Religion and History

In a comment to his own post about al Qaeda recruitment policies Wretchard of The Belmont Club talks about the possibility that extreme Islam may eventually fracture into different sects if the history of religion is anything to go by.

I think it’s an organization of a sort, and an although its been described as a “networked insurgency”, al-Qaeda’s real organizational model [may] actually be more ancient. Apart from the addition of weapons and technical training, the Jihad looks very much like a new religion in its “apostolic age”. (I don’t mean to morally compare the Apostles to al-Qaeda, but simply to refer to the first explosive impetus associated with a new creed.)

And after a while, the chief problem explosively expanding religions face is schism and the emergence of rival churches within what was once one fold. If you look at the agenda of the Council of Nicaea, by which time the Early Church had expanded vastly many concerns had to do with contemporaneous divisions, few of which we remember today. But at the time the problem was real.

I think there is quite a bit of evidence that fracturing is already happening. Radical Islam comes with a built in split – that between Shia and Sunni – and despite making common cause at times both sides are intolerant of the other. More recently we have seen the recognition on the part of the tribal people of Anbar province in Iraq, the kind of people to whom the apparent puritanism of al Qaeda appeals, that al Qaeda are not true Muslims but thugs. To the extent that al Qaeda brutally impose strict Islamic rules on a population and do not themselves practice what they preach their popularity will be short lived.

More broadly, Daniel Pipes reports a Pew poll showing declines in approval of suicide as a tactic among Muslims:

Among the most striking trends in predominantly Muslim nations is the continuing decline in the number saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justifiable in the defense of Islam. In Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, the proportion of Muslims who view suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians as being often or sometimes justified has declined by half or more over the past five years.

Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable. However, this is decidedly not the case in the Palestinian territories. Fully 70% of Palestinians believe that suicide bombings against civilians can be often or sometimes justified, a position starkly at odds with Muslims in other Middle Eastern, Asian, and African nations.

I am not a great believer in polls but I take this one to indicate clearly enough that change is occurring. Pipes takes dark view of the change pointing out that it may just represent a tactical change, not a change in goals:

Muslims appear growingly aware that the terroristic ways of Osama bin Laden offer a less successful path to realizing the Islamist goals of imposing the Shari’a and creating a caliphate do than the political, lawful ways of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s newly-triumphantly reelected prime minister. Whereas terrorism stimulates its own antibodies and offers no plausible path to power, working through the system is proving successful in such diverse places as Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bangladesh, as well as in the West

I agree that what we are seeing is terrorism stimulating ‘its own antibodies’ in the Muslim world – after all most of the victims of terrorism are Muslims, not Westerners. But I think the process of Islamification by any means will create its own antibodies – just more slowly. Where strict interpretations of Islam have been imposed it has lost popularity such as in Iran or Afghanistan. Traditional Muslims will continue to opt for a strict form of their religion but are already showing signs of backing away from the more aggressive Islamists like al Qaeda. Pakistan would seem to the country most deeply in crisis at present with a significant minority committed to the use of terror and significant portion of the military and intelligence communities supporting them . Turkey may appear to be going the same way but I think that is more perception than reality. For instance, in the Pew poll approval of suicide bombing in Turkey did increase between 2002 and 2007 but only from 13% to 16%.

I believe it will take generations for some Muslims to realize that a simple return to the past isn’t going to bring about an ideal society or prevent change. I am reminded of the failure of the Puritan revolution in England, its transfer to Massachusetts and subsequent diffusion over time into settled normalcy. In the West, immigrant populations will continue to agitate for special status for Islam and the ‘right’ to live under Sharia, but I think they will face increasing opposition as host populations realize that their are limits to tolerance.

I am not arguing that Islamic extremists are not dangerous and I believe some of them are sufficiently unbalanced to use nuclear weapons against the West if they get the opportunity. I am saying that such extreme belief systems are subject to schism, and loss of fervor with time and change. The developed and developing world will change too and learn exactly where they can accommodate Islam and where they cannot. I see the challenge of the next decades for the West as continuing to meet the acute threat of terrorism while allowing the longer term processes to work themselves out both within Islamic cultures and in relationship to the developed world.


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