There is a common western–or perhaps typically western–misperception that the Islamic world is lost in a theological fantasy that does not permit it to exit the 12th century into the 21st.
When I wrote the introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim (which oddly, for its brief compass, received almost as much attention as the book itself) I tried to explain to non-historians why Islamic history is, so to speak, backwards: a golden age only a few centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 that corresponded to the Christian “dark ages,” followed by a dark age of religious protectionism and dynastic quarrelling that corresponded to the European renaissance. It’s an irony, of course, that religions thought to have so much in common did not run parallel tracks in terms of doctrinal development and intellectual achievement; but it is a fact that after the Renaissance religious authority in the West was in for a long, bumpy and finally catastrophic ride, while Islam (like the Judaism of the 6th century BCE, or Christianity on the brink of the Council of Nicaea) built a hedge around its laws, customs, and holy book. For lots of reasons, it has never been fully successful in negotiating or rationalising its isolation.
At the far end of the European renaissance, Islam encountered a West different from the West it had outlasted in the Crusades–largely as a well-equipped miltary and political overlord: colonialism was the natural result of European feelings of global entitlement and paternalism towards “other races.” The feeling of imperial superiority–especially but not exclusively British–was combined with a certain fascination with the sights, smells, and exotic beauty of the subordinated lands and people–the perspective Edward Said tried to describe in his sometimes (but not always) compelling book, Orientalism.
To this day, Islamic historiography is taught as a teleology of founding, fighting, expansion, dynastic competition, protection and usurpation. These themes are not alien to Judaism and Christianity–or to Hindusim and Buddhism for that matter–but Islam is unique among the religions of the world–excepting only a few born-again science-despisers in the Bible Belt–in feeling its faith is at intense and constant risk from secularism, irreligion, and foreign values. This feeling has always characterized “separatist” groups ranging from the Puritans of old and New England to the Mennonites in Europe and America. But Islam is unique in being a culture, and a very populous and successful culture rather than a band of persecuted renegades from a mother religion. Its success is in its numbers: 20.12% of the world’s population is Muslim.
There is no need to explore the way in which Islamic insecurity plays itself out. Its epochal moment was 9-11, and like the Holocaust or the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, it is tempting to think there will never be another quite like it. To the extent the west has iconized it as “proof” that something is rotten in Mecca (and the extent of that belief has only widened since 2001, and not only in America), the West is now directly guilty of not having learned more about Islam and not having done enough, beyond fighting two utterly useless, costly wars and killing thousands of men and women, some soldiers, to make it stop hurting. The West has not tried hard enough to study causes rather than effects. Instead it has promoted the same sort of paternalistic, culturally indifferent solutions that created the problem of Angry Islam– the disinherited Ishmael looking on as Isaac takes all the goodies.
It’s one of the great underanalyzed moments of the brief bonding that occurred between normally feuding allies Britain, France and America that the overlords were not stricken by the grief that arises from personal responsibility for their sequential roles in the humiliation of Islam, but united by a desire for “justice” and payback: Dan Lohrman recalled on the tenth anniversary of the event,
[We] watched President Bush’s historic speech [before Congress] …Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sat in the crowd during the speech that was watched around the world. And yet, the events didn’t transform our foreign friends in the same way that we were impacted. Our country became more introspective, self-absorbed, determined for justice. Our new battle-cry became: the terrorists will not win.
Then, of course, the talk turned from immediate retribution–a good old fashioned biblical virtue– to security; the term “homeland” was invented to describe a government department, because the term “nation” seemed too abstract, perhaps even philosophical. (You defend your home, not your neighborhood). In a country that had no agenda, the agenda quickly became protecting the country. If a few church groups and interfaith do-gooders preached the essence of Christianity being the practice of forgiveness, it was easy to read the code: “We are not like these Monsters and they are monsters because they are not Us.” It was scarcely helpful to say, Not all Muslims are killers.
A decade later, it is very difficult for America, or its allies, to sustain the view that Islam, compared to them, is the violent, backward cousin of progressive, secular, liberal modern culture.
For one thing, the country most vocal ( if not always public) in that claim is more regressive, educationally backward, and illiberal than any country in Europe and many nations in the Islamic world. The Hollywood successes of American science notwithstanding (because these achievements are scarely recognized, or understood, by the populace in general, and operate as an underfunded, costly and suspect subculture), the gross ignorance of Americans and their elected representatives is the nation’s greatest political and cultural liablity. As Fareed Zakaria argues in The Post-American world, it is no longer necessary to talk about the decline of America; that is obvious. It is time to acknowledge the rise of everyone else. The burning question is not why, but when a country that was once imaginative lost interest in just about everything but food designed to make it fatter and television programmed to keep the audience at roughly the same educational level as their pets.
Its political candidates know next to nothing about physics and astronomy–areas that Muslim scientists like al-Khwarizmi pioneered in the 9th century. They appear to know very little about the circumstances under which the American republic was formed, the dumbest of them claiming that America is a Christian nation founded by Christian men with Christian ambitions for the new country. They collectivize “the American people” in a way that is unparalleled outside 1930’s Germany’s use of the phrase Das Deutsche Volk or appeals by pan-Islamicists to the Ummah in the formative days of Islam.
As to violence, taking Pakistan as a test case, the number of major suicide attacks in 2010 stood at 662, inflicting a total of 6,088 fatalities. How does America size up? There were 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States in 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States were suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 due to suicide, while 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. In 2009, according to the UNODC, 60% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm. In 2007, 872 Americans were killed in Iraq, a figure that does not include Iraqi military and civilian casualties (on both sides), and those who suffered irreparable injuries from which they died later. Moreover, deaths from guns in the United States is persistent; 8,775 gun deaths were reported in 2010 (a decline from previous years) but there were nearly 13,000 murders from all causes, suicides not included. It seems unnecessary to say that Christian America is an unlikely lecturer on the topic of other people’s violence.
I’ve often argued that one way to “sensitize” people to the problems of social and global ignorance is to teach them something about other people. A country that likes to throw around words like “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” and “diversity” as a badge of broad-mindedness has never been more ignorant of the implications of what it means to be an open society or a global citizen–this despite the border-busting properties of the internet.
Open to what, to where and to whom? In the 2010 National Report Card in Geography (a test given to 4th, 8th and 12 graders at embarrassingly infrequent intervals), over 70% of students could not score at basic proficiency level. 70% of Americans do not hold passports: There were 61.5 million trips outside the United States in 2009, down 3% from 2008, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. About 50% of those trips were to either Mexico or Canada, destinations that didn’t require a passport until 2007.
If Americans cannot find Pakistan on a map, it is unlikely that they will care very much about what people there have for dinner, what kind of music they listen to, or what they believe. People who don’t know much about other people will always find it easy to rationalize their ignorance as wisdom and their lack of information as justifiable indifference to what just doesn’t matter.
I cynically disbelieve that the information Americans lack can be provided at the level of “interfaith”dialogue and interdisciplinary seminars at a community level. Liberal Christians and Jews don’t need the lessons and the 51% of deeply muscular evangelicals don’t want them. What is left are the ‘Nones”–neither atheists nor believers, ensconced in their oversized sofas between a bag of Cheetos and five look-alike remotes for bringing in 280 HD menu items. For them, the motto is the less you know the happier you will be.
I am even more pessimistic that this information can be offered by undertrained graduates of the farcical entities we call “colleges” of education. The proof of their impermanence is that in the US almost 72% of students who major in education teach for less than four years. They also tend to be the lowest scoring students on standardized tests at entry level and the weakest in subject-area tests at exit.
This is not true in the Arab world. It is not true in the UK and most of Europe. It is not true in China. We do not see education as a remedy for our geographical ignorance, our limping economy, our national indifference to other people, other ideas and other faiths for good reason. Americans see wealth and strength as the primary indices of status, and these things are expressed not in a classroom or in a hospital but in military adventures and political swagger. America’s indifference to learning now borders on contempt for any success that cannot be measured in warheads or capital. The nation is unhappy that it is poor (in deficit) and jobless, but apparently happy to spend 711 billion dollars (2010) on defense. -America’s closest competitor, China, weighs in at 143 Billion, the UK at 62 billion, Russia at 72 billion.
Guns and money, power and wealth, will eventually drive education out of Dodge, but before that it will be driven out of New York and Chicago and LA. Perhaps by that time we will be too fat to care–like the orbiting population of earth in the Pixar film Wall-E. Or perhaps we will be too dumb to notice.