With the recent evil ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Lebanon, Kenya, Egypt and other places, people are often asking “why would anyone do such a thing?” It’s a fair question but I think the gap between one who is driven to a death cult like ISIS and moderate Muslims and in fact liberal westerners are a subject I will “plunge” a little deeper into to in this blog. I think much of the discussion surrounding ISIS and Islam in general in the west is often confused and rarely accomplishes anything, so I thought I would try my hand at shining a light on the topic Any one else’s thoughts would be much appreciated.
In my opinion, those leaders, such as Barack Obama and Theresa May (but thankfully not David Cameron) who think ISIS has nothing to do with Islam are missing the plot. Of course ISIS has everything to do with Islam – their entire basis for existence is to establish a Caliphate! The Atlantic recently did a long piece on the theology of ISIS I would recommend everyone read. ISIS follows the most (cherry-picked) extreme Koranic texts and base almost everything they do in their warped view of the religion. To say ISIS is not Islamic is like saying that the Crusaders were not Christian or that Joshua’s tribes who invaded Canaan were not Jewish. Just because ISIS or the Crusaders or Jewish zealots don’t fit with your cuddly, white washed politically correct 2015 version of what you think a religion should be does not make those groups not adherents of their religion. Is ISIS’s version of religion demented, extreme, and rejected by the vast majority of Muslims? Yes. But it’s still a version of Islam just like how the Westboro Baptists are still Christian. And obviously, on the flip side of the coin, those who think ISIS represents all of Islam are completely wrong.
Which brings me to my second point, most of us westerners are secular and are completely clueless when it comes to understanding the religious mindset. Pile that on top of the fact that Westerners for the most part know very little history, or at least history earlier than the 20th century – and the gap between a secular westerner and the religious Middle Easterner becomes a canyon. Many, if not most, people in the Middle East follow the text of the Koran to guide their life. In these civilisations, that often date back to 3000 BC, conflicts that happened centuries ago are still known, discussed and thought about. In the most of the west, in contrast, the Napoleonic Wars are a distant far off memory and the Bible is something that collects dust on a night stand somewhere.
Therefore, the ability to understand many in the Islamic culture is almost impossible for people like Barack Obama. In the west, almost everyone is a “liberal” of some sort. And I define liberal as meaning someone who thinks the job of the government is to improve the material well-being of the person, rather than the soul. Almost no one in the west thinks the job of the government is to get people to heaven. Generally, the debate in the west is how best to improve the material well-being of the individual. On the “right” in the west are those who think the job of the government is to intervene less domestically (though often more internationally) to best increase prosperity, while the “left” thinks that a strong state and a collectivist domestic policy best increases prosperity. In the parts of the Islamic world, especially among places opposed to the west, they think the job of the government is to help increase the salvation of the people’s souls. They ban pop music and alcohol, and force people to cover their heads and use harsh punishments not because they are just sadistic (with the exception of ISIS, who is truly sadistic) but because that is what they think will create a society that better serves God. Building nice roads is “second fiddle” to submission of a people to God.
Now before you scoff at Islamic culture too much, remember that just a couple centuries ago the west too were not liberals but were religious people. And like with the west before the Enlightenment, the leaders in the Middle East are largely corrupt and unconcerned with the material well-being of the ordinary person. In the past, it was issues of religion that galvanised the west- The west as one stood up, raised armies and attacked the Holy Land because they felt it was their religious duty. In the 1500s, westerners fought each to death over whether Catholicism or Protestantism was the “true faith.”
Though the west has almost uniformly become liberal there are still pockets of western people who think government policy should be heavily influenced by religion, particularly in America. For instance, I was raised (for the second half of my childhood) in a very conservative Catholic household and attended a very conservative Catholic university. I also attended a very conservative protestant elementary school and spent the early years of my childhood in a conservative Protestant household. I will tell you that among many conservative Christians there is a belief that government policy should reflect their religious Christian beliefs to one extent or another. There are some conservative Christians who think that the ONLY government issue that matters is abortion. There are others, and I would say this is probably the majority of religious voters in America, that think that economic issues matter, but that they think those issues are subservient to “social issues” i.e. abortion, gay marriage, pornography etc.
Therefore, in my experiences with very religious people, I can say that I sort of understand how the religious Muslim thinks. (Though obviously there is a large gap between Christians and Muslims on some things). Both the religious Christian and Muslim don’t want their children exposed to a world they think is immoral. Both the religious Christian and religious Muslim think that the government they live under should back their particular religious values. And frankly, they are not completely wrong. Many Muslim countries use variants of Sharia law. The United States was founded by Christians based (partially at least, much of it was Enlightenment thinking) on a “Judeo-Christian” system of thinking. The Church of England is still part of the UK government, with the monarch at its head. Thus religious people have a right and an argument to make regarding the proper role of government. Yes, the west largely has adopted a “value” of liberalism and the “criterion” of utilitarianism, but what remains of the religious right does have a traditional argument to make.
Which brings me to my point- we need to make a better effort to understand the thinking of the Islamist instead of viewing everything through liberal Western eyes. I’m not saying we should all become religious or stop being liberals- far from it. But I wrote this last year and I think it is still applicable today:
“Recently, I was listening to an interview on NPR (“National Public Radio”- kind of like the equivalent of BBC Radio 4) and the man being interviewed was a Mid East expert explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was explaining how the things most Muslims and ultra-Orthadox Jews value in the Middle East are not at all similar to what we care about in the west. It is a mindset that values religion over everything- including a good economy, good infrastructure or peace and security. Thus, why Sunnis and Shia very often won’t get along despite it being in their best interest to. I thought The Spectator recently did a very good comparison from our history comparing the current Islamic civil war to our civilisation’s 30 year war; I thought I would expand upon this comparison to help explain the current Islamic conflict, or how I see it.
In our own history’s not so distant past, people throughout Christendom’s thoughts and worldview were completely dominated by religion. Just like many Muslims today, Christians were Christians first and foremost. Those outside of their religion were infidels who needed to be killed.
For example look at England during the Tudor age. When Thomas More was Henry VIII’s chancellor, the otherwise very brilliant philosopher insisted Protestant “heretics” had to die and their books needed to be burned. He had put to death the translator of the English bible William Tyndale, as there was no room for a reformation in More’s England. Then, Thomas Cromwell becomes Henry VIII’s chancellor. Thomas Cromwell was a Protestant and had the Catholic monasteries sacked and many Catholics, such as Thomas More, were put to death for virtue of being (an outspoken) Catholic. Then, a few years later, Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter Mary ascends to the throne and burns Protestants at the stake for virtue of being Protestant, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Then comes Elizabeth. Elizabeth was very much ahead of her time in that she was driven by nationalism and not religious dogma when creating a Catholic-like Protestant Church of England and encouraging an English nationalism in general. However, she too persecuted Catholics, all be it in a much more moderate form of fines rather than the usual method of death for your religious opponent. In the next century, Protestant extremists under Oliver Cromwell persecuted Anglicans and Catholics alike, while on the continent, Catholic France almost genocided the Protestant Huguenots, forcing the ones who survived to flee. And so on and so on. My point is the Middle East’s intolerant and violent Shia and Sunni extremists are merely acting like westerners of a few centuries back.
What would help erase this Medieval mindset in the Middle East? Well there was our chance at changing the culture through imperialism but that “ship has sailed”. They need and probably will have an enlightenment at some point like we did that introduced the concepts of tolerance to our world. In the meantime, what should Britain do to combat Islamic extremism from infecting the UK?
The root of much evil in this Middle East situation has been the lack of historical knowledge or understanding. Bush and Blair didn’t understand that long, tough but fair imperialism works but that short term ideological regime change does not. In the west, we have been perplexed by the Middle East because we forgot how religious based civilisations think- our own before the Enlightenment and John Locke, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and John Stuart Mill for instance. And I believe this is because we don’t teach true history anymore or people how to think. This needs to change or otherwise our civilisation will be doomed to fail.
The Prime Minister recently wrote a brilliant piece about the need to remind children of the greatness and uniqueness of British history and culture. I think that is a good start to combat the rise of extremist Islamic infiltration in certain schools susceptible to it. But more importantly, and for the vast majority of British schools that are not in danger of becoming Trojan Horse schools, I think it is important for making better patriotic citizens and leaders of tomorrow. People who are educated well, like the American Founding Fathers for instance, made good policy decisions. And I’m not just advocating teaching British history, but world history and especially Classical Education from the ancients so that our students can think analytically. If Tony Blair had better studied the trials and tribulations of the British Empire he would have had a better idea what to do in Iraq and that the British successes came when it was patient, worked hard, and were just rulers and that it failed when it tried to take short cuts. If George Bush and Barrack Obama had a better understanding of the Middle East they probably would have approached things differently too.
As it stands now, our leaders often lack proper historical education and thus make mistakes a good student of history would not make. The lack of good education our children are getting and have been getting for a couples generations now, are harming our nations. This harm is not just with respect to handling the Middle East, but on our very shores- as was seen in the Trojan Horse fiasco or in young people’s ignorance of our own civilisation’s proud history. Education must be improved for our civilisation’s sake. Teaching “British Values” is a good place to start.”
So what is the point? What am I advocating today? I know many readers are probably annoyed that this blog has more questions than it does answers. Well, honestly, that’s because these issues are complicated and people study these things their entire life and still don’t know the answers. But here it goes:
- The world needs to destroy ISIS, that much is clear, but after the destruction of ISIS we need to develop a Middle Eastern strategy and stick to it. ISIS is a monstrous evil that the world luckily has been recognized as such by most nations. They are bent on destruction of humanity in order to bring about a new caliphate and ultimately an Islamic apocalypse. This is one of the few times in human history that the five permanent members of the UN security council, the US, UK, France, Russia and China are in agreement. If the UN was set up so that something like the Holocaust would be “never again”, if the UN will have any purpose at all, the world must destroy ISIS. Bring down the bombs, arm the Peshmurga “to the T”, deploy special forces if must be- do something before it is too late. I’ll leave the details to the military brass but ISIS must go.
- After ISIS we have to take a decision on the Middle East- let it be or be constantly involved. I was for the Iraq war because I felt it was an opportunity to build a liberal state in the heart of the Middle East. I thought it had the potential to be a new Japan or Germany. But we left too early and thus created a vacuum where ISIS emerged. We have to make a decision in the post-ISIS world- let dictators rule the Middle East or be constantly involved in the affairs of states there. The tragedy of American imperialism has been the “half-assed” nature of it. Look at Latin America or Vietnam or the Middle East- the US comes in smashes stuff up, puts in a crony proxy and then leaves- only to leave a bigger mess than before. The US has been successful as an imperialist power before- but it is only after World War II when the US had to build nations. In my opinion the US needs to be like the British Empire and actually invest in building the nations or simply stay away unless in exceptional circumstances.
- Lastly, and maybe most importantly, any policy regarding the Middle East must done with an understanding that we are dealing with religious-minded people. We can’t simply carry on in Middle Eastern policy pretending that they think and act the same as we do in the West. They don’t! And until the Islamic world has its own “Enlightenment” and the region becomes more secular, we must learn about Islamic thinking and history before and while dealing with them in foreign affairs. We also need to learn our own history. I think learning about and being sensitive to a religious culture will be go a long way in calming tensions between the liberal west and the traditional Middle East.
Now, are my solutions perfect? No, and I am not delusional enough to think this article will solve an ultra-complicated and complex situation. The draw of the west’s ultra-secular pop culture probably has much to do with antagonising the Middle East as anything we do from a foreign policy perspective. It’s likely Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj enrage the traditionalist Muslim and serve as a recruiting tool for radicalisation as much as does western troops in Saudi Arabia. After all, if you notice the French terrorists attacked a night club playing rock music and a football match- there is a certain hatred of a culture they seem as wicked. And many of those people are irreconcilable fanatics. However, I do believe, if we destroy ISIS, we settle upon a foreign policy, and learn Islamic culture and history and use that in our diplomacy with them that much of the wounds of today will begin to heal and fade into the background.