Notes from Limmud 2008
The Decline of the West in Muslim Scholarship
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
We quite often make a grave mistake in the West, when we dichotomise Muslims into the desert Arab, who is withdrawn and knows nothing about Western society or democracy, is not into science, and is anti-Western; and the westernised Muslim, who has gone to a western university, and has been accommodated and even integrated to an extent. We do this because we have a good idea of ourselves: that western society should be a model to other ones. Just meet us and you'll be our friend.
The speaker argues that the worst cases of anti-Western writings, and of Muslim radicalisations in modern history are actually the result of direct encounters with the West; and the stronger the encounter, the stronger the reaction.
The notion of the impending decline of the west is neither new nor Muslim. [Despite which, he goes on to say:] The idea that societies decline originated with a fourteenth century Arab, Abd-ur-Raḥman Ibn Khaldūn, from Tunisia, who lived at a time when anthropology was a new science. His theory was kingdoms rise because of a group consciousness, called عصبية `assabiya in Arabic, which allows tribes to conquer other cities. The group is closely knit, and ready to sacrifice one for the other. Because they come from the desert, they have the higest moral qualities: they are brave, diligent, ready to make sacrifices.
Then comes the second generation, which is not so brave or ready to make sacrifices. This is a bit lazy and takes stuff for granted. Then comes the third generation, which is so not prepared to fight for anything that the kingdom collapses, and is conquered by a new tribe still with `assabiya. He said this cycle normally takes 120 years, and it is rare for a kingdom to last longer than this.
Throughout the twentieth century, western scholars adopted this idea: Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. They wrote that there is a timespan for civilisations to live and to die, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Their greatest zenith is also the point at which they are going to start to decline.
Then we have more contemporary writers, such as Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of Great Powers) and Samuel Huntingdon, who warned the same thing. Kennedy said a superpower like the Soviet Union becomes so convinced it is great that it overstretches itself; Afghanistan encapsulated this for the Soviet Union.
In the late eighties when liberal democracies were at their zenith, the idea emerged that the United States was about to decline. And who was going to replace it? At the end of the eighties, people perceived Japan as its natural successor.
Hence [ie. because the US didn't fall and give way to Japan], the idea of decline is nothing to do with natural succession; it's to do with making a case. In the case of Kennedy, it was to warn the US not to go too far; for Spengler it was to make Germany feel better after defeat.
The one thing all these have in common is that they all say decline is inherent to the history of a civilisation. The picture is circular. It's the same way all human beings die. [I'm also struck by how this view of the rise and fall of civilisations matches the traditional Chinese view of the succession of dynasties.]
However, contemporary Muslims writing about the decline of the west don't see a circular view of history. They see a western civilisation dominating the world today, which, when it falls, will be replaced with a Muslim one which will not rise and fall. It will just rise, and be maintained forever, because that is what G-d wants.
Most Americans and Englishmen writing on this subject are trying to ring a warning bell: beware, there are limits. But Muslims writing about the decline of the west are pleased with it. The reason is the same that they write about the decline of the west in the first place: There is a contradiction between the fact devout Muslims believe G-d wants their ideas to be dominant; and the fact for the last four hundred years it's been the west that's been dominant, and the Muslim world non-dominant. If you are a Muslim, you have to ask yourself why is this so? How is it possible our civilisation is so weak, and Western civilisation so strong?
One answer is that it's all a misinterpretation of the West: actually, it's on the point of collapse, and eager to embrace Islam. This gives a satisfactory answer to Muslims. And this is why those who come into contact with Western [lacuna]
Sayyid Qutb, one of the most important Muslim intellectuals and activists, was born in Egypt in 1906. He was a modernist and liberal in the thirties and forties then became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, at which some of his friends became afeared for his life; so they arranged for him to go to the United States, to study the western system of education.
He watched American society quite closely; he went in '48 and returned in '50 and wrote a series of articles in an Egyptian newspaper, entitled America Which I Have Seen With My Own Eyes; which is very anti-Western.
Sayyid Qutb is important because he is the founder of the idea that it is okay to use violent force to bring about Muslim regime. His basic idea is that there is no halfway house: either a regime follows Shari`a without any compromise, or it must be toppled by violent force. It doesn't make any difference whether it is western, or Arab, or Muslim: If it doesn't follow Shari`a 100% it must be toppled by extragovernmental violent force.
This idea developed later: in '50 to '52 Qutb told the world what he had seen of the US. In his interpretation, he saw a primitive civilisation. He tells the story of attending an American football match. "What is this barbaric event?" he wrote: "You have thousands of people sitting in a stadium cheering to other people trying to hurt each other as much as possible. Only a primitive society [lacuna]. Also, why do they call it football? It's pla[yed with the hands!]"
He says, "I was sitting with a lady friend at the home of my English teacher; and a lady friend of the lady friend was saying that [name] had died, and how lucky she was that she had medical insurance." Qutb was sure she was talking about her dog, but in fact she was talking about her husband, who had died three days ago. "Why was she so unmoved? And what was this custom of putting the body in a casket and then sitting around eating biscuits? Have they no respect?"
What really disturbed Qutb was the attitude to sexual relationships. He was such an influential man in Muslim societies—as he still is today, though nobody will admit it. Just think what he would have said if he had visited the States in the sixties, rather than the fifties!
He would interview teenagers and quote them in his books. "For us sexual relationships are just something that needs to be done," a fourteen-year-old told him. "These are just like monkeys," he said. "Humanity progressed not to have these ideas; but look at the US!"
What probably happened was that he was already entertaining Islamic ideas when he went to the States. The basic idea of the Muslim Brotherhood was that Islam encapsulated all works of life. He had two choices: to remain old-style Muslim, or to become more Muslim. He chose the latter, perhaps because he found the US too intimidating. But once he made this choice, he had no other option but to say anything American was wrong. He had to detract from anything American.
In the next sixteen years, he would again and again repeat the idea in his books that American society was inherently corrupt. Then, shortly before he died (executed by Nasser), he came up with the idea that American society was inherently doomed, was soon to collapse, and nothing would be going to stop this. This was because the States had all those big buildings and big cars, but they lacked one thing: spirituality. They were not ready to embrace G-d's prophet.
Now wind forward twenty-four years, to Saudi Arabia in the early nineties. In 1991, Saudi Arabia was rescued from the danger occupation by Iraq by American intervention; and the Soviet Union collapsed, which left only one superpower in the world: the United States. Putting these two together gave a picture of the US was doing pretty well—but at the time, the Saudi press was full of articles saying that the US was going to soon collapse, just as the Soviet Union had.
You could argue that the Saudis read Kennedy &c; but it's not really possible: we only see those texts in 91‒92, not in the years beforehand, when those ideas proliferated in the States. Furthermore, in Saudi Arabia, articles are not just written; they are written because somebody wants them to be written—and they are not published en masse unless the government wants them so published.
What happened was that Saudi officials were quite frightened: there was only one superpower, and that superpower was telling the world our way of life, our system of government, prevails. The only conclusion was that something was wrong with the Saudi system, and there is another system they must embrace.
The Saudi writers said there weren't really communism and capitalism. These only pretend to be two separate systems of government. Really, they are two branches of the one tree, which is godless materialism. What happened in 1989 was that one face of western materialism collapsed; according to the Saudi view, the collapse of the other face was now going to happen very soon.
When you say something like this, you are looking for signs. Looking at the US in '91, you see some alarming signs: a recession. The Saudi scholars said you remember how the Soviet Union fell: In 1991 it was militarily just as strong as in 1981; the reason it collapsed was because its economy fell apart.
At that time there were also the Rodney King riots in LA. This was another sign of social breakdown in the US. But the main reason mentioned in these texts was that these societies were godless, they cared about nothing apart from money. A society which lacks spirituality, where family doesn't matter, is going to collapse very soon.
They said: don't be enchanted by democracy. Look at the American railway stations: see how many homeless there are; for them democracy doesn't matter. See how many poor there are; for them democracy doesn't matter.
Of course, what followed in the next eight years was uncontested world hegemony under Clinton, and Saudi Arabia continuing to be an ally of the United States.
A third group of Muslims writing about the decline of the west constitutes Muslims living in the West (or Muslims writing for Muslims living in the West). These write that the west is in decline, and soon the Muslim immigrants living in the West will be able to offer western civilisation a substitute for its civilisation, and western society will embrace this.
There are many texts saying basically the same thing, from Germany, the US, Qatar, and even the Regent's Park mosque in London (a DVD, "Why is the West coming to Islam", by an Indian doctor called Zakernak—probably funded by the Saudis since he says such good things about them). He doesn't go into detail that the West is collapsing—this is taken for granted. He talks instead about why it is happening, and why so many westerners are embracing Islam—which is untrue, as both western and Muslim scholarship accepts.
As an example, he says so many westerners embrace Islam because westerners are very rational; and it's much easier to convert fifty Americans than one Indian, because Americans are rational: hence they will know that Islam is the true religion.
Many Muslim evangelists use this argument. As an example of the kind of rational argument they quote: The word Satan appears in the Qur'an 156 times, as does the word "angel"; but the word "water" only appears in a 72% ratio to that of "land"—which is the ratio of water to land on Earth. So how could this be, given that it was written at a time when people didn't know it, unless the Qur'an is the word of G-d?
In response to people saying Muslim law is harsh, for chopping off a man's hand for stealing a sack of potatoes, Zakernak argues that in Saudi Arabia, nobody steals, for this reason, whereas in the USA, theft is prevalent.
In response to the argument that Muslim law is out-of-date because a man can marrry four wives, Zakernak says, look at the number of homosexuals in the US. If men were not allowed to marry more than one woman, there would be many men without women.
He also talks about the absence of old-people's homes in the States, contrasted with the respect for the aged in the Muslim world.
One thing which repeats itself is his disgust with dogs, of having pets, and spending so much time and energy on dogs. (It's always against dogs, never against cats!) Dogs epitomise the notion that western society gave up the idea of family: family doesn't matter, only dogs.
What end does this scholarship serve? Answer: what is the explanation for millions of Muslims immigrating to the West? It has nothing to do with religion or politics. Most of them came because they needed to provide for their families. The mere fact they are there is evidence of the utter failure of Muslim societies, which could not offer them jobs, or education, especially in the sciences.
How do you face this failure, and handle the fact millions of Muslims live under Christian or secular regimes? If you tell them all "come back", it's not going to work, especially for the second or third generations. You need to find an alternate solution. So assign them with a task: You can stay in the west, but you're not there to be integrated or assimilated; you're living there because G-d sent you there, and Western civilisation is soon to collapse, and you are going to be the witnesses and help them to Islam.
Some prominent Muslim scholars call them pioneers, and talk about the new Islamic frontier. Mainstream scholars talk about Islam being like the moon: where it does not shine in one place, you see it sign in another.
Western Muslims can be susceptible to this because Western society can be very arrogant towards others. If they come across a book or a DVD telling them they are not at the edge of society, but are a key part of G-d's masterplan, they could easily be sucked into this.