A Case of the Mondays: Islam is Western

I really wish the people in the United States, Canada, and Europe who complain that Muslims are destroying Western culture looked at earlier groups of immigrants. The same things that people say about Muslims—that they’re an alien culture, that they don’t respect democratic values, that they treat women badly—were also said about Jewish, Italian, and Polish immigrants to the US a hundred years ago. The things people say about Islamic countries were true about a significant fraction of the West as late as the 1970s.

Islam and Christianity are so similar that they are almost, but not quite, the same religion. They’re both monotheistic, with all the cultural implications this carries. They both have a progressive view of the world, in which good works and proselytization will create an increasingly better world. Their eschatologies are remarkably similar. Overall, Islam is hardly different from Protestant Christianity. It’s entirely by accident that right now Muslim regions are more conservative and anti-democratic than Christian regions. Abstractly, there is nothing that prevents what is commonly called the West from eventually expanding as far south as the Sahara desert and as far east as Iran or even Pakistan and considering Islam as one of its two main religions. Just like there used to be a clearly defined Catholic West and a Protestant West, it makes sense to talk of a Christian West and a Muslim West.

More concretely, it’s instructive to compare Muslims to Jews. When Jews started immigrating to the US from Eastern Europe en masse, they were significantly more conservative than Christians on most issues, including all of those that anti-Islamic Westerners consider now in their assessment of Islam. They were almost invariably ultra-Orthodox; secular European Jews typically accepted Zionism and emigrated to Israel or tried to assimilate into the surrounding mainstream culture. If the practices of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel today are any indication, these immigrants were insular, stayed in enclaves like Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg, had birth rates that would put today’s Arabs to shame, and treated women with about the same level of respect as Mormon polygamist sects. As late as 1963, Betty Friedan considered Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans as examples of groups that were more patriarchal than mainstream America in The Feminine Mystique.

That Jews are now the most reliably liberal ethnic and religious group in the United States should suggest that the people who rant about the Islamization of Europe have a disturbingly myopic view of history. Jews had few structural barriers to integration; American cultural policy has always been neutral, neither suppressing minority-religion civil society institutions the way France does or shoving them down people’s throats the way Israel does. Anti-Semitism ran rampant in the United States up until 1945, when people started feeling guilty about the Holocaust, but there were numerous institutions that Jews could turn to beside the synagogue. Still, the process took almost an entire century, and the integration of white Christian ethnic minorities, like Italians and Poles, took only slightly less. If a similar thing doesn’t happen to European Muslims, Europe only has its countries’ own cultural policies to blame.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington defines Western civilization based on liberal democratic notions like democracy, human rights, and gender equality. Based on that, he proceeds to claim that the West consists only of the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Protestant and Catholic areas of Europe. Other people who focus on the cultural differences between Christians and Muslims are less explicit, but they still seem to believe similar things, perhaps with slightly tweaked civilizational boundaries.

The problem with Huntington’s assessment is that it ignores the fact that it’s just a coincidence of the last fifteen years that what he defines as the West is more or less contiguous with the part of the world that consists of democracies with at least moderate levels of gender equality. Thinkers in Protestant countries—including France, which has been at odds with the Papacy for centuries and fought on the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War—developed liberalism at a time when Catholic countries were authoritarian backwaters. Contrary to Huntington’s claim, the Enlightenment didn’t begin in Catholic and Protestant Europe while skipping Orthodox Europe, Latin America, and the non-Christian world; it began in England and France, and spread from there to countries that in some cases had been conservative in culture and government for hundreds of years.

All this means that critics of Islam, such as Mark Steyn and Daniel Pipes, are letting prejudice overwhelm their sense of reason. If you look at the situation between 1990 and 2006, you’ll indeed see that Muslims tend to be more religious, more misogynist, and more anti-democratic than American and European Christians. So what? If you looked at the situation between 1910 and 1925, you’d see that the same comparison applies to Jews and Catholics versus Protestants. It would even work better because you wouldn’t have to contort yourself to explain why what you say are Western values are not found in Russia and most of Latin America; you’d need to explain why France should be grouped with Britain rather than with Spain, but that’s far easier. That period of time saw emerging democracies in Germany and Czechoslovakia, both of which were dominated by Protestants (Prussians and Czechs respectively), compared with Italy’s slip into fascism. Applying the same methodology that Christian and Jewish critics of Islam use, you’d conclude that Catholicism was a backward religion that threatened to take over the United States via immigration and high birth rates.

Of course, many people actually said that, not so much about Catholics as about Jews. For most of those, democratic values were just a front for anti-Semitism, because they were a good abbreviation for “Our culture.” American anti-Semites were likely to worship Hitler, even though his values were anything but what Americans consider American values. Western anti-Muslim writers seem to worship Putin’s strong-arm treatment of Muslims, even as he destroys the democratic institutions they all profess to want to protect.

What is more, if Western values are defined by democracy, women’s rights, and so on, then there is no such thing as the West, only more liberal people and less liberal people. Almost every country in the world has been democratic at one point; states usually abandon democracy only when it fails to work or when the military is strong enough to mount a coup, just like in inter-war Italy and Germany. People have been slower at adopting feminism, but given that Jews and Italians and Poles didn’t do anything to lessen women’s rights in the US, it’s safe to conclude that the people who promulgate fears that Muslims will pressure Europe to adopt Sharia laws are more interested in hating foreigners than in telling the truth.

One approach is to conclude that civilizations the way Huntington defines them don’t exist at all. Another is to say that they exist, but have nothing to do with liberal values. If the latter approach is correct, and Huntington’s basic framework of basing civilizational boundaries on religion has merit, then Islam is part of the West (indeed, the lack of a mosque hierarchy makes Islam more Western than countries where the Pope gets to dictate abortion law). That inclusion should help shatter myths of Western cultural supremacy, which are surprisingly prevalent among people who claim that what they like about the West is its pluralism. Unfortunately, like their anti-Semitic ideological ancestors, anti-Muslims did not come to be what they are now due to any examination of evidence, but due to some form of prejudice.