February 13, 2006
Erasing a decadent past
I'm seeing more and more essays like this one, asking a question which won't go away: Is Islam Evil?
While I am certainly no apologist for Islam, I find myself unable to take the position that Islam is evil. To do that requires seeing Islam as a single monolithic force -- something akin to Communism. While it might be possible to regard Wahhabist Islam in this manner, to so regard all Islam requires a deliberate disregard or distortion of history.
Unlike Communism, Islam has a long history. Seen geopolitically, the largest chunk of this history consisted of the Ottoman Empire. Because it lasted from the 13th to the 20th centuries, it is tough to engage in generalizations about the Ottoman Empire. Certainly, there were many ruthless conquests and slaughters, invasions of peaceful areas, but I don't think most historians would dispute that under Ottoman rule, there existed for centuries a well-established phenomenon which can only be called moderate Islam.
Despite history, many people decry the existence of such a thing as moderate Islam. Ironically, it still exists right where it existed for centuries and where it once held sway over most of the Islamic world -- in the former center of power of the Ottoman Empire. (Turkey.)
Unfortunately, Turkey is more and more isolated as a voice of Islamic moderation. I'm worried that it's becoming a lost or endangered relic of a once moderate past.
As lost as this once endangered Ottoman citadel?
It's no longer endangered. It's gone! But it stood there for centuries overlooking Mecca, where the Ottomans built it to guard the place. In 2002, ignoring international protests, the Saudi government tore it down. Reason? They hate the idea that their religious places were once ruled by forces of moderate Islam.
Here's Sadik H. Kassim, writing about the recently demolished al-Ajyad Palace pictured above:
During our ride out of Medina Airport my uncle queried our Wahabbi driver about why people in Saudi Arabia do not wear seatbelts. Our driver immediately went into a grand bit of histrionics declaring the seatbelt to be a bid’ah (religious innovation) and therefore impermissible for all true Muslims to use. He continued his tangent by suggesting the seatbelt to be an American/Israeli invention intended to subvert basic Islamic principles. Our driver’s fatwa, although not legally binding, serves to illustrate the paranoid and irrational world outlook of the Wahabbi school of thought. This worldview, in addition to contributing to the intellectual retardation of the Ummah, has been used to justify the destruction of some of Islam’s most sacred and important historical and cultural sites. This decimation remains an ongoing process scarcely reported in either western media outlets or the media of countries with a Muslim majority population.Well, I'll report it. We heard all about the Buddhist statues, probably because people are less afraid to defend Buddhism than moderate Islam.
I shouldn't say that no one in the West reported this. A Texas art historian specializing in Ottoman art was most upset at the time:
The al-Ajyad castle stood on a hill overlooking the grand Mosque and was built in 1780 by the ruling Ottomans to keep the Wahhabi Islamic sect out of Mecca. Carel Bertram, a historian of Ottoman art at the University of Texas described the demolition as a “very sectarian move”. Denouncing Saudi plans as an “erasure of the past” she said the demolition was part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi elite to expunge the Islamic world of any remaining element of cultural and religious diversity. “It is a way for the Wahhabi sect to show that there is no form of Islam—on the ground, in the past, or in people’s memories—other than their own”.Turkey protested, but for the most part, the world didn't care. I don't even know how widely this was reported in the West. On the ruins of the Ottoman citadel, there is now a hotel for wealthy, Wahhabi-approved pilgrims.
While I hate to see historic buildings destroyed, the goal here is not merely to eradicate buildings. It is to eliminate an idea.
That idea, I believe, is that there ever was such a thing as moderate Islam. I'm a bit concerned that the "Islam is evil" meme fits right in with the campaign against moderate Islam, because if enough people believe there is no such thing as moderate Islam, and the guys in charge of Islam believe the same thing, well, pretty soon there will be near-unanimous agreement that there is no such thing as moderate Islam.
The very history of Wahhabism is a war waged by radical Islam against moderate Islam, and in particular it involved a struggle to the death between the virulently Wahhabist Saud dynasty and the Ottoman rulers. This began in earnest in the late 18th century, and was aided and abetted by clueless Europeans often guided by the principle that idealism (often taking the form of support for "nationalities") is better than imperial decadence.
Couple this facade of idealism with the very real presence of huge oil deposits, and it's not surprising that moderate Islam would tend to be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Radical Wahhabi Islam, of course, is not only the leading enemy of the West, but the number one enemy of moderate Islam. That's because moderate Muslims are infidels too -- every bit as much we in the West. Back to Mr. Kassim:
In 1801, the Saudis-Wahabbis waged a campaign against the Muslim “polytheists” and “heretics”. The outcomes of the campaign “shocked the entire Muslim world…by brutally destroying and defacing the sacred tomb of the martyr Hussein Bin Ali (Prophet Mohammad's grandson) in Karbala, Iraq, a particularly holy shrine to Shia Muslims1.” It was during this raid that the Saudis-Wahabbis “mercilessly slaughtered over 4,000 people in Karbala and stole anything that was not nailed down. It took over 4,000 camels to carry the huge loot (1).”(More here, plus a petition.)
Wouldn't want anyone to think that the prophet or any of his descendants might have ever been buried in a heretical manner, would we? That might mean that moderate Muslims once existed -- or even that the Prophet himself wasn't entirely the way the Wahhabists want him depicted. But history is written by the victors, and the fact is that the Ottoman Empire lost Hejaz Arabia in the 1920s, and the House of Saud (with lots of help) has ruled since.
It's tough to make the case for moderation in anything, much less Islam. Especially when anything moderate is increasingly seen as decadent. And decadence is evil, isn't it? Culturally rich empires like the Ottoman Empire would seem to epitomize it. Who the hell am I to maintain that their Islamic moderation was a virtue?
Besides, if Islam is evil, there is no such thing as moderation in evil, so moderate Islam would still be evil. (Unless you're a moderately evil pragmatist.)
It's always tough to make the case for decadence. Might as well try to save the Ottoman citadel.
Pragmatically speaking, however, America might need an evil empire to fight -- which would make it wrong to attempt any resurrection of moderate Islam in history.
That's an awful thought. Because for starters, there's no consensus on whether radical Islam is evil.
(The Danish cartoons are merely one way of posing the question.)
UPDATE: As a counterweight to Saudi influence, Dean Esmay offers a round-the-world view of moderate Muslim countries, reminding us of examples such as Indonesia, and I agree it should be kept in mind that things are not as bleak as this post might make them appear. (Although articles like this worry me.)
Bear in mind that the focus of this post was not on the entire Muslim world today, but on the Ottoman Empire (which represents a pretty large chunk of Islam over time) in contrast to growing Saudi hegemony. Having the holy places plus oil wealth gives the Saudis, in my view, politico-religious leverage beyond their numbers.
posted by Eric on 02.13.06 at 09:59 AM
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The Ajyad (Ecyad) Fortress stood proud on bulbul mountain in Mecca since 1781. Its purpose was to protect the holy city from invaders. As a city landmark, the Ajyad fort was a destination by itself. The image of the castle is still imprinted in [Read More] Tracked on February 24, 2006 4:16 PM
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