World News

Islam’s fires roar to life: ‘A victory for the Prophet’

Marci McDonald February 26 1979
World News

Islam’s fires roar to life: ‘A victory for the Prophet’

Marci McDonald February 26 1979

Islam’s fires roar to life: ‘A victory for the Prophet’

World News

Marci McDonald

It was “Eid-i-Miland-un-Nabi,” the 1,409th anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed and, across three continents, the fires of Islam flared like angry birthday candles.

In Iran, a white-bandaged guerrilla leaped onto a sandbag barricade in Tehran and fuelled the final hours of the revolution with G-3 rifles tossed out to the seething mob, shouting,

“You are the soldiers of Allah.”

In Pakistan another soldier,

General Mohammed Zia ulHaq, stunned the diplomatic and press corps summoned to the hollow splendor of Islamabad’s suspended National Assembly with the news that he was cementing the beginnings of a return to strict Koranic law where thieves’ hands would be lopped off and convicted adulterers stoned.

In Afghanistan last week, the bullet-riddled body of American ambassador Adolph Dubs (see box on page 30) bore bloodied witness to the bushfires of Islamic fervor that had burst out in a suicidal kidnap plot to win release of three imprisoned Shi’ite mullahs and undermine the proSoviet government.

In Chad, Moslem rebels under the banner of Prime Minister Hissene Habré raged through the capital in a fiery civil war that has already consumed three-quarters of the Christian-dominated central African republic. §

In Turkey, a shaken Premier f Bulent Ecevit took one glance at the fury of Iranian Shi’ism burning on his eastern flank and announced a twomonth extension of the martial law invoked over Christmas, when three days of rampaging hate and death erupted from the sparks of ancient Shi’ite-Sunni Moslem rivalry.

As the week wore on and the warning flares mounted with each new headline, the West awoke to the startled recognition that it was not only in Iran that Mohammed’s foot soldiers were advancing in a rebirth of pride that promises to signal

the dawning of a new Islamic renaissance. “A victory for the Prophet,” screamed London’s Daily Mail in puzzled hysteria. And a new book of lists by amateur historian Michael Hart named Mohammed the most influential man in history, ahead of Isaac Newton and Jesus Christ.

But for the 800 million Moslems around the globe—more than one-sixth of the world’s population scattered from the j un-

gles of the Philippines to the ghettos of Chicago—it was a moment of mixed emotions. To some, the match that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had set to the tinderbox of Iran was a jubilant catalyst— already unleashing a revival of faith which called to mind the glorious chapters when the Prophet’s armies claimed an empire which, at its height, was larger than that of Alexander the Great or the

Romans, from Spain to the Himalayas.

To others, it evoked a more sinister historical note. As lawless armed gangs of Marxist Fedayeen stormed the American embassy in Tehran, a gentle and fashionable young Egyptian engineer sat in a Paris restaurant sipping scotch and comparing the violence to that unleashed by the legendary “Old Man of the Mountains” of 11th-century Persia. From his caves, the old man sent out a hashishcrazed terrorist sect on binges of gory revenge which coined their name and gave a new word to the vocabulary—assassins.

Whatever the reaction, Khomeini’s torch has electrified the world’s second largest faith which, for centuries, outsiders have dismissed. A respected Egyptian architect remembers with poignant irony his first visit to the Islamic wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he noted that his religion was considered finished. “Islam: from the 7th century to the 18th century,” read the entrance scroll. “Now,” he says, “they must see how ridiculous that is.” “Islam is certainly on the march,” agrees noted French Islamic scholar Vincent Monteil, the author of more than 30 books on the faith to which he converted after 40 years as a diplomat in Moslem countries.

In the past two decades, as Christianity’s flame has flickered under the trendy Western breezes of atheism and narcissism, Islam has spread—above all in Asia and Africa. Its simple message—“submission to God’s will,” the literal meaning of the Arabic word Islam—has appealed to a largely unlettered people bewildered by the intellectual entanglements of the sacraments and the Trinity.

Over the past 10 years in Indonesia, where 130 million adherents make up the world’s largest Moslem community, the number of mosques has doubled to 1,186. During that period, the Moslem population in America has quadrupled to an estimated two million, most of them blacks— including sports luminaries like Muham-

mad Ali—who rejected Christianity as part of the claptrap of an enslaved and humiliating history (see box on page 31). And statistics show that 100,000 more Moslems are visiting Mecca every year.

But perhaps the most ironic testimony to Islam’s strength took shape last week in the footnote to another newsreel, as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sailed about on an 18-day Middle East goodwill tour that took them to its very cradle. The ruler of an empire which once commanded the better part of the Moslem world in the name of Christendom was making her own pilgrimage, her hats discreetly “veiled” with headscarves so as not to give offence to the power that now can paralyse the oil-hungry world.

It was apt acknowledgement of the fact that echoes of Khomeini’s revolution— which, though it sprang from the stern soil of Islam, was nourished by an accumulation of bitter economic, social and political ills—was setting off convulsions which are reaching beyond the boundaries of religion and shaking the very foundations of the West itself. Already, with the ayatollah’s vow that Iran’s oil will never again gush to former heights, Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the Arab Emirates have hurried to raise their own prices. That, combined with the last OPEC increase and Saudi Arabia’s apoplexy over Jimmy Carter’s fair-weather foreign policy (see box), has prompted even the most conservative to predict an energy crisis by next winter.

As Iran tore up the Shah’s signature on billions of dollars worth of contracts for armaments, nuclear centres and construction schemes, American military advisers were pouring into Turkey to smooth the way for $300 million in joint military and economic aid which the shaky Ankara government has been pleading for as the West’s last line of defence against the looming paw of the Russian bear.

But in a secret briefing to some members of the Knesset which leaked out to the press, a senior Israeli defence official voiced the nervousness over that prospect that most other Western leaders were too afraid to put into words: Turkey, with its

shattered economy and volatile Moslem population, he predicted, may be the next Islamic storm centre of the Middle East. Indeed, it is not entirely without significance that the hero whom both the Shah of Iran and his father Reza Shah wanted to emulate was Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the nationalist firebrand who forged the modern Turkish nation after the First World War by wrenching it out of the clutches of the ancient, corrupt Moslem caliph.

Atatürk outlawed the fez and yashmak, or veil, as symbols of the Moslem yoke, traded the alphabet of the Koran for that of Julius Caesar and threw out Islamic for European jurisprudence. But 50 years later, there is

growing suspicion that “his reforms only went skin-deep,” says Monteil. “Religious feeling went underground.” Now that festering faith is exploding in conflicting assertions of Moslem identity between the majority Sunnite and minority Alvei sects, the latter a local off-shoot of Shi’ism. In December, in the centuries-aged market town of Maras, when 3,000 right-wing Sunni protestors tried to block a funeral procession for left-wing Shi’ite martyrs, 102 people were dead before martial law was proclaimed, bringing the body count to more than 1,000 from 12 months of such confrontations. But the most striking chord may have been the

battle cry heard as Sunnis sacked the shantytowns of the poorer Shi’a who support Ecevit, raging: “Give us back Moslem Turkey and down with the heretics.”

With an inflation rate of 60 per cent, 20-per-cent unemployment and a treasury that is all but officially bankrupt, there seems good reason to conclude that Turkey is ripe for the spread of Islamic fever. In the glare of the Iranian revolution, however, more than one potential flash point is discernible, though each case differs according to the national grievances it feeds on.

In Iraq, 51 per cent of the country’s 12 million Moslems are Shi’a, ruled over by

the small, secular, socialist wing of the Ba’ath party which represents the Sunni elite. That establishment shook hands with the Shah in 1975 to put down a Kurdish rebellion on its border in exchange for expelling Khomeini from his 15-year exile. Now there are reports of trembling on the banks of the Tigris River, as the Baghdad government tries to gauge whether the flocks to whom the ayatollah preached until only a few months ago will now seek to settle his accounts.

In neighboring Syria, the ruling Ba’aths have just patched up a noisy reconciliation with their Iraqi cousins after an acrid ideological split. It is an uneasy Band-Aid job at best, and it is further complicated by the fact that President Hafez Assad’s government— financially exhausted from his Lebanese and Israeli battles—is dominated by the reclusive Alawite (Shi’a) sect, which the Sunni majority regard as a barely palatable perversion of true Islam.

But the most vulnerable pressure point may be Egypt, where the superbly organized right-wing Moslem Brotherhood-outlawed under Gamal Nasser’s romance with the Soviets—has quietly flourished under the more tolerant eye of President Anwar Sadat. Their posters bloom on Cairo buses, their monthly magazine spouts on every newsstand,

and their growth is signalled by the flowering of the veil on campuses and substantial victories reaped in the last round of student elections.

Inevitably, there are those who see the long arm of Moscow behind the wide reach of re-ignited Islam. But watchful Westerners, noting that its Iran reports drastically underplay religious fervor, are convinced that the Soviets are running worried. With good reason. There are 50 million Moslems within their boundaries on the central Asian steppes, a tightly knit community which keeps its traditions alight in defiance of the gospel according to the party.

In contrast to the alarming over-all

fall in the Soviet birthrate, their numbers are on the rise, and Hélène Carrière d’Ecausse, a French professor of Soviet history who has just published an award-winning study called L'Empire Eclaté (The Disintegrating Empire), predicts that by the year 2000 one out of every three Soviet citizens will be a Moslem. “The authorities are being very careful not to provoke them now,” she says. “Iran represents a catastrophe for the Soviet Union.”

There is little comfort, politically, for the West in this, however. Islamic scholars insist that Mohammed’s message is by definition incompatible with the atheistic credo of Karl Marx. But Islam in fact wears almost as many political colors as it does nationalities— from the stern reactionary tribal monarchy of Saudi Arabia with its petrodollars fuelling the battle for converts in Africa, to Colonel Moammar Khadafy’s militant Libyan Marxism with its little green book of revolution and ample supply of oil revenues to grease the wheels of international terrorism.

But politics is not what the Islamic revival is about. The Pepsi-Cola factories and banks dismantled brick by brick by the ayatollah’s furious faithful are symbols for a whole repository of Western values which they were throwing out as godless. It is this resounding repudiation of the 20th cen-

tury’s sacrosanct credo of progress, liberalism and the good life which has left the West reeling—and promises to shape the most far-reaching consequences of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

In the cosmopolitan fibre of Cairo, students have fought to win back sexually segregated classes and university cafeterias, and a new generation of Moslem women are donning the black borköo their mothers struggled to throw off, choosing to cloak their new intellectual freedom in the ancient fabric of orthodoxy.

“There is disillusionment with this so-called modern life,” says Monteil. “During their independence movements, they were promised so many things and now they find they are still have-nots in a continuing colonial system.” Partly repelled by materialism

and corruption, partly frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunity, a growing number of young Moslems have looked into the eyes of muchvaunted modernity and found it hollow at the core. It is hardly surprising then, that they have turned back to the historical heartbeat of the mosque.

According to some Islamic scholars, the Koran predicts that every century or so in the Moslem world there will be a reform movement to re-ignite the faith and they deem that moment has now arrived with the fires of a stern new fundamentalism. In November, 1977, a Cairo conference of Islam’s mostlearned men urged Moslem politicians everywhere to jettison their Westernbased legal codes and return to the sharia, the canonical laws which forbid, among other things, alcohol, gambling,

public expression of affection between the sexes and charging interest by banks.

But the fires of Islamic fundamentralism are hardly new. In the 18th century, the puritanical reformer ’Abd alWahhab raged against the sensual and corrupt 1,001 nights’ luxury which the ruling sheiks were wallowing in and allied himself with the princes of the House of Sa’ud to overthrow them. His Wahhabite sect, with its stark and lean vision of Islam, took hold in the desert isolation of what has now become known as Saudi Arabia, and now the oil billions which their descendants control have helped revive its message today.

But this rush back to rigid original principles is nothing if not ironic in a religion whose founder was considered a liberator and conciliator. He was from

all accounts a gentle, reasonable man, this Mohammed who became known simply as the Prophet—born in Mecca in 570.

Surrounded by a community of Jews and Christians, he did not force their conversion, but merely charged them tribute, an efficient persuader, and accepted the line of prophets from Abraham to Jesus into Islam, only purporting to be the last of them, the “Seal of Prophets.”

As his armies surged forth in the centuries after his death to conquer Baghdad and Alexandria, it was natural that Islam should evolve a whole system for living which made no distinction between what should be rendered unto Caesar and what unto God—everything was for Allah. Indeed, it is one of the ultimate ironies that orthodox Moslems

today represent all that is anathema to the women’s liberation movement, while in his day Mohammed created scandals by giving women the first marital and inheritance rights they had known.

Over its nearly 1,400 years, Islam has stayed alive by its ability to evolve. Now, as the world looks for the direction this rekindled torch will take, there is every possibility that it could represent steps—not ultimately backward— but toward a new and different ordering of priorities.

“Moslems are caught between modernism, which in many ways they like, and their lost identity which they passionately want to recover,” says Mon-teil. “The future of Islam depends on the way both wishes will be reconciled.”:!1?