In the Arena

Is Islam Growing More Militant?

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Mark Steyn argues yes, sort of. Mostly he’s concerned with Britain’s wussy, censorious refusal to allow the Dutch parliamentarian/documentarian Geert Wilders to show his film about Islamic radicalism, “Fitna,” in the U.K. Well, we can agree on this: the west should, under no circumstances, allow its freedom of speech to compromised by threats from the Muslim world. 

And we can agree that Pakistan’s government is losing–worse, it’s conceding–the battle against radical Islamists in  its northwest frontier regions…although that phenomenon is more attributable to the Pakistani military’s anti-Indian strategy, and the Islamabad government’s failure to provide basic services like a judicial system than it is to the philosophical appeal of the jihadis.

But here is where Steyn really goes off the rails:

Between 1970 and 2000, the developed world declined from just under 30 percent of the global population to just over 20 percent, while the Muslim world increased from 15 percent to 20 percent. And in 2030, it won’t even be possible to re-take that survey, because by that point half the “developed world” will itself be Muslim: in Bradford as in London, Amsterdam, Brussels and almost every other western European city from Malmo to Marseilles the principal population growth comes from Islam.

Along with the demographic growth has come radicalization: It’s not just that there are more Muslims, but that, within that growing population, moderate Islam is on the decline – in Singapore, in the Balkans, in northern England – and radicalized, Arabized, Wahhabized Islam is on the rise. So we have degrees of accommodation: surrender in Islamabad, appeasement in London, acceptance in Toronto and Buffalo.

This is not only crude religious bigotry, it also ignores recent indications that the jihadi tide is ebbing. The most exciting and hopeful example is in Iraq, where Sunnis thoroughly rejected Al-Qaeda style extremism, first via the Awakening Movement and more recently in elections (where secular parties made major gains). The more moderate Muslims are surging in strength in Indonesia–the world’s largest Muslim country–and in India, where the jihadi extremism of the Mumbai Attacks has been vehemently, publicly, rejected by the local Muslim population. It’s even possible that Iran will reject Ahmadinejad’s extremism and replace him with a more moderate president in elections this June.

Pakistan is a real problem, demanding a real response before the jihadis get any closer to Islamabad. There are other fruitless but compelling manifestations of Islamic extremism in the world–Hamas, Hizballah. And there are places, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where Muslim Brotherhood groups are strengthened by the brutal autocracy of the dominant governments. But make no mistake: wherever they’ve been given the free choice, Muslims have rejected extremism more often than not in the past few years. Which is excellent news, indeed.

Update: Mark Steyn has responded to this post…by not responding to this post, but to a commenter, Park Dirks, who–appropriately–called Steyn a lazy thinker. Which, of course, is the nicest way to put it. Steyn cites that transcendent authority, the former Malaysian leader Mohatir Mohammed, as his source on Muslim backwardness. QED, I’m sure. Unquestionably, the Muslims have had a dreadful century or three. The past hundred years have been particularly awful. But I’m not so sure I’d go much farther back than the Enlightenment for evidence of relative depravity–especially when comparing Islam with Christianity. Spain, for example, traded down in civilization and tolerance when the Muslims were kicked out. As a Jew, I’m pretty sure I would have fared better in the Ottoman than the Holy Roman Empire. And I’m not sure I’d vouch for the civility of the British and Russians who played their Great Game in Central Asia over that of the local tribes they invaded and butchered. 

Steyn is a certain editorial sort–the broadbrush mockingbird, a cynical satirist with not much interest in nuance or fact, an indirect descendent of H.L. Mencken. (Matt Taibi walks the same stony path from a different ideological direction.) This can provide a certain puerile entertainment. Mencken was no less intolerant of the American South than Steyn is of Muslims (read The Sahara of the Beaux Arts, if you haven’t). But the mockery is laced with an absence of humanity that seems harsher when times turn tough: Mencken’s work in the 1930s grew increasingly foolish and boring. And this sort of bitter satire is no fun at all when lives are at stake.

In Steyn’s case, a fierce insistence on the obvious comes equipped with a hung-over neocolonialist sensibility. I’m actually reading Churchill’s Malakand Field Force right now, which Steyn cites in his column…and I’m torn between curiosity and horror. Churchill was a fabulous stylist, but very much a man of his time–that is, a stone racist. He remained, to the end of his life, an unapologetic imperialist. You wonder what on earth the Brits were doing prancing about the Himalayan foothills, which had little possibility of economic exploitation, other than playing polo and slaughtering tribesmen. Indeed, we are paying the price for the British foolishness in the subcontinent to this day. Ask yourself why the Durand line, which divides Afghanistan and Pakistan, was drawn right down the middle of the Pashtun territorities? My guess is that if the Brits were a little more respectful of the locals, and drew lines that adhered to proper boundaries, the Pashtu wouldn’t be so interested in rebellion–or such easy prey for those, like Al Qaeda, who facilitate such.