It took a statement made by US President Barack Obama conflating Islam and Christianity’s historical violence.
While there are comparisons connecting the two, the variances are profound. In order to see why Mr Obama’s statement doesn’t explain today’s militant Islam and how difficult it will be to foment significant change in the Muslim world, it’s important to frame the issue coherently.
From an intelligence perspective (not a scholarly or rigorously academic perspective), the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity is that only the latter travelled north out of the desert, collecting rationalism in Greece before it was subsumed into the Western system.
Christianity travelled along a specific arc towards eventually separating the secular from the sacred. The question today is whether this arc is unique to Christianity or whether it is the predictable arc along which all the great monotheisms will travel. In other words, will Islam get to the same place?
Islam doesn’t have to get to the same place, and it certainly doesn’t have to trace that arc in order for the world to be a safe place. But the question runs to the heart of the schism in the global system.
Islam began 600 years after Christianity as what Pope Benedict XVI once controversially described as a far more “transcendental” religion. The Pope was referencing the divergent paths of the two faiths: one towards eventual modernity with the other maintaining the human status quo. His was an extremely important point.
The religion was created by Muhammad first as used as a symbol painted on the armour of soldiers but primarily built as an extension of the common mysticism extant for tens of thousands of years among humans of the Middle East.
Islam went south into the Middle East where the marriage of Aristotelian logic with faith could not occur. Many of Muhammad's first battles were against idol worshipers and other animist groups. None of these nomadic populations in the deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were claiming overall authority.
Muhammad’s campaign amalgamated many of them under a coherent idea. The attention of the Roman Empire so distracted by its own civil wars that it couldn’t deal with a rising Islam. The last pieces of the Roman system survived until 1453 when the Islamic Ottoman Empire broke Constantinople and sacked the city.
|Worldwide distribution of Islam (green) and Christianity (red)|
It might not seem so, living as we are at the business end of 2000 years of a Western system, but Islam looms tall in our collective nightmares because it reminds us of something. It reminds us of how we used to be. Islam frightens us because it is us.
Islam continues to be successful because it mixes simple human superstition, a desire for community and an ever-present anthropocentrism. Islam represents the default worldview found in almost every human being on earth. Humanity’s fear of death - coupled with an overstimulated pattern-seeking human brain –defaults us to superstition as a basic worldview. Islam’s transcendentalism only gives humans a coherent plug-and-play quality which is so easily adopted.
Islam co-opted the weakening Roman political status quo in a region which had become used to operating under the thousand-year imperial project. Rome was disappearing, but the system was still in place.
Rome knew that the concept of light political control using satrapies and local elders - overseen by Roman officials – was the only workable power method in the Middle East. To keep them under control, Rome didn’t require the inhabitants to fully integrate into Roman civil life. Taxes and military loyalty were enough.
Muhammad took advantage of this ready pool of subservience and credulity by simply altering the destination of the taxes and military loyalty. The underlying Roman political system was too powerful to override. Islam as a fundamentally human idea was successful precisely because it added new layer of connective tissue holding the existing religious-political system together.
The religion “clicked” with humans by requiring no deep individual changes in mind-set. The transference to Islam as a repackaged status quo system also explains why the Muslim world has largely rejected technological and societal progress. What we see when we look at the Muslim world is a window back to before humans discovered reason and logic.
The brief period of Islamic science was a departure too far from the status quo. Without the legacy of Aristotelian rationalism, Islam’s immune system fought against the ideas of progress pulling it back to equilibrium. The opposite successes of Christianity and Islam is their incredible abilities to maintain the existing systems into which they entered.
However, the only arc humans have ever discovered to escape from default human superstition is one which encourages rationalism. So what can modernity look like for the Islamic world as we move into the 21st century?
That’s a big question. The Western and Middle Eastern systems have been split for so long, Islam’s task of separating of the secular from the sacred will not be driven from the outside by the Christianity’s legacy.
The conflict in Iraq is a microcosm of the war between and among Islam over whether the religion will mimic the path already trod by the West. Christianity took hundreds of years to achieve this goal using the booster of rationalism. How long Islam will take - or even whether it must follow the same process - is a question no one has the answer to.
Part 1 here