Let me by very clear. In the US, Islam is one faith among many; Muslims in the US are every bit as technologically sophisticated, committed to democracy, and citizens of a modern, pluralistic nation as are their Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and atheist neighbors. American Muslims in many ways are reflective of American culture. They are “us.”
But, the weakness of Islam is an interesting challenge, captured in this phrase by Joshua Micah Marshall:
Indeed, the weakness of the world of Islam–an ideology and culture that sees itself not only as superior to the West and the world’s other great civilizations but as properly in the vanguard of history–is the kernel of the threat it poses, the heart of violent Islamism’s toxicity. At the beginning of the 21st century most of the world is, for better or worse, rushing along the current of globalization. By any measure, the world of Islam lags far behind. With the exception of a few countries with vast amounts of wealth based on natural resources, it is impoverished and trailing the rest of the world on numerous fronts. Where is the great Muslim power? There is none. Where is the world of Islam’s advanced technology-driven economy? There is none.
It’s a paradox for which there isn’t an easy answer.
The dissonance between the Islamic world’s historic self-conception and present-day reality is what produces so much of the rage in the Middle East, which grows cancerous when filtered into various extremist ideologies. Much of the rest is produced by Muslims who exist both in this world of Islam and in the very different world of the West, adding a further toxic blend to the mix–what historians once called “colonial rage.” Unlike fascism or communism, militant Islam isn’t a rising power, but a threat precisely because of its dysfunction and weakness.
If it weren’t for the fact that fanatical Islamist terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, the sad fact is that few would even care. Of course, the fact that they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is a serious caveat. But it does place the issue in a certain context. It is a grave threat, but in a very specific, physical way–a threat to liberal societies but hardly the kind of ideological or political threat that great totalitarianisms posed a half a century ago. Islamist fanatics might destroy a whole city in the West, a catastrophic event. But they’ll never conquer or subvert a country. And this is the heart of the difference. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, Islamism is a danger to the West but hardly a danger in the West–or China, or Latin America, or anywhere else where Islam is not already the dominant religion.
With Osama bin Laden’s death and al Qaeda’s threats of revenge, it seems a good time to put things into context. To whom does bin Laden’s version of Islam appeal? Perhaps not ironically, the reason so many in the West have taken the various isms of the last century seriously is that they were Western – they at least pretended to offer solutions to Western problems. To some people in the 30s, fascism represented perhaps the only possible defense against socialism; to later thinkers, socialism seemed to offer a response to the problems of corporate capitalism and social inequality. Who, aside from some pathetic losers and a handful of immigrants from Islamic nations, does radical Islam appeal to in the West? It self-evidently offers no solutions to Western problems.
The basic impulse towards fundamentalism is the same everywhere. Fundamentalism, for all its flaws, weaknesses, bigotries, lies and failings, doesn’t preach to its followers that they must destroy us – it preaches they must convert us. Fundamentalism is built on a complex attitude of simultaneously accepting and rejecting the modern world (fundamentalists argue for the factual accuracy of scripture because they accept the premise that facts matter, as for example). The reason, for example, that so many anti-abortion laws require all kinds of increasingly absurd demands that women have ultrasounds and listen to the fetal heartbeat and have counseling about how fetuses are all human and so on is that most anti-abortion activists are trying to intellectually persuade people to change their actions not using violence to accomplish that end.
A radical faith that preaches destruction is many things but it is not mere fundamentalism. Like the people who murder doctors who perform abortions or who blow up clinics with people in them, radical muslims are dressing up their hatred with faith, using faith as a cover for their own twisted failings as persons. The people who bomb abortion clinics or murder doctors may get intellectual cover from the rest of the anti-abortion movement, but they are using the movement for their own ends; they’d be killing someone else if they hadn’t latched onto abortion as their issue.
Good, bad or ugly, such individuals will probably always be with us. Our challenge is to treat them as we’d treat a dangerous virus – isolate it, immunize people against it and manage the symptoms. We cannot meet their howling barbarism with our own howling barbarism. Tempting as it may be, we cannot go blow for blow with them in the realm of barbaric misbehavior; they’ll always win that battle.
We can, however, reach out to the democratic movements in various Islamic nations, encourage the people there, let them know we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their efforts to move into a democratic, egalitarian, global future. This isn’t a battle of civilizations, it is instead an evolution of human rights, a recognition that so long as one person is in chains, the rest of us are not free.