The title of this article may alarm you, but don’t worry I’m not going all stop the war coalition on you. ISIS has gripped the western imagination unlike any other terror group in modern memory; they’ve done something even Al-Qaeda didn’t think was possible which is to form and establish a Caliphate. The formation of this caliphate which at its height stretched to a size greater than the United Kingdom has shown the world what a Jihadist organisation is capable of once states have collapsed. While ISIS may be the immediate threat they certainly aren’t the biggest long term problem in the Middle East and beyond, indeed ISIS will be a short phenomenon which will quickly be forgotten. The bigger problem is attitudes in the Middle East and across many Muslim majority countries towards minorities and beliefs about the role of the Sharia. While Huntington wasn’t entirely correct in his clash of civilizations; one has to consider the larger problematic trends that are in play which as Hassan Hassan has argued ISIS are simply feeding off. .
The theocratic realities of states such as Iran and Saudi who are the two major players in the Middle East are disturbing even to the most dedicated cultural relativist. The lack of any substantial rights for the LGBT community underpinned once again by a theological view backed up by repressive states needing to distract and gain support with the support of communities expressing conservative values. I could go on about the rights of women in many countries such as in Iran where morality police enforce dress however I’m sure the broader problems are well known. Attitudes towards minorities or women aren’t the only disturbing feature of civil societies throughout the Middle East and beyond.
One example of the disturbing attitudes which occur is that of the Sharia. The Sharia is a religious code which is used as law in different countries, one example of this is Saudi Arabia. However support for the Sharia being implemented as law isn’t just an extremist fetish, indeed according to Pew research poll in July of this year there is widespread support for the idea in all but a handful of countries. You may ask why this is a problem? After-all in countries around the world people support different laws all the time. However, a state which enforces religious law as the codified law in the land is problematic, flourishing democracies need a separation between religion and the state otherwise they will decay as private religious practices become either the codified law of the land. Without this separation acceptance of different religions with different rules becomes impossible, persecution is bound to occur if practices differ. This corrosive effect is that it forces religion onto those who may not share that particular point of view, the state evangelizing through law is damaging for civil society and ensures that pluralism within that nation state becomes an impossibility.
But what about moderate countries? Many critics to the idea that there are problems within many Islamic majority societies often talk about more ‘moderate’ states such as Indonesia which are often overlooked. Indeed the religious scholar Reza Aslan often lauds Indonesia as an example of moderation specifically towards women’s rights. However the problem with these comparisons is that they often fall apart, Indonesia has an appalling record on women’s rights from FGM to the infamous ‘virginity tests‘ which the Indonesian army perform for female recruits. In Indonesia it doesn’t stop there, as a crackdown on LGBT rights has also been occurring in recent months. If Indonesia is the ‘moderate’ example one has to question where to begin with the problems facing a substantial amount of Muslim majority countries.
In the West there is often a spurious intellectual debate that those who cherish the values of acceptance, equality before the law and a state which remains neutral on private matters such as religious affiliation and want to see them spread through the world are modern day colonialists. Those who propagate this view believe the ‘West’ should keep out of other country’s affairs and leave them be, abandoning a percentage of their populace to the fate of living in a theocratic nightmare is not something which ethically should be on the table. Underneath this assumption lies a form of racism, a racism of low expectations, as Maajid Nawaz has argued where many subtly argue that those in a different part of the world cannot enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy simply because of cultural norms and that our cultural norms are no better than theirs. Surprisingly you never hear the same people clamour for the days when the sovereign body of the UK was the King/Queen anointed by god, you never hear them reminisce of segregation in America or of the days of anti-gay legislation such as section 28 in Britain.
Is this state permanent? Is there something inherent within Islamic societies which stops the progress the West has made in its institutions and society? No, these societies have often been plagued with poverty and authoritarian governments which have stifled progress and confounded problems. I like to believe that in 10 years this article will be redundant that these concerns will be history and these debates will be dusty relics of a bygone age. Indeed in plenty of majority Muslim states and societies these concerns do not apply. This isn’t a blanket problem, however to deny its significance is to ignore the problem and a problem ignored cannot possibly be fixed. It is time the Left wasn’t divided and stood behind the pro-democracy, pro women’s, secular and queer groups instead of allowing the worst elements of those societies to thrive and claim to speak for their religion and societies.