Is the War on Terror really a war between the West (or at least some parts of the West) and Islam? Do the terrorists speak the true thoughts and aspirations of Muslims around the world? And can Westerners speak freely about the limitations of Islamic societies?
This is a sensitive and complex topic. My hope here is to begin a thoughtful discussion about the role that religion plays in international affairs, and how that role may impact us all in the 21st century. The issue goes well beyond Islam.
Last week the former (Anglican) Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out regarding Islamic culture, saying it was authoritarian, inflexible and under-achieving:
"[Lord Carey] acknowledged that most Muslims were peaceful people who should not be demonised. But he said that terrorist acts such as the September 11 attacks on America and the Madrid bombings raised difficult questions.
Contrasting western democracy with Islamic societies, he said: "Throughout the Middle East and North Africa we find authoritarian regimes with deeply entrenched leadership, some of which rose to power at the point of a gun and are retained in power by massive investment in security forces. Whether they are military dictatorships or traditional sovereignties, each ruler seems committed to retaining power and privilege."
Dr Carey said he was not convinced by arguments that Islam and democracy were incompatible, citing the example of Turkey."
The former Archbishop also urged Europeans and Americans to resist claims that Islamic states were morally, spiritually and culturally superior:
"Yes, the West has still much to be proud of and we should say so strongly. We should also encourage Muslims living in the West to be proud of it and say so to their brothers and sisters living elsewhere."
Dr Carey said that, while Christianity and Judaism had a long history of often painful critical scholarship, Islamic theology was only now being challenged to become more open to examination.
"In the case of Islam, Mohammed, acknowledged by all in spite of his religious greatness to be an illiterate man, is said to have received God's word direct, word by word from angels, and scribes recorded them later. Thus believers are told, because they have come direct from Allah, they are not to be questioned or revised.
"In the first few centuries of the Islamic era, Islamic theologians sought to meet the challenge this implied, but during the past 500 years critical scholarship has declined, leading to strong resistance to modernity."
Dr Carey said that moderate Muslims must "resist strongly" the taking over of Islam by radical activists "and to express strongly, on behalf of the many millions of their co-religionists, their abhorrence of violence done in the name of Allah".
He said: "We look to them to condemn suicide bombers and terrorists who use Islam as a weapon to destabilise and destroy innocent lives. Sadly, apart from a few courageous examples, very few Muslim leaders condemn clearly and unconditionally the evil of suicide bombers who kill innocent people.
"We need to hear outright condemnation of theologies that state that suicide bombers are martyrs and enter a martyr's reward."
Christians, who shared many values with Muslims, such as respect for the family, must speak out against the persecution they often encountered in Muslim countries.
"During my time as Archbishop, this was my constant refrain: that the welcome we have given to Muslims in the West, with the accompanying freedom to worship freely and build their mosques, should be reciprocated in Muslim lands," he said.
Lord Carey's comments came on the eve of a seminar of Christian and Muslim scholars in New York, led by his successor as Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams. Dr. Williams has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
Muslim leaders complained Carey was treading on 'sensitive' ground. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the Anglican Communion world wide, including the Church of England and (in the United States), the Episcopal church. As Archbishop, Lord Carey initiated dialogues with Muslim leaders. It is significant, therefore, that he chose to publicly defend Western values and demand accountability from Muslim leaders. However, he is rare among high-profile Christian leaders in so doing.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that (allegedly) 'thousands' of white British elites are converting to Islam after being disillusioned with Western values (See also the full post by Rev. Donald Sensing):
"[Jonathan Birt, son of Lord Birt] said he had no coherent reasons for converting, but "in the longer term I think it was the overall profundity, balance and coherence and spirituality of the Muslim way of life which convinced me," he said.
Meanwhile, it emerged last weekend that Emma Clark, the great-granddaughter of a British prime minister has converted. She said: "We’re all the rage, I hope it’s not a passing fashion."
Many converts have been inspired by the writings of Charles Le Gai Eaton, a former Foreign Office diplomat, it added.
"I have received letters from people who are put off by the wishy-washy standards of contemporary Christianity and they are looking for a religion which does not compromise too much with the modern world," said Eaton, author of Islam and the Destiny of Man."
Some might suspect that conversions like Birt's and Emma Clark's may indeed prove to be a passing fashion, much like the adoption of Hindu and Buddhist religous practices during the 1970s by some in my generational cohort. Many baby boomers also felt a spiritual vacuum and a desire to belong to a tradition that brings structure and meaning. Time will tell if the conversions in Britain and elsewhere of elite Westerners to Islam are a "passing fashion," or if a deeper movement is afoot.
The Question of Europe
Meanwhile, Lord Carey's criticisms of Islamic countries and societies raise important questions about the future of a Europe which is increasingly being influenced by Muslim immigrants and converts. Donald Sensing has a long discussion about the systemic problems in existing Islamic cultures and countries, citing Ralph Peters' prescient discussion of the characteristics of failed states. Is this the future for Europe too?
Some commentators see Europe as a civilization in decline, facing demographic collapse, unable to meet their economic goals and either weary of conflict or hedonistically self-absorbed. Whether that picture is accurate, or whether a consolidated European Union will increase peace and prosperity on the continent, EU countries are increasingly turning to Muslim immigrant workers to fill jobs - and through their taxes, keep social benefits programs afloat - as the post-WW II baby boom generation approaches retirement age.
What will happen to European cultures and legal structures as a result? It is not clear that Europe has successfully integrated her existing immigrants, as the experience of Germany with Turkish 'guest workers' and France with its Muslim underclass in les cites shows. Will increased Muslim immigration and the proliferation of fundamentalist mosques in European countries result in the imposition of militant Islamic mores and laws, with the passive acquiescence of demoralized or well-meaning Europeans? Will Europe continue to provide (perhaps increasing) support for militant terror attacks elsewhere, as with 9/11? Or will a more moderate form of Islam emerge in Europe, able to coexist with the modern world and to produce stable, prosperous and democratic countries?
Or - a perhaps more remote possibility - will Europe rediscover a pride in her own cultures and history and a willingness to insist that Western ideals and legal values be respected in her countries? Again, time will tell. It does not appear that change will come easily to many societies which are already Muslim. Consider the case of a moderate Imam in conservative eastern Turkey who finds himself boycotted after he suggested men help women carry water from the village wells. This is a trivial example, but it points to the inescapable fact - articulated by Lord Carey - that the chasm between Western and Islamic societies runs deep and will not be bridged quickly.
Beyond The West vs. Islam
Surprisingly, however, this chasm may not be the most significant religious issue of our time. The rapid growth and evolution of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere may, as Philip Jenkins argued in the Oct. 2002 Atlantic Monthly, outweigh Islam as a factor in the 21st century [subscribers only - see book | alternate article source | Winds coverage].
That influence is already being felt. Anglican bishops from Africa and other countries strongly protested the decision to recognize the elevation of openly homosexual bishop Gene Robinson in the United States, arguing the action constituted a schism in the Anglican communion. Some third world churches have even begun sending missionaries to the United States and Europe. I leave you with Jenkins on the significance of what he calls "The New Christianity" (emphasis mine):
"Although Northern governments are still struggling to come to terms with the notion that Islam might provide a powerful and threatening supranational ideology, few seem to realize the potential political role of ascendant Southern Christianity....
Christianity as a whole is both growing and mutating in ways that observers in the West tend not to see. For obvious reasons, news reports today are filled with material about the influence of a resurgent and sometimes angry Islam. But in its variety and vitality, in its global reach, in its association with the world's fastest-growing societies, in its shifting centers of gravity, in the way its values and practices vary from place to place - in these and other ways it is Christianity that will leave the deepest mark on the twenty-first century.The process will not necessarily be a peaceful one, and only the foolish would venture anything beyond the broadest predictions about the religious picture a century or two ahead. But the twenty-first century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood, and, of course, conflicts and wars."
Read the whole article for some challenging insights. If Jenkins is right, terrorism may be the least of the ways in which religious beliefs shape events around the world in this new century.