The Bleeding Heart of Islam

The Wall Street Journal June 20, 2006

Picture a map of Muslim lands, circa 1993. In the Balkans, Orthodox Serbs were at war with Bosnian Muslims. In Sudan, the Islamist government in Khartoum was waging a campaign of murder and enslavement against the Christian south. Israel was fighting Hezbollah in southern Lebanon even as it signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians — one that would, in time, literally explode in its face. In the Caucasus, Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians were battling over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, while 200 miles north Muslim Chechnya had declared independence and was about to be invaded by Russia. Further east, India and Pakistan were lobbing artillery shells across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Picture that map today. The violence at the periphery of Islam has, for various reasons, faded. But the antagonisms at its center have grown.

Look at Palestine, where the ostensibly secular Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas and the fundamentalist Hamas of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh may be in the early stages of civil war. Look at Darfur, where Arab Muslims are slaughtering African Muslims. The dynasts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are being forced to confront the terrorism of al Qaeda. In Egypt, liberals oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood opposes the government, and the government suppresses them both. In Iran, the youth confront the clerical establishment. Pro-independence factions in Lebanon are struggling to survive a campaign of assassination and terror by Syria. The bloody heart of it all, of course, is Iraq.

Amid routine slaughter in Baghdad and Darfur, nobody would call the present state of affairs good. But it is an improvement over the previous state, not only because a clash within one civilization is better than a clash among several, but because Islamic civilization has long been in need of a reformation. That’s what’s happening today in one Muslim state after another: The struggle for power has become a contest of ideas (and vice versa), with fateful consequences and, sometimes, good results.

Take Saudi Arabia. Before Sept. 11, says Hawazen Nassief, a Saudi journalist at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, “the Saudi government lived in denial and refused to acknowledge that its blind support for strict Wahhabi religious institutions and preachers was breeding extremism, intolerance and violence.” The denial persisted even after the disclosure that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

What changed? Ms. Nassief points to the succession of al Qaeda attacks, beginning in May 2003, on residential complexes, government offices, oil facilities and foreigners. “It was a slap on the face,” she says. “There was no international player to blame for this deviancy except the political, social, economic and religious climate of the kingdom. The shattering of the viable image of the kingdom led the government to allow critical voices that were previously pushed underground. . . . The minute the government loosened its restrictions, people flooded the media with criticism of the status quo.”

A similar dynamic took hold elsewhere in the Arab world as the phenomenon of suicide bombing — widely admired when the victims were Israeli or American — boomeranged on Muslims. After Sept. 11, Jordanian newspapers were filled with speculation that the deed could not have been the work of Muslims and must have been orchestrated by Zionists, Christian evangelicals, the Bush administration or some combination thereof. But the delusion and the pretense came abruptly to an end after suicide bombers murdered 63 Muslims at three hotels in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 9, 2005. The Amman bombings, Salafist cleric Abu Basir al-Tartusi wrote in a Web posting translated by Memri, “cannot be considered Islamic,” adding that “he who approves of a sin is like he who committed it.”

At an off-the-record session last month of young Arab leaders at the World Economic Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the sense of exhaustion with the way things are was palpable. A young Saudi on his social life: “I can’t go anywhere. Malls are strictly for families. It’s horrible.” A Gulf State participant on her upbringing: “Teachers don’t encourage disagreement. We are not raised to choose. We don’t have a culture of accepting the other.” An Egyptian on Arab political life: “‘Deviant’ ideas are dangerous. Young people are suspect. Leaders are inaccessible.”

Not that the participants there — upper class, fluent in English, many of them educated in the West — were especially representative of their societies. But what struck an outsider was the extent to which the nature of elite conversation had changed. The Arab intelligentsia’s stale litany of complaint against imperial America, perfidious Zion, the legacy of colonialism and so on — what Bernard Lewis described as the habit of asking, “who did this to us?” — is giving way to a new mentality. Now the question is: “What did we do wrong?”

It’s in this context that an event such as January’s protests over the Danish cartoons is best understood. The (mostly orchestrated) demonstrations were, above all, an attempt by Islamists and autocrats to remind Muslims that their principal grievances were external, not domestic. They sought to impress Western audiences with the intensity of Muslim rage while silencing domestic critics who didn’t share that passion. Burning down Scandinavian embassies, however, does not contented Muslims make. Six months after l’affaire Muhammad, the offending cartoons have faded from memory, whereas the reality of domestic misrule remains.

There is a perception in the West — general in Europe but strong also in the U.S. — that the Reformation of Islam awaits the resolution of a centuries-long Hegelian dialectic. The world moves faster than that. Through wireless connections and satellite dishes, the outside world is filtering into the Middle East, mostly uncensored by regimes or imams. Not everyone likes it, but many do, and the difference between them not only bloodies the Middle East, but also, increasingly, offers it hope.