Moderate Muslims Are the Problem, Not the Solution

I visited an interstate friend of mine a few years ago. He is an academic who I had known well at a university, at a time when I didn’t attend church or identify myself as Christian. I think he was surprised therefore when he found that I regularly attended an Anglican church. An unbeliever, he poked good-natured fun at my “naivety” for believing in the various miracles of Jesus, including the physical resurrection. I took it in good spirit and we moved on to the political and economic sphere where we tended on most matters to agree with each other. His work, at one stage, had brought him into contact with the Islamic banking world. I mention this only to pose a question. If I had identified myself as a mosque-attending Muslim, would he have poked fun at the Muslim faith? I tend to doubt it. Of course, I am guessing.

The real question is not what my friend would have done but how, as general rule, the great mass of ordinary middling Muslims would respond, if fun were poked at their belief that the angel Gabriel delivered messages from God to an illiterate Mohammed which he memorised and which later, over the course of time, were written down by others as the very (verbatim) words of God. And, even more pertinently, how might they respond years into the future when they form considerably larger proportions of the populations of most Western countries? Herein, I suggest, is a pointer as to whether secularism within the Western world will dampen the ardour of Islam. If the great mass of Muslims living in the West were to continue to take offence, as a matter of course, with gentle jibes directed at their beliefs, it would suggest that their religious affiliation had withstood the force of secularisation.

There does not seem to be a settled view on exactly what is meant by “secular”. If there were, authors would not have to continue to supply their own definition. E.L. Mascall in The Secularisation of Christianity (1965) offers the following definition of secular:

that whole body of thought and activity which is concerned with a man’s life in what is sometimes called “this world”, a life which begins with the fertilisation of an ovum by a spermatozoon and ends with bodily death. Thus there is excluded from the sphere of “the secular” any concern which a man may have with a possible future life after death and any concern which he may have, even during “this life”, with an order of reality (if such there be) which transcends the experience of the senses.

While a little prolix this seems to capture the essence of the secular. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison captures it more pithily: “God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without him.” This has resonance with the words of the ultimate authority: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” It is pertinent to quote Bonhoeffer because his deep and abiding Christian faith in the face of imprisonment and death at the hands of the Nazis makes it clear that living as men does not exclude us from worshipping God. That, I think, makes sense of describing Western secularism in unitary terms even though it brackets numbers of industrial countries of emptying churches with church-going America.

In a secular state people might (or might not) be guided by the moral precepts of their religion, but they are content in any event, and in fact insist, on being governed by laws made by their fellows. Christianity and secularism are evidently compatible. Israel provides the example of a secular Jewish state. Evidently, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, and Hinduism in India, are also compatible with secularism. Then we have Islam. Samuel Huntington observes in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) that Muslims view Islam “as a way of life transcending and uniting religion and politics”. Ernest Gellner observes in Muslim Society (1981) that “there is no separation in Islam between state and religion”. Obviously, to the extent that these observations continue to hold, Islam and secularism are incompatible. The problem stems from the encompassing nature of Islam. Yilmaz Esmer in “Turkey: Torn Between Two Civilisations” (Developing Cultures, eds. Harrison and Berger, 2006) explains it this way:

Islam, as is well known, extends beyond the individual to cover the political, civil, criminal, and economic spheres. Much more than a code of ethics and a set of guidelines for good behaviour, it is the original source for a very broad set of values extending from gender relations to interest on loans, from penalties for stealing to rules of inheritance. There is hardly any aspect of human existence about which Islam has nothing to say.

Contrast Bonhoeffer’s secular view of our earthly existence with an Islamic view provided by Rachid Al-Ghannouchi in “Secularism in the Arab Maghreb” (Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, eds. Tamimi and Esposito, 2000):

Man is created to live in two realms. He is bigger than this world, and condemning him to imprisonment in it—which is the secularist position—is condemning him to estrangement and is the destruction of his greatest resource, his ability to transcend this world while existing in it.

In assessing whether secularism and Islam can co-exist in the West it is important to dismiss the inconceivable; in this case, that the body of Islamic scripture can be changed or reinterpreted in some accommodative way. The word of God (the Koran) and the God-inspired sayings and doings of his Messenger (the Hadith) are immutable by definition. Only human attitudes to its degree of proportionality in ordering daily life are potentially pliable. While scripture, whether it is the Koran, the Tanach or the Bible, can’t be changed; its importance in temporal affairs possibly can. And on this turns the contest between secularism and Islam in the West. This is not a worldwide clash of civilisations of the kind predicted by Samuel Huntington: “a tribal conflict on a grand scale”. It is a less confronting, yet still defining and determining, trial of strength between contesting values.

Mark Steyn in America Alone (2006) and After America (2011) comes to a depressingly definitive view on the outcome of this contest. I’d like to keep the flickering flame of hope alive in my own mind. This is not because the outlook is at all promising but because we secularists in the West, who still form the great majority, need not necessarily be passive bystanders. We might be able to influence the course of events; though this is a very parlous and tenuous might. Muslims form the largest grouping of migrants surging into the West; and this clearly won’t be stopped by weak-kneed Western governments. And their fecundity is much higher than is the average of the existing non-Muslim populations. The chance of victory is very slim. But even this chance will turn into a chimera unless we correctly identify the principal threat to secularism; which, right now, we have not done. The principal threat, despite the publicity they are given, does not come from Islamic terrorists, nor does it come from firebrand imams. Arguably a greater threat comes from so-called moderate and peaceful Muslims in leadership positions presenting (unconvincingly in the context of their religion’s exclusivity) an ecumenical-type face of Islam.

But however these threats are ordered, they are all dwarfed by the principal and predominant threat which empowers all others. This comes from the state of mind of ordinary middling Muslims going about their daily affairs in Western countries; in similar manner as ordinary atheists, agnostics, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on. Their evolving state of mind on the proportionality of their religion in their daily lives will determine and decide the outcome of the contest.

My hierarchical order of threats is inverted when overlayed against the received wisdom. I will explain the basis of this assessment. Then I will set out the self-evident failure of two forces which have ostensibly besieged Islam while fortifying secularism. One is modernity; the other is despotic suppression. Finally, I will make a tentative, challenging, and probably forlorn, suggestion (perhaps more aptly called a shot in the dark), grounded in economics, as to what potentially might be done to shift the balance towards staving off Islamism and encouraging sustained secularism.

As we hear and read about it in the media, the main Islamic threat is the threat of terrorist attacks. This is understandable. Terrorist attacks are a continuing occurrence and threat. A great many have occurred since September 11, 2001. Search online and you find estimates as high as 20,000, though I don’t know how reliable they are. But certainly, the loss of life on 9/11; the Bali bombing in 2002; the Madrid train, the London Underground and the Mumbai bombings in 2004, 2005 and 2011; and the many attacks within Israel, all provide stark and tragic evidence of the devastation that can be wrought. They have also provided a rationale for governments to encroach on civil liberties for the purpose of waging “war on terror”. Public surveillance, powers to intercept private communications, and to hold people for extended periods without judicial process, all strike at Enlightenment values to some extent.

However, with two provisos, the threat to Western societies’ way of life as a result of terrorism remains minimal. Despite the many attacks, life goes on much as it did before. In relative terms (without at all wishing to downplay the tragedy for those killed and maimed and for their families and friends), the casualties from terrorist attacks are very small in number. They pose little threat to our way of life. Our morale is undiminished. It is true that they have resulted in some curtailment of freedoms but not to any crippling extent, even when measured by the less than sanguine assessment of A.C. Grayling in Liberty in the Age of Terror (2009). In perspective, as a threat to our way of life, terrorism is rather like a diversionary action in times of war. It takes an adversary’s attention away from the main battle plan. Whether in this case it is calculated to do so is at least worthy of some consideration.

One of the two provisos referred to above is that terrorists are not armed with weapons of mass destruction. If they were, it would elevate terrorism to the highest threat level (which is one of a number of reasons to prevent the Ayatollah Khamenei and his frontman Ahmadinejad from obtaining nuclear weapons). The other proviso is that Western intelligence services continue to be sufficiently resourced to counter terrorism. The evidence is that they have been substantively successful so far. Numbers of potentially serious attacks have been prevented; principally, I assume, through information gathering and infiltration, with some help from increased security at airports and other transport hubs, and not forgetting President Obama’s up-scaled drone assassinations. It is particularly noteworthy that 9/11 still, thankfully, stands out as by far the deadliest terrorist attack; yet there is no reason to doubt that Islamic terrorists have aspired to do more of the same.

According to the received wisdom, firebrand imams intent on radicalising Muslim youth are a serious threat, albeit falling below terrorists in the hierarchy of threats. Clearly lynch mobs usually have a leader. Presumably, without such a leader’s influence the lynching would not occur. Ergo the leader’s influence is pivotal. But, in a sense, it might also be trivial if gangs of bloodthirsty men are ripe for the “sport” and unscrupulous rabble-rousers are always lurking waiting for their opportunity. The determining factor then is not the rabble-rousers but the rabble. Oliver Thomson in Mass Persuasion in History (1977) notes “the extreme difficulty for any propagandist in putting over ideas which conflict with the beliefs and attitudes of his audience”. Would National Socialism have taken off in Germany without Hitler? Perhaps not in the form that it did, but as Martin Kitchen points out in The Third Reich: Charisma and Community (2008):

The German people were not bewitched bamboozled or baffled by Hitler. He provided the vision, the leadership, the determination and the sense of community for which they yearned.

Peter Fritzsche in Germans into Nazis (1998) makes the same point, that Hitler appealed to populist nationalistic aspirations that had been brooding since the First World War. England had its Hitler copycat in Sir Oswald Mosley. His British Union of Fascists, alas for him, remained peripheral in British politics. The explanation for his lack of success is that there was insufficient grist for his mill. Mosley had his Blackshirts. Potential Blackshirts are always around, as are potential Mosleys. What was missing was a resonance between his ambitions for Britain and the British people’s.

Equally, firebrand clerics can always draw a fervent crowd but they are ineffective if their message holds no sway with the vast majority of people. Right now that is patently not the case. If it were there would be no role for moderate and peaceful Muslim spokespersons. What would be the point? You only need moderate and peaceful spokespersons if you think much of the Muslim population is potentially prone or susceptible to having the opposite tendencies. And if they do have the opposite tendencies you have to ask, as I do, whether moderate and peaceful spokespersons are more of a threat than they are a comfort. I suggest that they are more of a threat than are terrorists or radical imams.

A little time ago I attended a lunchtime talk given by Raheel Raza. She is a Pakistani-born Canadian and a leading light among moderate Muslims in North America. Apparently she feels it necessary to employ security measures to protect her against harm by radical elements in the Muslim community. I wanted to ask her a rather provocative question, and therefore felt obliged to express my genuine admiration for her bravery before coming to the point. Having done that, I asked whether she thought by presenting a moderate and disarming side of Islam that she might inadvertently be helping the radicals’ cause by lulling us into inaction, when she knew that she and those like her would be marginalised at best if ever the radicals held sway. Her answer didn’t address my question. I suppose this was understandable. Prominent moderate Muslims of good will presumably like to believe that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The terms “moderate Muslims” and “peaceful Muslims” have crept into the lexicon. The same constructions are not applied to Christians. But then Christians don’t go around bombing people in the name of Christianity or envisioning a restored Christian empire, akin to a caliphate, in the Western world. It seems as though the words moderate and peaceful are applied only to those who have distinctly immoderate and warlike people in their midst. As Faisal Devji points out in Landscapes of the Jihad (2005):

All those who had campaigned to have Islam better known and adequately represented in America were suddenly granted their wishes thanks to these attacks [9/11], which were responsible for disseminating a new image of good, kind and gentle Islam that was opposed to Al Qaeda’s jihad as its malign perversion. Muslim virtue was broadcast from the very steps of the White House and through every conceivable medium of communication, so that it was only the threat of Islam that made possible its recognition as a religion of peace. This is the least of the jihad’s ironies, though one remarked on by no less a person than Osama bin Laden himself.

Of course, we should not necessarily doubt the sincerity of moderate Muslim spokespersons; what we should doubt is their ability to win over their less moderate counterparts and, more critically, their ability to change the mindset of the great mass of middling Muslims. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the head of the Cordoba Initiative based in the USA, founded in 2004 to improve understanding among people of different faiths. This is part of what he has written about sharia law:

It is important we understand what is meant by Sharia law. Islamic law is about God’s law, and it is not far from what we read in the Declaration of Independence … The principles behind American secular law are similar to Sharia law—that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain an amount of modesty.

I suppose the modesty bit refers to laws about indecent exposure? Leaving that poorly hidden cynicism on my part aside, Mark Durie in Islam, Human Rights and Public Policy (ed. David Claydon, 2009) reports a poll taken in 2006 which found that 58 per cent of Indonesians believed adulterers should be stoned. A similar survey in 2001 had found that only 39 per cent held that view. I wonder whether the imam is aware of that survey and others, in Islamic countries, overwhelmingly supporting death for apostasy, for example. The imam would, I think, lead us astray and take us completely off our guard if we gave him credence. He forms part of a sizeable brigade of leading moderate, peaceable Muslims who are effectively, even if inadvertently, a fifth column. Not only do they lull us into a false sense of security, they also gather increasing numbers of “useful idiots” among the naive generous-hearted, among the unthinking, among Christians anxious to be conciliatory, among those who advocate peace at any price, and among the Left who seem to have embraced Islam out of enmity towards Israel.

Who and where are the moderate Anglican bishops in the Western world? The question is meaningless because they are all moderate. Why is this? It is because the overwhelming number of their parishioners and those attending church only for weddings and funerals are all moderate. Plenty of firebrands could be found if they had some significant weight of support to underpin immoderation. If, for example, 58 per cent of Americans or Britons or Canadians or Australians believed that adulterers should be stoned to death in accordance with Deuteronomy 22:22–24, I am fairly confident that a bishop could be found to excite their ardour and, apparently, lead them to excess.

It is the mindset of the common people, or at least the very large body of them, that either starves or nourishes terrorism, and that either withdraws or supplies oxygen to a debate going to the very heart of the way society conducts itself. The fact that Islamic terrorists and terrorism are alive and well, and the debate rages on, is a fair indication that the mindset of middling Muslims has not become secularised. The contest has still to be won and history is showing that the two forces besieging Islam have failed to make a dent. One of those forces is modernity (which can be characterised as a state of affairs in which science predominates over religion in explaining the natural world and which is marked by technological progress and industrialisation); the other is suppression imposed at the point of a gun by despotic regimes.

Islamic nations are relatively poor. All non-European Muslim-majority countries are in the less developed regions of the world. Some of that may be due to circumstance. Some may be due to the influence of Islam on scientific inquiry, on business and financial practices, and on the position of women. Whatever the reason, Islamic predominance and a relative lack of economic progress appear to go together.

Poor nations usually contain large sections of their populations living in what could be called traditional circumstances. George Foster in Traditional Societies and Technological Change (1973) notes that traditional societies “strive to maintain the status quo”. They are held together by loyalty to the rules governing their way of life. Robert Briffault in Breakdown: The Collapse of Traditional Civilisations (1935) suggests that theology is a powerful force holding traditional societies together. People “were not enslaved by force, they were enslaved by faith, passionate, devout, loyal” faith. Sounds familiar in the Islamic context, as do the fixed gender roles of traditional societies, which then shape the relative status of men and women. Protecting men’s honour by clothing women from head to foot in subordinating drab anonymity has all the appearance of being (barbarically) traditional. And such practices are surely consistent with Briffault’s view that the “crippling of human intelligence is an inevitable consequence of the structure of traditional civilisation”.

A possible conclusion which falls out of the lack of economic progress among Islamic countries is that modernisation has not gone far enough to undo traditionalism and promote secularism. Unfortunately this won’t do. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk changed Turkey into a secular state in the 1920s to bring about economic progress and modernity. He succeeded to a significant degree yet Islam has again in recent years become a pivotal influence in Turkish political, legal and daily life. Pakistan and Egypt are more modern than they were fifty and sixty years ago, yet Islamic values and practices have become more prevalent, not less. The same can be said of many other countries, including other Arab states, and Malaysia and Indonesia, where modernity has not forestalled a resurgence of Islamic values and practices. It is true that Islamic values have been suppressed over many years in some of these counties by despotic regimes and, to that extent, we may be simply seeing a reversion to the norm through the agency of revolutions, as in the deposing of the Shah in Iran and in the “Arab Spring”. But that does not explain the Islamic revival more generally. As Peter Berger notes in “Secularism in Retreat” (Islam and Secularism in the Middle East):

the Islamic revival is very strong in cities with a high degree of modernisation, and in a number of countries it is particularly visible among people with Western-style education; in Egypt and Turkey, for example, it is often the daughters of secularised professionals who are putting on the veil and other accoutrements expressing so-called Islamic modesty.

This same Islamic revival or resurgence is evident in Muslim communities in modern Western democracies where children of Muslim migrants are becoming more Islamic than their parents. The headscarf and sometimes the veil are being donned not only by new arrivals but increasingly by women born in the West. Samuel Huntington puts it unequivocally: “Islam and modernization do not clash.”

Despotic suppression of Islam and its forced replacement with secular values worked for a while, notably across the Middle East and in Iran but the face of revolutions across the Middle East and Iran has been Islamic, even if the “Arab Spring” was at first thought by some gullible Western commentators to herald the emergence of Enlightenment values. John Esposito puts it succinctly in “Islam and Secularism in the Twenty-First Century”: “Secularisation of Muslim societies, though short-lived, has been possible only through force as wielded by despotic governments.”

It should not be surprising that absent the force, Islam resurges. It should also not be surprising if the suppression of deeply felt faith-based convictions by force of arms is eventually undone. Despotic force can rid society of defiant and troublesome religious leaders through executions, jailing and banishment, and it can remove the outward show and paraphernalia of religion, but it cannot change the hearts, minds and attitudes of the great mass of ordinary middling people. And that is the key.

The problem, if neither modernity nor force of arms can quell the dominance of Islamic values over secular values, is what to do. For men, Mark Steyn suggests growing a beard; without quite, I think, being tongue-in-cheek enough to calm the nerves of Western women. Hopefully, there is another way. The other way might possibly be through the persuasive power of economics on human behaviour.

When I worked in Papua New Guinea thirty odd years ago, I detected a strong resentment among numbers of working Papua New Guineans when it came to sharing their incomes with their wantoks (people from the same area or village). Modernity itself was neither here nor there in undermining this traditional value. Economics was the undermining factor. George Foster in Traditional Societies and Technological Change correctly, in my view, emphasises the importance of economics in considering the barriers and stimulants to societal change:

Cultural, social and psychological barriers and stimulants to change exist in an economic setting … If economic potential does not exist or cannot be built into a program of directed change, the most careful attention to culture and society will be meaningless.

Foster goes on to give numerous field examples in public health and hygiene where change was stubbornly resisted in the absence of perceived economic advantage or at least the absence of perceived disadvantage.

How does this apply to the problem at hand? The answer is not straightforward. It is admittedly a long bow. At the same time, it appears to be the only possible way of avoiding the eventual Islamisation of the West. Western societies need to let loose the potency of (selfish) economics by materially reversing decades of government intervention in economic affairs and by materially unwinding the welfare state. The onus must be shifted to the individual to scramble for economic survival, at one end, and “to keep up with the Joneses”, at the other. Islam is essentially traditional in its orientation. A vital component of a traditional way of life is group solidarity with well-recognised reciprocal obligations between members of the community. It is essentially primitive socialism. Muslims living in and arriving in Western countries must feel right at home because the welfare state is at hand. Undoubtedly their political allegiance—in the absence of an Islamic party—is left of centre. It may be opportunistic when the Muslim Brotherhood curries favour among the populations of various Middle Eastern and North African countries by dispensing free medicines, food and goods in distressing times, but this provision of welfare is also central to their religious ethos; to their traditional way of life.

Freeing capitalism from government restraints and reducing the dead weight of the welfare state is a triple-edged sword (if that can be imagined). It will make individual success contingent on merit and effort and therefore encourage participation in the relatively harmless business of acquisition instead of theological intrigue; it will make societies more prosperous as a whole; and it will spread that prosperity more widely. It is much too conducive to a traditional way of life, with the subordinate mother at home with five or six children, if the state shares the financial burden. Minor in the scheme of things, it would also reduce the number of imams on welfare (which appears to be prevalent in Europe) and make them earn a crust instead of sponging off taxpayers while they ply their nefarious trade of undermining Enlightenment values.

Of course, I don’t know whether the kind of capitalism that we have become unused to, characterised by hard work and profit without government patronage (in the form originally spurred by the Protestant ethic, according to Weber) would dislodge middling Muslims from their Islamic traditional values. I simply say that economic survival at the one extreme and greed at the other are powerful forces which can relegate other considerations to a lesser place in the scheme of things. A rather more immediate caveat is that Western governments and Western societies have shown no serious inclination to change the way business is done. Intervention and the welfare state have become exemplars of modern-day capitalism. At the same time, there is a glimmer of hope in the ruination they have brought. Government debt has reached such massive and unsustainable levels that only a combination of freer capitalism and reduced entitlement spending offers a way out. Perhaps, then, there is hope in Queer Street. But despair is probably, on the whole, more realistic.

To go back to where I began; if in future middling Muslims laugh off gentle jibes at Mohammed’s doings as I did of Jesus’s, the battle will have been won. There will be no need for “moderate” Muslim leaders. Firebrand imams will become curiosity pieces with as little clout as firebrands among other faiths. Terrorism will lose impetus. On the other hand, if things continue on their present course the future is set to become bleaker and bleaker. Even if my tentative solution is adjudged impractical, infeasible or unrealistic, as it might, those searching for a better solution would do well to identify the principal threat. I will end with Samuel Huntington again: “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people [my emphasis] are convinced of the superiority of their culture.”

Peter Smith’s book Bad Economics was published recently by Connor Court. He contributed “When Science Becomes Junk” in the November issue.


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