The Middle East today is, as it was throughout its history, ruled with an iron fist by a motley collection of monarchs, dictators, tyrants, and theocrats. (With the exception of secular Turkey, Jewish Israel, and the embryonic democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan) This legacy of tyranny includes an intellectual and economic stagnation, which has led to what historian Bernard Lewis has called “a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.” [i]And when coupled with the Quranic imperative for jihad, this combustible cocktail has resulted in the modern-day scourge of Islamic terrorism, and war, once again, with the West. The sad plight of the people of the region is no mere accident of history; nor is it a legacy of colonialism, or Western imperialism. It is, in fact, the inevitable result of fourteen centuries of adherence to the dictates of the revelations of the Quran, the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), and his early successors, or Caliphs (the sunna). The principal cause of this malaise is Islamic fundamentalism. Islam is defined as the absolute submission to the will of God.
The Quran, according to Islamic tradition, is the eternal, infallible word of God, which was revealed to the last of the Prophets, Muhammad, by the Angel Gabriel in 610 AD. The Quran, along with the sunna form the basis of sharia or the Holy Law of Islam. In the earliest days of Islam the Ulama, or Muslim jurists, debated the meanings of the Quran and hadith to emerge at a consensus of believers, or ijma. According to Sunni (some 80% of all Muslims) doctrine this period of ijtihad, or the use of reasoning or opinion with respect to Islamic law, was closed in around 900 A.D.;[ii] thus the sharia as it stood at that time is the sole source of law recognized by Islam today; no room is left for human innovation, compromise, or debate. The very idea of an elected body of Legislators enacting laws outside of sharia is anathema to any strict adherent to the faith.
The Prophet Muhammad, the rightly guided servant of God, was himself a despot who served as both spiritual guide and self-appointed head of state; after his death, historian Arthur Goldschmidt points out “Almost all rulers succeeded by either heredity or nomination; no one thought of letting the people elect them.”[iii] The concept of self-government, being incompatible with Islamic doctrine and unknown to Arab culture, the people of the Muslim Middle East were, and are at the mercy of whatever strongman seizes power in each state. It is demonstrable that there is a directly proportional relationship between strict adherence to Islamic law and a commensurate lack of individual liberty. One need only compare the freedom and the trappings of modernity in strictly secular-Islamic Turkey to the repression and backwardness of the recently deposed hard-line Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan to see the effects of fundamentalist Islam on individual liberty.
While there is a lack of political liberty generally under sharia, the plight of women under Islamic law is decidedly worse. According to Goldschmidt “Muslims may worship anywhere, but men are encouraged to do so publicly as a group; women usually worship at home.”[iv] Since the Mosque is the only forum for unfettered political discourse, women, as a practical matter are automatically disadvantaged. Worse still, the Quaran- the very basis of Islamic society – explicitly emasculates women, placing them at the mercy of men. One example is sura 4:34 which states “Men have authority over women because God has made one superior over the other…Good women are obedient…as for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and beat them.”[v] The lack of women’s rights under Islamic law, while unjust in its own right, has the practical effect of removing more than half of the productive population from the work force, academia, and government putting those societies at a direct disadvantage relative to the West.
If Islamic fundamentalism leads to the subjugation of women and political autocracy, then it contributes also to the intellectual and hence economic stagnation of Islamic society; in fact, these very phenomena were cited by the United Nations’ “Arab Human Development Report”, released in 2002, and written by a distinguished group of Arab intellectuals, as the main reasons the Arab world is “lagging behind” advanced nations.[vi] Middle Eastern, Islamic civilization was at its height during the Middle Ages while Western-European Christendom was gripped in its so-called “dark age”. While the relative ascendancy of Islamic culture at this time is debatable, (many of its achievements during this period were actually Byzantine Christian or the work of Jews and Christians living in Islamic lands) there is no doubt that it was, at a minimum comparable to that of Christendom. The ensuing centuries, however have seen Middle Eastern cultures languish while the West advanced by leaps and bounds due mainly to its heritage of rationality and the fact that, as Victor Davis Hanson puts it “our universities are free, our governments elected and tolerant, our people welcome to choose any religion or none, and our schools are secular and meritocratic rather than fundamentalist and tribal.”[vii] Education in an Islamic state, in contrast, tends to consist of madrasas that focus almost exclusively on memorization and recital of the Quran and propagandist vilification of the west. It is an oft-repeated axiom that Islam is a religion of tolerance; it manifestly is not.
Under Islamic law the treatment of non-Muslims is even worse than that of women; as Lewis puts it “Tolerance may not be extended to those who deny the unity or existence of God-to atheists and polytheists. These, when conquered must be given the choice of conversion or death which later might be remitted to slavery.”[viii] Jews and Christians, or what the Quran calls “People of the Book” fare somewhat better under sharia, but are hardly equal; by virtue of sura 9:29 of the Quran they are assigned the status of dhimmi, and as such are to be fought “until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued.”[ix] In practice dhimmi, as Lewis points out “were not allowed to forget their inferiority.” Among many other restrictions and humiliations, they were forced to pay a special tax, or jizya; could not testify before Muslim courts; could not marry Muslim women; were required to wear distinctive clothing; could not ride horses or carry weapons; and could not build new churches.[x]
Free societies are predicated on the concept of equality under law. Under Islamic law only male Muslims are equal. Another popular label applied to Islam is “religion of peace”; but as Lewis states, referring to Muhammad and his successors, “They were almost continuously at war-first against the pagan Quraysh, and then after the death of the Prophet, in wars of conquest.”[xi] The Quran itself contains scores of verses that command the faithful to commit violence and make war or jihad until all people accept the true faith or the suzerainty of their Muslim overlords. It even has verses that stipulate how to divide the booty won in battle. These verses are not historical narratives of past engagements, but rather mandates for right behavior in God’s service. The verse of the sword in Sura 9:5, for example, states, “slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.” [xii] This verse was among several cited by the terrorist Osama bin Laden in his Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice in which he calls September 11, 2001 “that blessed Tuesday.”[xiii]
Some, such as Iranian scholar Amir Taheri, argue thatthose who quote the Quran to justify violence and oppression have hijacked Islam to achieve political ends.[xiv] Taheri calls this “neo-Islam”- a political movement, not an expression of religion; however, in Islam, there is no distinction between religion and politics. In fact the actions of many terrorists and tyrants are quite consistent with the actions of the Prophet and the traditions of Islamic law. After the famous battle of Badr, for example, the head of a man named Abu Jahl was presented to the Prophet, who then “gave thanks to God.”[xv] During the same battle, a man named Uqba was captured, bound, and brought before the Prophet. Uqba begged for mercy imploring of his captor “But who will look after my children, o Muhammad?” The Prophet responded “Hell!” and ordered the prisoner killed.[xvi] If the Prophet was divinely inspired in all he did, as Islamic doctrine holds, then is not the leader of Al-Queda in Iraq, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi truly serving his God when he saws off the head of a bound infidel captive such as Nick Berg? To overlook, as Taheri suggests, the exhortations to violence, subjugation, slavery, and intolerance found in the Quran would create an impossible paradox; Muslims are not given a line-item veto with which to cherry-pick tolerant Quranic verses, while dismissing others as mere relics of a by-gone era. If the Quran is the perfect word of God, as Islam holds, then such discrimination would amount to apostacy, punishable by death under Islamic law; otherwise this act, taken to its logical conclusion would fatally compromise the validity of the Quran, exposing Muhammad as a false Prophet. (Would God have revealed some untruths to a true Prophet?) This exercise in rationalizing the Quran is thus self-invalidating.
What, then hath Islam wrought? In short, a natural inclination towards despotism in government; indoctrination in education; inequality in fact; regression in intellectual pursuits; a pervasive pathology of victim hood and hopelessness which breeds resentment; and a handy outlet for pent-up rage: violent jihad against the west. If the nations of the Middle East wish to emerge from their current dark age, they must follow Turkey’s lead and explicitly marginalize Islam, removing its retrograde teachings from the functions of a secular, modern government, which will serve all citizens justly and equally.