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10-08-2015, 23:02

The Islamic Revival

In recent years, many developments in the Middle East have been described in terms of a resurgence of traditional values and customs in response to the pressure of Western influence. Indeed, some conservative religious forces in the area have consciously attempted to replace foreign culture and values with allegedly “pure” Islamic forms of belief and behavior. But the Islamic revival that has taken place in the contemporary Middle East is not a simple dichotomy between traditional and modern, native and foreign, or irrational and rational. In the first place, many Muslims in the Middle East believe that Islamic values and modern ways are not incompatible and may even be mutually reinforcing in some ways. Second, the resurgence of what are sometimes called “fundamentalist” Islamic groups may, in a Middle Eastern context, appear to be a rational and practical response to self-destructive practices, such as corruption and hedonism, drunkenness, prostitution, and the use of drugs. Finally, the reassertion of Islamic values can be a means of establishing cultural identity and fighting off the overwhelming impact of Western ideas. Initially, many Muslim intellectuals responded to Western influence by trying to reconcile the perceived differences between tradition and modernity and by creating an “updated” set of Islamic beliefs and practices that would not clash with the demands of the modern world. This process took place in most Islamic societies, but it was especially prevalent in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Mustapha Kemal Atatürk embraced the strategy when he attempted to secularize the Islamic religion in the new Turkish republic. The Turkish model was followed by Shah Reza Khan and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran and then by Nasser in postwar Egypt, all of whom attempted to make use of Islamic values while asserting the primacy of other issues such as political and economic development. Religion, in effect, had become the handmaiden of political power, national identity, and economic prosperity. For obvious reasons, these secularizing trends were particularly noticeable among the political, intellectual, and economic elites in urban areas. They had less influence in the countryside, among the poor, and among devout elements within the ulama. Many of the latter believed that Western secular trends in the major cities had given birth to regrettable and even repugnant social attitudes and behavioral patterns, such as political and economic corruption, sexual promiscuity, individualism, and the prevalence of alcohol, pornography, and drugs. Although such practices had long existed in the Middle East, they were now far more visible and socially acceptable. This reaction began early in the century and intensified after World War I, when the Western presence increased. In 1928, devout Muslims in Egypt formed the Muslim Brotherhood as a means of promoting personal piety. Later, the movement began to take a more activist approach, including the eventual use of terrorism by a radical minority. Despite Nasser’s surface commitment to Islamic ideals and Arab unity, some Egyptians were fiercely opposed to his policies and regarded his vision of Arab socialism as a betrayal of Islamic principles. Nasser reacted harshly and executed a number of his leading opponents. The movement to return to Islamic purity strengthened after World War II and reached its zenith in Iran. It is not surprising that Iran took the lead in light of its long tradition of ideological purity within the Shi’ite sect as well as the uncompromisingly secular character of the shah’s reforms in the postwar era. In revolutionary Iran, traditional Islamic beliefs are all-pervasive and extend into education, clothing styles, social practices, and the legal system. While the political aspects of the Iranian Revolution inspired distrust and suspicion among political elites elsewhere in the region, its cultural and social effects were profound. Although no other state in the Middle East adopted the violent approach to cultural reform applied in Iran, Iranian ideas have spread throughout the area and affected social and cultural behavior in many ways. In Algeria, the political influence of fundamentalist Islamic groups has grown substantially and enabled them to win a stunning victory in the national elections in 1992. When the military stepped in to cancel the second round of elections and crack down on the militants, the latter responded with a campaign of terrorism against moderates that has claimed thousands of lives. A similar trend has emerged in Egypt, where militant groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have engaged in terrorism, including the assassination of Sadat and more recent attacks on foreign tourists, who are considered carriers of corrupt Western influence. In 1994, the prominent novelist Naguid Mahfouz was stabbed outside his home, apparently in response to earlier writings that were deemed blasphemous of Muslim belief. Even in Turkey, generally considered the most secular of Islamic societies, a militant political group, known as the Islamic Welfare Party, took power in a coalition government formed in 1996. Worried moderates voiced their concern that the secular legacy of Kemal Atatürk was being eroded, and eventually, the new prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, agreed to resign under heavy pressure from the military. Uncomfortable with the militancy of Arab neighbors, Turkey maintains close ties with the United States and is currently adopting reforms to extend human rights and freedom of expression in the hope of gaining entry into the European Union. But religious and economic discontent simmers beneath the surface.