Friday, June 16, 2006

Book Review: Islam at the Crossroads

Islam at the Crossroads; Understanding it’s Beliefs, History, and Conflicts by Peter Marshall, Roberta Green and Lela Gilbert is an excellent book. It provides an introduction to the history of Islam and the way in which the history of Islam has contributed to the current crisis within Islam and between Islam and the West. The book is very manageable reading at only 113 pages. It is well-written and has an easy to read style. At the same time, the book takes a scholarly, accurate and dispassionate approach. It is not a work of propaganda or extremist views. Instead, it fairly presents the historical situation with Islam, including the interesting realities of more moderate Islam and the rapidly expanding danger of Islamic extremism.

Marshall et al explains the basic beliefs of Muslims, the history of Islam, and the various major divisions within Islam. They also dispel many of the myths concerning Islam. It is interesting to note, as the book reveals, that the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs and do not live in the Middle East. The vast majority of Arabs are not Muslims, but rather Christians who live in the western world. And, while radical Islam is an extreme danger because of the spread of radicalism through Islamic media, Wahhabist-sponsored madrassas and social pressure from radicals, the numerical majority of Muslims are far more easy-going about their faith.

Islam at the Crossroads explains the motivations behind the current Islamist movement. Islam believed that they would have the blessing of Allah in conquering the world and forcing the world to either submit to Islam. For hundreds of years, Islam was largely successful. But on September 12, 1683, the Ottoman Turks were defeated in their last siege of Vienna. The history of Islam from that point was largely one of continued defeat. The western powers used their superior technology to slowly spread not only their economic influence, but their political hegemony. Nearly the entire Arab world came under the domination of European powers. While from a western perspective, the reach of colonialism has been destroyed, radical Muslims still see the hidden hand of the West in many of their countries. They believe conspiracy theories that claim the West is behind all of the failures, difficulties and indignities faced by Muslim peoples.

The radicals, per Islam at the Crossroads, are motivated by religion. They believe that the failure of Islam to conquer the world since the defeat of the Ottomans in 1683 has been due to insufficient doctrinal purity and religious practice among Muslims. Hence they seek to “cleanse” and “purify” Islam from practices and beliefs that they view as idolatrous and un-Islamic. They seek to return to a less pietistic view of Islam. The book does not dwell on the quite probable theories proposed by some authors, that the radical Islamists have been affected not only by Islam, but by the teachings of Heidegger, Niche, Marx, Lenin, the Nazis, and the existentialists. While rejecting modernity, the Islamists may, in fact, be very much the products of the combination of modernity. But Marshall and his co-authors do bring this topic up as well as touching on many other important factors surrounding the conflict between radical Islam and the rest of the world. They emphasize that this conflict is not only between Muslims and Christians, but between Muslims and Muslims. For the radical Muslims are unhappy with the more liberal faith of the majority of Muslims throughout the world. It is their goal not only to conquer the West and subject it to Islam, but to conquer their fellow Muslims ideologically and politically in order to force them to abide by their ideas of a “purer” Islam.

The book by Marshall, Green and Gilbert is quite refreshing. It discusses the entire matter in a very appropriate tone, while at the same time not ignoring any of the warts and wrinkles of Muslim history. It is also honest about what the West has done wrong, and about exactly what it is in the West that inflames the radicals in Islam. So often today, modern works about Islam and the radical Islamist movement are really seeking to forward other kinds of agendas (e.g. anti-globalism, socialism, isolationism, etc.).

Marshall and his co-writers also present a balanced view of the possible hope for the future of Muslim populations. Here in the United States, political commentators dealing with the Islamist issue tend to either be overly optimistic and believe that if we can merely introduce Democracy to Muslim countries, their populations will suddenly be like the anti-war protesters of the 1960’s in America and demand the cessation of all “violence and oppression” by their governments, a scenario which is in no way likely. On the other hand, others have suggested that because Islam is incompatible with democracy and republicanism, (ideas originating, in their current form, from the spread of Christianity) democratizing Muslim countries is impossible and they should be left to rule by totalitarian dictators who can hold sway over the masses and keep them out of mischief. This second view is not a very pleasant way to allow our Muslim neighbors to be treated and is unlikely to solve the problem since the existence of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East is usually blamed on the West and is one of the major grievances the Islamists actually have. Marshall and his co-authors recognize that ideas do have consequences and that religious ideas are often the fundamental motivation of peoples—especially Islamic peoples. But they also recognize that even people who believe in a religion like Islam can adopt or prefer governments that are better than the ones they currently have, even if they are not perfect.

Balance is important for dealing with the Islamist problem. Christians are correct in believing that a truly just government is maintained most easily by true believing Christians. This is because ideas really do matter. Christians believe in the fallenness of man and hence if they take their faith seriously, and are not co-opted by the beliefs of the world, they are unlikely to fall for various utopian schemes like Marxism or nationalist socialism that vainly seek to remake human nature. Our ideas about the sinfulness of mankind have led to our emphasis on separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law, and a humble view of government’s ability to recognize the truth or solve human problems. By contrast, the religious and historical experience of fundamentalist Islam seems to support absolutist rule by religious extremists. Nevertheless, the history of the world should tell us that even though people may have false religious beliefs, and even though those beliefs can and do undermine successful government, people who are not Christians are still capable of having governments within a whole spectrum of options.

As Russell Kirk has pointed out, the faulty religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks caused the instability and failure of their city states. The Greeks’ democracies did not prevent them from engaging in wars of aggression, defrauding their neighbor city states, and taking politically repressive measures against some of their best citizens. But the Greeks still had what we consider a flourishing culture that was more open to democracy, freedom of conscience, and the spread of truth than say, Saudi Arabia. Today we have imperfect but functional democracies in Japan and India, despite the false nature of the dominant religions in those countries. In addition, both nations have been relatively at peace during recent decades and have been relatively good neighbors for most of the world (the religious persecution of Christians and others in India being an exception). But places like Japan and India show that it is possible for countries to have better governments than the dictatorships of North Korea and, for practical purposes, Iran. What Marshall and his co-authors do not deal with in depth are potential solutions to the Islamist problem. They are certain that we should support moderate Muslims who have a more pietistic version of their religion than a militant version. They also believe that it is appropriate to oppose the Islamists with force. But that is where they stop. Their book is largely descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Ultimately, the only way that the Islamist threat will be permanently stemmed is if there is a complete change in the ideology of peoples in Islamic nations so that they shift permanently away from the views of the Wahhabis and toward something closer to genuine Christianity. Ultimately, people who live in the darkness of the Islamic world need Christ. And to what ever degree they will not fully accept the truth, they will still be better off in this earthly life to whatever degree they are persuaded to accept propositions that are true, even if they are not the key saving propositions concerning salvation in Jesus Christ. As a result, the main need of the Muslims is actually for spiritual and ideological influence. This is very difficult and delicate business since Muslin people are often deeply offended by even remote attempts at proselytization or conversion. But somehow, the gospel needs to penetrate Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations. And with the gospel we mean not only the basic truth of the gospel, but also the entire Christian worldview and the legal and political ramifications of that worldview. Democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, checks and balances, religious freedom and toleration, all need to be explained.

One simple means of doing this is by reaching out to people from predominantly Islamic nations who are already living here in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Many of the radical Islamists have spent time studying in the West, and the result was not good. They became more radicalized by what they saw as the decadence and corruption of the United States and Western Europe. Instead, we need people who are here from Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq or central Asia or south central Asia or Southeast Asia or Africa to see the love of Christ modeled and lived out by His people, by His church.

We cannot coerce people to accept the truth. Instead, we can engage them in dialogue and find out what they believe and why, and look for opportunities to share or for them to ask and receive good answers for what we believe and why. We can spread the truth about Christianity, law and politics among our own people (who are currently almost in need of the truth about such things as people from anywhere in the world). And we should be producing an translating into accessible languages like Farsi, Arabic, Turkic, etc. books, films, documentaries, motion pictures and television series that, in reasonable ways, present the truth about Christ, about natural law, about the rule of law, about human nature, about religious freedom and toleration, and about government. Americans have been doing the opposite to themselves for decades—preparing and promulgating television programs, motion pictures and novels that lead them to believe in a false version of human nature and to soften their opposition to sin and sinful lifestyles. These films and television series have often been subtle and clever in the way they have affected the mind of the populous. They have led to widespread toleration of sexual immorality, addictive lifestyles, radical consumerism, and other vices. It is time to turn the tables and to begin to use the tools of culture such as the novel, the motion picture and the screen play to gently move people in the opposite direction back toward Christ, and back toward truth. It needs to be understood that this needs to be done subtly and cleverly, just as our opponents have done. And we need to be careful to avoid being sucked into the worldview of modernity through the use of modern tools.

If we are to survive, we must not only defeat our immediate enemies on the battlefield, but we must persuade our potential enemies of as much basic truth as we can get them to accept. And, of course, in order to accomplish all of this, we must pray. Because ultimately, while God can use us to act, it is His sovereignty and providence will ultimately determine the issue. And on top of work and prayer, we obviously need to repent and turn from our own wicked ways. If Christians were truly living out their Christianity, Islam would appear much less attractive.

I highly recommend Islam at the Crossroads.

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