This review of a book written by an Egyptian-German scholar was published last month in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Many thanks to JLH for the translation:
“The Decline of the Islamic World”
by Wolfgang Günter Lerch
A startling analysis from the pen of a Muslim scholar
November 17, 2010
Where does the hate of the Islamic world for the West come from? Is it from the false policy of the Americans, the unfortunate Iraq war, the fighting in Afghanistan, or the unsolved Palestine problem?
The German political scientist Hamed Abdel-Samad, himself a Muslim and from Egypt, has an answer which will not make most Muslims happy: In Islam, he sees a declining culture which is, so to speak, striking out blindly before it dies.
But how can you say that? Is Islam not the only religion that is growing, and not just because of demographic developments? For instance, does it not attract many in Africa who do not (any longer) practice other religions? Isn’t it Islam that gives an impression of aggressive strength which makes many people afraid?
In his book The Decline of the Islamic World: A Prognosis, the author comes to a completely different conclusion. The title was a conscious choice. When he first came to Germany, Abdel-Samad read Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. At first, the opinions he had brought from home about the “decadent” West were confirmed in this classic of cultural philosophy. Spengler’s elitist, alabaster-like language was hard to understand, so he put the book aside. When he picked it up again later — intellectually better prepared for it — it became clear to him that Spengler’s analysis applied perfectly to the condition of his own Islamic culture.
Abdel-Samad is following a line of criticism of radical Islam already marked out by the Pakistani dissident Ibn Warraq, now living in the West, and/or Abdelwahhab Meddeb, the Tunisian-French author. All in all, though, he is milder than his predecessors, advocates for an Islam without sharia and jihad.
He sees the Islamic world as an uncreative culture which today does not offer humanity a single innovation. In contrast to the first three centuries of its history, when it enthusiastically absorbed everything foreign and created a society that was intellectually creative, and developed a religious pluralism that accepted individualistic, even hedonistic life styles, Islam is now in a state of cultural regression. Invocation of the golden age of Islam — strengthened by the consciousness of superiority that is inculcated in every Muslim — contrasts with the permanent sense of being offended, and with the collective complexes resulting from being outstripped by the West — the European-American culture. One of the outré chapter titles in his book is “I am Muslim, so I am offended.” According to Abdel-Samad, the radicalization that is called Islam today is not a new phenomenon, but a reappearance of constantly recurring waves of religious-theological rigidity which find fertile ground in an unenlightened, authoritarian image of God and an authoritarian exercise of power in religion and politics. Obedience, not individual thought, is the first duty of the faithful. For men as for women — but far more for women — sacrifice is the entire Islamic culture — petrified in intellectual barrenness.
The miseries of the present are lamented, but blamed on conspiracies of the West. Modernization means buying what the West has created, but rejecting the scientific, secular way of thinking that made it possible. Egyptian schoolbooks evaluated by the author speak volumes about the reflexive search for a scapegoat in the outside world. In justification for this attitude and in complete ignorance of the intellectual processes that have taken place in Europe since the Renaissance is the claim that Muslims are just taking back what they had once given to Western culture. The author does not deny the negative effects of Western (to be sure also Ottoman) imperialism on the Arabs, but notes that they are only too prone to self-exoneration.
Abdel-Samad’s prognosis is grim. If the Islamic world does not reform, it threatens to disintegrate, to do away with itself. After petroleum, no one will be interested in it anymore unless it finds its own way out of its self-inflicted weakness: which is the cult centering on authority and obedience, and rooted ultimately in an untouchable divine law. It extends from the concept of God, through the patriarchal family and the restrictive but mostly hypocritical sexual morality, all the way to the state and its leadership.
Critics will accuse this author of one-sidedness and generalizing. He polarizes, and that is intentional. In fact , he says nothing about the Islam of the Sufis, who shaped this culture over centuries, and little about the rationalistic traditions and reform movements. Then, too, the world of Islamic states, between Morocco, Turkey and Malaysia, should be differentially evaluated in many respects. But a sore point has been touched. It pains many Muslims and will make some indignant. And the West is on friendly terms with countries in which this “Islamic system” is carried out almost to perfection.