May 22, 2008
West Lives in a Slough of Ignorance About Islam
Jonathan Power, email@example.com
LONDON, 12 May 2008 — Once again the CIA and MI6 are publishing dire warnings of the vitality of Al-Qaeda. Once again the Islamic world as a whole is being tarnished by association.
US presidential contender John McCain is saying that America needs a leadership to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: The threat of radical Islamic terrorism.
And the words still ring in our ears from Samuel Huntington’s treatise, “The Clash of Civilizations”, the book that in many ways triggered this paranoia that infects the politicians, the press and the public discourse. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism, it is Islam”, he wrote.
Few, if any, in the Western leadership seem to make the point that Al-Qaeda is a deviant phenomenon within the Islamic world, just as Hitler was a deviant phenomenon within the Christian world (commentators seems to overlook Hitler’s early speeches calling on Catholic principles). But Islam has a much better record over the ages of dealing with its deviants who take violence to excess. Islamic culture has never been tolerant of Nazism, fascism or communism. Christianity has spawned all three. Buddhism failed to resist Japanese militarism and Confucianism provided hospitable to Maoism. Yes, there was Saddam Hussein but he was an atheistic brute without an ideology.
Of course, there have been many incidents in the long history of Islam when there have been large-scale losses of life. The massacres and starvation of the Armenians in 1915 still stirs the waters of contemporary debate. But Islam has never spawned anything comparable with Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews — indeed throughout its history Islam has been protective of the Jews, regarding them as “people of the book” to whom it had a special responsibility. Nor has it settled other parts of the world and systematically obliterated other civilizations as did Christian Spain with the Aztecs and Incas. Nor have Islamic societies created anything equivalent to South Africa’s apartheid or the racist culture of the old American South. Unlike many Christian churches, the mosque has never separated people by race. Even today Americans confess that nowhere is there more segregation in their society than at the Sunday noon hour.
Western memories are highly selective. When at Easter time the Greek peasants of the Peloponnese began to kill all the Muslims in the land there was silence. But fifty years later when there were mass killings of Christians in Bulgaria there was a great outpouring of moral outrage. Delacroix immortalized the massacre in his painting, “Massacre of Chaos”, with Christian women pursued by Turkish lancers and Gladstone wrote a best-selling pamphlet in which he described the Ottomans as leaving “a broad line of blood marking the track behind them, and as far as their domination reached civilization vanished from view”.
Almost forgotten today is that it was the Ottomans who gave refuge to the Jews when they were expelled from Iberia, as were fleeing German, French and Czech Protestants, but every cultivated Westerner knows Voltaire’s “Fanaticism or Muhammad the Prophet” or Dante’s portrayal of Muhammad in hell.
Christianity has always been led or dominated by people of European descent. But the leadership of the Muslim world has been much more fragmented — between AD 661 and 750 it was the Arab Umayyad dynasty. Between 750 and 1258 it was the multiethnic Abbasid dynasty. And from 1453 to 1922, the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire. In India there was the separate Moguls and in Persia the Safavids. In sub-Saharan Africa there were the Muslim empires of Mali and Songhai.
Despite their relative poverty today, with great teaming cities like Cairo, Dakha and Jakarta, criminal violence is much, much lower than in Christian-influenced societies.
Muslim countries, according to the UN’s annual Human Development report, have the world’s lowest murder and rape rates. In Tehran, the capital of Iran, and according to the CIA the most important single source of terrorism today, you can go out at 11 or 12 p.m. at night and find families with children picnicing in city parks. When my daughters’ friends ask me where can they safely travel alone in an interesting Third World city I say Cairo. Certainly not Catholic Rio or Protestant Cape Town. Not only are murders and muggings comparatively rarer, there is much less prostitution and hard drug use. Neither is there that much AIDS.
The Western debate about Islam is frankly infantile. Even Barack Obama, with his own personal experience to go off, either is ignorant or just scared of going into battle on these issues. I have not read one speech by one Western politician who seriously attempts to educate public opinion. We live in a slough of ignorance.