August 9, 2004


Islam: Religion or political ideology? (Spengler, 8/10/04, Asia Times)

The philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that Judaism was not a religion, but a mere body of laws. Secular Jews would agree with him. Some secularized Muslims say the same about Islam, for example Ali Sina of Sina writes: "Islam is not a religion. Considering Islam a religion is a foolish mistake that could cost millions of lives. Islam is a political movement set to conquer the world. It is the Borg of the non-fictional world. Islam has one goal and one goal alone: to assimilate or to destroy."

In an emotionally charged atmosphere, precise thinking is needed. Kant was wrong, but wrong in a way that helps clarify the problem. Ali Sina and other Muslim secularizers are just as wrong. I shall argue that Islam is both a religion and a political ideology. Religion is what makes Islamic political ideology so dangerous. [...]

Islam...seeks to prolong the life of traditional society indefinitely, by extending it through conquest. I refer here to mainstream Islam, ignoring marginal currents such as Sufism. We find in the practice of mainstream Islam hoary roots in traditional society, in strange juxtaposition with the most aggressive sort of universalism. For traditional Muslims, religion cannot be separated from the most trivial requirements of everyday life, I showed in the case of the teachings of Iraq's Ayatollah al-Sistani (Why Islam baffles America, April 16).

Traditional society is the locus of the vast majority of the world's billion Muslims. Global communications and the social freedoms embodied in the US system threaten the existence of these societies. For most of the world's Muslims the United States is a menace, not a promise, threatening to dissolve the ties that bind child to parent, wife to husband, tribesman to chief, subject to ruler. Traditional society will not go mutely to its doom and join the Great Extinction of the Peoples, blotting out ancient cultures and destroying the memory of today's generation. It will not permit the hundreds of millions of Muslims on the threshold of adulthood to pass into the world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and lose the memory of their ancestors. On the contrary: it will turn the tables upon the corrupt metropolis, and in turn launch a war of conquest against it. [...]

In the form of Islam, the West confronts a challenge quite different from communism.

Arguing which religions are true religions seems a fairly fruitless exercise--it would seem to suffice that their adherents organize their lives here in the material world on the basis of transcendental values that have no material basis and depend solely (and openly) on faith. However, the fact that Islam is a political ideology is all important and is the key flaw which has made the Islamic world so backwards and makes its radical Reformation inevitable. The central insight of Francis Fukuyama's End of History thesis is that regardless of what type of political system folks might prefer no alternative to liberal democracy (with varying degrees of democracy, protestantism, and capitalism) can ever hope to compete successfully. Totalitarianism--in whatever iteration--is too structurally flawed to either produce the prosperity that people desire or to match the fighting capacity of the great democracies. And Islam, because of its political aspect, is just another totalitarianism. If anything, Islamicism will be a far easier challenge to meet because where many in the West were at least fellow travelers of Marxism, if not outright Communists, there is no internal constituency for Islamic totalitarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 9, 2004 6:59 PM

Very, very, well said.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 9, 2004 8:47 PM

I hope you're right. Unfortunately, it seems as if a significant fraction of the Left in both Europe and America are willing to embrace Islamic totalitarianism as long as Bush is against it.

Posted by: David Rothman at August 9, 2004 10:03 PM

For a guy who doesn't believe in progress, you're awfully optimistic.

So Islam cannot compete.

Exactly what competition are you talking about? Is it one that Muslims want to win?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 9, 2004 10:17 PM

It can't satisfy the desire of its people to live well and it can't compete militarily--just like Nazism and Communism before it.

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2004 10:26 PM

Ali Sina: Islam has one goal and one goal alone: To assimilate or to destroy

Wouldn't that make Islam the anti-Borg of the non-fictional world ?

'Cause it's Islam that will be assimilated or destroyed; they gave up the military option a long time ago. (Or, the military option left them).
All the Arab nations' militaries combined can't even beat a rather runty nation of six million souls living in an area smaller than New Jersey, and not as pretty.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 9, 2004 11:28 PM

I respectfully suggest you err in calling for a Reformation in Islam. Wahabbism is, in fact, the Sunni Reformation; Khomeini represents the Shi'a version (as does Sistani).

What is needed is a COUNTER-reformation, with moderate Muslims demanding a opening of the so-called "door of interpretation" that was slammed shut no later than the 10th Century.

You and Spengler err, too, I think, in trying to separate the religion from the state in Islam. Very few states with Muslim majorities have managed to make that break. They are not admired by the majority of Muslims in the world.

As incomprehensible as it is to you to join church and state, for Muslims it is equally impossible to understand the separation.

We, as a secular state, which adamantly keeps the government away from relgion, are going to have a hard time in suddenly talking in religious terms.

I utterly agree that there's not much point in arguing "true religion", especially in the US where one can establish his own pretty easily. But we cannot just ignore religion, either, else we end up in a war where both sides are fighting for two entirely different things. Wars like that don't end.

Posted by: John at August 9, 2004 11:32 PM


Yes, the point is precisely that because Islam weds the state to religion it is totalitarian. However, that is not an innovation in Sunni Islam, which unfortunately controlled states from its birth. Khomeinism is an unfortunate corruption of Shi'a, but has been repudiated even in Iran now. It will certainly be easier for the Shi'a--who were "lucky" enough to be oppressed, as were Jews and Christians--to adopt liberal democracy. But the Sunni have no choice in the long run.

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2004 11:40 PM

There you go, thinking like a western secularist again.

If they're so all-fired hot to live well, why did they wait so long to start? In fact, they haven't started yet.

Also, the only way to live better and be militarily strong is to adopt secularism. The world is full of pitiful, weak, Christian states.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 10, 2004 3:11 AM

The West only has a few years head start and it's a far more mature society.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2004 9:02 AM

Islam, as a religious world view, is problematic. In a world growing smaller through communications and trade Islam is confronted by the simple reality that it's doctrine regarding the nature of man and his relationship with the collective interest, being based on tribalism, ethnicity, geography as well as a basic misinterpretation of Judeo-Christianity, is no longer practical. Islam IS inherently totalitarian. It may be beyond reformation. Islam has gained a foothold in parts of Europe most weakened by the modern concepts of cultural relativism and political correctness. The danger to the west is not Islam, but the environment of basic, old fashioned leftism.

Posted by: Tom C, Stamford,Ct. at August 10, 2004 9:10 AM

Islam came from Arabic tribal culture, and is optimized for Arabic tribal culture. In order to be strict Muslim, you must become an Arab tribesman in all respects -- attitude, language, dress, and customs. (Move over, you New England Puritan missionaries in 19th-Century Hawaii...)

The Koran takes all aspects of Arab tribal culture and custom -- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- and locks it in for all time and eternity by Divine Fiat, commanded word-for-word by God Almighty.

Now that Arab tribalism has been given Divine Right, add in the tendency for one-upmanship among its followers -- who can show they're holier and purer than the other guy by applying those Divine Commands more and more to the extreme. Result: Wahabism and its two current incarnations as Taliban and al-Qaeda.


OJ seems confident that "radical Reformation" of Islam is inevitable. I'm not so sure.

More accurately, Islam will Reform or Islam will die, and in dying try to take the rest of us down with it. (After all, when you have The Direct Line to God, guess who HAS to be right and who else HAS to be wrong?)

Posted by: Ken at August 10, 2004 12:42 PM

Wahabbism is the Reformation. What is needed is the Renaissance.

Posted by: Bill at August 10, 2004 7:12 PM

I agree with Ken: Islam must reform or it will die. The trick is to make sure a reform can be accomplished without killing too many people--including non-Muslims.

Posted by: John at August 10, 2004 10:17 PM