Think Muslims are savages? They’re acting like your grandparents.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, I hear a lot of people suggesting yet again that the Islamic world is being shaped by an ideology from the 7th century or that Muslims are trying to balance a medieval philosophy against life in a modern world. The conceit here is that the culture of 1.6 billion Muslims effectively peaked and froze in place a thousand years ago and its adherents just aren’t ready for things like democracy, human rights, capitalism, and globalism.
This is fundamentally factually wrong. Moreover, it reflects a fairly pure variety of ignorance, one fueled by fear, racism, and by our own religious bias. The truth is that the Islamic world is grappling with a complex reality that looks very similar to the West’s evolution just before the First World War, an era when my grandparents were alive. At that very recent moment in world history, America, Europe, and our satellite nations functioned very much like the Muslim societies that exist today.
Remember when Germany looked like Iran
In 1914, most of the great European powers were ruled by despots, many of them flatly incompetent or poorly equipped to deal with the complicated societies evolving under their control. The kind of ruler that we now see in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia were common in the West. From the Tsar in Russia to the Kaiser in Germany to the King in England, non-democratic leaders regularly harkened back to ancient privileges and they were entirely comfortable with the idea that their Christian civilizations should be projected – with violence, when necessary – onto peoples around the world.
In our grandparents’ time, the Christian worldview was widely accepted as definitive and final. Faith in Christ was used to justify everything from the rule of the British in India to the Mormon pogroms against Native Americans in Utah between 1914 and 1923. In those days, any neutral observer would have said much the same about us in the West as we now say about the Muslim world. Maybe they’re just not suited for democracy. After all, in 1914, only a handful of European and Western countries possessed fully functioning republican systems.
Here in the United States, women were denied the vote. So too were most black men. Nations like Britain, France, and the United States cheerfully occupied other countries around the world where populations were denied any meaningful self-rule. Meanwhile, in 1914 it made perfect sense to Europeans that they should go to war and devastate one-another over minor cultural, political, and economic differences. These days, we look at the bloody furor that erupts between Sunnis and Shiites as if that kind of sectarianism were a relic of some dusty pre-Enlightenment age.
But France and Germany tore apart an entire continent again and again over disputes that now, just a few decades later, strike us as meaningless quibbles. The bloody religious strife in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants continued until 1993.
Remember when the KKK had far more support in the U.S. than Al Quaeda now enjoys in the Arab world?
It’s also important to remember that a single lifetime ago, the West shared many of the Muslim world’s ugliest conceits. Our societies viewed women as second class citizens. They were described in law as a form of property. In 1914, women were regularly condemned to prison or mental institutions if their sexuality violated Christian norms. There were no effective laws protecting women from sexual abuse, rape, and other forms of violence, particularly when the violence was carried out by a family member. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment and hard labor.
Sadly, conceits about racial superiority were the norm and radical Christian groups were regularly nurtured in our communities. The Ku Klux Klan reorganized in 1915 and quickly grew into one of the most powerful organizations in the United States, organizing regular attacks on blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics.
We talk today about the spread of Wahhabism and radical Islamic fundamentalism as if those things are unstoppable viral forces. But in 1914, we were just seeing the rise of two fundamentally Western ideologies – communism and fascism – that would do far more harm to the globe and its people. Those were our derangements, our delusions. And they weren’t just taken up by a few radicals living in caves. The madness of communism and fascism came to dominate the most powerful European nations, from the steppes of Siberia to the halls of the Reichstag.
And let’s not forget, when our grandparents were growing up, the most deadly form of terrorism wasn’t Islamic. Instead, it came from a Western group of radicals who styled themselves anarchists. In 1901, an anarchist murdered an American president, William McKinley. Their attacks in the United States and Europe continued over decades, culminating in a bombing spree in 1919 that targeted America’s attorney general and dozens of others.
Remember how hard it was for us to modernize? Muslims are doing it better and faster.
Fixing this mess was hard. These days, we throw up our hands with impatience at the idea that our decade-long investment in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t immediately transform those societies into vibrant functioning democracies. We nod sagely at the crumbling of the Arab Spring, as if the chaos that followed those uprisings was the ultimate proof that Muslims simply aren’t grown up or civilized enough to govern themselves by democratic means.
But the West required dozens of revolutions, two world wars, a Cold War, a culture war, and the entire history of rock and roll to bring ourselves to the far-from-perfect ground where we stand today. If we had given up and declared ourselves dangerously incompetent after one muddled chapter of chaos, we would all still be living under the power of popes and kaisers. Women still wouldn’t have the vote. Gay people would still fear government-sanctioned violence.
It’s also important to point out that the Muslim world has made huge progress. The truth is that they’re not a full century behind the West. Five of the countries that make up the vast majority of the Islamic faith’s population – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – possess fully functioning (if often flawed) democracies. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s essential to remember that Muslims living today are contributing hugely to the world’s industries, arts, sciences, and philosophy.
You use products and benefit from ideas generated in the Muslim world every single day. Muslim business leaders are investing in our businesses, sending their kids to our schools, writing the novels we read, and on and on.
The bottom line is that, yes, the Muslim world faces big growing pains and some dangerous inflection points. Events like Paris are a reminder that an uncomfortable chapter lies ahead as their societies figure out how to accommodate things like free speech, secularism, and modern sexuality. But we in the West passed through this same crucible within living memory. Working clumsily and with plenty of stumbles, we figured out how to balance our religious convictions with modernity, our traditional ideas about society with a full and open democracy.
The Muslim world is already well along that path and there are strong signs that they’re going to turn the corner and embrace modernity and global culture without the full-blown mess of things that the West made of it over the last century. It’s important to think about how we might help with that transition and also to think about what actions we might take that would make things worse.
In the meantime, enough with the talk about a clash of civilizations pitting decent Christians and European cities of light against swarming medieval savages. That kind of language says nothing about the state of Muslim societies today and reveals far more about the work we still need to do in the West.
This is excellent..
Also, frighteningly insightful on who we were.. and starting to become… we are using the word safety to camouflage our return to racisim
This article points out how close minded we are to true history and the fact that we expect other cultures to accept our values unquestionably.
First of all, there is no we in me.
Second, then was then and now is now.
Changing times push the change in ideas and culture.
Would you cut any slack for the KKK because it was the culture of their times?
Maybe forgive the Nazi’s?
No, not all Muslims are terrorist, just as all whites were not KKK nor all Germans were Nazi.
So what is the point?
Interesting rant, I’ll call it. What drives humans to such inhumane acts and responses is purely troubling. All I want say is the world is upside down for many reasons. I’m not a religious man, but a little love an compassion is needed all around, especially for the people caught in the middle. Fear is probably worse course of action. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I see trends towards a darker age and assaults on progress all over the world. Humbly submitted.
I think the point might be, my take away, is that just because we were racist, doesn’t mean we have to be racist
Because we accepted German genocide doesn’t mean we have to accept it now.
I think the point is.. we are in fact repeating history… and pretending like we aren’t
I take this as a call to exercise a little humility in our characterization of Muslims. And, based on the reactions I’m seeing, both on-line and from some of our politicians, I’d say that some of haven’t really progressed that far beyond the era that Brian is talking about.
One point you miss is that the Muslim World is, well, the world. More than 20% of all Moslems live in countries that are not majority Muslim, places like India, China, Russia and of course countries with smaller but significant Moslem populations like England, Germany, France, Canada, the US, Argentina and many more. A majority of Muslims live in countries with democratic forms of government.
What needs to be admitted is that all people, in fact all creatures, will act to defend themselves. This self defense reaction can sometimes be unreasonable, usually in hindsight, but is always there. It is the reason there are Islamic extremists, just as the are Christian extremists.
Is there really any difference between a Muslim fundamentalist and a Christian fundamentalist? Very little if any.
I was raised Catholic. I now self identify as agnostic. There times I just cringe when I hear those pseudo-Christians out on the fringe pass such harsh judgement on the Islamic world. Judge not, that ye be not judged – Matthew 7.1.
Brian, My admiration for your intellect just increased. Oh that more of our leaders would think more and rant less.
I would like to add that the barbarity of ISIS fighters has far less to do with culture and religious dogma than we are being lead to believe. It was recently reported in The Washington Post that Captagon, a highly addictive and powerful neuro stimulant with properties similar to crystal meth is in wide spread use within the Islamic State. And this is by no means unprecedented in modern warfare. Another methamphetamine based drug, Pervitin was in widespread use by German forces during WWII. It was in widespread use by the civilian population as well. The Nazis developed chocolates containing the drug so the house wives on the home front were not left out. http://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/hitlers-all-conquering-stormtroopers-felt-invincible-because-of-crystal-meth-style-drug-pervitin/ar-AAefoCP
What’s the point here? An apology for radical Islam based on weak history and some vague “we were just as bad” guilt? In fact, the only people emulating their grandparents today are the jihadis themselves. Nobody excuses racism but there’s far more going on here than that.
Interesting idea OL, but my guess is that many of these Daesh/ISIL/ISIS/IS radicals’ grandparents were themselves liberal pro-democracy activists who ended up fleeing repressive Islamic regimes with shallow roots originating around the turn of the 20th century to the period shortly after WW2 when the big European empires collapsed. Personally, I have seen younger Muslims I know become much more overtly religious in the period post 9/11; I think a reaction to the anti-Islam sentiments they have seen. For the most part their overt religiosity seems to be something of a mystery to their own parents and grandparents.
KHL, read Winston Churchill’s “The Story of the Malakand Field Force” or “The River War”, both histories of his experiences fighting militant Islam with the British Army in Afghanistan and Africa, respectively. Not much has changed with the jihadis ( or dervishes, as they were called then) since the 1890s.
I applaud you Brian Mann.
What also appalls me is the attitude of so many US citizens who believe everything in the USA is and has been hunky-dory since the end of Our civil war in 1865. Many US citizens, past and present, realize not that when the federal troops left the once Confederate states, subsequent to the end of the “reconstruction” efforts, in 1877 “real” protection for the emancipated slaves left with them. Within no time flat the white supremacists of the once states of the confederacy roared back into full control and for all intents and purposes reestablished “Slavery” through a conspiracy of laws which became known as the “Jim Crow Laws”.
Although many white supremacists, then, likely relished the idea of re-instituting “real” slavery my guess is that cooler heads in the political hierarchies of the South did not have the stomach for second round of civil war killing on the massive scale as occurred during the 4 years of our, to this point in time, only civil war. Alternatively they passed hundreds perhaps thousands of Jim Crow laws (Jim Crow was a widely used pseudo code word inaugurated by “Black Face minstrels in the 1820’s/30’s to reference Negros) which instituted racial segregation and a plethora of laws used to imprison black folks and then rent them out to the local businessmen, for a song, to work for their freedom which they seldom if ever gained. It was not until 99 years after the end of the US civil war that a Southern US President (LBJ) finally said enough was enough and ramrodded the Civil Rights legislation through the congress and practically over night turned most of the Southern Democrats into Southern Republicans. LBJ was a Democrat and after he tore apart their system of racist bigotry for a second time in their history there was no way the now 4th or 5th generation of sons and daughters of the confederacy were about to remain in the party of the Southern President who had “turned” upon them.
Another of my late in life discoveries was the so called “Business Plot”, whereby a number of the obscenely wealthy US citizens conspired to convince Retired Marine Major General Smedley D. Butler to lead a 500,000 man army of WWI veterans to remove FDR from office because Roosevelt was not protecting the fortunes of the wealthy from the effects of the great depression as much as they desired. Butler went to the US Congress and gave sworn testimony naming plotters in 1933. In 1934 a House Committee (McCormack–Dickstein) took testimony and in Feb 1935 submitted their final report to congress in which they effectively backed away from doing their sworn jobs of protecting the Constitution of the United States as well as her people and brought no charges against any of the obscenely wealthy conspirators who would have gleefully instituted a fascist government to run the US and protect their interests as they thought they should be. The creators of the report did admit that there was evidence that something had been afoot. The obscenely wealthy simply retrenched and bought the government which we now prepare to “pretend” to elect the “best” man/woman currently available to lead us, generously provided by the obscenely rich.
I think that US citizens whom view us through the so called prism of American exceptionalism have myopic vision and grandiose concepts of patriotism.
Excellent article, Brian. Some of the comments posted are disheartening, but listening to others’ opinions/thoughts is always enlightening. We humans are a mysterious lot! Just imagine……
Winston Churchill was many virtuous things, but a thoughtful man on the subject of Islam he was not. He wildly underestimated the skill and tenacity of the Ottomans in World War I and sent thousands of young men to their death in the process. It was a near-homicidal error that almost ended his career. He also described Muslims in virulently racist terms, as being subject to a faith “as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog.” Which is just simply flagrant bosh.
Finally, the idea that radical Islam has not changed since the 1890s is A) factually false and b) muddles the wider reality that Islam as a whole HAS changed – profoundly. It is a religion in which the majority of its adherents now live under democracy in modern, industrialized nations that contribute mightily to the world economy.
One Muslims they managed to do since 1890, happily, was throw off imperial oppression from the likes of Churchill. Which, by the way, we in the US helped them accomplish. When Britain and France invaded Egypt and tried to take over the Suez canal in the 1950s, the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower slapped them down, forcing Churchill’s Conservative successor to resign.
Because this hits on a lot of angles I’ve have been mulling for awhile and it is what restrains me somewhat, we have some general agreement. I’ll not allow that because something was done by my ancestors, I am atomatically at fault or responsible. But yes, beware our country isn’t perfect.
RB Wolf makes a common error in not reading the full verse. Christians, or anybody, can judge. The issue is the ruler you use will be used on you. The judgment in that verse is for those within the Christian church. So Christians critiquing non-believers are wasting their own time and offending a lot of people who can’t comprehend that the problem is. Still it is necessary to speak out when the direction of the public is wrong.
Pertinent to Brian’s thoughts above is the bible verse “Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”
I also like a phrase attributed to Abraham Lincoln’s “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
OMG OL! Please don’t use Churchill as a source for information on Islam. First, dervishes are not jihadis, they are a sect devoted to Sufi mysticism. Second, if you consult a globe you will find that neither Afghanistan nor Africa are anywhere even close to Britain, so who is the militant radical? The person living in Afghanistan or Sudan who has never left his home but is fighting an invading British army? If that is the definition of a militant radical then something is very wrong with your dictionary.
My point, which everyone seems to have missed (no surprise there) is that today’s jihadis are behaving much like their grandparents: pitilessly fighting the West. Their grandparents, not ours. That’s all. You want to scream about Churchill, go ahead, there’s plenty of material there; but I never said anything about his attitudes towards Islam, only about his experiences fighting Muslims. You all are masters at putting words (that fit your theories) in people’s mouths.
We got the point you were trying to make OL, but it was simply wrong, or maybe the better description is backwards. Maybe there is an example of a predominantly Moslem nation or group in the late 19th or first 2/3 of the 20th Century that left it’s home territory to fight the West, but I can’t think of one. Doesn’t it seem unfair to blame (just for example) the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan that were bisected by a border drawn on a map by a British beauracrat named Durand because they attacked an inept British invading force in their own homeland?
My point, which you have seemed to miss, is that Afghanistan is many thousands of miles from Britain. Sure, we all know that Britain was a seafaring nation that sent ships all around the world and I’m not really trying to go out of my way to defend the Afghans but for cripes sake it is a landlocked country and the famed British navy Lord Nelson and all couldn’t possibly sail within several hundred miles of it.
But if you want to blame the Afghans for being invaded by the British three times then go right ahead, I guess that is something that makes sense in your convoluted worldview.
Brian says Muslims are acting like our grandparents; I say they’re acting like their own grandparents and now I have a convoluted world view? You just can’t tolerate anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy, can you?
Hello Jeff. If may ask, why judge at all? Would it not be more humane, more spiritually uplifting to simply strive to understand, to empathize? Is human compassion an outdated concept? I dare say it is not outdated at all. It is manifest in that part of the limbic region in the human central nervous system that keeps us somewhat civilized and makes human existence bearable. We are born with it or least those of us genetically predisposed to feel compassion for others, the truest form of unconditional love, the one thing that transcends all those artificial boundaries that conspire to impede our progress as a sentient species. And I dare say were it not for that quirk of human evolution, that occurred some time in the distant past, our species might have gone the way of the Neanderthals. I am an agnostic in spite of my Catholic upbringing because during my life’s journey I came to realize that science and reason trumps a religious doctrine conceived in a faraway land some two thousand years ago, which I must admit is in itself somewhat judgmental. I can’t help it. It just feels right. It works for me. May I suggest, should you have the time, that you take a look at the work of American neuroscientist, Dr, James H Fallon, professor emeritus, UC Irvine School of Medecine. I have found his research to be both fascinating and enlightening. I think he is on to something.
OL, if you have a legitimate point I am open to your thoughts, but comparing the actions of people occupied by colonial powers defending their own home soil is not at all like the actions of terrorists committing seemingly random violence.
That is like saying the KKK are the logical successors of the defenders of Washigton DC fighting the British in the War of 1812.
If this were a discussion of the relative merits of the Bills vs the Jets vs the Giants, or Matisse vs Turner, or Sinatra vs the Ramones I might engage in discussion with you and concede that your points had as much validity as anyone else’s, but there are real consequences to mis-understanding the motivations of people who are actively attacking innocent people around the world vs other people who look and sound and have the same religion but are good and decent and peaceful citizens of those same nations – people who are just as horrified and often even more terrorized in their homes than everyone else.
If there are 20 or 30,000 IS fighters out of over 1.5 billion Muslims how do you just pass that off as people are doing the same thing as their grandparents did?
Excellent. Great work looking back, which is not always easy. Round and round it goes. A line from a Yeat’s poem has stayed with me for years and I think is fitting on the topic. goes something like this-” What rough beast , it’s hour come round at last, Lurks toward Bethlehem to be born again.”
“if you have a legitimate point I am open to your thoughts”.
And exactly who made you the arbiter of legitimacy? Soi-disant expertise is the reason public discussion has degenerated into people screaming at each other.
OL, I take your statements and present a refutation. You fail to refine your assertions but keep presenting them as fact. At that point I get to dismiss your reasoning as illegitimate.
There is a serious discussion to be had here. There ARE young Moslem people from around the world flocking to a group of radicals in the Middle East and they are perpetrating horrific acts against the local residents and devising acts of terror to be perpetrated elsewhere. But saying they are just doing what their grandparents did is not only factually incorrect and displays an alarming ignorance of history along with an unwillingness to learn, but your assertion doesn’t point to any way forward. You fail to recognize that there is something very different and alarming happening — that there are those in this younger generation that has been raised in the West often by well educated people who have assimilated into the cultures, young people who are themselves well educated, who will throw that away and join a radical cause which recruits adherents through despicable acts. Or that some of those new recruits come from multi generational families of Western nations that have failed to prosper.
There are important questions to be asked and ideas to be considered but your comment is just a dead end with nothing to be learned, besides the fact that I demonstrated much of what it was based on is simply wrong.
Could we all please stop defending all religions, including Islam?
Fact of the matter is all religions want to rule the world. All would like to jam down the throats of everyone what they believe is right and wrong. All would like to get control of governments to enforce their laws.
They all do this because their attempts to scare everyone into doing or not doing what they command with threats of damnation after death simply doesn’t carry as much weight as threats of torture, imprisonment and death in this world.
Let’s talk the United States and those Christians who would like to ban abortions and gay marriage. Would they be pushing for secular laws if their teachings were accepted by their followers? No. There wouldn’t be any need to use the cruel power of secular laws to enforce their religious laws.
I don’t have a problem with any religion – Islam, Christian, Hindu, whatever – as long as they keep their religion to themselves and stop trying to force their moral beliefs onto everyone through the brute power of governmental laws. If they actually had any faith in God, they wouldn’t try to get governments to enforce their laws.
If you go back a day you will see that I offered a point of departure for a serious discussion: “Personally, I have seen younger Muslims I know become much more overtly religious in the period post 9/11; I think a reaction to the anti-Islam sentiments they have seen. For the most part their overt religiosity seems to be something of a mystery to their own parents and grandparents.”
It has been estimated that between 15 to 20% of Muslims worldwide are sympathetic to the cause of militant Islam, some 240 to 320 million followers. Anyone who has read Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East should not be shocked by these numbers. Mr. Fisk is quite possibly the most widely read Western author in the Muslim world. I think this a credible estimate. It is interesting to note that when the Prussian generals who helped propel Hitler and the Nazis to power launched Operation Valkyrie, around 18% of the German population were card carrying members of the Nazi party. I might add that around the time President Obama was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, popular support for his predecessor had plummeted to around 20%. All three examples are consistent with the Pareto principle, aka the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few. I am not so alarmed by this estimate. Sympathy in itself is insufficient to make the difference. As Napoleon said, God is on the side with the most cannons. ISIL is an obscene aberration, a psychopathic subculture fueled by grandiose delusions and rampant substance abuse. It will ultimately self-destruct if contained and isolated and I would expect most of the Muslim world would be relived to see it wiped off the map. I very much doubt it will survive long enough to implode of its own accord. In my view the single most important move POTUS has made to defeat ISIL was to use his office to influence the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West. Iran’s military strength is currently estimated at 550,000 active military personnel and 1.8 million reserves. They have the resolve, the experience and the capacity to make a difference and they have been here before (The Iran Iraq War 1980-1988). I think Sun Tsu would approve.
The next most significant development of late is President Hollande’s declaration that this attack on French soil is tantamount to a declaration of war, effectively putting NATO on notice. This close to an election, the GOP has little choice but to back-up President Obama’s next move. President Hollande’s declaration also brings Turkey in line, a member of NATO since the 1950’s. Turkey’s current military strength is 640,000 active personnel and 379,000 reserves. Adding Egypt and a few other states in close proximity to the conflict zone brings the total of the Muslim/ME component of the coalition by itself to over 4 million, an advantage of over 100 to 1. Gentlemen, it is not all that inconceivable in my view that the threat ISIL represents could be effectively neutralized before POTUS leaves office, leaving President Clinton to mop up (apologies, it was not my intent to make that sound as misogynistic as it appears).
POTUS has nearly eight years experience as CiC of the most powerful military force on Earth. The Pentagon has accumulated over two decades experience dealing with the likes of Al Qaeda. If the former Baathist commanders in ISIL are not worried, they bloody well should be. Then again, I would not expect a bunch of self-destructive homicidal meth freaks to think rationally. May God have mercy on their souls. When it’s done, I can only hope there is a 21st century version of the Marshall Plan ready to put the pieces back together so all the those who have been displaced can return home.
I am sharing this article with others.
I am entirely unconvinced by any argument that attempts to rationalize (if not justify) horrible crimes by saying other people used to do bad things too.
Thank whomever that around 100 years ago, western countries started more rigidly implementing the separation of church and state (even as US theocrats try to undermine this).