After the Fall of Baghdad

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla

Defeatism is an internalized feeling of defeat, a melancholic mournfulness that eventually imprisons one in a dark web. It is like a labyrinth or a path that splits endlessly. Taking a lesson from the bitter defeat of the Arab nations Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War of June 1967, I am concerned that the fall of Baghdad will open old wounds and foster a defeatist attitude among Arab Muslims. In turn, this feeling could be “exported” to Muslim nations throughout the world and create a “melancholy mood” due to the perception of defeat. Once one is trapped in that space, escape seems very difficult indeed. Defeatism worships defeat in all its manifestations and is incapable of fostering the will to rise again.

From defeatism is born a collective frustration and one result is to “blame others” without any desire for critical self-introspection. The very solidarity of the Muslim community will give rise to the feeling that the fall of Baghdad symbolizes a fall in the self-esteem of the Islamic community as a whole. The fall of this city under US and UK attack could easily give rise to feelings of hatred towards both countries. It is not inconceivable that this feeling will spawn an ongoing generalized hatred for the “West,” however blurred the meaning of the word may be in Muslim minds. As analyzed so well by Fouad Ajami in The Arab Predicament, published in 1981, the defeatism haunting Arab nations since 1967 has given rise to the symptoms of fundamentalism throughout the Arab world. Since then, the slogan “Islam is the solution” (Al Islam huwal hall) has become popular – shattering Arab nations’ faith in the discourse of liberalism that had received such significant support from Muslim intellectuals in the twentieth century (such as that displayed in Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age by Albert Hourani). The defeat of the Arab nations further enhanced the popularity of Islam as an “alternative ideology” and brought dramatic decline in the popularity of secular ideologies, which were perceived as being responsible for the destruction of the victims’ true identity and self esteem.

Returning to tradition, the pursuit of authenticity: these basic themes held sway in the collective consciousness of the Arab nations after their defeat. Islam thereafter came to be seen as a “vehicle” or a means to break free of the defeat. But, as noted by Ajami, a tradition developed is a tradition “fractured.” On the one hand, Arab nations sought to return to the past, to the perceived bright and pure period of the Prophet, but on the other hand, Arab nations in the twentieth century were clearly dependent on non-Arab countries. On their very doorstep is the state of Israel – a constant reminder of their defeat.

Of even greater concern is the fact that the Arab nations are ruled by a despotic elite. As Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, “I saw nothing but a scaffold/With one single rope for two million necks/I see armed cities of paper that bristle/With kings and khaki.” The desire to return to “tradition” and the search for authenticity (called Ashalah in Arab intellectual circles) has only caused more bitterness and increased the defeatist attitude in the collective psyche of Arab nations.

This is why the language of grievance or antagonism has dominated discourse in Arab nations over the last three decades. This language has influenced how the discourse on Islam itself has developed throughout the period. The rhetoric of anger and curses directed “outwards” has stifled the discursive space “within.” This language of Islam has been “exported” to regions outside the Arab world.

After the 11 September 2001 tragedy, an atmosphere full of soul searching and self-criticism was evident within the Muslim community – one in which there was a spiritual readiness to accept that something was “wrong” with the collective consciousness of the Islamic community and to acknowledge that reform and renewal were necessary. People everywhere were talking about the dangers of maintaining a narrow religious parochialism that only recognizes literal interpretations orharafiah to the detriment of the greater vision of Islam itself. This, in my opinion, was an extremely positive and welcome development. In Indonesia, the soul searching intensified after the bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002 in which over 200 people were killed.

But that mood began to evaporate and was replaced by anger towards the West and in particular towards the U.S. The urgent need to reform the conception of Islam also lost much of its relevance. The anger and disappointment felt over the war in Iraq and the fall of Baghdad transformed into an even more worrying phenomenon: a renewed hatred of the West and a weakening of the critical consciousness that emerged following the WTC tragedy. I am greatly concerned that after Iraq is conquered the Muslim community will become entrapped by defeatism and held hostage by fundamentalist parties and their public discourse.

In the developing rhetoric within Muslim society, those supporting the Islamic reform process are frequently viewed as “agents” of foreign interests or puppets (of the U.S. and Jews). The rhetoric is deliberately inflammatory and intended to revive negativity among Muslims against all efforts to reform.

After the Iraq war, I am concerned that these sorts of accusations will become increasingly prevalent. Egyptian religious scholar Yusuf Qardlawi in his book Al Hulul Al Mustaurodah wrote about “imported solutions.” The book was a critique of progressive-liberal Islamic discourses and concepts, which were viewed as “imported” from foreign lands and therefore destined to fail. In all likelihood the criticism of liberal Muslims will intensify after the tragic fall of Baghdad. Liberal-progressive Muslims will be easy targets for the barbs of their critics.

There is also no escaping the fact that the language of grievance that pervades the modern Islamic community has been influenced by the West. Karen Armstrong, inThe Battle for God, illustrates this well in arguing that the animosity of the Islamic community is a product of “modernity” coming in the form of conquest and divorced from the rewards of liberty and prosperity.

In the Muslim community’s collective imagination, modernity assumes the form of tanks and fighter planes that kill innocent women and children in Iraq and Palestine. Is it any wonder that Muslims look back to their brilliant traditions and turn hard faces and hearts upon the West and those perceived as their agents and puppets?

Must this defeatism be allowed to go on while we assume that it is but the logical consequence of Western misconduct?

For me, there is no alternative but for the Muslim community to seek a way out of this defeatism loaded with animosity. Defeatism will devour the body of the Islamic community and will condemn us to a highly dangerous apologetic and defensive mentality. Although the cause of some pain and bitterness to Muslims, the words of Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong bear repeating here: “… if they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization.

I did not personally enjoy the spirit of Lewis’ book but the advice is sound. The language of animosity will not solve the problems of the Muslim community. Defeatism can be overcome if Muslims cease seeing only that which is sacred and pure in the past (the time of the Prophet and the dynasties of antiquity) and cease believing that these perceptions should not be understood and observed critically. The Muslim community must also ask: Is it true that the discourse surrounding “Islam as the alternative solution” is legitimate or is it merely a rhetorical strategy to obscure defeat? Will not this lead to the further isolation of the Muslim community and enmity towards external creative resources? Will it not simply lead the Muslim community deeper into a defeatist mentality?

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla
Ulil Abshar-Abdalla is coordinator of the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal) of Indonesia and associate researcher at the Freedom Institute, Jakarta. This article was published in Kompas on 17 April 2003 and appears on the Jaringan Islam Liberal website It was translated by Lyndal Meehan.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia