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Islamic Secularism, “24”, and transformation

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Fox’s hit show “24” took a giant leap into fair and balanced portrayals of Muslim characters in a well-directed episode this week, which featured two secular Muslims who aid Jack Bauer and his rival (romantic) to defend themselves against a gang of mercenaries.

This does much more in creating fair perceptions of Muslims than inane PSAs and balances the central Asian Muslim family in the show, who turn out to be sleeper terrorists, out to destroy the social fabric of their adopted society.

Secularism and Exclusivism have constantly battled it out in Islamic history. Traditionalists define the conflict as that between Islam and polytheism. Modernists have sought to embrace progressive thought, such as Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

When Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 (he was its president until his death fifteen years later), he set as his main objective the modernization of the new republic. His preferred means was speedy, intensive secularization and, indeed, every one of his reforms was tied up with disestablishing other Islamic institutions from their hold on Turkey’s politics, economics, society, and cultural life.

Under his guidance, elected parliaments (comprising the only legal party, of which he was the chairman) passed, in rapid succession, a number of daring laws. Among these, probably the most revolutionary were those on education and the legal system. The former uprooted the religious element from all schools, making secularized instruction compulsory; this meant a completely new set of curricula, textbooks, and teachers. The latter abolished all religious courts (Islamic, Christian and Jewish), setting up instead secular courts with sets of laws and procedures based on Western European, largely Swiss, models; this implied the preparation of new laws and the training of new judges. To understand the boldness of this move, it should be remembered that in some of the other successor states of the Ottoman Empire, religious courts were abolished only much later – in Egypt, in 1956 – while in others they are still active, as in Israel and Lebanon.

It should also be remembered that the Radical Islamist movements are relatively new, seeing an uplift post the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and then in the 1980s with the rise of Khomeini, and general tightening of social controls, although they claim to draw on ancient traditions and claim to combat ‘jahiliya’ or ignorance. Their power base is drawn from the disaffected and disenfranchised masses, who failed to profit from the oil boom. Their support from ruling houses and the wealthy is driven, in part, by self-motivated individuals, who would prefer to export terror, rather than deal with the failures in their own social frameworks.

It may seem, from the reports of violent acts, and general tenor, that Radical Islam is on the upswing, with signficant support in Arab societies. This could not be further from the truth. All through Islamic history, rational thought has contended with narrow-minded ideas.

Secular ideas are, of course, not new in Islamic countries. Ever since the call of the prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, there have been doubters and secular writing. Some of its authors are documented in Abdurrahman Badawi’s book From the History of Atheism in Islam, which first appeared in the 1950s and has been reprinted many times since. It brings to light some of the debates and writings that marked certain periods of Islamic history, including the derisive poetry of Abul Ala’ al-Maari, the blind Arab philosopher who lived in northern Syria in the 10th century.
No opinion polls concerning religious beliefs are usually allowed in Arab countries, to judge the real spread of secular ideas. An exception is the survey of living conditions of the Palestinian society under Israeli occupation in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem, which challenges some widely held notions about religious attitudes. It shows that the percentage of ‘secular’ men is 20%, going up to an unexpected 30% among women, and that it is on average higher than the percentage of Islamic ‘activists’ on the other end of the spectrum even in the Gaza refugee camps. Secular is defined in the study as someone who’s life is not dictated by religion. The larger middle ground is being held by simply ‘observant’ moslems. Partial surveys by some university students elsewhere seem to confirm this distribution of the degree of belief.

(The article referenced is highly informative and thought-provoking – worthy of a full reading)

Radical Islam is the last gasp of a culture in transformation. Europe, not for the first time in its history is experiencing this transformation, situated as it is at the crossroads between the old and the new worlds. The erstwhile Islamic West, or Maghreb, brought education and economic growth, before they collapsed under the weight of unresolved social paradoxes, and the force of the industrial revolution. A modern Islamic Europe has been mentioned by a few, and feared by some. The internal conflicts in Islam are significant here, in determining which direction is taken in this transformation

Bassam Tibi, a Syrian immigrant who is the most prominent moderate Muslim in Germany, seemed to agree with Lewis’s diagnosis, even while rejecting his emphasis. “Either Islam gets Europeanized, or Europe gets Islamized,” Tibi wrote in Welt am Sonntag. Having spent much of the past decade arguing for the construction of sensible Islamic institutions in Europe, Tibi seemed to warn that Europe did not have the ability to reject Islam, or the opportunity to steer it. “The problem is not whether the majority of Europeans is Islamic,” he added, “but rather which Islam–sharia Islam or Euro-Islam–is to dominate in Europe.”

I have had numerous Muslim friends – all fine, modern people. I have never, though, interacted at length with a ‘Sharia-Muslim’. I do hope, and believe, that the ‘Euro-Muslims’ will win in the end, as I’m sure Jack Bauer will too.

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  • Eric Olsen

    That was an absolutely great episode of 24 – I actually just saw it last night because of the Rock Hall thing Monday. And I agree this integration of “normal” Arab-Americans into the plot is much more effective than dopey PSA’s with Islamic Eskimos.

    Very fine, important post Aaman – I too hope, and after the positive events of the last couple of months, now believe that the rationals will win in the end. But we aren’t there yet and neither is Jack.

  • I didn’t really think of them as secular – we don’t really know that. They certainly weren’t extremist – and I thought just presenting them as regular Americans doing what any American would hope they would do in the same situation, was great.

    There are more Muslims – secular or otherwise – who don’t act like Al Qaeda. That’s reality.

    Thanks for doing this post. I thought about it but had other priorities.

  • Eric Olsen

    I don’t think they ever identified themselves as Muslim at all – they said “Arab”

  • I’ll need to watch it again closely – but it was implicitly intended as Muslim

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree it was the implication

  • Aamir Ali

    A devout Muslim is not automatically a crazy criminal neither is a secular Muslim an angel. That is a foolish way of thinking. You should just people on their behavior not on some abstracts like “secularism” or “traditionalism”. That villain family on Fox is simply a criminal not a “Muslim criminal” family.

  • Tristan

    Eric was absolutely correct–
    I rewatched it 4 times: they said only that they were Arabic–nothing was said OR IMPLIED about the word MUSLIM………..

    That’s kind of like assuming that every single white person you see is a xtian–they’re NOT!

    LABELS again~~stereotypes……

  • Tristan,

    Coming from India, I would no more apply a stereotypical label than accept one. The individuals were Arab Americans, I accept. Nevertheless, the 24 episode guide from the Fox site is telling in intent

    Two Arab American brothers are huddled inside. They have just had their store looted…The brothers decide that they want to stay in their store to help Jack because they have been fighting the stereotype of terrorists their whole lives

    The key point of the post is that it is commendable that media is acknowledging, belatedly, that there is more than one type of Arab out there – not a startling revelation to the well-informed, but important nevertheless.