cross-posted at politicsofselfishness
Those who write the narratives usually control a culture’s collective memories and its understanding of history. Even when the victors write the narrative, however, there is usually a counter-narrative that percolates and festers among the vanquished. These competing narratives complicate religious, ideological, political and economic disputes and often make them intractable. This is especially true of the present divide between the West with its secular democracies and those countries throughout the Middle East and Asia where government policies are professedly shaped by fidelity to Islamic principles.
Among their historic grievances, Muslims often point to the Crusades and the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, and the colonization of the Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco by the French and British in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.
The Western World has its own narrative. Long before the Crusades, in 711, Islamic armies invaded Spain from North Africa and destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. In October 732, at the Battle of Tours, Charles Martel (the Hammer), marshaled a force of Franks and Burgundians who defeated an invading army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by ‘Abdul Rahman, the Goveneror-Gernal of Al-Andalus (Spain), and saved what later became France from becoming a Muslim principality. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans who desecrated St. Sophia’s desecrated and converted it into a mosque. And Muslim armies continued to besiege Eastern Europe well into the 17th century.
Gradually, as the fear of Islam retreated from Western Europe, a triumphant Catholic Church consolidated its religious and political power throughout vast expanses of the region. Thousands upon thousands of those who were deemed to be heretics, apostates, Jews, or other enemies of the Church were brutally suppressed by the Holy Office - the Inquisition. Torture, dismemberment and auto de fes became the preferred methods to enforce orthodoxy. Hussites, Albigensians, Jews and other heretics and non-believers lived in constant fear of exposure and persecution.
As the fear of further invasions by Christian armies receded, Islamic rule in the Middle East was also consolidated. Under the rule of the Ottomans, non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis) were allowed to practice their religion, subject to certain restrictions; were granted some measure of autonomy within their own communities; and their personal safety and property were guaranteed, in return for paying a tax and acknowledging Muslim supremacy. While he conceded their inferior status, Bernard Lewis in his book, The Jews of Islam, observed that, in most respects, the position of non-Muslims was "was very much easier than that of non-Christians or even of heretical Christians in medieval Europe."As Lewis notes, dhimmis rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and with certain exceptions, they were free in their choice of residence and profession.
Today, the relative positions of believers and non-believers alike in Western society and in the Muslim world have largely been reversed. How did this happen? In the Western world, the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing wars between Catholics and Protestants persuaded an exhausted population and their leaders that toleration of one another’s religious beliefs was the only viable way to avoid incessant warfare, death and despoliation. The Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648, ended the Thirty Years' War. Most importantly, the treaties allowed the rulers of the signatory states to independently decide their religious preference. Protestants and Catholics were declared to be equal before the law, and Calvinism was accorded legal recognition.
Slowly, as a result of these treaties, the concept of toleration took root in the Western world. From this root, as democratic societies blossomed, nurtured by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the ideas of personal autonomy and freedom became central. As a consequence, by the later part of the 19th century, an important set of distinctions had been drawn between the realm of the church and its responsibilities, and the proper role of elected governments toward their citizens.
In the Middle East, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the existence of autocratic governments, pervasive economic backwardness, illiteracy and intense anger spawned by the emergence of the State of Israel- exacerbated by its mistreatment of its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian population - have created an unstable region in which the concept of tolerance has all but disappeared. With the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, during the past seventy years the Middle East has become virtually depopulated of Catholic, Orthodox and Nestorian Christians, while the few who remain endure constant discrimination and persecution. Sadly, the Middle East - which was the birthplace of Christianity - has become hostile to the adherents of a major religion whose presence there predated Islam by more than six centuries.
Today in the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by fanatics, poses a threat to the Western democracies and to the entire world. The current wave of demonstrations against the movie trailer allegedly created by an Egyptian-born Copt who is now an American citizen is the latest manifestation of what can only be described as a collective psychosis in which all principles of proportionality and rationality have been lost. While many uninformed Muslims demand the execution of the Copt who satirized their prophet, they remain unfazed by the recent burning of bibles by Muslim mullahs in Cairo, and oblivious to the constant pogroms throughout the Muslim world against non-believing innocents who bear no ill-will toward their religion. This sad spectacle, compounded by an educated Muslim elite who have been cowed into silence, reminds us of the words of Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
A series of articles in the Economist (“Islam and democracy: Uneasy companions,” August 6, 2011) quotes a Lebanese woman, who is described as a sophisticated Sunni Muslim in her 50s, who could easily navigate from English, to French and to Arabic. “Of course, they say nice things these days,“They know who they're talking to. But you cannot trust them—absolutely not.” As the magazine reported, “Again and again, in secular and liberal circles in Beirut, Cairo, Rabat, Tunis and even Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, you hear almost identical
dark warnings against the Islamist movements that are gaining ground across the Arab world as dictators are toppled, tackled or forced into concessions.”
As a religion, Islam asserts an exclusive claim to the Truth. That Truth is derived entirely from the Qur’an - which is accepted as the unmediated word of the living God. The religion’s teachings are supplemented by the Hadith, the commentaries that recount statements and deeds attributed to Mohammed.
Hence, Islam does not present a challenge to the Western world as a political philosophy. Rather it represents a challenge posed by a set of religious dogmas that have been hijacked by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists who insist upon interpreting the Qur’an as a rigid and unforgiving set of religious dogmas. Their fanaticism has widened the chasm that separates Western secular democracies from much of the Muslim world, imposed insuperable obstacles that impede the development of civil societies and their institutions, and constrained critical economic development. Their demand that truly observant Muslims must focus upon the next life rather than the present condemns millions of Muslims to lives of penury and misery, and left many with only rage and a false sense of victimization to sustain them.
The insistence by some Islamic imams of their right to impose Shar’ia upon believers and non-believers, coupled with the appallingly subordinate status to which so many women in the Muslim world are subjected, are inimical to the core values of the European Enlightenment. Those within the Western democratic political traditions, whether conservative, liberal or socialist, will continue to criticize Islamic practices so long as apologists refuse to condemn an extremism that refuses to distinguish between the province of God and the province of man, denigrates the rights of women and non-believers, and eschews the quest for social justice here on earth in deference to some future, heavenly reward.
Absent the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation or the Thirty Years War followed by an edict of toleration such as that expressed in the Peace of Westphalia, the Islamic world is unlikely to embrace the idea of toleration, as a central social concept, anytime soon. Until Islamic leaders endorse that concept unequivocally and acknowledge the importance of other Western notions, admittedly more often preached than observed in practice, - i.e - that social change can be sought and achieved through political discussion, by the emergence of new ideas, and by the evolution of policies - the chasm between the West and Islam will remain wide and deep.
In the short term, infinite patience is the best response, along with a firm commitment by Western polities to promote and to provide extensive financial support for the education of Muslim women. Only when women have become an educated force throughout the Middle East will the forces of religious fanaticism be stilled.