Myanmar’s Coming Revolution
What Will Emerge From Collapse?
IT IS related that Abdul Malik ibn Merwan was reading the Koran when he received news of his succession as ruler of the Arab Empire (A.D. 685). Closing the sacred book, he said regretfully, "This means a parting between me and thee!"
Thus early, if apocryphally, did Muslims discover that the demands of their faith and the necessities of practical affairs might stand in conflict. Many times in subsequent generations this lesson was repeated. In every age and area, the role of Islam has been affected by contemporary political movements, national policies, economic needs and cultural patterns. An eminent Muslim scholar has said that Islamic history can only be understood as a constant tension between the "ruling institution" (politics, economics, society) and the "religious institution" (law, theology, savants).
This tension is particularly acute in the Middle East today. The same forces of modernity that have reshaped our Western world are invading Muslim lands and society. But the rate of invasion is vastly accelerated; changes with which the West made its peace through four centuries of adjustment have been compressed in the East into a scant century and a half. The result has been an explosive dislocation of the old ways that augurs a "parting" from traditional Islam far more radical than anything that has gone on in the past. There is both pathos and penetration in the words of a young Muslim scholar who wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, "The days have cast us, together with our religion and our honor, into a field with ravenous lions."
It is therefore understandable that many observers predict the rapid decay of Islamic influence in the Middle East. Yet, though the evidence of the practical impotency of traditional religion in many current affairs is unmistakable, this conclusion is unwarranted--at least as a generalization. Throughout its history, Islam has been in constant interplay with the processes of society and the result has been a working compromise between Muslim and non-Muslim elements that reflects the conditions and needs of each era. To say that Islam is changing its role today is not necessarily to say that it is on the verge of disappearing--only that one more compromise is taking place, the final form of which cannot yet be determined.
There are two basic difficulties in assessing the part played by Islam in the Middle East today. The first arises from the negative emphasis that is always the most prominent characteristic of periods of turbulent change. The loss of Islamic influence in the state, society and individual life is far more apparent and dramatic than the religious elements that quietly endure. Such a radical departure from the past as the dropping of Islam as the "religion of the state" in the provisional constitution of the United Arab Republic is a repudiation of many centuries of Muslim political form. But because Islam is not mentioned in the constitution does not mean that it ceases to operate in the mind and ideologies of those who direct the U.A.R.--to say nothing of the masses.
The second difficulty comes from the nebulous content of the term "Islam." Since the Muslim religion, in origin and theory, lays claim to regulate the totality of human activity, it has historically been the "cell wall" of the social organism. While many elements, non-Muslim in origin, have always operated within the life of Muslim communities, these have been fitted into the framework of Islam. In a sense almost everything that has gone on in the Middle East since the rise of Islam can be labeled "Islamic."
But to define Islam so inclusively makes it almost impossible to isolate the specific role religion plays in social and political activities. This difficulty is escaped when Islam is defined in concrete institutional and theological terms. For, in the Caliphate, Sharia Law, Savants (Ulema) and theological systems, there are influences whose content and current status can be determined. But to adopt this more specific definition is to rule out historical and psychological influences which, profoundly if subtly, affect the life of the modern Muslim community even when its outward religious observances have weakened.
It is partly because of these contrasting definitions of Islam that judgments on the religious situation in the Middle East differ. Some observers are apt to assign to Islam a dominant role in many of the area's problems. This was the theme of a recent book entitled, "Islam Inflamed,"[i] which in these words suggested that the basic factor in Middle East turmoil is an Islamic reaction against the West. Observers who penetrate more deeply into specific political and social situations[ii] take an opposite view. While noting the façade of Islamic loyalties, vocabulary and institutions, they find that the actual operating forces in the Middle East are quite un-Islamic. One such observer has concluded that Islam emerges rather as a side issue or, in the minds of Middle Easterners themselves, as a means to secular ends. The central theme is no longer the religious one of the past, but the secular one of modern nationalism.
Both views have their truth because they are not talking about precisely the same Islam. As a hue coloring Middle Eastern life, Islam is indeed everywhere evident. It provides the history in which national movements seek their justification, the vocabulary that supplies significant terms for modern life, the family and social milieu in which masses of common people still live. Yet Islam is chiefly a hue; the political and social organisms which it colors are more and more deriving their substance from influences and institutions that lie outside the Muslim tradition.
The problem posed by contrasting definitions can be avoided by recognizing that "Islam" is not a single term (either inclusive or exclusive) but a general heading. Under it are gathered varieties of activities and influences, each of which has its own role in shaping the Muslimness of society and the individual. Only by considering these multi-form "Islams" can an estimate be made of the current situation in the Middle East. Yet useful as this approach is, it contains a measure of artificiality. No one "Islam" exists in isolation from its neighbors and the interactions between the various "Islams" must not be neglected. Moreover, one never meets "Islam" in the Middle East--but only specific situations and individuals. It is in these that the religious heritage is incarnate and through them plays its role in passing events. With this caution, a preliminary estimate of the role of Islam in the modern Middle East can be made under various categories.
1. Political Organization
From its inception under the Prophet, Islam has claimed to provide a political organization for the Community of the Faithful. While the elaboration of this into the medieval Muslim empires involved the absorption of many non-Islamic elements, the state operated behind the façade of a Muslim theory of government. In this, rule was exercised by the Caliph (successor of the Prophet) to whom the citizenry owed obedience on the basis of religious loyalty. But the Caliph was only the executive and (through his appointment of judges) the judiciary of the community. The legislative function was supplied by Canon Law (Sharia) which passed judgment upon, if it did not always originate, the enactments of the state. In practice the Caliph presently ceased to be the effective political ruler, this role being played by a "man of power" (Sultan) in which was revived the traditional Oriental despot. To maintain the fiction of the Caliph's leadership, the Sultan was usually confirmed in his rule by the Caliph and supposedly acted in his behalf.
What is the place of this political Islam in the Middle East today? The most evident sign of its weakening is the lost hope of pan-Islamism. Although there have been suggestions both from Islamic leaders and Western students of a pan-Islamic revival, there is little evidence that this can or will take place. For one thing, the period when the Middle East could be described as a Muslim political entity is both historically remote and temporarily brief. Original Islam did indeed envision a growing community in which religious faith was the basis of the social and political bond. But this ideal received historical embodiment for little more than a century and a half, coming to an end with the fall of the Omayyad dynasty nearly sixteen centuries ago. Then, revived Arab tribal rivalries, sectarian schisms and the rebirth of national and cultural self-consciousness among conquered, non-Arab peoples rent the fabric of the universal Islamic state. Once Islam lost the battle to contain and over-rule dynastic struggles and particular loyalties, it permanently gave up the possibility of holding together heterogeneous peoples within a single religious-political empire.
Moreover, pan-Islam is difficult to conceive as the basis for a modern empire because it is almost impossible for any group of states today to become integrated into the international structure when they are based upon a political and ideological pattern at variance with the rest of the world. So long as Islamdom contained the center of its own gravity and was self-sustaining politically and economically, it could afford to maintain its own distinctive political organization. But today it is difficult to perpetuate such isolated political "monads" and assume that they will move together with the rest of the world in a preëstablished harmony. Increasingly all areas are part of an international society, interdependent economically and politically and moving within the same milieu of ideas.
In these circumstances no group of states can set up a bloc built upon radically different political concepts without being in continuous tension with the rest of the world. Islamdom cannot insulate itself against the seepage of the most universally accepted political concept of our times--nationalism. Nor can it act harmoniously in international affairs unless it shares in some measure in commonly accepted political forms. The cold war emphasizes this fact. There is an air of unrealism about many discussions of coexistence with the Soviet bloc because they assume that two political and ideological systems as different as the Soviet and democratic ways can live side by side without continuing and violent interaction. Only if both blocs could completely isolate themselves would a "peaceful" coexistence be possible.
It is therefore not surprising that there have been no serious attempts to amalgamate the present Muslim states into a pan-Islamic political system. In the early struggle of the Indian Muslim community for political selfhood, Mohammed Iqbal did indeed call for the revival of pan-Islamism and even suggested that the Constituent Assembly of republican Turkey might assume the historic functions of the Caliphate. But this was a bit of political philosophizing that aroused no answering enthusiasm in the Muslim world. Perhaps most significant is the fact that when the Arab states of the Middle East established their first area organization, they chose the concept of an "Arab" league rather than a "Muslim" league. This was done partly because a Muslim league would have excluded officially Christian Lebanon, but also because the leaders of the combining states were committed to a national, rather than a pan-Islamic ideal.
Further evidence of the hollowness of the pan-Islamic conception is found in the fact that Muslim states in their foreign policies do not appear to differentiate between their Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors. National interest, rather than shared religious tradition, is as much the basis of foreign policy in the Middle East as in the West. Although Jordan is a Muslim state, Egypt attacked its government with as much virulence as though it had been the United States itself. It might be expected that the Islamness of the Middle East would result in a common policy toward the State of Israel. But Turkey and Iran do not share the Arab world's reaction against Israel, and Turkey has not hesitated to have commercial dealings with the new country, thus angering her Arab (Muslim) neighbors. Indeed the "Muslim" factor between Muslim states seems as impotent and illusory as the "Christian" factor between Christian states.
In contrast to this illusory pan-Islamism, the separate national states of the Middle East embody much Islamic political influence and activity. At the beginning of the modern period, with most of the Muslim world under the control of Western and non-Muslim powers, the only effective revival of Islamic political selfhood possible was in the form of nationalistic activity. Thus the nineteenth-century prophets of an Islamic political renaissance accepted the modern national state as inevitable and saw in its patriotic fervor an implement that could be used to dispossess the foreigner and reëstablish Muslim self-determination. This was Iqbal's theory, for he called first for the creation of a series of strong, individual Muslim states which later would give up their identity to merge into a pan-Islamic empire.
This program appeared logical, but was in fact vitiated by the hidden conflicts between nationalism and Islam as inevitably rival political systems. For the modern national state, the community is determined by geographical boundaries and/or ethnic origins. But for Islam it is neither geography nor race which undergirds the body politic, but a community of faith governed by religious law. Separate national states can therefore be Islamic only in a sense radically different from the traditional political theory of the Muslim community.
Moreover, in the formation of modern states, a new political element emerged. This was the parliamentary system of the Western world, whose assumption of legislative authority curtailing the absolute power of the ruler clashes with historic Islamic concepts. It is this factor, more than any other aspect of nationalism, that began the disinheritance of the Muslim political system. Those countries which have not adopted some form of modern parliamentary rule (such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan) are still marked by strong Muslim political influence, even though they are theoretically as "nationalistic" in the separateness of their existence as republican Turkey.
The result of these factors has been to reverse the connection that early modern Muslim leaders envisioned between nationalism and Islam. Instead of nationalism being the servant of Islam and providing it with a new and vigorous political form, Islam has increasingly become the servant of nationalism. The most complete expression of this is in modern Turkey, which deliberately repudiated the Islamic basis of the state in favor of Western secular concepts. In so doing it did not abandon Islam, but attempted to "Turkify" it in the same way that the English Reformation "Anglicized" the medieval Catholic heritage by creating a separate Church of England. Indeed, this historic precedent was cited by apologists of the Turkish Revolution in explanation of the place of Islam in the new Turkey. "Turkification" of Islam meant not only its disestablishment, but the use of Turkish as the language of ritual and devotion and the control by the state of religious institutions and clergy. Islam's "universal" Sharia Law was abandoned in favor of a national Turkish legal system modelled after the Swiss Code and based upon enactments of the legislative assembly.
In the Arab world, this lead has not been followed. The separate Arab states are still formally Muslim, with Islam as the state religion. Sharia Law has continued to have a place in the national legal system and Islamic institutions play an influential role. Yet in most of the Arab world Islam is steadily losing power as a political form and increasingly serves as the façade behind which the forces of nationalism operate. In theory, if not always in fact, Muslims and non-Muslims are equal in social and political privileges, and parliamentary enactments (outside the sphere of personal status) are not dependent upon the canons of Sharia Law. Most significant is the fact that the current wave of enthusiasm for "Arab unity" and the "Arab nation" contains few explicit Islamic references. Apologists of the movement define and justify the basic concepts of Arab nationalism in terms drawn from racial and tribal concepts rather than from any ideas of a common Islamic bond. Abdul Nasser is a good example of this. While Islam is mentioned in his "Philosophy of the Revolution," it plays a much less important and specific role than the other two circles which he sees as influencing revolutionary Egypt's future. This was made clear in the formation of the United Arab Republic, where any mention of Islam was excluded from the provisional constitution--the reason being that Syrian Christians played a significant role in the Baath Party, which strongly supported the union. This is to say that nationalistic political expediency was more basic than the Islamic concept in setting the pattern of the new state.
Although Islam is thus increasingly subservient to nationalism, in many specific situations it still exerts important political pressures. The balance between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities was a major factor in the recent Lebanese civil war. In Iran there have been occasions when conservative Islamic leadership has been given its way in order to avert dangerous pressure on the government--the clearest case being the attack on the Bahai Center in Tehran several years ago. Even though parliamentary or military governments, such as Nasser's and Kassem's, exercise complete legislative authority, they must take into account the religious reactions of both the Ulema and the masses. Several years ago, the Egyptian Government began a popular birth-control program, with at least the tacit approval of the then Rector of al Azhar. But when the new Rector of al Azhar disapproved of the program, the government quietly relaxed its efforts until some form of religious backing could be secured. Even in "secular" Turkey, political leaders at all levels have found it expedient to maintain an identifiable Islamic loyalty in their appeal for the village vote.
It is natural that in many cases national policy should use Islamic feeling for its own purposes. While the Egyptian Government has paid less attention to Islam as an internal factor than might be expected, externally it has fostered the Islamic connection with parts of Black Africa where the government is seeking political influence. The historic Muslim universities in Cairo, Fez, Marrakesh and Kairowan are being used as training grounds to inculcate a spirit of nationalism in African students, whose numbers have grown remarkably in the last five years. This has led to the curious phenomenon of Negro Muslim religious leaders vigorously preaching "Arab" nationalism to their fellows in some parts of French West Africa.
From this review it would be easy to conclude that Islam has completely lost the struggle to nationalism. Yet it must be noted that in recent years there have been a number of political movements striving to reëstablish the Islamic basis of the modern state. In the Arab world, several of these had their origin, or were particularly active, in Egypt: the National Muslim Party, Muslim Youth, Iron Guard, Young Men of Mohammed, Muslim Jehad, Society of Islamic Brotherhood and (the most influential) the Muslim Brotherhood. These combined intense nationalistic fervor with the belief that the Muslim religious state should be the pattern of a purified and revived national life. While such movements have failed to capture the field from secular nationalism, they are reminders that the tinder of religious feeling can still be ignited by the spark of patriotism. Islam may have ceased to be a decisive influence in shaping the form of the state, but it is certainly not politically dead among the masses.
2. Institutional Life
Islam is not only a political structure, it is also a series of institutions represented by legal codes, centers of learning, philanthropic agencies, bodies of Ulema and such social practices as the system of Wakfs (property endowment for religious or charitable purposes). How does this aspect of Islam fare in the Middle East today?
Here three significant changes are apparent. The first is that the graduates of religious institutions no longer play a major role in staffing important posts in government or as political leaders. A century ago, Mohammed Abdu was both Rector of al Azhar and a popular political leader. The position of his class was due partly to the monopoly of religious institutions in producing an educated élite, and partly to the traditional respect for religious learning. But with the growth of national, Western-inspired systems of education, intellectual leadership from Muslim institutions is no longer preponderant, nor is it trained to cope with the problems of the modern state. The formulation of national development, both political and social, has passed almost entirely out of the hands of religious leaders into those of the new intelligentsia who have entered deeply into the practices of the modern world. For them, Islam has ceased to be an all-embracing loyalty; while they may practice it as a personal ethic, they have intellectually repudiated (or unconsciously bypassed) much of its social and political content. Consequently, Islamic institutions have steadily lost their leadership role in the more modern Middle Eastern countries.
A second change has come in the increasing limitation of the area in which Sharia Law operates. In most of the Middle East today, the Sharia is confined to matters of personal status (divorce, marriage, inheritance) but even here the state has not hesitated to inject its influence of modernization.
The third change is the control by the national government of many of the institutional activities of Islam. Muslim charities must register with the Ministry of Social Affairs in some Arab countries and conduct their business along lines determined by the state. While mosque schools and Muslim universities continue, the state no longer uses them as a major instrument for popular education and they are patronized chiefly by those who expect to enter the religious profession. In the more extreme forms of nationalism, the Wakf system has either been abolished or sharply curtailed, although this is one of the most venerable Islamic institutions.
Yet, as in the political sphere, Islamic institutions are used by nationalism for its own purposes. Faced with the necessity of evolving a "national pattern," the modern state frequently makes the teaching of Islam obligatory in state and private schools (both religious and secular), and prescribes the curriculum to be used. Muslim missionaries were sent to the southern Sudan, both because this has been an area of major Christian activity and because the paganness of the tribes made for political resistance to the control of the Muslim government in Khartoum. The Soviet Union has on occasion stimulated the pilgrimage, hoping that Muslims from Russia could serve as propaganda agents both for Soviet accomplishments and the religious "freedom" of Muslim communities in Russia.
3. Social Structure
Islam as a constituent of the social structure lives on long after political and institutional life has become secularized. Attitudes toward authority, the customs of family life and the relations of individuals to their fellows are still set by the classic Muslim pattern for much of Middle East society. However, it is highly significant that in the modernizing social programs of the Middle East, little attempt is made to utilize Muslim social institutions or practices. The village mosque, for instance, is almost entirely neglected as the basis for community work and few attempts have been made to train and use the Mullahs as educational and social leaders. Indeed when the writer suggested to one Middle East country that the mosque might be "institutionalized" on the pattern of the Western community church and the Mullah trained as a literacy leader, he was met with complete indifference and almost pitied for his naïveté for making such a suggestion!
Most of the social program of modernizing states like Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Republic draw their basic concepts from the Western world and make little attempt to pick out of the Islamic past institutions or programs that might be woven into the new pattern. The reason for this is simple. As Middle Eastern countries orient themselves to modernity, they must evolve some new form of society that will both realize political ambitions and bring a better way of life to the masses. But to accomplish this involves a repudiation of the political and economic autocracies of the past. It is becoming increasingly evident (as in the Turkish and Egyptian revolutions) that such a new society can come into being only if the traditional "ancien régime" is destroyed. But that régime is embodied in institutions that in fact or in theory claim to be Islamic. Therefore the social revolution inevitably (if somewhat unconsciously) is directed against the Islamic past and results in its eventual destruction.
If there were a vigorous movement in the Middle East to reinterpret the social concepts of Islam, this destruction might not be inevitable. But most Muslim thinkers who undertake to defend the traditional system do so with such rigidity as to rule out any real pertinancy to modern conditions. A typical example is a defense of Islam by a professor of al Azhar under the title "Social Justice in Islam." His thesis is that traditional Islamic society contains all the elements necessary for the modern state--but the defense consists of little more than reiterating the theoretical validity of the very social practices that must be altered if national development is to take place.
4. Theological-Philosophical System
Islam, like Christianity, developed a complete intellectual formulation of life. This was embodied in classical Muslim theology, which is still the intellectual reservoir for modern religious thought. While this tradition operates more widely than the social and political elements of Islam, it is increasingly losing its vitality. The masses of Muslim people (like the masses of Christian people) were seldom critically theological. The intellectual élite, who might be expected to preserve and rework the classical heritage, is the very group that is drinking most deeply from the springs of modern science, sociology and politics. It is in these, rather than in Muslim classicism, that they find the operating principles for much of their life.
There are indeed many "defenses of Islam" in modern literature, but the very phrase "defense" reveals what is happening. In the past, Muslim thought was the standard by which the activities of man and his society were judged since it was the eternal truth revealed by God. Today few writers take this attitude. Implicitly and explicitly, the intellectual content of the modern world is accepted as normative, and attempts are made to show that Islam fits in with it. But this gives away the whole show--for when religion loses its claim of ultimate validity and becomes an instrument for defending or furthering some other values, it ceases to be religion at all.
This failure to provide a modern reinterpretation of Muslim thought has much more than religious implications. If either the reality or the pertinency of the Muslim tradition disappears, it may leave the chaotic modern world of the Middle East without any framework of alternate values to assist in directing its destiny. One of two things is apt to happen. It may be that nationalism will become the ultimate loyalty and the sole determiner of all values. If so, there is no point at which religious thought can stand in criticism of the extremes of national hysteria or xenophobic emotionalism. The other possibility is that Communism, with its completely organized intellectual life, may come in to fill the void. Since Communism is a kind of latter-day scholasticism, all-inclusive in scope and based upon a rigid logic, it is often readily accepted by restless and vacant-minded intellectuals who have lost the foundations of their historic faith, yet seek something more effective than the uncertain tides of nationalism.
5. Ideological Milieu
While it is clear that many of the outward and formalized forms of Islam are losing their relevance in the Middle East today, there is obviously a residual deposit of attitudes and reactions from the centuries of the past which in some measure determines the way modern Muslims react to their problems.
First, there is the feeling that Islam creates about the community. The body of the Faithful is, in fact, the incarnation of the divine will in history. Mohammed did not announce merely a personal ethic; he founded a community, governed by divine law and embodying God's pattern for human society. This means that in the Muslim mind the community claims primacy over the individual. Even when society has ceased to be religious, and finds its political and social forms in modern secularism, the feeling for the social organism persists. Movements like the Egyptian revolution rest not so much upon the police power of the state as on the feeling that the state (which is the community) is an entity to which the individual is in a measure subservient. For this reason, the concept of the "strong man" (or dictator) is more at home in the Middle East than in the Western world, where it clashes with a sense of the individual's absolute value.
A second element in the intellectual milieu is the sense of Islamdom being set over against Christendom. From the beginning of its existence, the Muslim community has been in continuous tension with the Western world. Its original expansion was accomplished by conquest of Western territory, and the returning tide of the Crusades brought the battle to Muslim lands. This is not to say that the fact of religious difference is an overt operating factor in the relations between Islamic and Christian countries in the modern world. Yet it is not unfair to say that in some countries within the Middle East there is endemic anti-Western feeling (or suspicion) which grows out of the religious conflicts of the past. This may be one reason for the "positive neutralism" that is popular in the Arab world. Beneath this neutralism is the feeling that Islamdom has its own destiny and cannot be hitched to the cart of the non-Islamic world.
Third, it must be noted that in most Middle Eastern countries full nationality is either openly or unconsciously identified with status as a Muslim. The non-Muslim--Jew or Christian--is seldom considered quite the equal of the Muslim. This is true even in Turkey, where the state has repudiated any religious connection. The only exception is Lebanon, where the balance between Christian and Muslim is so nearly equal that each must accept the other as fully Lebanese. Almost everyone who has lived in the Middle East is aware of this subtle pressure. While the enlightened modern Muslim is perfectly sincere in maintaining that he does not discriminate against his fellow citizens on a religious basis, in fact he often has a different attitude toward his non-Muslim compatriot. No matter what guarantees of equality may be given by the state, this identification of "Muslimness" and nationality will probably long continue.
Of course the Muslim milieu contains much more than the few elements noted here. It is a reservoir, formed through thirteen centuries of rich and varied development, from which Muslims will continue to draw attitudes, feelings, assumptions and unconscious reactions that will give their future, as their past, a distinctive Islamic hue.
But that hue will have its own unique shade. With Tennyson, Muslims will learn that "God fulfills Himself in many ways," and that the last word on Islam has not yet been spoken. But whatever that word is, it will not be a repetition of the classical past. Dr. Shafiq Ghorbal, one of Egypt's most perceptive Muslim historians, puts the matter succinctly when he writes:
The period of 150 years which began with the French invasion of Egypt (1798) witnessed the emerging of our Islamic society into the world society of the present era. We, the members of the Islamic society, have not been fully aware of all the implications of the events of this period . . . the influence has been so great that even when the Islamic people have regained their political independence they have found that a return to the traditional way of life was not possible--even if it were desirable. It needs to be emphasized that such a return is not deemed desirable even when lip service is paid to the glorious traditions of the past.[iii]
[i] James Morris, "Islam Inflamed." New York: Pantheon, 1957.
[ii] The author has profited from participation in a discussion group of the Council on Foreign Relations, and especially from papers presented there by Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb, William R. Polk, Lewis V. Thomas, T. Cuyler Young and Don Peretz.
[iii] "Islam--The Straight Path," edited by Kenneth W. Morgan. New York: Ronald Press, 1958, p. 78.