I WAS RECENTLY invited to deliver the keynote address at the Association of Muslim Social Scientists’ annual banquet. My topic was dreadfully and depressingly significant: “Contemporary Chaos and the Muslim Youth: Getting beyond Defensiveness and Confronting our own Demons.”
I thought it would be best to speak from relevant personal experience, as a foreign correspondent who covered the Middle East for a couple of decades. What pleasantly surprised me that evening was how outspokenly positive all of the young participants, Muslim graduate students and young academics, were in their response to my talk.
Here is a very small portion of the core of a much longer transcript to be published later this year in the AMSS Journal.
From 1968 to 19701 covered the fedayeen guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation largely fought from the Jordanian East Bank across the river onto the West Bank. I was reporting for Jeune Afrique, the New York Times, and eventually NBC News. The fedayeen I hung out with were nominally Arab Nationalists, Arab Socialists or some strand of Marxist. Interestingly there were no Islamist fedayeen, and the odd assortment of left wing groups were all secular. These fighters were not just generically Muslim. Most of them prayed and many fasted even though exempt by virtue of combat. They could as easily quote Qur’an better than they could Mao or Marx, or to a lesser degree, Gamal Abdul Nasr. No doubt some of their old fashioned, unguided land mines, mostly intended for Israeli Army patrols, would on occasion kill Israeli civilians. But that was not their objective.
I felt I was in the company of warriors, not of men who were convinced they had some sort of Higher Right, as members of a Resistance, be it Religious or Nationalist, to consciously target and blow away unarmed civilians and in particular women and children.
One of the groups I covered was the PFLP, who pioneered the hijacking of civilian commercial aircraft, including an Israeli aircraft. In every case I covered, what was significant was how at that moment (more than three decades ago) the fedayeen went out of their way not to kill the passengers. They would take them off the planes at Dawson Field or in Cairo before blowing up the planes. They even gave the passengers biscuits and a lecture before releasing them. Or at the Zurich airport, shooting out the wheels of an El Al plane, so it couldn’t take off, and then surrendering to the Swiss, without harming a hair of any Israeli or other civilian on board.
May God forgive me but thinking about that behavior sort of makes me nostalgic for the old seemingly secular Arab Left.
The PFLP were led at that time by Dr. George Habesh, an evolved Arab Nationalist turned Marxist of Palestinian Christian background. During one of my interviews with Habesh, he conceded my observation that his fighters, in contrast to his political cadre, were what I as an exMarxist and an ex-atheist would describe as nominal Marxists. These nominal Marxists were men and women who overwhelmingly were believers, and to one degree or another, practicing Muslims.
I felt when I was with these fighters that I was in the company of Muslims. Forty years ago this meant young men and women fedayeen, raised in traditional Muslim homes where Islam was precisely the five pillars and not an ideology. Given their manners, their traditional courtesies, and certain elementary but noticeable spiritual bearing, I found this all to be particularly troubling all these years.
And that is because in the decades that followed, the mid-seventies to the mideighties, I found myself covering radical Islamist militants in Egypt and Sudan. I frequently felt, on a psychic plane that took me beyond the sight of these militants at prayer, that I was back in the party. Well, clearly I was not.
What was taking place was an existential response on my part to men who believed and declared that Islam was not just a religion, not just the five pillars-that Islam was an ideology. Indeed these young militants were pious, but they were pious ideologues, not pietists. Their piety had an edge, like the combative way they stood for prayer. It was not like the ordinarypietists in the medinas of Morroco, whose spiritual grace, beauty of gesture and movement had so deeply moved me more than 40 years ago when I was in flight from ideology.
My flight from Marxism was as much a flight from revolutionary ideology in general as it was a flight from a specific ideology. It was a flight from Leninist Utopianism, for I would argue that nearly all modern revolutionary ideologies are Leninist in assumption and method. I was in a flight from the vision of a society that could be truly and collectively perfected by organized collective struggle, be it the primordial classless society or, now, for radical Islamists, a pure righteous Caliphate leading the umma as a redeemed global collectivity. A Utopia so righteous that it has come, in its most extreme forms, to justify and moralize whatever murderous means it chooses to employ.