TCS Daily

A Northern Strategy

By Stephen Schwartz - January 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Christopher Caldwell recently wrote in The Weekly Standard, on the decision of the French authorities to ban head-coverings by Muslim women in schools and other public facilities, "there is little historical evidence that Islam can be effectively or sincerely practiced only in private."

Yet a report in The Washington Post of January 15 included the following comment by Amir Mohebian, editor of the conservative Iranian newspaper Resalat: "In an Islamic society, selling wines is forbidden, but if somebody is drinking wine in his house, the question is, do we enter the house to arrest him or not? I think the system should apply only to the public sphere, not to the house. If somebody goes from the way of God in his house, that is a problem between him and God."

Can one extrapolate further from these latter remarks to the possibility of a personal Islam, without aggressive public expression? In an earlier Weekly Standard reportage, I quoted Arben Xhaferi, an Albanian political leader in western Macedonia, who told me, "We have our own history, our own culture, and our own Albanian model of Islam, based on interfaith respect and the understanding that religion is private."

There is, in reality, considerable evidence that a personal, and even a private Islam exists, and has always existed, represented by large numbers. To cite a statistic, a 2001 study found that only four percent of Muslims living in America attend weekly prayers in a mosque. Some argue this is because the weekly service falls on Friday, when few have the day off. Others, however, claim that this reflects "nominal" Islam on the part of believers. In addition, Muslims are not required to attend mosque prayer. Prayer may be observed in the home.

By contrast, 40 percent of Christians attend church and 15 percent of Jews go to a synagogue regularly.

And do all believing Muslim women, everywhere, cover themselves? The women's head coverings that have been banned in France are universally referred to as a "veil," even though actual veils -- covering the face except the eyes -- are much rarer in the Muslim world than many Westerners think. Millions of Muslim women, from Bosnia to Borneo, wear only a scarf over their hair, and do not cover their faces at all. Yet they consider themselves no less Muslim than women in Saudi Arabia cloaked in an abaya, or women in ultrafundamentalist communities in North Africa who leave only one eye visible.

Private Islam, Northern Islam

Taking off from the quote by Arben Xhaferi above, I would argue that a personal or private Islam is the dominant form of the faith, in a wide belt extending from the Balkans through Turkey to the countries of Central Asia. I have come to think of these as the "northern tier Muslim countries," and their form of religion as "northern Islam." As indicated by The Washington Post quote, Iran, notwithstanding its recent extremist history, also embodies comprehension, at least, of Islam as, potentially, a personal matter.

"Northern Islam" may even be somewhat inaccurate, in that a similar style of Islam was historically found in Pakistan -- before that country was assaulted by Saudi-funded extremists -- in India, and in Malaysia and Indonesia. Muslims from these countries refer to a "Turko-Persian-Indian" Islamic tradition.

But are Muslims who keep their Islam private, even when they are the majority of a country's population -- 70 percent among Albanians, 88 percent in Uzbekistan, 90 to 99 percent in Turkey and Azerbaijan -- "insincere" or "nominal"?

That is a claim that many Western academics have made about northern tier Muslims. Everyone knows that Turkey is completely secularized. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims have often been described as adhering to "Islam lite" because of their low rates of mosque attendance. In their case, what appears to be lack of religious enthusiasm is typically ascribed to the influence of Communism -- even though Albanians were and are provably the most anti-Communist nation in Europe. Unlike the Bosnians, who tended to embrace Communism as a representation of progress, Albanians viewed it as Slavic imperialism, nothing more, nothing less.

Similar, and even worse, arguments are advanced to explain the alleged indifference to religious observance of Uzbek Muslims. Indeed, I was once lectured by a State Department expert who officiously informed me that at the end of Communism, Uzbek Muslims did not even know how to pray! I replied by quoting the prophet Muhammad, who said that belief alone was sufficient to guarantee salvation, and by noting that Sunni Muslim schools of jurisprudence differ on whether failure to pray is a sin.

However, having put considerable time into the examination of Central Asian, as well as Balkan Islam, I am prepared to state: Uzbeks hated Russian imperialism, and were, and are, largely unimpressed by the ideology that ruled in its interest. Uzbeks are a traditional people mainly concerned with their families, their agricultural and other work, and other aspects of personal life. Their Islam is spiritual, respectful of other faiths (a community of Jews has lived in the Uzbek city of Bukhara for 2,500 years), and private.

The non-aggressive character of Turkish Islam cannot be explained exclusively by the country's secular regime, established in the 1920s. Historically, the Ottoman sultans sheltered and protected the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, assisting them in settling throughout the empire. And while the Ottomans often waged war against the Christian powers, and used the Christian Orthodox clergy as tax collectors, they also extended special privileges to Catholics in Bosnia-Hercegovina. An Albanian Catholic, Pashko Vasa Shkodrani, was Ottoman governor of Lebanon in the 19th century.

"Northern Islam" may perhaps be explained by some special characteristic in the Turkish-influenced and other Inner Asian cultures, but that would require an immense work of anthropological or related research and theory. One may also associate it with the widespread practice of Sufism, or Islamic spirituality, which is extremely influential among Albanians, Turks, and Uzbeks... as well as Muslims in West Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It suffices, in my view, to point out that the northern Islamic countries (except for Iran's deviation of the past 25 years), generally lack the taste for extremism and, especially, fundamentalism, found in Arab societies.

Thus, Bosnian Muslims suffered enormously during the 1992-95 war, but never adopted terrorism as a weapon for general use against their enemies, and have pretty much rejected the efforts of Saudi/Wahhabi missionaries, representing the hate cult that is the state dispensation in Riyadh, to "convert" them. Turkey is a military partner of Israel, and reacted to the recent al-Qaida bombings in Istanbul with outrage. Uzbekistan votes with Israel in the United Nations and has been criticized for its forceful handling of Islamist infiltration. As for Iran, I have always viewed its plunge into radicalism as having more to do with its relations with the West than with its religious culture, however controversial such an opinion might be.

Is the Problem with Islam the Religion?

Many Westerners believe there is a problem in Islam as a religion, and that those Muslims who do not fit the pattern of the problem are not real Muslims. This is a multiple mistake. First, it validates the claim to authenticity of the extremists, who make exactly the same argument -- only they are true Muslims. Second, it writes millions of valuable allies out of strategic consideration in the war against terror.

If Islam has a problem, I submit that most of the "northern tier" countries have already overcome it -- and that Iran is well on its way to doing so. Here, however, we encounter another obstacle to understanding the Muslim world and the needs of the war against terror -- the widespread belief that Islam is essentially an Arab religion, and that only the core Arab countries count in its future.

However, for many centuries the main center of the Muslim world was in Turkey; the greatest Islamic culture emerged in Iran, and Central Asian and Indian Muslims amassed wealth then unimaginable elsewhere. The road to progress in the Islamic world may therefore be said to have run from Sarajevo to Samarkand, rather than from Riyadh. We should consider the possibility that the Muslim world may again find a northerly direction for its aspirations, in a place where the "problems" of Islam may have already been resolved.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to TCS where he writes about science, technology and foreign affairs. He is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam."


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