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Might Beslan be the turning of the tide?

Say “9/11”, and we all know what you mean. “Bali”: ditto. Now add “Beslan” to that mass murder list.

I remember thinking, when I saw those children on my TV a week ago, running hither and thither in nothing but their underwear, that this was another of those strategic shooting-in-foot blunders that Islamists seem to have such a genius for perpetrating. 9/11 finally concentrated the minds of the white West on Islamist terrorism. Now Beslan has got even Muslims thinking – and, miracle of miracles, even Muslims of the sort who make public pronouncements saying – that maybe something is seriously amiss with their (for the time being) accursed religion, with no ‘but’.

This from a recent New York Times piece:

The brutal school siege in Russia, with hundreds of children dead and wounded, has touched off an unusual round of self-criticism and introspection in the Muslim and Arab world.

About time too.

And today, Arts & Letters Daily links to this New Statesman piece by Ziauddin Sardar, which is just about the most encouraging thing I have read about Islam since 9/11:

The Muslim world is changing. Three years after the atrocity of 9/11, it may be in the early stages of a reformation, albeit with a small ‘r’. From Morocco to Indonesia, people are trying to develop a more contemporary and humane interpretation of Islam, and some countries are undergoing major transformations.

Much of the attention is focused on reformulating the sharia, the centuries-old body of Islamic law deeply embedded in a medieval psychology. The sharia is state law in many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the Sudan. For many conservative and radical Muslims, the sharia is Islam: it cannot be changed, and must be imposed in exactly the shape it was first formulated in the ninth century. Since 9/11, there has been a seismic shift in this perception. More and more Muslims now perceive Islamic law to be dangerously obsolete. And these include the ulema, the religious scholars and clerics, who have a tremendous hold on the minds of the Muslim masses.

I know exactly what a lot of you are now thinking. You are thinking: bollocks. Or, more politely: window dressing.

To that I would reply with these three further observations.

First: what do you think the most bigoted and suicidal Islamists think about claims like this? Would such reports not make their hearts sink and their brains hurt? The idea that their own actions may be having the opposite result to the one they want must cause at least the less completely idiotic among them to pause in their idiot tracks. Their plan is to make Islam purely and uncompromisingly idiotic, and to turn the West into an Islamicist bigot-hole. Instead, their actions, while having no very profound effects on the West other than a wave of belligerence and anti-bigot measures, may instead be provoking the exact sort of softening of Islamic bigotry within Islam that the idiots spend half their lives cursing. Remember, 9/11 etc. is at least as much about yanking Islam back to true-faith-total-idiocy as it is about imposing such idiocy on the West. Yet instead, what happens? Bloody Islam turns sensible. The idiot-bigots do not give a damn about the damned infidels! But these turncoats are Muslim’s, for God’s sake! – or at least pretending to be, the swine. That some of Islam even claims to be turning sensible must be, for your Islamicist bigot, a scary thing.

Maybe Allah has plans for the world that are other than they had at first seemed.

Second: do not knock window dressing. How else can this process get started? One of the standard techniques of propaganda of any kind is to announce that the thought processes and legal changes which you merely hope for are in fact under way, in a more substantial way than a dispassionate look at the facts really reveals. That way, the people you are trying to influence (basically the next couple of generations) feel in their own minds that they are being asked to join a movement which already counts for something and which will give them psychological support (“Wow I thought I was the only one who thought like that!”) friends, drinks parties, boyfriends, girlfriends, careers, etc.

Third: if you want to observe a particular historical case of window dressing taking over the shop, look no further than the disintegration of the old USSR and the end of the Cold War, no less. Clearly, and just like these reformist tendencies within Islam, the collapse of Soviet Communism had a lot of causes and quite a few key triggering events. But one of the big contributory factors was that the Soviet bosses, thinking that they were being oh-so-clever, tried to install a reformist-communist style system in the Eastern European bit of their empire, with the idea that the underlying system wouldn’t then be so hated and despised, and would thus be able to stagger on for a few more decades, and even maybe make further advances. Perhaps you think that this is the motive behind much of this Muslim ‘reform’, to soften up the West, lull it into a false sense of security, tell it that it has already won, blah blah blah, and maybe for many ‘reformers’ that is the plan, just as it was for those clever Soviet bosses, and just as many of the gloomier pro-Westerners pointed out at the time. But the Eastern Europe example shows that, to put it mildly, such schemes can go badly, badly wrong.

Personally, I do not now see the West dropping its guard, either physically or intellectually. On the contrary, and especially intellectually, the West is only just beginning to get into tits stride when it comes to dealing with Islam. That Arabs (especially) are prone to duplicity and that Islam as a whole is a slab of primitiveness and foolishness are memes far too completely embedded in the West now to be forgotten overnight. Similarly, by the nineteen eighties, Soviets-equals-shits was a far too well established notion in the West for the West to walk off the Cold War pitch, snatching a draw from the jaws of Cold War victory, and it was the USSR which crumbled.

Unlike many of its more pessimistic and belligerent defenders, I actually have profound faith in the power of the West to win this thing, just as the West always does win these things. There are huge differences between The West v. Soviet Communism and The West v. Islam, most importantly that ‘winning against’ Islam cannot mean destroying Islam, but instead must mean provoking its intellectual and moral redemption. (Soviet Communism stank through and through, and more to the point, everyone important knew it. Therefore the damned thing could be binned. Islam is not, er, quite like that. Many people actually believe in it.) But when it comes to how well the West will do, I believe the result will be similarly pleasing.

And the events described in this New Statesman article, together with the obvious desire among lots of Muslims to believe that such descriptions are approximately accurate, is, I believe, all part of that process.

We, the West, plus the millions of good Muslims who just want to get along with us in peace and prosperity, are starting to win.

Beslan was not a victory. But I believe that history may reckon that it was the end of the beginning.

14 comments to Might Beslan be the turning of the tide?

  • Euan Gray

    Hmm. I’m not convinced. BTW, you oversimplify the case of the USSR – the restructuring termed glasnost and perestroika was undertaken because of impending economic disaster and the inability of the Soviet system to keep up with Western military expenditure. The loosening of the grip on Eastern Europe was largely because the satellite states there were a significant economic drain on the USSR itself. There doesn’t appear to have been the slightest intention to make Communism more user-friendly, as it were, just to make it work a bit better than it did. The expectation appeared to be that a little bit of freedom would boost the economy, just as in fact happened with Lenin’s New Economic Policy after the fiasco of “war communism”.

    It is possible that this could be the start of an Islamic Reformation, but… For a start, the heart of the fundamentalist zealot isn’t going to sink at the recent rumblings from some Moslems. If anything, it is likely to embolden them, at least in the short term, because they are likely to read this as meaning that the divergence from the “true” path of “pure” Islam only results in weakness and decline such as these apostates (as they will be called, wait and see) have just demonstrated. Organisations and belief systems like this tend to get even more violent when challenged from within – have a glance at the history of the Christian churches for a ready comparison.

    Until we see Mohammed bin Luther nailing his demands to the mosque doors, I will be unconvinced that there is the slightest *real* change in the underlying assumptions of Islam.

    Window dressing? Possibly more “let’s try to sound sensible, after all some of us have elections to win”.


  • veryretired

    As in all things, the dangers here are oversimplification and impatience. It would be so easy, so tempting, to hope that a few sermons and editorials would somehow transform the thought processes of the Islamic world. But no one incident, however horrific, will undo centuries of indoctrination.

    Instead, one may hope that this is a beginning in the long, convoluted, and difficult process which will probably need decades to play itself out—working up the courage to ask the questions that so desparately need to be asked about Islam and its role in human society.

    The old answer, that it IS human society, and the Sharia is its law, no longer fits, like trying last years’ shoes on a teenager.

    I have spent all my adult life trying to constrain my natural impatience. It took centuries for the West to pry the dead fingers of theocracy from its throat, and draw a fresh breath. If we can transform the militarists of Japan and Germany into the near pacifists of today, perhaps there is some hope that the Islamic community will not have to rediscover each and every element of the pathway to a recognition that freedom of conscience is a valid and valuable attribute of healthy society.

    We have enough work to do in our own societies to protect and amplify this vital principle. As I did with Solidarity a few decades ago, I wish Godspeed to those with the courage to carry on this dangerous work among the children of the Koran.

  • toolkien

    that maybe something is seriously amiss with their (for the time being) accursed religion, with no ‘but’.

    I think ‘buts’ are reserved for the U.S. not Russia.

  • Patrick W

    The most intractable of the problems facing Islam is not that it sucks and will impoverish your life but that it cannot deal with change. Until the middle of the 20th century that wasn’t a big deal. Now the world is alot smaller and pretty much anyone can travel, watch TV, surf the web and get a personal view of the rest of the world. Of course the response of all loony ideologies – be they political or religious – is to descend into totalitarian measures to stem the flow of defectors / apostates. For Islam, the ability to access other opinions is not something the mullahs wil be able to put back in a box. In the long run I believe that Islam as we see it today is a dead man walking. Unfortunately the transition from today’s status quo to some future alternative is very unlikely to be either quick or peaceful. I hope Brian is right and that this is ‘the beginning of the end’. But if we’re sticking to WW2 analogies the ‘beginning of the end’ was the Battle of Britain being won and the full horrors of the Eastern Front, the Final Solution, A-Bombs, etc were still to come. What horrors must the world endure before the thing is won?

  • A very perceptive piece. It is especially refreshing to read a posting on Samizdata that recognises and analyses the importance of differences within Islam; rather than treating the entire Moslem world as a single undifferentiated entity.

    I think there is much truth in what you say. The tactical goal of Salafists is to use terrorism as a means of radicalising and galvanising Moslems, especially younger and poorer ones. However, by going too far, the Salafists may just end up generating feelings of disgust amongst those they hope to radicalise. We can certainly hope.

    Algeria is arguably a case in point. The gross excesses of the GIA did not produce a general upsurge in support for fundamentalism. Rather the opposite.

  • As I see it, the movement within Islam toward creating a new Caliphate by conquest is actually very modern.

    Since the rise of Western power in the middle ages, and particularly since the battle of Vienna in 1683, militant Islam has ceased to advance. For three hundred years, Islam has spread in some areas by conversion or migration, but no longer by conquest. Probably one could draw the line much earlier — I would characterise the spread of the Ottoman empire, and of Moghul India, more as “ordinary” imperialism than genuine jihad.

    The idea that Islam could now, as in its early history, spread theocratic rule across the world seems to have arisen in the 1980s and 1990s, encouraged by successes in Afghanistan, Egypt and Algeria.

    Moslems across the world, when not directly affected by this movement, are bound to feel some sympathy with this movement, just on the basis that one likes to see one’s “own team” win. Many were not put off by the civilian deaths three years ago, but while New Yorkers in the WTC can be dehumanised (by some) as a symbol of the wealth and power of America, it is difficult to look at the children of Beslan in the same way.

    I am optimistic that Islamism can be defeated, because that does not require fundamental changes to Islam; Islamism was quiet for at least three centuries. It just needs a recent fad to go out of fashion.

  • Patrick W:

    “The most intractable of the problems facing Islam is not that it sucks and will impoverish your life but that it cannot deal with change.”

    This sort of generalisation is precisely what bedevills these discussions. The question is not whether Islam can deal with change. Islam is not a person. The question is whether Moslems can deal with change. I don’t know where Patrick lives, but there are hundreds of thousands of British Moslems who get on with their lives just like the rest of us and seem to have had no difficulty at all “dealing with change”.

  • mike

    Julius: I’m sure Patrick will speak for himself, but perhaps he was referring to Islam not being able to deal with change, in the same convinient, abstract sense in which a libertarian might refer to socialism as not being able to deal with change.

    Anyway, if you do want to get down & dirty, let’s have a succinct consideration of which features of Islam or sharia enable Muslims to ‘deal with change’ as it were and which features are anatagonistic to a changing social/economic environment…

  • Mike:

    Well if we are going to talk about the survival of ideas as incorporeal entities, then if radical globalist Islam is not adaptable it will die out. That is the fate of things that are not adaptable. See Darwin, Dawkin etc.

    To press the analogy, one might regard the violent intolerant kind of Islam as a virulent pathogen that, like real virulent pathogens, will tend to wax and wane in an epidemic fashion. I guess the sub-text of Brian’s post is that perhaps we are now seeing the epidemic peaking, to be followed by a rapid decline. A sort of intellectual black death.

  • mike

    Yeah well that’s not what I was asking for. I am familiar with Dawkins’ ideas and the ‘theory’ of memetics (although it is not a testable theory, therefore not a scientific theory on Popperian grounds).

    I am more interested in the specifics of Islam or sharia law and debating to what degree they may be compatible (or may be made compatible) with liberalism (individual basis of rights and so on). As I am ignorant myself I shall have to rely on others until my new books arrive.

  • Andrew X

    Another element to consider is that George W. Bush is basically forcing most if not all Americans to think, act and be on a war footing for the indefinite future, and structuring society accordingly.

    Obviously, the effect of this on anyone (mostly) who is even a micron to the left will be to fill them with loathing and revulsion. After all, it takes two to make war, and thus for only one of the two to opt out means there will be no war. That this will, in fact, mean surrender to the one with the greater will not to opt out is a bit of a less palatable idea, and thus best ignored. Surrender is not a problem, WAR is the problem.

    But in preparing this ground psychologically, Bush is in fact, long term, turning America into a less desirable target. That he has done this and caused outrage among our “friends”, has advantages all it’s own, basically sending the message that if you get in front of this particular freight train, NOBODY, not our enemies, not our friends, not the UN, not the Martians, nobody, is going to stand between our hands and your throat.

    To mix metaphors, the US is like a gigantic battleship. It takes a loooooong, slow time to turn, but when it turns, it turns big, and you definitely don’t want it bearing down on you when it does.

  • Richard A. Heddleson

    Andrew X is correct and the implication of that for this post is that these few Muslims have said too litle too late. I’d get out of the path of Leviathan, if I were in their canoe.

    To use the other methapho, Americans use way too many antibiotics in way too high dosages. This pathogen has only started to fel the effects of the mega-dose. And come November, we’ll take another dose.

  • Folks, you should check out The Revival of Islamic Madness and read the stuff at Faith freedom.org to get a perspective about Islam and its chances of ever changing

  • Fred

    Islam has been with us for 1500 years not 60 years like the USSR. To be Islam it must be undermined at a spiritual level. While ever a Muslim thinks he is on his way to 72 vestal virgins by blowing himself and others up he will do it and he doesnt need a Soviet style economy to back him up. To beat Islam they have to die with the fear of not going to heaven. These people dont care how poor they are, just look at how they live. They are coming into the West not for our economy but to turn our economy and belief system into theirs. The British shot Muslims on the North West frontier with bullets greased with pig fat. That scared the Muslims no end thinking they would die with pig fat inside of them. Let us study the Rantings and ravings of that scitsoid Mohammed and find the means to help Muslims die knowing they are on their way to hell. Even Christian should look to their own salvation to ensure they die with the certainty of Heaven. This war is a battle of beliefs, not ecconomics (unlike the collapse of communism).