Monday, September 13, 2010

The Problem with Islam

If we choose to measure Islam by the relatively evolved standards of Western Civilization, we find Islam very much lacking in basic respect for individual freedom and political autonomy. And even if we choose not to look at Islam from our own, admittedly biased perspective, we still objectively find that people who live in the West have more freedom, more wealth, and more opportunities to do what we want when we want to do it. Also, if one happens to be female, living under the Western democratic tradition means that a woman may own property, may not be considered the property of either her family or her husband, and may follow her dreams of education, work, or personal advancement wherever they take her.

But we are not supposed to look at these things objectively, lest we be thought xenophobic or ethnocentric. Personally, however, I find nothing wrong, at all, with the idea of looking objectively at systems of government or societal organization and considering where I would choose to live, given the choice. And, given the choice, it would not be in a country dominated by Islam.

In the West, we have a long history of government dominated by religion. The Protestant Reformation was merely the first hammerblow to that domination by the Catholic Church throughout Western Europe, and echoes of that struggle remain. The Spanish Inquisition, the repression of the Huguenots, the burning of apostates and rival claimants to the religious mainstream all grew from a simple, brutal fact: The Church had more power over the lives of its adherents than did the governments of the countries in which they lived. Princes and potentates knew that and had to take it into account.

But through long centuries of the Enlightenment and reformation, we managed to grow out of our medieval period. We have adopted, in ways large and small, bulwarks against religion in our secular laws and democratic governments. In the United States, we have a separation between church and state, and we take it with deadly and resolute seriousness. We guard against the hand of religion in our laws, and we fight back at the first sign of religious influence in our government or laws.

Islam, by contrast, has had nothing on the order of a reformation, and its adherents insist that laws and government be in accordance with Sharia law, i.e., the word of Allah and His Prophet Mohammed. To greater and lesser degrees, countries with large Muslim populations have instituted Sharia, though there continues to be questions of interpretation, depending on one's sect; Sunnis view Sharia somewhat differently than Shia, who have a different view than the Sufis, and doctrinaire differences proliferate. But it is also true that among Islamist Muslims, generally followers of Wahhabist beliefs, Sharia comes down to subjection of individuals and states to the will of Allah, as interpreted by them. Given all of this, what we see in countries dominated by Islam is a willingness on the part of the general population and, most particularly, the fanatics, to subsume both individuals and the state to religion.

It is also true that the governments affected by this mindset have a somewhat different opinion, one quite probably shared by kings and princes of our own Western past. What they desire and try to accomplish is the channeling of Islam to support their own ambitions and governments, and some have been quite repressive in the pursuit of power over religion. Hosni Mubarek in Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing it as a threat to his rule. King Hussein of Jordan periodically had skirmishes with zealots, and Saddam Hussein subsumed religion to his own cult of personality. But for every example of state subsuming religion, there are other, more current, examples of Islamist fanatics manipulating governments for the sake of religion. We see it in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Iran; we see attempts being made in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia; and we see rather more long term plans moving forward throughout Western Europe.

It is important to be religiously tolerant. It is a Western virtue I am loath to abandon, but does that mean we must continue to be tolerant of those who are, in return, intolerant? Why is it that we in the West refuse to hold others to the same standards we hold ourselves to? If religious freedom and freedom FROM religion are ideals we hold and aspire to, I see nothing wrong with holding our friends, allies, and potential friends or allies to equally high standards.

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