History, geography, society and Islam

The various complaints about Islam and Muslim society at View from the Right and elsewhere (aggressiveness, deviousness, honor killings, polygamy, female genital mutilation, political irrationality, organized punitive rape, etc., etc., etc.), to the extent they reflect realities, suggest a common explanation related to the circumstance that Islam appeared where it did and spread mostly by force of arms.

As a religion of conquest, Islam has been most successful in parts of the world that have been unable consistently to defend themselves because of political and social incoherence due to a very long history of political, social and even demographic instability. Geography has always made the Middle East, Central Asia and Northern India radically contested areas repeatedly plagued by conquerors, movements of peoples, and fluctuating despotic empires run by foreigners. As a result, in that part of the world it has been every man—or rather every small group—for itself. A radically divided form of society developed that featured intense local loyalties and enmities and lacked any civic feeling or public life. It is in that kind of society (or rather asocial state) that Islam began and has mostly existed.

Under such circumstances the things outsiders complain about in Islam and Muslim life become comprehensible. If social life is basically war then force and fraud become the two cardinal virtues. Suspicion, double-dealing, treachery, political corruption, and sporadic violence become permanent features of what passes for public life. Honor becomes everything. Women become prey who must be kept secluded and watched closely to prevent capture. And without social trust political reasonableness becomes impossible.

In many ways Islam exerts a moderating influence on such tendencies: the status of women in Islam is better than in pre-Islamic Arabia, the concept of the Ummah is a counterweight to radical divisiveness, and so on. So it’s not obvious that weakening Islam would make things better. On the other hand, the religion seems rather too well adapted to the circumstances of its origins and successes to fit a radically more civil form of society. So maybe it’s true that for a long time to come good fences between Muslims and others will make good neighbors.

3 thoughts on “History, geography, society and Islam”

  1. Bad Fences
    Dear Mr. Kalb,

    A flawed idea is, “So maybe it’s true that for a long time to come good fences between Muslims and others will make good neighbors.”

    Fences are fixed fortifications, which are no longer a part of military doctrine. I am sure everyone agrees on this point. So what could “good fences” mean? In my view, good fences are dynamic—they change as the need changes. And this dynamic idea might be what was meant to be included in the idea of “good fences.”

    An example of a dynamic defense would be an enormous kill zone within which enormous U.S. military power would be concentrated and free from attack. I am ignorant about which Islamic countries would serve best to host the kill zone(s).

    I know this is the third rail, but nuclear weaponry must be considered because it is being considered by Iran and Korea and China as some kind of solution. Of course, I must add my boring comment that we need to evacuate our cities now and to develop some kind of missile defense system regardless of the fact that it might not be perfect.

    All the Best,


  2. comments elsewhere
    A Muslim (I think he’s a grad student at Columbia, apparently not stupid or generally unreasonable) saw a link to this entry at Two Blowhards and got rather annoyed when he followed the link. His comment is not very substantive, only noting (in effect) that in Arabic “Kalb” might mean either “heart” (if you make the “k” in the back of your throat, in which case it would more commonly be transcribed “Qalb”) or “dog.” He prefers the latter rendering. Still, my responses at his site might fill out the entry somewhat.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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