Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Postscript on Among the Believers

I wrote a pretty scathing review of VS Naipaul's Among the Believers a few months ago, when I was just about a quarter of the way through it.  I wanted to follow up and soften some of my criticisms for, as the author of another book that I read recently and praised, Naipaul adopted a changing voice throughout the course of the book.  He started out naive and churlish, but gradually became more understanding of the dilemmas facing the people he spoke with in four countries that in that moment, 1980, were just beginning to grapple with the apparent inconsistencies of trying to infuse Islamic values into a modern state.  I feel that Naipaul's questions became less rhetorical and more genuine:  How can values from 8th-century Arabia inform the creation and governance of a just, functioning society in the late 20th century?  This softening in Naipaul's tone was aided by the fact that his journey happened to begin with the most hardline, uncompromising (and in many ways the most dysfunctional) Islamic governments in Pakistan and Iran, and end with places like Malaysia and Indonesia that have dealt for centuries with complex relationships between culture, government, and even other religions.

I have almost 40 years of hindsight since the book was written, and I can now view both Naipaul and his interlocutors in a more magnanimous way.  The revolutionaries and professed theocrats that he spoke with reject out of hand a demonic West.  Naipaul rightly points out the incoherence of declaring a rigid separation between a place like Iran or Malaysia and the rest of the world, especially when these places rely on the same fruits of modernity and of the "universal culture" that we all do--electronic gizmos, modern medicine, cutting-edge university learning, even the common canon of lots of novels and movies and TV shows.  I feel though that the absolutist arguments put forth by these, the first wave of political Islamists, aren't those put forth today, when the call of even the most fervent radicals is to somehow combine the fruits of modernity with a more Islamic system of values. Likewise, actual thinking people (aside from Breitbart-style talking heads) on the other side rarely feel the need to dogmatically defend a mythical "West". 

I obviously am not saying I agree with the prognosis of even these more mature, nuanced Islamist preachers, nor do I necessarily think it is very viable.  But the total incoherence of denouncing modern innovations while relying on them to do your denouncing, no longer seems so prevalent today.  As political Islam, or Islamicized politics, have become ascendent in different parts of the world, the difficult, boring, unromantic work of actually governing has demanded an acceptance and use of many modern institutions like Constitutions, division of powers, and other elements that were missing from the vision of many of Naipaul's interviewees who had only gotten as far as calling for a purer faith to guide leaders and subjects.  Even extreme cases like ISIS, that make deft use of modern technology to promote a vision totally antithetical to modern human values, either last a few years tops before they collapse under their own weight, or they remain as an insignificant peanut gallery criticizing those who govern while not governing anything themselves.

In my more pessimistic moments (which is to say most of the time), I don't believe in the progressive vision of human history.  I've said as much in a past blog post discussing the book Liberation Theology, in which Gustavo Gutierrez lays out a very directional, modern vision of history as a gradual progress towards something (in his account, this something is communion with God, but my point here is that he sees history as linear progress). I understand that the Medieval Europeans believed in history as a repeating cycle, a wheel of fortune in which better times were following by worse times, in an unending circle, not a line headed somewhere.  Things don't keep advancing or getting better; rather we are doomed to continue repeating the mistakes of the past.  This is also a Classical Greek mentality, an underlying suspicion that base passions will ultimately override or undercut any rational endeavor or noble progress.  When I am feeling this way, I see examples in the way that modern liberal democracy, itself a very progressive, modernist way of living and making history, is now being questioned and undermined by ethnic nationalism, that timeless, nonprogressive passion that we thought had been thoroughly discredited by the Second World War.

A brief caveat--nowhere am I calling into question that the history of scientific knowledge has indeed been one of clear progress, of today's innovators building on the lessons and achievements of prior thinkers and researchers.  I'm more talking about ideas, specifically the question of how best to run a society.

Recently though I've had more optimistic moments in which I do see history in a progressive light, precisely in terms of advances in the way we think of how to run a society.  This doesn't mean that societies today are necessarily better or more democratic than those of yesterday, but rather that they do seem to be building on the successes and mistakes of the past, and blundering through to an incrementally more effective or more legitimate way of running things.  Most places are not just repeating the mistakes of the past.  In the case at hand, I feel like the countries Naipaul profiles, and many others that started experimenting with how to embed Islamic ideals into the global framework of representative democracy and human rights, are at a very different place today than they were almost 40 years ago when he wrote about them.  Today we have examples of countries where religion encroaches on a strict, almost dictatorial secularism (Turkey), places where an officially Islamic state contains a lot of secular institutions, both within and outside of government (Iran), and lots of countries in between where Islamic law coexists more or less prominently and more or less easily with secular democratic institutions.  There are places like Nigeria, where some federal states are in part administered by sharia law and other jurisdictions with lots of normative Christian legislation, and places like Saudi Arabia, where a strict theocratic state avoids mass popular uprising through a mix of repression and monetary enticements to the populace. The question of how much cultural or religious idiosyncracy you can add to the liberal democratic model before you totally denature it, isn't exclusive to Muslim-majority nations. Whenever we debate which values and ideals to teach in our schools, how cultural minorities should be included and accommodated in our society, even whether to keep or abolish the Electoral College (which is of course an institution that intentionally overvalues the rural side of our character), we are figuring out how to apply pure democratic ideals to a messy real world context.

In short, the panorama that I see is of all countries in the world (not just the ones with a Muslim majority population) grappling with how to bring the Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy into a complex, ethnically diverse 21st century where human rights are to be respected, community and tradition should be given a certain due, patriarchy and other hegemonies are increasingly called into question, and the continued existence of our very planet is at peril.  I don't say that I know of many places where all of these challenges are being addressed very well, but I do feel that, at least in the types of developing countries that Naipaul wrote about in the 1970s and 1980s (not just the Muslim countries), today's governance systems have managed to work out and move beyond some of the apparent impasses that existed back then.

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