Islam and the West -- A Riddle Without a Solution?

A couple of days ago I was brought up short while reading this:

What in these days differentiates Muslim from Christian militancy is that ... the Muslims are two or three centuries out of date because no secularist tradition has taken root amongst them.

The writer is not, as you might imagine, a Tea Party or UKIP supporter, but rather the distinguished Christian monk and theologian H A Williams, who was (he died in 2006) a close confident and friend of Charles, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. The extract suggests a view similar to, and as controversial as, that of Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist who famously declared that Islam was a religion "dripping in blood".

Yet Harry Williams was not aiming to poke a hornets' nest. His argument was not so much that radical Islam was outdated, as that Christianity used to be as bad or worse. It is worth quoting Williams in the full context:

... the persecution and massacre of Jews and dissidents were not invented by Hitler and Stalin. They merely took over and continued what the Christian Church had done for centuries. The horror was greater because technology had made the processes of cruelty and murder more efficient. But the will to persecute and slaughter was in the first instance the will of Christian believers. And if we find such activities totally abhorrent so that it is painful for us even to think of them, that is chiefly due to the rise of secularism ... This needs to be remembered when we consider Muslim militancy. What in these days differentiates Muslim from Christian militancy is that from the point of view of Western culture the Muslims are two or three centuries out of date because no secularist tradition has taken root amongst them.

He goes on to argue that the moderation of modern Christianity is due to the secular tradition of liberalism and individualism, which has very little to do with Christianity: "what Christians now believe about tolerance and the sacred right of individuals to discover and hold their own convictions owes much more to people like Voltaire and John Stuart Mill than to any Christian thinkers".

This seems to me to raise two vital questions for the future of the world:

(1) Is Williams right that the "secular" values of liberalism and individualism are independent of religion?

(2) Is a possible implication of the Muslims being "out of date" that Islamic religion, society, and business will catch up with current Western values, perhaps quite rapidly as a result of globalization?

I believe that the answer to both questions is a resounding No - and that the current optimism about how Islam will develop is foolhardy and dangerous. Let's address the two questions in turn.

Are liberalism and individualism independent of religion?

Let me first agree with Harry Williams that Christianity had, and still has, a strain - and a stain - within it that is as bloodthirsty as anything Islam has to offer. If you want to read something truly anti-Semitic, you couldn't do better than peruse Saint Matthew's gospel, where Christ is made to say some appalling things about "the Jews". And if you want something sadistic and vindictive about the tribulations awaiting enemies of the Christian God, turn to the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, which is so ghastly that I still cannot believe it was ever included in what is principally a liberating and benign collection of books, or that decent Christians in the last three centuries have not cut it out of the Bible.

I do not need to mention the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the craze to torture and kill alleged witches in the late medieval/early modern period. Nor the invocations against the Jews pronounced by many Popes throughout history, and by Martin Luther, holding the Jews responsible for the brutal murder of the Son of God - views that led slowly but surely to the Nazi gas chambers.

Yet, within that same very broad Christian tradition, came the development of both liberalism and individualism - something that would almost certainly not have happened without the liberating brand of Christianity which exploded in the first and second centuries.

The gospels - both the official ones and even more the "Gnostic" ones which were probably earlier and more authentic, but were later suppressed by Church authorities - are full of truly revolutionary and subversive thought. Jesus focussed to a remarkable extent on sinners, prostitutes, the oppressed, the sick, and the lame. All were loved by God and worthy of human respect.

It was Paul the Apostle - the first "Christian" to write anything about the new religion - who gave the first statement of humankind's equality and fraternity. In a statement that was not taken seriously by anyone for at least the next seventeen centuries, he said that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Primitive Christianity was the most radical, liberating, egalitarian, and inclusive faith ever enunciated, smashing down the barriers between people, and even between individuals and God. It was no accident that the West was the only civilization ever voluntarily to abolish the slave trade, and then slavery itself; the first to banish starvation and drive back disease; the first to legislate social support for all citizens; the first to award freedom and equality first to ordinary men, then to women, and then to everyone regardless of race, color, disability, or sexual preference.

Secular liberalism is a priceless and unique part of the Christian heritage, and would not have happened without it. It's just as true of individualism. Through Christ, God suddenly acquired a new location - within the believer, in the human spirit. The idea of individuality - previously shadowy - was stressed in a totally new way, linked to God, and to the ability to explore one's inner depths. "The kingdom of heaven," said Jesus, "is within you, and also outside you." It was the access to divine power that made self-improvement possible. Individualism was linked to the obligation and the possibility of improving one's spirit, and thus returning to whence the spirit came - from heaven, from God.

Now, of course, individualism is not necessarily linked to any belief in Christ or God. The idea that every individual has personality, inner depths, and a unique spirit or self is something that everyone in the West takes for granted. Yet this awareness did not exist before Christianity, and has only become fully developed in the last 500 years.

Will Islamic consciousness "catch up" with Western secular values?

Harry Williams seemed to assume that it was only a matter of time before Islam, like all civilizations, adopted Western liberal and individualistic values. Once these secular values had triumphed, radical Islam would cease to be dangerous.

But hang on. The assumption that other civilizations will adopt Western values is wrong on two grounds. First, it is wrong conceptually and historically. The West became liberal and individualistic because of Christianity, even though, and perhaps because, the full flowering of these values came after the Church surrendered its power to tell us what to do. The triumph of liberalism and individualism would have been impossible without the unique Christian heritage.

Second, it is wrong because all the empirical evidence shows it is wrong. The Dutch sociologist, Geert Hofstede, spent his life investigating values and attitudes across different civilizations. His incredible collection of data had unambiguous results:

The evidence showed that there was no international convergence of cultural values over time, except for increased individualism for countries having become richer. Value differences between nations described centuries ago are still present today, in spite of close contacts. For the next few hundred years, countries will remain culturally very diverse.

A popular business slogan is: 'Think globally, act locally.' To me this phrase is both naïve and arrogant. No one can think globally. We all think according to our local software.

Psychologist Richard Nisbett has studied Western and Eastern patterns of thought and his conclusions are very similar to those of Hofstede:

East and West are in general quite distinct from each other with regard to a great many centrally important values and social-psychological attributes ... Differences between Easterners and Westerners have been found in virtually every study we have undertaken and they are usually large.

When a different kind of religion is piled on top of these findings - a religion whose very name involves "submission" and the subjugation of the self to external religious authority - it is a safe bet that Islamic societies will either never embrace Western-style individualism and liberalism, or will be the very last societies to do so many centuries hence.

Conclusion

Islam is unlikely to follow the process whereby fiery, militant Christianity - a deviant form of the original religion - became domesticated and secularized. If so, this poses hard questions about the future relationship between the West and Islam. The problem is not confined, as usually described by well-meaning but ignorant politicians and commentators, to a tiny minority of Islamic extremists. 'Extremism' is only meaningful when there is a central body of opinion that is quite different. That is not the case with Islam. The only difference between extremists and others is that the former act on the convictions which are shared by most people in the culture. Neither liberals nor conservatives in the West have yet come anywhere near confronting this issue properly or proposing a viable solution. We all have our heads, as it were, in the sand. This may prove to be the hardest issue facing us in the rest of this century.

For the next ten weeks, I will be reprising the top ten most popular blogs I have ever written. The first one will appear on Tuesday July 21st.