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.
As the Muslim world stretched from Morocco to Indonesia, it became ever more fissiparous. Now hundreds of clerical and secular worthies contend for its attention and voices can be heard and amplified in the advocacy of everything from fraternal rapprochement with the West to a relentless Jihad against everything and everyone in the West. And while any level of vitriol directed at the West and its most respected institutions is acceptable, and none is excessive, vast tracts of the Muslim world react like wounded animals at any perceived slight. When a completely unofficial Danish cartoonist produced some relatively innocuous renderings of Muhammad five years ago, Danish embassies were stoned and the whole nationality was anathematized in many Muslim countries. There was a tremendous uproar when Pope Benedict XVI referred, very disapprovingly, in a speech at Regensburg in 2006, to a conversation between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an eminent Persian, in 1391, and quoted the emperor as saying, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope further quoted the emperor as saying that violence was “unreasonable and incompatible with the nature of God and of the soul.” He had referred to the emperor’s familiarity with the Koranic assertion that “there is no compulsion in religion.” In the gentlest, most scholarly and distant way, the pope was making a point that he shares with billions of non-Muslims, as he wonders how long Muslim provocations can cascade down on others without incurring a general containment policy directed at Islam, or an internecine Muslim conflict in which non-Muslims will heavily intervene.
Apart from breaking the Iraqi-Iranian shared antipathy to the West, which makes any political activity in the Persian Gulf area practically impossible, the main argument for the Iraq War was to promote a power-sharing regime in a major Arab country. The eastern Muslims, especially Indonesia, are advancing very determinedly as a sophisticated political society enjoying prolonged high economic growth. Turkey, if it doesn’t become too enamored of its courtship with disreputable regimes like that of Iran, is an important and potentially successful country. Some of the oil-rich Muslim countries are more or less promising, including Iraq, and the more secular countries are generally more compelling examples of the way forward than the knuckle-dragging theocracies. Some effort should be under way to coordinate the policies of the U.S., EU, Russia, China, India, and Japan toward at least the less house-trained Muslim regimes. Given the fiasco with the sanctions plan against Iran, it is not going to be easy, especially as the Muslim radicals concentrate their antipathy almost entirely on the West, and particularly the U.S., but militant Islam is not, in fact, a very powerful opponent, compared with the Axis of World War II or international Communism. It should be possible, and would be worth the effort, to be more systematic in promoting civilized versions of it. There need not be any basic conflict between the Muslim world and the West, nor any segregation between them, but the extremists, and those who play footsie with them, including the Saudis, should be disincentivized.
Non-Muslim countries and regions should make it clear that we are not prepared to be condescended to as infidels, that the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West antedate those of Islam (we are all Abrahamists and Gabriel called on our preceptors first), and that the widespread mistreatment of Christian minorities in some Muslim countries should produce proportionate retaliation, but not at the expense of the civil rights of our own Mulsim minorities. The Muslim massacre of a million Christian blacks in the Sudan should have received a much more energetic and righteous response than it has. And the mad idea of a large mosque almost adjacent to the World Trade Center site should never have gained any traction at all. That debate makes our entire society look like idiots, with Michael Bloomberg, Maureen Dowd, Katie Couric, et al. all thoughtfully holding hands as proverbial “useful idiots.” The less house-trained Islamists who now frolic in and degrade the United Nations and some of its agencies and commissions should be sent packing. Militant Islam should be recognized as an antagonist, and moderate Muslims should be courted, much more systematically than they have been; Indonesia should be treated as a major power in the world, despite having a (very talented) president who rejoices in the name of Bambang. The debate should not be between ourselves about how to deal with Muslims, it should be between Muslims about the unwisdom of provoking us all.