Can the West and the Muslim World Co-Exist?

[2001] 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.

September 2001
August 2005


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.

August 2003


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.


September 2004


Coexistence in the News

March 2009: Wife beheaded
Muzzammil ("Mo") Hassan, 44, of Orchard Park, New York, beheaded his wife, Aasiya Z. Hassan, 37. She had filed for divorce and gotten a protection order against him. Domestic violence isn't all that noteworthy, but the irony here is in 2004 Hassan founded the Bridges TV network to try to get "non-Muslims overcome the negative images they may have of both Muslims and Islam." Keep trying.

December 2007: Kill the teacher
Sudanese Muslims protest, calling for the execution of a Western teacher who let kids in her class name a teddy bear Muhammed.
religion - (sense of humor + compassion) = scary

September 2006: Muslims Keep Their Cool
After the Pope accused Islam of being violent, the Muslim world did not erupt into violence. (So much for irony.) Sure, a couple of churches in Gaza were firebombed and a nun in Somalia was killed, but it was nothing like the riots that surrounded the Muhammed cartoons. Is it too much to hope that Muslims are learning how bad it makes them look when they kill people?

April 2006: Afghan Convert to Christianity on Trial
Islam, the religion so unattractive that they have to threaten you with execution if you leave it.

February 2006: Mohammed Cartoons
See my rant.

October 2005: Al-Jazeera for Kids
Al Jazeera is setting up a channel for Arab kids, one that will (reportedly) teach modern values, such as open-mindedness and tolerance.

July 2005: Fatwas Against Terrorist Bombing
The British Muslim Forum, a UK Sufi organization, has issued a fatwa against terrorist attacks. link
     Not to be outdone, the Fiqh Council of North America issued its own fatwa against terrorism, declaring it to be haram (forbidden). link
     Maybe some day it will be Sunnis and Shi'ites in the Mideast issuing such a fatwa.

March 2005: Woman Leads Mixed Muslim Congregation in Prayer
Asra Nomani, a Muslim feminist activist, led the a mixed male and female congregation in Friday prayers. This was a first in Muslim history. The congregation met in a US, Christian church.