Muslims and Modernity

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

Muslims and Modernity

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The politically incorrect view of Islam seems to be gaining momentum. In the wake of Sept. 11, the Bush administration had insisted that Islam is a peaceful religion, "hijacked" by a few extremists. Then, in a New York Times Magazine essay, my friend Andrew Sullivan dissented. He acknowledged that there are moderate Muslims and that the Quran in places counsels mercy and tolerance. "But it would be naive to ignore in Islam a deep thread of intolerance toward unbelievers, especially if those unbelievers are believed to be a threat to the Islamic world." He then quoted the Quran's commandment to "kill those who join other gods with God wherever ye shall find them."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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Now an essay in last Sunday's Washington Post seconds the motion that we look to the Quran for clues about modern Islam—and agrees that the clues are damning. "Scholars of the Koran assure us that nothing in the text commands the faithful to take up the sword against the innocent," writes Michael Skube. "But, as the text makes clear, the sword is to be taken up—against those who deny Allah and his Messenger, against those who once believed but fell away, against foes of the faith, real or imagined."

In a recent appraisal of the ongoing argument over Islam, Slate's Seth Stevenson notes  in passing that Christian and Jewish scriptures aren't devoid of belligerence either. He wasn't kidding. Here is some guidance offered in the book of Deuteronomy.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves.

Granted, the Judeo-Christian God—unlike the Muslim hijackers—here seems to favor sparing women and children. But this treatment is reserved for "cities which are very far from you." In nearer cities, "the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God." In contrast, the Quran—as interpreted not by Mohamed Atta but by Mohammed, who was something of an authority on it—counsels sparing women and children, even in a holy war.

I'm not saying that Islam is irrelevant to what happened on Sept. 11. In fact, I buy much of Sullivan's argument—that understanding contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, as distinguished from moderate strands of Islam, helps illuminate our predicament. But I am saying that this whole business of mining the Quran for incendiary quotes is essentially pointless. Religions evolve, and there is usually enough ambiguity in their founding scriptures to let them evolve in any direction. If Osama Bin Laden were a Christian, and he still wanted to destroy the World Trade Center, he would cite Jesus' rampage against the money-changers. If he didn't want to destroy the World Trade Center, he could stress the Sermon on the Mount.

To some of Islam's critics, this evolutionary view of religion seems only to strengthen their indictment of the faith. Why, they ask, hasn't Islam done what other faiths have done—use the leeway offered by scriptural ambiguity to evolve away from truculent intolerance? Whereas during the crusades Muslims and European Christians were equally bent on slaughtering infidels (i.e., each other), European Christians today seem to accept religious diversity in a way that millions of Muslims don't. Why is that?

To me, the answer seems simple: The predominately Christian nations have become more economically advanced, more globalized, which naturally leads to a more cosmopolitan outlook. It's impossible to do business with people while slaughtering them, and it's pretty hard to do business with them while telling them that they'll burn in hell forever. Modern global capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn't one of them.

In this view, the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists is a reflection not of scripture laid down 1,400 years ago, but of their sociological circumstances in recent decades. In Pakistan, alongside millions of insular and mostly poor fundamentalists, are wealthier, worldlier, and more moderate Muslims. Marxists may get most things wrong, but when they view religion as "superstructure"—a product of deeper economic and political dynamics—they're onto something.

Some who acknowledge that modernization saved Christianity from rabid intolerance would like to turn even this into an indictment of Islam. Why, they ask suspiciously, didn't the Islamic world modernize readily? Why did Christian Europe beat Islamic civilization to the industrial revolution? Mightn't there be something inherently oppressive and economically stultifying about Islam? Wasn't some Christian emphasis on personal liberty the key to Europe's industrial-age success?