The murders of French journalists by Islamist jihadists make clear even to the dogmatically self-blinded that the values of the modern world are in mortal danger.
But an under-reported ray of hope came recently from Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has called for a revolution to banish violent jihad from Islam.
How many Islamist massacres will it take to make the point that the values of the modern world are under threat? A dozen at Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Hundreds of school children with their teachers in Pakistan ? Hundreds more in a subway in London , a restaurant in Bali, and trains in Madrid? Thousands in the World Trade Center? Tens of thousands in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan?
These slaughters are not simply blowback from American foreign policy. They are manifestations of a clash of values between the civilized world and the Islamic one. It is true that there are Muslims who support tolerance for different religions and lifestyles, and who give priority to peace and prosperity. Many say that “true” Islam does not involve jackbooted theocracy. But for millions of others, Islam demands violence , or at least finds it acceptable.
A religion is to a great extent a construct of its adherents. It consists of the beliefs, values, priorities, assumptions, and expectations shared by those adherents and reinforced by their culture and institutions. Academics arguing that particular acts of violence and repression are not condoned by the Koran do not negate the fact that millions of Muslims still believe they are.
Islam is in a civil war with itself.
What values are reflected in the fact that when Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed were published ten years ago, tens of thousands of Muslims took to the streets of Europe calling for repression and violence against the infidel, while others murdered hundreds, especially Christians, worldwide in orgies of mindless revenge?
What does it say about peaceful Islam when, on the anniversaries of the September 11 attacks, there were no massive demonstrations in America or elsewhere to mourn the dead and to declare “Ours is a religion of peace,” but on the first anniversary there was a major conference in London by Muslim leaders to celebrate the attacks?
What can we deduce about Muslim culture when we consider that the Nazis had to hide their genocide for fear that Germans, even the most anti-Semitic ones, would be repulsed by death camps, but that ISIS sees it as an effective recruiting strategy to post videos of beheadings, butchery, and mass murder?
These facts reflect the pre-modern values that still permeate many Muslim communities—dogmatic orthodoxy and superstition; rejection of reason and free expression ; contempt of individual autonomy and dignity; subservience to dictatorial authority; death doled out casually to all who disagree. Add to this the model of Mohammad spreading the religion with the sword and the ideal of a Caliphate that unites church and state, and the distance between the sentiments of many Muslims and those of more secular Westerners is clear.
The West went through centuries of religious wars and oppression before gradually integrating Enlightenment values into its culture and political institutions, and they’re still only imperfectly realized. The Islamic world never went through such a transformation. It now struggles to do so in only a few decades lest it continue to be the vanguard of war and oppression.
The problem is acute in European countries where Muslims have become a large portion of those countries’ populations through immigration and high birth rates. But a legacy of European nationalism means Muslims are not integrated well into those countries, nor are they instilled with the values of open societies. As Muslims become the majority in those countries in decades to come, the remnants of Enlightenment culture could succumb to demands for Dark Age sharia law.
One ray of hope comes from Egypt. After its Arab Spring, with the thousands rising up to overthrow the repressive Mubarak regime, the potentially even more repressive Muslim Brotherhood took power. Another uprising, backed by the military , overthrew the Brotherhood.
Now Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a Muslim, is trying to bring his country into the ranks of modernity in terms of religious toleration.
On Christmas Day, for example, he became the first Egyptian president to attend mass at a Coptic Christian church . And in an extraordinary speech marking the birth of Mohammad, he declared, “We are in need of a religious revolution.”
He asked, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims worldwide) should want to kill the rest of the world’s population—that is, 7 billion people—so that they themselves may live? Impossible.”
He argued that “We need a revolution of the self, a revolution of consciousness and ethics to rebuild the Egyptian person.”
He maintained that "It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.” And concerning the thinking behind extremist opinion, he stated, “You have to get out of it, inspect it, and read it with a real enlightened thought.”
Sisi addressed his remarks to Dar al-Iftaa , a prestigious Sunni religious institution founded over a millennium ago and sponsored by the Egyptian government. It is carrying out Sisi’s enterprise. For example, it has launched a campaign to rectify what it considers to be an incorrect image of Islam with views that “suit the modern age,” and it recently held an interfaith conference to combat extremism.
If Sisi and his allies make a priority of bringing Islam into modernity, they could be a major force offering the alternative to al Qaida, ISIS, Hamas, and the theocrats both in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Ironically, a major barrier to this alternative could be the politically correct or cowardly leaders in the West who coddle extremists rather than celebrate Enlightenment values and insist that Muslims and everybody else be held to their standards.
Those are the values of civilization that apply to all individuals at all times, and will make Europe, America, and the Middle East places fit for human life and achievement.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
Posted on January 9, 2014.
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Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.