Archive for May 24th, 2008

Fearing Sharia?

When the Archbishop of Canterbury shocked Brits by saying that Sharia law might be used for Muslims in Great Britain — why not have different laws for different groups in society — a new wave of fear spread that the West would sacrifice its values in the name of either PC multiculturalism or fear of Islamic revenge. The specter of Europeans simply giving in to Islam, with Mosques replacing cathedrals and veils replacing topless beaches is portrayed as the threat of Islam finally doing what it couldn’t do a few centuries ago: conquer Europe. Rather than soldiers, it will be immigrants doing the dirty work. And Europe, already de-Christianized at least in terms of the actual beliefs of the public, will simply give in to avoid violence. Evidence for this view is given in the forms of numerous examples of decisions or statements from European officials, or from controversies like that over Dutch cartoons about Muhammad published a few years ago.

There is a threat of cultural transformation, but I think it’s the Islamic fundamentalists who need to worry. For all the examples given of silly PC decisions, or statements made by clerics or politicians, the reality is that the West has proven over and over that freedom and material prosperity have an allure that cause people to give up their traditions and religious beliefs to partake in the opportunities. Christianity survived enlightenment materialism primarily by moving from being a faith that was supposed to define all aspects of life and politics to one that filled a spiritual niche. In Europe the church going population is down to one in five. In Italy back in the 70s the Catholic population ignored the Church and voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. Few people really take their religious principles into the business, political and social world — love your enemy, be kind to those who hurt you, turn the other cheek, the meek will inherit the earth…well, those are fine slogans for Sunday morning, but not in the boardroom or on the campaign trail!

I think western secular materialism will ultimately have a similar effect on Islam. To be sure, Islam is more like Judaism in that it is a praxis oriented rather than faith oriented religion. This suggests that the European countries can and should do everything possible to help Muslims follow the practices and traditions of their faith — allow time for prayer, make Ramadan easier to celebrate as a community, make exceptions to rules that allow the peaceful practice of various rituals. This is done for Jews as well, and shows a respect for another faith that conveys a powerful message. I’m convinced, however, that all of the compromises made for Muslims by the West will be more than offset by compromises made within the Islamic community as a response to being in the modern, secular West. Indeed, despite pockets of fundamentalism, European and American Muslims are the most modern and secular Muslims in the world, and as their population grows, they can have a positive impact on the post-Ottoman cultures that still haven’t emerged from authoritarianism and corruption.

It’s easy to fear something unknown, and immigration — whether Muslims to Europe or Mexicans to the US — always creates a sense of concern as people see the face of the land they know change. Yet over-reacting can help the fundamentalists by making Muslims feel that they are unwelcome and treated as strange and different. Rather than integrate, they will separate, and the extremists will have more luck convincing the youth that they need to reject western ideals. The challenge for Europeans is not to somehow fight against the Islamic influence, but actually accept it and accommodate it as much as possible, trusting in the values of individual freedom, market economies and democracy to convince young Muslims that the old traditions are out of date, and can be joined with western society in the same way the Christian church made its compromises.

Yet, perhaps there is also something the West can learn from the Islamic critique of western thought. We are overly materialist and secular, we seem to distrust any idea of spirit or sentiment. That is a weakness in our culture, it skews us to think that all that matters are observable, measurable entities and hypotheses we can test. The world for us is material and rational, anything else is superstition and fuzzy. Yet ethics, meaning, the reason for existence, and our motivation in life comes as much from the heart as from the head, and there is no rational reason to deny the possibility that nature may be spiritual as well as material. If embracing the West means denying the possibility of having a soul and accepting the mysteries of the ‘other side of reality,’ then Muslims (and Christians) are right to distrust and critique such a move. Perhaps as a way to strengthen the West and make it easier for different faiths to co-exist we need to think critically ourselves about our faith in reason and materialism. Because when you get right down to it, secular faith is still faith.

Of course, if the concerns about oil shortages and energy crises are true (see blog entries “Oil Denial” and “Oil Uncertainties,” then all bets are off. We might be done in by our own material excesses.