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How the Islamic Enlightenment Came and Went

In The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason, Christopher de Bellaigue chronicles the attempts of 19th- and 20th-century Muslim intellectuals, clerics, and rulers to come to terms with Western civilization and what it has to offer. Eric Ormsby writes in his review:

Muslim intellectuals, both reformers and traditionalists, as well as ruthlessly reforming sultans and pashas, were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Western achievements and practices. The fact that these unfamiliar foreign novelties arrived wrapped in an aura of sheer godlessness and ignorance of the one true faith confounded Muslims. How was it possible that Allah, who had bestowed the final truth on Muslims in a revelation that superseded both Judaism and Christianity, would permit such infidels to triumph over them?

The question, which vexed Muslims from Napoleon’s first incursions into Egypt in 1798, remains tormentingly pertinent today. It perplexes traditional Muslim preachers and it fuels the rage of jihadists. God cannot be unjust, and yet, how to account for the overwhelming material superiority of the sinful West? At the same time, once Muslim leaders witnessed the devastating effect of Western weaponry and military tactics on the battlefield, they had to obtain and master them. Other novelties, such as printing with movable type or medical and scientific research (including human dissection), took longer to be accepted but eventually proved equally irresistible.

De Bellaigue’s title turns on a paradox. We seldom, if ever, think of Islam, at least in its current form, as exemplifying, let alone promoting, “enlightenment.” Yet his intention “is to demonstrate that non-Muslims and even some Muslims who today urge an Enlightenment on Islam are opening the door on a horse that bolted long ago.” He goes even further when he states that “for the past two centuries Islam has been going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation—a Reformation, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution all at once.” This seems to me somewhat overstated. After all, one of the obstacles to any reformation within Islam is not solely the intransigence of its well-ensconced clergy, both Sunni and Shiite, but also the simple fact that the emergence of Islam itself represented a reformation, at least in the eyes of its adherents. It grew partly as a reformation of what the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers saw as the distortions of monotheism present in both Christianity and Judaism. Many Christian doctrines, such as that of the incarnation or the Trinity, scandalized early Muslims because they infringed upon the overriding conception of God’s absolute oneness.

Read more at Literary Review

More about: History & Ideas, Islam, Napoleon Bonaparte

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen