Our World is in chaos: Islam is in crisis. Both of these statements depend on one-another; it is no coincidence. The post-Cold War years attest to this reality. Our times are the times of suicide bombers and death-cults. Globalisation seemed perfectly perched to swoop down and tear the heart out of ignorance and intolerance.
With the advent of new technology and the mass-production of information, came the opportunity to cross borders virtually and offer enlightenment to cultures that endorsed bigotry. But the new “post-modern” age offers all the perks of a global village with all the downsides of Medieval mythology. Prosperity is a blade without a hilt, and fighting to keep ahold of it is tough. But just as Christianity evolved to reconcile with liberalism – so too will Islam.
Superstition rules the Middle East today just as it ruled Europe before the empirical method found favour. In Saudi Arabia, you might find yourself beheaded for witchcraft; my Dark-Age European ancestors contended with that same reality. If you travel to Iraq or its neighbours, your journey may be cut short by a self-proclaimed messenger from the 7th century. Many popular books in the region promote parallel realities of Conspiracy;Mein Kampf is a top seller and the Protocols are widely circulated.
It is a mistake fuelled by hubris to assume that our times are somehow categorically different from other times. Christopher Hitchens noticed this when he underscored the “latent” danger found in all religions. These dangers are universally present. Islam is not the worst religion in all of history, so much as it is the most dangerous religion at the present time. Christianity had its place in the sun; the view to the horizon was a blood-soaked one.
The Christian wars of religion spread for much the same reasons as the present day Islamic ones. European powers launched 7 major crusades from 1096-1290. Much like the Caliphate of IS, these campaigns aimed to convert the World to Christianity and subdue the ‘other.’ The ultimate targets in the Crusades were therefore Muslims and Jews, who at the time were much more the bastions of civilisation than European Christendom was.
However, the present day Islamic conquest is not just about rebelling against Judaeo-Christian values. It is also about sectarian violence. Islam urges to conquer and to destroy itself in equal measure. Hence, it mirrors two phases of Christianity at the same time; its period of empire and reform. Sectarian violence arrives from the Sunni-Shia schism. The two fragments of Islam clash over who should have succeeded the Prophet as leader of the Islamic world.
The problems of the Middle East today owe a lot to that fracture. Atrocities such as those that ended with 165 deaths in Baghdad were fuelled by zealots who felt that Shia are the wrong type of Muslim. Houthis in Yemen are bombarded by Saudi Arabia because they are believed to be the Shia satellites of Iran. Saudi Arabia crucify Shia demonstrators for having the gall to speak out about their apartheid. Muhammed cannot forego some responsibility for what his religion became.
One can go a long way to explain the misdeeds of extremists and prejudices of conservatives by looking at the spoken word of Muhammed or – his literary endeavour – the Qu’ran. The reason for Pakistan’s ill-treatment of girls in education does not come from an emotional attachment to wanting men protected in the labour market. It is the stuff of religiously prescribed subjugation. The Qu’ran (2:228) advocates a view of women as inferior to their male counter-parts by an order of magnitude: “the men are a degree above them [women]”. It falls on Muslims to reinterpret verses such as this; ignoring they even exist concedes defeat to extremists and grants them a monopoly on text.
Even if Islam is not directly to blame for all of the woes of the Middle East, it has a role in perpetuating them. The plight of the Palestinians owes much to the duplicitous, expansionist Netanyahu government. But who can say the situation would be better if only we could have more Islamic politics in the mix? It is time to change.
Christianity and Islam are at different stages of development but share key similarities. The doctrine of jihad, a martyrdom, a hadith – all three are alien to Christianity. However, both religions share a text that can be subject to change. It is essential that this reform process is supported so stability and peace may be achieved. Erasmus warned against the philosophers who emerge as leaders in such a reform process in the Christian context; he believed “scholasticism” marked the cause of Christian warfare. Such scholars in the Islamic case would include Said Qutb as key inspiration. Nevertheless, the traditional school of Islam must fade and give way to a liberal one.
Mosque and State need to divorce. Just as Luther translated the Bible for people to think about for themselves, so too must Islam become more sensitive to new interpretation. Douglas Murray said the West “has cures to diseases within it” and we demonstrated this with the Christian reformation. My argument is so too does Islam; the principle of ijtihad urges Muslims to critically reflect upon their text. Muslims need to realise the spiritual dimension is the only one where religion need exercise its power. But a bulwark of ignorance and malevolence stands in the way of this project.
Islamists are enabled by well-intentioned progressives whose driving force is masochism – to see the West humbled. Extremists like the Taliban and even IS are given a free-pass because of this extremist fetish. Groups like the National Union of Students, Professors like David Miller, Saudi-sponsored scholars like Nathan Lean are all left intellectually compromised by their inability to recognise threats. I have had Miller explain to me that we should take steps to negotiate with the downtrodden members of IS.
In their view, any sympathy a Muslim may have for terrorism reflects the structurally “oppressive” and ‘”racist” West far more than it reflects the dangers of political Islam. Such people peddle the idea that no Muslim has any agency over their decisions and are magically compelled to join IS. It is a petulant, pathetic view of human nature; curiously it is only ascribed to Muslims. One could say they conform to a unique bigotry only accessible to the far-left.
Now is the time where we must take the long-view of history. Christianity and Islam are religions that have progressed and regressed independently of one-another. Both of these faiths demand a revolution in interpretation to stay relevant. Islam is not different. It does not need to be destroyed; nor does it need blind defence. However, the latent capacity for religion to turn explosive is a uniquely Islamic problem in the 21st century. One that urges honesty and reform.
Mitchell is a blogger currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath