I have written many previous essays on Islamist terrorism which is underpinned by a fundamentalist belief in Islam. I have examined the genesis of Islam and its initial success as not only a religious movement but as a colonising military force which resulted in the century or two after the death of Muhammad in a huge geographical expansion. Today’s Islamic fundamentalism is based on the belief that if the adherents of Islam could only replicate the beliefs, habits and practices of Muhammad’s time then surely Islam could regain the ascendency of that golden era of almost a millennium and a half ago. This fanciful belief ignores the lessons of history.
Human belief systems were originally predicated on the premise that the earth was the centre of the universe and had been created by a deity for the exclusive benefit of Mankind. Traditional religions were based on the notion that the principle creation of the deity was Mankind and mostly everything else was designed to support the progress and sustenance of God’s principal creation, human beings. Coupled with this was the belief that the religious writings that underpinned these belief systems were literally the word of God and those that challenged them were dangerous miscreants that voiced their doubts in the face of threats to their own lives.
But as we saw in last week’s essay, in the West from the seventeenth century, these premises began to be seriously tested. In the face of scientific advancement the authority of the church began to decline. To begin with, the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler and Galileo challenged the notion that the universe was geocentric.
As science developed instead of Mankind being the principal creation of the deity, occupying the earth which was the centre of the universe, it began to appear that Mankind seemed to be a serendipitous outcome of cosmic processes that happened to arise on a rather inconsequential planet in a multitudinous universe. Finally after Darwin we were left to ponder whether the deity had any part to play in the process at all.
In the wake of all this, it is not surprising that Western societies became increasingly more secular and even those who continued to harbour religious beliefs conceded that much of the religious literature comprised of folk myths which could not be literally true but whose metaphors and parables still taught us much about the human condition.
The declining influence of the church facilitated social progress. The divine right of kings was challenged and Western societies began to promote libertarian values like freedom of speech and the right of all citizens to have a say in the government of their own countries. These were not easy battles and the gradual move to democracy and the recognition of the rights of the individual claimed many casualties along the way. (And recent events, particularly the so-called “Arab Spring” seem to indicate to me that democracy and the recognition of the rights of the individual are not concepts to be imposed successfully on societies without appropriate preparation which has historically taken centuries.)
As the Christian West prospered (albeit with some diminution of the authority of religion) in the East Islamic communities stagnated (whilst their religious beliefs continued to dominate). In comparison with the West, most Islamic communities with the exception of Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, have languished in their economic development. And the aforementioned countries benefitted from the fact that their democracies were established in a secular rather than a religious environment. (It is concerning that Islamic fundamentalists are threatening these secular democracies as I write.)
The places where the Islamic pre-modern mindset dominates are mostly places of religious strife and backwardness.
It seems to me fair to say that the heroes of and martyrs of enlightenment (scientists and philosophers) who struggled against the forces of darkness (superstition and ignorance) may have displaced Mankind from the centre of the physical universe but in the process liberated Mankind.
The British philosopher A C Grayling makes a distinction between those who have accepted the precepts of the scientific enlightenment and those who hold steadfastly to the religious traditions of antiquity. The former he accredits with the “new mind” and the latter with the “old mind”. The paradox, as he points out, is that those under the sway of the “old mind” have no hesitation in using the products of the “new mind” to advance their cause. As a result we have Islamist Jihadists from communities that have few of the benefits of modern society using anti-aircraft missiles, mobile phones and computers to prosecute their struggle against modernity!
Whilst those of the old mind oppress their native societies with fundamentalist religious based dogma it hardly seems to bring joy to their populations, because at the first opportunity many flee to the liberated Western countries. There has in recent decades been a huge migration from fundamentalist Islamic countries to the West. The traffic in the other direction is negligible.
Now the problem that faces our modern Western democracies is that we have a fundamentalist Islamist movement that has partnered its backward-looking religious dogma with the technologies of Western modernity in an ambitious attempt to re-establish the international domination of Islam’s “golden age”. Its objective is to establish a totalitarian regime run by despotic Imams and Ayatollahs and to impose on the peoples under its dominion Sharia Law. Sharia Law is an archaic, barbaric set of decrees that subjugates women, vilifies homosexuals, denies religious freedom and is an anathema to the accepted freedoms practiced in Western democracies.
The dilemma this creates for us is that one of the freedoms promoted in our democracies is the freedom of religion. As a result we try to accommodate people of all religious beliefs in our democratic societies. But fundamentalist Islam, particularly in the form of Sharia Law is inimical to democracy and the freedoms we enjoy in the West. By accommodating their archaic, illiberalities in this way we are jeopardising what we value dearest.
I am not advocating closing down debate on religion. In fact I think we must counter these fundamentalist propositions by reasoned debate. In the end we need to win the battle of ideas. But meanwhile we should not tolerate enclaves of these people in our societies demanding they be allowed to carry out their sixth century practices in twenty first century Australia. I am not so concerned with dress codes or dietary prohibitions but we should not in the name of tolerance allow female genital mutilation, polygamy, death for apostasy, stoning for perceived moral offences, and so on. And nor should we allow in any circumstances for Sharia Law to apply in place of those derived by democratic processes by our various legislatures.