In the Path of God (review)

This review by Martin Kramer appeared in The American Spectator, July 1984, pp. 38-40.

Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, published by Basic Books [and republished in 2002 by Transaction Press].

ISLAM no longer strikes blind fear in the world. The more violent acts of fanaticism, from Sadat’s assassination to Shiite self-detonations, still shock. But radical Islam seems to have stalled alongside its Iranian standard-bearers in the forbidding bogs of southern Iraq. After an inspired counteroffensive, Iran’s beturbanned military minds seem to have dispensed with the science of war altogether; so intent are they upon praising the Lord that they have often neglected to pass the ammunition. And what is religious fervor without elementary logistics?

So while Iran’s juggernaut to Jerusalem inches through an Iraqi swamp, there is time to ponder the fortunes of Islam these last five years. There has been no further Islamic revolution, some Islamic terrorism, and a lot of Islamic verbiage since the West first began to wring its hands over resurgent Islam. A vast Western literature of explication also has accumulated, leaving not a single mullah whose scribblings and table talk have not been pored over by analysts. Mercifully, the early apprehension about a tidal wave of revolution has given way to a subtler appreciation of the assorted men and movements that claim to champion true Islam. In the Path of God is such an appreciation, distinguished by the further merits of readability and comprehensiveness. Daniel Pipes has searched the depths of specialist writing on behalf of the general reader, to produce a reliable guide for the perplexed.

And a guide is needed. To follow the debate within Islam is an exacting task, for the discourse is conducted largely in symbolic language. When Khomeini reviles America as the “great Satan,” the sense is clear enough, but most of his imagery is specifically Islamic, and even narrowly Shiite. Qaddafi’s utterances on Islam are far beyond the comprehension of all but a few diligent mortals. Those with less fortitude understandably cannot fathom how these ideas can survive in the harsh climate of modern skepticism. The difficulty, then, is to interpret Muslim views for those unfamiliar with the idiom of Islam without losing the evocative power of the original symbolism. This Pipes has done. He has resisted a widespread tendency to translate Muslim self-expression into social science jargon as unintelligible as any mosque harangue. His unadorned interpretation strikes a judicious balance between faithfulness to sources and clarity of presentation.

OBSERVES Pipes: “It may be difficult to imagine in the late twentieth century, but Islamdom long predominated over its rivals in power, in wealth, and in culture.” The present predicament has its origins in Muslim recollections of grandeur, to which Pipes devotes the first part of his book. Past preeminence bred a Muslim pride in military self-sufficiency and a justified cultural conceit. There was little to be learned from unbelievers, who were held in contempt for their ignorance of obvious theological truths (as well as their repelling uncleanliness). Then, with the precipitous rise of the West, descended what Pipes calls Islam’s “nightmare”: “Once active, Islamdom became reactive; once a leader, it became a follower; once an integrated civilization, it became ruptured. Military defeat and cultural subjugation resulted in the collapse of the old Muslim complacency and a massive crisis.” Pipes frequently invites us to empathize with Muslim grief over the loss of world primacy, and he does so without indulging in Toynbeean self-flaggelation over the West’s alleged responsiblity for the disarray of Islam. “Premodern Muslims were uniquely insular, able to ignore the innovations, ways, and beliefs of unbelivers,” and their heirs paid dearly for an arrogance that lasted too long.

Those burdened by this legacy have wavered between accommodation and resistance. While the West reigned supreme and confident, Muslim Westernizers could make a compelling case for dismantling much of the old order, and importing ideas and institutions. Their methods were often heavy-handed, and opposition was driven into the mosques or underground. But as the tide of Western hegemony ebbed, and Muslim cash flow improved, the fundamentalists grew bold again. Pipes provides a catalogue of the challenges that they have posed, in a chapter consisting of some fifty country-sketches. Although the impact of the resurgence has been uneven in these very different settings, the net effect has been to sanctify resentment of the West.

This has meant that the fundamentalists have spent a lot of energy tilting at windmills. After all, the West has withdrawn from most of its forward positions in Muslim lands, and all but a few Muslim peoples exercise their right to self-government or misgovernment. Intervention has been ineffectual, and acts of provocation such as the Iranian hostage episode and the Beirut bombings have demonstrated the West’s vulnerability. Nonetheless, a belief in the malicious omnipotence of the West remains a widespread affliction in the abode of Islam. Consider that when the Great Mosque in Mecca—unmolested by foreigners even during imperialism’s heyday—was seized by a group of Muslim extremists in 1979, a rumor ripped through the Muslim world that the desecration was an American plot, hatched by that nefarious foe of Islam, Jimmy Carter; the American Embassy in Pakistan was put to the torch. How does such a rumor gain irresistable momentum in the absence of one shred of evidence? Many are the Muslims who have never conversed with a foreigner, but who will swear that there exists a vast Western conspiracy to prey upon them. They believe that their misfortunes are wrought by men in distant, secret corridors; their imaginations are peopled with invisible agents manipulated by hidden hands. Here the stuff of cheap spy thrillers passes for certain truth, and faith shares minds with the vision of a world tightly run by the CIA and international Zionism.

YET it has not been the West that has borne the brunt of Muslim wrath. A heightened Muslim sensibility has underlined the differences that divide Muslims, and has set one variety of Islam against another. Pipes relates how Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran have built rival Muslim networks of influence, which ruthlessly compete for the allegiance of committed Muslims everywhere. Here Pipes is at his very best, describing the calculating methods used by each contestant to undercut all rivals. Not surprisingly, he has found that these various groups will stop at nothing to advance their irreconcilable claims to religio-political authority. And the competition is fueled by money—money to smooth conversions to Islam, to build mosques, to subsidize Muslim opposition groups, to defame other pretenders.

So taken is Pipes with this finding, that he concludes that the oil shock delivered by Muslim producers to Western consumers was decisive in prompting the resurgence. With overflowing coffers, Saudi Arabia and Libya could indulge in ambitious campaigns to export their versions of Muslim political activism; Iran could afford to pursue utopia and a costly holy war. Pipes posits a direct link between the vicissitudes of Islam and the price of oil.

Now vast oil wealth has raised income and aspirations to dizzying heights, and has changed the way some Muslim peoples live and think. But let it be confessed: More is known about the rings of Saturn than about the relationship of oil wealth, social distress, and Muslim activism. That these states are bidding against each other with oil money is undoubtedly true, and in this club the bids run high. But this competition has been a response to a rising popular mood, not its cause. Thus there is an unwarranted boldness in the author’s predictions. He declares the resurgence “fortuitous and transient,” due simply to “freak circumstances” created by windfall revenues. Should the present oil glut continue, the oil states will run growing deficits and the pace of development will be slowed or halted. “The power of Saudi Arabia and Libya will fade as their disposable funds diminish and the two countries return to their former inconsequential isolation.” Iran’s influence also “is fated to end.” The fundamentalist state “is doomed; as the Khomeinist regime falls, non- or anti-Islamic forces seem likely to take its place.” Then the “Islamic alternative, once so full of promise, will lose its appeal and many Muslims will again regard their religion as an obstacle to progress.” Fate! One of the hazards of immersing oneself in this material is that one begins to think in its categories.

Allahu a’lam—God only knows. Disillusionment has set in, but events well within the realm of the possible—war, revolution, subversion, or foreign invasion—could breathe a second wind into the resurgence. The Islamic regime in Iran, pace Pipes, has been strengthened, not weakened, by the tribulations of war. The revolution has crushed or dispersed its opponents from within, and has repulsed the Iraqi invader from without. A Persian Gulf crisis—it takes no imagination to imagine one—could send Islam’s stock soaring once more, enticing many Muslims down off their fences. That is a possibility that the West simply cannot afford to dismiss, for fate may tarry.