What went wrong?



Aleppo, October 22, 2003


In the speech delivered on October 16 at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Putrajaya (the administrative capital of Malaysia), the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made the news, and was accused of anti-semitism, for stating that “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews.” Such concealed anti-semitism notwithstanding, the totality of Mahathir’s speech has not attracted any of the world media’s attention, including it seems those of the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Malaysian prime minister provided a “synthesis” of the totality of Islamic history, which looks both archaic and modernist in its scope. Since his main question was, “Why are we as Muslims doing so poorly right now?,” Mahathir provided answers and “clues” from the long Islamic histories, beginning with the prophetic mission, and up to the Ottomans and British colonialism. His couple of remarks on the Jews came in the last part of the speech, and were supposed to offer one more example of the deterioration of Islamic power—a “decline” that he did not hesitate to locate right after the “golden age” of the early Abbasids (750-945)—even though, it should be added, he never named that ruling dynasty, nor did he specify any dates. His tone was rather general, common to a great deal of the indigenous literature on Islam these days, never specific in terms of periods, dates, and dynasties, and devoid of any reference to social and economic history. Mahathir’s quest is indeed very spiritual, in the sense that the world seems to be unfolding in a Hegelian dialectic where the masters at one point turn for some mysterious reason into the slaves of the next generation. In that perspective, “Islamic anti-semitism”—assuming that such a thing does exist—is very different from its western counterpart. If nineteenth-century Jewish hatred sprung mostly from the harsh requirements of the European nation-states, in conjunction with images of the Jew as a bourgeois capitalist who would assimilate for the sake of controlling the nation’s finances, Islamic anti-semitism by contrast is more recent, probably an outcome of interwar colonialism, and tied to images of weakness in the body of the Islamic community at large (the umma): the Jew is then like the colonialist who capitalizes on the umma’s weaknesses for his own sake—for instance, to establish a Zionist nation in Palestine.


What gives importance to Mahathir’s speech, besides its vision of Islamic history, is the fact that it comes from one of three Islamic nations thus far (with Indonesia and Turkey as close competitors) to have successfully modernized, becoming in the last two decades one of the “Asian tigers,” and with a vigilance in manufacturing and production, and a line of exports that is not only limited to oil and textiles, as is the case with the rest of the Arab and Islamic countries. Mahathir himself—or, more accurately, “Dato Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad,” as his official title goes) is considered as the “father” of the new Malaysia. Unlike Atatürk, however, Mahathir is not interested in a modernist discourse that strays away from the basic Islamic ideals, and has no interest as what the Turks have labeled “the secularism of the state.” It is indeed quite uncommon for such a modernist discourse to emerge from an Islamic head of state, and the fact that it is articulated in Malaysia should therefore not come as a big surprise, considering that it is now set as a “reference” for a successful “Islamic capitalism.” The Syrian president, for instance, unable to press for much socio-economic reforms at home, has openly declared, upon Mahathir’s visit to Damascus a couple of months ago, that “Syria ought to follow the Malaysian path of modernization rather than the Chinese.” Others, however, think that Malaysia has succeeded where others have failed precisely because it belongs to a “peripheral (or marginal) Islam,” one that came to south-east Asia rather late, and in a continent altogether different from the ones of the other Islamic countries.


Mahathir’s speech, at least in its written version as released through the official Malaysians websites, is composed of 59 numbered paragraphs. As soon as host he thanks his guests for supporting the tenth session of the Islamic summit conference, he comes right to the point by stating that the main purpose of the present conference should be “to disprove the perception of Islam as a religion of backwardness and terror.” That is already stated in paragraph six, and from there he moves on very rapidly to his big survey of Islamic history. As it has become commonplace among Muslims, Mahathir cannot escape looking at “Islam” not simply as a historic totality, one that was formed fourteen centuries ago through a divine prophetic mission, but more importantly for his purposes, in terms of sheer numbers. Already in paragraph seven he drops the big number of a billion-plus Muslims, which will serve as a motto for the rest of the speech: “Certainly 1.3 billion Muslims, one-sixth of the world’s population are placing their hopes in us, in this meeting, even though they may be cynical about our will and capacity to even decide and restore the honor of Islam and the Muslims, much less to free their brothers and sisters from the oppression and humiliation that their brothers and sisters are suffering today.” Looking at the rest of the speech, Mahathir is the one crossing this broad Islamic canvas with cynicism. For one thing, he cannot escape at portraying “Islam” as a totality, one that brings together the 1.3 billion Muslims together in some kind of a mysterious “unity.” (It is ironic that it has become commonplace to accuse the so-called “orientalists” of such big and “inaccurate” portrayals of “Islam”: Has the servant interiorized the discourse of his master?) But, on the other hand, he knows all too well that such a number means nothing, as Muslims, like everyone else in the world, are now the product of nations-states—or more accurately aberrations of nation-states—whose policies and ambitions hardly come together—except perhaps in ritualistic conferences like this one. Mahathir’s speech will therefore unreluctantly hinge on a shift between a projected “unity” of an unnamed golden era, which is the sheer product of his imagination, and another more realistic one of divisions and humiliations. Quite often, the speech jumps from one to the other in a single passage: If, for instance, in “early Islam” “the ulamas have interpreted and reinterpreted the single Islamic religion,” producing a single belief and body of works, now “our Governments are divided,” and “we have a thousand religions which are often so much at odds with one another that we often fight and kill one another.” (para. 10) And in the following passage: “From being a single ummah we have allowed ourselves to be divided into numerous sects, mazhabs and tarikats, each more concerned with claiming to be the true Islam than our oneness of the Islamic ummah. We fail to notice that our detractors and enemies do not care whether we are true Muslims or not. To them we are all Muslims, followers of a religion and a Prophet whom they declare promotes terrorism, and we are all their sworn enemies.”


The theme of the speech is now clearly set: there was in the good old times an Islamic ummah that is now visibly divided into numerous “sects,” many of which do not belong to “the genuine Islam,” and the West fails to see this. The so-called “divisions” are therefore perceived almost exclusively in terms of their weaknesses, and for failing to revive the old spirit of the ummah (Islamic community). Such a perception comes from a particular reading of Islamic history. First comes a golden age: “The early Muslims produced great mathematicians and scientists, scholars, physicians and astronomers etc. and they excelled in all the fields of knowledge of their times, besides studying and practicing their own religion of Islam.” (para. 14) Not only is the specific time framework (750-945) for that spiritual renaissance left undefined and the dynasty (the ‘Abbasids) that brought it into existence is unnamed, but the socio-economic and political conditions that made it possible seem outside the prime minister’s interests. In effect, the bracketing off of the conditions that brought such an era into existence will enable our prime minister to surf more easily into Islamic history, as if everything is at the click of a mouse.


After briefly—all too briefly—describing that spiritual renaissance of the early Muslims, Mahathir’s speech moves even more rapidly in the following passage (16) to decline and its causes. It is as if Mahathir is bored with the achievements of the early Abbasids, or can’t figure out the complexity of the trends of the golden age, so he goes on to decline and regression (there’s apparently more fun here): “But halfway through the building of the great Islamic civilization came new interpreters of Islam who taught that acquisition of knowledge by Muslims meant only the study of Islamic theology. The study of science, medicine etc. was discouraged.” What is probably alluded to here is the division that erupted in the ninth century (or the second century of the Abbasid caliphate) between those (e.g. the Mu‘tazila, or “the neutral”) who worked their way into Islam through Greek philosophy and rationalism, and the bulk of the ulama who endorsed theology and the sharia, both of which considered as interpretations of the “original message.” The fact, however, that the outcome was politically decided by the end of the ninth century by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil in favor of the ulama, does not seem of any interest to the prime minister. To begin with, his decline scenario spins almost exclusively over its head: “Intellectually the Muslims began to regress” (17); and “The early successes of the Ottomans were not accompanied by an intellectual renaissance” (18). But if, however, intellectual renaissance is mostly “scientific,” by the time that Mahathir flatly states that “The Industrial Revolution was totally missed by the Muslims,” we still have no idea what the socio-economic systems looked like from the decline of the Abbasids up to the Mamluks and Ottomans.


It is understandable that the prime minister should not have bored his guests with such mundane topics. But he could have at least evoked some kind of a simplified Braudelian scheme of the socio-economic history of the shores of the Mediterranean since the decline of the Abbasids. The fact for instance that the western Mediterranean has moved in the eleventh-twelfth centuries from its early Carolingian feudalism into the more sophisticated one of the Italian city-states, and that by the time the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, their military superiority did hide the fact that they had a totally outdated pre-Carolingian feudalism, one that they inherited from the Mongols and Mamluks. By 1055, when the Seljuk Turks dominated the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, the “rationalistic” intellectual movements of the previous two centuries had already suffered enormous political defeats, and the economic system shifted to a military feudalism, which will remain in force until the late Ottomans.


What I find interesting is that, unlike many academics who have lots of time at their disposal to detect “change” and “progress,” and who portray “decline” as an “orientalist fantasy,” Mahathir is not that concerned with the western values of political correctness. He is primarily addressing himself to a Muslim and Arab audience, which willy-nilly has acknowledged “defeat,” but which continues to throw its roots to colonizers and Europeans or Americans: “Apart from the new nation-states we also accepted the western democratic system. This also divided us because of the political parties and groups that we form, some of which claim Islam for themselves, reject the Islam of other parties and refuse to accept the results of the practice of democracy if they fail to gain power for themselves. They resort to violence, thus destabilizing and weakening Muslim countries.” (19) But that kind of modernist discourse, however, still lumps all kinds of problems into that broad category of “the divisions of the ummah,” that is, it perceives a healthy nation-state in terms of a “oneness.” That should not come as a big surprise, considering that the bulk of Islamic history was already sketched as some kind of “an intellectual regression,” which only a new kind of “strategic unity” could bring out of its present darkness. Gone are therefore all the complexities of modernity in terms of socio-economic well-being, the plurality of voices, the essence of democracy, and laissez-faire capitalism. Mahathir was even too reluctant to explain to his guests that Malaysia witnessed some economic success precisely for adopting its own laissez-faire capitalism, one that proves incompatible with obsolete centralizing policies.


Instead, the prime minister finds in the Jews his favorite alibi. We’re already familiar with Mahathir’s “debate” with the world financier George Soros in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, when he accused the latter—a Jew—for conspiring against the Malaysian national currency. The anti-semitic arguments here are no better, and center like the rest of the speech on the dubious notions of “unity” and “division”: “Divided, the Muslims could do nothing effective to stop the Balfour and Zionist transgression.” (20) The main argument, however, comes much later in passage 34: “It cannot be that there is no other way. 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategize and then to counter attack. As Muslims we must seek guidance from the Al-Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Surely the 23 years' struggle of the Prophet can provide us with some guidance as to what we can and should do.” When the world media extensively quoted that passage, it forgot to study its contextualization into Mahathir’s vision of Islamic history, which he clearly delineated in that very same speech. His views of the Jews, I think, only make sense in reference to his flawed and wooden sketch of Islamic history. Both are flawed, since both are rooted in dubious notions like “unity” and “division.” If success only comes from “unity,” then the Jew is the one who “divides.” He is the one to have benefited the most from the Enlightenment, the heritage of the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, communism, and Marxism-Leninism. The Jew is, in sum, the true and only capitalist—and that’s his sin too: he accepted “assimilation” and a non-ghetto life precisely to dominate the world through financial transactions and the like. He divides in order to rule and conquer.


But then if 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by few million Jews, what is the other way? Surely there is none with that kind of thinking. If it’s ridiculous to diagnose the “failure” in Islamic history solely from the myopic attitude that the ulama have manifested towards the natural sciences, it is equally ridiculous to see “the Jew” as the one who “defeated” those poor 1.3 billion Muslims. Or is it maybe that the capitalist in Mahathir’s inside psyche knows all too well that in capitalism numbers do not always matter that much—but only the democratic quality and liberalism of “the state of the union”?





copyright ©2003 by zouhair ghazzal