It is certainly time that the West considered systematically whether it has irreconcilable differences with Islam. The belligerence of many Islamic spokesmen and the unassimilable quality of many Muslim immigrants in the West, as well as the spectacular terrorist provocations of extreme Islamic groups, make this a very legitimate question. But it is not so easy to answer. Some passages of the Koran, and some of Muhammad’s more purposeful remarks, certainly incite the inference that mortal conflict is inevitable, an impression heightened by the neurotic obsession of a great many Muslims with the red herring of Israel. It is hard for Westerners to know what to make of Islam. It speaks through an infinite number of clerical and secular leaders, and in a range of vocabularies from fraternal to genocidally hostile.
Muhammad was allegedly visited by the versatile Archangel Gabriel in 610, and told to found Islam. After twelve years, Muhammad had only 150 followers, but decamped to the Jewish oasis of Yathrib, seized control of it, renamed it Medina, set up the first mosque, and went forth to conquer Arabia. Unlike Jesus, or the contemplative and sedentary Gautama, founder of Buddhism, Muhammad was a military leader who advanced by fire and sword and told his followers to emulate him. They established Sharia, a totalitarian legal system of organizing of society, directed by clerics and going far beyond what even the most pious and fervent Westerner would consider the province of religion. Arab Islam surged westwards across Africa and into Spain, and then into France, before being repulsed by Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) at Tours in 732.To the history-minded, including many Arabs, the Arab world has been in retreat for the 13 following centuries, which may explain some of the militancy of Arab extremists.
What are now the Turkish Muslims stirred next and finally took Constantinople from the Greek Orthodox Byzantines in 1453, and then surged into Europe from the opposite side to the Arab invasion, getting to, but being repulsed from, the gates of Vienna twice, in 1529 and 1683, and they too gradually subsided. The Sunni Muslim world was organized in caliphates for some centuries, and they were relatively progressive civil societies; the Shiites were ruled by theocratic imams, and in some places, such as Iran, they still are. The Muslims are made almost incomprehensible to all but the most assiduous Western students of that culture by a combination of ancient prejudices, the ever-changing fluidity of Muslim relationships and alliances, the hydra-headed decentralization of the world Muslim community, and the bizarre and even absurd nature of many Islamic events or general reaction to them.
To many Westerners, there is an ingrained Muslim caricature of the swarthy peasant raising sinew-lean arms to the heavens, having been commanded to do so by a voice from a minaret loudspeaker; the serried ranks of men pressing their foreheads to the floor and elevating their posteriors in a gesture that is, in our culture, unserious; shady, long-unsuccessful nationalities; and recent, and not overly dynamic, colonies. Many Western Muslim populations are sinister and fractious, and their spokesmen are often unbecomingly hostile to the host nations. Their conditions are inferior, but so are their standards of civic participation.
In the Muslim world, it is always impossible to sort out factions, and be confident of the correlation of forces. There was much rejoicing by the Western allies in Iraq when President Maliki routed the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr three years ago, and the distinguished Arab scholar Fouad Ajami wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal that Sadr’s preparedness to join a new Maliki government should also be a cause for pleasure. For the first six years after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. was pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan to shore it up against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but Pakistan was encouraging and supporting the Afghan Taliban, and is still doing so. Saudi Arabia, ostensibly one of America’s greatest Muslim allies, its third-largest foreign source of oil, now buying $60 billion of American military hardware, is a joint venture between the royal (and formerly nomadic) House of Saud and the extreme Wahhabi Islamist clerisy. Saudi Arabia finances more than 90 percent of the world’s Islamist institutions, including many hundreds of madrassas that churn out aspiring terrorists. The U.S., which is one of the most averse countries to the Byzantine complexities of such a culture, is effectively on both sides of the War on Terror, in which members of its armed forces are losing lives almost every week.