THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
I’m in the midst of teaching my students a crash course in how Western Civilization reached modernity in a roughly 400 year explosion of cultural evolution, as a preface to exploring American history. Part and parcel of that is getting them to understand the encompassing power of a worldview and how people and societies react when the dominant worldview is challenged by an alternative model.
Along with many historical examples I borrow liberally from, among others, Alvin and Heidi Toffler and Thomas Kuhn as well as some recent elements of popular culture – I like the scene in The Matrix where the Neo/Anderson character played by Keanu Reeves is led by Morpheus to discover that all his previous conceptions of the world are false in the most radical way possible. It illustrates the point rather well for Generation Y which usually keys into visual and cultural references more readily than literary ones.
The West survived and prospered from its multi-century crisis in shifting paradigms precisely because in an earlier stage, it adopted and assimilated an epistemological approach that allowed it to resolve definitively important social questions around concepts of truth, evidence and proof which were more or less understood and held universally. So it has remained at least until the arrival of ultimately foolish arguments from irrationalist philosophers, quietly trying to bury their Nazi affinities under a guise of pop trendy sixties radicalism.
The Muslim world unfortunately has not internalized such a mechanism. Instead it relies on a consensus without authority approach where problems of great import are effectively insoluble, except by force utilized by a local despot. In the event of a controversy – say over the morality of killing women and schoolchildren – at best Muslim religious authorities may offer an opinion, or even a Fatwa, that many Muslims may accept. The flaw in the system is that the Muslims who are perpetrating these outrages are free to disagree or follow a clerical opinion from some radical sheikh that is more to their liking, which they do.
It is the lack of any accepted system of definitively resolving any questions coupled with the socially accepted and intimidating recourse to violent means that undergirds both our problem of Islamist terror and the centuries of decline and stagnation suffered by the Islamic world. As a civilization they have painted themselves into a corner and they are unable to emerge from this blind alley without adopting at least some of the tenets of our modern worldview – the very worldview whose challenge to the Islamist mentality sparks such intense rage and fear.
Solutions are not obvious. Secular education and a culture of literacy, which is not widespread in the Arab-Islamic world, would help though this would be a solution with a generational time frame. Connectivity between the Muslim world and the Core is the answer but the way is blocked by creaky, authoritarian regimes that fear their own people or Islamist sharia states whose raison d’etre is to keep Muslims poor, ignorant and under control. I can see no piecemeal approach except unrelenting, overwhelming, pressure on the entire, rotting structure of states in the Mideast to comply with civilized norms, handing out carrots and incentives to be sure but only those that will speed the process of reform.
Sometimes there are no easy answers.