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Defining Paths: The Shape of Islam in the 21st Century

Paper ID: 492 Last updated: 10/05/2011 13:55:43
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Regional When: 3-10yrs How Fast: Years
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Keywords: bullet islam, faith, reform, middle east, religion

Summary bullet

The events of 11 September 2001, subsequent terrorist attacks and Western military action in the Middle East have provoked intense discussion about the direction Islam is taking in the 21st Century. Arguably, not since the Ottoman assault on Vienna in 1683 has there been such anxiety in the West about Islamic militancy and the relationship of Muslims with people of other faiths. Samuel Huntington's book 'A Clash of Civilisations' has led to much discussion about whether conflict between the West and Islam is inevitable. Some have supported this thesis, whereas other scholars and commentators point to reformist currents active in contemporary Islam. However, this debate has animated not only the intelligentsia but wider Western societies which have acquired growing Muslim populations of their own. Competing interpretations of the Islamic faith are therefore a major domestic issue for Western states and not simply a matter of foreign policy.

Discussion bullet

Vigorous debate about the future direction of Islam has been generated by 9/11, by subsequent US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and by further Islamic terrorist attacks in the West. In the 1990s, much attention was given to Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis (1993), which posits a conflict of values between Western democracy and Islam. [1], [2], [3] Although it remains controversial, some observers argue that this has proven a useful framework though which to interpret subsequent world events. [4], [5]. Others however point to the prospect of more positive developments such as the easing of tensions with Iran and within Iraq as well as reformist trends within Islam. [3], [6], [7] Some Islamic scholars have begun to rethink the relationship of the Islamic faith with the West in such a way as to encourage peaceful co-existence.

Muslims' own understanding of their faith will almost certainly be influenced by events in the Middle East. Radical arguments that renounce dialogue with the West and advocate an idealised early Islam have certainly had a long history, drawing strength in particular from the experience of Anglo-French colonisation. [5], [8], [9]. However, they also draw on current events such as the violence in Iraq and the Occupied Territories as well as the conviction that the USA has replaced Britain as an oppressive global colonial power. Recent improvements in the situation in Iraq may provide the breathing space needed to cool wider tensions in the Middle East, and, by decreasing the level of violence, this may assist moderate Muslims who are engaged in debate with radicals about how Islam should respond to the West.

If Muslims' views of the world and their religion are affected by relations with the West, much hinges on the potential clash between Iran and the US and Israel, particularly over Teheran's alleged nuclear weapons programme. [10]. As the centre of Shia Islam, Iran is a participant in what some parts of the Western media term a “new cold war” against the US and its allies. [11], [12]. Were this cold war to turn "hot", the sense of oppression and victimisation that has arguably fuelled much of radical Islam could gain strength. In that event however, violence would be directed as much against fellow Muslims as Westerners. Governments in pro-US states such as Egypt and Jordan are widely despised by fundamentalists as vassals of Washington and are as much a target for them as the West itself. Furthermore, the violence between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias is a reminder that the two main branches of Islam are historically enemies and that there is no reason to think this will cease. [13], [14]. One of the potential futures of Islam is therefore a continuation of the cycle of recrimination, confrontation with the West, consequent defeat and further recrimination. [6]

The pull of fundamentalist Islam may also be increased by demographic growth among Muslims. World population is projected to increase by 2.7 billion by 2050 [15]. Thirty per cent of this new population are expected to live in Muslim-majority countries, compared with only 1% in the developed countries. Although the overall birth rate is certainly falling among Muslims, it remains extremely high in some places, e.g. on average the number of children born to each woman in Afghanistan is 7.5 and in Yemen, 6.0. [15] The result is a ‘youth bulge’, a growth in the proportion of young people in Muslim populations. [16] Young males tend to be the most susceptible to radicalisation and the widespread poverty, oppression and poor infrastructure in Muslim countries make this a serious possibility. [8] The burden placed on already unstable states by population growth in the Muslim world is likely to be a major political factor in coming decades.

A growth in Muslim populations is also being experienced in many Western countries. [17] Large scale immigration since the 1960s meant that by 2001 Islam had become the second largest faith after Christianity in the UK, with Muslims comprising 3% of the UK population and much higher proportions in certain areas, for example, 36% in Tower Hamlets, a borough of East London. [18] In 2007, ‘Mohammed’ became the second most common boy’s name in the UK. [19] The result is that events in the Middle East can now have a direct affect on domestic politics in the West, as shown by the suicide attacks on London in 2005 by Muslim terrorists who were also British citizens.

However, the theological debate among believers will be critically important. [19], [1], [8] One of the most telling critiques of the ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis is that the conflict lies not between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam but between moderate and extreme Islam. [20], [8], [2], [21], [3]. Western Muslim scholars such as Tariq Ramadan have argued the need for a ‘European Islam’ which allows practicing Muslims to follow their religion and remain comfortable as active citizens of the countries where they live. 10. [21] In Turkey, the government is sponsoring a concerted programme to recontextualise Islamic scriptures and to redefine their message for today, taking the Christian Reformation as one source of inspiration. [22] In Senegal, a majority Muslim democracy, a Catholic has recently been elected president, which suggests an emergent trend of greater pluralism and inter-faith co-operation at a political level in some Islamic societies, with Muslims co-operating politically with those of other faiths. [20] There is also a wider discussion among some Muslim scholars about how Islam should respond to modernity. [6] Part of that discussion is about how Islam could be a peaceful, ethical, socially just alternative to the materialism and acquisitiveness criticised in the West. Arguments for a new direction in Islam are assisted by the alienation from extremists that many Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere have experienced when they have taken power. [23], [23]

Implications bullet

The direction taken by the Islamic faith will depend on many factors, but the politics of the Middle East will be crucial. Further conflict (for example, in Iraq or involving Iran) will only continue the cycle of violence and radicalisation, drowning calls for moderation from less radical Muslims. The return of relative stability to Iraq keeps alive the hope that the country may achieve long-term civil peace. [14] However, ongoing tensions between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias could still undermine the government. [13], [14]

Confrontation with Teheran would not only see violence against non-Muslim states, especially Israel and the US, but among Muslims themselves as Sunni and Shia radicals unite against mainly Sunni governments that oppose Iran. [24], [12] Such a clash could destabilise the whole Middle East as support grows for Iranian resistance. Governments in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh may be targeted for their perceived closeness to Washington. Action against Iran could also lead to an energy crisis in the West if Iran stops its oil exports in retaliation, as it has already threatened. [25]

These developments would certainly impact on Britain. [17] The tensions in the Middle East already influence the opinions of British Muslims, among whom a noticeable proportion express sympathy for radical Islam. An opinion poll conducted in early 2006 found that 7% thought suicide bombings could be justified in the UK (although 77% disagreed) and 53% agreed that Jews have too much influence on British foreign policy. [26] The situation is complicated by the resistance in some quarters of Islam to integration with non-Muslim majority populations, [17], [27] and the fact that the Muslim community in the UK is fragmented, with no one organisation that can speak for British Muslims as a whole. [28], [23] If radical Islam were to gain in popularity in the UK, this could have a significant effect on British politics, with increased support for the far-right and anti-immigration sentiment, especially if there were more terrorist attacks. On the other hand, this might be averted by the development of a more open attitude towards British society that allows religious observance to exist alongside active and peaceful participation in civil life. [21], [6]

A positive scenario for the Islamic world involves decreased support for extremists, which is possible to envisage. Although the Iranian government is dominated by radical Shiites, fundamentalism is less strong among the Iranian people who have grown more critical of the regime in recent years. Poor employment prospects and high literacy among the population has already led to reform movements that advocate greater political freedom. [8] Democratic ideas are present in the Muslim world; democracies already exist in Turkey and to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Indonesia. [8] Combating religious extremism may depend on whether liberal reforms can be achieved. Some evidence shows that Islamic extremism has grown quickest in autocratic secular regimes in the Muslim world, such as in Central Asia or Egypt. [8], [2] Also, first-hand experience of extreme Islam has not proved popular in Iraq where many people have been repelled by its austerity and authoritarianism. [23]

There is the potential for political and religious liberalisation within Islam to develop into an Islamic ‘reformation’. Attempts to recontextualise Islamic scripture in Turkey might be the forerunner for a very different conception of the role of women and the abolition of some of the severe penalties associated with Islamic law, such as stoning and amputation. [22] Looking further ahead, there might emerge a more tolerant, open Islamic civilisation later in the 21st Century which combines pluralism and tolerance with Islamic ethical approaches to economics and science. [6], [7]

Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that the likelihood of Western, largely secular democracy emerging in the Islamic world is low, considering how much religion continues to play a formative role. Such a hope has been shown to be most naïve in Iraq where confessional differences have almost led to civil war, [13], [14] and even in Turkey the ruling Justice and Development Party, although considered an example of moderate Islam, has been viewed with deep suspicion by detractors who think it has an Islamist agenda. [28] The debate about the right relationship between religion and politics will remain fraught in the Muslim world, even where such discussion is possible. This is not to say democracy may not emerge in countries where Islam is in the ascendant, but it will probably be very different to that current practised in Europe or North America.

Early indicators bullet

Election of more openly Islamist parties in Turkey or Malaysia.
Recontextualisation of Islamic scriptures.
Concessions by Iranian government in the face of popular demands for greater freedom.
Freer elections in quasi-democratic Muslim states such as Egypt or in autocracies such as Saudi Arabia.
Peaceful withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan with power transferred to stable governments.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Spreading influence of Iran and Teheran’s nuclear programme.
Violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere.
High birth rate in Muslim majority countries, creating a youth ‘bulge’.
Repressive secular governments leading to religious radicalism.
Substantial Muslim immigration into the West and a low level of integration.

Disillusionment with religion brought about by the experience of extreme Islam.
Decline of the birth rate among Muslims.
Moderate reinterpretation of the Qu’ran as a challenge to extremists.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Cold War peacefully resolved after 40 years.
Growth of religious pluralism in Europe after the Reformation.
Islamist party in power in Turkey's secular democracy. [29][4][19][18][20][1][5][8][2][21][17][13][14][10][11][15][27][16][3][24][12][25][28][23][26][6][22][7][9]

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The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.