Friday night topic: Islam and modernity


— 9:05 PM on October 5, 2001

The events of September 11 have reverberated through the Western intelligentsia in some interesting ways. Of course, the shrill anti-American left has reared its ugly head long enough to spew forth its nonsensical bile. (Hi, Adi.) However, in more serious circles, there is earnest wrestling with the issues raised by President Bush, who equated radical Islamicism with fascism, totalitarianism, and other destructive but ultimately failed ideologies.

Legendary cold warrior William F. Buckley carefully compares militant Islam with his old foe Communism, and in doing so, he raises the question of how the broader Islamic world can bring itself into peaceful coexistence with modernity (by modernity, we mean the modern world, characterized by liberal democracies and free markets). He suggests we take an active role in confronting the Muslim world about what it really believes.

Without using the language of excommunication as such, what we got around to doing in the postwar world was to exclude Communism as an acceptable model for the organization of political life. We did this because, by our experience with Communism in practice and by the exercise of reason, we judged it incompatible with irreversible advances in human behavior.
I see shades of Reagan's "Evil Empire" remark there.

The brilliant Francis Fukuyama addresses the same question while defending his thesis (link requires registration) about the end of History in light of recent events. The problem with Islam is not just a wholly isolated radical fringe, as many have said in recent weeks. Islam itself presents a broader problem:

Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people, like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community, and whether this rejection is somehow inherent in Islam. For if the rejectionists are more than a lunatic fringe, then Mr. Huntington is right that we are in for a protracted conflict made dangerous by virtue of their technological empowerment.

The answer that politicians East and West have been putting out since Sept. 11 is that those sympathetic with the terrorists are a "tiny minority" of Muslims, and that the vast majority are appalled by what happened. It is important for them to say this to prevent Muslims as a group from becoming targets of hatred. The problem is that dislike and hatred of America and what it stands for are clearly much more widespread than that.

It seems Islam has not found a way to live at peace with the modern world advancing around it. It is a serious religious and intellectual task to do what may be necessary to reform Islam—to go back to its first principles, reaffirm those absolutes, and then jettison the extra—the evil, and the relative. Of course, Catholicism only fully came to terms with modern, liberal democracy relatively recently, at Vatican II. And Protestants are alternately either squishily embracing absolutely everything about the modern world in fits of accommodationism or rejecting it clumsily a la Jerry Falwell, depending on their perspectives.

But now, because advances in technology make it possible for a radical few to kill innocent thousands or possibly millions, Islam will be—and ought to be, it has been argued—forced to come to grips with modernity in a very big hurry. Discuss.

 
   
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