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What's your problem with Islam?


By Timothy Garton Ash
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is the professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

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, I feel impelled to write about our troubles with Islam. Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which were perpetrated in the name of Allah, most people in what we still loosely call the West would agree that we do have troubles with Islam.

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, consider which one matches your opinion.

1. The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself. 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. 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. If translated directly into a political prescription, it has the drawback of requiring that 3 billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs. Nor has the track record of purely secular regimes over the last 100 years been altogether inspiring.

2. The fundamental problem is not religion itself but the particular religion of Islam. It does not allow the separation of church and state, religion and politics. The fact that an Iranian newspaper gives the year as 1384 points to a larger truth: Islam is stuck in the Middle Ages. What it needs is its Reformation.

Two objections to this widespread view are that it encourages monolithic thinking about Islam and that it is based 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 different realities.

3. The problem is not Islam but Islamism. Fanatics such as Osama bin Laden have twisted a great religion into the service of hate. We can separate the poisonous fruit from the healthy tree.

This is the view promulgated by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But then, they're not going to insult millions of Muslim voters and the countries that the West relies on for oil. Do they really believe it? Put them on a truth serum, and I bet they'd be closer to No. 2. On the other hand, this analysis is made with learning and force by distinguished specialists on the Muslim world.

4. The problem is not religion, Islam or even Islamism, but the specific history of the Arabs. Among 22 Arab League members, none is a home-grown democracy. (Iraq now has elements of democracy but hardly home-grown.) This is not a racist claim but an argument about history, economics, political culture, society and a set of failed attempts at post-colonial modernization.

Indeed, there are democracies with Muslim majorities Turkey, Mali. Columbia University political scientist Alfred Stepan has suggested 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 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 the mortal enemies of Western liberal democracy. And, after causing (via the Holocaust), supporting or at least accepting the establishment of Israel, we have for more than half a century ignored the terrible plight of the Palestinians.

Even if this simplistic version of history were entirely true, we couldn't change the past. But we could acknowledge the historical damage for which we are genuinely responsible. And we could do more to create a free and law-abiding Palestine next to a secure Israel.

6. The most acute tension between the West and Islam comes at the edges where they meet, where young first- or second-generation Muslim immigrants encounter secular modernity. Its seductions attract them, but, repelled by its hedonistic excesses or perhaps disappointed in their secret hopes or their marginalization, a few Muslim young people embrace a fierce, extreme new version of the faith of their fathers.

I wish I could find some compelling evidence against this account. Even if we were to assist at the birth of a free Palestine and pull out of Iraq tomorrow, this problem would remain.

Now, to which of the six views do you subscribe? 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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