Islam’s Angry Literalists Are Only at Halfway Point

It would seem that rage grips the world of Islam, that frivolity and joy and plain normalcy quit Muslim lands and communities a long time ago.

We don’t know with any reasonable certainty when this great change settled upon the Muslims. We do know that when Americans and Europeans encounter Islam today, they usually do so in the context of a ferocious anti-U.S. riot of young men -- this is the population that takes to the streets -- who are offended by a novelist’s literary license, a cartoonist’s irreverent depiction of Muhammad or a convicted fraudster’s idea, on a video trailer, of the life and imagined predilections of the prophet.

One would not know today that these Arab and Islamic cities had their “hakawatis” (storytellers) -- who spun yarns in the evening -- and had their sinners and brothels and proud heretics. One would have no idea of what life pulsated behind the shutters of these Muslim homes.

“You love only talking of death and the dead, and I have wearied of that,” the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz observed in a work of autobiography. It isn’t only people in Copenhagen and Manhattan who bristle and wonder about that Muslim world.

Forgive the personal pronoun: I came into my own in Beirut in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The old traditional world hadn’t yet been overwhelmed, people wore their faith lightly, and there was a measure of skepticism about anyone overdoing displays of religious zeal.

Tolerant Past

People went to Mecca for pilgrimage, and their neighbors gave them an inattentive reception when they returned. Islam framed the lives of the believers and set the parameters of social and cultural life, yet men and women strayed, navigating their way between the permissible and the impermissible.

This was Islam. But a new breed, the Islamists, made their appearance. The faith of past centuries was reworked and worked on; hijacked is the more familiar term.

The road to that belligerent reading of the faith was paved by the secular dictatorships. They shook up the old order, herded people into the cities, promised a bright new world, and the newly urbanized and half-educated would in time awaken to a harvest of failure and disappointment.

For the Arabs, reckoning came with the defeat of their armies in the Six-Day War of 1967. It is fitting to say that the rise of the Islamists began on the seventh day of that war. The modernist project, led by the Egyptian state, was a shambles.

The Persians were a decade behind. A pompous ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with vast new oil wealth available to him, set out to create a grand civilizational project. He had in mind an Asian Germany, he said, but his people were not Germans, and by 1979 he was on the road, in search of a country that would grant him exile. He left his homeland to a turbaned successor who would use faith and terror to create his own reign.

By the 1980s, the Middle Eastern heartland of Islam had been altered, and with it, Islam itself. The beards grew longer, the faith more strident. The Islamists allocated to themselves the privilege of enforcing the faith.

They were literalists about the faith. There had been allegory and subtlety aplenty in Islam. In Baghdad during the High Middle Ages, in Islamic Spain in its heyday, philosophers had quarreled about the balance between reason and revelation, perfecting an art of doublespeak that permitted them enormous leeway while keeping the pretense of piety. There had developed a consensus of sorts that the mass of ordinary people can be left to their faith, while the philosophers and the skeptics gave free rein to the rule of reason.

Rote Learning

But the literalists had no patience for all that. They were half-educated. They could read the text, and were often the first in their families to become literate. That literacy empowered them. Education -- rote learning -- had remade all Arab and Muslim societies. In Cairo, Karachi and Hama, a new generation could now read and write, but the learning came without the habits and the attitudes of tolerance. Elite culture -- emancipated women, daring writers, young people under the spell of new forms of expression -- was under surveillance.

The new enforcers could look into that elite culture and take it apart. Even in the lands of the Muslim diaspora, in Western Europe and later in North America, the literalists were alert to the slights they looked for and saw everywhere.

The faith had become portable. It was British Muslims who first burned copies of “The Satanic Verses”; they were the ones who gave Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on the rebound from a disastrous war with Iraq, the inspiration for his fatwa on the life of Salman Rushdie.

The angry protesters in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1989 weren’t readers of fiction. It was enough for them that a man raised in a Muslim home had taken liberty with the faith. In the same vein, a barely literate Egyptian electrician stabbed Mahfouz, Egypt’s and the Arab world’s greatest writer, and paralyzed his writing hand in 1994. The electrician had been offended by a novel he could not penetrate, a Mahfouzian work of allegory that had long antagonized the keepers of Islamic orthodoxy.

The traditional folks awed by the learning of the modernist elites had been replaced by their angry offspring. Islamism gave power and a sense of militant virtue to an unsettled generation exposed to a modernity it can neither master nor reject.

An explosive demography and a literacy disconnected from critical inquiry had given rise to a culture of brittle pride: Young men exalt the faith, as they grapple with its inability to contain their lives or keep them at home. On a street in Amsterdam in 2004, Mohammed Bouyari, a Dutch-Moroccan in his mid-20s, struck down Theo van Gogh, and slit his throat as though slashing a tire, one witness reported. Van Gogh had worked with the Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a short film, “Submission,” critical of Islam’s attitude toward women.

Disinherited Masses

Shortly afterward, a dozen cartoons of the prophet commissioned by a Danish newspaper set things ablaze. A hundred people may have been killed in riots that followed. We are in the middle of this upheaval, and there shall be more book burnings and storming of Western embassies in the years to come.

The literalists have come into their own. For them, there is no way back to a cozy past, and the way forward, to a new world, is blocked by the vast magnitude of their numbers, their material disinheritance and the very inabilities they carry with them.

(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion,” recently published by Hoover Institution Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Fouad A Ajami

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.