Teleology is part of human nature. 9/11 and what the date has come to represent, for the United States and for our times, was one of those defining moments in humanity's grand narrative which the great Austrian humanist Stefan Zweig liked to single out. A decade later, the series of revolutions in-the-making that are shaking up the Arab world, represent another. Despite unfortunate clumsiness and myriad missed opportunities on the part of the West, a welcome rapprochement between the latter and the Arab and Muslim worlds has crystallized in the interval. In a world that became multipolar way sooner than most expected, this may well turn out to be a salutary development.
Islamic fundamentalism is losing appeal among Arab and Muslim masses, especially among the youth. Proof of this can be found in the lack of influence extremists have shown in the above-mentioned revolutionary movements. Since the beginning of the Jasmin uprising in Tunisia and its Egyptian, Libyan, Bahraini, Yemenite and Syrian cousins, people have been rising, not to the sound of Islamic or anti-Western speeches but to those of slogans calling for more democracy. This craving for freedom, far from being superimposed by the West, originates from within. While caution should obviously remain a guiding principle at this stage, one can hope the revolutionaries and the broader population in these countries are about to prove to the world that there is, South -- and hopefully, East -- of the Mediterranean, an alternative to both theocracy and military dictatorship.
The proverbial Arab street is far less subject to casting the entire blame on others (the West, the United States, Israel, all three) for their blatant underdevelopment, which nine successive UN reports attest to. They are appropriately finally blaming the tyrants that govern or used to govern them for (most of) their ills. The mindboggling myth, long echoed throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, that "Jews" working in the towers were warned ahead of the attacks on the World Trade Center, is finally being largely discredited. Al Qaeda's nihilism, in the meantime, is being rejected outright. Despite their initial appeal, the future Ben Laden and his successors offer to those ready to espouse their cause is proving less and less enticing, less and less worthy of the sacrifices demanded. Better still, the younger generation in the Muslim and Arab worlds seems less and less prone to the outright rejection of Ijtihad, i.e. Reform, which paralyzed their parents since the last serious, systematic attempt to modernize Islam at the turn of the twentieth century, the Muhammad Abdu Project.
Let us not be naive: Throughout the Arab world, the need to discuss the place of religion in the society, politics, the economy and various institutions remains dire. Building Arab democracies or Islamic states (as opposed to Islamist ones) respectful of individual liberties, will take time, sweat and (still more) tears. Still, a new Weltanschauung, brought about specifically by the youth, is unmistakably emerging in the Arab and the neighboring Muslim world.
An unexpected corollary to this positive evolution in the East is that the West too seems to have grown up. It is digesting in record time the end of a centuries-old supremacy it thought would end slowly, over the course of decades, and which it just realized is already gone. Above all, Western thought seems to have managed in the past decade to finally free itself from a strange disease symptomatic of its decline in the second half of the twentieth century: an absurd, self-denying and politically correct form of cultural and moral relativism.
In the 1950s and 60s, the critique of orientalism and eurocentrism were of course necessary. The West, convinced of its superiority over all other civilizations, needed to question itself, urgently so. Unfortunately, the welcome critique coming from the structuralist movement and the postmodern deconstructionists went way too far without anyone, aside from a few enlightened minds, the likes of Jean-François Revel or Mario Vargas Llosa, ever really questioning its excesses. This relativism, which led to the shocking lack of discernment of progressives on a host of political and moral issues -- recall Douglas Hurd's pro-Serb stance during the war in Bosnia or François Mitterrand's in Rwanda, ended up causing harm on a global scale; ask Egyptian and Iranian progressives or even Soheib Bencheikh, the former Mufti of Marseilles, the European city with the largest Muslim population, what they thought of the debates on the hijab or more recently on the Burkha that occurred in France and elsewhere in the West.
With such progressive "friends" in the West, progressive Muslims simply didn't need enemies. The ridiculous and amoral self-flagellation of the West in those times, typical of the decadence and intellectual renouncement symptomatic of a civilization's decline, found its illustration in the opinion pages of "quality media" all around Europe and Latin America following 9/11. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard could equate the "children of Al Qaeda" to those "of Wall Street", whatever the latter expression purported to mean, while scholars like Edward Said at Columbia University could declare there was nothing unique about the attacks, that they had been carried out by the Muslim equivalent of the (Christian) Davidians in Waco, Texas and of the (Buddhist) extremists of Aum Shiriko without raising that many eyebrows outside the US. As if the latter phenomena were of the same category as the aberrations of modern-day Islam fundamentalism.
It is hand-in-hand with a West ever more conscious both of its new-found limits but also of its virtues and values that the Arab world will be able to transcend the false predicament which governed thinking about the region and according to which the only choice at hand there is between tyranny and fundamentalism. It is in light of the emergence of this possibility itself that we should gauge the progress the West, the East and the world have achieved in the past decade.
Felix Marquardt is the founder of the Atlantic Dinners. He blogs at www.feleaks.com
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