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Hope I die before I get old - Muslim extremism
What lies behind political Islamism
December 2006


There's something many people don't understand about what's happening in the Middle East. It concerns generation gaps and the way that history changes because old people die and young people grow up. We hear a lot about Middle East 'extremism', but this is the language of paunchy authoritarians indicating that Middle East popular movements do not agree with their values and profit margins. Meanwhile, there's more.

Speaking as an aged hippy extremist who went through a spiritual and political awakening in the 1960s, boldly going where few had been before, seeking to change the world and finding that 'working within the system' was less productive than 'dropping out', I see many parallels between the cultural movement of which I was a part and the young end of the Muslim movements of today. They're not just Muslim, they're social movements, and they could equally be socialist, nationalist, rights-based or just 'cool'.

While such movements are often led or inspired by older people (men), they are populated to a great extent by young people, with not a few women. Across the Middle East, a majority of the population is younger than thirty. This matters because today's youths are tomorrow's policymakers, 'the street' is a crucible of new ideas and, democracy or not, majorities matter.

In the West, we see things in terms of a 20th Century picture: the 'developed world' as the fount of wealth, ideas, initiative and power. But we're now in a new century, and many seem oblivious to the full implications of this. Since 2000 the geopolitical agenda has been dominated by the noisy 'Project for the New American Century', an attempt to stamp American hegemony on the future, specifically on hapless Afghanistan and Iraq. It hasn't worked, and many sensible people now know this. But they have little idea of what comes next.

In the 1960s-70s my generation envisioned a new age and civilisation. Raucous and colourful it was, yet it was also the germination-point for many issues now dominating the public arena: bio-sustainability, gender, minority and race issues, global networking and culture, holistic or 'joined up' thinking and more. Another key element, spirituality, is not mentioned so much in the mainstream, but it lurks beneath the surface, perhaps waiting until people's waistlines shrink and their insecurities rise. Inner transformation has been subsumed in a tide of makeovers and fixes which address appearances, not core realities. The world is now faced with mammoth issues and a need for quantum solutions. And the Middle East is one of the nexus-points for this.


Love is still all we need

To Westerners preoccupied with terrorism and insurgency - that is, assaults on our sense of order and control - what is not seen is the revival of love, humanity and spirituality lying behind Middle Eastern movements. Westerners see violence, mayhem and insurgency, not the potential dawning of a new paradigm of human behaviour - and they're both right and wrong. Central to emergent street-level thinking in the Middle East is the notion of the umma, the 'community of believers'. Taken a level deeper, the umma is what French enlightenment philosophers called 'the social contract' - an implicit consensus of mutual good behaviour, respect, integrity and support between all people and social institutions.

In the Sixties, a key element of the 'new paradigm' was community - transformed personal, social and global relations. Those who like to denigrate the 'alternative movement' of that time quote this as an example of its failed, lofty idealism. But the times they are a-changing, and what once was an ideal is now looking suspiciously like the basis for a pragmatic solution.

Faced as we are with drastic climatic, eco-sustainability, resource, development and conflict issues worldwide, we're heading either for terrible downfall or enormous breakthrough. And collective choice is involved. At present, talking about reconciliation, peace, cooperation and, dare I say it, love, is studiously avoided. But this doesn't mean it's irrelevant as a realistic geopolitical mechanism. Visionary and pragmatic solutions surreptitiously converge in a vacuum of fundamental answers, and we're obliged to face such notions cooperation, fairness and cross-cultural respect. Love is not only what we need: in future decades it might well constitute a macroeconomic and geopolitical survival agenda.

As a young hippy, I saw no purpose in war, competition, ego, materialism and exploitation. I set about building alternatives, with a minority of kindred spirits. We didn't set out to oppose 'the system' - we sincerely set out to bring new light, love and solutions to our fellow humans. We ate macrobiotic, toked chillums, sat cross-legged and thought geodesic thoughts. Soon it became clear this was not welcome, and the heavy hand of repression came down - for our own good, of course. Our fathers had fought for freedom, and we should be grateful. Yet the 'free world' we lived in was totalitarian, and it still is today - all that has changed from Stalin's and Hitler's time is the use of carrots instead of sticks. If truth be known.

Had the West openly investigated the possibilities revealed in the Sixties, starting a programme of incremental change over the decades that followed, we might now have no war on terror, no clash of civilisations, neither the same degree of social degeneration, hypergovernment, devastation, nuclear proliferation, climate change or even drug addiction. Heaven wouldn't have dawned on Earth, but we would have made significant progress in tackling issues that were visible 30-40 years ago and now constitute a pending crisis.

Today, we're seeing a parallel nascent movement in the Middle East. Young people are again struggling for new answers - partly thrashing around, partly inspired and innovative. Teenagers have a sharpness of seeing that their jaded, experienced elders don't. The paradoxes they face are enormous, yet they also see possibilities where older generations see none or have given up. As in the Sixties, the picture is formative, not yet clarified, a mishmash of ideas and beliefs within which something simple and clear hides. It is generated from deep feelings of pain over the state of the world, out of a struggle to find a new identity, a future to hope for.

The key movers are those who have grown up straddled between Western and Muslim values, whose position and identity are most unclear. To the surprise of staid Westerners, many terrorists are educated, with families and prospects, not the deranged losers they would like them to be. Similarly, the visions and principles of the Sixties grew up amongst young, educated, privileged middle class youngsters, not amongst the workers and the downtrodden. 'The revolution' didn't reach the workers, who by then were the old guard. Similarly, what goes on in the text messages of young folks in Basra, Isfahan, Beirut and Ramallah is hardly comprehended by the oldsters who look on from across the street. They just don't know.


The manic mujahedin

It all started with 'fundamentalism' in the 1970s-90s - an ethic wrung out of aversion to what the Middle East had become and reaction to the influence of amoral Western modernism. The idea was that, by cleaving to a categorical rendering of orthodox Muslim values, society could be weeded of its degenerative ills. Foreign powers didn't like this - dependent as they are on Middle Eastern oil - so we saw a succession of wars for control, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the American invasion of Iraq. Fundamentalism became tied to gunfire, with mujahedin as its foot-soldiers. Westerners failed to recognise that, though confused and militant, this movement's roots lay in a sincere quest for new human relations. It referenced back to a lost golden age, a caliphate, from the time before the foreign infidel Crusaders came along - a romantic perception, yes, but with some basis to it.

This was just a start, and things have moved on. As the ayatollahs of Iran have proven, old men with religious authority are not necessarily the fount of all wisdom, and they didn't share the full range of perceptions of the upcoming young. Many of the young began to feel the weight of the old guard. But the same is also the case for many of the young disaffected in the West who, given a choice between a tab of ecstasy or the right to vote, might well choose the ecstasy.

Though anti-Western feeling pervaded fundamentalism, Western technology played a crucial role in taking things on to the next stage. The Ayatollah's Iranian revolution was facilitated by the smuggling and circulation of cassette tapes and, by the 1990s, networking moved on to mobile phones and Internet. These have helped create a new, buzzy fermentation and reality for young people. Also, these gizmos are no longer Western - the hardware comes from China and the software increasingly from India and Brazil. This fermentation tends to turn against the West, especially when it customarily misbehaves itself. Longer-term, it will outpace the West.

Behind this networking phenomenon lies a moral questing, a soul-searching before Allah in the face of social disintegration, violence and oppression. For folks like me 3-4 decades ago, such questing was fulfilled through LSD and lifestyle transformation. For many younger Muslims, a new understanding of Allah, of social goals and community standards is emerging from between a rock and a hard place, and Gaza, Beirut and Baghdad are the nexus of their concerns.

For young Arabs or Iranians the Q'uran provides many useful spiritual and behavioural answers - but a new, self-defined interpretation is emerging. There's an anxious sense of "What did we do wrong to incur all the suffering we get?". Allah, help me become whole again. What went wrong was two main things: a loss of progressive impetus in Muslim society, and its insidious corruption by Western ways. The key element here was the breakdown of the social contract and the rise of individualism. It gave some the freedom to explore life as they felt best, yet it isolated people, killing off families, communities and inter-generational connections. It killed the umma, that consensus of mutually-supportive values, understanding and cooperation that should, by rights, be common in the world. Though it was already weak.


The Umma

Western intervention in the Middle East has had two counterproductive effects: it corrupted and obstructed the process of natural, self-generated renewal in the Islamic world, and Western behaviour over the years has alienated many Muslims or driven them further into Islam seeking homegrown answers. The more it has imposed its values, economics and military might, the more it has driven younger Muslims against it.

The struggle to revive the umma is not just an anti-Western jihad. It is primarily a struggle against what is 'not right' in Islamic society and culture - though definitions vary as to what this means. It's a movement for solidarity, peace, social welfare and community, seeking a new future, not a return to a golden past. To young people, many of the older generation have also come to constitute the problem, having fallen into a compromised, corrupt or tainted condition. This is a different perspective from that of fundamentalism - it's heterodox and psychological rather than orthodox and ideological.

At root it is peaceable. But too many young have watched family being killed or jailed, or witnessed American or Israeli missiles slamming into neighbours' houses. The older generation tried negotiation, and look what they got: current generations want no more of it. Hence, in Palestine, the gentlemanly Abu Mazen and the Fatah establishment, who made deals with the Israelis, only to watch them bulldoze and enclose even more Palestinian land, have lost support, while Hamas, who refuse to deal with the Israelis until they behave themselves and until some time has passed, have gained it. Because they have a philosophy based on the umma. And they are noticeably lacking in corruption - that's a big factor.

So 'resistance' is a moot term: does it mean fighting back, or does it mean preserving one's culture quietly while the tanks roll by outside? In the end it means neither: movements like Hamas and Hezbollah recognise that a society becomes strong when it has justice, welfare and relative equity - a reconstituted umma. To foreign visitors, this is already somewhat visible today in Palestine: despite 60 years of pressure and hardship, the surprising strength of Palestinian society, and its tangible human and community values, are impressive. A Palestinian street is safer to walk down than a Western street on Friday night. You don't hear about this in the media.

But Western governments and media have decided the Muslim world is fundamentally violent and chaotic, harbouring terrorism and resisting progress. The Western approach, demonstrated by USA in Iraq and by Israel in Lebanon, nowadays defeats its purpose: by bombing hell out of ordinary people, the lesson many Muslims learn is that resistance is even more necessary. And it turns cultural resistance into fighting back. Hezbollah beat the Israelis in 2006 because of resolve, passion and sheer effectiveness, not military superiority - their hearts were in it.

But the Middle East is caught in a loop of violence. To quote a friend, Ibrahim Issa, co-director of Hope Flowers, a peace and democracy school in Bethlehem on the West Bank, "Every act of violence is the result of an unhealed wound". This school teaches kids how to handle difficult situations, speak their truth well and work together with others. It uses counselling, therapy and creativity to help kids and their parents heal their pain and slip out of the loop. This is the language of feelings, vulnerability, faith and reconciliation in the new umma - though Ibrahim would not count himself as a Muslim activist or extremist. The urge for umma, for social intimacy, trust and community, is not unique to Muslims - it's inherently human, but Muslims are placing this issue centre-stage. The big Western visionary reformers of a century ago, socialists, failed to create an umma because they lost their hearts in the rubble of politics.

The West's failure to recognise the validity of Muslim social movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah puts the West itself in danger. There are many parallels between these and the Western labour movements of the early 20th Century - a joining together of people at the bottom of the pile, generating new ideas and morphing into a new order. Social reformers of a century ago were troublemakers and extremists too, but now they are historic figures. If the West were wiser, it would listen to the modern Muslim movements, for they play a key part in the future.


Quantum shifts

There is more to this. The movements of the Sixties - not just flower power, people power, black power, feminism and eco-warriors, but also new ideas in science, technology, media and social thinking - were not just a logical extension of what went on before. The full, historic story is yet to be fulfilled, and the ideals and visions sketched out then are becoming more solid now. That decade represented a quantum shift, the prequel to a new time and a new global order. Huh, weird talk - but if humanity ends up in good shape at the end of the 21st Century, it indeed will be living in a new civilisation. You may call me a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Toynbee observed that, when a civilisation reaches its zenith, it needs a new guiding vision to give it a future - otherwise it lapses into repeating its successful formulae, losing creative initiative, becoming irrelevant and eventually dying out or being superseded. In the 1960s, such a zenith-vision emerged in places like San Francisco and Liverpool, crazy as it seemed. But the price the West now pays for shoving it to the side, is that it is now losing the plot. Its finger has lost the pulse, it's talking mainly to itself, and it's miscalculating badly.

Not that the rest of the world knows the answers, but something else is happening. The future lies in the hands of those who once were the victims, clients and subjects of the West and the Soviet bloc - once the third world, now the majority world. The West is gradually being overtaken. For better or worse, this is their century - like the last few centuries were ours.

Young Muslim movements suggest a quantum shift resembling that of the Sixties. They represent a new computation of the issues and solutions, starting from a new starting-point and seeking a new horizon. They might be led by forty-something figures such as Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah or Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, but even these leaders struggle to stay abreast of developments on the street, which has a collective mind of its own. Osama bin Laden is outdated - a hero to some, but good only at humbling the West, not at building a new umma.

The street has a new perception, facilitated by the community of the cellphone, the e-mail, the videoblog, satellite TV and the airplane. It's driven from below, it's youthful and it's half of the population. It's an organic network, not an organisation. It has language and laws, shared sentiments and perspectives. This is a form of texted, e-mailed hyperdemocracy. Like us pot-smokers of old, they have their ways of bypassing the authorities, and only a few get caught. And like the ecstasy-driven dance generation of the 1990s West, their community and feeling of togetherness, their umma, is the key.

In Palestine, broadly speaking, Hamas represents a newer generation while Fatah represents an older one. Both have their flaws and both need each other, yet they are polarised because Palestinian society has been under so much pressure for so long. They are currently conflicting over the future: to an extent, it's a generation gap issue, and it's a paradigm-shift issue too.

Israel and the West cannot deal with Hamas because they are oriented to maintaining the past while it is oriented to building a future. Hamas has new perspectives, but the world doesn't want to hear - also, it is not good at PR because it is averse to the simplistic glosses, artifices and personality cultism of the media, controlled as they are by owners with ulterior motives. Hamas proposes a 25-year hudna or cease-fire with Israel, leaving it to a future generation to achieve a final settlement. The grounds for a true settlement are far larger than can currently be seen, and it recognises a longterm process of quantum change is at work. Ultimately this involves the distillation of a new sense of togetherness and shared experience, a new umma on both sides. To achieve settlement with the Israelis, the Palestinians need time and space to clarify who and what they are to become. And Israelis have not just a few changes to go through too.

The world transformation ethic of the Sixties was suppressed in the 1970s, diverted into glitzy gizmo-fascination in the 1980s, and became a waste, proliferation and waistline problem in the 1990s. Arguably these displacement strategies are derailing in the early 2000s. The new movements of the Middle East might or might not themselves be successfully suppressed or diverted, and they might or might not get things right - this will emerge in the coming years. But something historic is nevertheless happening.

One lesson of our day is that chickens do come home to roost, and governments and security forces cannot really stop the tide of history - they can only complicate it. Today we have a crisis in energy, climate, oceans, species-survival, resources and population, predicted 40 years ago and then studiously ignored: this makes the clash of civilisations and the war on terror look rather small. Globally, we are faced with a challenge to get our priorities right and act on them.

A major key is the umma, the community of souls. Not just of Muslims, but everyone. The message of the 21st Century is simple: together we stand, divided we fall. What Westerners don't see is that 'Muslim extremists', in a strange and convoluted way, are pointing the way to a lot of answers, a new umma. This means a mutually-held choice of the heart, not a new treaty, agency or cooperation council. It's a statement of principle, of mutually-assured support and security. Thorough mass-psychological disarmament. A remote dream perhaps, but so was putting a man on the Moon.

The difficult bit for Westerners is that, having been top dogs, we have to re-join the human race on equitable terms before we can get our fingers back on the pulse. Our words - peace, freedom, democracy and human rights - sound good, but our actions smell badly. We continue to reserve the right to maintain our comfortable lifestyles and export our double standards, whatever the cost to others. So the world is bypassing us, and fighting to stop it is futile and to our own disadvantage. This is why we need to recognise that what's brewing in the Middle East is worth watching. Don't be deceived - it's not just bombs going off. There's much more.

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