Commentary Magazine


God Has Ninety-Nine Names by Judith Miller

Haters and Hated

God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting From a Militant Middle East
by Judith Miller
Simon & Schuster. 574 pp. $30.00

Over half the Arab population in the Middle East is under the age of twenty; illiteracy and unemployment are rising; the proportion of food grown domestically by Arab and Muslim countries is rapidly dwindling, and these countries are already short of water; almost all export earnings derive from a single commodity—oil. As if this were not enough of a formula for ominous instability, many of these countries are also in the grip of Islamism—a somewhat unsatisfactory term for the attempt to harness the religion of Islam to current political purposes.

Apparently retrograde in itself, Islamism also generates violence and what looks to an outsider like self-inflicted injury. This is a phenomenon which Judith Miller set out to explore for herself. As a correspondent for the New York Times, she had access to anyone and everyone who could enlighten her. Over a number of years, she attracted friends and useful informants all over the Middle East (she often withholds their real names protectively) and 60 pages of notes testify to diligent preparation for her travels (which for no clear reason seem to have omitted Turkey).

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What is Miller’s explanation for the plight of today’s Arab world? Basically, it is the historic legacy of absolutism which still remains at the core of every Arab and Muslim country in the Middle East Wherever she goes, she finds that “there [are] no real politics in the Western sense.” Instead, a “savage scramble for power” is under way.

In the case of these countries it is misleading, Miller writes, to speak of moderates and liberals versus extremists and fanatics—distinctions borrowed from a Western political vocabulary which do not apply. Absolutism, rather, means an institutionalization throughout society of waste, corruption, lies, and terror; and even opponents of a given regime have no choice but to resort to the methods of their oppressors. In the absence of open mediation by means of elections and representation, the winner seizes the spoils, and the loser can do nothing about it.

Historically speaking, of course, absolutism has its strengths as well as its weaknesses, but at least Judith Miller does not shrink from calling cruel and disgusting deeds by their proper name. In Sudan she witnesses the public hanging of a br ave man who had dared to criticize the local interpretation of Islamic law. One Syrian friend offers a forbidding account of the mass murder of local Islamic militants in his home town of Hama at the orders of President Hafez Assad. In Egypt she follows the story of a young member of a terrorist group of Islamists who (according to his widow and family) has been tortured and executed; the police deny it, rather convincingly, and, as is so often the case, the truth cannot be ascertained.

As an American and a woman, Judith Miller judges others according to her own lights. This leads her to overlook at least some of the preconceptions and values that her interlocutors bring to their encounter with her, as well as the role that she assumes in their lives. Absolute rulers in miniature like Yasir Arafat, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, or the Hezbollah leader Sheik Muhammad Fadlallah seek to enlist her in their causes. Dozens of people, many of them women, want her to publicize their victimization. Although she is usually clear-eyed about all this, only three-quarters of the way through the book is an Arab at last permitted to say the essential thing: that while Westerners think in terms of right and wrong, in Arab culture “these distinctions are less important than what is honorable or shameful.”

Honor certifies the winners, no matter by what criminal means they may have won. In this system, people come to excuse and even to admire their oppressors. The loser, no matter the justice of his case, has to carry a stigma of shame, which is often unbearable. Even routine aspects of human activity are thus invested with high and immediate drama. These ancient and defining Mediterranean values ratify hierarchy and block equality and democracy.

Hence the blind alley of Islamism. Contrary to Westerners, Judith Miller among them, Islamists believe that the plight of the Arabs is due not to the legacy of absolutism but to the rulers of the moment, seen as traitors to a heritage which once ensured power and success. Islamists are all too painfully aware that their people are now deprived of freedom and dignity, and that national identity and even independence are under threat. But to this they respond that the model of the past has only to be applied and all will be well. And they add a crucial rider: in addition to, or in collusion with, present-day Middle East rulers, it is the West—together with its cat’s-paw, Israel—that is intent upon deliberately destroying Islam and humiliating the faithful. Islamism rationalizes the need to wipe out this humiliation, and the collective shame it evokes, with whatever degree of violence may be required.

Insensitive to this element and its origins in culture, Judith Miller assumes somewhat patronizingly that everyone must in the end come around to Western norms of reason and to the problem-solving mentality. But haters and hated cannot, in fact, meet on equal terms. To Islamists, civil democracy, in whatever version, implies surrender, and the imposition of something alien. What might look to Judith Miller like irrational frenzy is to an Islamist a reasonable and necessary defense of tradition.

Still, although the ends of Islamism appear to be uniform, the means and practices vary and even conflict. In Saudi Arabia and Sudan, Islamism serves to legitimize, respectively, a royal dictatorship and a military general; teachers and preachers of Islamic law are in both cases part of the security apparatus. In Algeria and Egypt, by contrast, Islamists are seeking to overthrow the present regimes; whenever the balance of forces in these two countries encourages Islamists to go for broke, the killing becomes widespread in what are in effect undeclared civil wars.

Elsewhere still, Islam has become an instrument for gathering political support, as lately in Turkey and even within Israel proper, whose Arab citizens have been quick to see that mobilization behind Islam can win favors from a government morally prevented from using force against its own citizens. And then there is Iran, the one country where Islamists are in power and where the Ayatollah Khomeini’s experiment at putting the clock back a thousand years still sputters on, held in check only by the historically well-honed ability of Iranians to resist arbitrary restrictions and to remain their friendly and lively selves.

As presently self-defined, nothing can come of Islamism except more absolutism. Its leaders have no constructive ideas about politics or religion, and no practical programs above the level of welfare relief. They offer only an extension of everything which has so far prevented Arabs and Iranians from building a society that accepts the rule of law and is capable of resolving conflicts of interest without violence. No wonder Judith Miller comes to feel baffled regret at what she finds in today’s “militant Middle East.”

About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).




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