There is enough truth in the devout Muslim'scriticism of the less attractive aspects of Western secular culture to lend plaus-ibility to his call for a return to purity as the answer to the Muslim world'swoes. He sees in the West'sfreedom nothing but promiscuity and licence, which is certainly there; but he does not see freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, a spiritual virtue as well as an ultimate source of strength. The devout Muslim fears, with good reason, that to give an inch is sooner or later to concede the whole territory.
This fear must be all the more acute among the large and growing Muslim popula-tion in British cities such as mine. Except for a small, highly educated middle class, who live as if Islam were a private religious confession like any other in the West, Muslims congregate in neighbourhoods, where the life of the Punjab continues amid the architecture of the Industrial Revolution.
The Muslim immigrants to these areas were not seeking a new way of life when they arrived; they expected to con-tinue their old lives, but more prosperously. They neither anticipated, nor wanted the inevitable cultural tensions of translocation, and they certainly never suspected that in the long run they could not maintain their culture and their religion intact. The older generation is only now realising that outward conformity to traditional codes of dress and behaviour by the young is no longer a guarantee of inner acceptance. Recently I stood at the taxi stand outside my hospital, beside two young women in full black costume, with only a slit for the eyes. One said to the other: ?Give us a light for a fag, love; I?m gasping.? Release the social pressure on the girls, and they would abandon their costume in an instant.
Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness.
Anyone who lives in a city such as mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannnot help wondering whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam that renders it unable to adapt itself to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Muslim world to permanent backwardness with regard to the West, a backwardness that is felt as a deep humiliation, and is exemplified, though not proved, by the fact that the whole of the Arab world, minus its oil, matters less to the rest of the world economically than the Nokia telephone company?
I think the answer is yes, and that the problem begins with Islam'sfailure to make a distinction between church and State. Unlike Christianity, which had to spend its first centuries developing institu-tions clandestinely and so from the outset clearly had to separate church from State, Islam was from its inception both church and State, one and indivisible, with no distinction possible between temporal and religious authority.
But this model left Islam with two intractable problems. One was political. Muhammad unfortunately bequeathed no institutional arrangements by which his successors in the role of omnicompetent ruler could be chosen. Compounding this difficulty, the legitimacy of temporal power could always be challenged by those who, citing Muhammad'sspiritual role, claimed greater religious purity or authority; the fanatic in Islam is always at a moral advantage vis-a-vis the moderate. Moreover, Islam?in which the mosque is a meeting house, not an institutional church?has no established, anointed ecclesias-tical hierarchy to decide such claims authoritatively.
The second problem is intellectual. In the West, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, acting upon the space that had always existed, at least potentially, in Christianity between church and State, liberated individual men to think for themselves, and thus set in motion an unprecedented and still unstoppable material advance-ment. Islam, with no separate, secular sphere where inquiry could flourish free from the claims of religion, was hopelessly left behind?as several centuries later, it still is.
The indivisibility of any aspect of life from any other in Islam is a source of strength, but also of fragility and weakness, for individuals as well as for polities. Where all conduct, all custom, has a religious sanction and justification, any change is a threat to the whole system of belief. Certainty that their way of life is the right one thus coexists with fear that the whole edifice?intellectual and political?will come tumbling down if it is tampered with in any way. Intransigence is a defence against doubt and makes living on terms of true equality with others who do not share the creed impossible.
And the problem is that so many Muslims want both stagnation and power: they want a return to the perfection of the 7th century and to dominate the 21st, as they believe is the birthright of their doctrine. If they were content to exist in a 7th-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us. Their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain for ever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is appealing, and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs.
One sign of the increasing weakness of Islam'shold over its nominal adherents in Britain?of which militancy is itself but another sign?is the throng of young Muslim men I see in prison. They will soon overtake the young men of Jamaican origin in their numbers and in the extent of their criminality. Confounding expectations, these prisoners display no interest in Islam whatsoever; they are entirely secularised. True, they still adhere to Muslim marriage customs, but only for the obvious personal advantage of having a domestic slave at home. Many of them also dot the city with their concu-bines?sluttish White working-class girls or exploitable young Muslims who have fled forced marriages and do not know that their young men are married. This is not religion, but having one'scake and eating it.
One sign of the increasing weakness of Islam'shold over its nominal adherents in Britain?of which militancy is itself but another sign?is the throng of young Muslim men I see in prison.
The young Muslim men in prison do not pray; they do not demand halal meat. They do not read the Koran. They do not ask to see the visiting Imam. They wear no visible signs of piety: their main badge of allegiance is a gold front tooth, which proclaims them members of the city'scriminal subculture?a badge (of honour, they think) that they share with young Jamaicans. As for Muslim proselytism in the prison?and Muslim literature has been insinuated into nooks and crannies there far more thoroughly than any Christian literature?it is directed mainly at the Jamaican prisoners. It answers their need for an excuse to go straight, while not at the same time surrendering to the morality of a society they believe has wronged them deeply. Indeed, conversion to Islam is their revenge upon that society, for they sense that their new-found religion is fundamentally opposed to it.
But Islam has no improving or inhibiting effect upon the behaviour of my city'syoung Muslim men who, in astonish-ing numbers, have taken to heroin, a habit almost unknown among their Sikh and Hindu contemporaries. The young Muslims not only take heroin but also deal in it, and have adopted all the criminality attendant on the trade.
What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its univer-salist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves comple-tely and leaves nothing in its place. The young Muslims then have little defence against the egotistical licen-tiousness they see about them and that they all too understandably take to be the summum bonum of Western life.
The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle.
Observing this, of course, there are among Muslim youth a tiny minority who reject this absorption into the White lumpenproletariat and turn militant. It is their perhaps natural, or at least under-standable, reaction to the failure of our society, kowtowing to absurd and dishonest multi-culturalist pieties, to induct them into the best of Western culture: into that spirit of free inquiry and personal freedom that has so transformed the life chances of every person in the world, whether he knows it or not.
Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness. Although fundamen-talist Islam will be dangerous for some time, ultimately the fate of the Church of England awaits it. Its melancholy with-drawing roar may well be not just long but bloody, but withdraw it will. The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle.
(A longer version of this article appears in the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.)
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(Courtesy: The Times, April 15, 2004)