A recent Jerusalem Post story by Matthew Gutman called “Hamas, Fatah Battle for Soul of a Town” describes a situation in the West Bank town of Bidya in which the newly elected Hamas mayor, Ramadan Shtat, is vying with Fatah members of his municipal council over the nature of a new cultural center. For instance, whereas the fundamentalist Shtat agrees to the center having an Internet lab so long as “the Internet is used in an Islamic way” and does not “abuse Islamic morals,” his relatively secular-nationalist Fatah opponents say this “defeats the purpose of widening the horizons of the town’s youth.”
In reading the article, I had to admit that the concerns of the Islamist mayor evoked some understanding in me. It’s not that I like Hamas, a movement explicitly committed to Israel’s destruction. But giving children access, via the Internet, to pornography is not one of the more attractive features of the current Western civilization. In the Arab context, Shtat is a conservative who fears the breakdown of religion and morality — not concerns that are incomprehensible to a conservative in a Western context.
Ramadan Shtat is paradigmatic of a conservative or Islamist recoil that tends to occur in Arab countries where modernity and democratization make inroads. It is happening, for instance, in Iraq, where both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists are fighting for control of the emergent post-Saddam society; in Lebanon, where Hezbollah wants to entrench itself in case of a Syrian pullout; and in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is gearing up for big gains in Mubarak’s promised multicandidate elections. For American conservatives who back President Bush’s democratization project, it is easy to dub the Arab modernizers as the good guys and the Islamists as the bad guys — except that this misses some complexities of the situation.
American and other Western conservatives are not, after all, themselves totally enamored of 21st-century modernity. The euthanasia of Terri Schiavo has sparked anguished cries about a society losing its moral bearings and winking at murder. Ongoing efforts to stanch the tide of depraved culture that is routinely fed to children have proved futile. Divorce and family breakdown continue to be a scourge. Then there is Western Europe — which, along with North America, forms the heartland of the democratic West, but is in a dangerous state of decay marked by low birth rates, pacifism, cultural relativism, and extreme secularism.
While on the one hand critical and worried about the moral state of today’s democracies, some conservatives are confident that Arabs will happily embrace our way of life if given the chance. Some reassure us that an “Islamic democracy” will emerge in which Arabs preserve their time-honored values while learning to run their affairs more liberally. But this contradicts the experience of democracies like Japan and Israel that, once considered more “traditional” and relatively immune, are now beset by the same problems of dissolving families, permissiveness, and so on. Some loosening of the social fabric is inevitable — as is the alarm and anger with which many Muslim Arabs will react.
The point is not that Islamic terrorism, oppression of women, cruel penal systems, and so on should be excused. I would still rather grow up in a broken home in America or Japan than in a family in Yemen or Egypt where I was encouraged to murder my sister for having an affair. The point, rather, is that trying to remake other societies in one’s own image is a risky business, especially when one’s own image contains flaws that are even more glaring from the standpoint of those societies. The conservative who is upset by abortion, drug use, promiscuity, and the like should not find it so hard to grasp the feelings of the religious Muslim who fears the unraveling of his society into something he regards as monstrous.
As the Hebrew saying goes, what I am propounding is not bashamayim — “in the heavens,” remote; we can see it before our eyes. The democratization project is indeed sparking a dangerous Islamic backlash in Iraq and other Arab countries. For all the pitfalls of modernity, we can basically sympathize with the modernizers while asking if their societies can cope with the challenge without erupting in violence and discord.
Islamic terrorism is a severe menace, and President Bush is right to fight it. Combining that enterprise with a massive social-engineering project may be self-defeating. It may have stood more of a chance if the democracies themselves had not become radically liberal.