Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | July 11, 2007

Challenges for Islam

I have put together some ideas on what I think the challenges for Islam will be in the coming decades or even the next century. They are the product of notes taken on the reading of only 3 or 4 books, so I don’t see them as anything more than a preliminary outline. But sometimes preliminary outlines turn out to be kind of useful. Having said that, I would also like to say how much I would like to see the Muslim countries succeed. And I would very much like to see what their success would do to sustain peace in the region. Their success may have something to do with creating sustainable economies, too, and I would hope that they could succeed at that, too -(even as I hope for it in my own country).

1. – Modernization – Different from globalization. This is probably the largest slice of the pie in terms of what Islam is facing and has been going on the longest. By modernity I mean things like literacy rates. Egypt, for instance, has a literacy rate of only 55.6% of all adults over 15 years. That’s 46.9% of females and 68.3% of males. (1) This is a surprising statistic. Egypt was practically the birthplace of writing and still only about half its people can read the newspaper. These same statistics point to the great inequities between men and women with 20% less women being literate than men. There are a lot of things that need to be done to make Muslim nations more modern. The age-old question is, can they do it without alienating the traditional and the religious-minded? (As I say, this process of modernization has been going on for a long time. A good book about it is Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002). But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The book seems to show that Islam became settled too early in its history. They were so far ahead of Europe at one point that it seemed never to occur to them that their own civilization could be surpassed.)

2. – Governance – This is an area that I’d like to know more about. It seems to me that the form of government prior to colonialism was, if not more conducive to Islam, then at least had originated with Islam. The Ottoman Empire was clearly an Islamic form of government, if that’s possible to say. The problem with post-colonial governments in the Middle East is that they are designed as modern secular nation states which is why the extremists are fighting them so hard. Although it may be in our own interests to promote democracy in the Middle East it must be said that the Muslim countries are ultimately going to have to decide what system of governance they want and how similar or dissimilar they want it to be with respect to Western governments. (What prevents them from being a little original in their solution to this problem?) Also, at this point, it seems that our own country will do everything in its power to cause a regime to fall, if that regime is led by Islamic extremists, whether that regime was democratically elected or not. This policy too will have a bearing on what the peoples of the Middle East decide. We hope they will still make the best decisions.

3. – Globalization – According to Thomas L. Friedman in his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, there are only a few things governments can do to help their countries attract foreign development. They include things like a stable government, low inflation, open markets, etc. If a country has these things it is liable to attract foreign money and investment. A country like the United Arab Emirates, for instance, can build hotels, develop a tourism industry, etc. which will bring jobs and money to its citizens. This is all very desireable, but there are cultural effects of globalization also, which may not be the best for all countries. The obvious example is, what if in the United Arab Emirates there was a McDonald’s on every corner like there is in the U.S.? What happens when tourism takes over entirely and the local charm or history of a place is destroyed? These are some of the questions Muslim governments and peoples are going to have to face as they decide to let globalization in or not. (And part of the problem with the Persian Gulf states is that they already have oil, so they have a guaranteed source of income whether or not they allow “globalization.” The result is, they can act like rogue states until the oil runs out.)

4. – Resentment – But for the time being the Middle East is in a sad state. Until they figure out ways to earn money and bring stability to their economies and governments they are going to be in the midst of tough times. In other parts of the world, countries like Japan, South Korea, and now even China and India, have made steps in the right direction. It’s not impossible that the Middle East someday could be as successful as, if not Japan, than at least China or India. One thing about the Muslim Middle East though is that they are often backward-looking. Not to say that they are backward peoples, but that they are often looking back to the beginning of the Islamic community for inspiration, encouragement and guidance. Whereas this works for core values of the society it doesn’t make as much sense in the larger landscape. You can say, “I’m going to be an honest person therefore I will get a job,” and that may be useful. You might get hired at a bank where honesty is a necessity. But if there is no bank, what do you do? It is a little harder to create the whole bank just out of your good character. So what is the Middle East going to do? Until they find a way to benefit their societies the danger of resentment against the West will be there. And not only the West – but within their own societies they seem capable of ripping themselves apart at the seams. If they don’t manage their own resentments, they may never find the wherewithal to catch up again. (In Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he attributes the violence in Rwanda to environmental ills caused by lack of resources. Maybe the Middle East’s violence bears some similarity to this.)

5. – Continuity – This is the part that is crucial, in my mind, to the whole question of Islam’s challenges. To be really on the side of Islam, not attacking it, not denigrating it, you have to hope that somehow they will not give up on their culture and their religion. It may not seem as if that’s the danger right now, but in the long run, it could be a possibility. Specifically, I don’t want to be one of those people who hope that Islam will itself disappear and be gone forever. There is a lot for me to learn about the religion, and I have a long way to go before I understand it even a little, but I don’t want to be one of those persons who, not knowing and not understanding, wishes ill on the whole endeavor. To the Muslims the question is, how can they find a way to keep what they can of their culture and religion? The idea here is continuity. How can they keep their religion as a central part of who they are, and as a central part of the kind of society they want to have – which is only keeping some continuity with their Muslim past? If they can do that and also provide for their people, they will have succeeded, I think. And what would be so wrong about that? (Aside from all the religious questions, wouldn’t it be good if the Middle Eastern countries did not abandon their eastern musical traditions, using Western formats instead? It would be a positive good if they could also keep their own music.)


(1) UNICEF – Information by Country

Here are the “3 or 4” books I’ve read on Islam in the last year or so:

A Child from the Village, by Sayyid Qutb. The author is one of the writers Islamist extremists like those involved with al-Qaeda, look to. This book apparently was written before Qutb ascribed to violence. This book and the next report on the childhoods of the two authors, and as such present a lot of good data on what it’s actually like to live in a Muslim country.
The Days, by Taha Hussein. I’m only two thirds of the way through this one, but like Qutb’s book, it is revealing about everyday life. It also gives a glimpse of what life is like at al-Azhar, the great Muslim school in Cairo.
Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong. This little book is good for getting to know a little about the religion. It also tends to take a Muslim’s point of view and tells the kind of things we should know about our own involvements in the Middle East and why things are so bad.
What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis. A lot of history is given here, going back several centuries. The treatment is of the subject of how Islam reacted to the growth of Europe or the West. According to this book, Muslim leaders were very slow to do anything to really modernize their societies.
Major Themes of the Qur’an, by Fazlur Rahman. This book I read to inform myself about the Qur’an before starting to read the Qur’an. It was suggested by a Listmania author on for that very purpose. (darock1501) I have just started reading the Qur’an and it has really helped.


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