Is Islam the problem?

There’s a very interesting article by Timothy Garton Ash on views of the Muslim world, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1570236,00.html which argues that deciding what the problem is says a lot about the speaker. He lists 6 possible views:

1) The problem is religion in general
2) The problem is Islam
3) The problem is Islamism
4) The problem is Arabian history
5) The problem is Western imperialism
6) The problem is the alienation of young Muslim immigrants in the West, some of whom then turn to extremism (his own view).

What I’ve been struck by recently is how acceptable the view is becoming that Islam itself is the problem, which seems to be an intellectually incoherent and often racist view. For example, Rod Liddle in the Spectator (http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php?id=6618&issue=2005-09-17 (not free), said in a recent article (discussing a possible new symbol for the Red Cross):

The totalitarian flavour of Islam — the unshakeable belief in its own rectitude and a terrible paranoia directed towards serried ranks of enemies, real and imagined — makes the thought of firing on an ambulance carrying wounded infidel soldiers at least permissible and quite possibly, according to Islam’s more rigorous disciples, a beholden duty. And this is where I believe our Prime Minister has got it the wrong way around: it is the core ideology of Islam that is the problem, not a handful of incendiary preachers.

When Islam appears on the agenda, the goalposts are moved: the normal rational thought processes are not applied. Suddenly those Left-liberal shibboleths are not very important: they can be forgotten. Append the description ‘Muslim’ to anyone and all bets are off; he or she can get away with pretty much anything, be it the execution of homosexuals or the idea that Jews and Freemasons are running the government. This springs from the misconception, widespread on the Left, that being anti-Islam is in some way ‘racist’. It is not. It has nothing to do with race — as I daresay Mr Ahmad Thomson, that lawyer I mentioned earlier, would confirm. One is not born believing that the world is a Zionist conspiracy any more than one is born believing that we are all the subjects of giant alien lizards.

Just suppose that Rod Liddle had said ‘the core ideology of Judaism is the problem’ (given that the Old Testament also supports capital punishment of homosexuality, as well as a far more brutal treatment of enemies than the Koran does). Would he have got away with saying this wasn’t racist? Of course not. He would have been kicked off his column and become a pariah. But it is now acceptable to argue that 1 billion of the world’s population have the wrong core values. (What Rod Liddell and those like him always leave fuzzy is what Western government’s should do; they don’t have the courage of their intellectual convictions, which surely call for the conversion of all Muslims to ‘Western’ values).

My own view on the problem has shifted a bit over time. My view of Islam has been much coloured by being an early medievalist. If you look at Islam as an early medieval religion, it doesn’t look out of line. It is warlike, but probably slightly less so than Christianity at the period. Throughout the Middle Ages it had a better record on its treatment of religious minorities (particularly Jews) than Christianity. It also, arguably, had no worse treatment of women overall (women had property rights in Islamic law that some Western jurisdictions have only enacted very recently). Even today, I would say that as a religion, Islam is no more intrinsically intolerant than Orthodox Judaism or some forms of Christianity. [The difference is that there is no state that is governed by Mosiac or canon law, unlike Sharia].

So I am unhappy with saying that Islam is inherently problematic (rather than some cultural interpretations of Islam, e.g. on wearing the burkha). I think there are aspects of Islam that need to change, but denigrating the whole religion isn’t the right way forward. I have therefore wavered between seeing Islamism as the problem, and Western imperialism. Increasingly I am coming to see the combination of these two as key (which I think is what Ash is getting at in 6). Al-Qaida extremists cannot be negotiated with, and can only be dealt with via military/police actions. Simply getting out of Iraq is not enough (though it would be a good first step). However, it is disingenuous to say (as some people like Thomas L Friedman are doing that ‘If It’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution’ (not free). Western leaders have made an awful lot of decisions that alienate Muslims. As well as international decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq, the toleration of Israeli occupation (and going further back, British and US support for the Shah of Iran and toppling of Mohammed Mossadegh), there has been little attempt to deal with the social disadvantages of Muslim immigrants, and hostility towards them has often been tolerated. Reaching out to alienated Western Muslims won’t stop all the fanatics, but it could greatly reduce the pool of those who are attracted to such appalling ideologies. But instead, for all Donald Rumsfeld talked of ‘draining the swamp’ that terrorists live in, (see http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/18/ret.defense.rumsfeld/), the US government has done their best to create new, bigger swamps.

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