On Sept. 18, 2001, I landed in Cairo on an extended assignment in the Islamic world. It was nearly impossible to find an Egyptian who believed foreign news accounts of the events that had rocked America one week earlier.
Very few would unequivocally condemn the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Almost no one conceded that Muslims had been involved in planning them.
It seemed unimaginable in 2001 that an immense insurgency would engulf Muslim nations less than a decade later, not with a cry for militant political Islam but for Western-style personal freedom and democratic reform.
As much as the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling into ruins, the Muslim reaction to September 11 — not only Egypt, but around the globe — shocked the West and raised fears of outright war with Islam, a “clash of civilizations” in the words of Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.
Strident Denials, Painful Doubts
But strident denial, in nations as well as individuals, is often a tacit expression of doubts that are too painful to confront directly.
Behind the rage that exploded on September 11, and the wall of denial erected around it, was a profound internal crisis, bred by centuries of stagnation in what was once the most advanced civilization on Earth.
“We learn every day, in our homes and our schools and our mosques, that we stand at the apex of history, that almost all of modern science and mathematics is based on discoveries by Muslim thinkers a thousand years ago,” a Saudi official told me in 2003. “What no one wants to talk about is the thousand years that followed,” he admitted. “What we seldom ask out loud is where we are today.”
In 2011, that silence was broken as never before.
An unprecedented popular revolt, seeded in 2009’s mass protests in Iran, led to enormous demonstrations last winter and spring that toppled presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. By March, it had provoked a full-fledged civil war in Libya that eventually overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. The movement now threatens the leaders of Yemen and Syria, and has spread to points as distant as Morocco, the Gulf oil states, Sudan, Iraq and Malaysia.
Together, Teheran’s Green Wave and the Arab Spring have focused attention directly on volatile frustrations — and modern aspirations — inside the Muslim bloc itself.
A crossroads lies ahead for one-fourth of the Earth’s population–1.6 billion people comprising the Islamic Ummah, the international community of believers.
By almost any measure, an overview of the Muslim community in 2011 makes for grim reading.
Only two of the world’s 40 Muslim-majority nations — excluding the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Southeast Asian mini-state of Brunei — have per capita Gross Domestic Products above the global median, according to the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, a rising power, is one. In the second, Malaysia, the economy is controlled by non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.
The figures for 17 Muslim nations are less half the world median.
Explosive economic growth and modernization in East Asia, Latin America and India has opened a yawning chasm between Muslim economies and those of their former peers in the developing world.
In 2010, Islam’s four largest states — Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, with a total of 640 million people, half the population of China — had a combined annual GDP of $2.2 trillion. China’s alone was $10.1 trillion, almost two-and-a-half times bigger in per-capita terms.
Brazil’s GDP stands at more than $2 trillion, nearly equal to the four Islamic giants — but generated by a population less than one-third their size.
In 1950, Pakistan’s per capita GDP was significantly higher than those of both China and India, its military and economic arch-enemy. Today, India’s per capita GDP is 50 percent higher than that of Pakistan, which is increasingly regarded as a failed state, perilously destabilized by terrorism, tribal conflicts, government ineptitude and massive corruption.
Nowhere is the crisis of the Islamic world more telling than in the realm of political development.
In the wake of September 11, pundits and scholars predicted that the day of the military autocrat, which took center stage in Muslim countries a half-century earlier, was finished. The next era would belong to Islamic theocracy. The ensuing decade witnessed unremitting violence between authoritarian regimes and a constellation of fundamentalist groups inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and structurally modeled on Al-Qaeda.
Yet despite millions of casualties — overwhelmingly Muslim — the overall picture of governance had barely changed before this year’s Arab Spring. In 2011, more than half of the 54 outright authoritarian regimes on the planet rule Muslim-majority populations. Their record speaks for itself.
Not one Muslim-majority nation is listed in the top third of countries ranked by the World Health Organization on their per capita health care expenditures as a percentage of GDP. But 22 are in the bottom third.
Just two Muslim nations score in the top 50 of 179 countries in overall educational achievements, according to an annual survey compiled by The Economist. Both are former Soviet republics that inherited school programs established by Moscow. A dismal 18 wind up in the lower 50 — including eight of the world’s lowest 10.
There is no exaggerating the weight of these failures. In the course of four years on the Islamic road after September 11, a paralyzing sense of futility was among the most common reasons cited by those who denied a Muslim role in the attacks.
The hijackings “must have been plotted by the Israelis or the CIA,” a noted Egyptian intellectual maintained. “They have the will, the sense of organization and the capacity. We don’t.”
The New Insurgents
A third contender has now joined the struggle for the future of the Muslim world: the vast youthful insurgency that occupied central Teheran and Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the name of democracy and modernization.
The unanswered question is whether history — and the realities that define it — is yet on the insurgents’ side.
What is clear is that these young people bring new ideas and new methods to the arena. Their outlook has been molded by constant exposure to the global universe opened by advanced communications technologies, which served as highly efficient organizing tools in their protests.
Their agenda, most fully expressed in a Tahrir Square manifesto published on the Internet, is a compendium of everything an internationalized generation of Muslim youth has come to detest in the old regimes. It takes aim at both the military authoritarianism embodied by Mubarak, Gaddafi and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and the fundamentalist ideologues of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Tahrir demands, echoed in protests almost everywhere, included the formation of a civilian government, answerable to the electorate, with the military held to a limited role.
The protesters called for an unrestricted press, the freedom to organize political parties and the drafting of a democratic constitution. Corrupt officials were to be prosecuted. Police and state security agencies were to be made accountable to statutory guarantees of human rights.
All of the elements that frame the Islamic crossroads are writ large in Egypt — as are all of the formidable obstacles that lie in its path.
Political Islam has its very origins in the Cairo-born Muslim Brotherhood. Eight decades old, and in principle nonviolent, it is the forerunner of Al Qaeda and its emulators. One Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician, was the acknowledged operations chief of the September 11 conspiracy. Another, Mohammed Atta, was the assaults’ commander.
In the person of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, its strongman from 1952 to 1970, Egypt forged the authoritarian military-backed model of governance that still prevails in most Muslim nations.
To date, it can also be argued, the youthful insurgents of Tahrir Square have registered the new movement’s most notable achievements. Egyptian president and former air force commander Mubarak, Nasser’s successor after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, was not simply another entrenched military autocrat. For three decades, he was a central player in both Middle Eastern and African geopolitics, ruling over 80 million people — by far the largest Arab nation, and second only to Saudi Arabia as a Sunni- Islam religious center. It was Washington’s generous defense-assistance budget–second only to that for Israel–which supplied and bankrolled Mubarak’s security forces.
To those who say Muslims have neither the will nor the capacity to modernize their societies or make their own choices, the cry of the movement’s legions is “Yes we can!”
On the surface, youthful demographics would appear to favor the insurgents, amplifying the generational thrust for change with the sheer force of numbers. The population of Egypt — like almost all Muslim-majority nations — is very young, with a median age of just 24, roughly half that of Europe.
One of the movement’s most charismatic personalities is Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, who led opposition to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which took “temporary” control of the government following Mubarak’s ouster. Charged with “calling for armed rebellion,” Mahfouz now faces prosecution by a military tribunal. Her case has galvanized political dissent across the spectrum from the religious right to the feminist left.
Mahfouz is among a significant cohort of women playing major roles in the insurgency, marking yet another break with the past. The campaign to have her charges dismissed, like the Arab Spring itself, has been organized on Twitter and Facebook.
But beneath the surface of public events, which reflect the cosmopolitan experience of Cairo and Alexandria, lies another country — a rural backwater, home to 60 percent of the population, that mirrors the larger Islamic world’s crippling fatalism.
Egypt’s national literacy rate is a meager 66.4 percent. Seven of the 10 least-literate nations on Earth have Muslim majorities. Nearly 80 percent of Egyptians and Pakistanis think adulterous couples should be stoned, thieves should have their hands amputated, and those who leave Islam should be subject to the death penalty.
According to various estimates, from 78-97 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to genital mutilation in accordance with traditional customs.
In a comprehensive 2010 study of women in 134 countries, issued by the World Economic Forum, 15 of 20 nations with the world’s worst gender gaps were Muslim. The study examined employment participation and opportunity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment. No Muslim nation in the Middle East or North Africa placed in the top 100.
It would be premature to bet against the Islamic world’s young insurgents, who have demonstrated astonishing courage in their challenge to autocracy and extremism. But it would be naÃ¯ve to underestimate the challenge of drawing a billion of the barely educated rural poor into a modernist revolution.
Devout religious observation is the norm in towns and villages. Whether the setting is the Nile Delta or Pakistan’s agrarian heartland, an army career — and the autocratic patronage system that is its ladder — is a time-honored means of escaping dire poverty.
To succeed, the insurrection cannot depend exclusively on using the tools of modern technology or the language of participatory democracy. Egyptian women grasped this early in the protests. Many wore veils to signal their own conviction that the institutions of democracy and modernization are not inconsistent with Islamic values or contemptuous of the faithful.
The crucial challenge, the real test at the crossroads of history, is to convince the worldwide community of the Ummah that change is possible and critically necessary — and that its intent is not heresy, but the fulfillment of one of Mohammed’s key injunctions in conversations with his followers.
“What is the best type of Jihad?” Islam’s founder is asked. “Speaking truth before a tyrannical ruler,” he answers.
SIDEBAR: Skin Tight Slacks–The First Signs of Change
On September 11, 2001, puritanical extremism seemed to have seized control of Islam’s destiny. Yet in retrospect, the roots of today’s youthful, modernist insurgency were visible even then.
I watched its emblematic scenes unfold at the end of the 1990s, along Iran’s frontiers with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Every hour or so, busloads of young Iranians arrived on holiday excursions at the border posts. As soon as the busses parked, the black-cloaked women passengers charged into “comfort stations” on the Azerbaijan side. They emerged wearing flimsy summer dresses, skin-tight Levis, and then-fashionable shredded blouses that looked as though they had been torn off of one shoulder.
Iranian young men changed on the busses into equally tight slacks and tailored shirts. All of them, of both genders, furiously scrolled through their cell phone contacts, calling friends who were already in Baku, the Azeri capital on the Caspian Sea, for advance word on the nightclub scene.
Theirs was a journey between the two poles of Muslim-majority governance: political Islam in the guise of puritanical mullahs and a military-backed regime under authoritarian president Haydar Aliyev. This former member of the Soviet Politburo had crushed any sign of political dissent, but he had no objection to tight slacks.
Similar scenes were common by 2005 in Iraq. There, youngsters from Baghdad and Kirkuk flocked to the Kurdish-controlled north not only to escape the Arab south’s endless sectarian bloodshed, but also to buy state-of-the-art cell phones, iPods and laptops in booming shopping malls.
A strange Saudi version of these rites took hold on the main commercial streets of coastal Jeddah, where honking traffic jams cruised after dark, their cars respectively full of veiled young women or white-robed young men.
As the vehicles passed each other, blizzards of folded paper squares flew between them.
“They write their cell phone numbers and a proposed meeting place on them. It’s a way of making secret dates,” my interpreter explained.
The dating games, nightclub and electronics shopping excursions were not expressly political. But their unambiguous contempt for repression foreshadowed the protests in Teheran in 2009 and the Arab countries 18 months later.
This article is the first of two on “Islam at the Crossroads.” Next will be “A Bridge to the Future–in Doctrine and Politics.”