Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What Next For Islam?

I guess I'm not the only one despairing about "the Muslim question". 5.5 billion non-Muslims share this planet with 1.5 billion Muslims, and notwithstanding minor changes in that proportion, neither side is going away any time soon.

The world cannot really afford a clash of civilisations, because it will be bloody and painful but not decisive. We seem destined to endure an uneasy peace punctured by sporadic and interminable bouts of violence.

The Muslim protests in Sydney, along with their violence and offensive slogans, have been hogging the airwaves here since the weekend. Perhaps the best analysis of what is happening comes from Waleed Aly, who is a wonderfully talented and insightful interlocutor.

[...] these protesters are not truly protesting to make a point. The protest is the point. It feels good. It feels powerful. This is why people yell pointlessly or punch walls when frustrated. It's not instrumental. It doesn't achieve anything directly. But it is catharsis. Outrage and aggression is an intoxicating prospect for the powerless. Accordingly, it is not an option to leave an insult unanswered because that is a sign of weakness, rather than transcendence.
Soon you have a subculture: a sub-community whose very cohesion is based almost exclusively on shared grievance. Then you have an identity that has nothing to say about itself; an identity that holds an entirely impoverished position: that to be defiantly angry is to be.
But now a more serious conversation is necessary. One that's not about how we should be speaking out to defend our prophet and ourselves. One that's more about whether we can speak about anything else.

That's great as a diagnosis, but what is the prognosis?

Being an amateur student of history, I have been looking to the trajectory of Christianity to understand how Islam is likely to evolve. The traditional view of the two religions is that Christianity has had a head start of a few centuries to evolve its thinking, and so Islam will evolve similarly in a few more centuries. After all, the Dark Ages of Europe and the Inquisition showed the world the worst of Christian intolerance, bigotry and parochialism, and the Old Testament competes with the Quran in the violent imagery of its passages. [Some would add the Crusades to the list of Christian transgressions, although I'm not sure if those were the result of religious supremacism or a reaction to the Arabs' conquest of Jerusalem.]

At any rate, this is a depressing conclusion. If it will take a few more centuries for Islam to settle into a milder version of itself, that's a few centuries too far into the future for us. Can't we see a resolution in our own lifetimes?

For the first time, I've read a somewhat optimistic piece on this, and this is by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The article as a whole makes good reading, but here's the part that I found most interesting (emphasis mine):

Utopian ideologies have a short lifespan. Some are bloodier than others. As long as Islamists were able to market their philosophy as the only alternative to dictatorship and foreign meddling, they were attractive to an oppressed polity. But with their election to office they will be subjected to the test of government. It is clear, as we saw in Iran in 2009 and elsewhere, that if the philosophy of the Islamists is fully and forcefully implemented, those who elected them will end up disillusioned. The governments will begin to fail as soon as they set about implementing their philosophy: strip women of their rights; murder homosexuals; constrain the freedoms of conscience and religion of non-Muslims; hunt down dissidents; persecute religious minorities; pick fights with foreign powers, even powers, such as the U.S., that offered them friendship. The Islamists will curtail the freedoms of those who elected them and fail to improve their economic conditions.

After the disillusion and bitterness will come a painful lesson: that it is foolish to derive laws for human affairs from gods and prophets. Just like the Iranian people have begun to, the Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and perhaps Syrians and others will come to this realization. In one or two or three decades we will see the masses in these countries take to the streets—and perhaps call for American help—to liberate them from the governments they elected. This process will be faster in some places than others, but in all of them it will be bloody and painful. If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.

Only one or two or three decades! That's music to my ears. So rather than dread the rise to power of Islamist parties, we must welcome it. Islamists must be put into positions of responsibility and forced to discuss the price of bread with angry citizens. The conversation must be steered away from jihad and cultural grievance and towards more mundane topics.

And on the topic of culture and religion, what she says about Iran corroborates what Aatish Taseer writes about his visit there. He writes about a Hare Krishna movement in Iran, with semi-clandestine prayer meetings in people's houses.

Gulbadi, caught up in a chanting fever, was now hardly able to separate consonant from vowel. The 'Hare' had gone and the blue god's name was now just a breathy whisper: "Krish-na, Krish-na, Krish-na, rama, rama, rama." Just at the point when it seemed the momentum had to break, it got faster and louder. I was watching Gulbadi when someone walked into the room behind me. It was the expression on his face, of fear and resignation, that made me turn. I saw a tall man with a stoop, and a short, salt and pepper beard, come in and sit down. His entry coincided with Gulbadi upping the ante: "Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, rama, rama, rama, Ali, Ali, Ali, Allah, Allah, Allah." 

Aatish Taseer goes on to describe his conversations with Iranians where they express a hunger for spiritualism that they have failed to get from the state-imposed version of Islam that is the only faith they are allowed to practise.

As non-Muslims, we see in the Islamic Ummah a rigid monolith bent on unyielding jihad against unbelievers until a worldwide caliphate is established under sharia law. But perhaps the tough exterior hides a community riven with angst and self-doubt. The clash of civilisations is a cultural war, and the violence of the Islamist movement suggests that they are losing and they know it.

There are severe internal contradictions in Islam, after all. For one, the issue of women's rights will not go away so easily. 

The right to bare arms leads to an audible silence from the Taliban section of the crowd...

The connected world and the 24 hour media cycle are ruthless and relentless purveyors of uncomfortable truths, and Islam's internal contradictions will inevitably cause upheaval. Ironically, as long as the West remains locked in a perceived battle with Islam, the monolith will remain unbroken. Once the West withdraws and allows the Middle East to sort itself out, the cracks will quickly appear and spread.

I believe that all human beings are fundamentally wired the same way because we share the same basic genetic hardware. A superficial layer of software in the form of religious programming cannot change our fundamental nature. That's why the Islamists' dream is unsustainable. There will be no caliphate, only a worldwide society of democracies that are answerable to their respective citizens. That is the only system that will work for the human organism. Muslim societies will become more like their non-Muslim counterparts (rather than the other way around) as the angst-driven rage is gradually allowed to dissipate through increased levels of democracy. Human beings are all the same, and liquids will find their own level.

I certainly hope Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right. A new Golden Age is overdue.
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