Book Review: Neuromancer

I finished reading Neuromancer by William Gibson this weekend. I am a big fan of science fiction, but don’t particularly like cyberpunk. Hence, this book was a surprise for me. I liked it a lot. It definitely grabs your attention. I read it in two sessions, on the way to Jersey and back. And guess what: William Gibson has a blog.

Next on my SF reading list: Either Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

Maudoodi: According to Kepel

I have started reading Gilles Kepel’s book Jihad : The Trail of Political Islam”. It is an interesting book with a somewhat different viewpoint about political and militant Islam. Here are some excerpts about Maudoodi (for some background, read my earlier posts [1, 2]):

By contrast with Egypt, where Nasser crushed the Muslim Brothers in 1954 and created a hiatus between the colonial era and our own, the Islamist movement on the Indian subcontinent has developed steadily from the 1930s right up to the present. During the decades of Islamist persecution in Cairo, Maudoodi worked away in Pakistan to fine-tune the theories and concepts that would allow Islamic ideology to adapt to the new political conditions created by the rise of “irreligious” independent states. At a very early stage, Maudoodi laid the cultural foundations for a future Islamic republic, defined in opposition to the Muslim nationalism that led to the birth of Pakistan in 1947.

To a much greater extent than the Arab Islamist theorists, Maudoodi acted squarely within the general framework of his culture. He was a prolific author and journalist in Urdu.

The list of Maudoodi’s writings is available at the Jamaat-e-Islami website. The most well-known of Maudoodi’s works is the Tafheem-ul-Quran (Understanding of the Quran), a translation and commentary of the Quran in Urdu. It is written in regular Urdu instead of most other translations which take a somewhat literal approach. Therefore, it is easy to read and understand. Obviously, Maudoodi’s commentary is quite different than traditional ulema.

Maudoodi’s first book, Jihad in Islam, was published in Urdu in the 1920s, roughly coinciding with Banna’s creation of the Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt. From the start Maudoodi was against the project for a circumscribed “Muslim state,” which would give power to the nationalists. Instead, he agitated for an Islamic state covering the whole of India. For him, all nationalism was impiety, more especially as its conception of the state was European-inspired. Apart from this, he had nothing but contempt for the ulemas [traditional religious scholars — Zack], whom he accused of having collaborated with the British occupiers since the fall of Muslim-held Delhi in 1857. Maudoodi favored what he called “Islamization from above,” through a state in which sovereignty would be exercised in the name of Allah and the sharia [Islamic law — Zack] would be implemented. He declared that politics was “an integral, inseparable part of the Islamic faith, and that the Islamic state that Muslim political action seeks to build is a panacea for all their [Muslims’] problems.” For him, the five traditional Pillars of Islam (profession of the faith, prayer, the fast of Ramadan, pilgrimage, and almsgiving) were merely phases of training and preparation for jihad, the struggle against those of Allah’s creatureswho had usurped His sovereignty. By the pen of Maudoodi, religion was turned into an ideology of political struggle. To carry out his jihad, he founded, in 1941, the Jamaat-e-Islami [Party of Islam — Zack], which he saw as the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution, on a Leninist model. Maudoodi made explicit references to the “vanguard” of the earliest Muslims, who gathered around the Prophet in 622 during the Hegira (flight), broke with the idolatrous people of Mecca, and departed to found the Islamic state of Medina. His own party was intended to follow a similar course.

Maudoodi was the first twentieth-century Muslim thinker to build a political theory around the original break that led to the founding of Islam. In transforming this break into a strategy for action, he was inspired by the avante-garde European political parties of the 1930s. Qutb and his successors did the same; but instead of building up clandestine organizations and transforming the rupture with ungodly society into violent confrontation, Maudoodi’s party existed in complete legality for most of its history. It continues to do so today, even though its founder and many of its leaders have been imprisoned from time to time. Maudoodi’s holy war to build an Islamic state found expression through full participation in the political system of Pakistan, rather than radical opposition to it.

I think during the 1960s the security screening for military and some other government personnel checked whether someone was a member of Jamat-e-Islami or the Communist Party. That usually was a disqualification.

In contrast to the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood of 1930-1950, but also in contrast to Islamic parties of the late twentieth century such as the Turkish Prosperity (Refah) party or the Algerian Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), the Jamaat-e-Islami did not attract a mass following and its impact on elections remained consistently weak. Its social base was confined to the educated middle class, and it never seems to have penetrated to the poorer levels of society, where the Urdu language was not understood. Significantly, Maudoodi and his acolytes used Urdu for their speeches and sermons.

Even in the recent elections in Pakistan, when the religious parties (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or United Assembly for Action) won big (51 seats out of 269 in the national assembly), most of their success (basically of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam or Party of the scholars of Islam, a Deobandi party) was in the Pashtun areas of NWFP and Baluchistan. However, Jamaat-e-Islami won most of its seats in the urban areas in Punjab and Sindh.

Above all, the social agenda of the party remained highly ambiguous. It proclaimed its absolute hostility to capitalism, but socialism was the real target of its wrath.

For the religious and conservative people in Pakistan, communism and socialism were generally considered to be beyond evil. All communists and socialists were automatically thought of as atheists.

In the gestation of the contemporary Islamic movement, Maudoodi’s contribution was largely as a pioneer; he was the first person to give expression to the theory of cultural rupture with nationalists and ulemas alike. Moreover, he maintained the continuity of his Pakistani party at a time when many Arab Islamists were demoralized by repression. And in general his intellectual influence played a part in reorganizing Islamism to confront the then-truimphant forces of nationalism.

Towards the end of the 1960s, the bisecting influences of Qutb and Maudoodi prepared the ground within the Sunni Muslim world for the emergence of the Islamist movement over the next ten years. One influence came from the Middle East, where Islam had dominated for fourteen centuries and where European colonization had been unable to challenge its primacy. The other came from the Indian subcontinent, where most of the population was still Hindu despite ten centuries of Islamic political domination. When the British empire broke that domination in 1857, Muslims felt besieged and threatened. According to Maudoodi, an Islamic state was the only possible safeguard for endangered Muslims; nevertheless, his call for a cultural break with the past was not an incitement to social revolution so much as a call to take part in the political institutions of Pakistan. The divide between the Islamist avant-garde and society did not translate into guerilla warfare, uprisings, or resistance.

Meanwhile Qutb, in adopting Maudoodi’s notion of an Islamic state, established a much more radical program of action. For him, the vanguard’s role was to destroy the ungodly state, to break with it immediately, and to refuse to be compromised by association with a political system from which it could expect nothing. Qutb promoted revolution as a way to seize power — a concept that was absent from Maudoodi’s thought — and in the process he found many followers and imitators among the radical youth of Islam. But neither Maudoodi nor Qutb gave any explicit social content to their theorizing. Qutb may have depicted Islam as the instrument of social justic, but in no way did he present himself as the mouthpiece of the disinherited, as did the Siite revolutionaries in Iran. He identified the main fault line within society as being between Islam and jahiliyya [period of ignorance — Zack], but nothing in his discourse infers that there might be a contradiction between “oppressed” and “oppressors” — or between the Iranian revolution’s “disinherited ones” and “men of arrogance.”

For more details on Syed Qutb, read Bill Allison’s excellent series on Qutb (1, 2:1, 2:2, 3:1, 3:2, 3:3, 4, 5, 6, 7:1, 7:2, 7:3, 7:4, 7:5, 7:6, 8:1, 8:2).

The Arab-Israel Conflict

I recently finished reading the book Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris. It’s a long read (more than 700 pages) with a comprehensive history of the conflict starting in 1881 and ending with the election of Sharon. Benny Morris gives a very balanced and nuanced account of the conflict.

I realized after reading him that both Arabs and Israel have committed atrocities and mistakes at various times. Some people who come off really badly in the book are Amin Al-Husseini (the Nazi supporting Palestinian leader), Arafat, Sharon (especially his actions during the war in Lebanon, where he comes off as undermining Israeli democracy as well) and to some extent Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s statements regarding transfer of Arabs out of Palestine (I’ll use Palestine when I refer to the British mandate) and his and some earlier Zionist leaders’ ideas about Greater Israel (encompassing at least all of Palestine) don’t really endear them to me.

It is also clear that both sides missed opportunities for peace. For example, Col. Zaim of Syria asked to meet Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement in 1949, but Ben-Gurion refused to even meet and kept his cabinet ignorant about the offer. Similarly, peace overtures by King Abdullah of Jordan in 1949 and Sadaat of Egypt in 1971 got nowhere with Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. However, the Palestinian leadership always took a very inflexible stance until the 1990s. This inflexibility meant they missed all opportunities for a state of their own. They could have gotten 80% of Palestine in 1937 (Peel Commission) and 44% in 1947 (UN partition plan), but they never even considered these plans.

In my opinion, the conflict between Jews and Arabs was inevitable. They both wanted the same piece of land. Jewish immigration to the land of Israel was necessary because of their persecution in Europe. And though they had historical ties going back millenia to the land of Israel and there had been a continuous Jewish presence there, the area was largely inhabited by Arabs in the 19th century. According to Benny Morris, in 1881 there were only about 15,000 Jews in a total population of 457,000 (about 3.3%). In 1918, it had changed to 59,000 out of 747,000 (7.9%). By 1931, they constituted 16.6% (175,000) of the population (1,055,000). By 1939, 30.1% of the population was Jewish (460,000 out of 1,530,000). The Peel Commission had suggested the population transfer of about 1,250 Jews and 225,000 Arabs to the Jewish and Arab states respectively in 1937. Similarly, Israel under the UN partition plan would have had a population of 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs (another 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalam’s international zone.) From these figures, it seems to me that the Jewsih and Arab populations were very mixed and it would have been really difficult to draw borders to separate them. Transfer seems like an obvious solution but the only times peaceful population transfers have occured in recent world history is when the transfer is mutual or when the population being transferred is thoroughly defeated in war. Neither held true for the Palestinian Arabs until the defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 war. Looking at the population figures above, I can understand some of the Arab outrage at Jewish immigration. I don’t understand their use of violence or their rejection of all compromise however. Another striking thing from the pre-1948 period is that the Jewish population did not use violence except in retaliation to Arab attacks. They bought land from Arab landlords who were sometimes leaders pontificating against Jewish settlement.

Looking at the 1948 war, it is clear that the Arab states really were after a land grab rather than helping their Palestinian brothers. For example, Jordan never really attacked any area allocated to Israel in the UN plan. The real losers in 1948 were the Palestinians. They probably didn’t consider themselves a Palestinian nation at the time. Here, I would like to address the point of some critics that there has never been a Palestinian state or Palestinian people. That is true historically, however there were Arabs in Palestine and their sense of belonging to a nation was developed over time (crystallizing in the 1960s), just like any other nation. As an example, one can also say that there never was a Pakistani state or a Pakistani nation until 1947. True enough, but the separate identity of Muslims in India developed over time and led to the creation of Pakistan and hence Pakistani people as well.

I also had the feeling of deja vu while reading this book. Everything happens twice, first by one side then by the other. For example, the demolition of terrorists’ homes was started by the British in the 1936-39 Arab rebellion. The drive-by shooting and bombing of marketplaces originated with the LHI and IZL terrorist groups. And Arabs were the ones worried about the demographics in the 1930s and Israelis are now.

Unlike Aziz Poonawalla, I don’t think a binational state will work. There is too much hatred on both sides. It might have been possible in the 1930s-40s but a lot has happened in the meantime. Again, the example of Pakistan is instructive. Until about mid-1940s, a federation/confederation comprising the whole of India (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was likely. But it did not happen and by 1946 most of the Muslim leadership wanted a separate state (which was created in 1947.) Later, in 1970 the Awami League political party won the elections in a unified Pakistan (East Pakistan is now Bangladesh.) It wanted a very loose federation of East and West Pakistan, but the military government did not transfer power to them and cracked down on the Awami League (which was based in East Pakistan.) A civil war ensued and Bangladesh was born. Even though there was widespread frustation in East Pakistan against West Pakistan’s domination, it was the military crackdown that ended all hope of reconciliation or compromise.

At present, I don’t see any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A Palestinian state is a necessary part of the solution, but the current Palestinian leadership does not have the vision or the will to pursue it and is hell-bent on terrorism. Also, popular opinion in Israel will not be conducive to negotiation and compromise until the terrorist attacks cease or at least become somewhat rare. Violence though has its own life. Once a conflict gets really violent, it is almost impossible to return to a peaceful state. There are too many thugs and criminals who make their living, so to speak, on that violence. The current crop of Israeli and Palestinian leaders look too much to the past. In my pessimistic opinion, they can’t make peace; and it will get worse before it gets better. The next crop of leaders will be more extremist and will thrive on mutual hatred. Hopefully, that’s as low as it will get and it will get better after that. Sometimes when I am optimistic, I think a solution could be found soon. The election of Amram Mitzna as the Israeli Labor party leader has provided some hope. Now, where is his Palestinian counterpart to replace Arafat?