I beg the reader's indulgence: I would like to repeat an item I wrote in this blog on Sunday, December 24, 2006. I think it is still apropos.
ISLAM VERSUS CAPITALISM; THE NEW HUNDRED YEARS' WAR
In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, Christianity (and its more secular offshoot, The Enlightenment) tried to put a human face on Capitalism. In the Twentieth Century, Communism tried to put its human face on Capitalism. They both succeeded; more or less. Now it is time for a new reforming idea.
During these last two centuries, God-inspired Christianity and god-less Communism issued their separate yet similar challenges to post-Industrial Revolution capitalism: basically, “Share the wealth.” Christianity threatened hell, and Communism threatened revolution. Both were somewhat successful. Capitalism smartly (for itself) hewed a moderating path. Its free enterprise institutions opened their profit centers to include child-labor laws, minimum wages, Social Security, socialized medicine, eight-hour work day, etc.
However, in the early Twenty-First Century, the reforming effectiveness of Christianity and Communism has been severely weakened. Christianity is under attack, seen as co-opted by its coziness with the ruling classes, and threatened as irrelevant by post-modern Euro centered rationalism (“The greatest event of the Nineteenth Century is the death of God,” Nietzsche opined).
Communism in its turn experienced a Russian Iron Curtain fall with a metallic, clanking thud. World wide Communism has crumbled (even its last great bastion, China, is experimenting more and more with free enterprise zones); it appears communism’s pillars have been eroded by its own inherent contradictions. (Marx had an idealist’s view of human nature; too much time spent in the London Library, perhaps. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need…” Indeed! His Communism was nothing more than Christianity without Christ; “Blessed are the poor, for they shall attain the Kingdom of Proletarian-ism”. Marx’s Communism was a Don Quixote idealism; not a real world economic operating system. It demanded political repression to endure as long as it did.)
So as the new millennium slowly unfurls itself across the globe, unfettered Capitalism reigns solitary and supreme once again. The World Bank and the IMF have become the dominant if not sole dispensers of human values, the all-powerful arbiters of economic morality, and the ultimate enforcers of global politics. America’s Marketplace Democracy is trumpeted around the world as the only cure to the ailing Third World. The panaceas of Freedom and Free Enterprise are inextricably co-mingled; or, as the old song say it: “You can’t have one without the other!”
But, as “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Capitalism’s face is naked once again (if not outright ugly). Its modified face of humanity is being replaced by the cold logic of maintaining tactical superiority in the global economic arena; it increasingly wears the poker player’s deadly face.
The equity-sharing union movement is in a state of inertia, if not outright contraction. The threat of global warming is ridiculed as ‘Green hysteria’ by the corporate state. Merger mania is reducing the top of the pyramid to an infinitesimally sharp point: only a few are allowed access to its lofty and narrow perch. The incessant call to profit rules this world, not God or Marx. It is a world guided by Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’: with its self-serving belief that each person’s pursuit of individual gain will eventually ‘trickle down’ to the masses. Social justice is thus reduced to: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Unfortunately (or perhaps inevitably) the boat is beginning to spring a leak. The greater the recent productive success of Capitalism, the greater has been its recent allocation failures. (Which is all logical, I suppose: Capitalism is organized toward production. Distribution and its benefits are a social concern.)
One can almost hear Jesus and Marx crying out again against the excesses of today’s Pharisees, Philistines, and factory owners. UN and US statistics highlight the growing disparity between rich and poor; 3000 children die in Africa every day of malnutrition alone. In the boardrooms and salary structures of Capitalism’s showcase, Corporate America, the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor: executive salaries are increasing to obscene multiples of average working person salaries. And even in the middle class, it now takes two breadwinners individually working longer hours to maintain the old life-style.
Is Capitalism destined to remain unrestrained for the remainder of the millennium? Is this the real meaning of the “New Economics”, of "Neo-conservative"? Or is there a reforming philosophy on the horizon to challenge it, to once again offering to humanize its automaton’s face? Will a new philosophy arise to challenge Adam’s Smith’s cold, uncaring ‘invisible hand’? Another Jesus, another Marx on the designing board? Who? What will be the new dissenter to unfettered Capitalism?
Islam is offering itself as the Twenty-First Century’s replacement of Christianity/Communism.
“Follow us,” the Imams shout from the prayer balconies. “We will share the wealth. ‘Alms to the poor’ is one of the Five Pillars of our Faith. Jihad is not just military war. It is a war against injustice and poverty. Help us topple the United States and their oil company Crusader’s, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAR, who are not true Muslims. The sheiks are Harvard Business School graduates. They are Capitalist wolves in desert clothing.”
There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and most are poor: from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, to Nigeria, they span the globe. The West often thinks of Muslims as Arabs, but Indonesian Asians are overwhelmingly Muslim: as are Turks (who come from Indo-European stock), Sudanese who are African, Bosnians and Albanians who are European Balkan, Egyptians who are North African, African American Muslims who are North American, Chechnya’s, who are Russian. All are Muslims. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa the Muslim faith is strong (Nigeria is already majority Muslim).
I suggest the war with Islam will be a Hundred Year’s War, like the West’s century long battle with Communism; and before that, reforming Christianity. The new war has already been going on since the 1980’s: Lebanon (the Hezbollah bombing of the military barracks), Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo; they were--and are-- Muslims wars against the West; all. And let us not forget ‘9/11’.
But generalizations are abstractions; they tend to distort. All Christians did not march in the Crusades. All Israelis do not follow Sharon. All Muslims do not advocate war to solve outstanding economic and social issues. But all Muslims do share a common goal with the rest of humanity; they seek a better life.
Islams leaders are not stupid. They know that once the eternal combustion engine goes the way of the dinosaur, and/or when fossil fuel becomes a spent resource, the Middle East and many points east becomes just so much sand.
So the real threat to Western Capitalism lies not in the Islamic terrorists (although it is naïve to dismiss the military threat; bin Laden is just the tip of that iceberg); the threat comes from poverty’s cries blended into the shouts of Islam’s revolutionary message.
Jesus’ and Marx’s ideas took root not through the power of their weapons (they had none), but through the power of their truths; so Islam’s challenge to Capitalism lies not in arms (or anthrax), but in the telling truths of desperate poverty, and logic of the poor's demand for world wide economic equity.
More than needing a human face, Capitalism--no longer challenged by Christianity and Communism--will need a new reconstructive surgery. The poor are destined to reject being poor forever. The world is too small for that. TV bombards them with daily images of the ‘good life’. And Islam is proselytizing mightily to represent them.
Islam and Christianity and Communism share a great many similarities. A Muslim refers to the Islamic ‘brotherhood,’ one is reminded of the Communist term, ‘Comrade’; or for that matter, the Christian concept “We are all the sons and daughters of one God,” they say.
Another point of similarity: Mohammed thought of himself as a follower of Abraham and Jesus, another prophet heeding Allah’s call (Allah, by the way is not some fetishist cult figure; it is just the Arabic word for 'God', similar to the Jewish/Biblical word for the one God, Yahweh) to bring the mercenaries (in his case, the merchants of Arabia) back to the spiritual fold (similar to the Old Testament Jews confronting the Philistines, and Jesus taking on the moneychangers).
Another unifying democratizing element that Islam can offer to match the universal appeal of Christianity and Communism is Islam’s required prayer ritual: five times a day all Muslims everywhere in the world, stop their daily efforts, kneel and pray--while facing the exact same point on the globe. (One should not underestimate the universal bonding created by that daily gesture.) Another element: when a Moslem makes the ‘hajj’, the required once in a lifetime trip to Mecca, the rich and poor alike circles the Kaaba wearing the same, plain white outer garment, to signify their equality before the eyes of God.
Finally, Islam, like Communism and Christianity before it--as mentioned above--is transnational, trans-ethnic, and trans-racial and trans-socio-economic. It includes Caucasian, Arab, Egyptian, African, Asian, Indian and Pacific Islander; and rich and poor, educated and illiterate, villager and city-dweller.
In case we in the West get complacent in overestimating our economic, military, and political might when compared to the Muslim world, remember that the Jewish Abraham was nothing but a wandering clan leader of a small monotheistic sect when he took Western Civilization on its now 5000 year journey; the Christian Jesus (Son of God or not) was a thirty- something meditative desert rat holing up in caves until he made his earth transforming point through accepted crucifixion,, and the Communist Marx, albeit from a slightly better of middle class home (no manger or stable birth for him), was not flush with money or influence at the start of Communism’s worldwide revolution. In fact, the heroes of our American Revolution, such as Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale, were not big steppers on the world stage when they and their friends decided to put it to England. (And: “Give me Liberty or give me death” and “I regret I have but one life to give for my country”—sounds awfully similar to the philosophy of today’s suicide bombers, no?) Big fires often start with small sparks; especially if the locale is surrounded by rags, and the rags are highly flammable.
This next hundred year’s war, if I am right in assuming that it has already begun, will be a long one. Although based on some universally appealing factors in Islam comparable to Christianity and Communism, it will not be like the Twentieth Century’s battle, between the East and West. It will be between the North and the South, between the whites and the yellows/browns/blacks, the rich and the poor (echoes of Communism’s rallying cry). If Capitalism doesn’t deal with the southern hemisphere’s economic poverty, deprivation and disease, it will drive them into Islam’s opposing camp. In this global war, as in most wars, economic concerns will trump all other geopolitical considerations. It will be a terrorists’ war between the have and the have-nots, with Islam asserting itself as the new voice of the economic disenfranchised, rallying the globe to speed up the process of a fair allocation of the earth’s resources.
But we in the North (formerly the West) must not fool ourselves into thinking that the allure of Islam is restricted to dancing virgins in heaven. Its appeal lies much deeper and more pragmatic than that. Islam offers many of the spiritual attractions of Christianity, packaged with the economic focus of Communism; two for the price of one, a formidable union of philosophies and goals. I remember the shock expressed by Americans when it was discovered that many of the ‘9/11’ terrorists had lived in America for extended periods of time prior to their suicide missions: “How could those people live in America, among Americans, and still want to annihilate us?” The question still lingers. Between the lines I hear an ironic follow-up: ‘You mean, not even Burger King, shopping malls, survivor shows and Jerry Springer couldn’t dilute the seduction of their beliefs?’
Forget the Islamic militant crazies. They are just the obvious extreme. Christianity and Communism had their crazies also.
Remember instead, the Middle East was the birthplace of Western civilization; agriculture, the law, medicine. When Europe was finally emerging from their long Dark Ages, and in America its natives were still chasing herds of buffalo to survive, the Byzantine/Ottoman/Persian/Mongol empires had already dominated the world for centuries.
The Arabs and Iranians and Turks were once the class act of advanced civilization; science, health philosophy and education flourished in their cities as nowhere else in the civilized world. Scholars flocked to their universities. The books that created the Renaissance were stored in their libraries.
The genes that created those societies are still in their people. Five hundred or so ‘down’ years is a short period of time in the history of mankind. The Twenty-First Century may well be the century of Islamic comeback, the new ‘hegira’, or flight through the desert, of the Prophet Mohammed, to re-group and challenge the greedy infidel.
Capitalism is on notice.