What is the best way for Westerners to combat radical Islam? It may be by combating Islam’s greatest historical opponent: radical Christianity. I described this thesis to Richard Dawkins after meeting hi m at a prominent skeptical conference last year, and he invited me to write this article.
Since the First Gulf War (1990), Islam has been bombarded in the West with three decades of bad publicity. This means that many Westerners old enough to remember that war have heard mostly negative views about Islam and have consequently formed a lasting unfavorable impression of the religion. These unfavorable impressions are all too often reinforced by the lack of positive news coming out of the Muslim world. But that has not always been the case. Professor Dawkins has written that “Islam is the greatest evil in the World today.” This is a harsh statement. But with the word today Dawkins acknowledges, intentionally or unintentionally, that the world’s second largest religion has not always been its greatest evil. This is certainly true; as we will see, the Muslim world of the past was so different from that of today that most of what you will read in the following summary of Islamic history may surprise you.
The Qur’an Emphasizes the Values of Education and the Acquisition of Knowledge
In science, a single counterexample is usually sufficient to disprove a claim. The widespread belief that Islamic societies cannot embrace modernism and secularism can easily be disproven by counterexamples from history. They are numerous; what is more, we need not look very far back in time to discover them.
Just fifty years ago, Iran was a modern secular state. The hijab was banned, religious clerics were censured, and women were highly educated … alongside men.
Members of my generation, who do not remember the days of the Shah, are often shocked when they come across vintage photos of erotic magazines “made in Iran” (see figure 2).
Afghanistan had a similarly liberal society before the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. A 2001 human rights report noted that women held more than 15 percent of the seats in Afghanistan’s highest legislative body.1 By the early 1990s, it was estimated that 70 percent of schoolteachers, 50 percent of government workers and university students, and 40 percent of doctors in Kabul were women.
Both the Qur’an and the Hadith emphasize the values of education and the acquisition of knowledge, motivating Muslims of the past to embrace science and build world-class universities. Between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, Islam experienced a Golden Age. Muslims of this era were intellectual and cultural pioneers, often far ahead of the Christian societies of Europe. Ibn al-Haytham—often referred to as the world’s first true scientist—was the first to explain the scientific method about two hundred years before the European Renaissance of the fourteenth century. The first hospital establishments based on an ethos similar to today’s philosophy of caregiving emerged in Persia with the Bimaristan hospitals.2
The Islamic Golden Age started to decline in the twelfth century—largely in response to the Christian invasions known as the Crusades. Islam turned defensive; its societies embarked upon a radical shift away from science toward religion. Muslims found in Islam a common identity that united them against the outside aggressors of a different faith. Science, being universal, unaffiliated, and faithless, could not play the same role religion could as guardian of Muslim national identity. A retreat behind the shield of Islam was the obvious choice for Muslims under attack.
Sadly, Muslim societies in general, and the Arab states in particular, never recovered after the Crusades. Even today they remain among the least innovative countries in the world.
The Qur’an Was Not Always Perceived as the Eternal Word of God
This may come as a surprise to many, including Muslims, but it is true. The earliest ruling doctrine in Islam was dominated by the Mu’tazila, who did not insist that the Qur’an was the eternal word of God.3 The Mu’tazila were eventually defeated by the Asha’ira. Though they were supported by political rather than religious constituencies, they established the now-orthodox view of the Qur’an as the literal word of God.
If Muslims did once believe that the Qur’an was not the eternal word of God, then nothing forbids them from reviving this doctrine in the future. If that does happen, it will be a major shift in the history of modern Islam and the most effective solution to the problems associated with radical Islam.
Muslims Love and Live the Western Way of Life
Muslims don’t hate the West or the Western way of life—quite the contrary. Consider that Morocco, a Muslim kingdom, was the first country in the world to recognize the newly formed United States in 1777.
I have been living in the heart of the Arab Gulf (United Arab Emirates) for the past fifteen years, and all my Muslim friends embrace almost everything Western. They are fascinated and inspired by the Western lifestyle. They love cars, Western music, technology, social media, burgers, and fashion. Today one of the fastest growing trends among young Emiratis is cycling. Muslims do not reject the Western lifestyle; they simply adapt it to their own culture, for example, by not adding bacon to their pizza and by opting for Red Bull over Heineken. In my personal experience, the cultural differences between a Muslim Arab and a Western European are narrower than those between a Christian Indian and a Western European.
Liberal Islam Is Dead Mostly Because the West Killed It
Between 1950 and 1990, there were serious attempts to modernize Islam. Several “Liberal Islam” movements supported a modernized interpretation of Islamic scriptures and embraced secular concepts, including Western-style understandings of human rights. In his 1951 book Children of Gebelawi (Children of Our Alley), the Egyptian writer Najib Mahfouz boasted about the adoption of modernism and secularism by Arab intellectuals and the growing middle class. But as American interference in the Middle East grew, it was popularly perceived as a “Christian threat.” Once again, Muslims sheltered themselves behind fundamentalist Islam, as they had in response to the Crusades. Liberal Islam lost momentum; extremism grew, especially after the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. The world witnessed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt, the increased popularity of the AK Party in Turkey, the ravages of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and a widespread rise in Islamic fanaticism in almost every Muslim society and diaspora.
History tells us that Islamic extremism always rises after a foreign attack on Islamic society. Why is it that Muslim societies—unlike Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and nonreligious societies—tend to seek shelter in religion when they feel threatened? I propose that this can be explained by the absence within the Muslim world of any other meaningful heritage that Muslims can resort to in order to protect their cultural identity.
When France was hit by a series of terrorist attacks, there was no cultural surge toward Christianity. On the contrary, many in France rejected the social media slogan “Pray for Paris” because they blamed religion for the attacks and did not want to hear about religion in their time of grief. Instead, the French fought back by embracing their strong heritage of “the French way of life.” They confronted their aggressors with their love for champagne, music, dancing, and Camembert in order to remind themselves and the world what France stands for: happiness, refined cuisine, and world-class art. That was the French way of responding to the aggressions of a much more primitive enemy. Muslims, in contrast, have little in terms of a unifyi
ng cultural legacy to use as a defensive shield when attacked. Their religion, however, is a common denominator that unifies them despite their immense differences. It is the most valuable legacy they possess. Hence, they tend to immerse themselves in Islamic fundamentalism to preserve their identity each time they feel threatened.
Islam as a Common Identity
To understand how powerfully Islam functions as a common identity for the Arabs, for example, one need only listen to sports commentators on Arab channels. When a Moroccan runner wins a gold medal at the Olympics, for example, a Qatari TV commentator may claim “another win for the Muslims.” This is somewhat awkward—consider that, say, a British sports commentator would never claim a win for the Christians if Germany were to win the World Cup.
With Islam providing such a strong shared identity and serving as the sole legacy of the Arabs, any threat by a non-Muslim against a Muslim tends to ignite Muslim sympathy toward the threatened. This is true irrespective of how well or poorly the threatened Muslim is perceived among his own people. A secular dictator such as Saddam Hussein, for example, who banned all religious movements in his country for decades and was among the heads of state most despised by Muslim scholars, suddenly became a Muslim hero able to rally all the world’s Sunnis to himself the moment a fanatical Christian, George W. Bush, launched a war on Iraq in response to what he claimed was a direct order from God (meaning the Christian god, of course). We witness today a similar Islamic empathy toward ISIS. Although most Muslims say that “ISIS does not represent Islam,” numerous Muslims, including anti-ISIS Shiites, felt offended when BBC Two broadcast a satirical sketch titled “The Real Housewives of ISIS.”4 The moment a Westerner mocks Muslim lifestyles (regardless of whether it represents all Muslims), the feeling of shared identity surges and Muslims worldwide reunite to condemn and fight back.
In his book Letters to a Young Muslim, Emirati politician and writer Omar Saif Ghobash refers to the Muslim common identity by speaking about Muslim individualism: “When have you ever heard of the Muslim individual, or Muslim individualism? You hear of the Arab Nation, the Islamic Ummah, the Rightly Guided People, the Arab Street, but do you ever hear of the Muslim individual as a separate entity, a living being, a person with a character and a personality that is separate and distinct from those around him or her?”5
How Can the West Help the Muslim World Eradicate Radical Islam?
So what is the solution that will enable us to eradicate radical Islam in the Muslim world? It is nothing more than the eradication of radical Christianity in the Western world. While many people believe that there has always been a silent war between Christianity and Islam and that eventually one religion will prevail and rule the world, I believe that if either of these two powerful religions weakens, the other—due to the absence of a strong enemy—will regress and become more tolerant, moderate, inoffensive, and eventually uninfluential. Based on current trends in demographics and religious affiliations, it is clear that, of these two religions, Christianity is the one already losing ground. This should not be a cause of fear and anguish for the Christians, but rather an opportunity on which the world can capitalize. Europe has experienced several decades of secular governance, and the results have been outstanding.
The United States, however, is the last remaining world power that is also a Christian stronghold. With the current rise in nationalism signaled by the election of Donald J. Trump, the United States threatens to turn into a Christian nation at war with other religions. While this article does not by any means call for the elimination of Christianity from the private faith and practice of individual Americans, as religious freedom is a human right, it does call for the removal of religion from politics, public education, and every aspect of civil society. While some may claim that the United States is a secular country, in reality it shares some anti-secular aspects with Saudi Arabia. The Trump Administration’s failing in this area is well-known. But even outside the White House, religion still plays a fundamental part in the political opinions of the American people to a degree almost inconceivable in other Western countries. In a recent Gallup Poll, 42 percent of Americans said they would never elect an atheist as president even if he or she were otherwise qualified for the job. By contrast, Europe has—and has had—openly atheist presidents and prime ministers: François Hollande (France), Alexis Tsipras (Greece), Ion Iliescu (Romania), Dimitris Christofias (Cyprus), and Miloš Zeman (Czech Republic). We now understand why long-time atheist Mark Zuckerberg has suddenly found religion to be “very important” as his political ambitions start to grow.
Christian norms are still disproportionately influential in the U.S. education system. Countless private schools teach creationism instead of evolution, usually in response to pressure from students and parents who claim that evolution is against God’s teaching. Even in public schools, evolution is too often omitted from the curriculum in order to avoid provoking conservative Christian parents. How different is this from the situation in Saudi Arabia, where twelfth-grade students are introduced to evolution as a blasphemous theory invented by Charles Darwin that “denies Allah’s creation of humanity?”6
We see the same in politics. Republican politicians speak out against abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and women’s rights in order to attract votes from conservative Christians. No European politician would expect that taking such a stance would help him or her win votes. That would be a path to political failure in Europe. In the United States, it has helped radical Christians such as George W. Bush and now Mike Pence rise to power.
To diminish radical Islam, therefore, we must eradicate radical Christian influence from the U.S. government, the single largest outside power that continually interferes in the Muslim world. Nothing like the situation in which George W. Bush claimed that God ordered him to bombard Iraq should ever recur. Unfortunately, U.S. politics are not growing any less Christianized. Quite the contrary, President Trump’s attempted Muslim ban may be just the tip of the iceberg heralding a new wave of modern Christian crusades led by white men in suits and ties. This will only provide more fuel for Islamic extremism.
Leave the Arabs to Fix Their Own House Their Way
In the era of Brexit and Trump, the world is now questioning whether Western-style democracy is the right governance system, even for advanced societies such as the U.S. and the U.K. Replicating a similar democratic system in Arab countries would invite disaster. The last thing Arab societies need is the rule of the majority, as their majority is not ready to rule itself. It is severely misinformed, poorly educated, religiously conservative, and lacking political savvy of any kind. What the Arabs need are wise leaders such as the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashed Al Maktoum, or the King of Jordan, Abdullah II. These are visionary leaders, educated in the West—modern thinkers, tolerant, and inclusive, with a deep love for their countries. Members of the ruling families of the Middle East are usually highly educated and well-traveled. They tend to be more modern thinkers than the average Arab. A modern and religiously liberal ruler is much more likely to come from a ruling family than from the common people’s choice through democratic election. A democratic election in Morocco, for example, could lead to the rise of another Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I would rather put my money on Prince Moulay Hassan, the crown prince of Morocco and the son of the French-educated King Mohammed VI (who, in addition, held a PhD). The Saudi Arabian monarchy has been the biggest exception to this trend, mainly due to the rules of succession that kept bringing very old kings to power. Nevertheless, we are already seeing some shifts in Saudi governance with young princes such as Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. Prince Mohammad has stated repeatedly that economic reforms in Saudi Arabia cannot progress without easing back on adherence to Islamic traditions. As younger generations take control in Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, religious fundamentalism will regress, and modernization will accelerate. There is surely no need to “bring democracy” from the West to the Middle East.
If the West leaves the Arabs alone and allows modern and tolerant Arab rulers to take control, the Arabs will make deep and significant changes to their societies. With time, these wise rulers will elevate and modernize education standards, the single most important factor in a long-term fight against extremism and religious intolerance. This shift in the Muslim world toward modernization and tolerance has already begun. “Secular Islam” is not incompatible with Islam. Under the right interpretation of the Qur’an, it can be implemented within the Muslim world in a pragmatic and progressive manner that will be accepted by society. Intriguingly, the absence of a centralized powerful religious organization within the Muslim world—such as the Vatican for Roman Catholics—will allow a smoother and faster separation between religion and state. Hence, the heads of Muslim states intent on implementing more secular laws can focus their efforts by negotiating with their own “local” religious scholars without having to worry about external resistance from powerful religious organizations. As this happens, it is likely that the many secular Muslims who currently hide their secularism and live as if they were devoted Muslims, a group that Dr. Michael Blume calls the “silent withdrawals,” will suddenly appear in Arab society in large numbers.7 Once the acceptance of secularism within Islamic religious norms becomes official, we will witness a tsunami of silent withdrawals “coming out,” so to speak.
To preserve and accelerate the current momentum of the Muslim world toward secularism, it is necessary for secularism in the West to likewise keep flourishing and expanding. If far-right Christianity resurfaces in Europe, or if the evangelical influence in U. S. politics keeps on growing, the winds of change in the Muslim world will shift too, and the Muslim liberals will lose once again. The rise of “the Donald” could not have come at a worse time for a Muslim world still in its infancy regarding modernization and liberalism.
- U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Report on the Taliban’s War against Women. November 17, 2001. Available online at https://2001-2009.state.gov/g/drl/rls/6185.htm.
- Horden, Peregrine. “The Earliest Hospitals in Byzantium, Western Europe, and Islam.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Winter 2005.
- Ably summarized in Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 62–63.
- Dan Bilefksy, “Can a Satire of ISIS Possibly Be Funny? BBC Viewers Are Split,” New York Times, January 5, 2017.
- Available online at https://en.qantara.de/content/omar-saif-ghobashs-letters-to-a-young-muslim-seeking-the-muslim-individual.
- Burton, Elise K. “Teaching Evolution in Muslim States: Iran and Saudi Arabia Compared.” Reports of the National Center for Science Education (Berkeley, CA: National Center for Science Education), May–June 2010, 25–29.
- Available online at https://en.qantara.de/content/the-secularisation-of-muslims-silent-withdrawal.