“You don’t think the Justice system in Muslim countries is somehow more primitive or subjugates women more than in other countries?” That is a question a very confused CNN news anchor asked Reza Aslan, a writer and academic in the field of religion. Aslan was telling the audience about how Islamic countries are not violent, something that was understandably met with a lot of scepticism. But does Aslan have a point? Or is he just defending a violent religion?
For many people, particularly those living in the US, the issue seems rather straightforward. Of course Islamic countries are more violent, extremist and anti-democratic. It’s a simple, statistical fact, right? Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen have a history of violence, of religious extremism and are never ruled by proper democracies. That is exactly the argument that Bill Maher made on his show, and the ones backed up by the CNN news anchors. Sure, we shouldn’t blame every individual Muslim, but at least it’s clear that Muslim countries suffer from these problems a lot more than Western countries. Right?
Aslan wouldn’t agree. As he argues, our views are greatly distorted. For instance, we associate female genital mutilation with Islam, which is actually completely wrong: female genital mutilation is an African problem, and it is just as widespread in Christian countries as it is in Islamic countries. Additionally, if we zoom in on countries with major political problems, we completely forget about the rest of the Muslim world. Countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia, (the last one actually being the biggest Muslim country in the world), are completely ignored, despite the fact that those are doing just fine.
All that is fair enough, but it doesn’t change much. As people like Bill Maher, and with him the average American would argue, it still remains a fact that Islam suffers from problems that Christianity does not. Regardless of the fact that Islam might do things right sometimes, it also very often does things wrong, and the Middle East is the evidence for that. That stance is very logical, because Aslan is forgetting one vital point in his reasoning: the “why” question. Why, if the Middle East is an exception, is it so different? What, if not Islam, is causing this extremism?
To answer that question, we need to turn to political science rather than theology. See… Middle Eastern countries have more in common than just their religion. In Western media, we look only at Islam and call them “Islamic countries”, which makes perfect sense, because that extremism we fear manifests itself through the religion. However… as any university student can just about dream by now, “correlation does not equal causation.” Just because Islam is the tool for extremism, does not mean it is the cause.
One of the things these countries, for the most part, have in common, is oil. And that is a major problem. Oil has not only been the reason for extreme inequality, and thus a much stronger and richer elite, but it has also been the reason for much involvement from other countries. Particularly, Western countries have meddled in the Middle East for decades.
Take Iran, for instance: between 1951 and 1953, the Iranian population was greatly in favour of a democracy, and it was making great progress. So why didn’t it become a democracy? Because, when it turned out that the democratic regime wasn’t willing to give Western countries the same oil deals, they interfered. Western countries overthrew the democratically elected regime and instead inserted a dictatorial and corrupt monarch who was willing to give the West some concessions.
That’s just an example. There are many more of these, all of which are never discussed in Western media, while they do play a major role. As any political scientist will agree, a past full of political upheaval leads to a desire in the population to have a charismatic leader, and those charismatic leaders are rarely democratic. After all, democracy is not something that emerges in times of crisis and conflict. Extremism is. We see that in the West as well, with both the extreme left and the extreme right making major gains since the economic crisis.
This doesn’t mean that I’m saying that we, as the West, are to blame. Of course, we really are, but we cannot change that anymore, so by now that has become irrelevant when it comes to finding solutions for the future. What it does mean, however, is that Islam certainly isn’t to blame. The reason why Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Morocco are doing just fine while the countries in the Middle East aren’t, has nothing to do with religion. It’s about history, about politics, about money and power. So rather than saying that Islamic countries are violent, or that they abuse human rights, or that they aren’t democratic, we should be talking about Middle Eastern countries. Because Middle Eastern countries do have many problems. Islamic countries don’t.
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