On Islam and the West

Posted By January 19, 2002 No Comments

Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is an end in itself. Once the condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy, it is the decision we wish to impose on him.”

— Brigadier S.K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War (Pakistan, 1979)

One of the impulses that shaped the Second World War was the Nazi belief that a total transformation of society could only be achieved in an all-encompassing war. Once this war began, the Frontgemeinschaft of the front-line troops would lead to the building of a Volksgemeinschaft of all Germans. This ideological impulse might arguably be as much of a cause of the Nazi invasion of the USSR as any other consideration.

Now, 57 years after the end of the Nazi threat, the West faces a new ideology that hopes war can achieve a total transformation of Islamic society while damaging ours. The terror unleashed in the autumn of 2001 is designed with the same purpose that the Nazis hoped for; external violence to cause internal change.

Ideologies cannot be defeated, they must be either totally discredited – in the minds of those the ideologues purport to lead — or they must be destroyed. The iron glove that slapped the faces of the Western democracies in WW II is back, with a different fist inside it. For the West, the choice is the same – achieve survival in victory or our own destruction in defeat. However, the Islamic Fundamentalists have parallels beyond Nazism.

In the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, the West faced an ideological opponent that had an attitude “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is up for negotiation.” The attitude had simple roots – peace was only possible when the final society, communism, was universal. Accordingly, areas controlled by the Soviet Union were a part of the world that belonged to the emerging final society and were thus at peace, and everyone else would inevitably come to know peace only when they also became properly communist as well.

The Islamic faith has a similar construct. Islamic societies are part of the final society, everything else is just a matter of time. Islamic societies do have a place for Christians and Jews, as more heavily taxed second-class citizens in law and in status. Everyone else is to be converted, enslaved, or killed. Christian and Jewish governed societies are not yet a part of Islam and therefore retain their place on the “to-do” list of places to conquer.

In the end, the Soviet ideology was thoroughly discredited and defeated. Things may be more difficult this time. For a start, Islam is a religion and has been around a lot longer than either Nazism or Communism.

The Islamic World knows that it has problems, but only a few rare figures within it have ever recognized that their problems result from the faith that created them. Islam is one of the three largest religions in the World, but unlike Christianity and Buddhism, it is often incapable of dealing with the world in which its adherents must live.

Buddhism does not recognize the ‘reality’ of the world and whatever one does in the world – regardless of position – is important only in terms of the ‘merit’ it allows one to achieve on the path to enlightenment and escape. Christianity has been immensely flexible in its 2,000 year history, in that its structure and organization has constantly evolved while leaving the core tenets intact. Also, the Christian is expected to view the world as a place where faith and conduct contribute to an individual’s eternal reward later.

Buddha and Christ never dictated the structure and shape of society. Mohammed certainly did, and much of the Quran is the outline for relationships and structures in human society. In the three centuries after his death, religious jurisprudence (clergy and judges are the same people) cemented the rest of the law into place and largely put a final seal on the evolution of Islamic institutions.

The aggressive component of Islam is very real. When Osama Bin Laden fulminated about Western “Crusaders” he wasn’t being honest with himself or his listeners. Western Crusaders did temporarily occupy Palestine and Lebanon in the Middle Ages: But perhaps the Spanish term Reconquista – a reference to the long wars to vanquish the Muslim realms in Spain — is more accurate in describing the Crusades. Islam was spread almost entirely by the sword and overran Christian Egypt, Christian North Africa, most of Christian Spain; Christian Syria and much of Christian Byzantium before Urban II called for the First Crusade in 1096.

Since the end of the Crusades, Islamic nations conquered the rest of what is now Turkey, overran much of the Balkans and twice put Vienna under siege. They also menaced all of the Mediterranean littoral until defeated at the Battle of Lepanto and at the siege of Malta. Muslim pirates raided most of the Mediterranean until 1830 when the French – tired of centuries of Maritime rapine and robbery – occupied Algiers and Tunis. If Bin Laden wants to play ‘historical grievances’ he really ought to recall that the rules of this game can work both ways. Moreover, if Christianity operated by the same rules that Islam does, Islam might not exist right now except as a minor cult in a corner of Arabia and an obscure historical footnote.

Since the attacks of September 11th, a lot of commentators have made apologies for Islam and called it one of the World’s great religions (which, by dint of its numerous adherents, it is), and a peaceful faith — which it certainly is not. Even today, violent Muslim persecution of Christians continues in Indonesia, Nigeria and the Sudan. Again, what is Islamic must remain Islamic and what is not is up for negotiation.

Christianity has a long and spotted history too – but it has some important characteristics that are not shared with Islam. First, the use of Christianity to justify violence is antithetical to Christianity itself. While violent men have used Christianity to justify themselves, they have only done so by violating its true nature – a point often remarked on by their own contemporaries and by history. In Islam, the faith itself justified violent wars of aggression from the very beginning of the religion. Christ admonished Peter for picking up a sword; Mohammed directly encouraged murder, massacre and battle during his own lifetime.

Secondly, Christianity (like Buddhism) is ultimately about individuals. Christ talked about single human beings and told them to behave decently to one another. He gave respect to lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and a foreign soldier. Islam is a religion of very comprehensive laws derived from the Quran: the Sunna (the collections of hadith – traditions of Mohammed): the qiyas which are the body of opinions written by qadi and mufti, who are religious judges; and the Ijma which is the consensus of a group of judges representing the community.

The difference is evident over centuries of evolution. Christianity has created a series of institutions – most notably the Catholic Church – and a series of communities, but these institutions and the accretion of customs and laws they have generated are always subject to change. The core beliefs that define Christianity were first listed in 322 AD (the Nicean/Apostles Creed) and have not changed since — they don’t need to — while Christian institutions have continually evolved and shifted. Islamic doctrine, and the faith itself, have remained more or less static since 1000 AD because the Quran, the Sunna and the Qiyas finished development around then.

To be fair, Islam did run into trouble in the next three hundred years as the Islamic heartlands faced invaders from the North (the Turks), the East (the Mongols) and Crusaders from Europe. The crises toppled existing political elites and their replacements made the bid for legitimacy to support their tenuous authority by literally being “holier than thou”. This example has continued down through the centuries as ambitious leaders have embraced a rigorous interpretation of Islam as a tool of governance and societal domination – a tactic displayed once again in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

The net result of this unhappy history is that Islam has become moribund and is probably beyond reform. It certainly has a limited place in the modern world. The Islamic nations are the most violent in the world today – both in terms of internal warfare and state vs. state conflicts. In December, 2001 Freedom House – which monitors political and economic freedom as well as human rights around the world – observed that these tend to be at their lowest ebb in Muslim countries. Of the 10 most “unfree” countries in the World, seven are Islamic nations. The rest of the world is making progress towards individual freedom, the Muslim world is not.

This is not say that there is no individual merit to Islam – hundreds of millions of perfectly ordinary and decent human beings practice it and observe most of the duties demanded of them: Prayer, alms-giving, fasting (during Ramadan particularly). The fourth duty is that of Pilgrimage (Haj) to Mecca although jet travel has made this less of an ordeal than it used to be. Jihad (or exertion) is the fifth duty. This fifth duty does not necessarily entail war-making, but it’s most usual interpretations imply protecting the faith, overcoming non-believers, and purifying those who have fallen away from conformity.

This last point is the most sinister. While there is a long history of violent enforcement of conformity in Christianity – this was usually collective action against a very recognizable heretical movement (like the Cathars or Arians) that might have destroyed Christianity itself if unchallenged. In other cases, particularly during Christianity’s most shameful era in 14th to the 16th Centuries, the enforcement of conformity was normally a legal matter – often practiced with a diligence and fairness that exceeded contemporary civil legal practices. It also says much that we remain disturbed by the misuse of religious authority that appeared in those years.

In Islam, Jihad is a ready–made tool for the destruction of moderate or secular leaders by any individual who cares to undertake it. A liberal Muslim (of whom there have been many) who determines that perhaps it is time to re-interpret the older writings and that attitudes towards others should become moderated, can be harassed, persecuted and killed by any individual who feels ready to justify it on theological grounds. This is another reason why Islam has not evolved in any considerable manner over the last few centuries.

In the end, Islam’s inflexible nature and violent foundations will ensure that Islamic nations remain unstable at home and uneasy about the outside world. Nazism and Soviet Communism may turn out to have been simple challenges in comparison.