01-07-2012 - Traces, n. 7


Can Reality Break Through?
In a conversation on the way out of Islam's intellectual crisis, American analyst ROBERT REILLY, a speaker at the upcoming Rimini Meeting, revisits philosophies born centuries ago to explain the underpinnings of today's charged environment. "What is needed is true philosophy that reflects on experience and reality."


To read Robert Reilly’s work or to speak with him is to take a journey along the intellectual history of the Arab-Muslim world that leads through what he calls “one of the greatest intellectual dramas in human history,” into a brief flourishing of constitutional systems under Western colonial rule, down into the depths of repression under the thumb of sundry ideologies in the twentieth century, and finally to the ambiguous watershed of the Arab Spring and its uncertain implications for the future of politics and culture in the Middle East and North Africa.
The “intellectual drama” he speaks of is the topic of his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. The book tells the tale of the battle over the place of reason in Islamic philosophy and theology waged in the tenth and eleventh centuries between those who believed reason is a characteristic pertaining to God Himself, the Mutazilites, and those who argued that God was above reason and thus inaccessible by the human mind, the Asherites. The Asherites’ conception won out and, in Reilly’s telling, we are still living through the consequences of that victory.
Following an event with Crossroads Cultural Center in Washington, DC, in which Reilly participated alongside Wael Farouk, a Muslim Egyptian Arabic professor, Traces interviewed him to learn more about his views. For Reilly, Senior Fellow for Strategic Communication at the American Foreign Policy Council, this history is not just an academic curiosity; it is essential to understanding Islamic affairs today and how the political and social upheaval in the Middle East is likely to play out in the future.
What do you see as the most likely outcome of the Arab Spring in Egypt in light of the recent tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood-led legislature and the governing military council? What implications might this have for the rest of the Arab-Muslim world?
I see the whole region pulled between two authoritarian tendencies: that of entrenched dictators, on the one hand, and that of ascendant Islamists whose theology and philosophy offers no basis for respecting human freedom and reason, on the other. The Muslim Brotherhood’s huge electoral gains and the recent power-grabs by the military council bear this out.

What makes you so pessimistic about this political future?
Frankly, the past thousand years. Asherite thought has facilitated and perpetuated the authoritarian model since it denies the existence of natural law and conceives of legitimacy as derived from power rather than reason. In culture, the consequence has been intellectual stagnation. Numerous efforts to break the Asherite stranglehold on Islamic thought have failed, in part because the school of thought has been so successful in establishing itself as orthodoxy and dismissing those who disagree as heretics or, worse, apostates. The seed of parliamentary systems planted under Western colonialism in the early twentieth century, for instance, failed to put down roots. Other Islamic modernists, like the late eighteenth-century Egyptian thinker Muhammad Abdu, have seen their ideas relegated to a fringe of Islamic thought, never penetrating the mainstream.

Tell us more about the Asherite view of God and reason.
Ever since the clash of the Mutazilite and Asherite schools of thought at the end of the first millenia AD, the victorious Asherites’ model has entrenched itself, enshrining a seldom-challenged image of a distant and abstract God who is unintelligible because He is pure will rather than consistent with reason. According to the Asherites, God’s divinity is rooted in part in the fact that He is “above reason” and therefore not bound by the limitations of this human faculty, which, after all, God Himself created. The Asherite perspective is like the “might makes right” concept propounded by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: God is right because He is the strongest, not because He is right in and of Himself. It’s like Thrasymachus elevated to the level of theology.

What happened as this thinking became entrenched?
Following from these beliefs, the Asherites discredited reason altogether as a means of broaching an understanding of God. In its place, they proposed turning almost exclusively to the Quran, which they believe to be a direct transmission of God’s word, miraculously unconditioned by the social and historical context in which it was first transmitted to the prophet Muhammad and finally written down. Muslims often refer to the text as “uncreated.” Other acceptable sources for understanding God’s will, according to the Asherites, are the hadith, or accounts of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions in the seventh century. Hadith are found outside of the Quran in numerous large volumes that are regarded by Muslim scholars with varying degrees of credibility depending on the reliability of the chain of people who first witnessed the events and then transmitted them until they were codified. Reason has no place in determining whether a hadith is considered legitimate. Muslim scholars consider who transmitted the saying as opposed to what was actually said and whether that comports with God’s nature in the first place.

The Middle East has been dominated by many secular leaders during most of the 20th century and these secularists did not produce democracy. On the contrary, they established authoritarian systems. Are Islamists really that much more threatening to the prospects of liberal forms of government?
It’s certainly true that ideologies of pan-Arab Socialism and radical nationalism ousted the constitutional systems established under British-backed monarchs in many Arab countries. Under the monarchies in Egypt and Iraq, for instance, in the early twentieth century there were free elections, a free press, a professional civil service, and an independent judiciary but secular Arabs uprooted these systems and destroyed them. Islamists were not responsible for this but Communism and Nazism are essentially the secular counterparts to conservative Islamist theology since they are ideologies of pure will. My point is only that Islamism is at least as threatening to liberal democracy as other ideologies.

Didn’t the Arab Spring signal a change in Arab individuals’ willingness to think and act for themselves despite the last thousand years of Islamic political and religious thought? Maybe things are different now...
People don’t like to be oppressed; I don’t think that represents a change. The question is what will follow the revolutions in terms of parties and institutions. The Arab Spring activists in Egypt and elsewhere are a small segment of liberal youth that are too marginal to determine the trajectory of the Arab revolutions in the near term. The political discourse is mainly religious in today’s Arab states and people vote through that discourse. What’s more, the rate of illiteracy is around 40 percent in Egypt!

There are many who say that there is something inherent to the Islamic faith or Arab culture that prevents it from advancing toward more liberal systems. What do you think?
The debate within Islam today is about “what is inherent to Islam,” with liberals and conservatives lining up on opposite sides of the issue. In my opinion, rather than saying, “This is something about Arabs or Islam,” it is more helpful and accurate to say, “Ideas have consequences.” Who you think God is will decide quite a bit and Asherite orthodoxy has propounded a particular view of God that has prevented religion from becoming much more than a system of jurisprudence. The problem is the cultural context in which most Muslims are currently raised. Arab and Muslim immigrants in the United States, on the other hand, oftentimes flourish economically and socially. Islam’s great achievements in the eighth and ninth centuries and the history of the Mutazilite defenders of reason highlight what the Islamic faith is capable of outside of its current Asherite-dominated environment. Indeed, the Islamic faith and Arab tribalism did not preclude these advances. If your ideology hinges on a disavowal of reality, however, you will suffer the consequences and the consequences will be a closed mind and the death of creativity. As an antidote to this reflexive reliance on arbitrary authority, what is needed is true philosophy that reflects on experience and reality.

What kind of political parties would you favor in the Middle East? Is there anything the West can do to promote these?
Ideally, Muslim politicians could form parties similar to some of the Christian democratic ones of Europe. These parties must exist within institutional parameters and respect those limits on their power. As Wael Farouk reminded us during the Crossroads event in Washington, DC: there is almost nothing wrong with many of the constitutions on the books in Arab countries–the problem is simply that they are not respected. Ultimately, this is a war within Islam itself and it will be fought on Islam’s terms. I think there is very little that the West should do. To be sure, what is not needed is the importation of more Western ideologies. These have been quite destructive in the Middle East. Different regimes over the years have introduced Socialism, Communism, and radical nationalism to the detriment of Arab societies. Each of these ideologies wound up only empowering a strongman, as we’ve discussed, and destroying institutions.

What is the solution then? Are there any groups, individuals, or trends that give you hope?
The only thing on the side of Arab liberals is reality. The denial of reality is a very powerful thing and our only hope is that someone or some group affirms reality. What you’re seeing in people like Wael Farouk is reality breaking through. It’s enormously refreshing. Since he lives in the real world he is capable of thinking critically about the Arab-Muslim world. Reflection on experience is at the root of all true philosophy, such as Aristotle’s. Islam’s ninth century achievements were rooted in a Hellenized form of the faith. It was the de-Hellenization of Islam that led to its decline.
On August 20, 2012, Robert Reilly will participate in a panel discussion with Wael Farouq entitled, “Islam Today: Between Education and Reason” at the Rimini Meeting. (see www.meetingrimini.org).