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The zigzag progress of history

One of the key ideas promoted by the European Enlightenment or the Age of Reason of the 18th century is that of progress, according to which human history develops across a curve from a low point to higher and higher points. One may debate and dispute the exact nature of higher and lower points in that context, but most students of the Enlightenment agree that progress has two facets: Material and cultural.
Material progress can be measured by such yardsticks as life expectancy and living conditions. Cultural progress includes literary and artistic creation, scientific and technological discoveries, participative politics and the rule of law.
But is it possible to question the very existence of a curve indicating linear progress? Is it not possible that human history proceeds in zigzags, with lower and higher points alternating according to mysterious laws? Applied to the Muslim world, the theory of progress hardly resists the challenge of the rival theory of historic zigzag. At the material level, progress made by virtually all Muslim-majority countries in the past 100 years is amazing.
A century ago, Muslims accounted for less than 4 percent of the world population. In 2017, that has risen to almost 25 percent. Muslims have also benefited from progress in life expectancy, public health and material living standards beyond their wildest dreams even a century ago.
I remember how, as a young reporter in 1970, I fell into depression after a visit to what was then East Pakistan. I had not imagined so much human misery in my worst nightmares. Half a century later, Bangladesh — the state that emerged from East Pakistan — is still poor by most standards, but when it comes to absolute poverty, it is no longer the hellhole it was in 1970; it has benefited from economic development and material progress.
On a grander scale, I remember the Trucial States, which became the UAE. Outside Dubai, which had one hotel-like establishment, none had any proper facilities. In Oman, we had to stay in private homes with no electricity and/or running water, and eat boiled goat and half-cooked rice. Now, the UAE and Oman boast some of the most luxurious tourist establishments in the world.
Similar observations can be made about almost all other Muslim countries, including my own homeland Iran, which began to emerge from medieval poverty only in the 1960s. In 1973, Tehran hosted a conference on modernization, co-sponsored by a UN agency in charge of Asia. The consensus was that material progress would lead to cultural and, eventually, political progress.

Today, we are wealthier, better educated and healthier than ever in Muslim history. Yet we are faced with more ignorance, prejudice, fanaticism and violence than ever.

Amir Taheri

Six years later, Iran had fallen under a clerical tyranny built around a hodgepodge of pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo and half-baked Marxist-Leninist methods. Suddenly, even classical Persian poets were censored, or in some cases banned. Worse still, the Khomeinist sect that held power arrogated to itself the right to issue anathemas and interdicts, inventing its versions of the Inquisition and Excommunication, mechanisms that do not exist in Islam.
In 1960, when I arrived in Britain to go to school, I was surprised to find out that the lord chancellor had a blacklist of banned books at a time when no such abomination existed in Iran. Less than two decades later, there no longer was such a blacklist in the UK, while Iran had worked out the longest blacklist in human history.
Even worse, the Khomeinist sect claims that anyone who does not blindly obey the current supreme leader is an “infidel.” Of course, the incumbent himself is not immune to such anathema. One day, he too could be hit with the “mace of takfir,” as has happened to many leading figures of the Khomeinist regime, including four of its six presidents.
We need to go back to history to see how the zigzag works. In Iran under the shahs, building a political career did not hit sectarian hurdles and Sunni Muslims held high offices as ministers, governors, ambassadors and military commanders (the justice minister in the last Cabinet formed under the shah was a Sunni Muslim lawyer). But today, only one Iranian Sunni Muslim holds a high post, as ambassador to Vietnam, a country with limited relations with Iran.
In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest number of Muslims after India, such reformers as Abdul Rahman Waheed and Nucholish Madjid enjoyed wide audiences and enough freedom, even under the military dictatorship, to promote their views in the marketplace of ideas. Today much of their work is banned, and seminars on them are attacked by militants who claim they can decide who is a Muslim and who is not.
In Turkey, the neo-Ottoman elite will not allow former allies, led by Fethullah Gulen, even a tiny space for dissent. And what about the mass murder of more than 400 Egyptian adepts of Sufism at a mosque in the Sinai last week? Yes, Egypt, which throughout Muslim history was a cradle of Sufism and the birthplace of alternative ways of understanding and living Islam.
Today, we are wealthier, better educated and healthier than ever in Muslim history. Yet we are faced with more ignorance, prejudice, fanaticism and violence than ever. Others now remember us when they are asked to take off their shoes at airports, and when they see our self-styled extremists cut people’s throats on TV. So maybe progress is zigzag, not linear. If so, the question is: How do we zig our way out of the current deadly zag?

— Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.