What follows is a rather long excerpt and it is excellent, but the entire essay is worth a thorough read. David Brooks has done well on his first set of Hookies (to clarify, the column is linked to by Mr. Brooks and is written by Mr. Dalrymple of City Journal):
Anyone who lives in a city like mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wondering whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam—beyond the devout Muslim’s instinctive understanding that secularization, once it starts, is like an unstoppable chain reaction—that renders it unable to adapt itself comfortably to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Dar al-Islam to permanent backwardness with regard to the Dar al-Harb, 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 of Finland?I’ve just quoted a major block, but perhaps the best sentence in the whole article is this:
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 possible distinction between temporal and religious authority. Muhammad’s power was seamlessly spiritual and secular (although the latter grew ultimately out of the former), and he bequeathed this model to his followers. Since he was, by Islamic definition, the last prophet of God upon earth, his was a political model whose perfection could not be challenged or questioned without the total abandonment of the pretensions of the entire religion.
But his 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 (and, of course, a schism occurred immediately after the Prophet’s death, with some—today’s Sunnites—following his father-in-law, and some—today’s Shi’ites—his son-in-law). Compounding this difficulty, the legitimacy of temporal power could always be challenged by those who, citing Muhammad’s spiritual role, claimed greater religious purity or authority; the fanatic in Islam is always at a moral advantage vis-à-vis the moderate. Moreover, Islam—in which the mosque is a meetinghouse, not an institutional church—has no established, anointed ecclesiastical hierarchy to decide such claims authoritatively. With political power constantly liable to challenge from the pious, or the allegedly pious, tyranny becomes the only guarantor of stability, and assassination the only means of reform. Hence the Saudi time bomb: sooner or later, religious revolt will depose a dynasty founded upon its supposed piety but long since corrupted by the ways of the world.
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, if only for technical purposes, was hopelessly left behind: as, several centuries later, it still is.
The indivisibility of any aspect of life from any other in Islam is a source of strength, but also of fragility and weakness, for individuals as well as for polities. 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 defense against doubt and makes living on terms of true equality with others who do not share the creed impossible.
In my experience, devout Muslims expect and demand a freedom to criticize, often with perspicacity, the doctrines and customs of others, while demanding an exaggerated degree of respect and freedom from criticism for their own doctrines and customs.Given the amazing silence as their religion is tarnished—beheadings, suicide bombings, forced inbred marriages, do I really need a fourth?—I suspect that the propensity for violence against those that are apostate has a profound chilling effect on any Muslims that favor modernity. The endless sense of entitlement among the apologists for the radicals is something I still don’t understand.
Mr. Dalrymple has written an excellent essay. He points out, correctly in my estimation, that over the long run the radical Islamists will lose and modernity will win. Eventually they will have created so much misery, and will have fallen so far behind the rest of the world, that “winning” will be impossible. In the mean time, the people that are trapped by the radicals will live in misery and others will live less secure lives than they otherwise might.
At a time when multiculturalism is being touted as a virtue in and of itself, without regard to the nature of other cultures, I am thankful that we are not paralyzed to inaction. My hope is that our current actions in Iraq will make the long run much shorter.
Update: Brock makes a good point in the comments: Mr. Dalrymple is focusing on the broader Muslim culture and I'm conflating the broader culture with the radicals. See the comments for more discussion.