Seeing Things: Unveiling Islam

Since September 11, 2002, a tidal wave of books has engulfed us, allegedly aimed at remedying what our media frequently remind us is our ignorance about Islam. The media themselves are no small part of the problem. For example, in April 2002, U.S. News & World Report asserted: “During the Crusades, East and West first met—on the battlefield,” a telling error that gives the impression that those awful Christian Crusaders started the fight, overlooking the violence that was already in full swing 500 years earlier when Muslim warriors swiftly conquered the Middle East and Christian North Africa, achieved partial military successes in Spain, France, Italy, and the Balkans, and threatened for some time all of Europe. Yet Western media and popular accounts seem wedded to the view that if only we weren’t so belligerent and parochial, we would recognize our own sins and Islam’s just anger.

In their Islam at the Crossroads (Baker Books, 2002), Paul Marshall, Roberta Green, and Leila Gilbert offer a brief and accessible account of central Muslim beliefs, the long and complex history of Muslim lands, and a balanced, but clear-eyed, assessment of the current situation in the Muslim world. They make clear that Islam, for all its spiritual and cultural achievements, has been in conflict with the West for almost 1,500 years, that is, long before the West’s dominance or alleged threats. For much of that time, Islam was the dominant world culture and its relative weakness over the past 400 years—whatever its internal and external causes—should not deceive us into thinking that if we only changed our ways all would be well.

Though these authors make every reasonable effort to explain and present Islam fairly, they do not turn away from the implications of certain strong strands in Muslim history, President George W. Bush may, for political purposes, repeat as much as he likes that “Islam is a religion of peace.” And so it is for the vast majority of its adherents, who devoutly pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and donate a percentage of their income to the poor—three of the principal practices of Islam. But there is no ignoring the fact that violence—conquest, internal warfare for leadership, assassinations (only one of the first four caliphs died a natural death), and the slaughter of “heretics”—marked Islam from the time of Mohammed, who was also a military leader. The various empires that arose on this heritage made great cultural strides along with armed con-quests. The great Islamicist Bernard Lewis has argued that, by contrast, the Crusades can be described as “a limited, belated, and in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad, a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.”

All that slowly broke up in recent centuries, irrevocably with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Today, Arabs make up only 20 percent of Muslims (the largest Muslim countries are in East Asia; Indonesia alone probably has more Muslims than the entire Middle East). So the claims that Islam is a complex religion are true; besides the sophistication that develops in any world religion, it takes on differing colors in different cultures. But it remains a serious question whether Islam proper can come to terms with the modern world. Freedom and prosperity are statistically lagging in Muslim countries. A religion that not only does not practice but theologically denies the separation of church and state will always have problems dealing with political disappointments, especially when what seemed like the guiding hand of God gave it success for its first 1,000 years.

One of the ways to understand contemporary Muslim “extremism,” then, is as a traditional response to an unprecedented situation. With the dis-appearance of the Ottoman Empire, for the first time in history, 90 percent of Muslims found themselves under the rule of European infidels. The four countries that did not had deep problems all the same: Turkey took an innovative path and became officially secular; Iran turned West under the Shah, then reacted with a hardline coup; Afghanistan also flirted with the West before falling to the Taliban; Saudi Arabia, as we see to our sorrow, became a U.S. ally (allowing infidel troops for the first time on the soil of Mohammed), but its ruling family also promoted extremist Wahhabism.

The current widespread belief among Muslims that the West controls their destiny has some elements of truth—Western military, economic, and cultural power are unmatched in the modern world. But it is hard not to get the impression that this belief also stems from a sense of Muslim failure. Many of the most ruthless fundamentalists have had significant experience of the West—which, contrary to the usual mythology, only confirmed them in radical ideas, much as an earlier generation of Third-World Communist leaders took their ideologies from Western universities. Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood spent from 1948 to 1950 (i.e., long before the rise of the counterculture) in America studying education, which “led him to believe that the West was evil. He attacked Christianity, the role of Jews, capitalism, materialism, and the role of women.” Ayatollah Khomeini lived for years in Paris before returning to rule Iran. Hassan al-Turabi studied law in London and Paris, after which he became the theorist of the murderous Muslim regime in Sudan, and helped shelter Saudi multimillionaire Osama bin Laden.

So in spite of large numbers of peaceful Muslims, many influential leaders, whether religious, intellectual, or political, take a quite belligerent stance toward the rest of the world. Imagine that in the West, besides decent God-fearing people and an occasional noteworthy exception, the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, the presidents of the World and National Councils of Churches, bishops and pastors worldwide, highly respected professors of religion, heads of various states, and the leader of religious movements were at the forefront of advocating and leading anti-Muslim terrorism, and you get a rough mirror image of the adversaries we face in the Arab world.

Islam at the Crossroads warns us not to be deluded by crypto-Marxist explanations that Muslim terrorism is “really” about poverty, globalization, Israel, U.S. Middle East policy, or other secular causes. “All these claims are either false or of secondary importance,” the authors argue. Muslim terrorism is fueled by various religious claims and aspirations. The vast majority of Muslims regard these religious notions as a corruption or a perversion of Islam. But the authors have shown that there are deep roots to the modern movements that are not foreign to historical Islam, and few are willing to take the risk of criticizing them. Moderate Islam exists, and we should try to engage and foster it. But in the end, Muslims themselves will have to deal with the forces of corruption, oppression, and extremism in their own tradition.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...