When Theocracy Breaks Down

One of Dalrymple’s greatest essays, “When Islam Breaks Down” (named “the best journal article of 2004” by the New York Times’ David Brooks), offers an interesting description of the motivation for the ayatollahs’ ongoing crackdown in Iran:

Devout Muslims can see (as Luther, Calvin, and others could not) the long-term consequences of the Reformation and its consequent secularism: a marginalization of the Word of God, except as an increasingly distant cultural echo—as the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the once full “Sea of faith,” in Matthew Arnold’s precisely diagnostic words.

And there is enough truth in the devout Muslim’s criticism of the less attractive aspects of Western secular culture to lend plausibility to his call for a return to purity as the answer to the Muslim world’s woes. He sees in the West’s freedom nothing but promiscuity and license, which is certainly there; but he does not see in freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, a spiritual virtue as well as an ultimate source of strength. This narrow, beleaguered consciousness no doubt accounts for the strand of reactionary revolt in contemporary Islam. The devout Muslim fears, and not without good reason, that to give an inch is sooner or later to concede the whole territory….

The older generation is only now realizing that even outward conformity to traditional codes of dress and behavior by the young is no longer a guarantee of inner acceptance (a perception that makes their vigilantism all the more pronounced and desperate). Recently I stood at the taxi stand outside my hospital, beside two young women in full black costume, with only a slit for the eyes. One said to the other, “Give us a light for a fag, love; I’m gasping.” Release the social pressure on the girls, and they would abandon their costume in an instant.


The indivisibility of any aspect of life from any other in Islam is a source of strength, but also of fragility and weakness, for individuals as well as for polities. Where all conduct, all custom, has a religious sanction and justification, any change is a threat to the whole system of belief. Certainty that their way of life is the right one thus coexists with fear that the whole edifice—intellectual and political—will come tumbling down if it is tampered with in any way. Intransigence is a defense against doubt and makes living on terms of true equality with others who do not share the creed impossible.


But the anger of Muslims, their demand that their sensibilities should be accorded a more than normal respect, is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness—or rather, the brittleness—of Islam in the modern world, the desperation its adherents feel that it could so easily fall to pieces. The control that Islam has over its populations in an era of globalization reminds me of the hold that the Ceausescus appeared to have over the Rumanians: an absolute hold, until Ceausescu appeared one day on the balcony and was jeered by the crowd that had lost its fear. The game was over, as far as Ceausescu was concerned, even if there had been no preexisting conspiracy to oust him.


Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness. The Shah will, sooner or later, triumph over the Ayatollah in Iran, because human nature decrees it, though meanwhile millions of lives will have been ruined and impoverished. The Iranian refugees who have flooded into the West are fleeing Islam, not seeking to extend its dominion, as I know from speaking to many in my city. To be sure, fundamentalist Islam will be very dangerous for some time to come, and all of us, after all, live only in the short term; but ultimately the fate of the Church of England awaits it. Its melancholy, withdrawing roar may well (unlike that of the Church of England) be not just long but bloody, but withdraw it will. The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle.

This is not to say that Iranians
are turning their backs on Islam, but many are certainly turning their
backs on (and throwing their stones at) totalitarian theocracy. Political commentator Fareed Zakaria said that recent events in Iran represent “the fall of Islamic theocracy” whether the regime falls soon or not, because in the face of popular will, Ayatollah Khamenei has had to tacitly withdraw his earlier declaration that Ahmadinejad’s
election was divinely sanctioned. Of course, no one knows whether this
crack will cause the dam to burst, but if Dalrymple is right, it’s only
a matter of time.

2 thoughts on “When Theocracy Breaks Down

  1. George

    This was one of the earliest long Dalrymple pieces I ever read. (I’d come across my first short piece – in the Spectator – while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. I’m your visiting lefty, don’t forget!)

    I think his insight about the anger of muslims being symptomatic of a weakness and brittleness in Islam rather than of strength is true, if not staggeringly original. But his assertion that “Devout Muslims can see (as Luther, Calvin, and others could not) the long-term consequences of the Reformation and its consequent secularism” strikes me as wide of the mark.

    An apparent conflation of the Reformation and the Enlightenment (and I know that Dalrymple knows enough history not to make that mistake but still…) seems oddly prevalent among commentators on the whole ‘jihad’ phenomenon.

    Fisrt of all, the fact is that Islam HAS had numerous Reformations; the result of one them is what we call Wahhabism, the ideology fuelling today’s jihadists.

    Secondly, I am far from sure that the Enlightenment (which is where secularism emerges) was necessarily a consequence of the Reformation or a continuation of processes set in train by the Reformation. After all, the country we most associate with the Enlightenment is traditionally Catholic France.

    Thirdly – and this relates more to the context in which you have chosen to reproduce the Dalrymple article rather than to the article itself – Shiite Iran is a very special case, for a whole lot of reasons, but particularly because of the role played in Shiism by an organised and hierarchical clerical class. Perhaps what we could see in Shiism in the not too distant future is less a reformation than a Vatican II… but this isn’t the place to start thinking about that idea…

  2. Steve

    Thanks for the comments, George. I have long understood the impetus for the Reformation but also considered secularism one of its consequences. A quick Google search indicates the point is at least debatable, but I need to give that subject, and the rest of your points, some thought.


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