[Paleopsych] Guardian: What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves
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Sat Oct 1 19:19:04 UTC 2005
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
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
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
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
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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