Can Muslims adapt to the 21st Century? The challenge to Islam [Archives:2002/43/Focus]

October 21 2002

Aurora, New York
Osama bin Laden claimed that the United States has shown little sensitivity to Arab rights and Arab suffering. American willingness to overlook Palestinian rights because of its special relationship with Israel and the continuation of the 10-year international embargo against Iraq may be evidence of misguided foreign policy by both American political parties, Democrats and Republicans alike. Nevertheless, Palestinians, Iraqis, and other Arabs must take responsibility for their mistakes as well.
Osama’s war against the United States may, however, have generated exactly the opposite of what he intended. Unwittingly he has driven a wedge through the heart of the Muslim world that he hoped to restore to the prominence it experienced from the 7th to the 17th centuries. Islam had a great civilization while Europe was living in the Dark Ages, but there is no turning back the clock. Substantial political and economic development has come to the West, but it has largely eluded the Islamic world and left it far behind, both politically and economically.
A major issue for Islam in the 21st century will be how to relate to the modern world. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, which began their encounter with the Enlightenment 250 years ago, Islam did not encounter that challenge until very recently and has not been handling it very well. Indeed, many fundamentalist Jews and Christians also still act as if the Enlightenment never happened, but they are happily outnumbered, and the days of Jewish and Christian religious fundamentalism are, I believe, numbered.
What does the future hold for Islam and for the Islamic world, especially if Islam looks to its glorious past rather than to the challenges of the present and the future?
The problem with Islam has been that its encounter with modernism was concurrent with its encounter with colonialism. European colonizers brought modernism, and the Islamic world has ever since had difficulty overcoming its suspicion of Western political and ideological systems: democracy, secularism, the rule of law, the full spectrum of human rights, and the establishment of secular nation-states.

Puppets of the British and French
At the end of World War I the British and the French carved Islam’s old empires into arbitrarily drawn mandates and nations governed by hand-picked local leaders, who were puppets to the colonial masters and who served basically as landlords for the British and the French. American President Woodrow Wilson opposed this program at the time, but his untimely illness and subsequent American isolationism resulted most unfortunately in the British and the French having their own ways in the Middle East. As a result of that experience, the Islamic world resisted change and failed to develop the viable political models that are essential for living in the 21st century. Turkey is the single exception.
Most political systems in the Islamic world are either totalitarian or weak, or both. Religious fundamentalists and extremist groups often fill existing political vacuums in Islamic countries. Afghanistan under the Taliban was the worst example of such a system, where killing infidels in the service of Allah and killing one’s own people who violate Islamic law seem crazy to secularists but appropriate to religious zealots.

A new Islam?
Out of this horror a new Islam will hopefully emerge, an Islam, I believe, that might actually be somewhat closer in spirit to the message of the Prophet than what is now practiced in most of the Islamic world. It is essential, however, that the new Islam be relevant to life in the 21st century, not the 7th or the 17th century. The question is whether Islam and Muslims are up to the challenge.
Can Islam function, as it does in the United States, only as a religion and not as a total way of life? Will nations with overwhelmingly Muslim populations be able to develop secular democratic states, as they must and as Turkey has succeeded in doing for the last eighty years? Can fundamental human rights, including the right to disagree and be different, be established throughout the Islamic world?
If these changes come to pass, as I believe they must and eventually will, bin Laden will, of course, have lost all of what he fought for on September 11, 2001. This change should come to Islam sooner rather than later, but come it must. Unless Islam is able to adapt to the modern world and change substantially, it will wane and eventually become an inconsequential and irrelevant religion.
American foreign policy should encourage that necessary transition to a new world order in Islamic nations, even as Americans make it appear that it’s happening under its own momentum.