Once again the CIA and MI6 are publishing dire warnings of the vitality of Al Qaeda. Once again the Islamic world as a whole is being tarnished by association. Are we returning, as we sadly commemorate the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11, to what the late US presidential contender John McCain said: “America needs a leadership to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”. And the words still appear to ring in policy-makers’ ears from Harvard’s Professor Samuel Huntington’s treatise, The Clash of Civilizations, the book that in many ways triggered the paranoia that infects the politicians, the press and the public discourse. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism, IT IS ISLAM,” he wrote (his capitals).
Too few in the Western leadership class seem to make the point that Al Qaeda is a deviant phenomenon within the Islamic world, just as Hitler was a deviant phenomenon within the Christian world (commentators seem to overlook Hitler’s early speeches calling on Catholic principles or the tens of millions of church-goers who supported him). But Islam has a much better record over the ages (despite its founder being far more warlike than the founder of Christianity) of dealing with its deviants who take violence to excess. Islamic culture has never been tolerant of Nazism, fascism, Marxism or communism. Christian (and in the case of Marx, Jewish) society has spawned all four. Buddhism failed to resist the influence of Japanese militarism and Confucianism proved hospitable to Maoism. Yes, there were Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein but they were atheistic brutes without a religious ideology.
There have been many incidents in the long history of Islam when there have been large-scale losses of life. The massacres and starvation of the Armenians by Muslim Ottoman Turkey in 1915 still stir the waters of contemporary debate. But Islam has never spawned anything comparable with Hitler’s systematic genocide of the Jews. Indeed, throughout its history, Islam has been protective of the Jews, regarding them as “people of the Book” to whom it had a special responsibility. Nor has it systematically obliterated other civilisations as did Christian Spain with the Aztecs and Incas. (Its conquest of the Persian empire is a case in point- Persian culture was promoted to an honourable place in Arab cultural and political life.) Nor have Islamic societies created anything equivalent to South Africa’s apartheid or the racist culture of the old American South. Unlike many Christian churches the mosque has never separated people by race. Even today Americans confess that nowhere is there more segregation in their society than at the Sunday noon hour.
Western memories are highly selective. When at Easter time the Greek peasants of the Peloponnese began to kill all the Muslims in the land there was silence. But fifty years later when there were mass killings of Christians in Bulgaria there was a great outpouring of moral outrage. Delacroix immortalised the massacre in his painting, Massacre of Chaos, with Christian women pursued by Turkish lancers and Gladstone wrote a best-selling pamphlet in which he described the Ottomans as leaving “a broad line of blood marking the track behind them, and as far as their domination reached civilisation vanished from view”.
Almost forgotten today is that it was the Ottomans who gave refuge to the Jews when they were expelled from Iberia, as were fleeing German, French and Czech Protestants, but most well-read Westerners know Voltaire’s “Fanaticism or Mohammed the Prophet” or Dante’s portrayal of Mohammed in Hell.
The Western debate about Islam is frankly uninformed, sometimes infantile. Even ex-President Barack Obama, with his own personal experience to go off, surely not ignorant, appears reserved about going into battle on these issues. His comments at the 9/11 commemoration were anodyne. Rarely does one come across a speech made by a Western politician which seriously attempts to educate public opinion. We live mired in a slough of ignorance.