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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Islam's Impact?

Many people talk about the growth of Islam. It is said to be one of the fastest growing religions in America. There were protests in London last week regarding the "Islamification of Europe." To be sure, Islam is advancing in many parts of the world. But that is only half the story. In western societies (and many others too) there is a contemporary religious revival going on. The world in general is getting more religious.

Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam. America of course, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains solidly secular (but offended by Islam's advance there). But I believe there is something we could notice. It is that the Muslim world in general seems to resist secularization. So if you look at the Muslim world's social, economic and moral failures, as well as the terrorists groups within Islam, it might seem that the problem is not too much Islam --- but rather too little Islam.

Islam is a civilization framework that rests on the tripod of private ritual, public ethics and individual spiritual striving. The legs of that tripod must balance each other. But the current Islamic "revival" (or advance) is operating only in the field of religiosity: focusing on naked symbols and rules, proclaiming the superiority of Islam while adopting indiscriminately the technology, economics and cultural products of the west. It emphasizes Sharia law as a set of fixed boundaries and even punishments --- rather than a framework of what's possible based on principled living. The public realm of Islam is too often reduced to the state, and the political agenda of these states seems to be simply to seize control of the society and repress it. How forward is that?

The result of how Islam is advancing seems to be an unworkable and dysfunctional union of inner and outer worlds. They're symbolized by contradictions in Muslim landscapes. Home interiors are spotlessly clean, for example, while the streets of Muslim neighborhoods are trashy. In some third world Islamic areas, they look downright nasty! Islam has traditionally been viewed by its participants as being characterized by generosity, courtesy, hospitality and warmth. But most of the world sees little of that nature and character today. Islam isn't known for its charity to the poor, for example.

So what's happened? Simply put, we are seeing the advance of Islam in the world. But it is a watered-down brand of Islam that is advancing. That is very different from the Islam of history. Remember that Islam suffered true military defeat by colonial powers many years ago. Since then, it has experienced a traumatic rupture instead of an evolution into modernity. These are not the times of the infamous crusades.

For decades, colonial rule was blamed for the dismantling the institutions of Islam. Then westernized leaders were blamed. But let's look at reality. The Wahabi House of Saud (Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy) has, for instance, demolished about 95% of the historical buildings in the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. They blamed it on "fear of idolatry." But it appears that they did so really just to make way for the true gods of the modern times: consumer outlets and gated accommodation. Meanwhile, Gulf city-states are characterized by rampant commercialism, brand worship, gigantism, strict class segregation and a calendar of festivals and events designed by marketers. While they proclaim to be Muslim - they work very hard to look and act western.

The economic news is worse still. For all the oil wealth and bragged about capitalism, the 57 member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (the OIC) account for 22% of the the global population - but generate only 6% of the world GDP. An Islamic alms tax (zakat) of 2.5% on the sovereign wealth funds of Gulf countries would produce an annual $75 billion wealth transfer to the poorest Muslim countries. But it isn't on anyone's agenda for the Muslim countries to use their vast wealth to help the poor. So the wealth transfer is just one direction --- from the west to the middle east.

Key Islamic values like justice, fairness and education have also been ignored. Meanwhile, and illusory counter movement to the collapse has been led in the Sunni world by Wahhabism. This puritanical reform movement is painfully literalistic, unimaginative and viciously sectarian. As anti-intellectual as it is anti-mystical, it rejects the flexibility of the traditional schools of law. It's influence has been projected far beyond the Arabian desert by oil money and by the ungodly Saudi-US alliance. An example would be the more than 3,000 Islam mosques the Saudi government has built in the U.S. The result is a schizophrenic response to the west - passivity and collaboration on the one hand, terrorism on the other. What are Islam's true colors?

So while Islam continues to advance globally, its own architects seem to water it down to such an extent that it becomes simply a modern-day religion. In that context, it is no more dangerous --- or effective --- than any of the other false religions that are advancing in this world. So perhaps the only real question is whether or not Christianity can make a better showing than Islam. And frankly, that's another day's blogging entirely --- because Christianity's advance hasn't fared much better!

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