modern democratic and economic

institutions is a challenge that has not yet been met. The

path to the future cannot skirt the Islamic past.