Islam cannot adapt, and I have seen the results
April 15, 2004
by Theodore Dalrymple
There is enough truth in the devout Muslim’s criticism of the less attractive aspects of Western secular culture to lend plausibility to his call for a return to purity as the answer to the Muslim world’s woes. He sees in the West’s freedom nothing but promiscuity and licence, which is certainly there; but he does not see freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, a spiritual virtue as well as an ultimate source of strength. The devout Muslim fears, with good reason, that to give an inch is sooner or later to concede the whole territory.
This fear must be all the more acute among the large and growing Muslim population in British cities such as mine. Except for a small, highly educated middle class, who live as if Islam were a private religious confession like any other in the West, Muslims congregate in neighbourhoods, where the life of the Punjab continues amid the architecture of the Industrial Revolution.
The Muslim immigrants to these areas were not seeking a new way of life when they arrived, they expected to continue their old lives, but more prosperously. They certainly never suspected that in the long run they could not maintain their culture and their religion intact. The older generation is only now realising that outward conformity to traditional codes of dress and behaviour by the young is no longer a guarantee of inner acceptance. Recently I stood at the taxi stand outside my hospital, beside two young women in full black costume, with only a slit for the eyes. One said to the other “Give us a light for a fag love; I’m gasping.” Release the social pressure on the girls, and they would abandon their costume in an instant.
Anyone who lives in a city such as mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wonder whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam that renders it unable to adapt itself to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Muslim world to permanent backwardness with regard to the West, a backwardness that is felt as a deep humiliation, and is exemplified, though not proved, by the fact that the whole of the Arab world, minus its oil, matters less to the rest of the world economically than the Nokia telephone company?
I think the answer is yes, and that the problem begins with Islam’s failure to make a distinction between church and state. Unlike Christianity, which had to spend its first centuries developing institutions clandestinely and so from the outset clearly had to separate church from state, Islam was from its inception both church and state, one and indivisible, with no distinction possible between temporal and religious authority.
But this model left Islam with two intractable problems. One was political. Muhammad unfortunately bequeathed no institutional arrangements by which his successors in the role of omnicompetent ruler could be chosen. Compounding this difficulty, the legitimacy of temporal power could always be challenged by those who claimed greater religious purity or authority; the fanatic in Islam is always at a moral advantage visàvis the moderate. Moreover, Islam—in which the mosque is a meeting house, not an institutional church—has no established, anointed ecclesiastical hierarchy to decide such claims authoritatively.
The second problem is intellectual. In the West, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, acting upon the space that had always existed, at least potentially, in Christianity between church and state, liberated individual men to think for themselves, and thus set in motion an unprecedented and still unstoppable material advancement. Islam, with no separate, secular sphere where inquiry could flourish free from the claims of religion, was hopelessly left behind.
The indivisibility of any aspect of life from any other in Islam is a source of strength, but also of fragility. Where all conduct, all custom, has a religious sanction and justification, any change is a threat to the whole system of belief. Certainty that their way of life is the right one thus coexists with fear that the whole edifice—intellectual and political—will come tumbling down if it is tampered with in any way. Intransigence is a defence against doubt and makes living on terms of true equality with others who do not share the creed impossible.
And the problem is that so many Muslims want both stagnation and power: they want a return to the perfection of the 7th century and to dominate the 21st, as they believe is the birthright of their doctrine. If they were content to exist in a 7th-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us. Their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain for ever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is appealing and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modem world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs.
One sign of the increasing weakness of Islam’s hold over its nominal adherents in Britain is the throng of young Muslim men I see in prison. They will soon overtake the young men of Jamaican origin in their numbers and in the extent of their criminality. Confounding expectations, these prisoners display no interest in Islam whatsoever; they are entirely secularised. True, they still adhere to Muslim marriage customs, but only for the obvious personal advantage of having a domestic slave at home. Many of them also dot the city with their concubines—sluttish white workingclass girls or exploitable young Muslims who have fled forced marriages and do not know that their young men are married.
The young Muslim men in prison do not pray; they do not demand halal meat. They do not read the Koran. They do not ask to see the visiting imam. They wear no visible signs of piety: their main badge of allegiance is a gold front tooth, which proclaims them members of the city’s criminal subculture. As for Muslim proselytism in the prison, it is directed mainly at the Jamaican prisoners. It answers their need for an excuse to go straight while not at the same time surrendering to the morality of a society they believe has wronged them deeply. Indeed, conversion to Islam is their revenge upon that society, for they sense that their newfound religion is fundamentally opposed to it.
But Islam has no improving or inhibiting effect upon the behaviour of my city’s young Muslim men who, in astonishing numbers, have taken to heroin, a habit almost unknown among their Sikh and Hindu contemporaries. The young Muslims not only take heroin but also deal in it, and have adopted all the criminality attendant on the trade.
What I think these young Muslim prisoners demonstrate is that the rigidity of the traditional code by which their parents live, with its universalist pretensions and emphasis on outward conformity to them, is all or nothing; when it dissolves, it dissolves completely and leaves nothing in its place. The young Muslims then have little defence against the egotistical licentiousness they see about them and that they all too understandably take to be the summum bonum of Western life.
Observing this, of course, there are among Muslim youth a tiny minority who reject this absorption into the white lumpenproletariat and turn militant. It is their perhaps natural, or at least understandable, reaction to the failure of our society, kowtowing to absurd and dishonest multiculturalist pieties, to induct them into the best of Western culture: into that spirit of free inquiry and personal freedom that has so transformed the life chances of every person in the world, whether he knows it or not
Islam in the modern world is weak and brittle, not strong: that accounts for its so frequent shrillness. Although fundamentalist Islam will be dangerous for some time, ultimately the fate of the Church of England awaits it. Its melancholy withdrawing roar may well be not just long but bloody, but withdraw it will. The fanatics and the bombers do not represent a resurgence of unreformed, fundamentalist Islam, but its death rattle.
A longer version of this article appears in the current issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 The Times