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.