Issue of the Century

Islam’s Many Faces

June 24, 2016

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Islam’s Many Faces

How do you feel about Muslims? Not good, eh? They’re different from you and me. They’re hostile, right? The enemy within? Scary.

Thinking about Islam, I think also about Kipling. He is one of these writers you don’t come to the end of. He can always surprise, sometime disconcert you. Take, for instance, his observation that where there is Islam there is a comprehensible civilization. How does that sound today? At odds with the perception? At odds, even, with reality?

One might start by qualifying it. Kipling had no experience of Arab countries. It was while working as a young journalist in Lahore in what is now Pakistan that he got to know, like, and admire Muslims. Mahbub Ali, the Afghan horse trader and British government agent, one of the most striking and attractive characters in Kipling’s masterpiece Kim, was based on a real man in the horse-dealing trade who was a close friend of the young journalist. There were also Muslim members of the Masonic lodge into which Kipling was inducted. There were Hindu members, too, and at least one Jew, but Kipling had neither sympathy for Hinduism nor understanding of it. Islam was different because, as he wrote, “my life had lain among Muslims, and a man leans one way or another according to his first service.”

Kipling recognized, as anyone of sense must, that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have much in common. They all believe that there is only one God, even if Christian monotheism is complicated by the doctrine of the Trinity. They are all people of the Book, respecting, and obedient to, the authority of their sacred text. The three religions have their roots in the same part of the world. Christianity started as a Jewish heresy, and Muslims count Moses and Jesus among the prophets. Moreover, in all three religions, faith is expressed publicly by observance of certain rituals. All three also require their adherents to subscribe to certain social principles and duties.

All three have preached peace and submission to the will of God, but have a warrior history. In the case of the Jews that history has been, till recently, remote. It’s a long time since the prophets of the Lord commanded the Israelites to smite the Amalekites and Philistines and destroy them utterly. (Yes, the First Book of Samuel calls for what we now recognize as genocide.) But that was ages ago. For some two thousand years there was no Jewish state, and if Israel today is a formidable military power, it is so only locally and, it would argue, in self-defense.

“There’s another side to every generalization, historical or present-day.”

Christianity has a history of aggression in the name of the faith. Popes preached the Crusades against the infidel who occupied the Holy Land, and these Crusades are still remembered in the Muslim world. In Eastern Europe the faith was imposed on pagan peoples by the sword. The Christian armies of Charlemagne, Frankish king and Holy Roman Emperor, forcibly converted the Saxons, and the Teutonic knights suppressed and converted Wends and Prussians. Christians advanced with the Bible in one hand and the sword, or lance, in the other. More recently, though European (and American) empires spread over the globe, imperialism was driven by political and commercial interests, not by religion. Missionaries might attempt to bring the heathen to the light, but they met with as much discouragement as support from the imperial powers. There was no attempt to convert the subjects of the British Empire in India to Christianity. Kipling would have thought any such aspiration ridiculous.

Islam was different. Arguably it still is. As John Buchan’s Sir Walter Bullivant (Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office) says in Greenmantle, “Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.” There are, of course, many—both Muslims and non-Muslims—who deny this and tell you that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Others, looking at the world today, at the Arab world, at Iran and Pakistan, think this claim nonsensical; we are all aware of the threat of Islamist terrorism.

For a thousand years after Muhammad, Islam was aggressive. Muslim armies conquered North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. They advanced to the east, and Persia, which we now call Iran, became a Muslim country. They destroyed the Roman Empire in the east, and in 1453 took Constantinople. They occupied Greece and the Balkans. Twice, in 1529 and 1685, the army of the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna. A religion of peace? Anyone looking at this historical record must say, “Come off it.”

There’s another side to it, however. Of course there is. There’s another side to every generalization, historical or present-day. It’s not merely that most Muslims, like most people anywhere, want to be allowed to get on with their private lives, and sensibly think family, friendship, business, and work more important than politics, most of the time anyway. It’s also that, after the first centuries of conquest, Muslim rulers in Spain and Sicily, and the Ottomans in southern Europe, were tolerant of their Christian (and Jewish) subjects, who were mostly left unmolested so long as they paid their taxes; they were left free to practice their religion. Their rulers were certainly more tolerant of them than Spanish kings were of their Muslim subjects after the Reconquista, and—this is the sad and important point—much more tolerant then than some Muslim states are today.

How come? Why is jihad—holy war—preached again almost fifteen hundred years after Muhammad?

For much of the 20th century, political Islam seemed in decline, a back number. Modernization was the order of the day in the Muslim world. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Turkey came under the rule of Kemal Ataturk, becoming a secular state in which religion was relegated to private life. In the 1950s Turkey became a member of NATO. Iran and Pakistan were also Western allies, Iran especially under the rule of the Shah, being a secular state closely allied with the U.S.A. In the Arab world, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were also secular states in which Arab socialism was the driving force. As in Turkey, Islam was supposed to know its place.

But when a country tries to modernize, there are losers as well as winners. When that modernization in the Muslim world was imposed by authoritarian regimes imitating the West or supported by the West, it provoked a reaction; and this took the form of a religious revival. Resentment festered, and this was sharpened by the perception of the Muslim world’s inferiority to the West, its sense of humiliation. An early consequence was the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of America’s ally, the Shah. He was replaced by an authoritarian Islamic regime. Modernization went into reverse, women losing rights they had acquired. Iran has now been an intolerant Islamic republic for almost forty years, a republic whose leaders loathe and despise Western politics and Western culture.

The West has had an ally in the Muslim world, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The alliance has been based on a quid pro quo: They supply us with oil, we supply them with military hardware. Yet it’s an uneasy and increasingly strained alliance. Geopolitical interest binds the Saudi ruling family to the West, but Saudi Arabia is the homeland of the narrowest, most puritanical form of Islam, the Wahhabism; and the Saudis have been happy (idealistically or cynically—take your pick) to export this and promote it throughout the Muslim world. Wahhabism, the driving force of the Islamism we fear, loathes and despises everything about the West. It preaches jihad, and Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 murderers were Saudis or had their roots in Wahhabism. ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, is the vilest and most extreme expression of this narrow and intolerant puritan creed. The Islamists export terror to the West, but their first and most numerous victims have been fellow Muslims.


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