The worst decision the British and French made at the end of the First World War was to break up the Ottoman Empire into the many states that exist today. Left intact, it would have brought about continuing stability.
The beheading of a Japanese journalist does not represent Islam. Saddam Hussein did not represent Islam. Bashar al-Assad does not represent Islam. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya did not represent Islam. The regular beheadings in Saudi Arabia for ‘crimes’ such as adultery do not represent Islam. Likewise, the US dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not represent Christianity. Nor did the torture practiced in Northern Ireland. Nor did the Buddhist-led atrocities against the Tamils of Sri Lanka represent Buddhism.
Nevertheless, it is probably true that in the late 20th century a high percentage of the world’s violent conflicts took place inside the Muslim world or against non-Muslims. But that does not mean they were supported by a majority of Muslims. Indeed, I would surmise that they were approved by less than one percent of Muslims. “The problem,” the renowned Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in his best-selling book, The Clash of Civilizations, “IS Islam” (IS in capitals is his emphasis, not mine.) It is NOT.
The Thirty Years War of the 17th century, which pitted Catholics against Protestants, wiped out one-fifth of Germany’s population. Have the Shia/Sunni conflicts of today killed that many people? No. However, it is fair to state that, unlike the west today, the Middle East — a relatively small part of the world’s Muslim population — is in most states being savaged by a legitimacy crisis, a contest over the best way to order society.
For five centuries, until 1920, the Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East and beyond, then the largest continuous empire in the world. There was both order and coherence. Although it was built upon traditional Islamic social and political institutions it tolerated some secularism. Indeed, in its later days the military and political elites pushed for it. One result in 1923 was Ataturk’s founding in Turkey the prototype new-style Muslim state that abolished an Islamic dominated society and adopted western norms and practices. The worst decision the British and French made at the end of the First World War was to break up the Ottoman Empire into the many states that exist today. Left intact, it would have brought about continuing stability. There would have been no ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and no Assad and Saddam Hussein.
Today, Professor John Owen of the University of Virginia argues in his new book, Confronting Political Islam”, “Surveys reveal that in the second decade of the 21st century most Muslims are neither secularist nor Islamist in any pure sense.” They draw their inspiration and guidance from both philosophies, even though Islamism (which we could call fundamentalism) has grown in influence over the last 100 years, even to the point that “countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan want their laws to be derived from the Quran and Hadith”. But is this much different from the conviction in Christian or ex-Christian societies that laws should follow the values and principles of the Christian religion? Moreover, in the Christian world there are many fundamentalists. Modern liberal western democracy owes much to the medieval, fundamentalist Catholic conceptions of natural rights and human rights that were pioneered by the priest William of Ockham in the 14th century.
The revolts of the so-called Arab Spring show that most Muslims in the Middle East want democracy even though they also want their country to be Islamist. An overwhelming majority of the worldwide community of two billion Muslims abhors both authoritarianism and terrorism. Not to be overlooked is that, as recently as 1945, there were only 10 democracies in the western world. In today’s world there is the danger that western politicians will follow the instincts of many in their electorate who believe that Islamism is monolithically anti-human rights. “A clear lesson of history is that treating an ideological group as a monolith helps to make it one,” writes Owen.
This can lead to western intervention. However, foreign intervention does not end violent struggles in much of the Arab world. It perpetuates them, as in Syria, Iraq and Libya where the end result is that Muslim-made law and order have disintegrated. Four centuries ago, various Hapsburg emperors fought to eradicate Protestantism but they only made the Protestants more anti-Catholic and attracted counter-intervention. Interveners do not transcend a conflict; they participate in it.
Rather, if the west wants to contribute to change, it has to seek influence by example: keeping its own house in order. With elections in the US being determined by private money or one state — Germany — over-pushing its weight in Europe, one cannot easily argue that the west is an example of democratic good behaviour. Above all, if it preaches political virtues, it must not intervene with force into the quarrels that go on inside or between some Muslim states. Nor should it get drawn into fighting on Arab soil the dastardly behaviour of terrorist movements. The Arabs themselves have to do that.