A MOST unforeseen development of modern history has been the metamorphosis of the immense Moslem community, stretching from the Dutch East Indies to Morocco and from the Mediterranean to the tropical forests of Africa, which in response to Western influences has broken up into a number of modern countries. Already 14 separate Moslem states crowd into the Assembly of the United Nations or stand on its threshold. African and Asian leaders wish at least six others to join them tomorrow. How will these new arrivals behave in the international council chamber? Will they maintain separate individualities? Will they be governed by their particular interests, or will they instead form a compact group dominated by religious or ethnic considerations? Will they join forces with neighboring racial groups? These questions pose a major problem for the West. It is not simply a question of the existence in the Assembly of a permanently close-knit group which would usually be in a position to tip the scales as it wished; the balance of power in the West is also at stake. For in practice the vast territories occupied by Islam, with their strategic areas and potential resources, are of such importance that indirectly they may determine the future of the Atlantic community.


The national concept is totally alien to Moslem civilization, and in each of the modern states recently created it still seems an "heretical innovation" to orthodox Moslem jurists. The modern nation which we take as our model in talking to the East is a segment of humanity, enclosed in precise frontiers, where men live free and equal under the law without distinction of race or creed, legislate for themselves and develop a consciousness of their own historic destiny. Its core is the state, organized according to orderly administrative techniques, which by reason of its structure is adapted to the economic and social developments necessitated by increases in population and the competition of other nations. Its vitality provides the moral and material forces needed for its internal and external security.

All these principles are new to Islamic civilization. Moslem law, the shari'ah, makes no provision for separation between church and state. For centuries it has held sway over innumerable phases of family, economic and political life of the faithful. Its authority rests upon the precepts of a revealed Holy Book through which the will of God is clearly expressed. As a result, the only points on which man can legislate freely are those few regarding which Moslem law itself is silent. Even though Moslems often protest against our calling their civilization theocratic, because, they say, there are no priests in Islam, it must be admitted that the divine origin of the shari'ah has the practical result of subordinating social and political life to the dictates of Allah. The worldly destinies of peoples bow to the decrees of eternity.

From this it becomes clear why--as history indicates--the Moslem peoples have never asserted their individuality through freely enacted laws. The only method for so doing found by certain groups was conversion to some heretical sect, as in Iran, the Yemen, and, before the great conquests of eastern Islam in the Maghreb, among the Berber peoples of North Africa.

Nevertheless, all Islamic history is filled with the violent struggle between monarchs, aided by the guardians of the law, and rebellious tribes which aspired to self-government. The justification for the princely attitude was that the traditions governing tribal law antedated the revelations of the Prophet and were consequently considered a legacy from the "time of ignorance." This rivalry has too often been ignored by the West. Down even into the twentieth century it often has paralyzed the internal unification of Moslem countries, which long kept intact, and in less developed areas still do keep intact, habits of political and social life similar to those known in Western Europe in the eighth century, before the feudal era, when the barbarian invasions had broken up the Roman Empire.

In Islam, every believer, wherever he may be, can serve any and all Moslem princes on the same terms and according to the same uniform law. In Islam, in consequence, the idea of frontiers has no juridical meaning, and the most complete and perfect theoretical unity of the community easily accords with an anarchical division into many principalities, temporary or lasting.

But even though the universal Islamic law applies to all the faithful without discrimination, those living in a Moslem state who do not belong to the true faith remain in a subordinate position. Monotheistic infidels--Christians and Jews--living according to their own religious laws, have only a protected status politically, and rigidly restricted judicial and economic rights. As for pagan infidels, they have no rights at all. The situation reveals the depth of the belief in the superiority of the believer to the unbeliever.

As is well known, Moslem civilization which was so brilliant in the twelfth century became static just as our civilization began its irresistible rise. In the nineteenth century, the West's expansion suddenly brought home to the Islamic élite the grave dangers inherent in their archaic institutions and their military and economic weakness. The more open-minded of them, convinced of the need for "reforms," aimed primarily at restoring the lost strength of the Moslem nations through imitating European technical methods. The best thinkers among them acknowledged at the same time that a metamorphosis of political methods was imperative also and that Western liberalism offered a solution to their internal ills. These first attempts, though sincere, were almost everywhere ineffectual. Doubtless this was because within the superficially modernized framework religious thought and social institutions remained in strict conformity with mediaeval ideals.

It was then--as early as 1880 but especially after 1918--that a strong reaction set in, motivated by Islamic pride. After all, argued the traditionalists and all who were troubled and dissatisfied, occidental supremacy was purely material. The true reason for the decline of Islam was divine wrath due to the decay of faith and morals. Like the ancient prophets of Israel, the orthodox jurists therefore urged that a complete return to revealed truth would simultaneously restore to Islam its power, prosperity and happiness. Even today, this belief is firmly rooted alike in the minds of theological scholars and the ignorant populace. More than any other factor it nourishes the stubborn dream that the past can be restored.

In 1918, among the ruins of the Turkish Empire, there began what for the Moslem East was a new experience. The West introduced the concept of the nation; and by establishing new frontiers or taking in charge old crumbling countries it stimulated everywhere the formation of modern states which were expected to transform themselves in the course of time into national entities. The most fruitful field of experiment was the Arab peninsula, the very heart of Islam, where were drawn the outlines of seven nations, one of them to become the state of Israel. This partition was much criticized by a section of the Arab élite. Ignoring the strength of particularism, the rivalries of cities and dynasties and the persistence of tribal traditions, these men had dreamed for several years the romantic dream of a great unified nation, a kind of resurrection of the Omayyad and Abbasid Empires.

Disillusionment followed the jettisoning of this great project; but the experiment in nation-building nevertheless achieved partial success in the next 30 years. At least three countries-- Iraq, Syria and Lebanon--have, after many vicissitudes, actually made themselves into modern states. Two of them have adopted republican governments on the French model, while the third has a constitution inspired by English traditions. Egypt, which became independent in 1936 following a long and profitable tutelage under British and French political and cultural influences, seemed on the eve of the Second World War to be the most powerful and best organized of the new Arab nations. She derived immense prestige in the Middle East and in Africa from this situation--a sufficient justification in her eyes for the leadership which she claimed by right. Saudi Arabia and the Yemen alone preserved their mediaeval attitudes; they were countries of tribes and feudal fiefs held together by the authority of Islamic law exercised by absolute monarchs who made no concessions to modern thought.

Within these somewhat narrow limits, the work of the Western Powers proved fruitful, especially until 1947. The frontiers drawn by the West have been respected; goods crossing them have been subjected to protective tariffs; and each nation has strictly and proudly enforced the laws governing foreign activities and the sanitary and quarantine regulations. Each country has built up its own ports and railroads, Syria going so far as to use Latakia rather than depend on the Lebanese port of Beirut. Modern administrations run by correctly trained officials have provided the advantages of modern administrative techniques.

In addition, the assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities has been undertaken, not without occasional clashes, especially in Iraq and Syria, but on the whole more easily and with more continuity than had been expected. In the last few months, when it was proposed that the Syrian constitution make Islam the state religion, the heads of the various other churches addressed a joint protest to the authorities, something which Moslem public opinion would never have permitted 40 years ago. Little by little the tribes themselves are weakening, except in the region of the steppes where the Bedouin shepherds still engage in bloody struggles, without, however, menacing the central authority of the state.

But it is in the realm of jurisprudence that the greatest progress is being made. Western attitudes are gradually permeating legislation, though not without opposition, judging by the present conflict in Lebanon where the lawyers find themselves in opposition both to the Christian canonists and the orthodox Moslem jurists. Of major importance has been the influence exerted by the best Egyptian legal minds--among them the dean of the bar, Sanhoury--who for years have been accustomed to the Mixed Courts where Western codes are applied, and who have been influential in introducing modern ideas into the codes of Iraq, Syria and Jordan. This slow evolution has not yet accomplished as much in the Arab countries as Kemal Atatürk achieved in Turkey by introducing the Swiss code of law. But the current of ideas, even though less powerful, has nevertheless been gradually drawing these new countries in the same direction--that is, toward the West.

Finally, great efforts have been made in intellectual fields. Education in primary, secondary and higher schools has been pushed resolutely ahead in each of the modern countries, though at the expense of religious and traditional education. In the absence of a native literature, a modern Arabic press has arisen and is gaining increasing numbers of readers in each country. The national economies have also progressed. Each endeavors to satisfy its own ends, keep its trade in balance and maintain the stability of its currency.

The psychological results of these sustained efforts are evident. Signs of vigorous patriotism have appeared inside frontiers which at the start were considered artificial. Although there is a longing for union, each government pursues its own domestic policies and defends them against any sign of intrigue by its neighbors. These successes--however limited--do credit to both East and West and prove that the national idea has taken firm root.


To this optimistic picture some shadows must be added. And unfortunately it must be said that in recent years they not only have darkened but sometimes have obscured the new national characteristics.

From 1910 to 1935, the evolution of the Middle East states benefited from the methodical activities of a modern governing class trained in schools and universities under French, American and British influence. They supplied a framework of men with liberal ideas for government. Inspired by Western humanism, even though not daring specifically to deny the ancient traditions, they made the states ready for modernization. But about 1935, as the Italian and German dictatorial régimes developed, a great change took place. The student youth rapidly abandoned liberal principles and began modelling itself on the Fascist organizations which were rallying the new European generations to belief in naked force. Suddenly--in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Egypt--there sprang up paramilitary youth organizations, with different-colored shirts and gaudy emblems, which placed their battalions, some disciplined, some anarchical, at the service of the politicians. At the same time the universities (especially in Egypt) became hotbeds of agitation. Learning was at a discount, replaced by patriotic zeal. Degrees were still awarded, however, to this enthusiastic but badly educated youth in the same lavish manner as before. The public service--indeed the national life itself--was soon affected by this decadence, with consequences which cannot be overestimated in these troublous times.

The truth is, of course, that the machinery of modern economic progress by its very nature benefits first of all the rich classes, which in any event profit from government favors. In Egypt, Iraq and Syria, where there are great rural estates, social inequalities increased because the rapid growth of the poverty-stricken population deferred improvements in the standard of living. The city proletariat, increasing in numbers and in misery, quickly became an element of economic, social and soon political instability. The resulting menace is aggravated by the fact that under modern constitutions this wretched populace is expected to participate in political life.

Alongside these developments another must also be mentioned: the weakness which has overtaken the Moslem brotherhoods as a result of puritan and bourgeois reformism. Formerly these mystical fraternities had held the common people in a tight hierarchical organization, making them resigned and submissive to traditional Islamic values. But when faith is still strong and active in an ignorant and neglected people, religious sentiment can become, in a crisis of misery, uncontrollably explosive. A Moslem Caliban arises, screaming hate for the rich and the foreign; he fires palaces, hotels, night clubs and cinemas, while the radio endlessly repeats the suras of the Koran exhorting the faithful to a Holy War.

Such a popular rising is the result of a deep social cleavage. The first generations trained by the West had gradually turned from religious studies and traditional devotional practices, and thereby found themselves isolated from the common people; whereas the new youth, turbulent, less well educated, and anxious to seize power, went, unlike its elders, directly to the suffering plebs. It spoke to them in the only language which can successfully unite and direct them, the language which evokes the idealized glory of the Islam of the past. Simple and austere slogans, religious and anti-foreign, aroused the people to rid themselves of Western influences and restore by force the divine law and the faith which are so dear to the hearts of humble believers. Modern civilization became synonymous with corruption and depravity.

The popular religious and anti-foreign movement of the Ikhwan Muslimin appeared in Egypt in 1930, with the immense success that we all know. On the eve of the war with Palestine this new religious and political sect had under its control more than a million Egyptians, and it continues to increase its power in Palestine and even in Syria, where it claims to exercise a decisive voice in the elections. In Iran the Fedayn el Islam was organized on the same basis, and now it controls the Majlis by its threats. Terrorism has taken the place of political activity; and assassination has become a method of government, so much so that in three years a dozen statesmen of the older generation have paid with their lives for their courage and independent spirit.

Inevitably, under such conditions, the survival of democratic institutions in all these countries became increasingly threatened. Parties formerly animated by a liberal spirit, like the Egyptian Wafd, were forced to come to terms with the new popular trends; they yielded increasingly to demagogical pressures and began to use them instead of controlling them. The ignorant and emotional masses exerted strong influence in both foreign and domestic affairs. The result has been a series of military coups d'état, which appeared as early as 1936 in Iraq and have been frequent in Syria. The army steps forward as the umpire, the only agency capable of reëstablishing order in Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo. Salvation seems to lie only in the formation of strong governments, and the legendary figure of Kemal Atatürk of Anatolia shines as a desirable model. Happy the people lucky enough to have as its leader a good tyrant!

The Palestine crisis of 1947 further contributed to the internal disorder of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, while simultaneously stimulating an irresistible movement toward Islamic solidarity across national frontiers. Jews who had been inhabitants of the Arab states, often for dozens of centuries, were summarily expelled toward Israel. The Christians themselves felt their status affected momentarily. Thus at fundamental points the modern concept of the state received a series of setbacks.


We spoke above of the beginnings of the pan-Arab movement early in the present century. Highly divergent ideas joined to form it--national romanticism, inspired by the examples of German and Italian unity; literary reminiscences of the great Arab empires of the Middle Ages; and confused Islamic longings, favorable to the restoration of an Oumma in political form. Synthesis of the doctrine was gradual, and is still best expressed in the strange and almost prophetic manifesto of Abd el-Rahman published in 1932, so sympathetic to the oriental mind that it was memorized in the schools. From there on, the pan-Arabism with which the young were indoctrinated became a political force. In Iraq, King Feisal tried to turn it to his own advantage; later the Syrian leaders spread the doctrine; and finally in 1943 the Egyptian politicians sought to bring it under their control through the complicated transactions which culminated in the formation of the Arab League. Everyone wished to appropriate the new force. Even England thought to direct its development.

The impossibility of coöperation of the Arab states in practical terms, and more especially the disaster in Palestine, are gradually destroying the elaborate political machinery which, it had been dreamt, would extend the operations of the League to Libya and all of North Africa, and even down the coasts of the Atlantic to Mauritania. These various ambitions, agitations and resulting intrigues have had a serious effect on the solidarity of the nations concerned. Certain political leaders cautiously sought to realize the greater unity by first extending their own frontiers, with the result that other states, Syria and Lebanon for instance, found their own existence threatened. They reacted violently. The effort at unification became itself a source of discord. Meanwhile the foreign propaganda of the proponents of unity fanned false hopes in the breasts of Arab patriots in the towns and cities of North Africa and made more difficult the thorny problem of racial symbiosis arising from the presence of 2,500,000 Christians and Jews among 20,000,000 Arab-Berber Moslems.

Political assassination and the secret activity of fanatical sects are a specialty of the political life of the Moslem Orient, due, doubtless, both to the existence and diversity of the ethnic and religious groups and to their concealed existence. In contrast, the Maghreb, both simpler and more unified, had been generally spared this plague since the time of the Arab Empire, when the Eastern sects had set out to conquer it. The Second World War reawoke the inclinations toward violence everywhere in the regions. The examples of the Irgun and of the Stern gang, of the European resistance and of Communist group activities, incited the organization of terrorist movements divided into cells and operated by secret and remote control. They professed pan-Arab nationalism or fanatic Moslem aims. But organizations thus constituted rarely remain true to the aims of their founders. The law of secrecy has its weaknesses, among them that it allows skillful infiltration. Various foreign elements insinuated themselves into the very core of these activist groups, either to further certain objectives or to appropriate the sect's formidable destructive power. Such movements know no frontiers. Their instruments are assassination and riot, and they can inflict wounds on the governments of the states where they operate which, as one sees in Iran, risk becoming mortal.

In the last few years, significantly, efforts have been made to establish these oriental methods even in the Maghreb under the guidance of political leaders who are established in Cairo or have taken refuge there. In Tunisia, the "Black Hand of Neo-Destour" renewed in 1952 the efforts which it made in 1940 when it was financed with German and Italian money; in Algiers demonstrations have been staged by the Algerian Popular Party; Tangiers, where there have been riots, was favored by a secret visit of the Algerian Foudil el Curtilani, one of the chiefs of the Ikhwan and the assassin of the King of the Yemen. Recent inspired troubles in the Middle Atlas and at Safi reflect the same techniques. In all of this rioting, sabotage and assassination the activities of nationalist extremists, fanatic Moslems and Communists are so mingled that it is impossible to disentangle one from the other. It is a fact, however, that the Communist papers destined for North African Moslems carry a discreet propaganda favorable to the Ikhwan Muslimin, and apparently the tactical alliance of Moslem terrorism and Communism is virtually accomplished.


The failure of the Arab League crushed many hopes in the minds of the young élite and in the simple hearts of the masses. Any experienced politician in the Orient knows he must soothe the mob by conjuring up consoling visions. Indeed, a recognized habit of the Arab mind is to evade the harsh realities of the present by retreat into dreams of past and future glories. The man of the desert, weary of the sight of stony steppes, looks in the clouds for the golden mirage of the "City of Bronze."

We have seen in the last two years how everything has tended to foster the concept of a union even more comprehensive and close-knit than that of pan-Arabism--a union of the peoples and governments of the whole world of Islam. The popular effervescence aroused by religious slogans and the solidarity shown in face of the Israeli peril had already laid the groundwork for a spiritual union. Pakistan seized on the opportunity thus offered. This young Moslem country, powerful in size but still organically frail, threatened by its Hindu neighbor India, saw that it might strengthen itself by offering to serve as an organizing center for the new pan-Islamism. Three congresses were held in Karachi, in February 1949, 1951 and 1952.

Here once again, as in the case of pan-Arabism, men of divergent attitudes found themselves coöperating. Those who had taken the initiative in the project were perhaps the most up-to-date and open-minded men in the Moslem world today. They were disciples of Sir Mohammed Iqbal, trained in modern methods by British instructors, but still completely devoted to the Holy Book and deeply respectful of the Sunna, the prophetic tradition of the first century. It was their dream to reject the patient work of the orthodox jurists of earlier eras, now held responsible for the stagnation of Islam. Such a revolution, they thought, would permit the creation of genuine modern states. One cannot help sympathizing with them, even though the basis of their reform seems very narrow. But in the Karachi congresses they were surrounded by their insatiable opponents, the orthodox jurists who even in Pakistan refused to accept a modern constitution and who were supported by their colleagues from Egypt and the Maghreb. With these in spirit were the politicians, the heroes of the holy war--an Abd el-Krim who was to reveal himself in a jihad of the accepted type in the Rif, or an Amin el-Husseini, implacable enemy of the Jews and of England. Even more numerous were the unemployed fighters for pan-Arabism, the leaders of the mob, the terrorist organizers. In such circumstances the character of the new government seems settled. In spite of the skill and moderation of its organizers, among them the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, two resolutions were adopted at the most recent congress--one demanding the expulsion of Western cultural missions established in Islamic countries, the other suggesting that a new concept be defined, that of "Moslem nationality," to be granted all the faithful regardless of race or continent.

Two ideological tendencies, in political terms, met in conflict in these congresses. One--Western, moderate, constructive-- aimed to unite the states of Outer Asia in a sort of political alliance, free from the weaknesses of pan-Arabism, in much the same spirit as permeated the pact of Saadabad. The other and stronger trend, favored by the orthodox doctors of Moslem law and by the popular leaders, doubtless with the muddled support of the masses, was toward resuming the aims of pan-Arabism and extending them to Asia. It favored "neutralism" and the principle of the "third force" which have furnished such popular themes for politicians and journalists in the East in the last three years. It deliberately made no choice, among the contending world imperialisms, which are characterized in Moslem eyes-- with the exception of a small thoroughly Westernized élite-- simply by their immense material power. Dimly aware of their permanent inability to compete with our civilization on the modern technical level, the faithful of Islam comfort themselves with a belief in their immense spiritual power and religious superiority. Having secured the political liberation of the Moslem nations in the name of modern theories, they hope to be in a position to free themselves one by one from their heavy military, economic and cultural obligations to the West. But that still would be only the first stage in a reorganization along even more ambitious lines. At once a powerful alliance of peoples and governments would be formed, constituting an exclusive and closed sphere which could lead a life of its own in renewed awareness of the eternal mission of Islam on its borders.


This last prospect is so close to the spirit of the peoples of Africa and Asia now awakening to political life that it cannot fail to exert a profound influence on them; and if circumstances are favorable it may well become a reality. There already has emerged in the Far East the shape of a yellow world closed to the white man--or at least to the white man of the West--along the lines of the "co-prosperity sphere" formerly sponsored by Japan. We may also perceive the outlines of an Indian continent enclosed with its private metaphysical dream. Also a part of this new political map of the world, and also isolated from us, would be the reconstructed Islamic community. Later still, and likewise beyond our influence, would be formed the great racial union of the black world. The conclusion is inevitable that the San Francisco Charter and the new international institutions which it created are threatened by this prospective division of the world along ethnic and religious lines.

Nor is this the only contingency to be considered. Quite possibly after the world of Islam had freed itself from the West it might not find the internal resources needed to mobilize its strength and live safely in a dangerous world. The great adversary of the free nations might succeed in making a hypocritical alliance with a powerless Islam, and might transform Outer Asia and white Africa--while waiting for black Africa--into an area of chronic disorder.

Optimists will perhaps feel that this analysis shows too little faith in Islam's ability to play its rôle in a modern civilization. If so, it is because the regeneration of Islam, so earnestly desired by all who have faith in spiritual values, seems to us still hypothetical. Though Islamic society is gradually adopting Western techniques in the fields of economics and state organization, it clings too closely to mediaeval forms of thought and religion to be able to resume its forward journey; and a civilization makes solid progress only as its various forms of life perfect themselves simultaneously. Although a Christian must speak cautiously on this point, he is entitled to believe that a genuine regeneration of Islam presupposes a new evaluation of the Koran. This is impossible so long as the Holy Book remains buried like a precious diamond deep in the ancient and obscure language of the Sunna, the prophetic tradition. It will have to be freed. Is this not precisely the evolution known to Christianity since the sixteenth century, and accepted today, which has gradually brought about a distinction between the eternal words of revelation and the casual accretions which, as in all religions, bear the mark of the successive periods during which man received the divine message?

Are we to despair, then, of the future of the states in Islam? The experience of the last 30 years does not authorize so severe a judgment. Nevertheless the persistence of ancient forces, the slow rate of social and religious evolution, the impediments to the creation of modern states still nourished by the old tribal traditions in the more archaic regions of Afghanistan, Arabia, the Sudan and North Africa, the intoxication of racial and religious solidarity which so often ruins modest and limited forward steps made day by day--all this gives clear warning that the work fostered by the West can be achieved only in slow stages. What has happened recently in Egypt is proof that when the work is pushed too rapidly and ambitiously the whole structure can collapse. Cement must be allowed time to set before it will hold the stones firmly. Today more than ever before, the European and American peoples--great builders of modern nations on this earth--must be ready with wise advice and discerning support if free human communities are to be raised up in the world of Islam. Let us not be caught in oriental mirages. Let us remain resolutely devoted to our task of building true nations where Moslems, Christians and Jews can and will live in harmony.

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  • ROBERT MONTAGNE, Director of the Center for Advanced Moslem Studies, University of Paris; Professor at the Collège de France; formerly Director of the French Institute at Damascus and Professor at the Institute for Advanced Moroccan Studies
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