Thursday, August 17, 2006

Intervew With an 'Enlightened' Egyptian

The September 2006 National Geographic Magazine features an interview with Alaa Al Aswany, the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building, which has been a best-seller in the Middle East for over two years. Al Aswany is an American-educated full-time dentist in Cairo that very seriously pursues writing as a hobby. Al Aswany is a critic of Egypt’s Mubarak administration (which can be dangerous), and a critic of some cultural and political aspects of Middle Eastern life. His popular novel is a commentary on what Egypt has become over the past 75 years.

The interview ranges through Al Aswany’s thoughts about Islam, terrorism, politics, and his personal life. I found the following interchange impressive.
Q: Some people believe there can never be a true democracy in Egypt. Do you agree?

A: I disagree. We must begin with democracy. But the Arab regimes play games with this word. They say there has to be an interpretation of democracy that fits the Arab world. I don’t believe that. We need Western-style democracy, with a free press and the rule of law, where all people can choose their elected officials. People do not need to be educated to vote. You may be poor, but making the choice for democracy is not complicated. A person makes choices every day.
Al Aswany is Muslim, but he does not seem to be passionately so. He says, “I am born Muslim, so I am Muslim. If I had been born Christian, I would have been Christian.” While recognizing that many evils have been done in the name of religion, Al Aswany sees religion as a positive force. “[Religions] are a way to find God, a way to have positive personal values, to prove oneself as a good human being.” When questioned about the clash “between the Muslim world and the West,” Al Aswany says, “The clash comes from the aggressive interpretation of some religions.”

When asked where “the current fanaticism is coming from,” Al Aswany claims it is due to poverty and lack of opportunity. He says that those that are unempowered, “marginalized and oppressed, without any future and any kind of human dignity” turn to violence in an attempt to change the status quo. He likens this to violence he saw in poor neighborhoods in Chicago, where he went to university.

While the elements Al Aswany mentions certainly are factors to consider, I must respectfully disagree with his take on this matter. For starters, it is completely disingenuous to equate the occasional street violence in poorer sections of Chicago with people willing to walk into a public place and blow themselves to smithereens along with as many innocent bystanders as possible.

While many of the Palestinian suicide bombers that used to frequent Israeli cities prior to the wall going up were drawn from the lower classes, this was not universally the case. Nor can it be said that perpetrators of the world’s most infamous terrorist murders and attempted murders over the past quarter century (the 1972 Munich Olympics, 9/11, the shoe bomber, the Madrid trains, the Chechnyan school, the London subway, the Iraq beheadings, the recently thwarted airliner plot, etc.) were poor. If they were marginalized and oppressed, it was only in their own minds.

The things all these terrorists have in common is that they claimed to be Muslims acting for the glory of Allah, and they received hateful, terrorist-promoting indoctrination (and even training) via Islamic mosques. Some less recent terrorists, including the IRA in the UK and leftist radicals in the late 60s and early 70s in the US, also had hate-filled indoctrination and training, sometimes through religious sources (with the IRA), and other times through secular sources (some of which act like religions).

The point is that in all of these cases, there have been hate-spewing radical organizations that have either implicitly or explicitly promoted acts of terrorism, sometimes enabling or even directing these acts. Today there are still such organizations, but much of the radicalism is coming from mosques.

Michael Medved argues here (hat tip MOP) that there is a “deep-seated human hunger for connection with a Supreme Being, the nearly universal yearning to draw closer to eternal truth.” He argues that when it comes to this desire, it is “not possible to beat something (radical Islam) with nothing (secular agnosticism).” Medved argues that the answer is more and vibrant religiosity in society, not less. He drives his point home by asking, “If those three British bomb plot suspects who converted to Islam had instead found their way to Pentecostal Christianity, or traditional Catholicism, or the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints, would they ever have considered killing themselves to blow planes out of the sky?” Medved points out that even the most ardent Jew has never suggested forcing the rest of the world to accept strict Jewish law, but the idea that the whole world must accept strict Islamic law or be annihilated is broadly believed in major portions of the Muslim world.

Al Aswany blames much of the mosque-sponsored radicalism on Sunni Wahhabism, which he calls “an aggressive, intolerant approach that institutionalizes Islam as a state religion rather than allowing people to interpret it in their own individual ways.” He says, “The Saudis have spent millions to export Sunni Wahhabism through the Middle East…” Actually, they have spent billions exporting it throughout the world, including to many mosques in the US, as well as throughout portions of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Unhappy about this, Al Aswany criticizes the US. “I must remind you that the American administration has been the most powerful supporter of the medieval Saudi regime because of Saudi oil. To support them is like having a tiger in your house.” Al Aswany makes a good point, but he places too much blame in the wrong places. He believes America must choose between being a moral superpower or a capitalist superpower. I’m not sure these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

In other words, while Al Aswany finds problems with his home country of Egypt and some facets of Middle Eastern society, he pretty much blames the confrontation between Islamic fascism and the West on the US and Saudi Arabia. He seems to be saying that it’s our fault terrorists murdered thousands of innocents in New York and Washington, DC on 9/11. The Saudis are partly to blame as well, but only because we bought oil from them. The rest of the Middle East has its problems, but they’re all local and have nothing to do with the broader conflict.

While this blame-shifting attitude seems stunningly bizarre to me, I have to face the fact that a number of people in my own country share Al Aswany’s ideas on this point.

I admire Al Aswany’s desire for democratic societies in the Middle East. He seems to agree with George Bush on this point. He surely must be one of the more enlightened denizens of that region. But his denial of the true causes of Islamic terrorism, as well as its breadth and depth throughout Islamic populations, is a harbinger of the difficulties ahead of us as we are forced to deal with it.

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