The secular West and the Muslim world were able to co-exist in decades past because the Muslims were weak and poor enough for us to push them around. Now, as the Muslim nations build themselves up with oil money and generally modernize, we can't push them around so easily. They push back.
One scenario is that the Muslim world secularizes as it modernizes. Then the formerly Christian West and the formerly Muslim world can co-exist, just as the secular "Protestant" nations of Europe can co-exist with their secular "Catholic" neighbors.
But what I'm wondering is whether actual Muslim states, where Islam is the the law, can co-exist with the secular West. The liberal freedoms we hold dear--equality for women, freedom to criticize religions, freedom to practice any religion, freedom to express ourselves--are opposed to the values that the Muslim theocrats hold dear--submission to God as written in the Koran and the Hadith (as interpreted by the clerics).
The conflict between the secular West and the Muslim world is the conflict between the modern and medieval. The modern person sees Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as "religions." The medieval person sees their own religion as "true religion" and other religions as "false religions." The modern person sees cultural habits (not eating pork, going to church on Sunday, wearing a yarmulke) as traditions to be valued. The medieval person sees their own habits as normal, proper, and right, even as God's will, and other habits as silly, unnatural, or even anathema to the Almighty. The modern person sees ideas as human-made and thus relatively less important compared to human life. The medieval person sees ideas as made by God and thus relatively more important compared to human life. The modern person sees laws as ways to improve safety and prosperity for citizens. The medieval person sees laws as the will of God enforced by temporal authorities. The modern person seeks conversation. The medieval person issues decrees.
In the US, we have this same conflict internally. Medieval Christians, for example, gun down doctors that provide abortions. They try to get the Ten Commandments, Christian prayer, religious language, and creationism into public buildings and schools. They want the US government to treat Christianity not as one religion among equals but as the religion of the land.
Can you imagine a developed Muslim world, with Islamic law as its law, co-existing with the secular West? Trading, exchanging tourists and students, sitting side-by-side in the UN? Hasn't co-existence so far been possible only because the Muslim world has been too weak and poor to stand up to the West? Hasn't "co-existence" been "dominance and resistance"?
Perhaps it's inevitable that the Muslim world will modernize intellectually and socially as well as technologically. Iran, which we once considered the very definition of dangerous theocracy, is reforming and modernizing. Could Iran's reform movement be a sign that the conflict will ebb as the Muslim world becomes "Muslim" in the modern rather than in medieval sense? Perhaps Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan will become "Muslim" the way the US is "Christian": by tradition but not by law, as surface rather than as substance.
[In the years since this rant was written, reform in Iran has taken a giant step backward, but it's still ahead of where it was 20 years ago.]
If not, if the medieval Muslim world grows in wealth, technology, and power without becoming socially modern, will the medieval and modern world be able to live together on one globe? As mutually isolated worlds, perhaps. As mortal enemies, more likely.
Update: In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Samuel P. Huntington says that the Muslim world may be able to coexist with the West, but as one culture to another, not as part of a single, global culture.
Update: The politicial reform movement in Iran has been undone by the theocrats. It still looks as though it will be non-Arab Muslim countries that lead the way in Muslim democracy, but Iran doesn't promise to be one of them.
December 2007: Kill the teacher
September 2006: Muslims Keep Their Cool
April 2006: Afghan Convert to Christianity on Trial
February 2006: Mohammed Cartoons
October 2005: Al-Jazeera for Kids
July 2005: Fatwas Against Terrorist Bombing
March 2005: Woman Leads Mixed Muslim Congregation in Prayer