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Jihadism — Symptom of a Greater Problem

Rather than being the main problem with Islam, jihadism is just the most prominent symptom of a deeper problem which has been worsening for a long time. Over the last thousand years, Muslim societies stagnated as religion took over and stifled everything else, and they gradually fell behind both economically and technologically. Now Muslim countries are utterly dependent on the industrialized secular West for all high-tech products, from iPads to machine guns. Even ammunition has to be imported. The Muslims (first Arabia, then the Ottoman Empire) used to lead the world in science, technology, mathematics, medicine, architecture, politics and warfare. Then they stagnated, lost their empires, and were largely conquered and ruled by Europe. The last remaining part of their identity which they still can see as truly their own is religion.

While Islam preaches that its way is the only right way and that everything else is corrupt and evil, the very devices which Muslim extremists use to e-mail each other their tirades and post them on the internet are evidence to the contrary. Predictably, this situation and the double standard it requires are cause of a progressively worsening identity crisis and a mounting resentment of the infidels whose products and services Muslim countries have come to depend on.

Technology vastly improves life and the Western entertainment industry makes it that much more interesting, from soccer and fast cars to movies and pop music (less so books, as most books published in the West are not translated into Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and other languages spoken in Muslim countries). To the unbiased outsider, then, the obvious answer would be for Muslims to reform their religion or abandon it altogether, roll up their sleeves and make up for lost time. To the believing insider, steeped in Islamic culture and fenced in by it, the answer seems to be more religion and an even stronger hankering for an idealized past. We are seeing a culture in the last stages of decline trying to stem the tide of change. Many Muslims do not want to join the world, they want the world to join them. This is obviously not going to happen, and so jihadism rides on a childish refusal to be pragmatic and an obstinate “if you can’t beat it, wreck it” attitude with the pompous mantle of religion thrown over it.

This is not to exculpate Islam in any way, for the claim that religion is bad is no longer just opinion. There is hard evidence now. A paper published in the Journal of Religion & Society (Paul, 2005) shows that the degree of popular religiosity in a society correlates directly with the number and severity of social problems. Of the developed societies, Scandinavia–the least religious and most secularized region–has the fewest social problems, while the USA, by far the most religious of the developed societies, has massive social problems. [1]

Sticking to an opinion while ignoring facts is not unique to religion, of course, but it is one of the things that make religion what it is. This means that being religious consists in rejecting the most important human faculty, i.e., reason. Reason is what sets us apart from all other life forms, and so it is fair to say that religion makes the believer less human. Intelligence is, after all, “the ability to correlate and interpret information, and from there construct new information. Also known as abstract thought, it is probably the best tool for survival ever evolved. The ability to use and correlate information to make new information necessarily goes with an urge to seek out more information, otherwise known as curiosity. Hence, all intelligence is curious, and the higher the intelligence, the greater the curiosity … When looking for something new, one tends to find things one was not looking for. Religion, however, goes in the exact opposite direction, and so is implicitly set against survival.” [2]

A rethinking seems to be beginning very gradually in the Islamic world. This is not only because most Muslims see these excesses as wrong and in need of change, but also, and quite possibly even more so, because they are widely publicized by the news. Every time a jihadi does his thing in the West, the whole world hears about it in great detail for at least a week. [3] One of the main differences between Western and Asian cultures is that Western morality is a guilt culture (individuals police themselves) whereas Asian morality is a shame culture (the group polices the individual). While a guilt culture tends to induce neuroses of the good Catholic or the Puritan type, the flip side of a shame culture is that it’s only crime if you get caught. Both attitudes exist everywhere, and East and West have always used both, but each prefers a different mechanism of social control, and the guilt culture seems to get the better results. It is no accident that in all of Asia Japan is doing the best by far, considering how strong the influence of the samurai code in Japanese society is even now, and how important honor (a feeling which can easily produce guilt) was to the samurai.

Step by bloody step, the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam and the endemic sectarian fighting recapitulate the history of Christianity, and, like Christianity, Islam will eventually be disestablished, jihadi fantasies notwithstanding. Yet if they permit themselves to think about it, Muslims are likely to feel a great anxiety: What will be left? Judaism introduced the idea of a systematic body of laws and Christianity ushered in a universal ethical system, but what is there that can be salvaged from Islam? A couple of tasty recipes? A few principles from architecture and abstract geometric art? An ornamental writing whose curves can be applied to Latin letters for effect? Some moody strains that are good for background in pop music, movies and video game soundtracks?

No. All this is looking in the wrong direction. The Islamic world needs a clean break–another clean break. Just as it broke from its pre-Islamic past when the religion was made an institution, it needs to break with Islam now and open up to the world. It should also rediscover its own past which it has been disavowing for so long and trying so hard to obliterate. Far from blasphemous, the universe and the past are exciting and full of surprises–and useful knowledge.

Gods come and go, human beings do not really change. The Arabs were there long before Islam, and they will still be there long after it is gone. The answer lies not in trying to recapture an idealized past which never was, and which at any rate is gone forever, but in turning away from unreason and patriarchy, and breathing freely again after centuries of intellectual and emotional straitjacketing.


[1] Paul, Gregory S. 2005. “Cross-national correlations of quantifiable societal health with popular religiosity and secularism in the prosperous democracies: A first look.” Journal of Religion & Society, 7: 17 pp. ISSN 1522-5658. Journal of Religion & Society, is an electronic journal published by the Kripke Center at Creighton University, Omaha .

[2] Rodney Cooper, “Breaking Point,” 2012.

[3] Muslims often complain that little attention is given by the media to the far higher numbers of casualties in their own countries, but why should they? They get no more coverage abroad than did bombings by the NRA in Northern Ireland, ETA in Spain, rebels in Colombia, etc. In every case, people were just getting hit by their own. Besides, there is a great difference between fighting at home and strikes abroad by fanatics who seek to bring down all of Western civilization.