Fair question, if not asked sincerely.
Islam isn’t the only problem of course, but it is a huge problem and it’s irrational denialism to pretend it doesn’t have an effect. While statistics differ – many have been manipulated – the NCTC reported in 2012 that around 70% of all terrorist murders worldwide and 95% of suicide bombings were traced to Islam (specifically Sunni Islam).
It’s important to note, even though it’s obvious, that not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslim, but it’s also important to acknowledge that Islam has a particular and unique problem (in the modern age) with terrorism, and to try and work out why – as well as finding ways to address it.
It’s also important to address the typical arguments that are made about foreign policy, colonialism in the past, American, Russian and European intervention in the Middle East and so on. These are all contributory factors certainly, however unfair it is to hold people today accountable for the actions of their ancestors.
The wars have been illegal and destructive, but differ ethically from terrorism considerably. Military action, at least in limited wars, does not target the civilian populace – even if it inevitably fails to avoid collateral damage – while firing hundreds of rounds into innocent civilians at a concert is a deliberate, vicious not an accident or byproduct. Whether you believe the claimed motivation or not, intervention in civil wars etc can also be interpreted as peacekeeping or an attempt to limit harm or blunt extremism – not a bad thing and something which has, albeit rarely, been somewhat successful (the former Yugoslavia being, perhaps, the best test case).
The situational aspects are not unique to the Middle East, they are found in other areas of the world and contribute to wars, civil disruption and even terrorism there – but not to the extent found in relation to the Islamic world and much more rarely reaching civilian populations in the west or outside the zone of contention.
Terrorism and grievances are not unique to Islam, but the extent and viciousness of it, the ubiquity of it, is.
So why? What is it about Islam that’s so unique and different? Why does it have a particular problem?
Biblical literalists are a fringe of radicals when it comes to Christianity. Judaism has long traditions of secularism, liberal interpretations and ‘hedges’ around the rules set down in its holy text. Islam, by comparison, is incredibly literalist and prescriptive. While it contains many contradictions – as all the major religious texts do – it is much less ambiguous when it does give its orders, especially when you take the Hadith into account. The Koran is Islam, Islam is the Koran and if you’re raised to believe it is the absolute truth and it tells you to do something (or you’re told by a scholar that it does), what choice do you have if you call yourself a Muslim?
Extremism is the Norm
When we, in the west, talk of ‘Moderate Muslims’ we’re not actually talking about moderates. We’re talking about the extreme, radical, liberal left of Islam. They sound moderate, reasonable and centrist to us, but in the context of Islam they’re radically liberal. The Pew survey on Muslim attitudes provides a snapshot that really brings home that degree of extremism to us.
The percentage in favour of Sharia Law varies from 8-99%.
Even within (southern) Europe, you’ll find nearly 20% approval for this brutally medievalist religio-legal code, and there, 36% believe that code should be applied to non-Muslims. A minority, but a very significant one.
In every area a large majority are against prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, sex before marriage, drinking, abortion and euthanasia. It’s like stepping back into the 1950s – or more, and it’s multigenerational with succeeding generations of immigrants going one of two ways – westernising, or backlashing against it to a position more extreme than their parents.
Even in Europe 12% believe the veil should be enforced and nearly half believe a woman must be subservient to men.
20% of British Muslims sympathised with the 7/7 bombers and 27% with violence against cartoonists.
There’s a risk of labouring the point, but the statistics are out there. The point is simply that extreme viewpoints are relatively common and even the ‘moderate’ space is often anti-semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and authoritarian – enforcing these through cultural and religious license – and exhortation – for violence.
‘Christendom’ was an identity that used to carry currency and many nations used to have a common identity as Christian, specifically Catholic. Losing that was a great boon to western civilisation and a big boost to freedom and progress, but common identity does bring power and unity. Islam still has this identity, despite its sectarianism and internal schisms and rivalries between governments, there’s a common identity and unity. An attack or affront to one Muslim state or group is often taken as an attack on all – at least on the level of the individual, with the exception of Shia and other sects, who are regarded by groups like ISIS as just another enemy.
The point being that there’s a ‘greater’ identity at work than nation, race or even humanity which enables stark identification of in and out groups and dehumanisation of the other.
Islam has no central authority per se, rather competing ‘scholars’ and interpretations, but it does have the Koran. Virtually every sect and ‘scholar’ will point to the Koran first and the Koran is a starkly inhuman, genuinely misogynistic (the word has been overused and lost its power to shock) and violent.
Sources abound on the violent verses, the legal frameworks, the commands. Islam is not just a religion, it is a system of governance and law, a societal blueprint. This is something many western amateur analysts and apologists fail to understand. Islam ‘isn’t like other girls’, it plays out differently and it is set dead against the very idea or concept of separation of church and state, of secularism.
Religion comes first, always.
Religious actors are not rational actors. America has its own problem with the faithful, but they are still largely limited to the extremes, a minority of loons – whatever the pantomime politicians may put on. Religion is even less of an issue in Europe, to the point where it was considered shocking that Tony Blair was religious, and publicly so.
We live in nations where religion takes a back seat, is a private matter. Even ideological faith, for all the problem fascism and communism have caused in the past and for all the problems pseudo-progressivism and radical racist and sexist ideas are causing in culture and education, is still not in control. Most people are still rational actors. The Cold War would have been armageddon without rational actors and ideological extremism was fortunately blunted by more pragmatic bureaucracy by the dawn of the ICBM. Even China is simply another ordered bureaucracy, whatever its ideological trimmings.
There are very few non-rational actors in international politics these days and they’re very hard for rationally acting states to deal with. North Korea is one, Islam is another. You see this on a geo-political level, ISIS is a nation-scale suicide bomb placing ideology and faith over all practical concerns and you see this on a personal level with many terrorists being second or third generation immigrants to the west, who have enjoyed all the trappings of technological, consumer, liberal culture and have rejected it for guns, bombs and a return to medieval values.
Lack of Reform
Islam is – in religious terms – relatively new, at about six centuries of age. While the Koran has changed (at least three times) despite protestations in the religion to the contrary, it has remained broadly the same. It remains a brutal, medievalist text and proud of it, held up as perfect despite its inevitable flaws. Considered to be the last revelation.
The Old Testament was blunted by the more peaceful New Testament. Judaism was blunted by centuries of persecution, genocide and diaspora. Most religions have been blunted from their extremism by the march of progress. Secularism, scientific advancement, the relentlessly, objectively more human-friendly concepts of The Enlightenment.
Islam has no such reform and thus far every attempt to instil a kinder, gentler Islam has met with disaster. It’s still desperately needed, but the ideas that might form such a reformed, peaceful, tolerant and accepting Islam are limited to the deep past (before the influence of Imam Al-Ghazali) or to the fringes of western, liberalised Muslims who will not be listened to.
Islam is a brutal, extreme, medievalist, literalist doctrine whose only central authority is the Koran itself which cannot be persuaded to change its mind. There is no figure like a Pope who might be persuaded to liberalise and who would be followed in so doing. There has been no reformation, no theological uprising or liberalisation of the likes of Martin Luther – there being nobody to rebel against. The faith has a strong, unifying identity and is not just a religion but a sociopolitical and economic system that extends its tendrils into every aspect of life.
So what is to be done?
Dealing with Islam seems insurmountable, but if we are to blunt extremism and decrease terrorism, if this ‘clash of civilisations’ is to come to an end before the oil does it is Islam that needs to be dealt with as much, if not more than the geopolitical situation. Not least of all because we live amongst and alongside people of the faith.
So how have we dealt with these problems in the past? What has worked to blunt and moderate religions in the past?
Wealth & Comfort
It can seem strange, but religious belief is often strongest amongst people in the worst conditions. People who are on or below the poverty line are proportionally more religious than those in the middle and upper classes. It seems that poverty and hardship lead to people turning to religion as a comfort, even though – presumably – god put them in that position in the first place. Improved living standards tend to blunt religious fervour and soften religious devotion and views. A rising tide lifts all ships, and sinks all gods, you might say.
This doesn’t seem to be so true of Islam. A large number of terrorists have been raised in the comfort and relative ease of Western civilisation and have turned their back on it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, we find the same in plenty of college students turning to ideologies of rejection and the rise in ‘white guilt’ and self-blaming and flagellating in western nations, but reading Marx and having a sit-in in a library and blowing yourself up outside a football stadium are still radically different degrees of extremity. Wealth and comfort may play a role, but a less effective one. It is true that the situation for many, even in very wealthy Islamic nations, is not one of comfort and security under kleptocratic regimes and then there’s those in states of civil war and disruption. Encouraging liberalisation and secularism may help, but the Arab Spring has come to little and has empowered and emboldened religious radicals, not disarmed them.
Education, Science & Reason
The spread of education and literacy played an enormous role in the west in the liberation of theology from the church and the undermining and subdivision of that religion (Christianity). Science and the power of reason have, similarly, undermined and – in many nations – all but destroyed religious ideas by proving the central contentions of those religions wrong. Even in Catholicism they have – belatedly – forced a more liberal interpretation and the acceptance of scientific reality. You will still find creationists, but in much of the world – bar America – they have the same sort of intellectual status as flat earthers, people to be scorned and pitied. They have virtually no societal currency or legitimacy.
In Islam these sorts of ideas still have social currency. Even into the 90s there were Imams declaring the Earth to be flat and that belief in a spherical Earth was a form of atheism and apostasy! Islamic apologists who try to claim the Koran as scientific and truthful, such as the unaccountably popular Zakir Naik, are found everywhere and creationism seems to be a much more mainstream idea with a hold over the general populace of the religion.
Again, as with the wealth and comfort issue, these things don’t seem to have so much of an effect when it comes to Islam. Many suicide bombers and terrorists have been educated people like doctors and engineers. Not school drop outs or the kind of unintelligent people you would think would involve themselves in such an unsophisticated or brutal theology. There may be some effect, but it doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be as strong when it comes to Islam. Then again, Christianity has its examples – such as presidential candidate Ben Carson – of otherwise proficient, educated and intelligent people who still harbour bonkers beliefs.
Secularism, the separation of Church and State, has been a massively progressive achievement in the West and elsewhere. It has allowed people of different faiths and cultures to live alongside by separating the role of the state from the enforcement and advocacy of religion or cultural values (logical, pragmatic and scientific values transcend culture, they work no matter what you believe). Even in cultures which still ostensibly have state religions – such as Britain – secularism has been the practical and realistic default through centuries of reform of the power of the Church and its representative – the Monarchy.
Secularism has had some success when it comes to Islam. Turkey’s secularisation made it a site of hope for the rest of the Islamic world to follow suit, but that secularism has been eroded, Turkey has slipped back towards authoritarianism and towards dogmatic religious behaviour.
While secularism can help, it cannot succeed if it is imposed on an unwilling populace. Islam is not ‘just’ a religion, as has been mentioned before, and it specifically demands a theocratic state and legal system. It is against the religion itself to accept authority other than god and the Koran. This being a given, it’s unlikely that secularist movements can gain too much purchase on Islamic nations (there are exceptions) and given that even Stalin’s ruthless methods couldn’t eliminate Orthodox Christianity and he had to come to an accord with it, there’s little chance of forcing secularism even if we wanted to.
Bomb them into Submission
This never works, short of absolute genocide (which, hopefully, nobody is advocating. Furthermore this is what ISIS and their ilk want. They want an apocalypse. They want the end of the world. They want to fight and to die to fulfil prophecy and even ignoring the religious angle, visiting atrocities on the Arab world will only bring them more recruits.
No matter how careful you are, there is always collateral damage. Smart bombs and missiles are only so smart. Intelligence data can be wrong and no matter what you do, drone strikes and assassinations – while more civilised and cleaner than firing AK47s into crowds of teenagers – will always be spun as worse, even by those ordering them.
This is a non starter and only an idiot would advocate it in anything more than the very short term.
There’s no easy solution to the problem of Islam. While the things that have historically worked to liberalise and moderate religious fervour in the past may have some effect it is blunted by the unique nature of Islam as a religion, yet we ignore the religious aspect at our peril. It is a major driving force behind the terrorism and the violence, so much as people want to ignore that and to blame western governments and actions for it. Even were we to pull out of everywhere right now and cease interference and involvement, the same would not be true of the Chinese or the Russians and we would still be targeted in any case, not to mention that the ongoing conflicts and insurrections would become immeasurably worse.
The only solution will be a liberal vision and version of Islam emerging from within Islam itself but, given the literalist nature of the faith and its violent prescriptions against blasphemy and apostasy, any such effort has a huge uphill climb to make. One of the very few things we might be able to do here in the west is to encourage more integration and less ghettoisation. To make people part of our communities and to discourage insular communities such as have emerged in Leeds, Bradford and parts of London here in the UK. This would mean distributing refugees and asylum seekers more equitably around our nations and creating a broader range of affordable housing – something which would benefit ‘natives’ as well.
Realistically I don’t see any of these measures being employed. The cynic in me suggests that once the oil runs out and the Middle East loses its geopolitical relevance, things will calm down. Provided nobody has nuked anyone by then. I want to believe that we can turn things around non-violently, before then, but the odds seem to stacked against it. Between the innate fanaticism and extremism of Islam and the absence of cultural confidence and will in the west (to do anything, let alone the right thing) the possibility seems remote.