NOTE: This is another unedited reproduction of an essay answer given on my comprehensive exams last week. Essay answers were given in 80 minutes, with no resources at hand; that will show a times!
QUESTION B. Describe the rise of Islam in the Modern West and evaluate the potential of Islam as a major player in the religious life and thought of the West in the 21st century.
The relationship between Islam and the West has been marked by mutual misunderstanding, suspicion, and hostility. Nonetheless, the latter half of the 20th century saw an increasing presence of Islam in Western (Christian) nations, both in the form of individual Muslims and Islamic organizations.
Earlier this week, I received an email from my uncle, which contained a forwarded 9-minute video clip. I cannot remember the name of the organization which produced the video (except insofar as it was a Catholic organization), but the video expressed what has become a common theme (a common fear, perhaps) amongst Westerners – Islam is poised to become the dominant force in Western Europe and North America, and by 2100 the West will no longer be ‘Christian’, but rather ‘Islamic’. The video was accompanied by ominous music, and was narrated in somber, funeral-home tones. Yet the facts expressed therein were undeniably true. Islamic presence in the West is certainly growing, and if trends continued unabated, there will be more Muslims than Christians in many Western nations within 50 years.
In this essay, I will seek to uncover the complex relationship between Western Christianity and Islam through the pre-modern and modern periods. I will briefly discuss the place of Islam in pre-modern Western Christianity, focusing upon the origin and spread of Islam and the Christian ‘Crusades’. I will then examine the relationship between western nations and Islamic states from 1400-1900, focusing on the Ottoman Turks, the Spanish Moors, and European colonialism. I will look at the 20th-century changes wrought by immigration and reconstruction, and survey the contemporary place of Muslims and Islamic institutions in Europe and North America. Finally, I will turn to evaluate the potential of Islam as a religious player in the West in the 21st century. I will outline the positions of strength, as well as noting some areas of vulnerability and weakness. I will conclude that Islam is well-positioned to be a significant force in the west, but that there are a number of vital questions that must be answered first.
I. Pre-Modern History
Islam was embroiled in controversy with Christianity from its very beginnings. Mohammad was certainly familiar with at least some form of Christianity (although it seems to be a heterodox Christianity which worshiped a perverse trinity of God, Mary, and Jesus), and initially expected Christians (like Jews) to embrace his prophetic message and join the new Islamic umma.
As the Muslim community grew, it expanded northward out of Arabia, and entered into military contest with the Zoroastrian Persian Empire as well as the Christian (Greek Orthodox) Byzantine Empire. The Persians and Byzantines had been continually at war with one another for centuries, and had been exhausted by their struggles. Both were ripe for the picking, and the Muslim armies swept through them quite quickly. The ‘Holy Land’ was conquered by the Muslims, and Islamic empires advanced towards the city of Constantinople. Muslim armies also swept through North Africa, which had been a bastion of Christianity, and pushed up across the Mediterranean into Spain until Charlemagne turned them back. As Muslim armies advanced, and Christendom assumed a defensive posture, the western Christian attitude became one of fear, resentment, and hostility toward Islam.
The Crusaders were launched a few centuries later with the professed goal of recapturing the Holy Lands for Christ. The conduct of the Crusaders was, by most accounts, appalling (not universally, but generally). Treaties with Muslim rulers were broken, civilians were slaughtered, cities were pillaged. The legacy of the Crusades still sits bitterly in the Muslim mindset. Muslims perceived the Christian West with suspicion and hostility and resentment.
Thus, by the outset of the modern period (arbitrarily designated about 1400 herein), Muslims and Christians had embraced mutual hostility for one another. There was misunderstanding, fear, resentment, and mistrust from both sides toward one another. Indeed, the legacy of that mindset is still evident in many westerners and Muslims alike today.
During the modern period, the interaction of Islamdom and Christendom increased exponentially, but the presence of Christians in Muslim territories and Muslims in the West remained insignificant.
The Ottoman Empire (Turkish) expanded through the Balkans and into Eastern Europe. Constantinople was sacked in 1452, marking the Ottoman entrance into Europe proper. Vienna was besieged. Muslims were on the very doorstep of Europe, instilling further fear into western Christian minds.
Meanwhile, the Moors in Spain (Spanish Muslims) had been present for hundreds of years, but were driven out when Ferdinand consolidated his position in the late 1400s. At the same time, Europe began to gain control of the world’s shipping lanes, and commercial power began to come into European (instead of Muslim) hands.
As European military and commercial power increased throughout the 15th through 19th centuries, the presence of European colonialism increase accordingly. Colonial powers made their presence felt in traditionally Islamic territories. Unchecked centuries of Muslim expansion and dominance came to a screeching halt. Western Christendom felt vindicated; Muslims felt humiliated. The balance of power had shifted. But the pre-modern mindsets remained entrenched. Westerners continued to fear and resent Islam and Muslims, though now they could look down upon them as well. Muslims continued to mistrust and resent western ‘Christians’, but now had to bemoan their subjugated status as well. European colonialism did increase the presence of westerners in Islamic territories, and the presence of Muslims in the West. Western rulers went to the territories they governed, and had to interact with the local Muslims accordingly.
III. The Twentieth Century: Increasing Intermingling
Immigration from Islamdom to the west became a significant trend in the 20th century. Prior to 1900, there had been small waves of immigration from Muslim territories to various western nations. But generally these were few in number and significance. That changed dramatically in the 1900s.
Prior to World War I, a wave of economic immigrants flowed to the United States, Britain, and France from various Muslim countries. While these immigrants generally retained their Muslim status and beliefs, they did not generally form vibrant and vigorous Muslim communities. A few mosques dotted the landscape, but the Muslim immigrants were generally content simply to be here and left relatively alone.
Between the two World Wars, the flow of immigrants remained relatively light – particularly after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Again, immigration was primarily economic, with the added element of family reunification. Immigrants remained somewhat isolated, not forming strong distinct communities. The mindset of Muslim immigrants and their immigrant communities was affected by the geopolitical situation: Muslim territories around the world were being dominated by European (Christian) colonial masters, and the Muslim psyche was somewhat fragile and humiliated. Hence, Muslim communities in the West suffered from an inferiority complex of sorts. They were content to live and let live, and to quietly live Muslim lives amidst Christian majority populations.
After World War II, however, the trickle of immigrants became a flood. Western Europe had been devastated by the war, and significant reconstruction was necessary. With the death of a significant portion of their young adult population, however, manpower was lacking, and economic immigrants were actively recruited. Germany recruited large numbers of Turkish Muslims, North African Muslims flowed across the Mediterranean into France, while Indo-Pakistani Muslims were brought to Britain. Diverse groups of Muslims from those and other countries came to the United States and Canada to settle. The numbers of immigrants continued to increase as European colonialism came to an end and former colonies gained independence. Civil wars wracked many former colonial territories, resulting in a second wave of immigrants: refugees entering western Europe and North America.
IV. The Contemporary Situation
Today, Islam is the 2nd-largest religion in virtually every western nation – the only possible exception being the Jewish faith in America, which seemingly remains slightly larger than the Muslim population. Various aspects of the contemporary presence of Islam in the modern West need to be emphasized: (1) numbers; (2) institutions; (3) visibility; (4) confidence; and (5) public prominence.
First, numerically Islam in the west has grown to the 2nd or 3rd largest faith community in each country. Germany is home to more than 3 million Muslims; there are close to 6 million Muslims in America. The numbers are large, and growing through both biological reproduction and evangelistic expansion (da’wah).
Second, Islamic institutions have proliferated in the west. Prior to World War II, western nations may have had a handful of mosques; now, mosques are a fixture in every large city, many towns, and even the rural countryside. Indeed, Canada’s public television network sponsored a show called ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie,’ the pluralist Canadian version of the American classic. Besides mosques, organizations such as CARE promote Muslim interests in America. Muslim student ministries are active in every large university in Canada – Friday prayers are attended by hundreds of Muslim students at the University of Alberta, and even their noon-hour prayers during the rest of the week are strongly-attended. Paramosque organizations work diligently to spread the Muslim faith and strengthen the faith of the next generation of Muslims.
Third, Muslims are becoming ever more visible in western society. The wearing of the hijab (head-covering) by Muslim women has been an issue in many western nations (including Canada), but represents a greater willingness of Muslims to be publicly identifiable by their faith. One hundred years ago, Muslims in the west tended to want to blend in; now they desire to be known by their faith.
Fourth, Muslims are increasingly confident, both individually and corporately. Part of the newfound Muslim swagger is due to the demise of western colonialism and the perceived decay and decadence of many western nations. Britain and France are no longer perceived as superpowers; their hold over international affairs has ceased. Muslim confidence is also due to the rise of Islamic nations in power and prestige. Arab oil has had a large part to play, as Saudi Arabia and other countries exert greater influence over world affairs than they could under the colonial system.
But Muslim confidence also stems from changes within the immigrant Muslim community. Muslim families who have been here for multiple generations have become wealthy and influential. Many recent immigrants are well-educated professionals. No longer are Muslim immigrants happy just to be quietly unnoticed in their day-labor jobs. They are confident in their education, abilities, and faith alike.
Fifth, along with their increased confidence has come an increase in public prominence. Canada now has multiple Muslim Members of Parliament, as well as elected Muslim representatives at the provincial and municipal levels. Muslim individuals and communities are also increasingly outspoken is seeking public accommodation to the requirements of their faith – halal meats in schools and public cafeterias, allowances for noon prayers at work and in schools, segregated physical education for schoolchildren, etc. Three generations ago Muslim Americans would not have dreamed of agitating for such changes and accommodations; the Muslim community today has the confidence and institutional resources to engage in public appeals.
At the same time, as the video I received from my uncle demonstrates, there remains a great deal of Western fear and mistrust toward Islam and Muslims. Doubtless, the after-effects of 9/11 play an important role in contemporary fears. However, even before the attacks, there was widespread public fear of Islamic incursions into the west. Islam and Muslims remain misunderstood by most Westerners, and that misunderstanding easily generates fear and mistrust.
V. The Potential for Islam in the 21st-Century West
What, then, is the potential for Islam as a major player in the religious life and thought of the western world in the 21st century?
A. Positions of Strength
First, it needs to be noted that Islam is in a position of strength, and that strength is only increasing. Western Christianity continues its slow decline, rending the religious fabric of western culture. Islam is stepping into that confused religious climate as a self-confident, assertive faith, unhesitatingly promoting the need to submit to Allah. Muslims engage in avid evangelism, both through literature and personal contact. The growth of Islam in the west is not due, as the video I was sent suggests explicitly, solely to biological growth (large Islamic families are almost always mentioned as the driving force behind Muslim expansion) – evangelistic growth also figures prominently.
The influence of Islam within the African American community in the 20th century needs also to be noted. The Nation of Islam began as a heterodox semi-Islamic sect, but has moved toward the Islamic mainstream in the latter half of the century. African-American resentment toward white ‘Christian’ America remains strong, and that feeds the strength and vitality of many Muslims’ faith.
Second, western guilt over the injustices of the Crusades and colonialism has fostered an environment which is very positive for the growth and entrenchment of Islam in the West. Westerners are (rightfully) apologetic over past treatment of Muslim peoples and territories [although we wait in vain for Muslim apologies over the conquest of North Africa, Judea, Constantinople, etc.], and want to somehow ‘make amends’ with current generations of Muslims.
Third, the reigning religious pluralism and tolerance within western culture provides a friendly atmosphere in which Muslims can successfully agitate for cultural, social, and economic accommodations. Schools a hundred years ago, with a dominant Protestant mainstream, would never have even entertained a Muslim plea for special privileges; today, schools are eager to accommodate the special needs of other religious and cultural groups. I am certainly not saying this is a negative thing, and that schools ought not make such accommodations – I am merely pointing out that this is something new in the west; a situation newly amenable to the growing influence of Islam in the west.
Fourth, as Christianity declines in the West, the religious landscape cries out to be filled by something. Mankind is incurably and unquenchably religious. God has created us for intimate relationship with Himself, and we have a religious desire within us to know and be in relationship with the divine. When Christianity is not considered a viable option (as it is not for many people in Western culture today), something else will inevitably take the place of Jesus Christ as the object of our worship. Hence, Westerners are spiritually hungry, they are thirsting for spiritual communion. There is a spiritual void in the soul of many western nations; and Islam is ready and willing to step into that void.
Finally, from a pragmatic and political perspective, Islam is well positioned to ally with the ‘religious right’ in America (particularly) as a champion of ‘family values’ and conservative issues. While Christians and Muslims certainly do not agree on every theological issue, they share a repulsion at the moral degradation of Western society and culture. Thus, Islam is able to cooperate on many political issues with other religious conservatives, and to gain public prominence and acceptance on that score (not unlike has happened with Mormonism in some ways).
B. Vulnerabilities / Positions of Weakness
Nonetheless, Islam faces some distinct vulnerabilities in its desire to be a major player in the west in the 21st century.
First, there remains a deep mutual misunderstanding and mistrust between the west and Islam. For Muslims, the West is viewed as corrupt, degraded, decadent, untrustworthy. For Westerners, Islam is viewed as devaluing, violent, aggressive, and hateful. There is mutual antipathy and antagonism. Again, this is not universally true, but it is general and widespread. For Islam to become a major player in Western society, Western misunderstandings need to be appeased and resolved.
Second, media caricatures of Islam and Muslims remain predominantly negative. Notwithstanding the relatively unpopular Little Mosque on the Prairie’s positive depiction of Islam, most media representations are highly unflattering. Of course, evangelical Christians can make the same complaint!
Some of the antipathy from the West toward Islam does not stem from misunderstanding, but rather from an accurate understanding of Islamic precepts. This results in a series of questions that need to be asked of Islam, seeking to unveil whether or not Islam is capable of playing a major role in the 21st-century West.
(1) Can Islam embrace religious plurality and tolerance? The growing visibility and influence of Islam in the West is due largely to the religious tolerance which it has enjoyed in those nations. However, Islamic nations tend not to embrace such religious plurality. Rather, Islam itself understands that no rational person could deny the truth and power of Islam. Anyone who is not a sinner will embrace Islam. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, anyone who remains not a Muslim is either “ignorant, stupid, or wicked (but I’d rather not consider that).”
(2) Can Islam allow others the same right to evangelize that they demand and receive? Yvonne Haddad celebrates the religious tolerance of America, in permitting free practice of Islamic da’wah (evangelism). Carol Anway similarly shares stories of Muslim women who have come to faith through the active evangelistic efforts of American Muslims. However, Haddad also decries the attempts of evangelical Christians to convert Muslims away from Islam. I am not sure how that tension is resolved within her, as she seems entirely oblivious of the contradiction. However, it remains that, if Muslims desire to share their faith with others and see Americans convert to Islam; they must similarly be willing to allow Christians to share their faith with others, and see Muslims convert to Christ.
(3) Similarly: Can Muslims (sadly) recognize that some of their youth may convert away from the Islamic faith? I have two close friends who are active in ministry to Muslims in Canada. Both converted to Christ between the ages of 18 and 21. Both were disowned by their families. One had a bounty put on his head by his father, and had to flee for his life. Again, Carol Anway celebrates the stories of American women who convert to Islam, and sadly notes that many of their families have difficulty accepting their new faith. Christmas becomes awkward, family reunions are somewhat tense: but in no cases did she observe families disowning their children, or seeking to have them killed. Even within relatively modern American Muslims like Yvonne Haddad, there is a strident opposition to having children be converted away from Islam. However, if Islam desires to become a major player in the contemporary West, it will have to accept that this is going to happen.
(4) Can Muslims (sadly) acknowledge that denigration of the prophet and Qur’an are inevitable in a land with freedom of speech and expression? No one expects Muslims to celebrate when infidels revile Mohammad or mock the Qur’an – any more than I celebrate when people desecrate the name of my Savior and Lord in word and deed. However, the response to the Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoons by Western Muslims was questionable. Muslims have to acknowledge that the freedoms they enjoy within the religiously tolerant west are the very same freedoms that allow people to insult their prophet. It would also help if they acknowledge that some of their beliefs about Christianity are somewhat insulting to committed Christians (Jesus is so much more than a prophet; and the Qur’anic suggestion that the Christian Trinity is Father, Consort, and Sexual Offspring is offensive).
(5) Finally, can Muslims eschew their historical commitment to the union of church and state? The Islamic ideal is a community, umma, which combines faith, economics, politics, and social structure in one. The hijra to Medina marked the beginning of the Muslim faith, because Mohammad had political power and influence there. Islam inherently seeks to unify faith with politics and sociology.
Ultimately, I suspect that the answers to many of those questions is no – particularly the last one. The situation of Muslim in the modern West is an anomaly in Islamic history. Never before have large numbers of Muslims willingly lived as a distinct minority under the rule of non-Muslims. It remains to be seen whether Muslims can moderate (change) their faith such that they are willing to be minorities, willing to allow others to evangelize their members, and willing to allow the separation of church and state.