Islamic Civilization in Peril
I was born into a mildly observant Muslim family in Iraq. At that time, the 1950s, secularism was ascendant among the political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the Middle East. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world. Even that term — "Muslim world" — was unusual, as Muslims were more likely to identify themselves by their national, ethnic, or ideological affinities than by their religion.
To an impressionable child, it was clear that society was decoupling from Islam. Though religion was a mandatory course in school, nobody taught us the rules of prayer or expected us to fast during Ramadan. We memorized the shorter verses of the Koran, but the holy book itself was kept on the shelf or in drawers, mostly unread. The elderly still made the pilgrimage to Mecca to atone for their transgressions in preparation for death — more an insurance policy than an act of piety. I don't recall ever coming across the word "jihad" in a contemporary context. The political rhetoric of the day focused on Arab destiny and anti-imperialism. A bit of religious fervor surfaced during the Suez crisis of 1956, when the radio broadcasts out of Cairo blared out martial songs calling for divine support against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion, but that was an anomaly. Women, not only in my own family but also throughout the urban middle class, wore only Western-style clothes. They had long ceased to wear the hijab, or head scarf. My only connection to a premodern past was my grandfather, who continued to dress in the dignified robes and turbans of an old-line merchant.
Apart from religious holidays, there were few public observances of Islamic rituals. The rites of Muharram, a Shia Muslim practice to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, during which participants often indulged in self-flagellation, was celebrated, sometimes wildly, but I was advised to stay far away; such ceremonies were considered unbecoming of genteel folk, who preferred to hold semiliterary soirees to remember the passion of the martyr.
Modernity was flooding in everywhere. Cinemas and snack bars; cabarets and country clubs, freely flowing alcohol and mixed-sex parties; Baghdad was turning into Babylon, its hedonistic predecessor of yore. Things were not much different, as memoirs of the era testify, in Cairo, Casablanca, Damascus, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, and Tehran.
When I first left Iraq, in 1958, whatever lingering interest I had in religion was ground down further by my exposure to the stifling atmosphere of an Anglican boarding school in England. Enforced attendance at chapel and endless formulaic sermons helped nurture an abiding distaste for organized religion. But in hindsight, I can see that the seeds of my rekindled interest in Islam may well have been planted during this time. I ins