Two ideas have dominated American thinking for the last decade: Francis Fukuyama's ‘End of History’ and Samuel Huntington's ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ They provide alternative understandings of contemporary history, Fukuyama proclaiming the triumph of the West, Huntington warning that the West's triumph is not yet complete. Both are based, however, on the assumption that the modern West represents universal values that are bound to triumph over all alternative ways of understanding and organizing human society. Such claims to victory are, of course, entirely self-serving and based on a reading of human history that ignores all of human history except the last 200 years or so, during which the West has been in ascendance.
True, the ‘liberal' West defeated Communism in the Cold War, but this was only a contest between alternative Western ideologies, as Communism itself was a product and branch of Western thought and philosophy. Islam, on the other hand, offers a completely different perspective. Muslims base their understanding of life on the Divine paradigm revealed to the final Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace. When the Prophet started his mission in Makkah, he had no worldly power; those who responded to his call were mostly the downtrodden and dispossessed: slaves, women and young people. They took on the Makkan aristocracy not with military force, but with the power of faith and values. While the established elite in Makkah immediately felt that their vested interests in the established order were threatened by the Divine message, others responded to the Prophet's call and invited him to lead them. Within a few years the Prophet had consolidated the power-base of Islam and laid the foundations of a civilization that was unchallenged for more than a thousand years, and today is the only realistic alternative to the triumph of the West, something that all non-Westerners must regard as an appalling prospect.
True, Muslims today are in a state of disorder and disarray, and our countries and societies are largely dominated by the West. But this is not a failure of Islamic vision and values, as some would have us believe, but because Muslims and their rulers abandoned the values that had led them to greatness. As Malek Bennabi, the great Algerian scholar, pointed out after Egypt's humiliation in the Six-Day War (June 1967), it is the Ummah's understanding and world view, its stock of ideas rather than of arms and munitions, that needs to be renewed. The Hizbullah's stunning victory over the zionists in Lebanon was based on a strength of iman (faith, commitment, trust in Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala) that made up for what they lacked in arms and outside support. It was also iman that enabled the Muslims of Iran to overthrow a regime fully backed by the US, and the new Islamic state to defend itself against Iraq for eight long years, even though Saddam Hussein had the full backing of the West. The same commitment enabled the Afghans to drive the Russian army out of their country, and is empowering the Palestinians’ resistance against zionist occupation, and now the Iraqis confronting the American occupiers of their country.
Today, almost the entire Muslim world is ruled by westernized elites whose purpose is to serve not Islam or Muslims but the interests of their masters in Washington, London and Paris. Muslim political thought has been contaminated by such alien concepts as nationalism, nation-States, political parties, group interests and liberal democracy. Against these Western political and ideological constructs, many Muslims marshal the same flawed and distorted understandings of Islam that have repeatedly proved inadequate in the past. In the process, they create massive confusion about correct Islamic political culture, values, processes and behaviour. Muslims are not going to emerge from the depths of darkness into which they have fallen by relying either on ideas and understandings imported from the West, or on the faulty tools that caused their decline in the first place. While the Muslim masses instinctively look to Islam for solutions to their problems, ruling elites and many ‘Islamic leaders’ frustrate their aspirations.
What is required is a return to the political values and culture of the Prophetic model, based on iman, that transformed not only Arabia but an unprecedented portion of the world within a short time. These values and culture, re-interpreted and applied in contemporary society, have been the basis for the successes of the Islamic movements in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere; there is no other way to the revival of the Ummah.
[Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) in Toronto, Canada.]