The Allawi Dance

The Iraqi minister’s new book quivers and vacillate on Islamic culture.

by Raymond Ibrahim

Middle East Quarterly

A review of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization by Ali A. Allawi (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. 304 pp.).

Allawi, who at various times was Iraqi minister of trade, minister of defense, and minister of finance following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, ends The Crisis of Islamic Civilization with a plausible conclusion — that, by nature, Islamic civilization must either subsume or be subsumed — but only after long swathes of tangents, contradictions, and loaded assumptions.

As for the latter, Islam’s purported golden age plagues Allawi, evinced by his obsession over “what went wrong?” He flatly rejects any answer that even remotely involves Islam per se as “patently absurd,” arguing that Islamic civilization was at the vanguard of human progress in the medieval era. Of course, the oft-repeated and (overly-dramatized) question of “what went wrong?” is moot. It falsely assumes that if Islamic civilization was at the vanguard of progress in the medieval era, it should be so now.

Begrudging the West’s meteoric rise, this position ultimately implies that Islam’s birthright was somehow usurped. Yet just because Muslims refined the astrolabe — which, as with most Muslim accomplishments, was in the service of Islam (to fix prayer times), something even the most radical Muslim happily permits — does not mean Islam was destined to split the atom. Nothing went wrong. This becomes clear when one ceases comparing Islam to the West — ceases comparing apples with oranges — and compares Islam to itself, appreciating the many constants.

Numerous pages are devoted to exploring the thoughts of progressive Islamic thinkers, only to reveal their aberrancy vis-à-vis Shari’a norms and thus their failure to resonate with the Muslim masses. Indeed, Shari’a is the insurmountable wall, the dead-end that repeatedly foils Allawi’s strategies or sophistries by his own implicit demonstrations.

Apologetics abound: Allawi minimizes the Islamic conquests; he trivializes the issue of blasphemy and apostasy charges, blaming the Western media for “sensationalizing” them; he portrays the dhimmi-status (existence as a subjugated religious minority) as something almost admirable; and there is a curious chapter questioning the West’s apparently overdeveloped notions of human rights: “Muslims must themselves decide what human rights mean in Islam.”

Most vexing are the contradictions and circular arguments. Allawi criticizes the Western notion that Islam’s position on usury hampers Muslim economies by boasting that “the arts of commerce and enterprise were honored and celebrated in a religion founded by a Prophet who had been a merchant.” Yet he bemoans modern Mecca’s transformation into a “tawdry shopping strip” — obliquely finding Western influence.

We are told “the moral drive which generates the actions of the ethical human being cannot be left unregulated and entirely answerable to reason or whim. The Sharia — in the broadest sense of the word — becomes the means to effect a true and lasting guidance for the ethical individual.” Sentences later, this is reversed: “The outer rules of the Sharia — whether modernized or not — or the acceptance of modern norms or values by a rationalizing Islam do not provide the moral compass which can keep Muslims on an even keel.” It is almost impossible to discern what his position is, what he espouses, what he condemns. He vacillates frequently — now condemning the Islamic world, now praising it and condemning modernity.

Allawi is fully aware of the crisis of Islamic civilization: Certain fixed aspects of Shari’a are simply at odds with modernity and globalization, and he (wittingly or unwittingly) ultimately demonstrates this. However, due to sympathy or affinity — and, above all, confusion over the significance of Islam’s golden age — his book roams freely.

©2010 Raymond Ibrahim

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