About one out of every four people on our planet claims Islam as their religion. Of the 52 nations on earth where the population is majority Muslim and the 150 or so more where they are the minority, every race is represented on every inhabited continent. Just under half of that 1.7 billion population lives in four countries: Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 60% of the world’s Muslim population lives in Asia. Indonesia and India alone have more Muslims than the entire nations of the Middle East and North Africa combined.
That’s a wall of data that probably tells you, unless this is the kind of thing you study, that the population of Muslims in the world is wider and more diverse than you knew. And if you are of the opinion that we are at war with Islam at large, this hard reality throws a bit of a complicating wrench into that world view. If you are also of the opinion that all Muslims hate America-some surely do-I’ll throw one more data point at you. Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, has a population in which 62% of them view America as favorable according to the Pew Research Group. That’s one percent less than Australia’s favorable view of America. I know some of you will ignore the data. But I still have to say it anyway, because some of you might not.
I spent a decade of my life preparing to solve problems in regions of our globe that were predominantly inhabited by Muslims. I spent about two of those years actually living in those regions. I’m not an expert-just someone whose had the opportunity to make some observations first hand. You could fill books with what I don’t know about the region though. People like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman have. And though I’ve read most of them, because I had to, my personal efforts to frame the full depth and complexity of the issues at hand there, aren’t that helpful. But if you are willing to think for just a little bit, about the actual issues that we are dealing with in our global environment today, I can share with you two perspectives that I learned. You may also choose to ignore them, along with the data above in service to preserving your binary, basic world view. Which is something that happens quite a bit right now.
Here’s the first one. Muslims are people, subject to the same personal predispositions as you and I. Some of them are conservative. Some of them are liberal. Some fall somewhere in between. On one side of the spectrum, they have people like Irshad Manji, an openly gay Muslim woman who authored the book The Trouble with Islam Today: A call for Reform in Her Faith. On the other side, they have fundamentalist clerics who preach Sharia law in an effort to restore their own view of traditional values. Sound familiar?
Even more consistent with the rest of mankind, some regions in Islam are more conservative or more liberal than others. And the closer you get to the religious centers of their faith, the more conservative ideology you’ll find. One of the things that you can do to consolidate public opinion and power that is particularly effective in those areas with concentrations of conservative people, is vilify the outside world. It’s not a new trick. You hold rallies and gatherings and pile people into the room and tell them that the source of their problems is all the people who aren’t in that room. And if you can find some scripture to support your message, you throw that in there too. And the lousier life is for those people, the easier it is to get them to hate, and the more hate they have, the easier it is to get them to conduct extreme and even violent acts. Getting more familiar?
This isn’t some mysteriously specific Muslim behavior. This is how people behave and have behaved since we were people. Some of us may feel better if we can point to a specific group and say that this problem is uniquely there’s. But really what we’re doing when we do, is our version of the same thing they are doing. Our lives here in the west are simply a lot more expensive and our general outcomes are in need of much less change. It’s been hundreds of years since the quality of life in the western world looked like it does in these regions for your average person. It’s been even longer since the west was as beholden to intervention from outside forces in the manner in which these regions are. So it’s exponentially harder to drive us Americans to extreme action-for now at least. That’s just the way it works. Which brings us to the second perspective.
Most of us aren’t thinking about Muslims from India or Bangladesh or Indonesia blowing themselves up in airports. Because they haven’t done it very often, despite the fact that more of them live there than any other place on earth. There’s a uniquely problematic thing happening in the Middle East and Africa today. You have a unique combination of conservative ideology-because they are close to the religious centers-geopolitical destabilization, and a long history of less then great treatment by the west that is easy to call out by those trying to gain power by focusing hate.
Let’s be clear. No nation deserves to have its civilians murdered as a result of their government policy. And I’m offering no commentary on a specific policy or action by the west. But it is common opinion, by those who pay attention to these things, that the west has largely treated the nations of the Middle East and North Africa like imminent domain over the last century or so. A hundred years ago, these nations were colonized by Great Britain and France and then drug through two world wars. When they finally shed the yoke of imperialist rule, their regional significance on trade and energy production kept the west involved in their governing. Tom Friedman sums up the frustration well.
“Sixty years ago Asian dictators told their people in effect, “I am going to take away your freedom — but give you the best education, export-led economics and infrastructure that money can buy — and in a half-century you’ll build a middle class that will gradually take your freedom back.” In the Arab world, 60 years ago dictators told their people, in effect, “I am going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israeli conflict, a shiny object to distract you from my corruption and predation.”
That difference, 60 years later, has produced the Asian economic miracle and fueled the Arab civilizational meltdown/disorder in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.”
It has also created the great boogieman of the west. Invading Iraq a few years before the music stopped for the Asad regime in Syria didn’t help either. When you take conservative ideology, mix it in a society with poor economic outcomes and stoke the flames of frustration with instability, all you need is someone to blame. And when you actually have one, you’ve got all you need to gain power-and that’s what this is really all about. It’s about power. The louder you scream and the more extreme your views get, the more powerful you grow. You can start to justify murdering women and children. You can start to justify bringing on the end of the world. That’s what they say where life is cheap and outcomes are unimaginably bad already. When you do the same thing in America, where life is relatively good and safe-relatively-maybe you can get away with calls for torture, or carpet bombing, or murdering terrorist’s families. Yes-the same song is being played here, on a different octave.
This is where some folks supporting the rhetoric may take offense to being compared to a radical Islamic terrorist. And that’s a fair criticism to my message because that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I am saying is that people are people and we are the way we are. As a massive group of humanity, we behave in very similar patterns when similarly constructed environments are introduced. This may feel different. But it’s not. And being afraid of the terrorist threat doesn’t make you a bigot. But ignoring very clear and basic aspects of reality in order to choose to assign the cause of your fear to a religion or an ethnicity actually does-by definition. That’s my point. So if you take the time to know a little more, you have a choice.
Whether we like it or not, the rise of radical Islam isn’t really about Islam. I know that makes it hard to fix. And I know what’s really behind it is hard to fit on a meme. But that’s the reality. It’s a reality we should be pretty happy with. Because if the most significant commonality among radical Islamic terrorists were Islam, then we’d have a very different problem on our hands. 1.7 Billion people motivated and unified by the extinction of the west looks a lot different than a few hundred people dead in Europe. We’ve been in wars where the world chose sides and fought it out until one side collapsed. WWII cost us 60 million people. That’s a Paris attack every day for 1,300 years. That’s not what’s happening here. So keep your fear in check and pause the next time someone tries to define large groups of people as universally different than another. Our founding father’s nailed it. We’re all equal. And we’re also keenly susceptible to the same deception. That doesn’t mean you have to believe it.