WHY IS THERE SO MUCH RELIGIOUS TURMOIL IN THE WORLD TODAY?

MY TAKE: PART ONE


I’m certainly no expert when it comes to Islam or Muslim culture.  My one claim to any such knowledge, I suppose, is my good fortune of having a few Muslim friends and having worked with a goodly number of Muslims both in America and overseas.  Other than this, I can’t say that I’ve ever studied Islam except for the Islam volume of a series of books I read about the world’s major religions sometime in my hoary past.  I have read parts of the Koran.   In essence, I have no education or leaning about all things Muslim and Middle Eastern. 

Yesterday’s slaughter in Sanaa, last weeks attacks in Tunis, the Paris killings, 9-11 – if you weren’t careful one could easily believe that the planet was in some sort of death throes with Armageddon just around the corner or co-terminus with tomorrow’s sunrise.  Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, ISIL - it all seems so out of control, so threatening.  Not without reason, perhaps.   Attempting to put what’s happening in some context seems nearly impossible.   But in the past year I’ve read a couple of articles attempting to ferret out the underpinnings of what seems to be the radicalization of Islam and the mess that is the current Middle East.  The continuing onslaught of young Muslims blowing themselves up while taking tens or dozens of folks with them or gunning down hapless tourists in the name of Muhammad and Allah; it does give one pause and not surprisingly so.  Pause, that is, to wonder just what the hell is going on.

For some reason, and I know not what reason given the messy tangle that are my thought processes these days, the recent terrorist attacks made me recall the 2005 riots in suburban Paris, France, where young Moroccans ran amuck for several days burning police cars, destroying property and causing much grief for the “We are all first French” cultural dream that is so often invoked when discord hit’s the world’s leading shrine to cultural supremacy.  Me?  I was reminded of our own troubles back in the 1960’s and 1970’s when African Americans were acting pretty much like the young Moroccans who were trashing suburban Maillot in 2005.   I was reminded too by the pronouncements of outrage and horror of French officials in 2005 as pretty much paralleling those of American officials in 1965 if memory serves me correctly.

Also, looking a bit deeper, the causes of our riots and those in suburban Paris fifty years later are pretty much the same.  A disenfranchised minority, generally poor, feeling isolated, believing that the majority has no interest in their welfare, indeed, that majority seeming to take every opportunity to further demean and diminish their legitimacy, a chance incident throws a lighted match on a simmering stew of bubbling resentment and anger, and riots ensue.  The reasons are not really all that mysterious or opaque.    The response, however, to these catalysts can vary tremendously from “just some teenagers out on a riotous rampage” to “we have an intractable set of problems that we must address” and every variation between these two polar opposites.

Until recently, the terrorist attacks by Muslims around the world have almost exclusively been described as radical religious acts of brainwashed young people, whether these terrorist hail from London, Baghdad or Damascus, who suddenly snap or go insane.  It’s a simple explanation and one in its simplicity that appeals to the members of the world’s community who don’t accept the idea that life itself is complicated, full of contradictions and can be extremely arbitrary in the unasked for conditions into which individuals are born and raised.

If, for example, one labels riotous African Americans in the 60’s and 70’s  “terrorists,” would that be a reasonably accurate description of the activities they undertook?  Yes, it would and they were labeled as such by a wide swath of the American public at the time.  We recognized, however, that slavery – ended just 100 years previously in what is still this nation’s most deadly war – had severely affected the lives of African Americans and along with Jim Crow laws, red-lining, last hired & first fired, and legal as well as ad hoc discriminatory practices over that century around the country, could not be discounted as one, if not the major, cause of the continuing undesirable fate of African Americans and their outpouring of anger and violence.

Today, however, little thought is given to the causes of the radicalization of young Muslims both in the West and in the Middle East.  And yet the causes of radicalized Muslims and our own African American rioters are quite similar.   Discrimination, disenfranchisement, diminishment of legitimacy, loss of hope, dreams smashed by indifference and neglect – all these happen to individuals.  It is personal.  It’s not like climate change that affects everyone more or less equally no matter if one believes in climate change or not.   Whether in France or in England, or Saudi Arabia or Syria, - the autocratic Islamic regimes of the Middle East are not immune from this discrimination and repressive treatment of one group at the hands of another – when a young person reaches the age when the recognition of conditions not of his or her making, an environment he or she has been born into and had no hand in creating yet one that delimits their personal ambitions, hopes and dreams, that makes a mockery the very weave and warp of their personal lives, (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are “Creator Given” inalienable rights according to our 240 year old Declaration of Independence) is it a huge chasm of reason that must be breached in order to recognize the corrosive effects of living in a social system that essentially denies that you have any importance whatsoever?  That you and your life, by the overt and unconscious acts of that society, are rendered meaningless and irrelevant in the overall scheme of things? 

I do not sympathize with terrorists whatever their religion or motivations.  What I do empathize with, however, are the conditions that lead to the creation of terrorism and the adoption of terrorist acts as a “rational” choice for individuals.  No one is born a terrorist just as no one is born to hate.  Timothy McVeigh and the Unibomber, Ted Kosinsky, became terrorists.  They were not born that way.  They did not emerge from the wombs of their mothers genetically programed to kill and maim innocent folks twenty years later. 

Then there are the larger forces that can lend themselves to a more general, less individualized gravitational pull toward terrorism, terrorist acts and general chaos.  Take the history of Christianity, for example.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity spread fairly rapidly around the Levant and eventually made its way to Europe.  Centuries later, as Islam too had spread rapidly through the Levant and eventually to Europe as well, came the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, Henry VIII’s break with the established Church to marry his chosen one, the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, the Protestant branch, and a host of violent and not so violent responses to both internal and external influences as Christianity become more organized and adapted to conditions and situations it encountered along its spread. 

Fast forward to the end of World War I and the division of the spoils of that war among the Western victors and the dissolution of one of the world’s most sophisticated and progressives civilizations the world has ever seen, the Ottoman Empire.   From this moment on, the Muslim world of the Middle East has been essentially frozen, first under repressive colonial regimes and then under equally repressive domestic ones.  Add to this the ages old struggle within Islam itself between the Shia and Sunni branches (not unlike the historical fissures between the Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity) and the states created out of the once enlightened, progressive Ottoman Empire, have lain fallow for the most part since World War I and have only recently emerged from what I would call the enervating shadow of modern colonialism. 

Unlike the Christian West, the Muslim East has been much more insulated from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, the Arms Race, and all of the other social, economic and political shocks and wrenchings that the West has been subjected to in modern times. This isolation and insulation were not, of course, of their choosing.  These events and the necessity of responding and adapting to them have shaped and progressed the West into its current liberal (in the larger sense) cultural and governmental status.  These necessary societal responses, necessary to allow for the adaptation to a fast changing world of cultural, political and technological influences and the continued progression of the West, has not happened in the Middle Eastern Muslim world until very recently.  

One need only examine the status of women in the West compared to that of women in the Muslim East.  Considered property, with no legal rights, lacking the vote at the dawn of the 20th Century, the status of women in the West has progressed rapidly and remarkably.  Not so in the East.  Recall, if you will, that the status of Christian women and Muslim women was not all that different in historical, religious terms until after the Industrial Revolution.   But it was the liberalizing influences of those shocks to the system that the West endured that fundamentally opened Western societies to allow women to speak up, fight for themselves and to win the rights and privileges afforded previously only to men.  The post-Industrial Revolution world has been one of increasing liberalization of social structures and cultural practices.  Women were granted the right to vote in 1920 not even an eye-blink in the course of history.   It is the absence of the winds of change since WWI that so liberalized the West that have had scant effect in much of the Middle East.   (I realize this conclusion is perhaps condescending and smacks of paternalism, if not chauvinism, but I think for all that it is a worthwhile aspect to consider.)


The confluence of the pent up and rigorously suppressed forces toward personal expression and individual rights as the world has evolved, the stagnant lack of adaptation to the searing influences of the modern world with all its communication and technological advances, have rendered the old despotic regimes dangerously cleaving to world that no longer exists.  The overweening arc of worldwide liberalism and its inherent appeal to individual freedoms and personal rights has supplanted the old “noblesse oblige” justification for dictatorial and divine right rule no matter how enlightened it might have been.  Now, we have had backward movements in the history of the Earth’s civilizations and the current liberal winds may not be permanent, but for the time being they are what serves as the dominant cauterizing trend across the social systems of the entire planet. 

Part Two Tomorrow If You're Interested.

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