[Paleopsych] Guardian: What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves

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What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves 

    Six views of the west's problems with the Muslim world reveal as much
    about those who hold them as the conflict itself
    Timothy Garton Ash
    Thursday September 15, 2005

    Sitting in the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a metal
    arrow on the ceiling of my hotel room pointing to Mecca and the
    television showing a female news presenter in full hijab, I feel
    impelled to write about our troubles with Islam.

    Four years after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York
    and Washington, which were perpetrated in the name of Allah, most
    people living in what we still loosely call the west would agree that
    we do have troubles with Islam. The vast majority of Muslims are not
    terrorists, but most of the terrorists who threaten us claim to be
    Muslims. Most countries with a Muslim majority show a resistance to
    what Europeans and Americans generally view as desirable modernity,
    including the essentials of liberal democracy.

    Why? What's the nub of the problem? Here are six different views often
    heard in the west, but also, it's important to add, in Muslim
    countries such as Iran. As you go down the list, you might like to put
    a mental tick against the view you most strongly agree with. It's
    logically possible to put smaller ticks against a couple of others,
    but not against them all.

    1 The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself, which
    is superstition, false consciousness, the abrogation of reason. In
    principle, Christianity or Judaism are little better, particularly in
    the versions embraced by the American right. The world would be a much
    better place if everyone understood the truths revealed by science,
    had confidence in human reason and embraced secular humanism. If we
    must have a framed image of a bearded old man on the wall, let it be a
    photograph of Charles Darwin. What we need is not just a secular state
    but a secular society.

    This is a view held by many highly educated people in the
    post-Christian west, especially in western Europe, including some of
    my closest friends. If translated directly into a political
    prescription, it has the minor drawback of requiring that some 3
    billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs.
    Nor has the track record of purely secular regimes over the last
    hundred years been altogether inspiring.

    2 The fundamental problem is not religion itself, but the particular
    religion of Islam. Islam, unlike western Christianity, does not allow
    the separation of church and state, religion and politics. The fact
    that my Iranian newspaper gives the year as 1384 points to a larger
    truth. With its systematic discrimination against women, its barbaric
    punishments for homosexuality and its militant intolerance, Islam is
    stuck in the middle ages. What it needs is its Reformation.

    A very widespread view. Two objections are that such a view encourages
    a monolithic, essentialist understanding of Islam, and tries to
    understand its history too much in western terms (middle ages,
    Reformation). If we mean by Islam "what people calling themselves
    Muslim actually think, say and do", there is a huge spectrum of
    different realities.

    3 The problem is not Islam but Islamism. One of the world's great
    religions has been misrepresented by fanatics such as Osama bin Laden,
    who have twisted it into the service of a political ideology of hate.
    It's these ideologists and movements of political Islamism that we
    must combat. Working with the benign, peaceful majority of the world's
    Muslims, we can separate the poisonous fruit from the healthy tree.

    The view promulgated by Qur'an-toting western politicians such as
    George Bush and Tony Blair. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?
    They're not going to insult millions of Muslim voters and the foreign
    countries upon which the west relies for its imported oil. But do they
    really believe it? I have my doubts. Put them on a truth serum, and I
    bet they'd be closer to 2, while many atheist or agnostic European
    leaders would be at 1. On the other hand, this analysis is made with
    learning and force by distinguished specialists on the Muslim world.

    4 The nub of the problem is not religion, Islam or even Islamism, but
    a specific history of the Arabs. Among 22 members of the Arab League,
    none is a home-grown democracy. (Iraq now has some elements of
    democracy, but hardly home-grown.) Needless to say, this is not a
    racist claim about Arabs but a complex argument about history,
    economics, political culture, society and a set of failed attempts at
    post-colonial modernisation.

    A case can be made. There are democracies with Muslim majorities
    (Turkey, Mali). The political scientist Alfred Stepan has written a
    fascinating article suggesting that, in the democracy stakes, non-Arab
    Muslim countries have fared roughly as well as non-Muslim countries at
    a comparable level of economic development. But I'm struck by the fact
    that even in a traditionally anti-Arab country such as Iran, very few
    people think the trouble is just with Arabia.

    5 We, not they, are the root of the problem. From the Crusades to
    Iraq, western imperialism, colonialism, Christian and post-Christian
    ideological hegemonism have themselves created this antipathy to
    western liberal democracy; and, at the extreme, its mortal enemies.
    Moreover, after causing (by the Holocaust of European barbarism),
    supporting or at least accepting the establishment of the state of
    Israel, we have for more than half a century ignored the terrible
    plight of the Palestinians.

    A widespread view among Muslims, and by no means only among Arabs in
    the Middle East. Also shared, from a different starting point, by some
    on the western left. Of course, even if this simplistic version of
    history were entirely true, we couldn't change the past. But we can
    acknowledge the historical damage for which we are genuinely
    responsible. And we can do more to create a free Palestine next to a
    secure Israel.

    6 Whatever your view of the relative merits of the west and Islam, the
    most acute tension comes at the edges where they meet. It arises, in
    particular, from the direct, personal encounter of young, first- or
    second-generation Muslim immigrants with western, and especially
    European, secular modernity. The most seductive system known to
    humankind, with its polychromatic consumer images of health, wealth,
    excitement, sex and power, is hugely attractive to young people from
    often poor, conservative, Muslim backgrounds. But, repelled by its
    hedonistic excesses or perhaps disappointed in their secret hopes,
    alienated by the reality of their marginalised lives in the west or
    feeling themselves rejected by it, a few - a tiny minority - embrace a
    fierce, extreme, warlike new version of the faith of their fathers.
    From Mohammed Atta and the Hamburg cell of al-Qaida, through the
    bombers of Madrid to those of London, this has become a depressingly
    familiar story.

    I wish I could find some compelling evidence against this claim. But I
    can't. (Can some reader help?) Even if we were to assist at the birth
    of a free Palestine and pull out of Iraq tomorrow, this problem would
    remain. It threatens to make Europe a less civilised, comfortable
    place to live over the next 10 years.

    Now, which of the six views got your largest tick? In answering that
    question, you will not just be saying something about the Islamic
    world; you will be saying something about yourself. For what we call
    Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves. Tell me your Islam and I
    will tell you who you are.

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