The exotic Orient

“The mind of the Oriental. . .” said Cromer, “like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.”

Cromer was done with what he considered Africa’s most Oriental part, Egypt, which he had mastered in every sense. Do I merely imagine the distant rumble of thunder as an accompaniment to his words? I know he only recorded them on paper because even his superiors, of whom the whole world counted just a few, no longer expected to see their speech engraved in stone tablets. He continued:

“Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat higher degree the science of dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavor to elicit a plain statement of facts from any ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half-a-dozen times before he has finished his story. He will often break down under the mildest process of cross-examination.”

Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer, Britain’s first Consul General in Egypt, wrote those words in his memoir called Modern Egypt, published in 1908. Maybe we Americans and other Westerners understand the Islamic world no better today than Lord Cromer did a century ago. Are our own judgments and imaginations equally hobbled by prejudice and self-regard, as we watch unrest spread across the Muslim Middle East and North Africa?

Five years ago Nancy Davis and Robert Robinson published, in the American Sociological Review, a surprising and challenging account of Islamic orthodoxy, better known (or feared) in the West as “Islamic fundamentalism” or, when it asserts itself in the political arena, as “Islamism.” Davis and Robinson hint at a wide gap in Western understanding of Islamic orthodoxy with the title of their paper, “The Egalitarian Face of Islamic Orthodoxy: Support for Islamic Law and Economic Justice in Seven Muslim-Majority Nations.” But where could one find the “egalitarian face” on a movement associated in the West with every form of inequality and oppression, most strikingly manifest in the treatment of women?

The professors note that “despite the conventional wisdom,” their research shows that religiously orthodox Christians and Jews often stand “to the right of modernists on cultural issues of abortion, sexuality, family, and gender, but to the left of the modernists on issues of economic justice.” Further research undertaken to test whether a parallel holds in seven Muslim-majority countries—Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—confirms the parallel, as predicted by the authors’ own “Moral Cosmology” theory.

The Moral Cosmology theory, applicable “to all of the Abrahamic faith traditions. . . posits that because the religiously orthodox are theologically communitarian in seeing individuals as subsumed by a larger community of believers and as subject to the timeless laws and greater plan of God, they are disposed toward economic communitarianism, whereby it is the society’s responsibility to provide for those in need, reduce inequality, and intervene in the economy to meet community needs.”

Davis and Robinson go on to point out that in most Abrahamic contexts the less orthodox religious “modernists,” who are “theologically individualistic in that they see individuals themselves as responsible for their destinies and as having to make moral decisions in the context of the times, are inclined toward laissez-faire economic individualism, which sees the poor as responsible for their fates, supports wider income differences to promote individual initiative, and wants government to keep out of the economy.”

The outcome of Iran’s 2005 presidential contest between the Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the modernist reformer Akbar Hasmeni Rafsanjani supplied a textbook illustration of the contrast outlined by Davis and Robinson. In a nation troubled by high rates of unemployment and inflation, Ahmadinejad vowed “to put the poor at the top of his agenda, pledged to renationalize the oil industry and redistribute its wealth, and condemned the reformists’ reintroduction of private banks and privatization of state-owned industries for increasing the gap between rich and poor.”

All questions about the sincerity of Ahmadinejad’s commitment to populist economics aside, his assaults on Rafsanjani’s espousal of neoliberal policies—“ending subsidies for bread, gas, and utilities; accelerating privatization; and encouraging foreign investment”—struck a thunderous chord with the Iranian electorate, bringing him sixty-two percent of the vote. Ahmadinejad’s sabre-rattling and Holocaust denial have defined his image for Westerners, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s condemnation of the United States as “the great Satan” became the signature of the Supreme Leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution three decades ago. And, just as Ahmadinejad’s advocacy of economic justice attracts little attention in the West, Americans and other Westerners largely ignored the provisions that enshrined principles of economic justice in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was adopted by referendum on October 24, 1979 and which reflected Khomeini’s nearly irresistible power in shaping the Islamic Revolution.

But Chapter IV of that Constitution, on Economy and Financial Affairs, plainly situates Khomeini and his Islamist followers to the left on issues of economic justice. For example, Article 43, Section 1 stipulates “provision of basic necessities for all citizens: housing, food, clothing, hygiene, medical treatment, education, and the necessary facilities for the establishment of a family.” Section 2 pledges to ensure “conditions and opportunities of employment for everyone, with a view to attaining full employment; placing the means of work at the disposal of everyone who is able to work but lacks the means, in the form of cooperatives, through granting interest-free loans or recourse to any other legitimate means” which do not produce “concentration or circulation of wealth in the hands of a few individuals or groups.”

Still more ambitiously, Section 3 requires a “plan for the national economy. . . structured in such a manner that the form, content, and hours of work of every individual will allow him sufficient leisure and energy to engage, beyond his professional endeavor, in intellectual, political, and social activities leading to all-round development of his self, to take active part in leading the affairs of the country, improve his skills, and to make full use of his creativity.” The idealism of Section 3 serves as a reminder of Khomeini’s insufficiently recognized study of Marx by evoking the famously visionary account of communist society in Part I of The German Ideology, according to which communism “makes it possible for me to. . . hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

If only correcting economic inequality were as simple as adopting the populism bequeathed by Khomeini to Ahmadinejad! But the withering criticisms directed at populist economic policies are well known.

I’m not sure that a radically altered social, political, and economic future for the Islamic world has to be limited by the binary opposition of theological and economic communitarianism to theological and laissez-faire economic individualism. A well-known passage from the late American political philosopher John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice specifies that social and economic inequalities “are to be arranged so that they are both. . . to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings [of resources for future generations] principle, and. . . attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” Rawls’ concern for “the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” is clearly compatible with the economic communitarianism whereby, as Davis and Robinson explain, “it is the society’s responsibility to provide for those in need, reduce inequality, and intervene in the economy to meet community needs.”

Nevertheless, Rawls’ stipulation that social and economic inequalities maximally benefiting the least advantaged shall attach “to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” implies rejection of the socially and politically suffocating and economically stifling authoritarian populism of revolutionary and postrevolutionary Iran. Rawls’ thought makes room for individual initiative and wealth, if not for untrammelled greed.

Like many Americans, Rawls saw creative tension, rather than fatal contradiction, between his own country’s communitarian and individualist impulses. In recent decades this vision has increasingly come under attack in the United States, with particular ferocity from those who view themselves as defenders of individualism. Yet most if not all of us know intimately the lived experience of simultaneously communal and individual beings. We know that this lived experience often succeeds, though not always. We know, furthermore, that it is inescapable. Ideological shrillness does not dissuade us from trying to live the simultaneously communal and individual lives wherein we know our only possibility of fulfillment lies.

Maybe, some day, Americans will know again a time when ideology lowers its voice in the public space. If it gets quiet enough, we can discuss reasonably how we might best duplicate our simultaneously communal and individual personal experiences in the social, political, and economic orders. In any case, the peoples of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa will get through their current upheavals better if they have such a reasonable discussion than if they do not. We ought to wish them well.—Don Stoll

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About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
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