Modern Maturity
January | February 2002
by Karen Armstrong

Ghosts of Our Past
To win the war on terrorism, we first need to understand its roots


About a hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, which at that time meant Europe. America was still an unknown quantity. Politicians and journalists in India, Egypt, and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France; philosophers, poets, and even some of the ulama (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic model of the West. They called for a nation state, for representational government, for the disestablishment of religion, and for constitutional rights. Some even claimed that the Europeans were better Muslims than their own fellow countrymen since the Koran teaches that the resources of a society must be shared as fairly as possible, and in the European nations there was beginning to be a more equitable sharing of wealth.

So what happened in the intervening years to transform all of that admiration and respect into the hatred that incited the acts of terror that we witnessed on September 11? It is not only terrorists who feel this anger and resentment, although they do so to an extreme degree. Throughout the Muslim world there is widespread bitterness against America, even among pragmatic and well-educated businessmen and professionals, who may sincerely deplore the recent atrocities, condemn them as evil, and feel sympathy with the victims, but who still resent the way the Western powers have behaved in their countries. This atmosphere is highly conducive to extremism, especially now that potential terrorists have seen the catastrophe that it is possible to inflict using only the simplest of weapons.

Even if President Bush and our allies succeed in eliminating Osama bin Laden and his network, hundreds more terrorists will rise up to take their place unless we in the West address the root cause of this hatred. This task must be an essential part of the war against terrorism.

We cannot understand the present crisis without taking into account the painful process of modernization. In the 16th century, the countries of Western Europe and, later, the American colonies embarked on what historians have called "the Great Western Transformation." Until then, all the great societies were based upon a surplus of agriculture and so were economically vulnerable; they soon found that they had grown beyond their limited resources. The new Western societies, though, were based upon technology and the constant reinvestment of capital. They found that they could reproduce their resources indefinitely, and so could afford to experiment with new ideas and products. In Western cultures today, when a new kind of computer is invented, all the old office equipment is thrown out. In the old agrarian societies, any project that required such frequent change of the basic infrastructure was likely to be shelved. Originality was not encouraged; instead people had to concentrate on preserving what had been achieved.

So while the Great Western Transformation was exciting and gave the people of the West more freedom, it demanded fundamental change at every level: social, political, intellectual, and religious. Not surprisingly, the period of transition was traumatic and violent. As the early modern states became more centralized and efficient, draconian measures were often required to weld hitherto disparate kingdoms together. Some minority groups, such as the Catholics in England and the Jews in Spain, were persecuted or deported. There were acts of genocide, terrible wars of religion, the exploitation of workers in factories, the despoliation of the countryside, and anomie and spiritual malaise in the newly industrialized mega-cities.

Successful modern societies found, by trial and error, that they had to be democratic. The reasons were many. In order to preserve the momentum of the continually expanding economy, more people had to be involved—even in a humble capacity as printers, clerks, or factory workers. To do these jobs, they needed to be educated, and once they became educated, they began to demand political rights. In order to draw upon all of a society's resources, modern countries also found they had to bring outgroups, such as the Jews and women, into the mainstream. Countries like those in Eastern Europe that did not become secular, tolerant, and democratic fell behind. But those that did fulfill these norms, including Britain and France, became so powerful that no agrarian, traditional society, such as those of the Islamic countries, could stand against them.

Today we are witnessing similar upheaval in developing countries, including those in the Islamic world, that are making their own painful journey to modernity. In the Middle East, we see constant political turmoil. There have been revolutions, such as the 1952 coup of the Free Officers in Egypt and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Autocratic rulers predominate in this region because the modernizing process is not yet sufficiently advanced to provide the conditions for a fully developed democracy.

In the West, we have completed the modernizing process and have forgotten what we had to go through, so we do not always understand the difficulty of this transition. We tend to imagine that we have always been in the van of progress, and we see the Islamic countries as inherently backward. We have imagined that they are held back by their religion, and do not realize that what we are actually seeing is an imperfectly modernized society.

The Muslim world has had an especially problematic experience with modernity because its people have had to modernize so rapidly, in 50 years instead of the 300 years that it took the Western world. Nevertheless, this in itself would not have been an insuperable obstacle. Japan, for example, has created its own highly successful version of modernity. But Japan had one huge advantage over most of the Islamic countries: It had never been colonized. In the Muslim world, modernity did not bring freedom and independence; it came in a context of political subjection.

Modern society is of its very nature progressive, and by the 19th century the new economies of Western Europe needed a constantly expanding market for the goods that funded their cultural enterprises. Once the home countries were saturated, new markets were sought abroad. In 1798, Napoleon defeated the Mamelukes, Egypt's military rulers, in the Battle of the Pyramids near Cairo. Between 1830 and 1915, the European powers also occupied Algeria, Aden, Tunisia, the Sudan, Libya, and Morocco—all Muslim countries. These new colonies provided raw materials for export, which were fed into European industry. In return, they received cheap manufactured goods, which naturally destroyed local industry.

This new impotence was extremely disturbing for the Muslim countries. Until this point, Islam had been a religion of success. Within a hundred years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the Muslims ruled an empire that stretched from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees. By the 15th century, Islam was the greatest world power-not dissimilar to the United States today. When Europeans began to explore the rest of the globe at the beginning of the Great Western Transformation, they found an Islamic presence almost everywhere they went: in the Middle East, India, Persia, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. In the 16th century, when Europe was in the early stages of its rise to power, the Ottoman Empire [which ruled Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa] was probably the most powerful state in the world. But once the great powers of Europe had reformed their military, economic, and political structures according to the modern norm, the Islamic countries could put up no effective resistance.

Muslims would not be human if they did not resent being subjugated this way. The colonial powers treated the natives with contempt, and it was not long before Muslims discovered that their new rulers despised their religious traditions. True, the Europeans brought many improvements to their colonies, such as modern medicine, education, and technology, but these were sometimes a mixed blessing.

Thus, the Suez Canal, initiated by the French consul Ferdinand de Lesseps, was a disaster for Egypt, which had to provide all the money, labor, and materials as well as donate 200 square miles of Egyptian territory gratis, and yet the shares of the Canal Company were all held by Europeans. The immense outlay helped to bankrupt Egypt, and this gave Britain a pretext to set up a military occupation there in 1882.

Railways were installed in the colonies, but they rarely benefited the local people. Instead they were designed to further the colonialists' own projects. And the missionary schools often taught the children to despise their own culture, with the result that many felt they belonged neither to the West nor to the Islamic world. One of the most scarring effects of colonialism is the rift that still exists between those who have had a Western education and those who have not and remain perforce stuck in the premodern ethos. To this day, the Westernized elites of these countries and the more traditional classes simply cannot understand one another.

After World War II, Britain and France became secondary powers and the United States became the leader of the Western world. Even though the Islamic countries were no longer colonies but were nominally independent, America still controlled their destinies. During the Cold War, the United States sought allies in the region by supporting unsavory governments and unpopular leaders, largely to protect its oil interests. For example, in 1953, after Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi had been deposed and forced to leave Iran, he was put back on the throne in a coup engineered by British Intelligence and the CIA. The United States continued to support the Shah, even though he denied Iranians human rights that most Americans take for granted.

Saddam Hussein, who became the president of Iraq in 1979, was also a protégé of the United States, which literally allowed him to get away with murder, most notably the chemical attack against the Kurdish population. It was only after the invasion in 1990 of Kuwait, a critical oil-producing state, that Hussein incurred the enmity of America and its allies. Many Muslims resent the way America has continued to support unpopular rulers, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi royal family. Indeed, Osama bin Laden was himself a protégé of the West, which was happy to support and fund his fighters in the struggle for Afghanistan against Soviet Russia. Too often, the Western powers have not considered the long-term consequences of their actions. After the Soviets had pulled out of Afghanistan, for example, no help was forthcoming for the devastated country, whose ensuing chaos made it possible for the Taliban to come to power.

When the United States supports autocratic rulers, its proud assertion of democratic values has at best a hollow ring. What America seemed to be saying to Muslims was: "Yes, we have freedom and democracy, but you have to live under tyrannical governments." The creation of the state of Israel, the chief ally of the United States in the Middle East, has become a symbol of Muslim impotence before the Western powers, which seemed to feel no qualm about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homeland and either went into exile or lived under Israeli occupation. Rightly or wrongly, America's strong support for Israel is seen as proof that as far as the United States is concerned, Muslims are of no importance.

In their frustration, many have turned to Islam. The secularist and nationalist ideologies, which many Muslims had imported from the West, seemed to have failed them, and by the late 1960s Muslims throughout the Islamic world had begun to develop what we call fundamentalist movements.

Fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon and is by no means confined to the Islamic world. During the 20th century, most major religions developed this type of militant piety. Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against the secularist ethos of modernity. Wherever a Western-style society has established itself, a fundamentalist movement has developed alongside it. Fundamentalism is, therefore, a part of the modern scene. Although fundamentalists often claim that they are returning to a golden age of the past, these movements could have taken root in no time other than our own.

Fundamentalists believe that they are under threat. Every fundamentalist movement—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is convinced that modern, secular society is trying to wipe out the true faith and religious values. Fundamentalists believe that they are fighting for survival, and when people feel their backs are to the wall, they often lash out violently. This is especially the case when there is conflict in the region.

The vast majority of fundamentalists do not take part in acts of violence, of course. But those who do utterly distort the faith that they purport to defend. In their fear and anxiety about the encroachments of the secular world, fundamentalists—be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—tend to downplay the compassionate teachings of their scripture and overemphasize the more belligerent passages. In so doing, they often fall into moral nihilism, as is the case of the suicide bomber or hijacker. To kill even one person in the name of God is blasphemy; to massacre thousands of innocent men, women, and children is an obscene perversion of religion itself.

Osama bin Laden subscribes roughly to the fundamentalist vision of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 1966. Qutb developed his militant ideology in the concentration camps in which he, and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were imprisoned by Nasser. After 15 years of torture in these prisons, Qutb became convinced that secularism was a great evil and that it was a Muslim's first duty to overthrow rulers such as Nasser, who paid only lip service to Islam.

Bin Laden's first target was the government of Saudi Arabia; he has also vowed to overthrow the secularist governments of Egypt and Jordan and the Shiite Republic of Iran. Fundamentalism, in every faith, always begins as an intra-religious movement; it is directed at first against one's own countrymen or co-religionists. Only at a later stage do fundamentalists take on a foreign enemy, whom they feel to lie behind the ills of their own people. Thus in 1998 bin Laden issued his fatwa against the United States. But bin Laden holds no official position in the Islamic world; he simply is not entitled to issue such a fatwa, and has, like other fundamentalists, completely distorted the essential teachings of his faith.

The Koran insists that the only just war is one of self-defense, but the terrorists would claim that it is America which is the aggressor. They would point out that during the past year, hundreds of Palestinians have died in the conflict with Israel, America's ally; that Britain and America are still bombing Iraq; and that thousands of Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have died as a result of the American-led sanctions.

None of this, of course, excuses the September atrocities. These were evil actions, and it is essential that all those implicated in any way be brought to justice. But what can we do to prevent a repetition of this tragedy? As the towers of the World Trade Center crumbled, our world changed forever, and that means that we can never see things in the same way again. These events were an "apocalypse," a "revelation"-words that literally mean an "unveiling." They laid bare a reality that we had not seen clearly before. Part of that reality was Muslim rage, but the catastrophe showed us something else as well.

In Britain, until September 11, the main news story was the problem of asylum seekers. Every night, more than 90 refugees from the developing world make desperate attempts to get into Britain. There is now a strong armed presence in England's ports. The United States and other Western countries also have a problem with illegal immigrants. It is almost as though we in the First World have been trying to keep the "other" world at bay. But as the September Apocalypse showed, if we try to ignore the plight of that other world, it will come to us in devastating ways.

So we in the First World must develop a "one world" mentality in the coming years. Americans have often assumed that they were protected by the great oceans surrounding the United States. As a result, they have not always been very well-informed about other parts of the globe. But the September Apocalypse and the events that followed have shown that this isolation has come to an end, and revealed America's terrifying vulnerability. This is deeply frightening, and it will have a profound effect upon the American psyche. But this tragedy could be turned to good, if we in the First World cultivate a new sympathy with other peoples who have experienced a similar helplessness: in Rwanda, in Lebanon, or in Srebrenica.

We cannot leave the fight against terrorism solely to our politicians or to our armies. In Europe and America, ordinary citizens must find out more about the rest of the world. We must make ourselves understand, at a deep level, that it is not only Muslims who resent America and the West; that many people in non-Muslim countries, while not condoning these atrocities, may be dry-eyed about the collapse of those giant towers, which represented a power, wealth, and security to which they could never hope to aspire.

We must find out about foreign ideologies and other religions like Islam. And we must also acquire a full knowledge of our own governments' foreign policies, using our democratic rights to oppose them, should we deem this to be necessary. We have been warned that the war against terror may take years, and so will the development of this "one world" mentality, which could do as much, if not more, than our fighter planes to create a safer and more just world.

Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism and Islam: A Brief History.