Islam and Islamism
Pipes, Daniel, The National Interest
Faith and Ideology
ONE CANNOT emphasize too much the distinction between Islam--plain Islam--and its fundamentalist version. Islam is the religion of about one billion people and is a rapidly growing faith, particularly in Africa but also elsewhere in the world. The United States, for example, boasts almost a million converts to Islam (plus an even larger number of Muslim immigrants).
Islam's adherents find their faith immensely appealing, for the religion possesses an inner strength that is quite extraordinary. As a leading figure in the Islamic Republic of Iran maintains, "Any Westerner who really understands Islam will envy the lives of Muslims." Far from feeling embarrassed about its being temporally the last of the three major Middle Eastern monotheisms, Muslims believe that their faith improves on the earlier ones. In their telling, Judaism and Christianity are but defective variants of Islam, which is God's final, perfect religion.
Contributing to this internal confidence is the memory of outstanding achievements during Islam's first six or so centuries. Its culture was the most advanced, and Muslims enjoyed the best health, lived the longest, had the highest rates of literacy, sponsored the most advanced scientific and technical research, and deployed usually victorious armies. This pattern of success was evident from the beginning: in A.D. 622 the Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca as a refugee, only to return eight years later as its ruler. As early as the year 715, Muslim conquerors had assembled an empire that extended from Spain in the west to India in the east. To be a Muslim meant to belong to a winning civilization. Muslims, not surprisingly, came to assume a correlation between their faith and their worldly success, to assume that they were the favored of God in both spiritual and mundane matters.
And yet, in modern times battlefield victories and prosperity have been notably lacking. Indeed, as early as the thirteenth century, Islam's atrophy and Christendom's advances were already becoming discernible. But, for some five hundred years longer, Muslims remained largely oblivious to the extraordinary developments taking place to their north. Ibn Khaldun, the famous Muslim intellectual, wrote around the year 1400 about Europe, "I hear that many developments are taking place in the land of the Rum, but God only knows what happens there!"
Such willful ignorance rendered Muslims vulnerable when they could no longer ignore what was happening around them. Perhaps the most dramatic alert came in July 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt--the center of the Muslim world--and conquered it with stunning ease. Other assaults followed over the next century and more, and before long most Muslims were living under European rule. As their power and influence waned, a sense of incomprehension spread among Muslims. What had gone wrong? Why had God seemingly abandoned them?
The trauma of modern Islam results from this sharp and unmistakable contrast between medieval successes and more recent tribulations. Put simply, Muslims have had an exceedingly hard time explaining what went wrong. Nor has the passage of time made this task any easier, for the same unhappy circumstances basically still exist. Whatever index one employs, Muslims can be found clustering toward the bottom--whether measured in terms of their military prowess, political stability, economic development, corruption, human rights, health, longevity or literacy. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia who now languishes in jail, estimates in The Asian Renaissance (1997) that whereas Muslims make up just one-fifth of the world's total population, they constitute more than half of the 1.2 billion people living in abject poverty. There is thus a pervasive sense of debilitation and encroachment in the Islamic world today. As the imam of a mosque in Jerusalem put it not long ago, "Before, we were mast ers of the world and now we're not even masters of our own mosques. …