Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Future of Islam

Yesterday, I wrote an unpopular piece reminding readers that anger against Islam for the actions of a non-representative few is a dangerous thing, a vicious prejudice that is not only contrary to the American spirit, but also works against American interests in the long term. I presented two contentions in that article, that prejudice against Muslims in general is immoral and foolish, and that Islam needs to recognize the need to define its creed and standards in order to prosper and grow in the long run. This article examines the possible courses available to Islam in the next decade.

Islam was created through the teachings of the prophet Mohammed in the 7th Century. The faith spread through conquest of territory and the coerced conversion of defeated Arabs. In its first century a major dissent rose in Islam after the death of Husayn in 680, and the creation of the Shi’a sect. Islam continued to invade and conquer territory, entering Africa proper and also Europe, the campaign stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. A short age of prosperity began, but the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a sects continued, and the Shi’a also split, with Isma’iliyaa extremists rising within the Shiites. The rise of the Fatimid caliphs in the 10th Century was soon followed with a schism between the Fatimids and the Umayyads, diluting Islamic political clout. The Crusades came after that, further fragmenting Islam until the reign of Saladin, which proved to be the exception to the decline of Islam’s potency. The Mongol invasion in the 13th Century ended significant Islamic power outside of a few regional pockets. Although Islam continued to expand as a faith, by the 14th Century the original Islamic territories became the property of the Ottoman Empire, which remained the case through 1918.

The 20th Century was noted for political instability and the rise of Fascism and Marxism. Islamic political theorists bought into both concepts to varying degrees, which is why Middle Eastern militants aligned with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, especially Palestinian front organizations. At the same time, Muslim extremists tied religious fervor to political goals, especially through the proto-terror Muslim Brotherhood, which was connected to extortion, election fraud, and assassinations as early as 1924. This led to a shadow government effect in most regional governments through 1972.

Muslim extremists had pressed for the exit of all “colonial” powers from the region following World War 2, and after the United Kingdom began to withdraw from the Gulf in 1971, the United States became the focus of Islamic Nationalism, especially during the time of the short-lived United Arab Republic. Political and economic pressure mounted, along with escalations of violence against businessmen, but with negligible results until the Iranian Revolution. Islamic terrorism became more and more organized as the PLO’s mercenary strategy was replaced by groups like Islamic Jihad and HizBollah, and nation-sponsorship of terrorism became the norm. Withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon, and the futility of the campaigns in Sudan and Somalia encouraged Islamic Fascists to pursue aggressive strategies targeting any government or leader allied with the United States or Western democracy. The key to Islamic Fascism is that it represents the views of a small minority of Muslims, but achieves its goals through brutality and threats. Islamic Fascists promote their political agenda through a campaign touting nationalism and supposed piety, counting on the lack of a focused political identity among Muslims to preclude effective rebuttal. Democracy is anathema to Fascism, and so democratic parties and coalitions are the natural target for Islamic violence. The battleground for the past three decades has been cultural disinformation versus globalism.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Islamic Fascists played on the old myth of American Imperialism and the inconsistency of American policy regarding Islam. The Fascists have been able to play up the lie that Americans don’t respect Islam or Muslims to have equal rights. It was this thinking that inspired Al Qaeda’s campaign of 9/11; Osama bin Laden made no secret that he hoped to spur a US-led invasion of Afghanistan, in the belief that the US would fare as poorly as the USSR in that campaign. The Islamic Fascists have basically followed the same strategy for 85 years, which makes it simple, but not easy, to defeat them. The trick is to convince Islam to create its Renaissance.

Islam is a religion built as much on a cult of personality and on political ambition as it was on faith in a God of truth and righteousness. That said, most Muslims are peaceful and wish no harm to other people. The splintered organization of Islam, however, and the cultural suppression of dissent by lay people has allowed for the Fascists to gain an advantage in polemics and in control of the major political organizations. Damascus and Teheran may not look very much like Tammany Hall, but there is no mechanism for grassroots political movements in most Middle East countries, nor any venue for reform. Part of that comes from the lack of history in most political parties. People in the West too often forget that democracy is uncommon in Islamic countries. The royal families did not want to encourage parties they could not control, and Islamic-focused parties similarly expect to direct their members and voters, not answer to the public. A caste system continues to exist in many countries, and there is genuine fear of the potential chaos which might ensue if democracy were given free rein. The contrived support for Palestine, the drummed-up hatred of Israel and the Jews and America, the contempt for western-style protection of due process and law, and the imbalance between contemporary moral values and the harsh conditions under Sharia are artificial constructs likely to fail if given a true public choice. And despite the history of rigid control by Muslim hardliners, the trend since 2001 has been for reform. While by Western standards there is much work to be done, governments in most Middle Eastern nations have adopted a more pro-American stance. Students have shown public support for democracy and opposition to dictatorships and oligarchies. And most important, revenue from foreign organizations in support of terrorist groups has diminished, been cut off completely in some quiet but vitally important efforts. The reduced effectiveness of terror as a political instrument has freed an increasing number of government officials to make decisions freely on the basis of the commonwealth, the good of the nation and its people. The tide is shifting, but more fundamentally, the channel now exists for Muslims to decide where to take their religion.

The Christian religion has made its way through debate, dissent, schism, internal conflicts and more than a few wars. But the faith grew most steadily and achieved its best results when politics was kept separate from the doctrine. Islam may do well to learn that lesson.

But can Islam, which was founded on political goals as much as religious beliefs, accept a foundation of pure spirituality and ethics? The answer to that question is the essential directive for Islam. The evidence against the Dar-al-Islam campaign is overwhelming; the Islamic Empire reached its zenith less than a century after the death of Mohammed, but never came close since then. The Islamic standard of living, once praised as the highest in the world, has also fallen far behind many other nations and cultures. If governments are based on historic Islamist objectives, the most likely consequences are violence, instability, and poverty. From that perspective, it would be absurd and cruel to the world’s Muslims to pursue what is a hopeless strategy.

The problem comes from the belief among extremist Muslims that world conquest is the only strategy acceptable to Allah. While certain verses in the Quran have been used to claim holy direction for such a bloody plan, many more condemn the unjust and cruel practices of terrorists and Fascist regimes. Many of the arguments made by the Islamist Fascists are actually based on controversial interpretation of statements alleged to have been made by Mohammed or early Islamic leaders, such as Ali. This is significant, given how Christian militants during the reign of leaders like the Emperor Constantine or Pope Leo X tried to justify Christian conquest in verses from the Book of Daniel or Revelation. The Muslim quandary is more difficult, given the historical example of Mohammed himself, but the Muslim faith can adjust its goals according to its precepts. If peace and goodwill are incorporated into the faith through active discussion of the morals and plan of Islam, leaders in major mosques and madrasas can begin to lay a foundation upon which Islam can continue its growth, while at the same time accomplishing its secular goals through advancement of the human condition.

Why should the leaders of Islam choose to do this? In the first place, many imams have urged that a simple reading of the Quran leads the individual to accept Allah’s will, which is peaceful and just. Abandoning the historical excuse of violence and focusing on the healing and constructive teachings of Mohammed would strengthen that argument and make Islamic apologetics more effective, and defang many of the splinter groups which have hijacked major sects in the past. The hashasheen are a thing of the past; there is no reason why terrorism as a path to the will of Allah should not also be rejected.

Second, Islam remains splintered across the world. In addition to the continuing schism between Sunni and Shi’a, a number of extremist cults have poisoned many schools of theology. Just as there are Christians who do not agree completely with their denomination’s dogma and there are Jews and Buddhists who have not been temple in years because they find the stricter requirements burdensome, there are many Muslims whose commitment to the pillars is strong, but who have doubts about what their role is in Islam. A leader who advances the purpose of democracy as service to Allah may be able to gain a great deal of the public trust. Certainly even within Islam there are gen-Y people, who demand to be persuaded rather than accept orders without good reason.

And third, the huge growth in Islam comes from its promise to believers, that Allah’s will is made manifest in the faith. True imams and mullahs will recall that for most of history, the work of teachers in the faith has been to help families and communities, to protect the innocent and advance hope. Conquest has always been the aberration, and it only takes a charismatic leader at the right time to lead Islam to its rightful, peaceful, place in the world.