Wahhabi Colonialism By Melik Kaylan

The Wall Street Journal

Wahhabi Colonialism

September 18, 2006; Page A18

Pope Benedict XVI recently cited a Byzantine-era critique of Islam, and the usual hubbub of outrage ensued. Various self-appointed and official Islamic spokesmen (they're always men), including the head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate (why does Turkey have one?), responded sharply in the name of their faith. One might argue that a confident, evolved religion welcomes all kinds of open debate. Or one might intone gravely that the West continues to mishandle its relations with the umma -- the sphere of active Muslim believers -- with the implied assumption that there is such a unified entity of tens of millions, and that they all feel outrage in the same way at the same time. Islamist polemicists, in particular, cherish the archaic umma concept, evoking, as it does, a premodern utopia of monolithic harmony.

Many in the West buy the notion, with its familiar en bloc echoes of the proletariat. But should the rest of us believe them? Do we insult Muslims by buying into it, too, or insult them the more by considering it antiquated and bogus?

Mishandling and misinterpreting Muslim sentiments appears to be a habit we acquired in the post-Soviet age. Until then the West couldn't go wrong. We didn't need to know too much about radical Islam because we knew this much: Marxism was a shared enemy because it imposed atheism on subject populations, and primitive Islamic fervor worked in our favor. During the Cold War years, the West did indeed encourage the spread of a unitary and evangelical form of the religion wherever possible, as a counter to secular values. We have belatedly realized that to the doctrinaire Islamist ideologues, the Wahhabists, the Sayyid Qutbs, the Muslim Brotherhoods and now their bin Ladenite inheritors, modernism, too, was a kind of atheism.

Arabian fundamentalists concluded that if post-medieval progress in the world made their values unworkable, then it was the world's fault, and the world should be stopped in its tracks. This is a bit like the Flat Earth society resolving to retro-authenticate its views by nuking the earth flat. The Islamists found in Afghanistan that this could be done, after a fashion: Reduce the environment to premodern conditions, and, miraculously, the ideology applies precisely -- as it did wherever nature, not tamed by progress, had to be tamed by repressive social discipline. In some places, such as parts of Africa and Pakistan's tribal areas, a weak central state offered ready conditions for that ideology. In other places, like Chechnya, Palestine and now Iraq, chaos needed encouragement with car- and-suicide bombings. There's nothing new or particularly Islamic to this prescription. Remember Mao Zedong's revolutionary slogan: "Chaos under the heavens and all is right with the world."

An apparently impossible predicament, then, confronts Western policy makers today: whether to uphold corrupt and often hostile tyrannies, as in Egypt and Uzbekistan -- or to topple them and open the door to religious extremists applying their iron dialectic. A terrible inevitability is born, so it seems. In fact, a way through exists, but the West must quickly shed ignorance of matters Islamic.

As many Muslim apologists contend, though often for disingenuous purposes, the Islamic world is indeed not monolithic. It remains highly fissiparous and regional, inmixed with a myriad of localized customs, superstitions and hagiologies. The indigenous Islam of Central Asia, for example, combining Sufi mysticism, shamanism and dance, gave rise to the spiritualist école of Gurdjieff, et al., that swept through Europe early last century. Until recently, a branch of it held sway in Chechnya, where men danced the ecstatic zikhr circle dance on holy days -- until, that is, al Qaeda crept in just 10 years ago.

When fundamentalists confront such diversity, they do so with dogmatic force, huge resources and a fully schematized set of ideas. They bully local Islam into puritan uniformity. In Bosnia and Kosovo, whenever Saudi and Gulf agents offered funds to rebuild war-damaged communities, they insisted first on flattening cemeteries, destroying tombstones and whitewashing mosque décor, on the principle that pure iconophobic Islam abhorred the worship of idols. (This, despite the ubiquity of giant-sized idolatrous portraits, in their own countries, of Gulf and Saudi emirs on public walls -- not to mention currency notes.)

One can imagine the initial distress followed by resistance from local communities against such arrogant sacrilege from outside -- a resistance that, alas, fades with pressure and neglect. In the Balkans, inhabitants had to be restrained, weeping, from forcefully defending their family graves. This is where the opportunity lies for the West to break the extreme Islamists' strategy for indoctrination and for sowing jihad upon chaos. Both in Western mosques and in the Islamic world, the reintroduction of regional forms of belief and practice should be fostered.

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In such Central Asian countries as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, where sub-al Qaeda groups now clandestinely offer the only full-fledged religious instruction available to the populace, national leaders should be encouraged instead to revive their own indigenous practices (long dormant under Soviet rule), to arm their citizens with a regional pride in their organic Muslim traditions, even to export them to nearby Afghanistan -- where such practices endured until the Soviet invasion. In Turkey, the vast heritage of poetic mysticism accumulated in the Seljuk and Ottoman dynasties, visible now only in the Rumi-Dervish order, should be revitalized and exported to neighbors (assuming the religious affairs directorate agrees, of course). In Central Asia, Indonesia, the Philippine Islands and elsewhere, Wahhabists should no longer expect to meet with no counterargument when, as a prelude to conversion, they accuse the locals of ignorance and godlessness. They should be confronted with a literate, individuated and self-confident Islam, deeply rooted in local history and all the more resistant to their internationalist, one-size-fits-all template.

In such conditions, local Muslims will also defend the progress and development they have achieved nationally, thereby short-circuiting the messianic return-to-rubble logic of jihadists. To the argument that such initiatives imposed from above or initiated in the West will be dismissed as imperialist or collusionist, there's a simple answer. The spread of fundamentalist Islam was itself fostered by the West via the Arabian peninsula for political reasons. It has become the ultimate, invasively colonial force and aims to subjugate the entire umma to its tenets.

Mr. Kaylan, born in Istanbul, is a writer in New York.

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