Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres presents to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) his report, “Repositioning the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda – Ensuring a Better Future for All”. Credit: Photo: UN Photo/ Kim Haughton - Photo: 2021

The Western Debate About Islam Is Frankly Uninformed, Sometimes Infantile

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — Once again the CIA and MI6 are publishing dire warnings of the vitality of Al Qaeda. Once again the Islamic world as a whole is being tarnished by association. Are we returning, as we sadly commemorate the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11, to what the late U.S. presidential contender John McCain said: “America needs a leadership to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”.

And the words still appear to ring in policy-makers’ ears from Harvard’s Professor Samuel Huntington’s treatise, “The Clash of Civilizations”, the book that in many ways triggered the paranoia that infects the politicians, the press and the public discourse. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism, IT IS ISLAM”, he wrote (his capitals).

Too few in the Western leadership class seem to make the point that Al Qaeda is a deviant phenomenon within the Islamic world, just as Hitler was a deviant phenomenon within the Christian world (commentators seem to overlook Hitler’s early speeches calling on Catholic principles or the tens of millions of church-goers who supported him).

But Islam has a much better record over the ages (despite its founder being far more warlike than the founder of Christianity) of dealing with its deviants who take violence to excess. Islamic culture has never been tolerant of Nazism, fascism, Marxism or communism. Christian (and in the case of Marx, Jewish) society has spawned all four. Buddhism failed to resist the influence of Japanese militarism and Confucianism proved hospitable to Maoism. Yes, there were Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein but they were atheistic brutes without a religious ideology.

There have been many incidents in the long history of Islam when there have been large-scale losses of life. The massacres and starvation of the Armenians by Muslim Ottoman Turkey in 1915 still stir the waters of contemporary debate. But Islam has never spawned anything comparable with Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews.

Indeed, throughout its history, Islam has been protective of the Jews, regarding them as “people of the Book” to whom it had a special responsibility. Nor has it systematically obliterated other civilizations as did Christian Spain with the Aztecs and Incas. (Its conquest of the Persian empire is a case in point- Persian culture was promoted to an honourable place in Arab cultural and political life.)

Nor have Islamic societies created anything equivalent to South Africa’s apartheid or the racist culture of the old American South. Unlike many Christian churches the mosque has never separated people by race. Even today, Americans confess that nowhere is there more segregation in their society than at the Sunday noon hour.

Western memories are highly selective. When at Easter time the Greek peasants of the Peloponnese began to kill all the Muslims in the land there was silence. But fifty years later when there were mass killings of Christians in Bulgaria there was a great outpouring of moral outrage. Delacroix immortalized the massacre in his painting, “Massacre of Chaos”, with Christian women pursued by Turkish lancers and Gladstone wrote a best-selling pamphlet in which he described the Ottomans as leaving “a broad line of blood marking the track behind them, and as far as their domination reached civilization vanished from view”.

Almost forgotten today is that it was the Ottomans who gave refuge to the Jews when they were expelled from Iberia, as were fleeing German, French and Czech Protestants, but most well-read Westerners know Voltaire’s “Fanaticism or Mohammed the Prophet” or Dante’s portrayal of Mohammed in Hell.

Apart from right at the beginning, Christianity has always been led or dominated by people of European descent. But the leadership of the Muslim world has been much more fragmented—between AD 661 and 750 it was the Arab Umayyad dynasty. Between 750 and 1258 it was the multi-ethnic Abbasid dynasty. And from 1453 to 1922, the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire. In India there were the separate Moghuls and in Persia the Safavids. In sub-Saharan Africa there were the Muslim empires of Mali and Songhai.

Despite their relative poverty today, with great teaming cities like Cairo, Dacca, Jakarta and Dubai, criminal violence is much, much lower than in Christian-influenced societies. Muslim countries, according to the UN’s annual Human Development report, have the world’s lowest murder and rape rates. In Tehran, the capital of Iran, you can go out at 11 or 12pm at night and find families with children picnicking in city parks.

When my daughters’ friends ask me where they can safely travel alone in an interesting Third World city I reply—non-Christian Calcutta and Muslim Tunis. Certainly not Catholic Rio de Janeiro nor Protestant Cape Town. Not only are murders and muggings comparatively rarer, there is much less prostitution and hard drug use. 

Not least, while weighing the scales, we should remember that by the US Justice department’s account there are far more home-grown terrorist incidents caused by white people than those committed by foreigners. The move towards a more martial culture is quite evident in the US today. The US now has 13 million citizens with permits to carry concealed firearms, which is more than 12 times the number of police officers. The al-Qaeda attacks were a giant windfall for the US gun lobby. The fall of the Twin Towers followed a decade of sharply declining crime rates and lower gun sales. But then gun buying shot up. In reality, the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack was, and remains, infinitesimally small.

In a 2016 poll, Americans estimated that one in six of their fellow citizens was Muslim. The true answer is one in 100. The gun lobby, the powerful National Rifle Association, puts these xenophobic fears to profitable use. Gun companies have switched from targeting deer and duck to marketing the idea that anyone could be a Navy Seal with a super powerful gun in their hands.

The Western debate about Islam is frankly uninformed, sometimes infantile. Even ex-President Barack Obama, with his own personal experience to go off, surely not ignorant, appears reserved about going into battle on these issues. His comments at the 9/11 commemoration were anodyne. Rarely does one come across a speech made by a Western politician which seriously attempts to educate public opinion. We live mired in a slough of ignorance.

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: [IDN-InDepthNews — 14 September 2021]

Photo: Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Turkey. The Ottoman Empire created by Turkish tribes in Anatolia (Asia Minor) grew to be one of the most powerful states in the world during the 15th and 16th centuries. CC BY-SA 4.0

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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