In conversation, an acquaintance asserted flat out that Islam is a bad thing. The former soldier contended that Muslims yearn to conquer the world. “What they’re doing is evil. I don’t consider them human. I think they should all be eliminated.”
Another member of our little discussion group declared that the U.S. must go on the offensive against Muslim nations before it’s too late. “By the time we get our act together, they’ll have conquered us.”
What both speakers wanted to impress on me was the idea that Islam is a malignant system that will, unless cut away, metastasize all over the planet. The strength of their conviction took me aback; nonplussed, I had no response. For garrulous me, this is pretty rare.
I’ve argued in the past that tribes regard outsiders as sub-human, and that politics is a tribal process. I would have smiled at how neatly their statements fit into my theory, except their vehemence unnerved me.
Later, in the shower, I realized what I’d wanted to say to them. (Sometimes we are at our best under the warm massage of the spray. I’m thinking of the Woody Allen movie where this brilliant opera star can only sing onstage while bathing. Where was my shower stall when I needed it?)
Islam is one of the three major missionary religions on the planet. The other two are Christianity and Buddhism. By “missionary” I mean a system which has the ultimate goal of converting everyone to its beliefs.
Not all religions are missionary. Hinduism and Judaism, for example, have little or no interest in promulgating their doctrines worldwide.
Over the centuries, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have used several means to advance into new territory. Christianity was a backwater faith until a Roman Emperor decided to make it the state religion; in no time it was practiced by tens of millions of Europeans. Later it was transplanted to the Western Hemisphere by explorers; sometimes warfare was employed to convert the natives. Today nearly one third of the world is Christian.
Somewhat similarly, in 260 BC Buddhism was adopted as the state religion of the Asokan empire in India. From there, emissaries took it eastward to China and Southeast Asia. Buddhism adapted easily, overlaying itself atop local customs, so that today you can be a Taoist and a Buddhist or a Confucianist and a Buddhist or practice Shinto and Zen. (Strangely, the one place that has ceased to be Buddhist is India itself.) Between half and a billion humans are Buddhist, depending on how you count them.
In the 600s Islam burst from Arabia to conquer the Middle East and northern Africa. Warfare was the chief method of conversion. Today, well over a billion people perform the evening prayers to Mecca. Muslims are taught by the Koran to make “jihad” (“struggle”) with the non-Muslim world, so it’s understandable that the recent rise of militant Islam — especially when Mohammedan immigrants pour into Europe, form communities, then demand Sharia law — can give Christians nightmares.
What occurred to me in the shower was that there is, today, a fourth missionary movement making inroads all over the world. While not, strictly speaking, a theology, it displays tremendous evangelical fervor. Like the three major missionary religions, it wants to convert the world.
I’m referring to Western liberal democracy — mainly the Progressive variety, with its emphasis on uplifting the meek, empowerment through voting, and managing society with government. In the decades since the Second World War, this belief system has reigned triumphant over most of the West, and — in a somewhat imperial process — has imbued much of the rest of the world with its values. And it fell to America, its economic and military might unchallenged, to export these beliefs about human dignity, opportunity, and freedom.
This has caused a tectonic shift in world culture. Today, with the collapse of the Communist movement, almost nothing stands in the way. (Ever-adaptive Buddhism has, in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, ingested these democratic tenets with nary a burp.)
Well, almost nothing blocks the path of liberal democracy. Islam — flush with petrodollars, its population overflowing into Europe, its adherents enthusiastically annoyed with Israel — has inspired itself with the alluring idea that the problems of the Middle East will be alleviated by bringing Jihad to Europe and America.
My conservative acquaintances might very well be correct in fearing the plans of the more ambitious Muslim combatants. After all, many of our most cherished traditions — democracy, freedom of worship, gender equality — run counter to deeply held tenets of the Islamists. And most Muslim societies are managed under Sharia law, by which the Koran, and not the secular public, dictates the rules of governance.
So it’s Progressivism versus Mohammedanism. And that gets to my point: Why are we so worked up about Islam trying to change the world when we’ve been doing the same thing for decades??
Like militant Islam, ours is a moral crusade. Like them, we are certain that we have the correct way of life for all of humanity. Like them, we sometimes use force to convince our foreign neighbors it’s in their interest to ape our attitudes and practices.
Yet we get angry that Islamic countries might be scheming to do the same. This is the pot calling the kettle black.
I’m no advocate for Islam — I’d probably be one of the first to have his head chopped off by an invading Muslim’s scimitar — but my point is that it’s disingenuous to bitch and moan about a militant missionary movement when our culture sponsors a process that’s embarrassingly similar. We fear threats from Arabia, but we’re the ones who invaded Iraq, removed its government, and forced that country to adopt Western liberal values. (Not that it worked very well, but we sure tried.) We’re the ones who supported a democratic rebellion in North Africa with missiles and bombs. We’re the ones who persist in believing we can solve world problems by converting foreigners, at gunpoint, to our way of life. We are the invaders, not them.
In fact, we violate our own beliefs when we crusade for them. We try to force others to adopt our notions of freedom. Forced freedom? Behind the scenes, our diplomats backseat-drive foreign governments, nagging and threatening until the locals do things our way. These tactics represent American values?
Most commentators come down in one of two camps, the “Be Tough with the World” group and the “Be Gentle and Appeasing” set. At the risk of perturbing both sides, I propose a middle way:
- Leave other countries to handle their own affairs
- Offer them peaceful trade
- Keep an eye on them
Put another way: we stop being a nag, we buy and sell with them, and we have our military at the ready. Just in case.
Instead, we try to stage-manage their affairs simply because we fear they might launch a missile at us. (How stupid would they be if they tried?) This bespeaks weakness on our part, not strength.
“But those maniacs don’t care! They think they’ll go straight to heaven if they die in battle.” Perhaps. But we used to believe something similar: our motto in the Cold War was “Better dead than Red.” Yet we never launched against the Soviet Union. Talk of heavenly rewards is meant to give courage to soldiers; it’s not what their leaders think privately when they contemplate a military disaster and the utter destruction of their own hard-won political careers.
Rather than whacking the hornet’s nest and then complaining when we get stung, we could simply stroll quietly past … with a can of bug spray in our pocket. We control half the world’s military might. What on earth are we afraid of?
The quiet ones are the most dangerous. Therefore we should shut up, sit back, and let the Islamic militants do the squirming. That’s more civilized, more dignified, more powerful — more American — than behaving like an arrogant, insecure busybody.
There’s no need to invade others, no need to proselytize, no need to “eliminate the sub-humans!” Instead, we simply engage in watchful waiting. Easy-peasy.
Only those unsure of their beliefs would try to force others to agree with them. If Western-style liberal democracy is the way of the future, we don’t need to shove it down other people’s throats — it will win on its own merits. We can let the militant Muslims, not us, fail in those efforts.
[Continued: “Moral Crusade, Part 2”]
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