Ramadan Meditations. The Lost Unity and the Absent Jihad

Ramadan Meditations. The Lost Unity and the Absent Jihad

As the holy month of Ramadan comes round each year, the wheel of memory and reminders returns in the Islamic world, what was said last year is repeated, and the Islamic world activates all its religious, artistic and gastronomic machinery to receive this month. How is it received?

The most important meal in the month of Ramadan, of course, is the episodes of the serials that the television stations prepare, as well as the food that is provided, most of which is in excess of a person s nutritional needs. Money is wasted importing luxuries, which are used to make sweets of all kinds. And more animals are slaughtered to fill the stomachs of people fasting, who spend most of the days when they fast sleeping, relaxing and being lazy. In the midst of this confusion of food and advertising and media programs and this huge quantity of serials which are repeated and their subject matter regurgitated, 1,500 million Muslims on the face of the Earth forget the great meanings, values and principles which Islam brought, in Ramadan during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, may God bless him and give him peace.

Ramadan is not only a month for fasting, but also the wisdom of fasting must be appropriate to the rituals of the Muslims in Ramadan, in behavior, in eating and drinking. Ramadan is a month which God chose to be the beginning of the emergence of the Islamic religion, the religion of unity in its comprehensive sense, beginning with the unity of God, and ending with the unity of humanity on Earth, a unity of solidarity and the removal of division between them. God created human beings as different peoples and tribes so that they might come to know each other, exchange benefits and reject the factors of division and hostility between them.

Fasting is therefore a part and a cornerstone of the monotheistic religion of unification. It is a precept, a lesson and an example. In the month of Ramadan the Muslims fought for monotheism and the unity of mankind, and fasting was not an excuse for weakness, laziness and sleep. Fasting was a training school for human beings in the jihad (struggle) against themselves and the struggle against corruption, because corruption of individuals is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to any people. The mujahid (person who struggles) against his baser self that incites him to do evil is the person who acts according to the ethics of religion: the struggle against theft of the people s wealth, the struggle against fanaticism of family, tribe and clan at the expense of the interest of the people, who are the collectivity of the Muslims; struggle against those who attack the land and property, struggle for the sake of the rights and liberty of others, in defense of them and to protect them to be equal in Islam.

I wanted, with this editorial which coincides with the beginning of Ramadan, to remind us of our situation in the world of Islam today, particularly of those of us who are Arabs. They are the people to whom Muhammad s message came, and God chose them to bear it in their language and the heritage of their civilization, so that they could be witnesses for people. But people became witnesses against them when they became lax and backward and abandoned originality, inventiveness and creativity, content to retreat into traditionalism and abandon themselves to mourning the past and holding it responsible for things for which it is not responsible. They imagined that with this they had done their duty, and it was enough. They left the command of the ship of human progress to other, non-Muslim peoples, who in the past had drunk from the knowledge that the Muslims had brought. These took command of the ship of science and scientific research, reconnected the Muslims rope which had been cut, and took the world of humanity to a dazzling, new civilization.

Meanwhile, we are living in an age of darkness, and some of us reject modern science, its laws, the ideas of its scientists and the inventions of its geniuses, while the world around us is racing to keep up with this age and its achievements. We look away, even close our eyes and dream of an age that will not come back and of a civilization that existed, ended and become part of the history of the time-honored past. Time is grinding us up, the wheels of rapid development are crushing us, and we are clinging to illusions and building up fantasies that hover in the past and never imagine what is in the future.

These ideas leapt into my mind as I finished reading a book by the famous orientalist Bernard Lewis, and I found that I was asking myself one question: has our Arab and Islamic world come to live on the edge of a knife? Yes, I believe so. The world is pointing fingers at the Arabs and Muslims, accusing them of creating fanaticism and producing extremism against others. Not contenting themselves with these accusations, they are working to refashion our whole lives.

Our Arab land has become completely weak, and tempting to researchers, adventurers and so-called centers of orientalist studies to lay down all their conceptions on how to redesign the whole of our lives as human beings and as a culture, and draw maps to reshape our countries and political systems. Are we on the verge of a return to the age of Western partition of our world after the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and the establishment of states by English, French or Italian decrees?

The question which must wake us up from our slumber and keep us sleepless for a long time is, who has placed the knife above the neck of our Arab world and brought it close to its skin in order to slaughter it?

Is it Israel which does not like the Arab map, regards it as too large for its inhabitants and only wants to redraw it as is convenient for its present and future interests? Or is it the interests of the great powers which see in our situation today and the reality of contemporary development their opportunity to grab us by our throats and control the future of our wealth, because in the view of these powers we are unable to dispose of our wealth properly and a custodian must be placed over it.

Or is it our situation as Arabs and Muslims, and the situation of our Arab system which is incapable of seeing the great changes in inventions, in the laws of economics and trade in the world, the transformations in the systems of government and the relationships between ruler and subjects, in this population explosion in the world, the subsequent massive development in what is called human rights , the collapse of borders separating and insulating states and peoples. I do not exaggerate when I say that we are on the verge of forming a world government, for which the British philosopher the late Bertrand Russell called as a solution, at the time, to end the conflict between nations and rid ourselves of destructive wars. Every nation has interests for which it strives with other nations. It is this principle which makes human history in its peace and its wars. The lesson of this long history, with all its harshness, teaches us that it is the weak who leave the vacuum which another inevitably fills. The other is always strong and capable. Therefore, before we direct the arrows of our anger at this other, we must remember that this has happened because of our weakness.

There is a torrential flood of partition plans and future projects which the West is preparing in order to deal with our Arab world in the 21st century. The words of the international playwright Berthold Brecht seem to be applicable here, Since the situation has become what it is, the situation cannot continue as it is. That is, it has become clear that matters in the Arab world have reached a degree of calamity that one can no longer remain silent about it in the view of these Western observers and strategic analysts indeed efforts must be made to change them by whatever means.

I do not see any evidence that this effort is only for the sake of change, to restructure our states and societies so that they will be transformed into transparent democratic societies free of financial, administrative and political corruption and ruled by the laws of human rights as is imagined by some naïve people who write on the pages of Arab newspapers here and there. This effort for change will take place in order to strengthen the values and influence of the West, and to shape our political and economic situation and our cultural life in conformity with its interests, aims and ideas which it has been trying for years to promote in the world.

This is what was expressed by the report published by the Rand Corporation in the United States of America on the best strategic options for dealing with the Middle East, when it stated that the strike against Iraq is a tactical target, whereas Saudi Arabia is the strategic target and Egypt is the major prize. From these three states came all the appeals opposed to the West, and from them came most of the members of Al-Qaida, and so the regimes in them must be changed into liberal democratic regimes which love the West.

What happened on 11 September in the United States increases the stridency of these voices. Some two months have now passed since the first anniversary of this grave event, and the months of the past year have proved that it is an event not subject to the passage of time. It is more like a snowball which gets bigger the more it rolls forward. It was a reason which turned the Arabs and the Muslims in the view of the West in general, and America in particularly, from a probable enemy into an actual enemy .

Yet it is hard to say that predictions about the Middle East and its future are simply the result of this massive event of 11 September alone. They are old, and are fed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and their heat is increased by the fires of Zionist propaganda in the world, which wants to remind people of Israel s superiority, progress and democracy in the midst of a backward Arab world incapable of directing its own affairs itself.

Thus all these predictions and probable conceptions are intended to give pride of place to Israel and this is what is happening today before our eyes and to the probable role that will be allotted to it to carry out in determining the future of the Middle East.

I return to the book by the British orientalist who emigrated to America, entitled Predictions: the Future of the Middle East, published in London in 1997, with its first Arabic edition in 2000. In these five years since the publication of this book, momentous events have taken place in our Arab and Islamic world and in the world. Nevertheless, many of the hypotheses of this book still exist. And maybe some of the events that have taken place point the way for those prophecies ! Although the author is regarded as one of the greatest and most famous foreign contemporary historians on the history of Islam, which is his academic specialization, these predictions do not go beyond a report of what exists and proposals based on this existence which can be carried out with a push from the powers that be, which probably instructed the writer to put them forward.

Throughout his history as a researcher and an academic, Bernard Lewis has dug around in the back alleys of Islamic history and spotlighted marginal forces in Arab and Islamic history, and given them prominence as if they were the effective and influential forces in the course of that history. He has written researches and books about the Assassins movement, rebellious movements and violent intellectual revolts, about ethnic and ideological groups which did not adhere to the content and culture of Islam. He has focused on the Jews in Islamic society to give them prominence as contributors to Islamic civilization, because he is a follower of Judaism, and because of his infatuation with the Hebrew state in Palestine and his desperate defense of it as a state which he sees as a savior for the states of the Middle East!

In spite of that, Bernard Lewis remains an historian with a considerable degree of importance and a reference for many political and security establishments in the West, particularly those that deal with the Arab and Islamic world. Although he is of English origin and worked as a Professor of History at London University for many years, he went to the United States in response to the many enticements which American universities offer. He was one of the brightest historians who found a distinguished place in Princeton University, which is one of the ten golden universities in the United States. He has held the position of Professor of Near East History.

Perhaps the most important of Bernard Lewis experiences in attempting to research on historical roots in reality is his experience in Turkey. He went to that Islamic country impelled by his Jewish faith to research into Ottoman documents on Jewish ownership of some lands in Palestine, in the hope that he could confirm any kind of historic rights for them, after archaeological excavations carried out in the land of Palestine had failed to establish that. This experience affected him greatly. He paid great attention to Kemal Ataturk s experiment of transforming Turkey from the dynasty of the Otttoman Caliphate into a secular state, and regarded it as we shall see from this booklet as the model Islamic state for Middle Eastern countries, and the strongest candidate with Israel of course to modernize this region and establish democracy in it.

This view of Bernard Lewis was repeated recently also by US Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who regarded Turkey as a model for an Islamic state which must be imitated by the other states of the Islamic world.

Arranging Events

In his book Bernard Lewis rearranges the events of history according to his view of the Middle East. He considers that the modern history of the Middle East began at the end of the 18th century, with the arrival of the French campaign in Egypt. Nevertheless, the emergence of the Arab and Muslim East in the sense that Europe knows it began with the Crusades. However, Bernard Lewis wants to depend on Napoleon s invasion in order to affirm that a minor Western campaign like the French one was able to seize a great Arab country like Egypt easily. When the French campaign was compelled to leave this was due to another Western campaign led by the English. That is, the leadership of this region, since the end of the 18th century, has always been subject to other forces from outside it. This situation still continues to this day, in the view of the author.

The real problem of the regimes in the region today as the author alleges is the absence of the colonialist forces which used to direct their destiny. That is, the regimes are shouldering their responsibility for the first time. Therefore it is difficult for them to agree to give up a long period of time in which they depended on others. The result is that the east of the Arab world is still begging, requesting and insisting on the intervention of foreign forces in all of their questions.

Here he cites the Palestinian question as an example of how the Arabs do not want to bear their responsibility and cast it onto America s shoulders, for it to solve the problem.

Bernard Lewis believes that, when the French campaign occurred, there were only two independent states in the region, Turkey and Iran. Changes occurred in opposite directions in each one of them. Turkey, which turned its back on the Arab world and its old Ottoman history, came to stand at the gates of democracy in its Western sense. But Iran, which has carried out the greatest religious modern revolution, came under the so-called fundamentalist tide. These are the two currents which rule the whole climate of movement in the Arab world, the current of liberal democracy and the current of Islamic so-called fundamentalism .

He considers that, with regard to the first current liberal democracy his language is strange and incomprehensible for many people. Indeed, it has become distorted thanks to some Arab regimes which have used it out of context. Islamism uses a language that is widespread and understood. In a time of economic crises and political persecution, the Islamist method becomes the refuge of everyone who feels oppressed and deprived.

Lewis directs sharp criticisms at states which exist on an Islamic religious basis. He says that the government in Iran is no less corrupt than the regime which it replaced, and that the repression which the Mullahs apply is more widespread. What alleviates the matter there is the existence of money and oil revenues. But the situation is different in Sudan which is suffering from civil wars because of religious rule for several years without finding a mitigating factor in money. In this context Bernard Lewis does not mention Israel as a religious and at the same time a racist state, nor does he criticize its use of religion to seize land from its original owners and suppress and kill Palestinians without mercy on the pretext that they are Gentiles who do not deserve any kind of humane treatment. In Israel the illusion of a legend is mingled with the necessity of force, and from this a racist entity is made such as has never existed in human history. But does Bernard Lewis see that?

Predictions and Fears

Bernard Lewis wrote the pages of this book following the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising), which he admits that Israel lost, in moral terms at least. In spite of that, he relies on the peace process continuing although it is faltering, and parallel to it on the influence of some courageous poets, playwrights, philosophers and scientists who are brave enough to seek dialogue and an end to the conflict.

However, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only factor for war in the region. He believes that Syria may carry out a clumsy act to liberate the Golan plateau, as if any attack to recover occupied territory is necessarily a clumsy act. He also raises the bogey of Saddam Hussein, who might carry out a military action and attack Jordan, maybe because it is the third neighbor, which Saddam has not yet attacked. Or maybe he will return to the scene of his old crime and attack Kuwait again.

Bernard Lewis focuses a great deal on regional and border disputes in the Arab world, and considers that they are more violent and could last a long time. There are Iranian ambitions in the Arabian Gulf region, and it is possible to revive the disagreements between Egypt and Sudan, indeed border disagreements might arise between Egypt and Libya also. He also focuses on civil wars inside Arab countries themselves. The Lebanese civil war is the most striking example of these wars. It lasted a long time and caused the fragmentation of the state into a mixture of tribes, areas and sects. This is something that can happen in several Arab countries. He also asserts that the total of victims of the civil war in Sudan is five times the number of all those killed in Arab-Israeli wars put together. But everyone looks at Sudan without concern as he claims because it does not contain oil, Jews or holy places.

Here Lewis indicates clearly that there are strong elements which, if they were used properly, would help to redraw the map of the Middle East and restore power to Turkey once again to control the reins of power in the Arab countries and co-operate with Israel.

Even oil itself is not safe from the prophecies of Bernard Lewis. He believes that the oil-producing countries will face two crises, the first of them resulting from the depletion of oil, and the second because a new material will replace it. While the Arab countries contain energy sources which still have not been exploited, he considers that Iran is in an unenviable situation , because in the early decades of this century it will find itself deprived of its main resource. But the question which is more important than oil is of course the problem of water, which directly affects all the states of the region. For all the sources of the rivers on which it depends are not under their control, and this problem will be aggravated because there is population growth and increasing demand for food. The Arab countries (in 1997) imported $40 million worth of food per day to feed their populations. There do not appear to be great investments which will be poured into the region to change this situation. Hence the Arab world s dependence on outside sources to supply its food will increase.

The Magic Prescription

But what is to be done? Can the Middle East be transformed into a positive force capable of catching up with the modern world? Can we catch up with countries which have raced ahead of us on the road of modernization, like the Asian tigers and others? Bernard Lewis says that there are three pillars which can help transform the Middle East towards modernization, namely Turkey, Israel and women! The latter element is of particular importance, as if women were allowed to, they would have played a major role in bringing the Middle East into a new age of material development and social progress, since they have a direct interest I n this liberation. The first pillar of modernization is Turkey in which Bernard Lewis as we have seen has absolute faith. He sees in it a state that rejects its cultural and religious history. It is one of the strong guarantees for the survival of Israel in the Middle East, since they both represent democracy in the midst of a world that lacks democracy, and they are linked to the West in the midst of a world which is apprehensive about and hostile to the West. He says that when Napoleon came with his campaign to Egypt in 1798, Turkey was the independent state, ignoring the fact that it was the Islamic Caliphate under whose influence most of the Arab states rallied.

I believe that his bet on Turkey is a bet on the past. He believes that it may choose to turn round and make its way back to the Middle East, to be a follower, not a leader, this time. The Turks have greater political experience, a more developed economy and a more balanced society compared with the Arab countries. So it can create a basic and effective role in Arab options for modernization. In this sense Turkey must return once more to control over the potentials of the Middle East. This means a return to the age of the Caliphate according to a modern conception. Nevertheless Lewis, when speaking about democracy and modernization in Turkey, makes no mention whatever of the domination of the Turkish military over democratic life. He neglects the military councils which meet to overthrow elected governments, dissolve political parties with a majority in parliament, interfere even in the kind and manner of dress for women and girls, and order the closure of Sunni schools, let alone the glaring violation of human rights in Turkey and the prevention of candidates from standing for election. All this is on the pretext that they are contrary to the teachings of Ataturk, who died decades ago.

Israel is the magic prescription which Bernard Lewis believes is necessary to cure all the problems of the Arab world, as if it were not the direct cause of all these problems. If Turkey is a bet on the past, Israel in his view is a bet on the future. It offers solutions in all fields. In the field of agriculture for example Lewis says that in fact important experiments are being carried out on desert and semi desert agriculture in research centers in Israel, and these projects could become an example to be imitated in the whole region. In the field of manpower and the employment of human resources, he claims that if the peace process between Israel and its neighbors continues, the growing Israeli economy could attract Palestinian and maybe other Arab manpower. Progress of the region through Israeli technology, which he sees as indispensable to catch up with Europe thanks to peace and co-operation between the nations of the region, could solve many problems and launch a great process of economic expansion. Israel, because of its technology and its advanced and complex science can offer a basic participation. Regarding Israel as an example of democracy and its role in bringing it to the Arab countries, he unabashedly praises the Israeli authorities for tolerating all kinds of Palestinian protests without suppressing them. He says the Israeli soldiers do not react against Palestinian children who throw stones at them, and the just Israeli courts are fair to Palestinians in spite of all threats. That is what he says, a fake rosy picture of a racist religious state of which all we see is tanks killing children, bulldozers destroying houses and aircraft bombing the inhabitants.

The Need for Change

In the face of this historian and Western writers like him, and in the face of this type of predictions and analyses, one can only wonder why they regard us with such a degree of evil. Or do we not see ourselves truly? Why all these terrifying falsifications and evil plans in dealing with every one of our questions? Or is our crime and our fate in the eyes of the West that we own the largest reserves of petroleum, and there are the sacred landmarks of religions on our territory, and we cannot submit to the Israeli plans? Last year after the September events saw a rise in the star of Bernard Lewis to its zenith, and he would rarely be absent from American television screens. In his talks he would paint a terrifying picture of Islam and Muslims. Hence it is not surprising that we find a hostile and hard-line public opinion against us to this degree. Before us, and before our thinkers, is a difficult task, in which we must not be content with rejecting what is said, but we must work to change it. This change begins by changing ourselves first. Enough lamenting over lost moments of glory, and enough of the conspiracy theories that we sense. There is something wrong in the way in which we are dealing with the world around us, and we must be aware of that. Otherwise we will become vulnerable to all the predictions of Bernard Lewis, and other western thinkers who wield a big stick against the others, being applied against us.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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