Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Issues in Islam: Stupid Peasants and Stubborn Muslims

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Issues in Islam: Stupid Peasants and Stubborn Muslims

Article excerpt

Issues in Islam: Stupid Peasants and Stubborn Muslims

By Greg Noakes

The future course of Islam and the world-wide Islamic community is a matter of great interest and importance to many. For some observers, Islam is the antagonist in a future "clash of civilizations," while other analysts see the "Islamic resurgence" as a case of Islam reassuming its proper place on the world stage. Islam's future is most important, of course, for that fifth of humanity which is Muslim, but the issue goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world.

There has been no shortage of prognostication about Islam, but many of these predictions and analyses are flawed because they focus solely on political and economic elites. Scholars, analysts and policymakers pore over the writings of an Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dissect the speeches of a Hosni Mubarak, examine the pronouncements of a Hassan al-Turabi and analyze the campaign promises of a Benazir Bhutto. Most works of Islamic history are elite history, concerned with the rise and fall of dynasties, focused on the development of various intellectual movements and infected with the notion that "great men" alone chart the course of history. Contemporary political analysis of the Middle East is little different.

There are good reasons for this approach. Elites control most of the wealth, shape the political systems and move the levers of power in their states and societies. Yet what is lacking is recognition of the role played by the vast majority of the Muslim world's population, the "little men" who provide both continuity and stability and produce what could be termed the "inertia of the faithful."

"The Stupid Peasant"

During the heyday of "modernization theory" in the decades following World War II, scholars and technocrats referred to the "stupid peasant," the object of modernization who was so dim-witted and whose horizons were so circumscribed that he or she failed to understand the benefits of agricultural development. The peasant resisted adoption of new crop rotation systems, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and genetically altered seed strains. The stubborn peasant was an obstacle in the road to modernity, and had to be moved at any cost.

What the 1970s and '80s demonstrated, however, was that the "stupid peasant" was actually a "clever peasant," who turned out to be the custodian of decades--if not centuries--of indigenous wisdom and knowledge of the local environment. There were good reasons why traditional agricultural methods evolved as they did, development theorists realized, and these techniques generally struck a delicate balance between productivity and sustainability.

By moving the peasant and his or her knowledge out of the way, modernization "experts" had achieved great boosts in productivity, but at the expense of sustainability. Agricultural yields and herd sizes mushroomed, but the desertification of Africa's Sahel, deforestation in Latin America, and soil erosion and water resource depletion around the world testify to the awesome cost.

Western academics have documented and analyzed, in minute detail, the effects of over-cultivation and excessive grazing on the southern fringe of the Sahara, but a simple Sahelian tribesman still said it best: "The land is tired. The land is dead." Contemporary development experts now try to incorporate indigenous techniques and "folk wisdom" into their plans. The "stupid peasant" has a role to play after all.

"The Stubborn Muslim"

The masses of ordinary Muslims, a billion of them stretched from Morocco to Mindanao, share many of the same traits as the "stupid peasant." They can be stubborn to the point of exasperation, they are resistant to change, and at times it appears to non-Muslims and Muslim elites that they have little sense of what is in their own best interest. Yet like the peasant, the ordinary and often poorly educated Muslim is seldom deluded by grandiose notions and is in fact wise beyond words. …

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