We hear a lot these days about Islam’s misogyny and cultural authoritarianism.. A good example is that idiot lawyer fighting construction of a mosque in Chattanooga, enthralling public hearings with juicy quotes he’s mined from the Quran.
Apparently he’s never read the Bible. The list of things in Leviticus that call for death by stoning would take out not only gays and lesbians, but most everybody else as well. Then there’s that wonderful stuff about dashing out the brains of Philistine babies and exterminating the entire population of Canaan. Yet most Christians, outside of Fred Phelps’s bunch, don’t advocate this kind of stuff. And many Christians from the mainline denominations openly condemn it.
So it’s obvious that the actual content of sacred texts means a lot less than the cultural evolution of their adherents. The texts themselves, arguably, are more the products than the sources of authoritarian culture.
In a college Middle Eastern history class, I read a historian (I can’t for the life of me track him down) who posited an “Irano-Mediterranean Oikoumene” with a shared culture of machismo and patriarchal domination of women. St. Paul’s admonition to women to cover their heads in church was entirely in keeping with this culture in Greece. In the classical Greece of Socrates, women commonly appeared in public in something very like a hijab; Aristophanes’ “Assembly of Women,” and the tradition that Socrates’ wife Xanthippe publicly henpecked him, were both considered especially comical against this cultural backdrop.
Most conservative cultural traditions concerning women in contemporary Islam are not mentioned in the Quran, but were found in the preexisting culture of the pagan Arabs. And many misogynistic pagan traditions that Islam condemned, like the exposure of female infants, reemerged among the Bedouin after Muhammad’s time. Muhammad himself was quite liberal toward women in his personal life, compared both to the preexisting pagan culture and later “Islamic” culture, with some women figuring prominently in the early Muslim community at Medina.
Islam was arguably evolving past its cultural authoritarianism earlier than Christianity. At its height, the medieval Islamic civilization was far more liberal and forward-looking than Christian Europe at the same time. This was brought to an end by the Mongol conquest of the Middle East. The Islamic world was set back by centuries, becoming pessimistic, authoritarian and inward-looking, and adopting a reactionary attitude toward Europe’s subsequent cultural progress.
Western imperialism played a similar role in the colonial world. Colonial regimes atomized or perverted local social institutions (as an example of perversion, look at what Hastings’ Permanent Settlement in Bengal, and similar policies later for all of India, did to property relations within the village commune). They decimated social capital and uprooted local institutions that might have provided the basis for evolution of a more liberal society. They deliberately drew colonial boundaries that cut across natural ethnic lines, promoting ethnic hostility as part of a divide-and-rule strategy (much of the Hutu-Tutsi hostility in Rwanda is traceable to such policies under Belgian rule). Much as in Russia, an authoritarian state led to the corruption and atrophy of civil society; and when that authoritarian state withdrew from the scene, it left a vacuum to be filled by military juntas and kleptocrats.
The bipolar superpower dynamic also contributed to greater political authoritarianism in much of the post-colonial Third World. Left-wing nationalist regimes, in the face of Western economic blockades, subversion and outright invasion, adopted garrison state cultures and developed closer ties with the Soviet bloc.
Take Cuba, for example. Although Castro had studied Marx and had a nondescript Marxist politics, he’d also studied the New Deal in prison and saw it as a model for post-revolutionary Cuban development. His 26 July Movement avoided close ties with the pro-Soviet and doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist PSP. After the Revolution, the new regime liquidated the PSP and pursued a fairly liberal economic agenda consisting of land reform and the encouragement of urban cooperatives. Orthodox Marxist-Leninists like Che Guevara formed a distinct subgroup within the 26 July Movement. Only after a full-blown US campaign of destabilization did Castro proclaim himself a Marxist-Leninist and align Cuba with the Soviet bloc.
In South Vietnam, Noam Chomsky has argued, the NLF (“Viet Cong”), while certainly engaging in authoritarian activities, was also a grass-roots populist movement with close ties to the local peasantry, engaged in many of the same kinds of local economic development and self-help activities as the Black Panthers in Oakland. The counter-insurgency campaign in the South eviscerated the NLF and the civil society it was embedded in, leaving a hollow shell for the North Vietnamese Army and the official Marxist-Leninists in Hanoi to take over.
In a sense these were both victories for the United States. The US government arguably has a conscious interest in promoting this kind of authoritarianism. From the standpoint of the American ruling elite, it was far preferable to have the anti-American Third World dominated by authoritarian regimes subject to discipline by the white male three-piece-suited bureaucrats in Moscow (the kind of people Nixon and Kissinger were quite sympatico with), than a liberal anti-American regime providing the demonstration effect of successful economic development outside the global capitalist system.
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