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Islam: A Defective Civilization? By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 28, 2002


PRESIDENT BUSH CLEARLY HAS NIGHTMARES about the current war on terror turning into a war with Islam. On the military plane, this is unlikely so long as we do nothing stupid, but on the philosophical plane the question has already been forced in a lot of people’s minds: Is Islam a fundamentally defective civilization and are the advanced nations of the earth therefore doomed to find it a source of trouble? One cannot help noticing that if we take “civilization” in the sense established by Sam Huntingdon’s excellent The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, it appears that they are the problem child of the planet. The alternative, of course, is that the trouble Islam appears to cause is the product of pure politics and not of religion per se. After years of politically-correct West-bashing sapping our spirit, it is probably salutary for us to assert our superiority if it is warranted, so let’s take a look.

These are the facts that confront us about the Muslim world:

1. Politics: Few Muslim nations are real democracies; in the Arab heartland, the count is zero. An exceptionally high proportion of the Muslim nations, the highest proportion of any major bloc of countries, are politically pathological, having failed to achieve internal stability that rests on anything other than brute force. They are also prone to external aggression, directly or by proxy, much of it serving no discernable national interest.

2. Economics: The Muslim world is impoverished and backward economically if one ignores oil, a windfall that it did not itself create. Worse still, even the oil states can’t produce their own oil but rely on foreign expertise and labor.

3. Society: Most Muslim societies are backward in terms of basic social indicators like levels of education and the status of women. Civil society is stunted. Corruption is rife. Alienation is widespread.

4. Culture: The culture of the Muslim world is not admired by outsiders, either in its high or popular versions. Foreign students do not flock to its universities. Its ideals do not resonate for others. No-one dreams of being like them.

At some point, the observer is entitled to wonder if Islam is behind the problems of Islamic countries. As shown by the enormous amount of conflict Muslims have with Hindu India and with black Africans in the Sudan and elsewhere, it is not just the West they can’t get along with.

One of the most unattractive things about Islam from the point of view of a non-Muslim observer is its combination of arrogance with a failure to back this chest-beating up with results. The West is often accused of arrogance, but the West and its imitators rule the world, so there is a certain logic, if no politeness, to this attitude. Islam, on the other hand, particularly in the minds of its most fanatical adherents, seems to consider itself entitled to rule the world and is alternately puzzled and enraged that this is not happening. It is a doctrine of Islam, for example, that the end of history comes when all the world is converted to Islam; I do not believe any other major religion makes this claim. This sense of superiority and destiny of domination is combined with a curiously inflamed sense of victimhood, for example the ongoing obsession with the crusades as having political relevance to the present day. And of course they ignore the fact that the Muslim world invaded and conquered Europe (at various points Spain, Sicily, the Balkans, Hungary) centuries before the West had laid a hand on them. Furthermore, in terms of their supposed grievance against Christianity, it is conveniently forgotten that Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Constantinople were once Christian areas, which fell to Muslim conquest. This is the mentality of the bully-wimp, of the fascist crybaby.

To be fair, one of the sad things about Islam is that many of its definite positive aspects seem to have been blunted in modernity. For example, in the Middle Ages Muslim societies were more tolerant of their religious minorities than was European society at the time, albeit with an air of contempt. They were also more scientifically advanced for a time. All serious writers on modern Islam have posed the following question: why is Islam an obvious correlate, if not a cause, of backwardness today when in the Middle Ages Islamic civilization was one of the most advanced in the world? This is frequently represented as a great puzzle, though I do not think it has to be one.

The simplest explanation is that Islam dictates by dogmatic fiat a kind of high-medieval civilization, but because it establishes it by dogma, it cannot easily advance beyond it, because dogma is fixed. Islam provided a shortcut to a level of social development higher than that of Europe’s Dark Ages, but also a dead end. This would also tend to explain the astonishing rapidity of its development in the Middle East after Mohammed’s revelation, which led to the vast Caliphate of Baghdad, ruling much of the known world, in a relatively short period of time.

The key historical difference between them and us, of course, is the Renaissance. It has even been suggested that the direction of medieval Islamic philosophy shows that a Renaissance was gestating in medieval Islam, inspired as in the West by the assimilation of ancient Greek learning, but that the religious authorities saw its disturbing potential to disturb received religious truth and strangled its development in intellectual infancy.

The counter-argument to all this is that the commonly repeated story of Islamic civilization being at one time the most advanced in the world is a gross exaggeration. The core contention of this school is that what they achieved, they achieved by militarily absorbing non-Muslim societies, like Persia, Egypt, and Byzantium, that were already advanced in their own right and whose achievements after the Muslim conquest cannot be ascribed to any Muslim genius.

The next problem is sharia, Islamic law, a detailed body of instructions on how to run society that has no counterpart in Christianity. The precepts of Christian ethics contained in the Bible are nowhere near as specific, and even they are only ethics, not actually intended to be the statutory law of the land. Even sharia’s closest equivalent in the West, the Jewish hallakha, is in the inventive hands of the Jews preposterously flexible by comparison. Sharia is a straightjacket for the society it governs, though one of a respectably high order by the standards of world history.

Some Muslims, most famously the secular nationalists who have run Turkey since Kemal Attaturk’s post-WWI revolution, have faced this fact squarely and given up on it as a basis for modern society. This was what the Shah of Iran was trying to do when so rudely interrupted by the Ayatollah Khomeini. To greater or lesser degrees, it is what other Muslim societies have done, with Syria, Malaya, Indonesia and Iraq in the vanguard. The opposite extreme is represented by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and was represented by Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The rigidity of sharia prevents the dynamic legal, and thus political, order of the West from emerging, but the rigidity of sharia is only its first problem. Its other problem is that by making statutory law a direct dictate from God, it allows no philosophical, as well as practical, room for a secular state. We know this principle as the separation of church and state, which confers two essential benefits:

1. It protects the state from corruption by religion, enabling politics to proceed on its own terms and solve its own problems without getting caught up in religious dogma.

2. It protects religion from corruption by the state, preserving the ability of the spiritual sphere to be true to itself without succumbing to the temptation of resort to coercion in matters of faith.

Christianity teaches that one should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. This enables Christians to make a clear distinction between the goods of this earth, which an intelligent atheist can discern and figure out how to obtain, and the metaphysical good of salvation, which is made known to us by revelation. The culmination of the pursuit of goods of the first kind is politics, of the second, religion. Reasoning about these two goods can go on independently because they are by nature different in kind. But when religion and politics are conflated, we run the risk of policy being made on a basis of dogma and of faith becoming an object of coercion.

This is precisely the predicament that Islam creates for nations that imbibe it deeply. To say that the earthly ruler is, as in classical Islam, the regent of God on earth is to step back in political philosophy to what were in the West the days of divine right monarchy. This is a stage prior to all the philosophical ideas that underpin democracy, individual rights, personal freedom, legitimate dissent, and the other essentials of modernity. And as Huntington points out, classical Islam rejects the idea of national sovereignty, the basic building-block of modern international order. It is only really comfortable with the ummah, or community of all believers.

There are also disturbing aspects about Islam purely as a religion, independent of any social consequences. For example, its conception of paradise with the 70 virgins, et cetera, is, to be quite blunt, repulsively crude and I do not think this is just a Western bias. Everything I have gathered in conversation with representatives of other traditions suggests to me that a serious Buddhist, Hindu or Chinaman finds this equally unattractive. The ultimate end of man should not be a teenage fantasy. It is, of course, a wonderful myth for motivating young men to become killers.

There is also the problem of the Koran. The Koran differs from the Bible fundamentally in that the Koran is not just revelation but also incarnation, i.e. the appearance of God in history. In analogy to Christianity, the Koran is not just the Bible but Jesus as well. Unfortunately there is evidence accumulating from modern Koranic scholarship that the Koran may not be what it claims to be.

For a start, its claim to have appeared all at once in its complete form seems to be false, as shown by ancient versions of it that have been discovered. It has also been shown, based on the standard tools of textual analysis, that much of the pre-Islamic literature that was supposed to prefigure it was in fact written later and falsely dated. These issues are discussed at length in A href="http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jan/koran.htm">this article in The Atlantic. Basically, the same higher criticism that did such damage to Christian faith is slowly starting to work on the Koran. Whether this is a good thing if it weakens fanaticism, or a bad one if it lets loose the same forces of nihilism that have ravaged the culture of the West, remains to be seen.

The principal case that Islam is not a defective civilization is that there exist Muslim nations that have not become societies pathological in one way or another. Logically, this cannot include nominally Muslim nations like Turkey that have rejected Islam as a basis for social order. Take Morocco, for example, not a place of great political trouble by Third-World standards, though the usual suspects are certainly trying. Some experts on Islam will tell you that Morocco exhibits the closest thing found on earth today to traditional Islam, it being the case that the nominally purer societies like Saudi Arabia in fact practice a puritanical variant, the now-notorious Wahabbism, that derives from innovations of the 18th century. Morocco had a relatively unbroken social continuity despite colonization and decolonization, and has since had a traditionalist but unfanatical monarchy practicing benevolent authoritarianism. It cooperates with the United States.

The example of Iraq, a highly secularized Muslim country that exhibits extreme political pathology, makes clear that secularism is no guarantee of reasonableness for Muslim societies. The counter-argument to this, in turn, is that Iraq is still a society formed by Islam, if not currently practicing it with great enthusiasm, and it is due to Islam that it failed to develop into a democracy or some other reasonable form of government.

It is probably true that human beings can, if they put their minds to it, put a politically reasonable gloss on any religion. But this is only true as a matter of bare principle; what they will actually tend to do when given a certain religious starting point is another matter entirely. And on these grounds it seems fair to conclude, simply as an empirical matter, that Islam has a disturbing tendency not to measure up to the standards of modern civilization. Whether an Islamic Reformation analogous to the Christian one can set this problem aright is a matter of speculation, but there is every reason for us to wish for one.

Robert Locke resides in New York City. Others of his articles may be found on vdare.com and robertlocke.com.




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