Blog Archive

Blog Archive – January, 2015

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 4

January 31, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The Order of Islam (fourth and final part)

Against Western claims that Islamic "fundamentalism" feeds terrorism, one powerful paradox of the twentieth century is often overlooked. While Islam may generate more political violence than Western culture, Western culture generates more street violence than Islam. Islam does indeed produce a disproportionate share of mujahideen, but Western culture produces a disproportionate share of muggers. The largest Muslim city in Africa is Cairo. The largest westernized city is Johannesburg. Cairo is much more populous than Johannesburg, but street violence is only a fraction of what it is in the South African city. Does Islam help pacify Cairo? I, along with many others, believe it does. The high premium Islam places on umma (community) and ijma (consensus) has made for a Pax Islamica in day-to-day


    In terms of quality of life, is the average citizen better off under the excesses of the Islamic state or the excesses of the liberal state, where political tension may be low but social violence has reached crisis proportions?

Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a city of some ten million. Families with small children picnic in public parks at 11 p.m. or midnight. Residents of the capital and other cities stroll late at night, seemingly unafraid of mugging, rape, or murder. This is a society that has known large-scale political violence in war and revolution, but one in which petty interpersonal violence is much rarer than in Washington or New York. Iranians are more subject to their government than Americans, but they are less at risk from the depredations of their fellow citizens. Nor is dictatorial government the explanation for the safe streets of Tehran – otherwise, Lagos would be as peaceful as the Iranian capital.

    The Iranian solution is mainly in the moral sphere. As an approach to the problems of modernity, some Muslim societies are attempting a return to premodernism, to indigenous traditional disciplines and values. Aside from Iran, countries such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia have revived Islamic legal systems and other features of the Islamic way of life, aspects of which go back 14 centuries. Islamic movements in countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan are also seeking revivalist goals. A similar sacred nostalgia is evident in other religions, such as the born-again Christian sects in the United States and Africa.

    Of all the value systems in the world, Islam has been the most resistant to the leading destructive forces of the twentieth century – including AIDS. Lower levels of prostitution and of hard drug use in conservative Muslim cultures compared with other cultures have, so far, contributed to lower-than-average HIV infection rates. If societies closer to the sharia are also more distant from the human immunodeficiency virus, should the rest of the world take a closer look?

    One can escape modernity by striving to transcend it as well as by retreating from it into the past. Perhaps the Muslim world should explore this path, searching for postmodern solutions to its political tensions and economic woes, and pursuing the positive aspects of globalization without falling victim to the negative aspects of westernization.

The Dialectic of Culture

Western liberal democracy has enabled societies to enjoy openness, government accountability, popular participation, and high economic productivity, but Western pluralism has also been a breeding ground for racism, fascism, exploitation, and genocide. If history is to end in arrival at the ultimate political order, it will require more than the West’s message on how to maximize the best in human nature.

Humankind must also consult Islam about how to check the worst in human nature – from alcoholism to racism, materialism to Nazism, drug addiction to Marxism as the opiate of the intellectuals.

    One must distinguish between democratic principles and human principles. In some human principles – including stabilizing the family, security from social violence, and the relatively nonracial nature of religious institutions – the Muslim world may be ahead of the West.

    Turkey is a prime example of the dilemma of balancing human principles with democratic principles. In times of peace, the Ottoman Empire was more human in its treatment of religious minorities than the Turkish Republic after 1923 under the westernizing influence of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk. The Turkish Republic, on the other hand, gradually moved toward a policy of cultural assimilation. While the Ottoman Empire tolerated the Kurdish language, the Turkish Republic outlawed its use for a considerable period. When not at war, the empire was more humane than the Turkish Republic, but less democratic.

    At bottom, democracy is a system for selecting one’s rulers; human governance is a system from treating citizens. Ottoman rule at its best was human governance; the Turkish Republic at its best has been a quest for democratic values. In the final years of the twentieth century, Turkey may be engaged in reconciling the greater humaneness of the Ottoman Empire with the great democracy of the Republic.

    The current Islamic revival in the country may be the beginning of a fundamental review of the Kemalist revolution, which inaugurated Turkish secularism. In England since Henry VIII, a theocracy has been democratized. In Turkey, might a democracy by theocratized? Although the Turkish army is trying to stop it, electoral support for Islamic revivalism is growing in the country. There has been increased speculation that secularism may be pushed back, in spite of the resignation in June, under political pressure from the generals, of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party. Is Erbakan nevertheless destined to play in the Kamalist revolution the role that Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin played in the Leninist revolution? Or is Erbakan a forerunner of change? It is too early to be sure. The dialectic of history continues its conversation with the dialectic of culture within the wider rhythms of relativity in human experience.

Originally published in the fall 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs (Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 118-132) Thanks to AlHewar Center for bringing this to our attention in 2014.

Further reading: a) , b), c)   Also see Mazrui’s TV series: “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”

[ Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) 1997 essay “Islamic Values, The Liberal Ethic and the West”, part 4 ]

Producing War Heroes : American Of Course

January 26, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There must be something wrong with a nation when it has to constantly invent its heroes. As if to neutralize in the American mind any unfavorable ramifications of the US government’s summary of the CIA torture report and the growing number of suicides among its veterans, we have another war story for national consumption. This time it’s the film “American Sniper” by Clint Eastwood, one of our most acclaimed directors. His “Sniper” is yet another reminder of how noble and fierce American soldiers are, also how “we won”.

Some critics of the film have weighed in on the racist, hate-filled language used by the hero, Chris Kyle: a killer who “saves lives”. Others reveal falsifications in the film treatment of Kyle’s autobiography and raise questions about his private life.

Unfortunately, for most Americans those criticisms really don’t matter. What attracts our public, and there are tens of millions of them, women as well as men, adults as well as children, is that this is a heroic story. And killer Chris Kyle somehow represents worthy American ideals— patriotism, saving American lives, technical skill.

What most upsets me is that this highly popular film “American Sniper” is not at all unusual in its subject and theme. By chance I found myself on the History Channel last week, viewing “Sniper: Inside the Crosshairs”. This film, viewed almost 800,000 times on YouTube, is a documentary. No apologies whatsoever here; soldiers interviewed speak with great pride in the skill with which they kill. The segment I viewed focuses on the high tech nature of sniper training and weaponry. (This “Sniper” is one of dozens available for people seeking such ‘history lessons’.)

These are the latest in a flood of war films and books, among them the award- winning “Hurt Locker”, that entertain, enhance the glamour of war, present a justifiable and ugly enemy target and leave viewers with the clear idea that ‘America won’. (At best, Iraqis-- women and children only please--are presented as people who need US protection.)

Americans are fed a steady diet of war in a multitude of forms.’s algorithmic calculations based on my innocent web searches, sent me an unsolicited list of books. Most are autobiographies by American veterans-turned-literary-celebrities; two were biographies of US soldiers by journalists. If I wanted to learn about Iraq, Amazon advises, I could read these accounts of the patriotism and the fine conscience of American veterans.

Thirty years ago, a decade after the end of the Viet Nam war, I found myself in an American university seminar where war was under discussion. When a student declared that "(some foreign power) was upset because we won the war”, no one corrected him, neither fellow students nor the presiding professor. I suspect that today, a survey of college-age Americans would likely reveal how they too believe the US won that war; the same may prove true in regards to America’s memory of Iraq.

Apart from historical inaccuracies, these films are simply damned entertaining. Clint Eastwood is a brilliant director. And you can bet his “American Sniper” is top priority for Carl, our promising military recruit 


[ Producing War Heroes : American Of Course ]

A Young Man In Search of a Future

January 16, 2015

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Carl is looking forward to his meeting tomorrow. A US army recruiter is coming to his home to see him and his mom and give Carl his first test.

Carl is barely 19. He lives with his mother, grandmother, two sisters and a brother in a depressed New York town. I met Carl when I hired him to assist with some data entry work, recommended by my librarian who also employs him 12 hours a week. During our first meeting Carl told me he was preparing for college. He’d been accepted, he said, but was awaiting approval for state financial aid. With a phone he uses only for texting, without any computer at all, it’s apparent Carl’s family is poor.

Our second session, he announces that he’s found a new girlfriend; but, he explains, she lives 20 miles away and informs him he has to have a car to pick her up. (He reports this as if her demand isn’t unreasonable.) The next week he didn’t mention her; he’d stopped talking about college too.

Carl often speaks about his mother. She drives him five miles to the library on her way to work two hours before it opens; that’s the only way he can get here. He stops at the local Laundromat where it’s warm and there are people to talk to.

I guess this is the reality for many American youths: -- bleak job prospects; a mom working long hours; no way to have a girlfriend; depending on financial aid for college.

This week Carl announces he intends to become a military policeman. (That’s where the army recruiter comes in.) He’s excited about this, maybe dreaming. “I’ll tell them to pay my salary directly to my mom, some is to help her, the rest she can use for my brother and sisters.”

Are you looking forward to being a soldier? I ask. “No. I really want to be a military policeman.” What about combat; you may be sent to a war zone. Does that worry you? Killing others? “No. I won’t be doing any of that…”, he assures me. Hopefully,” he adds awkwardly.

“I’ll go to college when I’m in the army”, he says, disputing my claim that only after active service could he qualify for that. “No. They’ll send me to college; when I finish, I’ll train as a policeman.” He pulls back his shoulders confidently, stands erect. I’ve always found Carl polite; he’s conscientious, attentive, honest.

As gently as I can, I raise the issue of America’s foreign wars. You may be sent to Afghanistan or other places where Americans are killed and wounded. Silence. Are any boys from your town in the army? He doesn’t know. None of his friends signed up. I again mention US combat. “Well”, he says, “The war in Iraq was a mistake, for real sure.”

This takes care of Iraq. Afghanistan? “In Afghanistan all we’re doing is training the people there to protect themselves. That’s why we’re there.”

What about our invasion of that country? “No; we’re only there to teach them to use weapons.”

I can’t resist and I press on with some facts about the US invasion:-- overthrowing the Taliban led-government, pursuing Bin Laden, installing an American-picked leadership, pouring billions of dollars into warfare, withdrawing after thousands of Americans and others are killed. Carl looks blankly back at me. “I told you what I learned in school-- that we went there to train them.”

Although faced with this youthful naïveté, I persist. Did you know the US trained Afghans and others as fighters to overthrow their own government backed by Russia in the 1990s? “I only know what our history teacher told us,” Carl replies languidly. “Anyway, I’m going to be a policeman.”

Have I been too hard on Carl? I tell myself, forget about the morality of war and the Afghans and Iraqis killed; just remind him of American casualties; suggest he read a war memoir; there are dozens right here in the library, I think, sardonically. American Sniper, perhaps a book his history teacher consults, sits on the shelf near us.

The thing is: I like this lad; he’s neither charlatan nor blockhead. He’s genuinely seeking options for his future.  END


[ A Young Man In Search of a Future ]

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