Islam and the Modern World, Autumn 2005-Winter 2006
Islam has high visibility in America because of what happened on September 11, 2001. But it has low understanding. Most Americans associate modern Islam with violence and terrorism. Their knowledge is limited by hostility and distance. The varieties and complexities of Muslim life are not part of their perception.
Early Islam was a surprising story of phenomenal success. Inspired by the teachings of an Arab prophet from Mecca, the armies of Islam went out to conquer the civilized world in 635 C.E. They defeated the Greeks and Persians and boldly annexed most of their empires. Within only one century the Muslim world stretched from India to Spain. It was one of the most amazing conquests in the history of humanity.
Within three centuries most of the conquered people had become Muslims and had adopted the Arabic language and Arabic culture as their own. An authoritarian government and an authoritarian clergy, supported by an authoritarian law, unified this vast domain. From the Qur’an to the mosque, a new intensely religious civilization evolved. Although it tolerated Christians and Jews, its outreach and demands were totalitarian.
The religious intensity was bound to spawn division. Establishment Muslims were called Sunni. The dissenters took such names as Kharijites, Shiites, and Druse. All of them were united by mutual hatred and self-righteousness. While the wars with the Christian and Hindu worlds dominated politics, the internal wars were equally fierce.
The decline of the Muslim world before the advent of the urban industrial revolution in Western Europe was due to many factors. There was the economic reversal that came with the shift of the trade routes from Europe to Asia, the ocean voyage replacing the camel caravan. There was the trauma of the Mongol and Turkish conquests. There was the absence of a strong and vital middle class. Above all, there were the intransigent clergy, who nixed all scientific inquiry. The Muslim world enjoyed no Renaissance. By the nineteenth century the Islamic realms were overwhelmingly poor, backward, and passive. The doctrine of kismet (fate) discouraged any notion of hope and progress. The once-mighty conquerors were ripe for conquest.
The trauma of modern Islam was the conquest of this depressed and volatile world by the great powers of Europe. Within one century the British, the French, the Italians, and the Russians had occupied almost all of the former Muslim territories. The humiliation of Islam was complete. The Christian world, which had, at one time, cowered before the might of the Muslims, was now the victor.
But there was one major difference in this reversal. The “Christian” powers of Europe were no longer Christian in the way they had been in earlier centuries. They had become the children of the first urban industrial revolution. They were interested in the pleasures of this world, not the rewards of the next. They preferred cheap labor to converts, markets to shrines. If they were missionaries, they were missionaries for capitalism and free enterprise. If they were educators, they were educators of science. If they were idealists, they were idealists for secular states, industrial freedom, and female liberation. Nationalism had replaced religion as their chief passion. In many ways they were purveyors of a post- Christian civilization.
The encounter of Islam with the post- Christian West turned into both attraction and confrontation. Many Muslims wanted to imitate the West, either because they saw some personal advantage in changing or because they believed that only “modernization” could restore Muslim power. Many of these Muslim secularists shifted from religion to nationalism, imitating the West by becoming ardent Arabs, Persians, and Turks. But most Muslims were traumatized by the encounter. Modern Western secular culture violated the social order that gave structure and meaning to their lives. Individual freedom, secular education, and the liberation of women and children, in particular, were provocative. They simultaneously envied the West and hated Western culture. And their antipathy was reinforced by the fanaticism of their clergy.
The Muslim secularists were initially successful, despite the conservative masses. They were often supported by the conquering European powers. They had the advantage of Western education. They found many adherents among native army officers who yearned to expel the foreigners. Ataturk in Turkey, Pahlavi in Persia, and Nasser in Arab Egypt led political revolutions that sought to empower their nations through modernization. Later, Boumeddine in Algeria, Qadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and Hussein in Iraq followed the secularist road. But to no avail. Their modernization plans were foiled by growing populations, corrupt bureaucracies, military dictatorship, and the absence of vital middle classes. In the end their reigns produced some Westernization — but mainly sullen and disillusioned masses.
Muslim fundamentalism is a militant response to the Muslim encounter with the ideas and values of urban industrial civilization. Fundamentalists are more than traditionalists. They are at war with secularism. Secularists are the agents of the Devil and must be eliminated — their beliefs and their values undermine the foundations of Islam. Only a holy war, which restores the original faith of the Muslims, can defeat them.
Contemporary Islam embraces three components. The first consists of the beleaguered secularists, who have lost ground over the past thirty years. The second is the militant fundamentalists, who have been winning increasing support in all the nations of the Muslim world. The third is the ambivalent middle, who are the clear majority. They vacillate between the visions of material prosperity offered by the secularists and the militant piety of respected religious leaders. Since they are an amorphous mass without any clear direction, they offer no effective resistance.
Muslim fundamentalists, despite their recent amazing growth, face many problems.
The first is science. Fundamentalists depend on Western technology to maintain their power but cannot produce an educational system that can give them scientists. They rely mainly on “stealing” the technology of the nations they despise. The second problem is the clergy. Economic and social management by the imams and the mullahs produces lethargic and corrupt regimes. The clergy are wonderful at mobilization; but they are a disaster when it comes to maintenance (think Iran and Afghanistan). The third problem is internal feuding. Sunni fundamentalists hate Shiite fundamentalists, and both branches of Islam are divided into factions incapable of compromise.
But the main problem is that urban industrial civilization is taking over the planet. The global economy, with all its secular choices and freedom, will not easily be crushed. In the end Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, will have to adapt to it. The first wave of Muslim secularists may have achieved limited success. But the inevitable second wave will be reinforced by a transformation that is sweeping over China, India, and Latin America. Political and religious terrorism may not cease. But the consumer culture moves relentlessly on. The mullahs in Iran will not conquer poverty. Nor will they be able in the long run to persuade their Muslim adherents to stay poor.