Friday, October 24, 2014

Is Islam Anathema to Western Society?

The School of Athens (Escola de Atenas) - Raphael - This image represents thinkers key to the Renaissance. 
The short answer is: No.

But if we are being honest then we have to admit that there is a problem.  Saying that Muslim extremists comprise only a minority of Muslims is factually accurate.  Suggesting that the minority of extremists does not mean that there is a problem with Islam for the West is wrong.


There is a commonly used chestnut that "Hitler was democratically elected."  In reality, the Nazis only got ~1/3 of the vote.  The Nazis were a minority in Germany leading up to WWII.  That didn't mean the world didn't have a Germany problem.

Marxist rebels were a minority in Russia before the October Revolution, that didn't mean the Tsar didn't have a Marxism problem.

Less than 50% of the white population of the original 13 colonies that formed the US supported independence, but Britain certainly had a revolutionary problem.

Just because an agitating group is a minority within a larger group does not insulate the larger group from blame.  If the larger group does not actively work against the minority agitators then it only takes a minority to effect change.  This doesn't just apply to negative things.  In the US, the majority didn't approve of interracial marriage until the late 1990's, but the minority fighting for equal rights was able to make interracial marriage legal in all states in the US in 1967 when approval of interracial marriage was less than 20%.  It was a minority agitating for change, but the anti-miscegenation crowd had an equality problem.

So let us acknowledge that extremists being a minority is a functionally meaningless issue.  Historically it doesn't matter if an opinion is held my a minority or a majority, it matters what the majority does about it.  Let us contrast interracial marriage with gay marriage.  The majority in the US has favored gay marriage for several years now, but gay marriage is still not fully legal in the US.  It took 30 years of legality for interracial marriage to achieve the levels of approval that gay marriage has, but up until the last few years the majority has acted decisively against gay marriage, and even now the majority is not acting decisively in favor of gay marriage.


I make this argument so that we can start to approach to the larger question of why the West has an Islam problem.  There is a perception among many that Islam and Western secular society are fundamentally incompatible, but this is not true.  You may wonder how I can state as fact that Islam and Western society/thought are not incompatible right after arguing that there is a conflict between Islam and the West.  To begin with, modern secular Western culture owes its existence to Islam.

That's right, without Islam there is no Western society as we know it.


Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe descended into the dark ages.  Illiteracy and religious fundamentalism were the rules of the time.  Western culture stagnated.  Barbarism and tribal conflict ruled the West.  Pagan philosophy and thought, like the writings of the ancient Greeks and the Romans were quashed and destroyed.  Religious diversity was brutally suppressed.

Women's legal rights were largely non-existent.  European women were covered head to toe with only their faces showing for almost a thousand years.  Even the hair was covered.  The stereotypical nun's habit with its wimple is a familiar vestige of this long era of the severe oppression of women.

When Genghis Khan conquered his way west across Asia he reached Poland.  He won a costly battle, but found nothing worth taking.  He turned his armies around and left Europe to itself.  Europe was too materially impoverished to even be worth conquering.

Even the art of this period was far cruder than the art of the Greeks and Romans.

Then our history books tell us that there was a miraculous reawakening in Europe.  The Renaissance.  Art, culture, trade, and thought flourished.  Classical philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato were rediscovered.  Engineering and science exploded.  But where did the knowledge necessary for this reawakening come from?

The Muslim world.

During the long dark period of absolute religious fundamentalism the flame of Western thought and culture had been kept alive by Islam.  Greek and Roman writings were preserved and translated.  During the dark ages Muslim cities had lighted streets.  A hospital founded in Cairo in the late 9th century AD had a library with thousands of book, a pharmacy, licensed physicians, and male and female attendants treating men and women.  A Baghdad hospital of a similar vintage had fountains designed to cool the air inside the hospital.  While Britain was fighting Vikings, Baghdad had air conditioning.

Even our numbering system, so vital to modern science, was introduced to the West from the Muslim world.  The Italian Fibonacci introduced Arabic numerals to Europe in 1202.

A close up on Averroes from Escola de Atenas.  Averroes is a latinization of Ibn Rushd, a Muslim Philosopher


One thousand years ago two cultures clashed.  One culture was impoverished and largely illiterate.  That culture provided few or no legal rights to women, who were covered head to toe in clothing.  They regularly engaged in murderous atrocities against religious minorities.  They were dominated by a religion that taught them to hate and battle infidels.  That was Europe.

European culture clashed against another that they viewed as ungodly and decadent.  This other culture granted legal rights and protections to women and religious minorities to a degree not seen before.  They were rich, literate, scientific, and Muslim.  The clash was called the Crusades.

The Christians slaughtered men women and children.  They committed many atrocities.  But the majority of Christians never killed Muslims in the Middle East.  Most European Christians never even met a Muslim.  Nonetheless Islam still had a Christianity problem.

It seems ironic doesn't it that positions seem reversed today.


The rise of Islam was in many ways as large a moment in the development of human rights and rule of law as the Code of Hammurabi.  As strange as it might seem to many of us today, Sharia law was extraordinarily progressive for its time.  Sharia was particularly progressive in the area of women's rights.  It wasn't until the 20th century that women in Western countries received rights equivalent to the rights provided in Islamic law.  It seems truly bizarre (at least to my mind) to think of Islam as being pro-women, but by the standards of the time in the Middle-East Sharia was practically women's lib.

In the area of religious tolerance early Sharia was also pretty progressive.  While the classical definition of Dhimmi was reserved for Christians and Jews, as the areas of Muslim control grew the idea came to include non-monotheists like Hindus and Buddhists.  A Dhimmi was a second class citizen, but they were still a citizen with protected rights.

It is truly strange to me that the Muslim Revivalist movements of the 20th century seem to focus on an Islam stricter than the Islam that pertained during the time of Mohammad or the following centuries.  When I read about early Islam it seems very different than the vision espoused by ISIS (Salafism) or the Muslim Brotherhood.  It makes me wish that there was a popular Muslim movement to recapture the progressive spirit of early Islam, rather than a regressive repressive version of Islamic law.


The conflict between modern Western society and Islam is not a matter of fundamental incompatibility.  I feel like anyone who has met a significant number of Muslims should be able to see that.  I've known too many Muslims to believe that Islam is any more fundamentally incompatible with our culture than any other religion as a whole.  In many ways our modern secular society was cradled by a tolerant early Islam, more than by an intolerant early Christianity.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the current conflicts between Western society and Islamic fundamentalism are not religious in nature.  Just like the Crusades were religiously motivated, the current strain of jihadist violence is religiously motivated.  In both cases I think that the religious component is only a part of the overall picture.

I have met people who claim that the Crusades were purely motivated by economics.  I think that idea is too reductive.  You can't reduce something as complicated as a struggle between two cultural groups to a single cause.  These kinds of clashes are not just about economics, nor are they just about water, or even just about religion.  Islam by itself does not result in terrorism any more than Christianity by itself results in terrorism.


But even though Christian fundamentalist terrorists have struck at Western nations for centuries, the West does not usually feel like it has a Christianity problem these days.  If you are asking what Christian terrorists there have been, you can look at religiously affiliated nationalist movements like the IRA in Ireland; or the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda; or religiously motivated groups that bomb abortion clinics; or the Christian Fundamentalist terrorist extraordinaire, John Brown, whose acts helped to precipitate the US Civil War and free the slaves.

And really I think the difference is that Christianity and Western society are pretty synonymous in most people's minds.  For English speakers the conversion of Britain to Christianity predates the development of the English language, so Christianity is privileged in many ways that are so fundamental to the language that they can be hard to spot.  Islam is seen as the other, and increasingly Muslim leaders in the Middle East have been casting themselves as opposition to Western Imperialism.

And it is that idea of opposition to Western Imperialism that gets to the heart of why the West has an Islam problem.  Because here we get back to the issues of the minority versus the majority.


A truism I appreciate is that it doesn't matter what's in your heart, it only matters what you do.  We are all familiar with the idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  In life your actions matter more than your inner thoughts.  If Hitler had quietly hated Jews and just tried to take over the world he would not be seen as nearly the monster that he is.  But that was not the case.  Perhaps most Germans during WWII disliked the idea of killing off Jews, but their actions didn't prevent the Holocaust.  Inaction can be just as bad as action, and it doesn't matter whether or not people see themselves as good or decent if their actions do not seek to stop injustice.

I don't mean to compare Islam to Nazism, Nazis are just an easy target.  And because everyone is familiar with them and pretty much everybody hates them, they make an easy allegory.

The comparison I want to draw here is about people saying that they do not support something while they do nothing to oppose it.  When there is not widespread condemnation among Muslim groups of the goals and tactics of extremists it does not matter whether or not extremists are a minority.  A silent majority empowers a vocal and active minority.


Islam and the West are not incompatible at their cores.  They are not even unrelated.  But if we close our eyes to the problems growing between Islam and the West then we all contribute to the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism.  We in the West need to look honestly at what conditions in the Middle East are contributing to conflict, and what actions of ours exacerbate the problems.  We can't do that if we are trying to be politically correct and deny that there is a problem.

And in the Muslim world people can't just say that extremists are a minority.  I know that speaking and acting out against the extremists can be very dangerous for individuals.  We are all familiar at this point with the price Malala Yousafzai paid for daring to try to get an education, and she survived.  Many other individuals who have tried to stand up to Muslim extremists have died.  And as long as the majority stays silent and quiescent that will not change.

The extremists are the minority, even where they are in power.  That doesn't matter.  Actions matter, not thoughts.  The extremists act while the majority stands by.  That is how it always is pretty much everywhere.  The majority is harder to organize than a minority.  It is easier to find agreement in a minority.  And an organized minority is stronger than a disorganized majority.

In a leadership and organizational vacuum, whoever is organized and prepared to lead can thrive.  In Gaza, Hamas thrives.  In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is thriving.  ISIS is not thriving because people there don't want to live in peace, or don't love their children, or don't want nice things.  ISIS and similar organizations like the Taliban, thrive because the majority that just wants to lead their lives in peace are disorganized and unled.  Islam is not to blame for the power vacuums that currently obtain in much of the Middle East, but it does provide an easy rallying point for organizations that want to fill that vacuum.

Air strikes weren't successful in Vietnam.  They weren't successful between the Gulf War and 9/11.  And they aren't going to be successful now.  Likewise casting any criticism of Islam as racist is not going to fix the problems.

If we want to stop ISIS and other groups of that ilk from gaining power we need to be able to talk about why they are able to rise to power.  We can't get there if we treat Islam as anathema to our society.  We also can't get there if we are stuck on politically correct evasions.  Looking honestly at the consequences of our actions and refusing to accept blame shifting can do a lot more than trying to be superficially sensitive or dropping bombs.

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