Since September 11, much has been written about a supposed struggle within Islam: between the forces of religious fundamentalism and “progressiveness”. It’s no secret that many in the West have backed the latter in this two-horse race for the hearts and souls of the Muslim world.
With its promise of secularization, a feminist-led reworking of traditional gender roles, and a willingness to reinterpret most every aspect of Islam—from its punishments to its proscriptions—self-styled progressives have offered the West a palatable alternative to traditional interpretations of Islam.
The frequent references to Islamic “reformations” and “Muslim Martin Luthers” offers an insight into the West’s thinking about contemporary Muslim society. It demonstrates a condescending approach to other cultures, that assumes the universality of its own historical model of separation of church and state to attain modernity; suggesting that the route the West has taken is the only way forward, and that all other cultures, including Islam, will eventually imitate it.
Recognizing an inconsistency between Islamic teachings and the contemporary secular values of the West, Muslim liberals offer a radical re-interpretation of Islam as the solution. However, whilst other religions have, to their detriment, embraced relativism and adapted accordingly, such a phenomena is unknown to Islam. Muslims have retained a firm belief both in the infallibility and literal truth of their text. Islam does not share the temporality of other faiths: the exhortation of the Prophet 1,400 years ago remain equally valid today; and while Islam allows some limited adaptation to culture and technology, what was deemed immoral 1,400 years ago remains immoral today.
Despite this, there remains the optimistic belief that, given the opportunity, Muslims would choose to free themselves from the shackles of theology and embrace some vacuous notion of “modernity”. However, the much-heralded Saudi elections demonstrate the fallacy of such thinking.
This week, elections were held for municipal councils in Saudi Arabia. The elections, broadly welcomed as baby-steps taken on the road to democracy, attracted an amazing response: in Riyadh alone, some 1,800 Saudis registered as candidates. Many of these were millionaires, many were seeking to trade on tribal ties, and yet others were public figures well-known to the Saudi public. The expectation of both Saudi liberals and many Western commentators was that the election would validate claims of popular support for liberalization. However, when votes were counted, it emerged that Saudis had voted for people whose defining qualities were their religious conservatism and the endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment. Even in Jeddah, the most liberal of Saudi cities and the intellectual heartland of Saudi secularism, the six candidates elected were the six candidates endorsed by Islamic scholars—the so-called “Golden List”.
Election results across the kingdom have shattered the myth of a Saudi nation repressed by its clergy; anxious to throw off the manacles of puritan Islam and adopt the nostrums of the secular West. It also offers Western cheerleaders for a democratic Middle East a clear lesson: given the vote, Muslims will overwhelmingly vote ‘yes’ for Islam and ‘no’ for secularism and Western-style liberalism.
As a regular visitor to the Middle East, it is hard not to feel the winds of change are blowing; however, they are clearly not blowing in the direction that the US and her allies have intended. In Saudi Arabia, the war on Iraq and the bellicose position taken by the US towards the religious practices of the Kingdom, has fed an already advanced Islamic revival. The West’s open support for self-styled “progressives” and “reformers” has only bolstered the credibility of their opposition. By way of example, whereas once there was no purely Islamic satellite channel in the kingdom, today there are two: one for adults, and one for children.
The phenomena evidenced in the Saudi elections will continue as more Arab governments are cajoled or threatened into making further democratic reforms. Paradoxically, reforms that were meant to usher in a democratic, secular and pro-Western Middle East, will lead to more religious governments articulating a more independent foreign policy.
This should not necessarily be cause for concern. Islamic scholars have been at the forefront of opposing religious extremism; and 1,400 years of Islamic history shows a correlation between the religiousness of the government and its ability to embrace technology and advance human learning. Indeed, the West is likely to be a benefactor of the increased social, economic and political stability that comes from representative government in the oil-rich Muslim world.
The War on Iraq has frequently been cast as a test of our collective commitment to democracy and freedom. As the Saudi elections show, the real test is yet to come: can our belief in the right of all people to self-determination accommodate a Middle East that chooses the absolutism and certainty of Islam over the relativism and institutionalized atheism of secularism?