Several days ago The International Herald Tribune ran an opinion piece that analyzed the change in religious outlook among young Iraqis the invasion of American troops and the consequent turmoil brought on by the war years:
After almost five years of war, many young Iraqis, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.
In two months of interviews with 40 young people in five Iraqi cities, a pattern of disenchantment emerged, in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives.
“I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us,” said Sara Sami, a high school student in Basra. “Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don’t deserve to be rulers.”
I wish the journalist, Sabrina Tavernise, had cited his sources for the “two months of interviews.” Did she conduct them herself and thus had no need to cite sources? We never find out.
However, what the interviews disclose is quite instructive if the social patterns she discusses are true:
Atheer, a 19-year-old from a poor, heavily Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said: “The religion men are liars. Young people don’t believe them. Guys my age are not interested in religion anymore.”
The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religiousness among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology. While religious extremists are admired by a number of young people in other parts of the Arab world, Iraq offers a test case of what could happen when extremist theories are applied.
Fingers caught smoking were broken. Long hair was cut and force-fed to its owner. In that laboratory, disillusionment with Islamic leaders took hold.
It is far from clear whether the shift means a wholesale turn away from religion. A tremendous piety still predominates in the private lives of young Iraqis, and religious leaders, despite the increased skepticism, still wield tremendous power. Measuring religiousness furthermore, is a tricky business in Iraq, where access to cities and towns that are far from Baghdad is limited.
But a shift seems to be registering, at least anecdotally, in the choices some young Iraqis are making. Professors reported difficulty recruiting graduate students for religion classes. Attendance at weekly prayers appears to be down, even in areas where the violence has largely subsided, according to worshipers and imams in Baghdad and Falluja. In two visits to the weekly prayer session in Baghdad of the followers of Moktada al-Sadr last autumn, vastly smaller crowds attended than had in 2004 or 2005.
I have been pondering this essay for a few days, not sure how to address it in any meaningful way. Then I came across a blogger who echoed my thoughts…and expanded upon them. He has the prerequisite knowledge and context to delve into the ideas the IHT presented; he does so with fine precision: [emphases throughout are mine – D.]
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I wrote in 2005 that it might “take a war” for Islamism to be discredited in the same way that various nationalisms were during the Cold War (which paved the way for religion to arise as the dominant form of identity). It is my view that Islamism is not a spiritual movement – though it does have spiritual origins. It is first and foremost a sectarian movement. As Iraqis become disillusioned with their sectarian leadership, sectarian politics could either dissipate all together, or become the responsibility of the laity and become especially vulgarized and diffuse.
Islamism is the assertion of cultural and political Islam ahead of personal, spiritual Islam. It is the result of weak national and ethnic identities in a region where for centuries the highest level of social organization was the sect, be it be derived from a variation of Islam or Christianity. Secular identities were articulated with the express purpose of overriding sectarian loyalties and building national cohesion so that the imported nation-state infrastructure could be viable. While individuals became largely secularized during the twentieth century, their identities did not. Islamic modernism allowed for Muslims to live their lives almost independent of the religious establishment’s edicts all the while maintaining their Islamic identity.
These points seem so obvious that I am surprised they are not more widespread. Perhaps it is the singularly barbaric and theatrical methods of political Islam that blinds us to the facts on the ground as they appear to many Muslims:
Dismissing “popular Islam” (the Sufism, mysticism, and Islam of the hoi polloi; “traditional” Islam as practiced outside of the urban centers and elite circles), reformism called for a return to the Islam of Muhammad’s time. This salafism is the tradition of Wahhabism, the Muslim Brothers, and al-Qaeda. It has attracted young men and women educated in secular institutions in secular fields (often medical students, and engineers) more than those versed in popular Islam or the traditional centers of Islamic learning in Tunisia, Morocco, or even Damascus.
While he does not say so, and perhaps would not agree, I believe this reformism, or ‘return to the basics’ evolved out of the chaos in the 20th century. There was no ‘ism’ ready to replace the implosion of the Communist state. And the Middle East, while ignored by the big boys, was as profoundly disturbed as Europe by the worldwide hundred years’ chaos and blood. Some of the racial hatreds now embedded in Islamic reforms and tactics came directly from the fascist and Nazi playbooks. The rules seem interchangeable, or perhaps more accurately, the foundations of Islamism seem but the other side of the coin:
Anti-Western in its rejection of secular forms of identity (which are seen as imports from the West), political organization, and cultural expression, this “revivalist” Islamism is less about following the spiritual commands of Islam than its most base and superficial ones. This is perhaps why Islamism becomes so dissatisfying when its followers are given free reign, as in Afghanistan, Algeria, and militia controlled Iraq; it becomes an edifice of corruption, murder, gore, and hypocrisy without any deep spiritual backing.
Any fundamentalism, whether national, cultural, or spiritual, experiences this dissatisfaction eventually. Certainly, it was the case for western Christianity by the time of the Reformation and the rise of nationalism. The Orthodox, eastern part of Christianity avoided this fate by alliance with whomever was in power. That permitted the Eastern church to exist in the face of an evil totalitarianism, but at a heavy cost.
The Moor Next Door goes much further – and deeper – into the future than the IHT article dared to venture:
…before Westerners and so-called “liberal” or “moderate” Muslims start cheering over the decline in “interest” in Islamism among the Iraqis, it should be remembered that nothing has yet to arise in its place as a form of identity or solidarity. Islamism is still the strongest popular political force, and nationalism’s record has been dearly tarnished and greatly weakened by repeated military defeats on the part of Arab nationalist armies and sectarian infighting in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere. Nationalism or patriotisms revolving around the various Arab and Muslim states established by the former colonial powers is a possible alternative. Often labeled “Sadatism” (“the country first”), this alternative is often undermined by the remaining loyalties related to Arab and other nationalisms, for instance the fact that while the Arab polities have been moving away from one another politically they have been converging culturally at a rapid pace in recent years (and by the fact that it is encouraged by the United States, in a divide-and-rule effort, as many see it). On the other end, sectarianism remains high (and does not seem to be going anywhere) in many areas of the Arab world, and this leads to cross border solidarity and suspicious attitudes towards presumed compatriots. Only in the oldest Arab states – Morocco, Oman, Egypt (though its identity is increasingly undermined by Muslim and Coptic sectarianism), and to an extent Syria – is state nationalism strong. The only movements calling for the abolition of state borders in the Arab world are the Islamist movements (with the aim of establishing a universal caliphate) and the surviving Arab nationalist ones (towards the goal of a unified Arab entity). The region is still in the making.
Things that are “still in the making” are difficult to predict. Thus the Middle East is likely to remain restless, chaotic, and turbulent for some time to come. I do not agree that the U.S. has encouraged or engendered a “divide-and-rule” policy. America’s course of action vis-à-vis the Middle East is quite fragmented itself, with the many players involved seeing or seeking divergent causes and outcomes.
In particular, until someone is put in place to bring the U.S. State Department to heel, that will continue to be the case. Many Americans see Foggy Bottom as an entrenched problem to be solved, not an asset to be used. This is a generations-old problem for America and one that will not easily be resolved.
Read his final paragraph to see if you agree with Nouri’s summation. For me, the thing we cannot take into account is the evolution of a new paradigm to replace what has gone before. That requires a prescience that the great majority of us do not possess. For example, there were few who predicted accurately the implosion of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. A few people did, but for most of us, it was a complete surprise.
September 11th was a complete surprise, too, though there were far more Monday morning quarterbacks willing to intone on that event than were present for the end of Communism as a viable threat.
What is waiting to be born in the Middle East? Will there be voices heralding the eventual change? Over the din of the current chaos, will we be able to hear them?