Nahda and its Ills (Part 2)

A previous post discussed the use of Nahda as a slogan by the Muslim Brotherhood and the roots of that word ( This post expands on the Nahda as a guide to cultural and foreign policy and the dangers it would pose to any country who espouses it as a vision for governance.

The fathers of the Nahda were all men who came into adulthood during and after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Ottomans upended a decaying, but still functioning system of governance. It was for the Middle East as major an upheaval as the French Revolution . For the average man, it brought agony on a massive scale. Think of the Armenian slaughters, the expulsion of Greeks from Asia minor, the famines in Syria and Lebanon, and the tribal and sectarian massacres in what is today Iraq. The Sykes-Picot accord was a diplomatic sleight of hand that caused much bloodshed and was never implementable. The Zionist project was in full bloom, having benefited from a legal loophole opened by the fall of Ottoman authority. Egypt, paradoxically, seemed to come out OK. The fall of the Empire granted it a full-fledged Monarchy (Fouad followed by his son Farouk) and hegemony over the Sudan. Although still under the thumb of the British, it nominally had borders that extended from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria. Nationalist sentiments were rising, culminating in the 1919 revolt and the 1923 constitution.  These sentiments were pro-Independence but not anti-Western. Many of the leaders of the movements where either Anglophiles or Francophiles in attitude. They wanted to set Egypt on a course to be competitive with the West, not necessarily antagonistic.

But there was another darker side represented by Rida and Al-Banna. They saw the fall of the Caliphate as catastrophic and the Zionist project as less a Jewish issue than a Western plot. Rashid Rida was the first to attack Zionism in theological terms, starting in 1898. His intellectual progress can be seen as providing justifications for his innate rejection of the “other”. First he wanted the modern Muslims to engage in Ijtihad, or fresh interpretation of religious subjects. While this can be lauded as a “rational” and “progressive”, in fact it had the opposite effect, by draining intellectual effort from secular subjects to arcane religious minutiae.  Furthermore, it allowed a re-interpertation of settled Islamic practices to suit modern radical ideas. For example, he started labeling certain practices that he considered defective as “Israylia”, or deriving from corruptions from Jewish practices common in the Arabian Peninsula around the time of the Prophet. In effect, he was re-interpreting Islam to suit his modern views against the establishment of the state of Israel. Even if you agree that the establishment of Israel was a mistake, putting it in religious terms was bound to be inflammatory and dangerous. Even small events, such as Ataturk’s use of Latin script, became subject for full scale religious and inflammatory preaching. Today’s TV Salafis are all children of Rida.

The practical effects of Rida’s rantings were profound. First, the anti-Western tirades were bound to be destructive of any cosmopolitan culture, and ineffective by merely highlighting the weakness of Arab countries relative to the more developed West. Second, it gave rise to a belief that foreign policy is religiously, not nationally, determined. It allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, to buddy up to Nazi powers, and then stockpile weapons for a campaign in Palestine. Their campaign was ineffective at best, disastrous at worst, as it pushed Arab countries to a war they were ill prepared for, and were to lose, causing a bigger catastrophe to Palestinians. These weapons were also turned against the local “enemy”.  In placing ideology above law or national interest, they saw no reason not to encourage military officers to rise up. The 1952 coup in Egypt set the stage for 60 years of adventurism and  stagnant military rule. Ironically the MB were victims of that rule when it became apparent that they regarded themselves as master not servants of the military regime.

Almost every dolorous moment in the sad history of the last 80 years has its roots in this volatile mixture of religion, politics and foreign policy that Rida and his disciplines cooked up through their renewed Ijtihad. Once reinterpretation of religion became possible by any newcomer on the scene, concepts such as Takfir, Jahalyia and others became possible. The human costs in lost lives, blocked dreams, failed policies and cruel counter-reactions, mounted as every failure became a reason for re-doubling the effort rather than changing direction.

What the MB Nahda, and its remote branch offices in Tunis, Ankara, Khartoum and Gaza, promise is a long dark period of anti-western confrontation that is bound to end in failure and suffering. Everyone seems eager to “engage” the Islamists, few seem willing to call them to task on the disasters their thinking inflicted on the people of the Middle East. While they think of fantasies of renaissance and glory, the average Muslim is sinking into ignorance and poverty in Egypt and elsewhere. The Palestinians are no better off for all the chest-thumbing of Hamas and the grotesque and ineffective efforts at terrorism. The agony of the Sudan is beyond human bearing. Once a prosperous and promising fertile country of large resources, it has been decimated by two decades of Islamist governance into two starving and failed states. The vibrant marriage of Arab and African culture is now a bitter divorce mired in race and religion. The tolerance, temporarily won by the Blood of Chinese Gordon and countless Sudanese, Egyptians and Englishmen, disappeared.  And all the others that have made the region an exceptional mosaic of culture and warmth are feeling the bitter winds of Islamism. The Egyptians who remained as Copts now think of the unthinkable; an Egypt without Egyptian Christians.  The heterogeneous culture of Alexandria now replaced by a monochrome of bearded men. The rich female culture of Egypt,  North Africa and the Levant reduced to servitude by a combination of legal stricture and an oppressive social atmosphere. Tunis, supposedly ruled by the “moderate” Ennhada party, now has to look over it shoulder at the Salafis ever ready to raise the black flag.

The Nahda is darkness promised. Men and women of goodwill need to expose it and fight it. Regardless of nationality or creed, unity is necessary to prevent further erosion of the common and varied cultures of the Middle East.

One Comment on “Nahda and its Ills (Part 2)”

  1. Danik2 says:

    Did you just claim a system will be bad before you even know what it is and based on pure speculation? Also history would lead us to remember that the Arab world and its minorities were in a much better state (human rights and political and economic cooperation, growth, influence – cultural and educational systems) before the 1800s (Ottoman corruption) than we are now. The Caliphates were able to bring people together and break down nationalist, tribal, ethnic, and race-oriented divisions at a time when slavery was thriving in the west.
    I gotta say that while a caliphate is not necessarily their goal as you claim nor do I necessarily believe we are moving towards that, I am supportive of creating closer links across the Muslim world – mainly social, economic, perhaps security cooperation: Arab weakness in social, economic, human rights, education, and political terms has come from the divide-and-conquer strategies of former colonial powers and the dictators that were brought into power in order to uphold their ideology – Southeast Asia has overcome this and have a regional cooperation system – as does South America. The world is moving in the direction of regionalization and the MB are quite honestly the only group that could bring the Arab world together and give us a real voice in the world not based on Salafi oil blackmail. After all, Free Trade has created malleable borders for states around the world. Why do you insist on the ‘boogeyman’ theory of what the MB is today based on something someone believed 100 years ago and based on propaganda from many a dictatorships and right-wing nutjob conspiracy theories in the West.
    The future possibility of self-reliance under Islamist governments (think Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia) will undermine the core argument of extremist terrorist elements who complain about Western dominance. It will also integrate the Arab economic regions with the global economy and strengthen trade links between our countries, making us more interdependent and less likely to go to war with each other.
    The Salafis concern me as much as they concern you, but the MB is far from Salafi. I think you’re not being fair here, jumping to conclusions about what a word intends to do and about what that implies for a whole lot of people and their futures. Is there a reason why Arabs sit on so much of the oil and gas in the world but still have poor populations? Yes: Dependence on foreign powers rather than relations of mutual respect. We need to stand on our own feet and project self-respect before gaining respect. Corruption, dictatorship, clientele-ism, poverty, and self-hatred and division where we could have strong spiritual economic links will make it certain that we’ll never rise in this world – secular or religious.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s