Sunday, October 26, 2003
In response to my last post on Mahathir and the support he received, Kolya commented:
whatever Mahathir's intentions, it is possible for us to take an independent view of the likely consequences of Islamic societies trying to implement his technocratic reform program.

I, for one, believe that the more his proposed modernisation succeeds, the less credible the anti-Semitic worldview will become to Muslims themselves, and the more compelling will become the values that Mahathir so despises. . .

If you re-examine Mahathir speech strictly from the point of view of the changes he is advocating in Islamic societies, ignoring the story he weaves to just ignoring the story he weaves to justify this radical departure from Islamic tradition; perhaps you will see some merit in the argument that the policy he advocates may have redeeming consequences, in spite of Mahathir's worst intentions.
As I said in reply to the comment, I wish I could share Kolya's optimism, but I don't. Kolya is implying that the modernity Mahathir is trying to achieve in the Muslim world is fundamentally incompatible with fanaticism, and countries that achieve this modernity will necessarily alter their outlook to be more tolerant, if for no other reason than their own comfort and decadence.

The first problem that I see with this argument is that we don't have to look far to find exampes of countries with little to no freedom, and yet sufficient modernity to be of military value. The most obvious of these, of course, was Nazi Germany. Here was a country whose fanaticism not only did not limit it, but actually brought it out of the rubble of the Armistice, to the cutting edge of modernity -- with technology and weapons design that were second to none in the world, not to mention an efficient and effective governing apparatus, which translated into an equally efficient and effective mass-killing machine, all driven by a fanatic devotion to notions that were nothing short of criminally insane.

Of course, one could argue that Germany had been a modern state before the Armistice, and the Nazis were simply able to harness the national abilities of the German people to their own ends. Which doesn't refute my point that fanaticism is not incompatible with modernity, but the argument could be made that a country can't advance technologically if it is bound by ideological rigidity and devoid of freedom. This also isn't true, however -- Stalin demonstrated the contrary quite well, almost single-handedly turning a backward, mostly agrarian Communist Russia into the military and industrial powerhouse that was the Soviet Union. Stalin's students have also done well by this standard -- which is why North Korea has recently become a nuclear power.

It is true that life for North Koreans is pretty much subsistence hell, and life in Stalin's Soviet Union wasn't too pleasant, either. Neither country approached the West in terms of material riches for their ordinary people. Along these lines, the Soviets constantly lagged the West in the dissemination of technology. But this isn't the issue: when Mahathir spoke of modernizing, he didn't mean putting a microwave in every kitchen, he was referring to having modern science, which could be harnessed to produce modern weapons. On that score, it's important to remember that for all their shortages, the Soviets were the first in space, had some of the finest scientists and engineers in the world, and became a nuclear power shortly after the Americans -- all while living in a decidedly un-free society, servicing a failed ideology and a cult of personality around a paranoid psychopath . (Yes, Sputnik I was launched after Stalin's death, but much of the development occurred while he was alive.)

It's true that liberal-democratic societies, with more resources and fewer constraints on their populations, will advance faster -- in terms of consumer goods and military prowess -- than societies that are more fanatical and authoritarian. However, when it comes to weapons technology, second-best is often quite good enough. The warheads built by North Korea are probably atomic, of the same crude variety as Little Boy and Fat Man -- in other words, 60-year-old technology -- but they still serve their purpose. The technology of the missiles they'd mount them on is also archaic and no match for what Americans have -- nonetheless, it'll do the job. The idea is not to achieve technological parity -- it's to catch up enough so that the enemy's advantage is not overwhelming. That is Mahathir's goal.

Finally, an argument can be made that none of the totalitarian societies I've mentioned can last: eventually, the Germans were defeated, the Soviet Union fell apart, and North Korea will probably do so eventually. Frankly, that is cold comfort: in their 12 years of power (and only 6 of war), the Nazis did a lot of damage; the damage from Russian communism was also enormous (and ongoing, if you count their legacy in China, North Korea, Cuba, and the Middle East). Were Mahathir's plan of a fascist pan-Islamic society to succeed, well, I don't even want to think about it.

Fortunately, his wish isn't going to come true, and the Ummah is not going to unite or modernize the way Mahathir wants. Nonetheless, it's important to realize that when he or many of his fellow "rulers" talk about modernization, what they have in mind is not a modern liberal democracy, but a pan-Islamic Soviet Union, with the military might to fulfill their dreams of an Islamic (re)conquest.

Some good commentary on this from the Gweilo Diaries:

If there is one thing the Islamic world does not need, it is more weaponry -- having caused entirely too much misery with what it already has. Yet to Mahathir, the benefit of modernization is not to promote peace and prosperity and to allow people to aspire to a better future. It is, rather, to be able to produce armaments to better threaten and kill non-Muslims.
And don't miss this suberb analysis of the whole speech by Andrés Gentry. He takes note of the fact that Mahathir constantly divides the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, and presents it as a constant struggle between the two. He also notices Gweilo's point that the examples Mahathir gives of people "defending" Islam are actually more along the lines of Islamic conquest -- which leads him to this:
For those of us who live outside the Ummah, this can only be worrying. Dr Mohamad views development as a sword with which to clash with non-Muslims. Rather than development leading to a more peaceful world where more and more humans are satisfied with their lot in life, he advocates it for the sake for the sake of a “final victory” against the “enemies” of Islam. With this antagonistic view of non-believers, is it any wonder that Islam's borders are so bloody?
Read it all. It's long, but most of the material should be familiar, and the rest is very well worth it.

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