Sharp Blue: Fundamentalist Islam’s cargo cult


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My take on the radical fringe of Islam is that it’s a sort of cargo cult.

I think that fundamentally most people everywhere want prosperity and security for themselves and their families, and a sense that they’re respected. The Islamic world once had all of those things. For the period from, say, AD800 to AD1400, Islam was one of the world’s two most powerful civilisations (especially in the period when an expansionist Abbasid Caliphate skirmished with China’s T’ang dynasty in central Asia). Indeed, even at the end of that period the great conqueror Temur-i-Lang thought that the important parts of the world were the Islamic states, India and China, and that Europe was too insignificant to bother conquering. Since then, the position of the dar al-Islam relative to the European civilisation has clearly shifted dramatically in favour of Europe and its overseas extensions. For the last two centuries, the once mighty Islamic world has suffered military reverses, the dismemberment of its last major empire, and near total colonisation by Western powers. The essential problem facing us today is that the model used by the radical Islamists to explain this immense political, economic and social cataclysm is utterly incorrect.

The reason for the explosive expansion of the Arab armies was partially the unity given them by Islam, but was mostly the weakness of the Roman and Persian empires in the aftermath of their final apocalyptic war. Following that expansion, the reason for the prosperity of the Islamic states in the AD800 to AD1400 period wasn’t their adherence to strict Islamic laws - in fact most of them were pretty lax about applying such things - but their position straddling the trade routes crossing Asia. For most of that period, the most important trade routes in the world were the “silk roads” that ran from Chang’an in the east through the Tarim basin or the northern foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, through Samarkand and the other great trading cities of Central Asia, into Persia and Iraq and then to the Levantine ports on the Mediterranean and south into Egypt. The power and wealth of Islam were the result of its openness and encouragement of trade. Then later the Atlantic states of Europe mastered the art of oceanic navigation, discovered America and bypassed the silk roads by opening up direct contact with India, the East Indies and China. As transcontinental trade dried up, so the Islamic world supported by that trade began the long, slow decline from its brilliant apogee into today’s decrepitude.

Unfortunately, the radical Islamists don’t see it that way. One of the characteristics of Islam is that the success of Islam-the-religion and the success of Islam-the-states are closely tied together in the minds of many Muslims (certainly more so than the two kinds of success are in the minds of Christians). Attacks on the dar al-Islam are easily seen as attacks on Islam itself, and failures of the dar al-Islam are easily considered the effects of moral failings on the parts of the people. In my opinion, the radical Islamists have built a cargo cult on this basis: they see the recapitulation of the forms of Muslim behaviour from the great days of Islam as the key to regaining prosperity, security and respect. But the shallow aping of forms misses the deep reasons for the success of Islam.

This is seen most clearly in the case of the Taliban, whose viewpoint seems to be that the relative poverty and impotence of Afghanistan isn’t due to the withering of trade through the region (which once supported some of the most magnificent and rich cities in the world) or other more recent but secondary historical factors but is caused by the people not being strict enough or literal enough in their interpretations of the Koran and application of the Sharia. It’s also apparent in the web of international Islamic terrorism, which seeks to regain the greatness of the Islamic world through fantasies of recapitulating the heroic military actions of the first armies of Islam against the infidels. Unfortunately, although these attitudes are clearly idiocy of the first order to most of us, they are pretty seductive to certain groups of people both inside and outside the Islamic world. Equally unfortunately, they are doomed to failure and generally deleterious to the well-being both of Islam and the dar al-Islam.

Quite how we can convince people in the regions where the failure of the Islamic states is most total that the things they ought to be emulating from the glorious past of Islam are openness to trade, toleration, meritocracy, egality, respect and encouragement for science and scholarship and so forth, I just don’t know. I think the admission of Turkey - former heartland of Islam’s last great empire - into the European Union will be an important step. Engaging with the educated, partially Westernised elites of Iran might be another. But the near total failure of the heartlands of Islam to provide anything like a viable model for the organisation of modern industrial societies is an immense and complex problem to solve, and certainly not amenable to the sorts of quick and easy fixes that the more primitivist branches of Islam are desperate to try (or, for that matter the equally quick and easy fixes favoured by neo-conservatives).

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