Islam: Nothing to fear but fear itself

By Jonathan Power

Even if sublimated an abiding fear among Western watchers of the Arab Spring is that the dictators’ successors in power will be militant Islamists who once elected will stop at nothing, even violence, to stay in power. A decade ago when Islamists won an election in Algeria the US and France were visibly happy that the secular-orientated military stepped in and annulled the election. The Western powers would not support such a move today, but anxiousness about the Islamists will remain. But why?

As the Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, writes in his new monumental study of violence, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, “The laws and many practices of many Muslim countries seemed to have missed out on the Humanitarian Revolution”. According to Amnesty International three-quarters of Muslim countries execute their criminals and adultery can be a capital crime.  Every year more than a hundred million girls in Islamic countries have their genitals mutilated. Islamic countries were the last to abolish slavery and a majority of countries in which people continue to be trafficked are Muslim. (However, to balance that, the murder and crime rate in Muslim countries is much lower than in Christian countries.)

Historians and journalists continually point a finger at the demands and punishments of Shar’ia law. The Koran has passages that are bellicose and Islam from the beginning was a warrior religion, contravening the message of earlier religions, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism. Critics also point out that Islam, once far ahead in science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and architecture, blew its lead when it rejected the new European constructs of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Only recently have some Islamic states distinguished between the secular and the sacred.

In his big selling book the Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, wrote that, “In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to Central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”

But what is overlooked by such critics is that these are in most cases minority movements of fervent Islamists (and that includes Al Qaeda) and how fast Islam is moving on and, indeed, has been moving on for a very long time.

A team from the University of Maryland, writes Pinker, examined the goals of 102 Muslim organizations in North Africa and the Middle East and found that between 1985 and 2004 the proportion of organisations that endorsed violence dropped from 54% to 14%. The proportion committed to non-violent protests tripled and the proportion engaged in electoral politics doubled. The Arab Spring, as it blossomed in Tunisia, Egypt, Oman, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and in Syria, has been largely non-violent. (In Syria, admittedly, violence is now taking hold among a minority of protestors and in Egypt a fringe minority has battled the police and army.)

If we go further back in history there is much that is positive that Western observers either ignore or are ignorant of.

Recall Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. For the next 700 years Jerusalem remained under Muslim rule. The churches were open and the Jews were given funds to rebuild their synagogues.  This was in marked contrast to the way the Crusaders had ruled Jerusalem before when Muslims and Jews were mainly forbidden from living within the city walls.

Likewise, from the fifteenth century on, when the majority of Arabs lived under Ottoman rule, for its five hundred years of life Christians and Jews were recognised and protected. Many of the Jews who were expelled by Christian Spain were granted refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Likewise German, French and Czech Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution were given protection.

We should also note that the kind of cruel punishment meted out in Muslim countries has decreased quite sharply. As the late Umaru Yar A’dua, the Muslim president of Nigeria, told me when there were threats of execution of a young woman accused of adultery, “Shar’ia law is open to wide interpretation. Moreover, three witnesses to her alleged crime are required and that is not possible in real life.” We should not forget that in England children could be hung for petty theft as late as the early nineteenth century and not that long ago successive Popes spurred on violent conquest.

Today Muslim countries as varied as Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tunisia (and include the 160 million Muslims in India) are fully democratic, with a free press and independent courts, and Malaysia, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Egypt partly so.

When I look at Islam I conclude that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power

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