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Infidels at the Gates

From a global perspective there are any number of co-evolutionary patterns that have been remodeling society culturally, geopolitically and economically, over several centuries. All have profound implications for business, governments and individuals, especially in their current trajectories. But one stands out as the most fascinating. It is the West’s complex and confronting relationship with Islam.

In the 16th century, Judaism and Christianity found a way to come to terms with the modern world through the separation of church from state. Religious dogma remained at the centre of most people’s lives but secular factors (circumscribed by the rule of law, economic liberty and individual rights) defined the role of the state.

This reconciliation, a concept first put forward in ancient Greece, proved to be pivotal. It shaped the ascent of Western civilization, triggering the scientific revolution and one of the greatest outpourings of art, literature and music the world has ever known.

Islam, the other great monotheistic religion, was unable to find a similarly elegant solution to the problem. Islamic law still does not distinguish between matters of state and matters of church.

Initially a warrior cult arising out of devotion for the prophet Mohammed, Islam has literally been at war with all other religions since its inception. The Ottoman empire attacked Western civilization in the 7th century and again in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1683 Turks from the Ottoman Empire were laying siege to Vienna – not for the first time.

The Battle of Vienna marked a turning point in the 300 year struggle between the Central European kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire and was a determining factor in shaping the subsequent relationship between Islam and the West. The Ottomans fought on for a further 16 years, finally losing control of Hungary and Transylvania before acknowledging defeat. The ensuing Treaty of Karlowitz marked the end of Muslim expansion into Europe and the decline of the Muslim empire. After that, Western civilization advanced while Islam retreated.

Not being able to resolve the issue of modernism, Islam turned in on itself. It now stands on shifting sands. In its confusion it condemns not only its perceived enemies but its own people, killing with seeming indifference both Muslim and non-Muslim as it thrashes around, filling each day with new terror.

The decline of Islam is also evident in that Muslim nations aligned to the West (politically or culturally) also find themselves under assault, typically in the form of aggressive acts of desperation from a small core of fundamentalists who interpret Islamic dogma with fierce resolve.

Unsurprisingly the entreaty from the West is for transformation. The majority of Westerners, however, do not (cannot) appreciate the difficulties faced by Islam in any attempt to adapt and evolve. After all these attributes have been the hallmarks of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Judaism, and of Christianity which experienced its own Reformation. So why should Islam find it so tough to do likewise?

The answer stares us in the face. Islam is locked into the dictates of the Koran and of the Hadith, a collection of observations based on the life of Mohammed whose rules dictate the most minute details of a Muslim’s life. Islam cannot evolve without challenging its very essence. This is an existential issue – not simply an agenda for change.

In dealing with terrorism, the US and its allies have predictably resorted to the use of military tactics yet again. The avowed intent behind the new offensive mounted by the Western powers, which is being carried out on many fronts, is to frustrate extremists and remove radicals from power, thus affording more moderate elements the opportunity to bring Islam into the 21st century.

The great risk is that other tacit imperatives, such as assuring the supply of oil, for example, will override everything else. If that is the case current tactics will not help Islam to engage with, and become part of,  the modern world. In fact the entire strategy may have the opposite effect – rallying support for violence and ultimately making the world a more dangerous place for all of us.

Sadly the sequence of events that started with the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11 has created a situation where fear is rife and in which tolerance for anything remotely resembling political game-playing is at zero. This makes it almost impossible to find alternative paths to peace, which would necessitate intimate and sensitive interaction, sophisticated dialogue and negotiation in order to work.

There are a couple of factors that offer hope for a coherent and unified future - if only we can open our hearts and minds to inclusion and acceptance of diversity.

Thanks to television and the Internet, the average teenager remains very aware of what is going on in the world, especially in terms of new technologies and popular culture. Like young people everywhere, young Muslims are part of a new and inclusive global consciousness.

In the long term it is highly improbable that the youth of Islam will continue to permit radical mullahs screaming for jihad to stand in the way of their legitimate aspirations for advancement, knowledge and equality.

It would be helpful, of course, if Western media, realizing this, could deliver more positive messages of hope, possibility and cooperation rather than the divisive 'bad news' messages on which it currently relies to sell its products.

Another factor that cannot be ignored is the spread of Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa across the world coupled with a birth rate that exceeds that in the West. Indonesia and Malaysia of course are fully Muslim states but Muslim populations in European countries and in far flung places like Australia are growing at a rapid rate. In France, Holland and Germany, for example, around 10 per cent of the total population is Muslim and growing fast.

Here is an opportunity to integrate cultures in ways that are mutually beneficial. Unfortunately little attempt is being made to assimilate alien communities into the cultures of host countries. This is a political error of the worst kind and will ultimately turn out to be one of the catastrophic design flaws in the post-modern secular state.

Is the West pulling Islam too quickly from the dark ages of the 7th century into the brave new world of the 21st century? Will Islam simply implode? Nobody knows for sure.

But of one thing we can be certain. The tussle around perceived differences and misunderstandings between the two will remain of increasing significance over the coming years. The issue will not go away. Nor is it a simple problem that will easily be resolved. It requires the ability to transcend orthodoxy and to remain transparent and open. At the moment, that is hardly forthcoming from either Islam or the West.

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