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.

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?

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.

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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