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The state of Israel embodies the last, best chance for the Islamic world to come to terms with the modern world. Received wisdom in the foreign ministries of the West holds that relations with Muslims would be ever so much easier without the annoying presence of the Jewish state, which humiliates the Muslim world. Just the opposite is true. The Israeli presence in the territory of the ancient Jewish commonwealth, on land that once belonged to the Dar al’Islam, offers the single, slender hope for the future of the Muslim world, precisely because it constitutes a humiliation.
The premise of Western policy is to tread lightly upon Muslim sensibilities. That is an error of first magnitude, for Muslim sensibilities are what prevents the Islamic world from creating modern states. Islam cannot produce the preconditions for democracy in the Western sense out of its own resources.
Free elections in Muslim lands tend to hand power to fanatical despots. Why should that be true? The first premise of Western democracy, that the rights of the weakest and most despised citizens are sacred, stems from the Judeo-Christian notion of divine humility. The creator of the universe suffers along with his creatures, and bears a special love for the weak and helpless, a belief that appears absurd in Islam. Islam has no inherent concept of humility; it can only be imported to Muslim countries from the outside.
Democracy in its modern form is the almost exclusive province of Christian (and in the single case of Israel, Jewish) countries. I have argued that it is the Judeo-Christian experience of divine love that makes it possible for representative democracy to flourish, because imitation of God reveres the rights of the weak and helpless. “Almost exclusive” is the operative term, for democracy functions well in some Asian countries. Next to love is humility, which acknowledges the limits of one man to impose his will upon another. For example, Japanese culture contains no concept of divine love in the Christian sense, but it does know humility, thanks to the instruction of the United States during 1941-1945 and the succeeding occupation.
No concept of intermediate cause, or rational ordering of the universe, is to be found in mainstream Islam. Allah personally and directly orders every event, from the trifling to the grandiose. The Muslim submits to Allah, the absolutely transcendent ruler of the universe, in return for his mercy and beneficence. That is why Muslim faith hinges upon success. As I observed in a 2004 essay, Horror and humiliation in Fallujah, the Muslim call to prayer begins,
Allah is the Greatest.
I bear witness that nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah.
Come to prayer.
Come to success.
No injunction to “turn the other cheek” is found in the Koran, no reflection on how to learn from defeat. Something like the Book of Lamentations, which tradition attributes to the Prophet Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem, is unimaginable in Islam. Jeremiah tells defeated Israel, “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young … Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.”
The words “humble” and “humility” occur rarely in the Koran, and in most cases (7:206 and 17:109) refer not to Muslims but rather to Jews or other conquered peoples, as in “And [the children of Israel] fall down on their faces weeping, and it adds to their humility,” or “We sent [apostles] to nations before you then We seized them with distress and affliction in order that they might humble themselves.” There are a few references to the virtue of being humble before Allah, but not one suggestion that it is good to show humility to other human beings. Nothing like Hannah’s praise of YHWH, (I Samuel 2:28), “You save the humble, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low,” occurs in Muslim scripture.
In the October edition of First Things, I published an extended treatment of Franz Rosenzweig’s view of Islam, now available online.  The great 20th-century Jewish theologian considered Islam not a revealed religion, but a species of paganism. In pagan society, he argues, the individual is completely absorbed by the collective, by reference to Aesop’s fable of the aged lion and the fox:
People, State, and whatever else the societies of antiquity may have been are lion’s caves before which one sees the tracks of the Individual entering, but not leaving. In fact, the individual human stands before society as a whole: he knows, that he is only a part. These wholes, with respect to which he is only a part, these species, of which he is only a representative example, have absolute power over his ethical life …
In the thoroughly organized State, the State and the individual do not stand in the relation of a whole to a part. Instead, the state is the All, from which the power flows through the limbs of the individual. Everyone has his determined place, and, to the extent that he fulfills it, belongs to the All of the State … The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears. The well-known difference between the ancient and all modern concepts of democracy rightly arise from this. It is clear from this why antiquity never developed the concept of representative democracy. Only a body can have organs; a building has only parts.
The pagan state, Rosenzweig observes, considers the individual only as an extension of itself, not as the child of a higher power that stands above every state and culture. Pagan societies acknowledge no higher power than themselves. Their gods are an apotheosis of their own character. Allah, the absolutely transcendent ruler of the universe whose whimsy sets the spin on every electron at every moment, stands in sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian God, whose humility in the form of love for his creatures sets inherent limits upon his powers.
In the democracy of the ancient Greek polis, or the assembly of the Germanic tribes, every individual stood in direct and immediate relation to the collective. The citizens or tribesmen voted in person in full public assembly. Modern representative democracy requires something else. The individual citizen chooses not only a party and its platform, but also a personality, who has the freedom to act on behalf of the voters at variance with an existing platform. The voters do not simply trust the tribe or state; instead, they trust an individual and give that individual proxy powers. They must trust that the body of such representatives will reach an agreement that takes into account their interest. Such a system simply cannot arise in a pagan culture, where conformity to the collective is a precondition of life.
Not for nothing did the founders of the American republic insist that its functioning was unimaginable without the Christian religion. The purely negative aspects of the American constitution, namely the balance of powers that protects minority interests, means nothing without transcendent trust in something higher than the elements that constitute the body politic. In pagan society there is family, clan, and state; there is no intermediate function of representation, because there is no transcendent trust. Pagans can have (and frequently do have) plebiscites or presidential elections that in a sense are real elections, but they never have a functioning parliamentary system.
As noted, there are non-Christian societies where parliamentary democracy flourishes, notably India. Hinduism is a subject from which I have steered clear, given the complexity of its history and variety of its practice. But the subject of humility is central to every manifestation of this religion, which honors the holiness of life to the point of forbidding the consumption of animals. Modern India, moreover, grew out of a centralized government established by the British, and received ready-made British laws and civil service, and with ease adopted the British model of parliamentary democracy. It was guided by leaders who lived as well as taught the Hindu concept of humility.
Japan is another exception. Buddhism in many forms teaches divine humility, but the Zen variety prevalent in Japan adapted itself well to the requirements of the samurai caste, which knew loyalty and submission, but not humility. After the suppression of feudal rights in 1868, Japan modernized without recourse to democracy. Only after its humiliation in World War II and the imposition of a democratic constitution by the American occupation did representative democracy come to Japan.
It is not clear whether Japanese culture will survive the great humiliation of 1945. As I observed elsewhere (They made a democracy and called it peace, Asia Times Online, March 8, 2005), the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have killed more than the few hundred thousand immediate casualties. It is possible that the attacks killed all the Japanese who ever lived, and all the Japanese who ever might live. In Japan’s feudal past, humiliation was too terrible to endure, and suicide the only response. Japan’s failure to reproduce may constitute a form of national suicide in response to national humiliation.
Admirers of the Jewish state praise it as an exemplar of democracy in the Middle East. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant to the concerns of the Muslims. Democracy is not a procedure that a country learns by example, like water management or road-building. It is adopted or not as an existential choice. For the Muslim world, what matters is not that Israel is a functioning democracy located in the Middle East, but rather that it is Israel that humbled the House of Islam.
Because success is central to Islam’s promise, and the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth in its historic territory along with its ancient capital seems to validate Jewish scripture rather than the Koran, Israel offers an existential challenge to the Muslim world. Muslims will never accept the permanent presence of Israel unless compelled. But the bad news in this case is the good news, for if the Muslim world were to accept Israel’s existence, the collective humiliation would be so profound as to force the concept of humility into Muslim political life. The best thing Western governments could do to foster democracy in the Muslim world, in fact, is to move their embassies to Jerusalem.
I noted elsewhere (It’s easy for the Jews to talk about life, September 18, 2007) that the presence of the state of Israel has had a decisive impact on Christian evangelization, especially in Africa. African Christians, as Philip Jenkins reported in his recent book on the Bible in the Global South, take the Hebrew scriptures seriously.  The apparent validation of God’s promise to the descendants of Abraham gives them confidence that the New Testament’s promise to Christians will be valid as well. What fosters Christian faith, by the same token, introduces doubt into Muslim faith. The humility that goes hand in hand with doubt – conceding that one’s opponent might have a valid point – is what makes democracy possible in the first place.
Perhaps the Muslim world will respond to humiliation after the fashion of Japan. Iran’s fertility rate has already fallen below replacement, Prof Jenkins reported in the November 9 New Republic. Even if that is the outcome, it is better than the alternative, namely a violent explosion over the remainder of this century. Washington’s misguided effort to foster Islamic democracy might be the stupidest idea in the history of foreign policy. It began in the late 1970s with Jimmy Carter’s backing for the Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah of Iran. It may end with simultaneous civil war in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon and the West Bank. If that occurs, think of Rwanda and multiply by a thousand.
Notes 1. See Franz Rosenzweig and the Abrahamic Religions . First Things (October 2007).
2. A new Jerusalem in sub-Saharan Africa Asia Times Online, December 12, 2006.