Muslims and Modernity

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Oct. 27 2001 4:09 PM

Muslims and Modernity

(Continued from Page 1)

There are several things I dislike about this line of thought: 1) Its incompatibility with the great intellectual and economic accomplishment of Islamic civilization during much of the Middle Ages; 2) its incompatibility with the intense authoritarianism of some leading Christians before the industrial revolution (Calvin ruled Geneva roughly as Stalin ruled Russia); 3) its incompatibility with my own favorite theory about why Europe industrialized before either China or Islamic civilization, both of which had earlier been on the leading edge of commerce and technology.

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This theory  stresses the lack of effective empire—of firm centralized rule—in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. Because Europe was politically fragmented, there were lots of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning formula—such as the combination of political and economic liberty that was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and their Christianity evolved accordingly.

The magic formula of political and economic liberty has since spread across much of the world. Eventually, I'm sure, it will prevail even in currently repressive Islamic states.

Unfortunately, the transition could be wrenching. Though globalization is the long-run hope for Islamic society, it is the short-run threat. Yes, market economies are the only lasting cure for poverty. But the first step in the cure often strains the bonds of tradition by moving people from rural, kin-based communities into cities or shantytowns. And even decades after this initial dislocation, when families have been pulled safely out of poverty, modernization can still threaten the values of the deeply religious. Hence the paradox of the two types of 9/11 hijackers: the poor, uneducated ones, and the middle-class but alienated ones.

There is obviously a sense in which the blame-Islam-first crowd is right, and Islam is part of the problem. The attitude of Islamic fundamentalists—an abhorrence of the non-Islamic world—conflicts with the logic of globalization, and, sooner or later, something has to give. But if history is any guide, what will give in the end is reactionary religion, not technological progress. And the result will be, as it has been in the past, the evolution of a more humane, tolerant faith. There is no timeless, immutable essence of Islam, rooted in the Quran, that condemns it to a medieval morality.

The truth is depressing enough: We have to fight poverty and ignorance, yet the surest cure for these things—economic modernization—carries intense short-run dangers. We don't need to further depress ourselves by forgetting that most of the world's prosperous Christian lands once had the same mindset as today's fundamentalist Muslims. They were mired in a pre-modern belief system—and there but for the grace of a few quirks of history they might still be.

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