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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

September apocalypse: who, why and what next? (part I)

We in the first world must learn more about other ideologies and develop a
"one-world" mentality in the coming years if we want to win the war against
terror, writes Karen Armstrong.

Karen Armstrong
Saturday October 13, 2001
The Guardian

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 ulema (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming 
Islam according to the democratic, liberal 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: 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 that admiration
and respect into the hatred that incited the acts of heinous 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 atrocity, condemn it 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 
his allies succeed in eliminating the threat posed by 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. It is a 
painful process, as we British know only too well.

Every time an IRA bomb explodes in London or Manchester, more and more of 
us are becoming uncomfortably aware that England's behavior in Ireland is 
in large part responsible.

And this widespread acknowledgement has been an essential ingredient of 
the Northern Ireland peace process.

We cannot understand the present crisis without taking into account the 
painful process of modernisation.

In the 16th century, the countries of western Europe and, later, the 
American colonies had embarked on what historians have called "the great 
western transformation".

They created an entirely different kind of civilization, which was without
precedent in the history of the world.

The distinguishing mark of any modern society is that instead of being 
based economically upon a surplus of agricultural produce, it is based 
upon technology and the constant reinvestment of capital.

This liberated the west from the constraints that had inevitably hobbled 
all traditional, agrarian societies.

The great agrarian empires were economically vulnerable; they soon found 
that they had grown beyond resources that were inevitably limited, but the
western countries found that they could reproduce their resources 

They could afford to experiment with new ideas and products. Today, when a
new kind of computer is invented, all the old office equipment is thrown 

In the old agrarian societies, any project that demanded such frequent 
change of the basic infrastructure was likely to be shelved.

So originality was not encouraged; instead people had to concentrate of 
preserving what had been achieved.

So the great western transformation was exciting and gave the peoples of 
the west new freedom, but it demanded fundamental change at every level: 
social, political, intellectual and religious.

To preserve the momentum of the continuously expanding economy, more and 
more people had to be involved - even in a humble capacity, as printers, 
clerks, or factory workers.

Thus more and more of the population had to acquire a modicum of education,
so that they could imbibe the new ethos and work to the required 

And as they became more educated, the common people inevitably demanded 
more political rights.

It was found, by trial and error, that a successful modern society had to 
be democratic. There were political revolutions - some of them succeeded 
by reigns of terror - that brought this change about.

Again, in order to draw upon all of a society's human resources, outgroups,
such as the Jews or women, had to be emancipated and brought into the 

Countries, such as those in eastern Europe, which did not become secular, 
tolerant and democratic, fell behind.

But those that did fulfill these norms, such as Britain and France, had 
become so powerful that no agrarian, traditional society, such as the 
Islamic countries, could stand against them. The modern spirit had two 
main characteristics.

The first of these was independence. Modernisation proceeded by 
declarations of independence on all fronts: social, political, 
intellectual, as scientists, for example, demanded the freedom to pursue 
their insights, despite the disapproval of the established churches.

The agrarian societies had simply not been able to afford to allow 
individual liberties, but freedom became a necessary hallmark of the 
modern state.

The second mark of the new society was innovation: western people were 
constantly breaking new ground and creating something fresh; they 
institutionalised change in a way that had been quite impossible in a 
preindustrial civilisation.

This process of modernisation took a long time; modern society did not 
come fully into its own until the 19th century. Like any major social 
change, the period of transition was traumatic and often violent.

As the early modern states became more centralised and efficient, 
draconian measures were often required to weld hitherto disparate kingdoms

Minority groups, such as Catholics in England or 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 
industrialised mega cities.

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, for example, we see constant political upheaval.

There have been revolutions, such as the coup of the free officers in 
Egypt in 1952, or the Islamic revolution in Iran.

We see such autocratic rulers, because the modernising process is not yet 
sufficiently advanced to provide the conditions for a fully developed 

We have seen ethnic cleansing, such as Saddam Hussein's massacre of the 
Kurds, and religious turbulence, as traditional faith tries to address new
and unprecedented conditions.

We have completed the modernising process, and have forgotten what we had 
to go through, so we do not always understand the difficulty of this 

We tend to imagine that we in the west has always been in the vanguard of 
progress, and have sometimes seen the Islamic countries as inherently 

We have imagined that they are held back by their religion, and do not 
realise that what we are actually seeing is an imperfectly modernized 

The Muslim world has had an especially problematic experience of modernity.

These countries have had to modernise far too rapidly. They have had to 
attempt the process in a mere fifty years, instead of 300.

Nevertheless, this in itself would not have been an insuperable obstacle.

A country like Japan 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 colonised.

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. 
Between 1830 and 1915, the European powers occupied Algeria, Aden, Tunisia,
Egypt, 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.

The colony also had to be modernized and brought into the western system, 
so some of the "natives" had to acquire a degree of familiarity with the 
modern ethos.

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire during the first world war, 
Britain and France set up mandates and protectorates in its former 
provinces, in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine This new impotence was 
extremely disturbing for the Muslim countries. Until this point, Islam had
been a religion of success.

Within 100 years of the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, the Muslims 
ruled an empire that stretched from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees.

By the 15th century, Islamdom 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, south east 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 and up-to-date society in the 

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.

Some, such as Turkey and Egypt, attempted to copy Europe and modernise 
themselves, but they were too far behind to achieve an effective riposte.

Muslims would not be human if they did not resent this, yet still, as I 
have said, the most prescient felt great admiration for modern Europe. But
this did not last.

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 in the end had to provide all the money, 
labour and materials as well as donating 200 sq miles of Egyptian 
territory gratis, and yet the shares of the Canal Company were all held by

The immense outlay helped to bankrupt Egypt, and this gave Britain a 
pretext to set up a military occupation there in 1882 in order to protect 
the interests of the shareholders.

Again, 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 that they 
belonged neither to the west nor to the Islamic world.

One of the most scarring effects of colonialism was 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.

Even when democratic institutions were established, they could not always 
function normally. In Egypt, for example, there were 17 general elections 
between 1923 and 1952: all 17were won by the popular Wafd party, which 
wanted to reduce British influence in the country.

But the Wafd was only permitted to rule five times; after the other 
elections, they were forced by the British and the Egyptian king to stand 

In Iran, there had been a revolution led by a coalition of secularist 
Iranians and reforming ulema: this resulted in the establishment of a 
parliament and a constitution, but the British, who wanted to set up a 
protectorate in Iran after the discovery of oil there, kept rigging the 

Then from 1921, the Pahlavi shahs, backed first by Britain and later by 
America, set up dictatorships in which there was no possibility of 
parliamentary opposition.

After the second world war, 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.

A particularly fateful example of this occurred 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.

The Muslim clerics simply could not understand how President Jimmy Carter,
who was a deeply religious man and passionate about human rights, could 
support the Shah after the massacre of Tudeh Square in 1978, when nearly 
900 Iranians were killed by his troops.

Later Saddam Hussein, who became the sole president of Iraq in 1979, 
became the protege of the United States, who literally allowed him to get 
away with murder, even after a chemical attack against the Kurdish 

It was only after the invasion of Kuwait that he 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 or 
the Saudi Royal Family.

Indeed, Osama bin Laden was himself a protege 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 taken a crudely short-term view, and 
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.


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