Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Islam and the Challenge of the Modern

The pseudonymous Spengler advances an intriguing explanation of why Muslims are so enraged by the Danish cartoons.

Muslims rage at affronts to their faith because the modern world puts their faith at risk, precisely as modern Islamists contend. [3] That is not a Muslim problem as such, for all faith is challenged as traditional society gives ground to globalization. But Muslim countries, whose traditional life shows a literacy rate of only 60%, face a century of religious deracination. Christianity and Judaism barely have adapted to the modern world; the Islamists believe with good reason that Islam cannot co-exist with modernism and propose to shut it out altogether.

While not overlooking the fact that many Muslim governments – Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – are deliberately stirring up the street mobs to distract their people from the corruption, poverty and incompetence that are the daily hallmarks of life in the Middle East, not all of the outrage can be ascribed to such machinations. Historically, Christians have been just as willing to shed the blood of dissenters, or work themselves into histrionics and violence, when confronted by mockery or criticism of their beliefs. That sort of behavior is long gone in the West, where the Scientific Revolution and centuries of liberal democracy have undermined the former absolutism of Christianity and largely excised strict religious control from everyday life. Westerners have been conditioned to accept doubt. Law and political philosophy have tamed Christian churches, denying them political power or the right to use force to impose their dictates. Muslim society, on the other hand, remains bound to the same tradition and clerical control today as in centuries past. Throughout the Muslim world, illiteracy is shocking high; few books from non-Muslim sources are available; and the orthodox religious establishment can effectively check criticism and independent thought with threats of violence.

Modernity threatens that arrangement, exposing Muslims to a challenge to their religious absolutism that they have never previously faced. Oddly enough, Spengler argues, the sudden impingement of modernity into Muslim culture promises a demographic crisis. Modernity opens up access to information, which breeds doubt, and educates and empowers women, which leads to falling birthrates as women seek activities outside of the home. If Muslim women pursue education and modern opportunities, Muslim birthrates will plunge, throwing the Muslim world, which produces nothing and has no native industry of intellectual life of its own, into ruin.

With stable institutions and material wealth, the secular West evinces a slow decline. Not so the Muslim world, where loss of faith implies sudden deracination and ruin. In the space of a generation, Islam must make an adjustment that Christianity made with great difficulty over half a millennium. Both for theological and social reasons, it is unequipped to do so. Muslims might as well fight over a cartoon now; they have very little to lose.

Throughout the world, literacy erodes traditional society, and the collapse of traditional society leads to declining population growth rates. But in the Muslim world these trends hit like a shock wave. Both the traditional life of Muslims as well as Muslim theology have been frozen in time, such that Muslims are repeating in compressed time trends long at work in the West. The result is devastating.

Most members of religious groups adhere to their beliefs because they were born into a faith and learned no other way to live. Traditional society admits of no heresy or atheism because religion governs the socialization of individuals. Once a traditional people has the opportunity to choose its beliefs, however, the result most often is a sudden fall-off in religious practice. We observe a close statistical relationship between literacy and the percentage of non-religious people in a population in the cross-section of countries.

Once the literacy rate reaches 90%, the percentage of non-religious jumps into two digits. That is as true for Muslim countries as well as for non-Muslim countries. Because the Muslim literacy rate is so far below the average, though, few Muslim countries have a high proportion of non-religious people.

Globally, we discern a clear link among literacy, secularism, and birth rates; the high birth rates of traditional society fall sharply with greater literacy and weaker religious belief. In the non-Muslim world literacy alone explains 46% of variation in population growth.

In the Muslim world, however, the link between rising literacy and falling population growth is much more pronounced. In the Muslim, variation in literacy explains nearly 60% of the variation in population growth, not a surprising result considering that the Muslim world begins with extremely high population growth and extremely low literacy rates.

Spengler identifies Iran as potentially the hardest hit by these trends. This has led him to conclude that Iran’s hardline president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is actively pursuing a confrontation with the West now, while Iran is still relatively strong, hoping to forge a Shiite Empire across the Persian Gulf, protected from Western intervention by nuclear weapons. Thus, Iran has infiltrated Iraq, gaining significant support amongst Iraqi Shiites. That support makes any US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities extremely dangerous for the US, since it will almost certainly spawn a massive Shiite counterattack on American forces in Iraq. That will throw Iraq into a downward spiral of civil war that Washington will be powerless to stop. Under this scenario, by invading and occupying Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction, Washington may have inadvertantly made it impossible to prevent Iran – which is well on its way toward nuclear arms – from developing them, and establishing a nuclear-backed hegemony over the Persian Gulf.


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