Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses, the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints, and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike. Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say their Word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.
- Thomas Paine (1736-1809), The Age of Reason
Our newspapers and our TV news bulletins have been full of the threat modern Western democracies are facing from the savagery of fundamentalist Islam. They headline each successive terrorist attack on our largely peaceful societies and record the appalling inhumanity that is played out in their efforts to consolidate a Muslim Caliphate based on a medieval barbaric ideology. These activities pose a great threat to civilised society whose basic tenets of tolerance, free speech and democracy are despised by the fundamentalists.
Of course I don’t mean to imply that fundamentalism is only a problem with Islam. Fundamentalism in Christianity has its own difficulties, particularly its American evangelical variety, resulting in schools being compelled to teach pseudo-science, homosexuality being demonised, impeding stem-cell research and trying to impose other such indignities on an otherwise liberal society. But the Christian fundamentalists have neither the reach nor the impact of their Islamic counterparts.
It is interesting to review the history of the struggle between Islam and Christendom. After the death of the Prophet, Islam expanded cancerously throughout the Middle East and northern Africa, and finally into Europe via the Iberian Peninsula. Islam was unrelenting. It progressed by the way of the sword, demanding conversion to the faith. This was the golden era of Islam and today’s Islamic terrorists are inspired to emulate that early success. But they are misguided. The Christendom that was their tenacious foe in Europe for two hundred years from the early 11th century no longer exists. The Crusaders are now only a memory. They have been displaced as the Christian Church modernised and largely liberalised as their religion evolved over the centuries. But even more than that, the European community has become increasingly secular with less and less motivation to fight religious wars.
Despite the fact that there are fundamental differences between the various Islamist sects the principal feature they share is that they propagate a totalitarian theocracy which attempts to compel belief in Islam and impose Sharia law which is derived from an interpretation of God’s will as outlined in the Koran and associated dogma. (The only strand of Islam that seems immune from this problem is Sufism, which is much more spiritually inclined and does not insist the Koran and other related writings should be taken literally.)
In sum Sharia law is the total collection of theoretical laws that apply in an ideal Muslim community that has surrendered to the will of God. It is based on divine authority that must be accepted without criticism. Islamic law is thus not a product of human intelligence, and in no way reflects a constantly changing or evolving social reality. It is immutable! Now this is of course an important point. In most liberal democracies laws evolve as societies do. Sharia law will never change. It has been ordained by God himself!
But the Islamic totalitarianism is even worse than you thought. Islam preaches that nothing happens in human concourse except that which has been decreed by Allah! Everything that any human being does was already preordained. In the face of such fatalism it is hard to imagine why anyone would willingly subscribe to such a belief unless it was to take advantage of the mindless thought that one could not be held accountable.
Ibn Warraq is the nom de plume of a scholarly ex-Muslim who is obliged to keep his true identity a secret because of the wrath of Islam for those who have deserted the faith. With respect to Sharia law he writes as follows:
We may well ask how a law whose elements were first laid down over a thousand years ago, and whose substance has not evolved with the times can possibly be relevant in the twentieth century. The sharia only reflects the social and economic conditions of the time of the early Abbasids* and has simply grown out of touch with all the latest developments – social, economic and moral. It seems improbable but we have progressed morally: we no longer regard women as chattel that we can dispose of as we will: we no longer believe that those who do not share our religious beliefs are not worthy of equal respect: we even accord children and animals rights. But as long as we continue to regard the Koran as eternally true, with an answer for all the problems of the modern world we will have no progress. The principals enshrined in the Koran are inimical to moral progress.
(*The Abbasids were the dynasty of Caliphs that ruled Islam from around 750 AD until the Mongol conquest in 1258 AD.)
Rather than being a saving gift bestowed on Islam, Sharia law is a stultifying factor impeding any possibility of reasonable progress in any community that has the misfortune to be subjected to it.
As Christopher Hitchins wrote in 2007:
Under the stultified rule of religion, the great and inventive and sophisticated civilisation of Persia has been steadily losing its pulse. Its writers and artists and intellectuals are mainly in exile or stifled by censorship; its women are chattel and sexual prey; its young people are mostly half-educated and without employment. After a quarter century of theocracy, Iran still exports the very things it exported when the theocrats took over – pistachio nuts and rugs. Modernity and technology have passed it by, save for the one achievement of nuclearization.
So the Islamist fundamentalists are locked in a time warp. They are besotted with the idea of overcoming the crusaders despite the fact that the crusaders have largely vacated the planet. They see their war as a battle between the competing faiths of Islam and Christendom. And here they are greatly mistaken! By and large the Christians in Western societies have been gradually, but inexorably displaced by the secularists.
On the other hand, many in the West are concerned that the higher fertility rates of Muslim populations means that Christian societies will eventually be dominated through the sheer weight of a burgeoning Islamic population. (I can remember when some shared the same concerns about Catholics!) But they are wrong – fertility rates in most Muslim communities are now falling and even more importantly, secularism is growing everywhere, including in Muslim communities.
In June 2012, political economist Nicholas Eberstadt and colleague Apoorva Shah published a paper in Hoover Institution’s Policy Review which was titled Fertility Decline in the Muslim World. In it, they argue that fertility rates have declined all over the Muslim world and that predominantly-Muslim countries have taken a steeper dive than any countries in history. In the last 30 odd years the birth rate for women in Muslim majority countries has fallen by an estimated 2.6 births per woman. They point out that many among the major Muslim countries (including Iran, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Libya, Albania, Qatar and Kuwait) have seen a decline in birth rates of 60% over that period.
In a recent article in The Times, science writer Matt Ridley commented on the fact that the impact of religious fundamentalism, and in particular Islamic fundamentalism, was being diminished by the growing body of atheism. He points out that whilst Muslims account for some 20% of the world’s population, now 15% of those living in Muslim communities identify as being non-religious even though it is often dangerous for them to admit this, and this group is experiencing the fastest growth. I suppose the surprising thing here is that the ranks of unbelievers is swelling fastest despite no one preaching or evangelising in favour of humanism. Against all odds, in the long run reason seems to prevail!
It makes such people (the nonbelievers) harder to deal with in so far as they have reached their own conclusion about belief whereas most adherents to traditional religion have merely mirrored the beliefs of their, families, their peers or their communities and often under great duress to do so.
Ridley, after contemplating the falling birth rate in Muslim communities and the inexorable rise of secularism, concludes his piece by stating:
Nevertheless don’t lose sight of the big picture. If we hold our resolve, stop the killers, root out the hate preachers, encourage the reformers and stem the tide of militant Islamism, then secularism and milder forms of religion will win in the long run.
We can only hope he is right!
We could do worse than listen to the advice of the German poet, essayist and journalist, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who wrote:
In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch black night a blind man is the best guide: he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.