The Future
The Moslem Mind


The text of the lecture delivered by
Tarek Heggy
at Merton College (Oxford University)
on Thursday 16th October, 2003.

I- The Big Change in Islamic Societies.

A comparison between Islamic and Arab societies today and those of a century ago reveals how much more widespread the ‘mentality of violence’ has become in today’s societies. But the real danger lies less in the mentality of violence that has come to permeate many, if not all, sectors of Islamic and Arab societies than in the spread of the culture that is conducive to its growth and development. This culture is what spawns militants who promote the mentality of violence and the general climate that allows it to take hold. I believe five factors are responsible for the phenomenon: political oppression (at the hands of autocratic forms of government marked by a lack of democracy); the rise of the Wahhabi brand of Islam (along with the retreat of the tolerant model which had prevailed for centuries); the spread of tribal values which came with the spread of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam; educational systems that are completely divorced from the age; and, finally, widespread corruption, which is the inevitable result of political oppression.

Possibly the most dangerous of the many negative effects of political oppression is that it kills social mobility, in the sense that it denies the best elements in society the opportunity to rise to leading positions in various fields. The death of a healthy process of social mobility makes for a static situation in which inept and mediocre elements come to occupy top positions by dint of accepting, indeed, of supporting, oppression and through unquestioning loyalty to their superiors. As oppression kills social mobility, so does the lack of social mobility kill competence in all fields. Oppression produces followers, not competent people, with the result that widespread mediocrity becomes the norm. This produces a general climate of despair, and from this comes the mentality of violence, with its attendant devaluation of the value of human life, whether of oneself or of others. In other words, Arab and Islamic societies in general are today caught in an equation which I call ‘the equation of destruction’: autocracy kills social mobility; lack of social mobility destroys competence at all societal levels; lack of competence at all societal levels creates a powerful evil energy which is despair; despair breeds a mentality of violence, cheapens the value of human life and creates a desire for revenge.

Over the last four decades, many have written about the rising violence in a large number of Islamic and Arab societies; strangely enough, none of them used the terms ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ in their analysis of this phenomenon. This is as true of eminent professors in top-notch universities, like Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington, as it is of journalists. I have never come across this key word in all my readings on the subject. This calls to mind a talk I gave a few years ago to MBA students at the American University in Cairo, in which I remarked that in hundreds of conversations I had had with various interlocutors about public figures, both local and international, the word competence never came up. It is an incomprehensible omission, especially for a management man like myself, who knows that problems are created by lack of competence while success in all its forms comes from competence. In fact, I believe the despair felt by so many in Islamic and Arab societies, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that breeds anger then violence, stems from the fact that these societies are run by human resources selected not for their competence but for their subservience and allegiance. After all, competence, as defined by modern management science, is of no great concern to an autocratic political system.

Educational systems that are out of step with the age are a vital link in the chain of destruction. Educational systems in most Islamic and Arab societies encourage insularity and reinforce a sense of isolation from the rest of humanity, promote fanaticism and lay down, without any scientific basis, religious frameworks for struggles that are purely political. By invoking religious texts taken out of context they not only promote intolerance, non-acceptance of ‘the Other’, and a lack of belief in pluralism, but consecrate the lowly status of women. Moreover, most of the curricula are designed to develop a mentality of ‘answering’ rather than of ‘questioning,’ in a world where progress and development are driven by the dynamics of questioning. In most Islamic and Arab societies, educational programmes fail to instill in the minds of the young that ‘progress’ is a human process, in the sense that its mechanisms are neither eastern nor western, but universal. This is borne out by the fact that the list of most advanced countries in the world includes some that are Western/Christian, like the United States and Western Europe, and others with a Japanese, Chinese or Muslim background (like Malaysia). There is a clear and growing tendency in the humanities and social sciences to disengage, as it were, from the common fund of human experience, the cumulative legacy built up over the ages by various civilizations. In a lecture I delivered recently at a British University, I said that in the sixties I had read most of the classics, from Homer to Sartre, passing through hundreds of names, languages and backgrounds. Like many of my contemporaries, I read these works in Arabic. The unfettered access we had at the time to the timeless classics of world literature linked us to humanity in a way that is inconceivable today, with the paucity of translations in the cultural arena in Arab and Islamic countries. My audience at that lecture were amazed to learn that, along with others of my generation, I had read Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Moliere, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, all the Russian classics, Flaubert, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Pirandello, Albert Camus, Steinbeck, Faulkner and the gems of German philosophy in Arabic, translated by people predominantly from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and published mainly in Egypt and Lebanon. Today, the gap between the minds of young people in Islamic and Arab societies and the masterpieces of human creativity has increased dramatically. In addition, the new generations have become increasingly ‘local’, setting themselves still further apart from humanity and increasing the mentality of violence and its culture.

II - Muslims and the Clash of Civilizations.

The mentality of violence is the product of internal factors, a variable that has emerged only in the last four decades, and its inclusion as a constant in the ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigm is not only forced but belongs more to the realm of science fiction than political analysis. A case in point is the famous book by Samuel P. Huntington, whose theory is closely linked to the issue of mentality of violence. First published as an article in 1992 under the title “Clash of Civilizations?” it was expanded into a book and published the following year under the same title – but without the question mark. The significance of the omission will not be lost on the reader. The book was a publishing event, selling more copies and provoking more controversy than any other book that year (with the exception of fiction bestsellers). While I cannot pass the same kind of sweeping judgment against the author, his motives, aims and intentions as those passed against him in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world, I will say that I found the book to have three major flaws:

• The first is that the author talks of Islam as though the Wahhabi model is the only Islam. In fact, Wahhabism was not a major trend in Islam until the alliance that took place between Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab and Mohamed ibn-Saud in the second half of the eighteenth century. Prior to that, there were ideas similar to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam but they were completely marginal. Mainstream Islam was quite distinct from the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam and its culture. The only relationship between the Ottoman Empire, which represented Islam politically as a superpower for several centuries, and Wahhabism was one of extreme animosity. I would have been willing to accept most of what Huntington wrote about the probable clash between the West and Islam if he had used the term ‘Wahhabi Islam’ instead of Islam. I can only conclude that Huntington is not very well versed in the history and factors which led to the rise of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

• The second is that he did not present any evidence to support his theory of an impending clash between the West and what he calls ‘Confucian’ societies, making the theory closer to fiction, specifically the writings of H.G. Wells, than to political analysis. It also owes much to Noam Chomsky’s equally unfounded theory that the United States needs an enemy to survive, and that this role was filled by the eastern bloc from 1945 to 1990. Following the collapse of communism, Chomsky believes Islam is now the prime candidate for the role! But if so, how to explain the enormous progress made by the United States between 1500 and 1900, without any external conflicts and without any clear enemy during this period of the development and completion of the American Dream? How to explain that despite Winston Churchill’s efforts from 1939 to 1941 to convince the United States to join the war on the side of the Allies, it was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 that his efforts were crowned with success? How could the United States have resisted the opportunity to benefit from the existence of a ready-made enemy which, according to Chomsky, it needed for its very survival?

• The third is that he did not devote enough space in his book to the largest conflict in the history of humanity, World War II, which was fought between forces belonging to the same Western civilization. It was also a conflict within the Christian world, but nobody ever mentioned religion as a factor in this huge conflict, which was primarily a conflict between European Fascism and European democracies.

III- The Mentality of Violence …. and the Games Nations Play!

Although I believe the mentality of violence is caused primarily by internal factors, I also believe that an external factor contributed to its spread, namely, the misguided attempts by some to use the forces produced by the mentality of violence for political purposes. A case in point is the support offered by the India office of MI6 to a group that was attempting at the beginning of the twentieth century to unify the Arabian Peninsula under a political system deriving its legitimacy from a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The Najdi movement, known as the Ikhwan or brotherhood, was a prime example of this trend during the twenties of the last century. King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud, founder of the third incarnation of the Saudi state, was forced to go to war against them after they accused him of deviating from the tenets of real Islam by accepting such Western abominations as radios, cars, telephones, etc. During the same period, Egypt saw an alliance formed between the British and the monarchy, who both had an interest in creating an alternative political entity, deriving its popularity from the popularity of religion in Egypt, to counterbalance the influential Wafd Party, which spearheaded the Egyptian struggle for a Constitution, a parliamentary life, and independence. Forged in secret, the alliance is now known to any student of Egypt’s modern history. An example of the dangerous game politicians play with the mentality of violence in the hope that they can use it to further their own ends, the game was played again in Egypt in the nineteen seventies and repeated by the United States in Afghanistan. All these cases illustrate how an external factor helped the mentality of violence reach such a level of political and military growth. Had it not been for the Cold War and for the short-sighted belief by some that religion could be used as a winning card in the confrontation, the mentality of violence could never have reached its present proportions. Thus although it is largely a product of internal factors like political oppression, lack of social mobility, disappearance of competence, prevalence of despair, reinforced by obsolete educational and information systems, the mentality of violence was given a huge boost by an external factor which can only be described as the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century.

IV- Implications of the Cairo/Al-Dir’iyah Confrontation.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Mohamed Ali, who introduced Egypt and the entire region to the modern age, sent a huge army to the Arabian Peninsula. Led first by the Egyptian ruler’s son Tousson then by his son Ibrahim, the army had as its objective the destruction of a newly established state in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula. Based in Najd, it was governed according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. In 1818, Ibrahim Pasha defeated the enemy, destroyed their capital, Al-Dir’iyah, and captured their leader, who was later executed in Istanbul. The war was an expression of the confrontation between two very different models of Islam: the Egyptian-Turkish model, based on an understanding of Islam that was shared by the Muslims of the Levant on one side versus the Wahhabi model on the other. But although the moderate, tolerant, mainstream version of Islam, which accepted to coexist in peace with others and was not pathologically opposed to progress and modernity, emerged victorious in that particular round of its confrontation with the forces of obscurantism, it was later forced to retreat before the internal factors I have previously mentioned, namely, oppression, absence of social mobility, spread of incompetence, despair, reactionary educational systems and corruption.

As to the other version of Islam, it found unprecedented opportunities to spread its uncompromising message to every corner of the world. International conditions (and lack of vision) allowed what had once been an obscure sect confined behind the sand dunes of Najd to impose itself on the world stage and boldly proclaim its brand of Islam as the one and only true Islam. As the drama played out, some of the spectators chose to look the other way because the sword-wielding hero of the piece was playing the role required of him at the time. Thus they failed to realize that the hero was no longer sticking to the script set for him, and was now playing a much more central and dangerous role.

V- A Movement Bred in the Isolation of the Desert.

The man who founded Wahhabism was not a theologian but a proselyter who was determined to convert the faithful to his harsh brand of Islam. Intellectually close to the dialectical Islamic theologians who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql) over reason (aql), Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab was a disciple of ibn-Taymiyah, a strict traditionalist who allowed little scope for reason or independent thinking. He was also a product of his geographical environment, a remote outpost of history. Unlike Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where ancient civilizations had flourished and made their mark on human history, or places like Dubai and Hijaz, which lay on trade routes and dealt extensively with the outside world, the desert of Najd in the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia had no civilization to speak of before Islam. Nor did it ever become a cultural centre like the capitals of the Caliphate, Medina, Damascus and Baghdad. Thanks to its arid, barren landscape, Najd remained a cultural backwater, its sole contribution to the arts a traditional form of poetry that spoke of narrow tribal matters.

The harsh and unforgiving environment in which the Najdis lived explains why Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab found a receptive audience for the equally harsh and unforgiving brand of Islam he preached. The same environment that produced the founder of Wahhabism later produced the radical Ikhwan movement which challenged the authority of King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud. In the nineteen twenties, the king took on the Ikhwan, who were openly accusing him of deviating from the true faith. When he returned to Riyadh after joining Hijaz to his kingdom, the Ikhwan said he had left on a camel and come back in an American car! This was just one of many clashes between the movement and the king over such issues as whether the radio was sinful or the telephone an invention of the devil, in short, over any of the fruits of modernity which threatened their fundamentalist vision of the world. It is a vision that can only be understood by studying what is known as the secret sects of Islam (radical fringe movements that never became part of mainstream Islam), as well as the message of Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab, the product of many factors, including the sociological and geopolitical environment of the deserts of Najd. These factors allowed the Wahhabis, after they invaded Hijaz, to impose their austere understanding of religion throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Among other things, they banned headstones and any structures identifying burial sites, insisting on unmarked graves flush with the land. They combated Sufism in Mecca and elsewhere as contrary to the teachings of Islam. They even entered into an armed clash with the Egyptian mahmil, a splendidly decorated litter on which the Egyptians sent a new cover for the Ka’bah every year. The mahmil ceremony was a merry occasion celebrated by the Egyptians with their traditional love of music, dancing and revelry. For the Najdis, who had launched their puritanical revival movement to purge Islam of what they saw as deviations from the straight and true path of orthodoxy, such unseemly displays of levity could not be tolerated.

What I want to cast light on here is that, throughout its history, the desert wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula’s Eastern Province had suffered greatly from its geography. However, it contained the richest oil fields and, following the oil price boom that turned the desert kingdom into a major financial power, it was inevitable that this part of the world should try and market its ideas. This it did with missionary zeal in the second half of the twentieth century. With a virtually endless supply of funds at their disposal, the Wahhabis were able to successfully propagate their model of Islam throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Disillusioned populations, facing massive internal problems caused by political oppression, lack of social mobility, widespread corruption, institutions run without any competence and deteriorating educational systems were easy prey, and mainstream Islam gradually lost ground to the austere, puritanical Wahhabi model that was now presenting itself as the one and only true Islam.

In short, while under non-Wahhabi Islam the Muslim communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were forward-looking, in tune with the times and living in harmony with large Christian and Jewish communities, it is inconceivable that Wahhabism would have tolerated the kind of cosmopolitan and tolerant societies that flourished in Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo at the turn of the twentieth century. On the contrary, the Najdi version of Islam exhorts its followers to remain in a constant confrontation with others, with the age and with modernity. Under Wahhabism, the word jihad is interpreted as the need to carry a sword at all times, although mainstream Islam for centuries understood it as requiring them to resort to force only to defend themselves from outside aggression. Even semantically, the word jihad is totally unrelated to the notion of armed violence. Mainstream Islam also accepted the possibility of Muslims merging with the rest of humanity (especially before the chauvinistic tribal culture of Najd gained ground), while Wahhabism regards this as impossible and unacceptable. Indeed, it is regarded as synonymous with subservience, a term that is widely used by those whose thinking is shaped by the Wahabbi model of Islam. If Noam Chomsky’s theory is valid, it applies just as much to the Wahhabis who need a strong enemy in order to survive.

VI- The Fall of the Oppressors and the Emergence of the Sword.

Over the last few decades, many Islamic societies were subjected to various types of despots who ruled their countries with an iron fist in the context of widespread autocracy. This led in many cases to the downward spiral I described previously. Oppression killed social mobility; the absence of social mobility led to a widespread lack of competence; lack of competence resulted in the collapse of all institutions; this engendered feelings of despair and rage out of which was born the ‘mentality of violence’ that came to permeate many of these societies. The problem is that no sooner are there changes that cause the downfall of the despotic ruler in these societies (Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq) than there emerge on the scene symbols of the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam putting themselves forward as saviours! Some people are fooled into thinking that they are the only political power produced by those societies. There is a compound error here: what produces this state of affairs is the despotic rulers and their autocratic regimes that kill social mobility, prevent the growth of civil society, generalize incompetence and divide political life into two levels: a level above ground (which belongs exclusively to the rulers and their cohorts) and a level below ground (which belongs to the symbols of Wahabbi Islam, who receive the best possible training in the art of growing underground in secrecy). As soon as the despot is removed, the only political force which existed underground emerges and, in the absence of civil society, the lack of social mobility and the prevalence of incompetence, the stage is set for a new set of oppressors who are at the same time incompetent. They will lead their societies to greater depths of backwardness, distance them still further from the modern age and sink them even deeper into social problems.

In short, both sets of oppressors, those operating above ground and those belonging to clandestine underground organizations, are products of the equation to which I have repeatedly returned in this article: an autocratic political system that paralyses social mobility and allows incompetent elements to take over the running of society’s institutions, thereby causing standards to deteriorate, despair to prevail and the mentality of violence to take hold. The educational and media institutions are incapable of righting this tragedy, because they too have been corrupted at the hands of incompetent elements. A valid question here is why this is the only model that emerges whenever an oppressive regime falls in a Muslim or Arab country. The answer is simply that this is a natural result of the widespread despair felt by those living under an autocratic regime that allows no political activities above ground, so that the only organizations that can survive in its shadow are those operating underground. The cure must start with the first link in the chain, not the last.

VII- Muslim Societies a Hundred Years Ago.

To disprove the allegation that the violent groups and trends which turn their backs on modernity and call for a return to the Middle Ages are the true representatives of Islam, one has only to consider how some of the principal Islamic societies were functioning at the turn of the twentieth century. Countries like Egypt, Greater Syria (which included Lebanon at the time) and Turkey were models of tolerance, their majority Muslim populations living peacefully with minorities of other faiths. Famously cosmopolitan cities like Alexandria, Beirut and Cairo were home to a wide diversity of minorities. Acceptance of the ‘Other’ and of modernity, as well as a hunger for the great masterpieces of human creativity were features shared by all these societies. Intellectuals translated Homer, the plays of Ancient Greece, the best of modern European literature and the great philosophers like Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hobbs, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Although they were in complete harmony with the scientific, philosophical and artistic consequences of the Renaissance, they retained their identity as Egyptians, Turks and Syrians. It was a time when Muslims saw no contradiction between their religious faith and their enthusiasm for the material and cultural fruits of European civilization.

The peaceful and harmonious coexistence of devout Muslims with the religious minorities living in their midst, their equally harmonious relationship with the fruits of Western civilization proves conclusively that the adherents of real Islam are not violent fanatics and that mainstream Islam has nothing to do with the Wahhabi model of militant Islam, whose success in winning over converts is due to the declining conditions in many Islamic societies (an autocratic political system leads to the total paralysis of social mobility which leads to the spread of incompetence which leads to a drop in standards which leads to despair which, in the context of backward educational systems, creates the mentality of violence and a cultural climate that accepts it.)

Thus it is not the Islamic system of belief that leads inevitably to violence and clashes with the ‘Other.’ Violence and fanaticism are features of only one fringe sect that was virtually unknown outside the deserts of Najd as recently as one century ago. Non-Wahhabi mainstream Islam prevailed in Islamic societies until two cataclysmic developments forced it to retreat: the first was the eruption of the violent model of Islam from behind the sand dunes, the second the decline in living standards in many Islamic societies which allowed it to spread.

VIII- The Crisis Facing Non-Wahabbi Islam.

There are no permanent social phenomena; they are the result of circumstances and factors. Therefore the fear that non-Wahabbi Islam, which was the main trend among the majority of Muslims for several centuries, is being edged out of its central role is a legitimate one. The moderate brand of Islam will not be reinstated in its former position unless the factors making up the equation of internal collapse to which Islamic societies are exposed are solved (starting with autocracy to the mentality of violence to lack of competence to declining living standards to despair to the collapse of educational systems) and unless the outside world in general and the world’s only superpower in particular realize that adopting hostile stands against Islam and Muslims indiscriminately can only provoke negative reactions. This is all the more true given that they were partners with those responsible for the downward spiral and helped bring about the series of external factors that allowed the cycle of violence to attain its present level. Humanity’s failure to support and reinforce the gentle, non-militant brand of Islam to which most Islamic societies until recently belonged by helping remove the internal and external ‘landmines’ which eroded the ability of those societies to stand up to the assault of militant Islam is a crime committed by humanity against itself, a crime for which we shall all pay an exorbitant price. I fear that the primary cause of this is the ‘infantile culture’ of the world’s foremost superpower. The United States, despite its great achievements in tens of fields suffers from what I call in my lectures the “cultural infantilism of American policies”. If we liken humanity to a body, the spinal cord of that body would be culture, a rare commodity among most citizens of the United States and a large portion of its intellectuals. The only explanation for this is the gap between material/scientific/technological advances and ‘cultural richness’, and the confusion in all intellectual and cultural centres in the United States between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. Perhaps a comparison between “A Study of History” by Arnold Toynbee and the writings of most of the famous American writers on politics and the struggle of civilizations would clarify the point I am trying to make.

IX- Islamic Societies and Problems with the Meaning of ‘Progress’ and ‘Modernity’.

A combination of closed autocratic regimes, outdated educational systems, state-controlled media, and a rigid, often extremist, understanding of religion renders many Muslims and Arabs wary of notions like ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’. The internal factors I have mentioned coupled with a number of external factors, such as the infantile culture in some highly developed nations, have led the Muslim Arab mind to think that the call for progress and modernity is a call for dependence and the loss of cultural specificity. What exacerbates the situation is that many Arabs and Muslims feel that the values of Western civilization are for westerners only, not for everyone. I have exerted tremendous efforts to make it clear to my readers in Egypt and the Middle East that modernization is a human phenomenon first and foremost. The prescription for progress has no nationality or religion, as borne out by the different cultural backgrounds of such developed societies as the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. I devoted one of my books, “The Values of Progress”, to demonstrating to the young people in my society the fallacy of the argument that progress and modernization will result in the loss of our identity and cultural specificity. As a man who has applied modern management techniques on a large scale, I know that there is ‘successful management’ and ‘unsuccessful management’, but I have no knowledge of Arab, Chinese, African, or French management. Japan developed in leaps and bounds over the last fifty years, but Japanese society, especially outside the capital, is still quintessentially Japanese. Whoever denies that progress is a purely human phenomenon and that the process leading to it is also human has obviously never seen the mechanics of progress at first hand - which may be the reason most academics are not interested in the issue.

Oppressive regimes are matched by the local citizen who lacks any connection with the outside world and who thinks that modernity is the other side of the coin of dependence. He would not believe that democracy is a human product, and a human right and not a Western commodity for westerners, nor realize that the maxim that “for each society, there is the brand of democracy that suits it” is misleading. For while it is true that there are many forms of democracy, it is equally true that they all contain mechanisms of accountability designed to bring rulers down from the realm of masters to that of servants of society.

The question over the future of the Muslim mind is the same as the question over the future of Islamic societies: is it a future of freedom, democracy, prosperity and progress, or the opposite? The answer to this question will determine the answer to the question about the future of the Muslim mind: will it follow the route of moderate Islam or that of Wahabbi Islam?