The problem isn’t Islam. It’s Muslims. That’s a critical distinction we need to make if we want to understand the motivations behind Wednesday’s massacre in Paris, and the civilizational conflict before us.
I have been to seventeen majority Muslim countries, and I greatly admire the architectural achievement of the Alhambra (in once Muslim Spain) and I love the music of Halid Beslic (Bosnia’s Frank Sinatra). But most of the places I have been in the Muslim world were bleak, depressing, backward dumps.
Ever since 9-11 and before even, we’ve been hearing “Islam is a religion of peace,” and its companion slogan “and don’t forget, the Arabs invented algebra.” Both are intellectually empty and misleading claptrap.
By “Islam” I am referring to the Koran and the recorded teachings of Muhammad. Like other ancient and sacred religious texts, soothing calls for peace and tolerance are at the core of Islamic belief. However, there are also to be found bloodcurdling summons to violence and mayhem in these same pages.
What matters more than the literal meaning of foundational documents is how people live their beliefs, what they understand their beliefs to require of them. And here is where many, not all, but far too many Muslims are mired in a dangerous swampland of fanatical and vicious barbarism.
There is immense variety among the world’s Muslim peoples ranging from Morocco on the Atlantic to Indonesia on the Pacific. Turkey is, in fits and starts, a modern success story of economic growth and modernization. The Muslims of Bosnia are friendly, tolerant, thoroughly European, and no real Bosniak would turn down a shot of plum brandy (but that same beverage might get you whipped near to death in Saudi Arabia).
But most of the great span of territory across North Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan is a barren wasteland of failing and failed states. And basically, is has been Muslims from a dozen or so countries in this extended region that constitute the biggest threat to the Western world.
By almost any measure of human development, there are universally miserable places, except for a few micro-states in the Persian Gulf. Incomes range from low to very low. Most of the standing architecture consists of shabby slabs of concrete with one available color to choose from: dirty. Public infrastructure is consistent in its shoddiness.
And, yes, the Muslims invented algebra back in the 9th century. They haven’t accomplished so much in the last seven or eight centuries. Out of over 700 Nobel laureates in the sciences, exactly one was a Muslim. The only university to make the ranking of the top 200 universities comes in 199th place, and it’s in Turkey.
Corruption is endemic, with these Muslim societies vying with ex-Soviet republics for the very bottom rungs of Transparency International’s annual rankings.
The only things in abundance are ignorance and “dignitude,” dignity’s shabby cousin. Crazy conspiracy theories that in America only the unhinged subscribe to are conventional wisdom. I have heard repeatedly people tell me in dead seriousness that of course Jews control every aspect of life in America, certainly even a child should know that. And that the CIA and Mossad planned and carried out 9-11.
And dignitude is a powerful and carefully cultivated psychological trait. There is an overwhelming sense that America and Europe owe these particular Muslims a thousand apologies for innumerable historic wrongs.
And most cutting is the notably inglorious record of Muslim military valor. The fact that Israel, a laughably small country, could repeatedly defeat the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq strikes people as a cruel trick of fate, explainable only by dark and mysterious forces acting against the Muslims.
And so they rage against the developed world and demand what they consider justice. And what might this justice consist of? Well, for starters, the destruction of Israel. And a blanket prohibition of any criticism of them or their culture or religion. (Note: they themselves would reserve the right to mock other religions, to repress and even murder their adherents, and destroy their sacred objects.)
Of the 1.6 billion people on the planet who are Muslim, many are fine, decent people. But there is a huge undrained swampland stretching from Casablanca to Karachi, filled with plenty of irrationally angry, dangerous fundamentalist fanatics. And in our modern world with its largely open borders, some of them and their fellow adherents with US or EU citizenship pose a deadly threat to the civilized world.
So what is to be done? We should make clear that we accord respect to Islam as one of the world’s great religions, but we also demand unequivocally demand respect for our basic values, including free speech and the right to criticize and even mock others. Beyond that, there are serious challenges before us, including the need for vigilance without succumbing to fear, and the need for effective policing without creating a police state, and reasonable controls on immigration without closing ourselves off to productive and loyal potential new citizens.
The West staved off the Ottomans, defeated the Nazis, and buried the Soviets. We can and will rise to this occasion.